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Excerpt from The Thought Readers:
Sometimes I think I’m crazy. I’m sitting at a casino table in Atlantic City, and everyone around me is motionless. I call this the Quiet, as though giving it a name makes it seem more real—as though giving it a name changes the fact that all the players around me are frozen like statues, and I’m walking among them, looking at the cards they’ve been dealt.
The problem with the theory of my being crazy is that when I ‘unfreeze’ the world, as I just have, the cards the players turn over are the same ones I just saw in the Quiet. If I were crazy, wouldn’t these cards be different? Unless I’m so far gone that I’m imagining the cards on the table, too.
But then I also win. If that’s a delusion—if the pile of chips on my side of the table is a delusion—then I might as well question everything. Maybe my name isn’t even Darren.
No. I can’t think that way. If I’m really that confused, I don’t want to snap out of it—because if I do, I’ll probably wake up in a mental hospital.
Besides, I love my life, crazy and all.
My shrink thinks the Quiet is an inventive way I describe the ‘inner workings of my genius.’ Now that sounds crazy to me. She also might want me, but that’s beside the point. Suffice it to say, she’s as far as it gets from my datable age range, which is currently right around twenty-four. Still young, still hot, but done with school and pretty much beyond the clubbing phase. I hate clubbing, almost as much as I hated studying. In any case, my shrink’s explanation doesn’t work, as it doesn’t account for the way I know things even a genius wouldn’t know—like the exact value and suit of the other players’ cards.
I watch as the dealer begins a new round. Besides me, there are three players at the table: Grandma, the Cowboy, and the Professional, as I call them. I feel that now-almost-imperceptible fear that accompanies the phasing. That’s what I call the process: phasing into the Quiet. Worrying about my sanity has always facilitated phasing; fear seems helpful in this process.
I phase in, and everything gets quiet. Hence the name for this state.
It’s eerie to me, even now. Outside the Quiet, this casino is very loud: drunk people talking, slot machines, ringing of wins, music—the only place louder is a club or a concert. And yet, right at this moment, I could probably hear a pin drop. It’s like I’ve gone deaf to the chaos that surrounds me.
Having so many frozen people around adds to the strangeness of it all. Here is a waitress stopped mid-step, carrying a tray with drinks. There is a woman about to pull a slot machine lever. At my own table, the dealer’s hand is raised, the last card he dealt hanging unnaturally in midair. I walk up to him from the side of the table and reach for it. It’s a king, meant for the Professional. Once I let the card go, it falls on the table rather than continuing to float as before—but I know full well that it will be back in the air, in the exact position it was when I grabbed it, when I phase out.
The Professional looks like someone who makes money playing poker, or at least the way I always imagined someone like that might look. Scruffy, shades on, a little sketchy-looking. He’s been doing an excellent job with the poker face—basically not twitching a single muscle throughout the game. His face is so expressionless that I wonder if he might’ve gotten Botox to help maintain such a stony countenance. His hand is on the table, protectively covering the cards dealt to him.
I move his limp hand away. It feels normal. Well, in a manner of speaking. The hand is sweaty and hairy, so moving it aside is unpleasant and is admittedly an abnormal thing to do. The normal part is that the hand is warm, rather than cold. When I was a kid, I expected people to feel cold in the Quiet, like stone statues.
With the Professional’s hand moved away, I pick up his cards. Combined with the king that was hanging in the air, he has a nice high pair. Good to know.
I walk over to Grandma. She’s already holding her cards, and she has fanned them nicely for me. I’m able to avoid touching her wrinkled, spotted hands. This is a relief, as I’ve recently become conflicted about touching people—or, more specifically, women—in the Quiet. If I had to, I would rationalize touching Grandma’s hand as harmless, or at least not creepy, but it’s better to avoid it if possible.
