Episode 3: The Problem with Madelyn

By: Lauren Derrick

 Editor's Note: Today's posting is the third episode of  a multi-part story. If you haven't read the earlier episodes 1 and 2, they can be found as postings on September 22, 2021 and November 24, 2021, respectively.

“Hello?” A kind elderly voice asked over the phone.

Marilyn stumbled over her words. “M-madelyn, I–I need help.”

The voice chuckled. “Happy Birthday to you, too. You need my help?”

Marilyn, disheveled in her yellow dress, tapped the counter. Her mouth pulled downward with her furrowed white eyebrows. She took a deep breath. “Madelyn, I think my little Finley may be… may be developing...”

The silence from the other end of the phone drove Marilyn to circle her dining room with a nervous gait. Finally, Madelyn spoke. “Are you saying, Marilyn, that you think your granddaughter is like us?”

“She's tapping into other peoples' emotions using eye contact!” Marilyn blurted. “And having awful headaches! I felt it, Madelyn. She tried to read me.

More silence filled the receiver. Marilyn bit her lip and stared out the window.

“Well,” Madelyn finally said, “I don't see what I can do. I'm all locked up. You ought to just talk to her.”

“I CAN'T.” Marilyn stomped her foot in defiance, her mouth knotted up in a stubborn pout. “You know why.”

Madelyn sighed. “I doubt your granddaughter would react like your husband did—particularly if she knows she's developing the same abilities.”

“I can't take the chance.”

Madelyn's voice grew soft and breathy, accented by an aggravated sigh. “What do you need, Marilyn?”

“You were the one to help me through the changes.” Marilyn said. “Perhaps you could help Finley?”

Madelyn paused. “You'd bring her to meet me?”

“Yes.” Marilyn almost whispered.

“I'd love to meet your granddaughter.” Madelyn said pleasantly.

Marilyn let out a relieved sigh. “Thank you, Maddie. You won't tell her?”

“I suppose you won't bring her unless I agree to that.”

They chatted a bit longer before hanging up. When they did, Marilyn flopped down into her arm chair with a bottle of champagne. She took a large swig straight from the bottle.

The next morning, Marilyn sat at her kitchen counter nibbling on some toast. A steaming mug sat next to her arm. The doorbell chimed, and a worried frown replaced Marilyn's smile. “I suppose it's time to go.”

Ladybug, Marilyn’s pug, wagged her tail vigorously and danced in a circle.

Finley stood at the door in black jeans, and a green collared shirt. She smiled at her grandmother as the door opened. Marilyn invited her in and scuttled off to grab her purse. Ladybug trotted in.

“Oh, is Lady coming?” Finley asked.

Marilyn fluffed her hair in a small hallway mirror. “She loves Madelyn, but not today.”

“Do you visit your sister a lot?”

“At least once a month,” Marilyn answered idly as she checked inside her purse. “You don’t have any pocket knives on you or anything that would set off a metal detector?”

“Metal detectors at a nursing home?”

Marilyn finished checking the contents of her purse and faced Finley squarely. “It’s a prison. I probably should have mentioned that.”

Several minutes later, Marilyn sat in the passenger seat of Finley’s Ford Taurus. Finley turned the volume knob on the console and the radio station quieted. “So Mom doesn’t know about Aunt Madelyn being in prison?”

Marilyn shook her head. “No.”

Finley let out a nervous chuckle. “What did she do?”

Marilyn hesitated, looking longingly out the window. “She found some fairly damning dirt on several politicians and used it. She knew they'd never face justice for their crimes, and she took things into her own hands. She made some powerful enemies. Madelyn’s terribly clever, though you may want to take what she says with a grain of salt. I haven’t really been sure that she’s completely stable since…”

“Since what?” Finley asked eagerly.

Marilyn sighed. “Madelyn and I were guinea pigs for a special study back in the early 70s. I was the control—since we share identical genes, they planned to give Madelyn special treatments and compare the two of us to measure results. They focused the study on a specific set of genes found in mothers who bond particularly well and quickly with their children, the ones who seem to understand their children intrinsically. Almost as if they could read their minds.”

