Mannheim has no idea why this is not working.
People are beginning to get impatient. Thirteen more have left; some slid off their cots and slipped out during the night, while one married couple called him a snake-oil salesman to his face before storming out. Mannheim forgets them instantly—they were only there to learn cocktail party tricks. Those who remain understand he is getting at something greater. Still, a week of staring at apples, carnations, and cacti may be wearing thin. He decides it is time to try moving a few small objects. Most will fail—but a few, particularly Mandy, by far the most receptive, might manage a dramatic wobble.
He tiptoes through the maze of snoring people to her cot. Mandy is awake, smiles when she sees him.
“You’re almost there,” he whispers. “Would you like a little more practice?”
“Sure,” she says sweetly.
He takes her hand and leads her quietly upstairs to his quarters. There, he motions for her to sit on the edge of the rollaway bed and bids her to focus on a paperclip he has placed on the TV tray at his bedside. “Just concentrate on moving that,” he says.
He lets his mind wash over her as she squints at the paperclip, senses her soft curves under her sweater, tensing with the effort.
“It’s not working,” she says, trembling from intense concentration.
“Just give it time,” he says. He sits close behind her, takes her right arm and extends her hand toward the paperclip. “Focus.”
Another minute or two goes by, and his hand is still on her arm, steadying it. He smells her vanilla-and-lilac body spray over the faint traces of concrete dust.
Mannheim decides to cheat, just a little—without a slight boost in confidence she might give up. He stares at the paperclip, winks his eye; it wobbles, slides a half-inch toward them.
“There,” he says, smiling. “You did it.”
Mandy throws her arms around him. “I did it! I really did it!”
“Well done,” Mannheim says. “I knew you’d get it.”
“Thank you so much!” she says, then kisses Mannheim hard enough to make his teeth hurt. He knows he should pull away, send her back to her cot. But his room is stark and lonely, the eggshell walls so dull they numb his brain. He should at least have had the contractors paint, but at the time he fancied himself in simple, unadorned quarters like a Zen master. He feels Mandy’s body heat radiating into him. Her skin is soft, touchable. He kisses the back of her neck.
He knows he shouldn’t do this. But his erection is stiff and painful, and before he knows what is happening he is on top of her, peeling off her sweater and bra, cupping her pert breasts, his tongue sliding over her firm, pink nipple.
Mannheim reaches up, turns out the light.
On her cot on the warehouse floor, Alison watches until the lights go out, balling up the corners of her fleece blanket in tight fists. She tries to reach up with her mind, up the concrete steps and through the steel door to where they are, but it’s no use. She wonders if there have already been others, if Mannheim has been calling them in the night, his will pulling them up the concrete stairs to his room. And if so, she wonders why she has yet to hear it.
Just after three, Mandy tiptoes down the stairs and across the concrete to her cot, smelling faintly of sweat. As she passes, Alison whispers, “Whore,” and glares in the dark.
But Mandy is in her own world, and does not seem to notice.
Three times, Alison has taken her turn on the warehouse floor and, with Mannheim watching, has stared intensely at a paper clip, then a plastic spoon, then a pencil. Concentrating until the muscles in her forehead ached from the strain, she focused on each object, touched it with her thoughts, willed it to move across the coffee table, certain that this time she would finally do it. She swears the pencil wobbled once, but Mannheim failed to see it.
“Keep trying,” Mannheim reassures her. “It will come.”
She watches others fail after her. The young man with the glasses and shaggy black hair begins to cry after his third attempt, falls weeping into the fat man’s arms. Alison allows herself a tiny smirk when Mandy also fails, though the bleached whore seems remarkably unconcerned.
The last to try the pencil is a thick, hairy young man with a jutting brow—Brody, she thinks. She watches, dispirited, until Brody squints hard, purses his lips, and the pencil rolls across the tabletop and onto the concrete floor. It takes a minute to sink in, but when it does she feels herself leaving her cot, her hands clapping of their own volition, so hard they hurt. The others follow suit.
Then Mannheim glares, raises his right hand high in the air. The pupils fall silent, as if he has reached out with his mind and sealed their lips shut.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he says to Brody.
“I did it,” the young man says, discomfort evident in his smile. “Just like you wanted.” He takes a cautious backward step.
Untouched, the table turns over with such force that it echoes like a gunshot.
“Are you mocking me?” Mannheim’s voice is low, threatening. “You blew that pencil off the table. You think this is all about sideshow tricks?”
