DOWNSTAIRS THE NEXT MORNING, Elle found Mom in the kitchen. Of course, she groaned to herself; of all the days Mom could have chosen to stay home, it was the day Elle was supposed to video call Rosie Pollin. “Morning,” she said instead, walking past Mom where she was seated at the kitchen table to grab a cup from the cabinet.
“I’m working from home for a couple hours,” Mom announced, though Elle hadn’t asked. “The restaurant would be too busy for me to focus.”
“Not bothering me,” Elle shrugged. “Where’s Ericka?”
“Sleeping in, I think,” Mom said. “Taking advantage of the last few days of summer.”
Recovering from all the prep work she’s had to do by herself, more like it, Elle thought mutinously. She took a sip of water, and it slid down her throat like she’d been out in the desert. Maybe she could stomach some tea this morning. If she could drink tea, Elle had learned this was a pretty good sign she could try to eat something non-dangerous, like a piece of plain toast or maybe even cereal, if the milk didn’t cause issues. She knew she needed to eat. This was more important than her stupid Afterthoughts. She, Elle, as a human being, needed sustenance to survive. And she definitely needed something on her stomach to talk to Ms. Pollin.
“Aren’t you going to ask what kind of work I’m doing at home?” Mom interrupted Elle’s thoughts.
Elle didn’t have to – Mom’s Readings were available to peruse and understand for anyone interested (which Elle wasn’t) – but she humored Mom. “What is it?”
“I’m looking for a new cook,” Mom beamed.
Elle nodded, sipping her water again. “Cool. Would that mean you’d be home more?”
Mom frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing,” Elle said quickly. “Just, like, if you had help in the kitchen.”
“It means we can certainly improve our wait time for our customers,” Mom said. “I mean, with two people in the kitchen, we can get orders filled in half the time! Plus, he’ll alternate with me to take the early morning shifts.”
Elle’s ears perked up. “He?”
Mom nodded. “So far, all the viable applicants are male. It’s kind of a shame because I really wanted to support a fellow woman in the food service industry, but you can’t argue with these fellas’ resumes.”
Elle couldn’t believe it. After Ollie Blaese failed so dreadfully (chicken salad? Really? He deserved his Dorito casserole), Elle had given up on hunting. It seemed hopeless, even when she found a single, eligible bachelor, because Mom just didn’t seem interested in pursuing a second date with anyone right now. But if she was with someone constantly, working in the deli she loved so much, and they happened to be single and maybe rich, maybe taking on cooking as a hobby to pay for their once-a-week painting lessons….
“Do you want me to help you with the interviews?” Elle asked.
Mom glanced up at her in surprise. “Really? You wouldn’t mind? I was going to hire a Reader off Craigslist or something.”
Elle shook her head. “Never do that. You know they’re probably faking it. And you don’t have to spend your money. I really don’t mind helping.”
Mom’s suspicion melted into a warm smile. “Elle, you’re the sweetest kid. I don’t know what I did to deserve you.”
“All I ask for,” Elle continued, as if she hadn’t heard Mom say anything, “is that you cook dinner the next couple nights.” She couldn’t handle the time and concentration it took her to cook anymore. After the casserole, she needed a break. But Ericka would still need something to eat. “Maybe come home early and do it, or bring home Relish food if there’s extras. Does that sound okay?”
“Of course!” Mom agreed. “And part of the interview process is having the cooks I really, really like come to Relish and make us a meal after hours, so we’ll get some food out of that, too. Was the grocery budget not enough this time?”
She thinks it’s about money, Elle realized. She has no idea about the cheese, about me not eating, about any of it. “It was fine,” Elle managed. She set her cup down and left Mom at the kitchen table. As she passed Ericka’s room on her way to her own, she noticed the light was most definitely on. Ericka wasn’t sleeping.
When the door creaked shut after Mom left for Relish, Elle marched downstairs and grabbed a cereal bowl. She triple-checked the milk, then stabbed her spoon into the bland, off-brand cereal and took a bite before her mind had time to resurrect a single Afterthought.
It was soggy, cold, and a little stale. Elle ate the whole bowl and immediately stumbled upstairs to sleep.
She woke up around ten. Rosie had scheduled their meeting for noon Boston time, so eleven for Elle; she still had an hour. In an attempt to not sound like the hopelessly awkward human she was, Elle decided to compile a list of questions for Rosie. She wrote them down on a scrap of paper and kept it close to her when she pulled the video call up on her laptop screen.