Marilyn paused, as if waiting for Finley to react. Her granddaughter simply listened, so Marilyn continued. “It paid well and involved a lot of holding and cuddling puppies. Madelyn wanted to do it because she was an avid feminist. I was mostly there for the puppies.”

“Then… how…if you were the control then...?” Finley stammered.

Marilyn leaned back in the passenger seat. “Once it became clear how useful Madelyn could be, they tried to duplicate the results on me. It didn’t work exactly the same. I credit the difference in our ages when we began the treatments. They told us the gene alterations they were attempting were not going to be permanent, that the abilities would wane over time. They said there was virtually no chance of those alterations being passed down to our posterity. It seems they were wrong.”

“So you and Aunt Madelyn can… sense other people’s feelings too?”  Finley blushed, but she gripped the wheel firmly and set her jaw. 

Marilyn's expression grew grave. “Yes. It comes with an impressive list of side effects, though. Hormonal changes. Migraines. Hypersensitivity.”

They merged onto the freeway and more than an hour later, took an exit that seemed to consist only of a lonely gas station and a run-down diner. Not long after filling up, they continued on until the pavement turned into a dirt road. Finley shot Marilyn a worried glance.

“This is right,” Marilyn assured her.

An hour later, they came to a long, tall electric fence. A security gate stood directly before them, and Finley stopped the car. Behind the gate, a concrete building stood like a scab on the cracked skin of the desert ground.

Several minutes later, Finley sat in a folding chair in a sterile white room. An ominous pair of steel doors loomed from down the hallway. The receptionist, a middle-aged woman with a gray bob and a name tag that read “Karen,” gave Finley a clipboard laden with a stack of paper at least a centimeter thick. Finley’s eyebrows raised as she began flipping through the pages. Marilyn chatted with Karen at her off-white metal desk. Finley perked up as she heard the old ladies giggle.

“...he was so insistent that Francesco pay for the damage, and then he wouldn’t take the check! He said it would probably bounce!” Marilyn was saying.

“Those two!” Karen laughed, shaking her head. “I bet Francesco took that well.”

“They're getting too old to spar like that, somebody's going to break a hip.” Marilyn muttered.

Finley let out a long breath and refocused on the paperwork. She flipped to a page entitled: Recommended Behaviors for Visiting Telepathic Individuals. Her eyebrows popped up.

Finley cleared her throat. “Grandma? Is Aunt Madelyn a telepath?”

Marilyn stopped abruptly mid sentence and turned to face Finley. Her mouth worked for a minute, as if trying to wiggle through the question. “I didn’t want—I didn’t think you’d believe me.”

Finley glanced over to Karen, who nodded solemnly and shrugged. “She’s actually quite nice.”

“This entire place just for her?

“Yes, well, there are some who would be very concerned if she escaped.”

“Is it safe?” Finley asked incredulously.

Marilyn shrugged. “As safe as it can be. There’s a security guard stationed by the emergency exit just outside. He’ll intervene if anything seems amiss.”

“I’m still having a hard time getting him not to leave his equipment lying around.” Karen muttered. “He says the sunglasses are hard to wear with his headphones.”

Marilyn sighed and shook her head, then turned her full attention to her granddaughter. “Madelyn’s ability is connecting with others. She cannot control another person’s mind. She cannot force a person to do anything contrary to their will. She is telepathic, not telekinetic. She doesn’t lift things with her mind or bend spoons or any such nonsense.”

“What she can do,” Marilyn continued after a brief pause, “is dangerous enough, however. She can form a bond with your mind with brief eye contact. If she is able to form a bond with your mind then she will know what you’re thinking and will be able to access your memories or anything else you think you know. She can also create illusions that make a person think they are seeing something that they aren’t truly seeing, and this can apply to senses of smell, taste, hearing, touch—all by sending false messages to the brain.”

Finley folded her arms.  “So she can create illusions, but she hasn’t escaped?”

“Creating an illusion that feels realistic takes weeks of preparation. It’s not something that can be done impromptu.”

Karen chimed in. “We will give you some sunglasses to prevent eye contact.”

