Thomas Graham was a boy who stumbled his way through life, having a peculiar affinity for doing exactly the wrong thing. He had his talent for wrongness ever since his birth, which was an excessively difficult one as he came out feet first. In his sunny California hometown, where everybody was tan, he was a pale red head. Other children in the neighborhood were practically doing handstands before the umbilical cord was cut; Thomas was late in walking, talking, and reading. In the intermediate stage between birth and these activities, he only ever succeeded in crawling backwards.
His childhood from then on was no better. He dirtied clothes that should remain clean, and broke household artifacts that should remain unbroken. He never showed his love when his parents, Richard and Daisy Graham, needed that love most, and demanded attention when they were most on edge. By the time Thomas was five the Grahams had another boy, Mahalia, who was perfectly normal. Their oddly difficult child was now mostly ignored in favor of this agreeable infant.
Thomas started going to school shortly after the birth of his brother. He mastered the art of the incorrect simple answer:
“You want a knuckle sandwich?!”
So too did he learn the incorrect complex answer:
“What is the capital of California? Fuck, not this one again. Yes, Thomas?”
Even the stupid question was not beyond him:
“Ms. Peters, before the Sybil Rights Movement, if two white people had a black baby, could the baby still vote?”
His classmates shunned him, this stupid, klutzy kid, although it was great fun to make fun of him and feed him knuckle sandwiches till he was full. After his beatings, Thomas would tattle on his peers, but not without adding improbable embellishments. He was never believed, and the show went on.
Time passes painfully, and now Thomas is eight. He begins his day by rolling out of bed, and landing flat on his face. This is unpleasant, but Thomas always expects a rude awakening. He dresses himself, putting his underwear on backwards, and leaves his room. He then stumbles across the hall, falls down the stairs, hobbles over to the kitchen, fills his bowl with too much milk, and discovers that almost all the cereal is gone. He drops in the flakey remainders and eats some of the resulting soup. He clears the table and walks the bowl to the sink; suddenly the contents of the bowl are on him. He laboriously makes his way to his room, where he removes his sodden clothes but not the smell of dairy.
Thomas is now late for school, and having missed the bus, he walks. He arrives twenty minutes late, and is penalized with afterschool detention. He attends his classes, all of which he is failing, and again and again his hand rises to offer incorrect answers. When nobody else offers a hand, the teachers call on him, though they know he will be wrong; his ridiculous answers make the room giggle, and he is given more detention for intentionally wasting time.
At lunch, Thomas eats alone. Trying to become part of a Group has gone very badly, and he only has to endure Reggie, a large nine-year old, pushing him off his seat. Cries of “Moron!” and “Crybaby!” erupt and Thomas goes back to eating lunch alone.
More classes; more wrong answers. Thomas must stare at a blank wall for an hour after school. He starts the walk home, forlorn; it has been another Very Bad Day. He has a chart in his room on which he keeps track of all his Bad Days, Very Bad Days, and SNAFUs That Have Been FUBARed Days. There is a space on that chart for Good Days, too; it remains unfilled, and he is not sure he has had one before the chart either.
Five minutes into his walk, the temperature drops, the air cracks with ozone, and a freak thunderstorm begins, under the category of torrential downpour. Thomas is cold, wet, far from home, and revising his estimation of this day. All he can do is fall to his hands and knees, and scream.
“NO!” he shouted, pounding a fist against the pavement. “IT’S NOT FAIR! IT’S NOT FAIR! IT’S NOT FAAIIIIR! EVERYTHING ALWAYS GOES WRONG!” Tears flow with rain now, and Thomas curls into a ball. “I just want things to go right,” he sniffles. “Somebody just tell me what to do.”
With that cry for help, Thomas brings himself to his feet, and lurches his way towards home, weeping all the way.
. . .
