Caleb Michaels is a sixteen-year-old champion running back. Other than that his life is pretty normal. But when Caleb starts experiencing mood swings that are out of the ordinary for even a teenager, his life moves beyond “typical.”
Caleb is an Atypical, an individual with enhanced abilities. Which sounds pretty cool except Caleb’s ability is extreme empathy—he feels the emotions of everyone around him. Being an empath in high school would be hard enough, but Caleb’s life becomes even more complicated when he keeps getting pulled into the emotional orbit of one of his classmates, Adam. Adam’s feelings are big and all-consuming, but they fit together with Caleb’s feelings in a way that he can’t quite understand.
Caleb’s therapist, Dr. Bright, encourages Caleb to explore this connection by befriending Adam. As he and Adam grow closer, Caleb learns more about his ability, himself, his therapist—who seems to know a lot more than she lets on—and just how dangerous being an Atypical can be.
Lauren Shippen’s The Infinite Noise is a stunning, original debut novel based on her wildly popular and award-winning podcast The Bright Sessions—available now from Tor Teen.
Oh god, it’s happening again.
I squeeze my eyes shut to make the dizziness stop. It doesn’t work. I open them again and focus my eyes on my usual seat, like looking at the horizon when you get motion sick on a boat. I steady my feet the best I can and walk into class, navigating the rows of desks like they’re choppy waves. People take their seats around me and I’m caught in a whirlpool, getting dizzier and dizzier, my seat looking farther and farther away and I can’t believe I’m about to pass out in the middle of math.
And here I was thinking math couldn’t get any worse.
“Settle down, everyone, settle down,” Ms. Ramirez yells from the front of the class. “I know you’re all anxious to get your exams back and you will, but we’ve got to get through class first, so take a seat.”
Anxious. Yeah. No kidding, Ms. Ramirez. I’d forgotten we were getting our midterms back until Ramirez dropped a stack of papers on her desk and the entire room tilted as we all remembered what day it is. How does this never get easier?
I make it through the whole period, somehow. I absorb, like, zero percent of the lesson—my stomach is sloshing and my feet are unsteady on the ground. I know I’m going to fall over the moment I stand up.
Maybe it’s not that bad. Maybe the test went better than I remember. I tear my eyes away from the spot on the wall and take a quick glance around the room as Ms. Ramirez gathers the stack of paper and starts moving around the room. Yep, pretty much seasick faces as far as the eye can see. Not a great sign.
“…and remember that your workbooks are due on my desk at the start of class on Friday, not the end. I know some of you try to sneak in some work during class…” Ms. Ramirez is talking like half of her class isn’t frozen in fear, but I can barely hear her over the buzzing of dread in my ears. I really am going to pass out.
I watch my hand grab the paper Ms. Ramirez is passing to me as she walks by my desk and feel my sweaty palms dampen the pages. The buzzing is joined by my heartbeat pounding loudly in my head as I turn over the paper.
I got a 57.
The sinking, swirling feeling isn’t relieved by knowing. It squeezes around me. Heaviness fills my body and I lose all feeling in my limbs.
Don’t pass out, Caleb. Whatever you do, don’t pass out.
This is the worst it’s ever been. This horrible, overwhelming feeling is crushing me and has been for weeks and weeks. It might actually finish the job this time and leave me totally squashed.
Before it can, the buzzing starts to die down and the swaying of the room slows. I look up to see if someone opened a window— suddenly there’s fresh air and sunlight in here—and see Moses across the aisle grinning big at his exam. There’s a big 98 circled on his paper. My stomach should drop in jealousy but I find myself feeling weirdly happy for him. Looking at him grinning like a maniac at his test is steadying me for some reason.
“Aw, look, Mr. Popular got a fifty-seven,” someone says behind me, and it’s like the window being slammed shut. “Guess it’s true what they say about Football Brain.”
Tyler snickers and it cuts into me like splinters. I find my spot on the wall again and stare at it like I’m Superman and could laser-eye a hole in the wall and escape. Don’t turn around, Caleb, it’ll just make it worse. You know the moment you look at his smug face, you’ll want to choke him with his hoodie.
The bell rings and I instantly spring into action. I shrug my jacket back on, stuff my test in my backpack, and stand up, my eyes never leaving the spot on the wall. I’ve moved through this classroom for the past two and a half years, I know exactly where the door is, so I start walking in that direction, don’t collect two hundred dollars as you pass Go. Simple. I can do this. I can use my stupid, strong Football Legs to walk the rest of my Football Body toward a doorway.