Finley stared at the stack of paperwork. “Well, I guess I didn’t drive all the way here to miss my one chance at meeting a real telepath.”

Paperwork signed, Karen handed Finley a pair of sunglasses with a red, reflective coating that completely hid her eyes. Finley put them on. Marilyn wore only the glasses she came in with. Karen used a card key to unlock a set of large, steel doors and a long chime sounded. Marilyn opened the doors.

Finley glanced all around to take in the scene. The room they entered felt more like a sleek modern style home with an expansive open floor plan.  There was a kitchen area, a hot tub built right into the floor on the far right, and a sitting area with a flat screen television.  A balloon bouquet with a giant golden 75 stood near the television. There was a polished red concrete floor and decorative cacti accents all around. 

“Nice prison,” Finley muttered.

Marilyn cleared her throat and shuffled uncomfortably. “Well, I’m part of the reason she’s in here, so I try to keep her comfortable.”

Finley stiffened.

A door near the television opened, and out walked Madelyn. She looked just like Marilyn, though perhaps a few pounds lighter. Her manner of dress was different as well. She seemed to favor loose slacks and wore a white button-up collared shirt with them. She also wore a stylish, wide-brimmed sun hat, even though they were indoors.  She smiled, opening her arms from the elbow in a welcoming pose. “Marilyn! And you must be Finley. Really, Marilyn—the way you spoke of her I expected her to be thirteen, not a full-grown woman!”

Finley blushed.

Marilyn embraced her twin. Finley smiled uncomfortably. Before she had time to blink, Madelyn had Marilyn in a choke hold. Finley gasped, frozen with uncertainty. A security officer dashed in, blonde hair messy and askew. His gray-blue eyes conveyed a sense of panic that Finley quickly adopted as he ran forward, fumbling with a nice set of over-ear headphones and a pair of red reflective sunglasses.  He pushed his sunglasses on in a heartbeat, and Finley turned to see Madelyn muss Marilyn's hair fondly, like a child might do to a younger sibling.  Madelyn gave the security officer a patronizing look.  

“If you think I'm going to choke my own sister and only regular visitor...” Madelyn grumpily muttered at him before trailing off. She shook her head. “I was being playful, Kal.  You know I’ve never hurt anyone who’s come to visit me.”

Marilyn looked up earnestly at the guard. “It was just a hug.”

Kal nodded, blushing.  He gripped his headphones and walked stiffly back to the security door.

“Well, at least we know security is on guard,” Marilyn said, reaching out an arm to comfort her sister who had turned away in embarrassment. “Nobody will be attacking you in here.”

“It looked bad, didn't it?” Madelyn said, her voice more than a little tinged with sadness. “I'm finally losing my sense of how to behave around people.”

Marilyn put her hands on her sister's shoulders. “Let's not waste our visit worrying over the security guard.”

Madelyn nodded and turned back to Finley. She smiled warmly. “I am terribly sorry if I gave you a bad first impression, Finley. I am very happy to meet you.”

She held out a hand and, hesitantly, Finley shook it. The older woman seemed genuinely pleased. Her eyes briefly fell on Finley's sunglasses, but Madelyn said nothing. After a moment she led Marilyn and Finley to the sitting area by the television.

“Now Finley, my sister tells me that you can make emotional contact with others—I want to hear all about when and how this started. And details, please. I don't get many visitors, and I want to hear all about your life.”

Finley fidgeted. “Um, okay.”

She awkwardly launched into a story that started with her freshman year of high school.  Madelyn listened with great interest and pressed for details all along the way. She wanted all the details. Marilyn also listened with great interest, squeezing Finley's hand and rubbing her back when her granddaughter seemed emotional.

When Finley finished half-an-hour later, Madelyn leaned back with a satisfied sigh. “Well, it certainly sounds like you've inherited the gift.”

“How… how strong is it going to get, do you think?” Finley asked. “Will I...”

“Become a telepath?” Marilyn finished for her, quietly.

“Yeah.” Finley said, hesitantly.