In a logical world, nothing would occur in response to Thomas’s plea. Things do not happen just because one wants them to; they obey the laws of physics and will not dance to the will of an eight-year old. However, this is not a logical world; some element of the fantastical remains—not much, but some. Creatures wait at the fringes of the world, and they want in; they want it all. They wait, and they listen, and out of all the sounds to be heard, they hear this plea, and they answer.
In a just world, Thomas would receive what he needs, which is a bit of love. A couple of therapists for body and mind could likely make the boy right as rain, had his parents recognized his problems and decided to act. However, this is not a just world; it is by far easier to ignore problems and hope they go away. Sadly, the problems never cooperate.
Having stipulated that the world is neither logical nor just, events conspire to give Thomas exactly what he wants, and that is a fate nobody should be subjected to.
. . .
Waking up the next morning, Thomas gets out of bed, and selects his clothes. Nothing terrible has happened in the first few seconds of his consciousness, but a mistake is all but guaranteed during dressing. Surely enough, he is about to put his shirt on backwards.
Flip the shirt around.
Thomas jumps and spins around. Nobody was there. There had been a voice, he was sure of it, but who had spoken? Still on edge, he goes to put on his shirt.
Flip the shirt around.
“Mom?” Thomas cautiously ventures. He knows that isn’t right. He has clearly heard the voice say to flip the shirt around, but his room is quiet. He wonders if he hadn’t heard the voice with his ears. It had sounded like a thought, like language without sound, but bereft of inflection or emotion.
Thomas glances at the shirt. “Oh,” he thinks, “it’s backwards.” He turns it over and puts it on, correctly. He pulls his socks on, and sees he is dressed perfectly. The day having gone well so far, he opens his door, and walks to the stairs. He inevitably trips on the stairs.
He slowly creeps to the edge of the staircase.
Move your legs like this.
Thomas suddenly feels the way leg muscles should move if they want to walk down a flight of stairs. He carefully copies the sensation, and walks down the stairs.
Thomas feels a rush of ecstasy. “I haven’t screwed up!” He runs to the kitchen and makes toast. He did not get burned, or shocked, and the toast is delicious. The voice had helped him through every step, with verbal instructions or suggested muscle movements.
Go to the bus stop right now, the voice reminds him. Thomas runs out the door and makes it to the stop a second before the school bus arrives. The bus driver is surprised, having rarely seen the perpetually late child, but admits him. Thomas walks down the isle.
Step like this, the voice says, and Thomas makes a big step to cross over the large leg of Reggie, which had crossed suddenly into the isle to trip him. At the request of the voice, he looks at Reggie and smiles. Reggie frowns and makes a fist, a silent promise. The smile had been a promise too.
At the school, the teacher asks if anybody has completed the extra credit of memorizing all the presidents of the United States. Apparently no one had; but Thomas stands up, and the voice feeds him a long list, beginning with George Washington and ending with Barack Obama. The bewilderment of everybody in the room is delicious, and Thomas laughs at the sight of it.
Later, Thomas waits in the lunchroom, sipping on a carton of chocolate milk. Reggie storms into the room, and, catching the sight of Thomas, makes a beeline for him. Thomas waits for him to get close. “I will tear you ap—“ is as far as Reggie gets before the voice gives Thomas a long list of satisfying muscle movements. After a few seconds, Reggie lies gasping on the floor, with Thomas’s hand in his hair and knee in his back. The entire lunchroom goes silent in shock. Then comes a smattering of applause, and Thomas stands up and bows. Reggie scrambles up and runs from the lunchroom, crying.
“It has,” thinks Thomas, “been a Good Day.”
. . .
Perhaps this is the happy ending to the story. A small child, thoroughly screwed by fate, is rewarded for his trial with the ability to conquer all his demons and lives happily ever after. Touching.
So it would be, if not for the intervention of two truisms; “there can be too much of a good thing,” and “nothing in life is free.” And these make for a grim ending indeed.
. . .