Goddamn. A 57. Maybe I really do have Football Brain.
“Tell me, Michaels, did your GPA go down each time you got tackled this season, or were you born dumb?” Tyler is right on my heels, which are moving thankyouverymuch, and I feel my whole body grow hot with anger. It itches at my skin but I just keep walking toward the door.
“Shut up, Tyler,” I grind out.
“I’m honestly kinda amazed they even let you play,” he crows— loud enough to draw attention, like he wants—as he follows me into the hallway. “I mean, can you even read the numbers on the field?”
There’s a fire in my chest, choking out all the oxygen in my lungs, and something else—something weighty and dark, making me taste metal. I do everything I can to focus on moving forward.
“And, aw, look,” Tyler says, “little Moses got a ninety-eight!”
I look around to see Tyler snatch Moses’s test from his hands and wave it around. Like always, Tyler is dressed like grunge never went out of style and has got that toothy sneer plastered over his face. It always makes me want to hit something.
I should just keep walking, I know I should, but my whole body seizes up and I stop in my tracks without meaning to. Moses’s face is covered in flop sweat as he tries to get his test back from Tyler and my heart starts beating like it’s been injected with Red Bull.
“C’mon, Tyler, give it back,” Moses pipes up, his soft voice barely getting to my ears. I can’t breathe. Why can’t I breathe? Am I having an asthma attack? Do I have asthma?
“What do you think, guys,” Tyler grandstands to absolutely no one. “Is it just impossible to be smart and athletic?”
My heart is in my throat now and I feel like my head is in a vise. I want to walk away, get far away from Tyler, but there’s this heavy, dark-feeling pit in my stomach that’s weighing me down where I stand. My field of vision narrows until all that’s left is Tyler’s dumb crooked smile.
“I mean, on the one hand we’ve got running back Michaels over here with a failing grade…”
God, I want to wipe that smile off his face.
“…and on the other hand we’ve got fatso Moses with—”
“Mr. Michaels, that’s enough!”
The voice cuts through the ringing in my ears and I come back to my body. There are strong hands gripping my arms, pulling me backward. My face feels hot, air ripping harshly down my throat. I’m breathing heavily, too much oxygen getting into my lungs, making me dizzy.
My hand hurts. I look down at it to find it curled into a tight fist. There’s blood on it.
“My office, now. Both of you.” The voice speaks again, coming from behind me. Principal Stevens lets go of my arms and I fold forward like a marionette whose strings have been cut, panting as I push my hands into my knees to keep myself upright. I squeeze my eyes shut, try to slow my breathing.
“Now, gentlemen!” Stevens yells, starting down the hall. Expecting us to follow. Us. Tyler.
I open my eyes and take in the scene around me, the last few minutes hazily coming back to me. Tyler is still on the floor, sitting back on his hands. Our eyes lock and he jumps up, wiping his bloody nose on his shirtsleeve.
Oh. The blood on my fist is his.
Fuck. What did I do?
I can’t believe it’s happening again.
“Out of the way, loser!” Bryce yells from behind me and I clench my jaw, willing myself not to respond. Talking back won’t win me anything.
Neither will passivity, I guess, because seconds later my shoulder is slamming into the lockers as Bryce pushes past me, hard. I try not to flinch when he growls “freak” as he glares over his shoulder at me.
This is a tactic animals use, right? Staying completely still so you don’t trigger a predator’s kill instinct? Fight, flight, or freeze. As Bryce turns his face the other way to talk to Justin, his scowl transforms into a laugh. Maybe he’s laughing at something Justin said, maybe he’s laughing at my expense. At this point, I don’t really care—he’s walking away and that’s all that matters. Freeze has its advantages.
But so does flight. Which is exactly what I do next.
More than halfway through the semester and I’d thought maybe, just maybe, we weren’t going to do this this year. After all, junior year is when everyone else was finally supposed to start taking this whole education thing seriously, right? Focus on acing the SATs, get good grades, build that resume for college apps? Where do these guys find the time to be bullies?
My feet have taken me automatically to the library—my own special defense mechanism. I don’t have the luxury of not caring about my future, so I go inside to get some work done, finding my way to a back corner table that’s almost completely surrounded by bookshelves.