“Um…no?” Brody says, his voice high and cracking.
Mannheim sighs, long and loud, and stares at the cowering young man, and Alison is sure that he is about to squeeze Brody’s head until it caves in like a beer can—he has said in interviews that he could kill a man with his power if he wished, but has chosen never to so abuse it.
“Get out,” Mannheim snarls.
“But Mr. Mannheim….” Brody pleads.
Brody runs to his cot, gathers up his coat and backpack, and smashes through the steel doors into the snow.
Mannheim glares at the remaining crowd. “Anyone else want to try something cute?” Alison feels crushed by the force of his voice, and wonders what would happen if he were truly enraged. Though she is not to blame, she feels a terrible pang of shame run through her, as if Brody’s deceit is her own.
Then the freight train rolls past, breaking the silence. The windows rattle. Mannheim turns away.
“We’re done for the day,” he says, heading for the steps to his room. “I’ll order pizza. Eat. Rest. We’ll try again in the morning.”
When the pizzas come, Alison is famished, as are the rest of the students. As they gorge themselves straight out of the boxes on the buffet table, she notices Mandy slinking quietly up the stairs, two plates in hand, and suddenly she loses her appetite.
It is early morning, the sun not yet up. Mandy is asleep on Mannheim’s cot, and from his wicker chair he watches her soft flat belly rise and fall, rise and fall. She is naked, the blanket pulled up just past her waist, her right arm draped over her eyes.
He gently pokes her arm.
Mandy opens her eyes and smiles. “Hi,” she says.
“I think you should go back downstairs,” he whispers. “Before anyone notices.”
She runs her hand down his bare arm. “They already know.”
He clears his throat. “What I mean is, I don’t think we should do this anymore. It’s distracting me. I think that’s why I haven’t gotten through yet. Maybe afterwards….”
“Oh,” she says, sitting up in bed and pulling the sheet over her bare torso. “I see. I guess I’ll be going, then.”
Mannheim feels a wave of guilt, something he is unused to. “Of course I want you to stay….” he says.
Mandy gets up, throws her clothes on in the darkened office. “Sorry,” she says. “I never really bought into this. I was just here for you.”
“I thought you believed,” he says. “What about the worm in the apple?”
He cannot tell if the look she gives him is one of sadness or pity. “Lucky guess.” She slides her stockings and shoes on. “Can you call me a cab? It’s freezing out there.”
“I don’t want you to go.”
She giggles sharply, and it hurts him. “Not much to stay for, is there?” She heads for the steps down to the warehouse floor. Mannheim drapes his coat over his bare shoulders and follows her down in his flannel pajama bottoms.
“You don’t have to do this,” he whispers, just loud enough to be heard above the snoring.
“Yeah, I do,” she says, and gathers up the duffel bag beside her empty cot. She swings open the steel door and heads off into the heavy, wet lake-effect snow. He follows her, the fresh sharp crystals stinging his bare feet; she stops less than a yard from the black van.
“Go back inside,” she says. “You’ll get frostbite. Or pneumonia.”
“I don’t care,” Mannheim says, his voice quivering.
She shuffles toward him through the fresh snow, reaches for his coat lapel, pulls him down to her height and kisses him softly. “It was fun,” she says. “I hope you can teach them what you know.” Then she turns and walks away from him, across the train tracks and toward the glow of streetlights.
Mannheim turns toward the van. The orange light from the streetlamp is shining on the tinted windshield, just enough for him to make out a man holding a camera, pointing it right at him. He presses his face up to the driver’s-side window.
“Did you get that?” he says, and trudges away.
Someone gets out of the passenger side—a young man with white-blond hair in a black off-the-rack suit. He is holding a microphone. “Mr. Mannheim!” he says, breathless. “Daniel Toovey, TV-6 news. Mind if I ask you a few questions?”
Mannheim does not stop or look back.
The reporter follows. Mannheim lifts his hand, raises his index finger in the air; Toovey feels something tug at his ankles and finally falls face-first into the snow.
Everyone is awake when Mannheim trudges in. They rush to his aid like parents racing toward an injured child. “It’s okay,” he says.
Alison peels off his coat, wraps her blanket around him. She is enraptured, seized by electric joy. “Here,” she says. “You’ll catch your death.” She hugs him tight as the others watch, wishing they could be so bold. “I’m so sorry,” she tells him, though she doesn’t mean it.
“Thank you,” he says.
Alison knows this is her moment. “Let’s get you to your room.”