Madelyn pressed her pointed forefingers to her lips, deep in thought. “That remains to be seen. But how delightful to have someone develop emotional connection naturally like this! And to only have headaches when you use the ability—that certainly sounds like an improvement on what we went through.”

Marilyn nodded thoughtfully.

“Now, Marilyn, I hope you won't be upset, but I have been working on a little something.”

“Oh?” Marilyn asked.

“I think I've finally re-created that beach we used to go to when we were young.”

Their eyes met.

Do you want to leave Finley out or have her join? Perhaps we should just save it for next time, Finley is new to all this and...

Marilyn spoke directly to Madelyn's mind. Madelyn replied, If we show her how fun her abilities can be then it will make a significant difference in how she views herself. First impressions.

Well, I suppose. Marilyn replied hesitantly.

Madelyn turned to Finley. “How would you like to go straight to the most wonderful beach right this moment, Finley?”

Finley stiffened and glanced at Marilyn, then turned back to Madelyn. “Uh… I guess… um...”

“It should be safe.” Marilyn said, squeezing Finley's arm. “Madelyn's illusions are quite wonderful.”

“Oh… okay. What do I do?”

Madelyn smiled warmly. “Just let me look into your eyes for a moment, then close them and count slowly to five. When you open them up, we'll be at the beach.”

Finley's hand trembled a little as she removed her sunglasses. She shot Marilyn a nervous glance. Marilyn nodded encouragingly. Finley stared into Madelyn's eyes briefly, then shut her own. She tapped her foot slowly five times then opened her eyes.

She stood in flip flops near some large, weathered rocks. Finley glanced around. “Grandma?!” She cried out nervously. Marilyn and Madelyn seemed to be gone, and in their place, two women in their prime with dark flowing curls that resembled Finley's, except cut short. In fact, they looked so similar to Finley that they might have easily been her sisters.

All three of them wore the same yellow and white striped bikinis with white buttons down the front on top. Finley danced around nervously. The sky was blue, the ocean not far off, and the sound of waves crashing and seagulls squealing filled the salty air. One of the other women placed her hand on Finley's arm.

“It's me, Finley.” The voice was much younger, but it was clearly still Marilyn.

Finley's eyes widened. “Grandma?! This… this is amazing! Is this what you used to look like? Where are we? Is that a sailboat out there?”

Madelyn tossed her head up and laughed heartily, her ruby lipstick glistening in the sunshine. “We came to this beach a long time ago on holiday. Of course, it was a lot more crowded when we came, but it's so much work putting people into these.”

Marilyn smiled, taking her sister's hand. “This is lovely, Maddie. Everything is spot on.”

Madelyn beamed at the compliment. You'd better show me that New York scene you did for our birthday next time you visit.

Of course I will, Marilyn replied.

“I wish I could take a photo.” Finley remarked.

“That would be nice.” Madelyn agreed. “I only created about a half-an-hour's worth of this, unfortunately. But there should be some strawberry ice cream and chocolate chip cookies nearby.”

Marilyn ducked behind a rock and came out with a tray holding three strawberry ice cream sundaes with mini chocolate chip cookies sticking out of the top. Finley and the young Madelyn each took a bowl.  Marilyn set the tray aside on the ground.

“Oh, Finley, you ought to go touch the water.” Madelyn urged. “I worked hard on that.”

Finley glanced at the water, and gestured awkwardly.  “If I walk around, won’t I bump into a wall?”

“You won’t actually be walking in the direction you think you are, dear.”  Madelyn answered.

“But if I walk in a straight line for long enough…”  Finley started.

“You won’t.”  Marilyn assured her.  “People are actually very bad at walking in straight lines, and the illusion will take it into account.”  

Finley hesitated a moment longer before walking over with her ice cream to touch the water. Marilyn pulled a small spoon out of her sundae and licked it. She smiled at her sister. “You were right. I knew you would be the best person to show her.”

Madelyn licked at her lips just a little. You know, she said telepathically to Marilyn, you probably could do just as well.

Marilyn's younger face went ashen for a second. Finley returned. “There are tiny shells in the sand and everything—it's so real!”

Madelyn smiled and nodded. “Maybe you'll be able to make these too.”