“Are you hiding?”
I look up to see Moses Miller standing in the narrow space between two of the perpendicular bookcases that protect me from the world, shifting his weight from foot to foot—a habit he’s had since elementary school. It makes me feel like I’m on a boat.
“No,” I lie, and he narrows his eyes.
“Because if you’re not using this nook to hide, then I’d really like to,” he says in that small voice of his, made even smaller by the library-appropriate whisper. I’m probably the only person that Moses is ever this assertive with. A loser can make demands of another loser, I guess.
“We can share,” I say, stretching my leg to kick out the chair opposite me. “This nook is prime real estate.”
“I know.” Moses nods enthusiastically as he sits. “One narrow entrance in the stacks, natural light from the window, view through the shelves of the main study area, and three chairs that aren’t broken. It’s a miracle nook.”
I smile for the first time that day.
“So who are you hiding from?” Moses asks.
My smile disappears.
“Just, you know…” I shrug like it’s no big deal. “…Bryce and his merry band of cronies. You’d think the allure of making dumb jabs at someone’s social status would have worn off by now.”
“Man, I’m sorry, that sucks.” Moses winces sympathetically. “Bryce is the worst.”
“Like you’d know,” I bite. “Those guys never bug you.”
“Yeah, because Justin’s my cousin. He’d get in massive trouble with his mom if he and his friends picked on me at school. But I’m the one that has to spend every holiday with the guy, so who’s really losing here?”
“I think we’re both losing, Moses,” I deadpan.
He nods like this is a known fact of the universe. God, what a depressing thought.
“You’re in here a lot, huh?” Moses asks.
“Why do you say that?” I don’t like the idea of someone noticing my comings and goings. Two and a half years and I’ve got my system figured out—I know where and when to be out of the way to avoid Bryce and Justin and the rest of the football team. I don’t need Moses or anyone else mucking up my system.
“We have similar routines.” He shrugs. “Go to class, avoid the jerks. You know, the Nerd Way of Life.”
“Ha, right,” I snort.
“Not that I’m your level of nerd,” he continues, the tip of his nose getting sweaty and red. “I mean, I’m not in any AP classes like you, but I do okay. I got a ninety-eight on my math test.” He looks up at me expectantly like I’m supposed to throw him a parade or something.
“That’s awesome, Moses,” I intone.
“Yeah, it is,” he says, nodding. “It is awesome, and stupid Tyler—”
Moses looks down at his hands, hiding his shiny face, and a few things start to click together.
“So… who are you hiding from?” I ask reluctantly, wishing desperately that this nook had a door I could lock. It’s not that I don’t like Moses—it’s that Moses reminds me too much of myself, and that’s a real bummer to be around sometimes.
Moses lifts his head and leans forward.
“I don’t think I’m going to get in trouble for it,” he whispers, “but Tyler was making fun of me and then he and Caleb got into this huge fight—”
“Caleb Michaels?” I interrupt, my breath caught in my throat.
“Yeah,” he breathes. “Tyler was being Tyler and Caleb just decked him. And, I mean, Stevens broke it up pretty quickly, but there was blood all over the floor. It was nuts.”
“Oh my god,” I murmur, trying to imagine quiet, beautiful Caleb hitting someone. I guess that’s what football teaches you.
“I know.” Moses nods. “That’s the first time there’s been a fight that bad in years. I don’t even wanna think about what their punishment is gonna be.”
Sitting next to a bleeding, pissed-off Tyler outside of Principal Stevens’s office was bad enough, but sitting in this unfamiliar waiting room alone, waiting for the ax to fall, is torture. Things could have been way worse at school—all we got was a one-day suspension and we have to clean all the science labs for the rest of the semester (though not together, thank god)—but somehow, this entire messed-up situation has led to me sitting here, in a therapist’s waiting room. It’s eerily quiet, the muted walls and low light making me forget what time of day it is. I begged off when my dad asked me if I wanted him to come in with me, but now I’m wishing he was here. I need something to focus on other than the dread of what this is going to be like and how stiff this couch is.
The office door groans open and a petite, perfectly dressed woman steps out. She looks a bit like the waiting room—simple and subdued.
“Caleb Michaels?” she calls, her voice soft but strong.
“Uh, yeah.” I stand up, wiping my sweaty palms on my jeans. “That’s me.”
“Come on in, Caleb.” She steps to the side, ushering me into the room.