In any case, she has a low pair. I feel bad for her. She’s been losing a lot tonight. Her chips are dwindling. Her losses are due, at least partially, to the fact that she has a terrible poker face. Even before looking at her cards, I knew they wouldn’t be good because I could tell she was disappointed as soon as her hand was dealt. I also caught a gleeful gleam in her eyes a few rounds ago when she had a winning three of a kind.
This whole game of poker is, to a large degree, an exercise in reading people—something I really want to get better at. At my job, I’ve been told I’m great at reading people. I’m not, though; I’m just good at using the Quiet to make it seem like I am. I do want to learn how to read people for real, though. It would be nice to know what everyone is thinking.
What I don’t care that much about in this poker game is money. I do well enough financially to not have to depend on hitting it big gambling. I don’t care if I win or lose, though quintupling my money back at the blackjack table was fun. This whole trip has been more about going gambling because I finally can, being twenty-one and all. I was never into fake IDs, so this is an actual milestone for me.
Leaving Grandma alone, I move on to the next player—the Cowboy. I can’t resist taking off his straw hat and trying it on. I wonder if it’s possible for me to get lice this way. Since I’ve never been able to bring back any inanimate objects from the Quiet, nor otherwise affect the real world in any lasting way, I figure I won’t be able to get any living critters to come back with me either.
Dropping the hat, I look at his cards. He has a pair of aces—a better hand than the Professional. Maybe the Cowboy is a professional, too. He has a good poker face, as far as I can tell. It’ll be interesting to watch those two in this round.
Next, I walk up to the deck and look at the top cards, memorizing them. I’m not leaving anything to chance.
When my task in the Quiet is complete, I walk back to myself. Oh, yes, did I mention that I see myself sitting there, frozen like the rest of them? That’s the weirdest part. It’s like having an out-of-body experience.
Approaching my frozen self, I look at him. I usually avoid doing this, as it’s too unsettling. No amount of looking in the mirror—or seeing videos of yourself on YouTube—can prepare you for viewing your own three-dimensional body up close. It’s not something anyone is meant to experience. Well, aside from identical twins, I guess.
It’s hard to believe that this person is me. He looks more like some random guy. Well, maybe a bit better than that. I do find this guy interesting. He looks cool. He looks smart. I think women would probably consider him good-looking, though I know that’s not a modest thing to think.
It’s not like I’m an expert at gauging how attractive a guy is, but some things are common sense. I can tell when a dude is ugly, and this frozen me is not. I also know that generally, being good-looking requires a symmetrical face, and the statue of me has that. A strong jaw doesn’t hurt either. Check. Having broad shoulders is a positive, and being tall really helps. All covered. I have blue eyes—that seems to be a plus. Girls have told me they like my eyes, though right now, on the frozen me, the eyes look creepy. Glassy. They look like the eyes of a lifeless wax figure.
Realizing that I’m dwelling on this subject way too long, I shake my head. I can just picture my shrink analyzing this moment. Who would imagine admiring themselves like this as part of their mental illness? I can just picture her scribbling down Narcissist and underlining it for emphasis.
Enough. I need to leave the Quiet. Raising my hand, I touch my frozen self on the forehead, and I hear noise again as I phase out.
Everything is back to normal.
The card that I looked at a moment ago—the king that I left on the table—is in the air again, and from there it follows the trajectory it was always meant to, landing near the Professional’s hands. Grandma is still eyeing her fanned cards in disappointment, and the Cowboy has his hat on again, though I took it off him in the Quiet. Everything is exactly as it was.
On some level, my brain never ceases to be surprised at the discontinuity of the experience in the Quiet and outside it. As humans, we’re hardwired to question reality when such things happen. When I was trying to outwit my shrink early on in my therapy, I once read an entire psychology textbook during our session. She, of course, didn’t notice it, as I did it in the Quiet. The book talked about how babies as young as two months old are surprised if they see something out of the ordinary, like gravity appearing to work backwards. It’s no wonder my brain has trouble adapting. Until I was ten, the world behaved normally, but everything has been weird since then, to put it mildly.
