“Lucky me.” Stella took a bite of pizza. “But I had a feeling there was something up with you guys the moment you walked into the program. Like when we were together for group stuff, I couldn’t hear either of you, even when I could hear everyone else—but my meds make it sort of confusing. They shut out most of the voices most of the time, but when I’m stressed or anxious, it gets worse.”
“Or angry?” Jamie said.
“Is that how it happens with you?” I asked him.
Jamie shrugged and avoided my eyes. “Before I was expelled and shipped off to Crazytown, I would notice sometimes that if I told people to do things, they would actually do them. But not like, ‘Hey, man, would you mind handing me the keys to your Maserati?’ It’s more like, ‘Tell me that secret’ or, ‘Drive me here.’ It seemed so random, and the stuff I was telling people to do wasn’t crazy. Like, it could have been a coincidence,” he said, “except that it didn’t always feel like a coincidence. Sometimes it felt real.” He met my eyes, and I knew he was thinking about Anna.
Anna, our former classmate, who had bullied him since fourth grade, and whom he had told to drive off a cliff. She drove drunk off an overpass after that.
“And I felt crazy for thinking it,” Jamie said.
I looked up at him. “We all have that in common.”
“What in common?” Stella asked.
Jamie got it. “That what’s wrong with us, the gene thing, G1821 or whatever—the symptoms make us look like we’re crazy.”
Or maybe it actually made us crazy. I thought about my reflection. About the way it talked back to me.
“That explains why no one’s discovered the gene,” Jamie said, refocusing my attention. “If someone appears to be hallucinating, or delusional, or is starving themselves, or hurting themselves, the most obvious explanation would be mental illness, not some bizarre genetic mutation—”
“Mutation?” I asked. “We’re mutants now?”
Jamie smirked. “Don’t tell Marvel. They’ll sue us. But listen, though. Genes don’t just appear in a few people. It just doesn’t happen. Genes change over centuries. They degrade, they alter—”
“They evolve,” I said.
“Exactly. So what we have—whatever we are, we’ve evolved into it.”
“Superman or Spider-Man,” I said quietly.
Stella looked back and forth between Jamie and me. “Explain?”
I remembered the conversation I’d had with my brother, when I’d told him I needed to fictionalize my problems for a fake Horizons assignment, so I could get him to help me without knowing he was helping me.
“So she could be a superhero or supervillain,” my brother had said. “Is it a Peter Parker or a Clark Kent situation?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, was your character born with this thing à la Superman or did she acquire it like Spider-Man?”
I didn’t know the answer then, but I knew it now. “Spider-Man acquired his ability from a radioactive spider bite,” I said. “Superman was born with it—”
“Because he’s really Kal-El, an alien,” Jamie said.
I was Superman. Just like I’d thought.
But when I’d told Noah about Daniel’s theory, he’d been convinced that we had to have acquired what was wrong with us.
“How many times have you wished someone dead, Mara? Someone who cuts you off on the highway, et cetera?”
“I’ve probably wished a lot of people dead a lot of times,” I said now, and repeated Noah’s words.
“Everybody does that,” Stella assured me.
“And Noah’s parents would’ve noticed that he healed abnormally fast when they took him to the doctor for shots, right? So why is everything starting to happen now, if it’s something we were born with?”
Jamie slapped his palm on the table. “There’s a trigger. It’s like cancer. They can screen you genetically to see if you’re at risk for developing it, because there are markers. But just because you’re at risk—”
“Doesn’t mean you’ll actually get cancer,” I finished, as the missing puzzle piece clicked into place.
“Exactly. It just means that you’re more at risk than someone else—and the risk factors are biological and environmental.”
“Or chemical,” I said, my mother’s words coming back to me.
“You’ve been through so much, and I know we don’t understand. And I want you to know that this”—she had indicated the room—“isn’t you. It might be chemical or behavioral or even genetic—”
An image had risen up out of the dark water of my mind. A picture. Black. White. Blurry. “What?” I’d asked quickly.
“The way you’re feeling. Everything that’s been going on with you. It isn’t your fault. With the PTSD and everything that’s happened— What you’re going through,” she’d said, clearly avoiding the words “mental illness,” “can be caused by biological and genetic factors.”
“But then, what’s the trigger?” I asked.
Stella looked at me. “How old are you?”
“I’m also seventeen,” she said to me, “but I’ll be eighteen in a few months. Do you remember what Kells said in that video? She was talking about puberty or something, and the way the teenage brain develops?”
“It makes sense, that age would be the trigger,” I said. Stella first started hearing voices at sixteen. I was sixteen during the Ouija board incident. Rachel and Claire died six months later. “It makes sense that the progressions of our abilities are at different stages, because—”
“Because we’re different ages,” Jamie said. “I’m rhyming,” he added unnecessarily.
So that explained something. But not everything. I told Stella and Jamie about the flashbacks I’d had, of events that I couldn’t possibly have experienced. “I thought it might be genetic memory,” I said, and told them about the book Noah had found on one of his transatlantic flights, the one both of us had tried and failed to read, ostensibly about genetic memory.
“What was it called?” Jamie asked.
“New Theories in Genetics by—holy shit.”