“Please, take a seat,” she says, gesturing to the couch, which thankfully has more pillows than the waiting room. It’s lighter in here—daylight streaming in from the window—and I move cautiously toward the couch, sitting awkwardly. Am I supposed to lie down? Is that something that people still do?
“My name is Dr. Bright,” she says as she sits in the chair opposite me. “I’m very glad you’ve come to see me.”
“Yeah.” I shrug. “I mean, I didn’t exactly choose to be here.”
“Do you know why your parents wanted you to come?” Ugh, she sounds so earnest. Why does she have to sound like that? My skin itches and I can’t figure out why.
“Because I hurt someone,” I mutter when it’s obvious she’s just gonna stare at me until I say something.
“This guy in my grade was being a jerk, so I hit him.” I shrug, not looking at her. There’s something in her face that puts me on edge—like she pities me. I hate that.
“What was he doing that made you want to hit him?”
I’m thrown off by the question. No one else asked that. Not the principal or the school counselor or my parents. No one asked anything. They just assumed we got into a fight because that’s what teenage boys do. No one brought what I wanted into it.
What I want has not factored into this situation at all. Last time I checked, getting into a fight at school didn’t mean you had to go to fucking therapy, but here I am, sitting across from some woman called “Dr. Bright” like she’s a Sesame Street character, pretending I don’t want to crawl out of my skin.
“I don’t know. I don’t know that I did want to hit him, I just…” I trail off, shrugging again.
“Did you feel like you had to hit him?”
“Why is that?”
“Like I said, he was being really uncool.”
“He—Well, he sits next to me in math class. And he’s a total dirtbag—he’s always texting and interrupting the teacher, and I’m pretty sure he cheats off the kid in front of him. And we got our tests back and I did… well, I did really fucking badly to be honest—oh, shit, sorry—can I swear in here?”
She seems totally unfazed by the back-to-back cursing, but says:
“People often use profanity to distance themselves from their feelings, so I think it’s important for you to find new ways to express yourself.” She talks like she’s reading from a textbook until a small smile comes onto her face. “But you’re not going to get in trouble for it. You can say anything you like in here.”
I believe her. I don’t know why, but I’m actually starting to feel a little comfortable with her. I guess that’s what therapists are supposed to do—make you feel safe—but it’s like someone’s thrown a heavy blanket over me and I’m getting a little too warm.
I must be, like, staring into space as I sort through this because she clears her throat and prompts me to continue.
“You were saying you didn’t do well on your exam?”
“I don’t—” I stammer. “I’m not good at tests.”
“Why do you say that?”
“It’s always too quiet, you know? Like, too quiet and too loud.”
“How do you mean?” Her face scrunches up a little, like she’s trying to read something far away.
“I just get, like, stressed out. I have a hard time concentrating.” Dr. Bright’s face crinkles in sympathy and it gives me the courage to say more. “I don’t know, maybe I have ADD or something. I feel like I get distracted by the other people in my class.”
“What about them distracts you?”
“I dunno.” I shrug one shoulder. “They just… everyone’s always focusing so hard and they’re nervous about passing and it just—it gets under my skin.”
“Do you feel nervous when taking tests?”
“I guess. I didn’t used to. But now… I don’t know, other people make me nervous sometimes.”
“Is that what caused the fight? This other student was making you nervous?”
“No, he was pissing me off!”
I don’t mean to shout, but it happens anyway. Guess I’m not totally over it yet.
“Why were you angry at him?”
“He—I guess he saw my test, and when we were leaving class he started railing on me about it. And I told him to shut up but he just kept going—calling me stupid and stuff. It really ticked me off.”
“That’s understandable, Caleb.” She nods. “It can be very difficult to deal with bullies.”
“Yeah, exactly, he is a bully!” I say, relieved that she seems to be on my side. “He’s always picking on people for stuff they can’t help. Like this kid who’s pretty good at math—Tyler started picking on him too. But like, making fun of him for getting a good grade and being chubby. And I just got so mad.”
“Is that when you hit Tyler?” she asks, and there’s nothing judgmental about it. It’s refreshing.
“I guess. I don’t know, the whole thing is kinda blurry.” I swallow as I think about the white-hot anger that pounced on me like a wild animal. “Tyler was trying to get a rise out of me, I think, and I was just getting really upset, I guess, and, I don’t know, it was like—like I couldn’t control it. And then he started teasing Moses and I just… I went into, like, complete Hulk mode. And I hit him.”