Glancing down, I realize I’m holding three of a kind. Next time, I’ll look at my cards before phasing. If I have something this strong, I might take my chances and play fair.
The game unfolds predictably because I know everybody’s cards. At the end, Grandma gets up. She’s clearly lost enough money.
And that’s when I see the girl for the first time.
She’s hot. My friend Bert at work claims that I have a ‘type,’ but I reject that idea. I don’t like to think of myself as shallow or predictable. But I might actually be a bit of both, because this girl fits Bert’s description of my type to a T. And my reaction is extreme interest, to say the least.
Large blue eyes. Well-defined cheekbones on a slender face, with a hint of something exotic. Long, shapely legs, like those of a dancer. Dark wavy hair in a ponytail—a hairstyle that I like. And without bangs—even better. I hate bangs—not sure why girls do that to themselves. Though lack of bangs is not, strictly speaking, in Bert’s description of my type, it probably should be.
I continue staring at her as she joins my table. With her high heels and tight skirt, she’s overdressed for this place. Or maybe I’m underdressed in my jeans and t-shirt. Either way, I don’t care. I have to try to talk to her.
I debate phasing into the Quiet and approaching her, so I can do something creepy like stare at her up close, or maybe even snoop in her pockets. Anything to help me when I talk to her.
I decide against it, which is probably the first time that’s ever happened.
I know that my reasoning for breaking my usual habit is strange. If you can even call it reasoning. I picture the following chain of events: she agrees to date me, we go out for a while, we get serious, and because of the deep connection we have, I come clean about the Quiet. She learns I did something creepy and has a fit, then dumps me. It’s ridiculous to think this, of course, considering that we haven’t even spoken yet. Talk about jumping the gun. She might have an IQ below seventy, or the personality of a piece of wood. There can be twenty different reasons why I wouldn’t want to date her. And besides, it’s not all up to me. She might tell me to go fuck myself as soon as I try to talk to her.
Still, working at a hedge fund has taught me to hedge. As crazy as that reasoning is, I stick with my decision not to phase because I know it’s the gentlemanly thing to do. In keeping with this unusually chivalrous me, I also decide not to cheat at this round of poker.
As the cards are dealt again, I reflect on how good it feels to have done the honorable thing—even without anyone knowing. Maybe I should try to respect people’s privacy more often. Yeah, right. I have to be realistic. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I’d followed that advice. In fact, if I made a habit of respecting people’s privacy, I would lose my job within days—and with it, a lot of the comforts I’ve become accustomed to.
Copying the Professional’s move, I cover my cards with my hand as soon as I receive them. I’m about to sneak a peek at what I was dealt when something unusual happens.
The world goes quiet, just like it does when I phase in . . . but I did nothing this time.
And at that moment, I see her—the girl sitting across the table from me, the girl I was just thinking about. She’s standing next to me, pulling her hand away from mine. Or, strictly speaking, from my frozen self’s hand—as I’m standing a little to the side looking at her.
She’s also still sitting in front of me at the table, a frozen statue like all the others.
My mind goes into overdrive as my heartbeat jumps. I don’t even consider the possibility of that second girl being a twin sister or something like that. I know it’s her. She’s doing what I did just a few minutes ago. She’s walking in the Quiet. The world around us is frozen, but we are not.
A horrified look crosses her face as she realizes the same thing. Before I can react, she lunges across the table and touches her own forehead.
The world becomes normal again.
She stares at me from across the table, shocked, her eyes huge and her face pale. She rises to her feet. Without so much as a word, she turns and begins walking away, then breaks into a run a couple of seconds later.
Getting over my own shock, I get up and run after her. It’s not exactly smooth. If she notices a guy she doesn’t know running after her, dating will be the last thing on her mind. But I’m beyond that now. She’s the only person I’ve met who can do what I do. She’s proof that I’m not insane. She might have what I want most in the world.
She might have answers.