She helps him out of his wet pajama bottoms and into a red striped two-piece with button-up top. He falls into the wicker chair, saying nothing, occasionally looking up at her like a lost child. She does up his buttons, her knuckles gently brushing the soft down of his chest. Her heart races.
She helps him into bed. “Do you want me to stay?” she asks.
She begins to crawl into bed beside him, but he raises a hand, shakes his head. Instead he takes her hand in his, holds it tight. Her elation quickly turns into a sour feeling in her stomach, but she stays until her hand hurts and she can see the edge of the sun just beneath the windowsill. Then, when he begins to snore, she tiptoes downstairs.
Everyone is watching when she comes down.
“Well?” asks the spectacled young man, whose name she has learned is Randy.
“He’ll be all right,” she says.
When Mannheim awakens, just after eleven, he comes down the stairs in his bathrobe. “No exercises today,” he says. “Go out, take the day off, do laundry, whatever.” He goes back upstairs, slides the Johnny Walker Blue out from under the bed, pulls out the cork stopper, lifts the bottle to his lips. The burn is good.
When he has finished off the Scotch and burgundy in his room, just after noon, he sends Randy on a liquor run, then drinks some more. Down below, on the warehouse floor, the pupils hear an occasional grumbled “Bitch,” or, “Fucking groupie.” They are frightened—at any moment, the glass window could shatter and rain jagged shards on them. Or perhaps the roof will cave in. Some consider leaving while it is still safe, but no one does. They are awaiting something spectacular, even terrifying, though they do not know what.
Alison looks to Mannheim’s window for any sign of movement: curtains jostling, books and papers flying about. At the first sign of tumult she will march up the stairs, brave the debris, hold him until his tormented brain is at peace.
Then, just before sunset, he comes downstairs, dark circles under his eyes, hair flat and lifeless.
“I’m sorry, everyone,” he says. “I’m okay. Tomorrow, we’ll get back to work.”
Mannheim’s students stand at their cots and applaud, because they feel they should.
Mannheim’s new theory, which came in an epiphany while he showered, is that their innate telekinesis will be activated by sudden danger; their sleeping brains will need to be jumpstarted by a sense of imminent physical harm. This, he explains, is how he stopped the eighteen-wheeler on the interstate last Christmas, and the train just a few weeks ago.
“It’s simple,” he tells them. “Focus on what’s coming toward you, and concentrate all your will on it.” He is animated, alive. “Then you put out your hand, like so….” He extends his right hand like a policeman halting traffic. “…and push with your mind, hard as you can. That should be enough to stop just about anything.”
“Can you stop bullets?” asks a pudgy, pimply, spectacled college-aged boy in a Superman T-shirt.
“I suppose you could,” Mannheim says. “With enough concentration.” He isn’t entirely sure; he always wanted to try it, but Marty would never let him.
“Cool,” another boy says. “Can you do the trick where you stop a truck?”
Mannheim raises an eyebrow. “I told you, no parlor tricks. This isn’t a show.” He smiles devilishly. “So who’s first?”
Randy gets up from the floor. “I’ll go,” he says.
Mannheim instructs Randy to stand still and close his eyes while he picks up a metal folding chair stacked against the wall. “No peeking.”
Randy shuts his eyes tight.
“You can look now,” Mannheim says, and swings the chair at Randy’s face.
For a second Randy’s eyes go wide and white in his head, and before the chair connects, he ducks.
“Sorry,” he says. “Reflex.”
Mannheim sighs. “I understand. We’ll try again later. Next?”
The pimply boy gets up, assumes his position. Mannheim swings the chair. The boy’s hands come up and stop the chair mid-swing.
Mannheim glares, but recovers himself. “You’re not focusing on the chair.” He sends the boy back to the floor. “Anyone else?”
Alison gets up. This is her moment. Mannheim rests a hand on her shoulder; it feels warm, forceful. Good.
“Are you ready?” he asks her. “Focus on the chair.”
Mannheim backs up, raises the chair, swings it.
The next fraction of a second goes by like slo-mo on a DVD player. Alison sees the metal chair coming toward her and reaches out with her mind, all her thoughts on the chair, the air swirling in its wake, her own distorted reflection in the dull metal. She focuses all her will on it, extends both arms like a Tai-Chi instructor, preparing to make the chair recoil in Mannheim’s hands as if it’s struck a wall.
The chair hits her flush in the forehead with a crash, loud as a snare-drum hit. For a minute everything goes black, then Randy and a few others are standing over her, dabbing at her face with toilet paper. Something feels warm and wet under her nose.