“What happened after you hit him?”
“I don’t really know.” I shake my head. “Like I said, it’s all a bit of a blur. I guess he hit me back though, and we, you know…”
“Got into a tussle?”
Based on the look on her face, she doesn’t have people questioning her a whole lot. I think I caught her off guard, and it feels like a little victory.
“Is that not an apt description?”
God, “apt.” Where the fuck am I?
“‘Tussle’ makes it sound like we’re kids on the playground. It was a fight. You know, between men and stuff.” Even as I say it, I’m not convinced.
“Of course,” she agrees. Her mouth stays completely still, but her eyes light up with a small smile. She’s not buying my bullshit. It’s nice.
“I mean, I did give him a black eye. And his nose was bleeding pretty bad,” I add, like that somehow makes it better. The smile in her eyes goes away and her mouth gets tight.
“How do you feel about doing that?” she asks quietly.
“Not good,” I admit after a second. It’s not like I’ve never gotten into it with someone before. I mean, football is already a really physical sport, and then you add trash-talking into the mix and things can get kinda rough.
This was different though. Instead of running to tackle someone on the field—pumping my legs, bracing my body for the impact—it was like someone else got behind the wheel and threw my fist for me.
“Caleb, are you all right?”
“Huh?” I snap out of my daydreaming to see her watching me with concern. I realize my whole body has tensed up and I’m clenching my fists by my legs, driving them into the couch. I stretch out my hands, feeling the stiffness in my knuckles. “Uh, yeah, I’m fine.”
“What do you mean by ‘complete Hulk mode’?” she asks, tilting her head.
“I went total rage monster on the guy,” I say, thinking that oughta cover it.
“Does that happen to you a lot? You turning into a ‘rage monster’?”
The way she says it makes me want to laugh. But the laugh dies in my throat.
“Uh, yeah, sometimes. Lately. But it’s like—” I stop myself, trying to find the words while also wondering how much I should tell this lady. I’d already put on a big show about how it was just a fight, no big deal, but there’s something not normal happening to me. I can feel it. And even though grown-ups are always telling us that hormones make us crazy, this feels… worse than that. More dangerous.
I look at her again, weighing my options. She’s been pretty chill so far—way chiller than every other adult that’s tried to talk to me about this. Maybe she won’t even try to lock me up in some kind of loony bin.
“It’s like I’ve got split personality or something,” I say.
Jesus, Caleb, why did you lead with the craziest way of explaining this? Keep it together, dude.
“I mean, no, not split personality,” I rush to say. “I’m not crazy.” Her eyebrow raises the tiniest bit. Oh god, now I’ve said the one thing that all actually crazy people say. Nice going. Well, if she already thinks I’ve lost it, I might as well tell try to actually explain things, I guess. “It’s that—well, I dunno, I feel like it’s coming from somewhere else, you know?”
“What do you mean, somewhere else?” she asks calmly, like I’m making any sense at all.
I feel prickly all of a sudden, like there are little tiny ants underneath my skin. It makes me want to jump up and down, but I really would look crazy if I did that, so I just clench and unclench my fists a few times before continuing.
“It used to be that, when I would get mad, I knew what it was about. But now… now it’s like there’s all this stuff that just, like, jumps into my body and makes me go nuts. And it’s too much so I get mad and then when I get on the other side of it, it’s like I wasn’t even there.” I trail off, pulling my fists into my lap and looking at them so that I don’t have to look at her.
“When did this first start happening?” she asks, her voice totally neutral. She’s not mocking me or calling the men in the white coats yet, so… so far so good, I guess.
“I don’t know, a couple of months ago.” I shrug. “I only really noticed it at the start of this semester.”
“Do you get angry a lot?”
“What counts as a lot?” I snap, unable to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. It feels like she’s digging into me and I’m afraid of what might come pouring out.
“Do you feel that your anger gets in the way of your day-to-day life? Or overpowers other emotions?” she asks calmly, not rising to whatever challenge I’m throwing down at her. I deflate and decide to cooperate a little while longer.
“I guess. I mean, I guess it overpowers the other stuff. When I’m mad, that’s all I can think about. But it’s not like I’m walking around super angry all the time, it’s—” I stop myself again, unsure about how much I want to say.