Finley blushed, as if putting herself at all in the same category with Madelyn was absurdly childish. Madelyn brushed off the reaction. “You never know how far your powers will develop, do you, Marilyn?”

Don't bring me into this. I don't want to tell her yet! Marilyn pleaded within Madelyn's mind.

Stop being so insecure. She trusts you. Just tell her. Madelyn retorted.

Marilyn shook her head slowly but purposefully.

“So, did you have headaches too? Do you still get them?” Finley asked, looking intently at Madelyn.

The younger-looking Madelyn smiled. The sun on her skin and lipstick and shiny black curls made her dazzle. “Yes to both—and they get progressively worse, I'm sorry to say.”

Finley grimaced. “That's unfortunate. Is there anything I can do for them?”

“For both of us the headaches began in the morning—a side effect of the experiment, probably. They'd start when we woke up and get progressively worse throughout the day. It seems that because you're developing in a more natural way that your body is handling it better.” Madelyn remarked.

Marilyn spoke in Madelyn's mind. If she only gets the headaches when she uses her powers then that will simplify things a lot once the pain increases.

If it increases, Madelyn pointed out. Who knows? Maybe it will never hurt as badly for her.

“How would you rate your pain?” Marilyn asked Finley. “What would you compare it to?”

Finley shrugged. “It's like a migraine, but I can feel pulsing. Like my whole brain is pulsing.”

“For now, you can use an ice pack just behind your skull on the back of your neck when you feel the headaches coming on.” Madelyn said with all the professionalism of a skilled doctor. “And try to limit yourself to four or five readings a day. You can increase your threshold once you've reached a stage where you can manipulate your own pain center.”

Finley blinked. “Manipulate my own pain center? So I'll be able to just… turn off the pain?”

“To a degree.” Marilyn cut in, looking skeptically at Madelyn. “If your abilities develop further. You must always take great care, however. Simply ignoring all of your pain is not advisable.”

“I agree.” Madelyn said, ignoring Marilyn's gaze. “You can get yourself into a great deal of trouble by ignoring your problems—physical or emotional.”

I'm not going to tell her right now. Marilyn thought sharply at her sister.

Madelyn cocked her head and grinned at Marilyn. Fine. But I do suggest that you think long and hard about the example that you're setting for your granddaughter.

Finley looked at Marilyn and Madelyn, slightly puzzled. She licked at her ice cream. 

             Oh, she is trying to read me now!  Delightful.  Madelyn smiled sweetly. “Don't you worry. I have a few books about the brain that I'm going to send home with you to study. Learning to locate and tamper with your pain receptors is a useful skill as long as you exercise caution.”

Like the time you ignored your sprained ankle so you could attend the charity ball and then ended up in a cast for a month? Marilyn thought dryly at Madelyn.

Or how every time your husband comes up in conversation you start tampering with your serotonin release? Madelyn retorted.

“Pain is a warning that something is wrong.” Marilyn said to Finley, pointedly not looking at Madelyn. “And when something needs to be fixed, you ought to see to it as soon as you can.”

About forty years late on that, aren't you? Madelyn asked.

Some things can't BE fixed. Marilyn retorted.

“But eventually it will help with the headaches, right?” Finley asked.

“Yes—that's why we survived when others in the study...” Madelyn trailed off.

“There were others?” Finley's eyes widened.

Marilyn sighed. “We think the pain is what finally broke most of the other participants. Madelyn and I were the only ones ever to complete the study. Most of the others quit.”

“So there aren't any more telepaths?” Finley asked. “What if I can't find the pain center? Will I be okay?”

“Sure you will,” Madelyn said sweetly. “You have us. And your body seems to be handling the development much more naturally than either of ours did. We'll walk you through it.”

Finley took a deep breath. “Right.”

I think we scared her, is she scared? Marilyn thought anxiously at Madelyn.

If she's not, she should be. Madelyn replied sardonically. You and I were the only ones to ever survive and complete the treatments, after all.  Oh the little dear…she’s trying again!

I don't want her to be scared. Marilyn thought, but then cut off as she noticed Finley looking intently at her and Madelyn.