Examine Thomas a year from the first time he heard the voice. His Midas touch is a continual source of joy. His accidents have ceased, and schoolwork is easy. After humming absentmindedly, he realizes that music is effortless with the voice’s help; he quickly becomes a child star, and he and his parents soon live in luxury. Now it is the youngest child that is ignored; the eldest is clearly a genius. Thomas basks in the attention, and it seems his life could not get better.
However, the pace of his life only increases from there on. By the time Thomas is 15, he has made advances in fields such as art, science, medicine, and countless petty others. Thomas Graham is a household name, and people say he is likely the most influential boy in the last hundred years.
Yet all is not well with Thomas. Whenever scientists want to take an fMRI of Thomas’s brain to see how he ticks, the voice always tells him to refuse; to a neurologist, the inside of Thomas’s head would not be a pretty sight. Slowly but surely, the cognitive sections of his brain are wasting away. Thomas might act like the greatest thinker of all time, but it is entirely the voice. All he has to do to achieve perfection is do exactly what the voice tells him; why should he bother having imperfect thoughts of his own? Thomas’s input is of no use when it comes to climbing Mt. Everest, writing a book more popular than The Joy of Cooking, or arranging an interesting long term deal with a group of ex-Cold War Russian mercenaries. He simply parrots all of the voice’s instructions, and in neurological terms, it shows.
Indeed, five years later, Thomas relies on the voice for everything from composing a symphony to putting on a sock. Symphonies and socks might as well have been the same thing; all he knows is that following the voice is the right thing to do. He has not had an original thought in months, but now, as he collects his third Nobel Peace Prize (this one for the cure for cancer) and watches hundreds clap in his honor, he thinks his last; This is nice!
From this moment on, Thomas is a puppet.
The next fifteen years are spent achieving more inconceivable breakthroughs in every sector of human accomplishment, or, in other words, spent in utter tedium; The Artist Formerly Known As Thomas is only waiting until he is eligible to run for President of the United States. On Election Night, about the only people who don’t vote for Thomas are his opponent’s wife and kids.
After his inauguration, Thomas/Voice performs his job as the President for a week, managing in that time to break the decades-long gridlock Congress has been trapped in. Then exceptionally well-armed Russian mercenaries kill the staff in every major nuclear missile facility in the country. This is an egregious breach of security, to be sure, but the warheads can only be launched with an authorization code presented by the President from a room in the White House. The situation will be under control in a matter of hours. Unless, of course, the President launches the missiles—which he can do, since there is nobody in the facilities to countermand the order—but why would he want to do that?
And that is how Thomas Graham, President of the United States, comes to be sitting alone in a room containing a computer monitor and a big red button.
Thomas enters some coordinates on the computer. The coordinates are those of every major city on the globe. Lesser men might need to check the coordinates on a map of the world, but Thomas doesn’t have to; he does everything right.
After going through failsafe after failsafe, it comes to be that all Thomas has to do to kill unfathomable millions is to push the big red button. If there are history books after this time (and if he presses the button, there probably won’t be) historians will likely debate for eons as to why Thomas would possibly decide to kill millions by pressing that damn button.
The answer is very simple. The voice says to Thomas:
Press the button, and shows him how.
Thomas presses the button.
As the warheads rush into the sky, Thomas takes a knife and cuts deeply into his arm. As the warheads streak off towards their coordinates, he walks in a long circle, letting his blood drip down behind him, while chanting in a language he does not understand. As the warheads strike and kill their unfathomable millions, the chant reaches a crescendo, and the circle glows a deep red, and gained depth. All at once the chanting stops, and Thomas crumples to the ground, like a discarded rag doll.
As ash starts to spread over the horizon, a hideous thing crawls out of that circle and fills the room. As more creatures crawl out of the hole in the world, similar in appearance to the first only in gruesomeness, the first examines the pitiful, dying creature that can barely even remember how to breathe. And it speaks.
We thank you for the assistance, it says, in the tones of the voice, and crushes Thomas’s skull. Then it shambles off into the night, eager to kill all that is not already dead.
Age 15, Grade 9