“It’s what?” she prods. Guess I’m not getting out of this. I close my eyes for a second, exhaling loudly, and decide to just let everything come out. Maybe if I do, she’ll stop digging and my skin will stop feeling like Pop Rocks.
“It’s everything. Like, yeah, I get angry, and when I do it’s like I’m possessed or something, but that’s not the only thing. I get really sad sometimes and I don’t know why or I get stressed during tests but it’s, like, out-of-control stress, like my whole body is buzzing and I’m just gonna vibrate into oblivion, you know?”
“That sounds overwhelming.”
“Yeah, it is overwhelming!” I nod enthusiastically, unable to stop talking now that I’ve started. “It’s really overwhelming and I can’t rein it in, I can’t do anything about it—things just build and build and then they explode and it’s like I don’t have a choice in it, like my body just reacts without me making a decision!”
By the end I’m practically shouting. I’m out of breath, like I just ran suicides. She barely reacts, pinning me with a completely unreadable expression on her face. It makes me feel calmer for some reason—the itchy feeling under my skin has gone away and I feel something slot into place.
Now that all that’s been released, I’m feeling dumb, like I got carried away. I try to brush it off.
“But, like, I’m sixteen, so that’s probably normal, right?” I say, faux-casual. “I mean, getting into a fight with someone isn’t that big of a deal. Although apparently my parents disagree, because they sent me here instead of grounding me like normal people.”
“Do you think you shouldn’t be here?” She doesn’t seem insulted, which is strangely a relief.
“I don’t know. I mean, I know I shouldn’t have hit him,” I admit.
“It sounds like it’s not just about that,” she says.
“What do you mean?” I’m feeling unsettled all of a sudden. Nervous. Like some sort of bomb is about to be dropped.
“When your parents spoke to me about you”—the pitying look is back and I hate it—“they mentioned that you’ve been behaving differently over the past few months. That you’ve been having mood swings.”
“They told you that?” I ask.
“Yes. And based on what you just described, it sounds like they hit close to the mark.”
“Uh yeah, I guess. I didn’t realize that they’d, you know, picked up on that,” I say, rubbing the back of my neck and looking away. “But I mean, everyone has mood swings sometimes, right?”
“True. But your parents seemed to think it was out of character for you. They’re worried that it might be an indication of something more serious.”
“What do you mean ‘more serious’?” I ask. Oh god, I’ve done it. I’ve given her reason to think that I’m totally insane and now she’s going to send me to some kind of special school for boys who can’t control their tempers.
“What, do you think I’m cracked in the head or something?” I joke, trying to play it cool.
“No, Caleb,” she says, the pitying look replaced with something softer. “I think you might just be a little different from your average teenager.”
“Great,” I mumble.
“Caleb, are you familiar with the term ‘empathy’?”
“Uh, yeah, I think so,” I say after a second. She keeps making hard turns in our conversation and I’m struggling to keep up. “It’s, like, being able to relate to what people are feeling, right?”
“Yes, exactly: being able to understand someone’s emotional state. Empathy is something most of us experience, but everyone experiences it differently. Some people have a complete lack of empathy—”
“What, like, psychopaths and stuff?” I ask, my heart starting to race.
“Yes, often the people that we think of as ‘psychopaths’—people who hurt others—experience less empathy, which can lead to violent behavior. But that’s not always true for people who lack empathy.”
“Just because I hit a guy doesn’t mean I don’t care about people,” I say, crossing my arms in front of my chest. I don’t like what this lady is suggesting. I know I sometimes fly off the handle, but I like to think I’m a fundamentally good dude.
“That’s not at all what I’m suggesting, Caleb,” she says earnestly. “I think you might be in the opposite position, in fact.”
“I’m curious—these mood swings that you’ve been experiencing, when do they happen?”
“What do you mean?” I’m thrown again, not following her train of thought. It’s frustrating.
“When you’re alone, how do you feel?”
I have to think about it for a second. I try to remember the last time I was alone. Last night, in my room, reading before bed. My dad has this archaic rule where Alice and I aren’t allowed to have screens on for half an hour before we go to sleep. So I read. The memory floats into my brain and a blanket settles over me again. Except this time it isn’t too stuffy. It’s light and soft—like this old knit throw that my grandmother made for me when I was a kid. It’s made of this really light yarn—cotton or something—and it’s cozy but not too warm. I loved sitting out on the rocking chair on our porch on summer nights, all curled up in it. Especially when there would be thunderstorms. I’m transported there instantly in my head—I can smell the mix of the rain and the flowery smell of the yarn and it’s like the invisible pressure around me now tightens momentarily, but in a good way.