Alison hears Mannheim’s disembodied voice above the ringing in her ears. “Oh, Jesus, I’m sorry. I really thought you were going to stop it.” Though her vision is blurred and wobbly, she looks long and hard into Mannheim’s face, and for the first time she notices acne scars on his cheeks, his uneven stubble, the split ends in his hair. So ordinary.
Murmured voices break the silence: “Well, I’m done here,” someone says. Someone else whispers, “Waste of time.” And a fat middle-aged man says, “I can’t believe I left my wife for this.”
Alison lifts her head to see Mannheim staring daggers across the room. “Nobody asked you to.”
Randy starts to say, “Um, actually….” But Mannheim silences him with a glance.
The fat man reaches under his cot and gathers up his rucksack and a small Freshmate cooler. “This is bullshit,” he grumbles. “I’m catching the next bus out of here. Anyone care to join me?”
One or two begin to follow him, sweeping their belongings into backpacks and suitcases, then several more.
Mannheim’s irritation turns to alarm. “Wait,” he says. “Just wait.” He considers sealing the doors shut, but this would be well over the line—no one is a prisoner here. “Please. I want you all to stay.”
“Why?” the fat man says. “Everything you’re telling us is a lie.”
Everyone grumbles in agreement; Mannheim feels the heavy weight of despair in his gut. “Go, then,” he says. “I won’t stop you. But I’m no phony.”
Alison picks herself up off the floor, holds a wad of tissues against her bleeding nose. “Prove it,” she says through blood and spittle.
Mannheim turns around, winces at the blood on Alison’s face. A broad purple bruise is already forming on her pale forehead. “I said no parlor tricks,” he insists, though his authority has long since faded. “That’s not what this is about.”
The fat man interrupts. “You prove you’re not a fake and we’ll stay. Am I right?” The rest nod.
Mannheim’s shoulders sag. “Fine. What do you want me to do? Knock over this chair?” He waves a hand; a folding chair in the corner falls to the floor with a clack. “The cot?” He snaps his fingers and an empty cot tips over.
“Not good enough,” says the fat man. “You could have had that set up from the start.”
“Show us a miracle,” Alison whispers, but everyone hears, and when they do the whole room erupts into cheers.
“Name it,” Mannheim says flatly.
“The train trick,” the fat man says, and the room falls silent.
The next train is due in twenty minutes, and they come like clockwork; Mannheim steps outside into the snow, his Army trench billowing behind him like a cape. This is how he has appeared in Alison’s dreams since the first time she saw him on The Late Show, years ago, when she was a teenager.
“Don’t follow me,” Mannheim says, and steps onto the tracks. They hear the roar of train wheels against the track, the warning bells as the wooden barricades come down at the crossings. Soon, they see it.
Alison’s nose has stopped bleeding, and she can almost feel her face again, and for just a minute she considers jumping up on the tracks with him, telling him he doesn’t have to do this, not really. Then her forehead starts to throb, and she thinks, yes, he does.
The train nears Mannheim on the tracks; the engineer sounds his horn in three quick bursts.
Too late to stop.
Mannheim raises his right hand, palm out. There is still time to walk away. Maybe he should. But this will convince them beyond doubt. He notices the black van’s doors opening, the reporter and cameraman scrambling out. He senses the train, feels its metal contours, its wheels, its pumping pistons, the rush of air in its wake. He pushes.
The screeching is tremendous; Alison covers her ears and turns away—this is the end of him, she cannot watch. When she turns back, everything is sparks and smoke and noise; the train’s gears and wheels are spinning in place on the rails. And there, silhouetted in smoke and close enough to reach out and touch the engine, is Mannheim, expressionless, face glistening with sweat.
The pupils’ jaws drop. Even the fat man can only stare and mouth, “I’ll be goddamned.”
Mannheim stares back at them. The expressions on their faces are the same.
He sighs, lets his arm fall to his side, steps off the track. The train rolls on.
Alison breaks away from the crowd as the train passes; her bloody tissue falls to the ground and she runs toward the tracks, ecstasy in her heart. It is real—the miracle is real!—and when she reaches Mannheim she will throw herself at his feet and promise she will never doubt him again. But when the train has passed, he is gone.
She runs toward the buildings across the field, searching for footprints, but finds no sign of him. She stops, closes her eyes, reaches out as she’s been taught—she feels him, close but quickly moving beyond her reach. But no matter how hard she concentrates she cannot quite pin him down. She only knows he is running to some other place, and that he is going there alone.