Two minutes before the call started, Elle remembered Ericka. I’m doing a meeting thing, please don’t come in or set something on fire, she texted her sister quickly, just before the screen dinged pleasantly and a pixelated face appeared in the frame.
The pixels resolved themselves and a human emerged. Rosie was a small woman with a rounded nose, thick, straight black hair that was currently in a ponytail, and light almond skin. She smiled at Elle as if they’d known each other for forever. The background behind Rosie looked like an office; Elle realized her background was still her high school’s logo, but it was too late to change that now. “Good morning, Miss Coker!” Rosie said. Her voice was soft, welcoming, and immediately put Elle on alert. It was too friendly.
How did Dad know this woman?
“Good morning,” Elle replied automatically.
“I hope you’ll forgive my prompt reply last night,” Rosie continued. “I wasn’t feeling well, so I’d stayed up way past my bedtime and saw your message when it came through. I’m so glad I did, though! I’ve been looking forward to meeting you ever since your father said you might be interested.”
He’s already spoken for me. “I’m not sure,” Elle clarified. “I haven’t ever done anything like this before.”
“I completely understand,” Rosie said. “And you don’t have to join us if you don’t want to. But – really – we’d love to have you.”
Elle wished she could Read through screens. There was something in Rosie’s voice she couldn’t place, and it was growing more and more alarming.
Rosie was still talking. “...just to see if we’re really what you’re looking for. Just whatever details you want to share.”
Elle realized Rosie was asking a get-to-know-you question. “Oh.” She glanced at her list. Somehow, she’d failed to write any notes about herself there. “Okay. Um, I’m at GJC right now, I’ve been there for a while, just getting my basics out of the way – well, not a while, a couple semesters. I plan to be done soon and major in business through an out of state school. If one will have me, anyway.”
“And what do you hope to do with a business degree?” Rosie asked. “Or is that unexplored territory?”
“Yeah,” Elle said, feeling a small moment of relief. Rosie gave her two options to the “what are you going to do next” question. No one did that. They all expected her to have it figured out by now. “Unexplored territory.”
“Well, Grumbly Muffin Studios specializes in unexplored territory,” Rosie said. “As do I. I really hope that I – me and the studio, anyway – can help you find a path that works best for you.”
Elle seriously doubted it. “I’m not really into the animation field.”
“This internship is more about the experience than the details,” Rosie replied. “You’ll get experience as a professional Reader, which opens the door to the whole world, basically. Almost every business on the planet needs a Reader now, right?”
Elle supposed this was true. She hadn’t thought about it. Rosie gave her a gentle smile.
“You’re worth more than you know,” Rosie said. “Statistically,” she added quickly. “Not just like, in an inspirational way. The value of Readers in the business sector isn’t something that’s quantifiable yet. We do know, though, they are quickly becoming the most financially beneficial members of our society. And you’ll get to experience what it’s like to embrace that here. I hope that sounds like something you’re interested in. You wouldn’t be alone,” she continued, when Elle didn’t say anything. “There will be other interns here, learning to become professionals. They’re from GJC, too – but you would be the only Reader.”
Elle thought of GJC. The dorms with broken AC units, the hallways that stank of stale lunches, sweat, and floor cleaner in the summer…it seemed miraculous that a company would want to work with students from a school like theirs.
Especially a student like her.
“I just have to ask,” she said at last. This was what had been bothering her: it wasn’t Rosie. It was the knowledge that Dad had set this all up. “Am I…did you just choose me because my dad asked you to?”
Rosie’s face softened, and she was shaking her head before Elle finished the question. “No. Elle, it doesn’t work like that. Students are submitted, and we choose based on their profiles. You have good grades, good standing with GJC, and it’s clear you work hard. Lots of Readers crumble under the pressure that’s been building in their lives – both the ordinary kind of chaos we all face to some extent and the special level of intensity that Reading brings. You haven’t. You’re a remarkable woman, Elle.”
No, she wasn’t. She was a girl whose recent victories included eating a bowl of cereal and carrying on a complete conversation with her mother.
But Rosie sure sounded convincing.
“What do I need to do next if I want to join?”
THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH!
CHAPTERS 11-14 will be available in July!
The Kindle Cover Contest (see my Instagram for details) is an exciting opportunity for illustrators/artists looking to get their name out there! Sooo, if you know anyone...you should send them my way!