“Being alone is nice.”
I don’t even mean to say it, not really. I’m not sure I even realize what I’ve said until after it’s out of my mouth. But I open my eyes (when did I close them?) to see Dr. Bright smiling softly at me, like she understands something. It’s both comforting and sorta unnerving.
“You feel calm when you’re alone?”
“Yeah,” I half whisper, realizing that’s what it is. That blanket; that soft, light, barely there warmth… it’s calm. The awareness of it yanks it away, and I suddenly become fully conscious of where I am.
“Would you say your mood swings happen only around other people?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess they do,” I say slowly. “That’s when I get overwhelmed.”
“By other people?” she clarifies.
“Yeah.” I take a beat, think back on the past few minutes, try to follow the path of her thoughts and start to put some pieces together. “What did you mean by me being in the opposite position?”
“I don’t think you have a lack of empathy, Caleb.” She closes her notebook and folds her hands. “I think you have an excess of it.”
“What… what do you mean?”
Dr. Bright shifts in her seat and for the first time, she looks uncertain.
“There are…” she starts, her hesitancy making me itchy again, “people in the world who are different. People who are able to do things that the average human cannot.”
“What do you mean?” I repeat, my heart beating faster and faster. I suddenly feel like I’m in a haunted house. Walking through hallways where at any moment something terrifying could come bursting out.
“These people are called Atypicals,” she says, and I can hear the weight behind that word.
“Atypicals,” I echo.
“Yes.” Dr. Bright nods. “And I believe you might be one of them.”
“So, are you, like, gonna be a total weirdo forever?”
I look up from my bio textbook to see Alice standing in my doorway. I just got back from my third therapy session and I guess Mom and Dad had “The Talk” with her. There’s a prickly kind of nervousness skittering up my arms but it doesn’t make me want to tear my own skin off. It’s familiar. I guess it must be Alice’s? God, figuring this out is going to be a real pain.
“I guess.” I shrug. “I mean, Dr. Bright seems to think it’s a pretty permanent thing.”
“Whoa,” she says, climbing up on my bed, uninvited.
“Hey, c’mon, don’t mess up my pillows,” I groan.
“God, you are such a neat freak.” Alice rolls her eyes. “Is that part of your whole thing?”
“Not wanting your sister’s dirty feet on your pillows is a totally normal thing.” I emphasize the point by hitting her with one of the pillows in question.
“Yeah, but you’re not normal anymore, huh?” she asks, and my breath catches in my throat. She’s teasing me but it doesn’t feel teasing. It feels like a genuine question.
“I don’t know that I’m really all that different.” I shrug. “I just, you know&heliip;”
“Can feel other people’s feelings,” she finishes.
“Yeah,” I breathe.
“So what am I feeling right now?” she goads, whatever weighty thing she was feeling replaced by the desire to irritate me.
“Um…” I close my eyes and try to focus on the different sensations, like Dr. Bright has been teaching me the past few weeks. “You’re… curious…”
“…and you’re scared too.” I open my eyes to her surprised face. Saying it out loud makes the fear worse, her feelings making my stomach a bottomless pit.
“But I don’t know what you’re scared about,” I admit. “I just feel the feelings, I don’t know the why. But I mean, I can guess.”
“I’m not scared of you, you dummy.” She rolls her eyes, expertly answering my unasked question while sidestepping any actual talk of our emotions, and the floor comes back to my stomach.
“Wow,” I say dryly, “are you an empath too?”
“‘An empath’…” she echoes. “Sounds so official.”
“Well, yeah, I guess it is official. Dr. Bright even said that I’m one of the most powerful empaths she’s ever known,” I add, my cheeks warming.
“So, what… are you, like, a superhero or something?” she asks skeptically, but there’s a little zing in my chest. She’s… excited?
“Yeah, because feeling people’s emotions is so useful,” I scoff. “‘The Great Amazing Feelings Boy.’ That’s not a comic I’d read.”
Alice laughs so hard she falls off my bed, and I feel normal for the first time in weeks.
Excerpted from Infinite Noise, copyright © 2019 by Lauren Shippen
Originally published in June 2019