“Is everything okay?” Finley asked slowly.

“Yes.” The sisters answered in unison.

The women ate their sundaes and sat on big, weathered rocks. Waves crashed, and cool wind eased the heat from the sun. Finley ate the cookie out of her ice cream.

“So you can create the illusion of an ice cream sundae, enjoy it like this, and never gain a pound?” Finley asked. “And we can stay out here in full sun with no sunscreen and not worry about sunburns?”

Madelyn paused as she licked ice cream off of her spoon. “Tricking the brain this way has… interesting… effects on the body. For example, it will take about fifteen minutes after the illusion ends for your body to realize it was fooled and start complaining that it wants food. It is truly fascinating how many of our biological responses begin in the mind.”

“But still,” Finely pointed out. “I'm eating ice cream right now—getting all the enjoyment of eating ice cream—but none of the weight gain? It's amazing.”

Marilyn chuckled. “Just wait until you see how hungry and thirsty you are after though.”

“I could just eat a salad,” Finley pointed out.

“And how often do you want salad after you've finished eating ice cream?” Madelyn asked.

Finley grew quiet.

“It is amazing,” Marilyn admitted, pulling the cookie out of her sundae. “But it's good to keep in mind that nothing comes for free.”

Eventually, Madelyn asked Finley and Marilyn to close their eyes so she could end the illusion. When they opened their eyes they found themselves sitting in front of Madelyn's television. Finley blinked in disbelief at the two suddenly aged women in front of her.

Madelyn had prepared some chili, and the three shared a late lunch. After two full helpings, Finley started doing dishes, which earned her a great deal of praise.

The sisters spent a little time catching up before Marilyn and Finley had to leave. The three seemed relaxed and comfortable at this point, and Finley no longer wore her sunglasses or looked at all nervous. When they walked out, Finley held three separate hard-bound textbooks and an ice pack.

Marilyn and Finley climbed back into Finley's car. Marilyn offered to drive home, and Finley let her. As they rumbled slowly down the dirt road, Finley put the ice pack on the back of her neck and started flipping through one of the books Madelyn had lent her.

“Did you have a good time today, Sweetie? Are you feeling more settled?” Marilyn asked.

“Yeah!” Finley said enthusiastically. “You were right though, I'm not sure I would have believed you if you had just told me.”

Marilyn smiled as she drove. “And what did you think of Madelyn?”

Finley paused. A small curl of paper, like the long side of a page torn out of a spiral notebook, stuck out a little from one of textbooks.  Finley fingered it absently.. “She really is nice. And she wasn't socially awkward at all, which really surprised me. I was expecting her to be a lot weirder, especially after the way she put you in a head-lock and messed up your hair when we first got there.”

“Yes, she hasn’t done that to me since we were twelve.  It was rather strange.” Marilyn mused. “And the security guard's eyes when he...”

Marilyn's eyes widened in sudden realization. She swore loudly and slammed on the brakes.

Finley's books slid off her lap. She turned to Marilyn.. “Grandma...?”

“She's escaped.” Marilyn grumbled. Then, with a sudden jerk of the steering wheel, she performed a U-turn and began driving back to the compound. Dust trailed behind the white car.

On a sunny evening in the middle of the desert, Madelyn walked at a quick pace. On her head she wore a stylish sun-hat. She carried a water bottle in one hand and a leather purse under her other arm. She glanced up ahead at a cloud of dust down the road. Madelyn grinned and checked her smart watch.

She ducked lazily behind a Joshua tree as a white car quickly passed, then continued her hike. 

Fifteen minutes later, an olive green sedan appeared on the dirt road. The driver lowered his window. “Mary Olsen?”

“Why yes! I seem to have lost my way.” Madelyn replied sweetly. “Have you seen my family?”

“Your daughter said you got lost.  She sent me to pick you up.” The driver said. “Hop in.”

“Oh, you must be one of those Goober drivers.” Madelyn remarked, feigning obliviousness. “How convenient.”

She smirked and giggled silently to herself as she climbed into the back seat.  The green sedan turned back towards the gas station, and then merged onto the freeway.


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