IT STARTED WITH A FARMERS MARKET. At the beginning of the year, Mom told Ericka that she couldn't make her high school cheer competition because she was taking some of her homemade sauerkraut to the farmers market. Ericka texted Elle, crying, and Elle called her mother to find out that the farmers market had gone very well, and Mom had signed up for it before she realized it conflicted with Ericka’s schedule. “I'll do better next time,” Mom said.


 By May, she had signed a lease for a restaurant space downtown. Relish opened in June. Mom had her goods in local grocery stores, available for delivery, and she’d even taken out a fifteen second ad on a local news station. Since then, she had missed four more cheer competitions, three senior night activities, canceled the family vacation, and asked Ericka to go on prospective college tours by herself. Elle had heard about all of this from calls to her dorm room  at GJC, but she couldn't do anything about it, except for the few weeks that she was home visiting. And even then, she had summer classes, so on nights like the night she met Ollie Blaese, Elle would lock herself firmly in her room and pretend she was back in the dorms so she could complete her online quiz.


Before her Reading had been diagnosed, Elle took quizzes in person and Read the answers in everyone's minds. She'd still get several wrong— nobody’s mind was infallible, especially not those in the back, where Elle usually chose to sit – but it was easier to answer with everyone's voices scribbled around her than to stare at the screen in silence, alone. 


She didn't have time to overthink it. Elle answered the questions (business questions, since business seemed like a good degree to get you anywhere but Sorsbury) and closed her laptop before the grades could ruin her night further. She stared at her desk, frustration threatening to take over again. Footsteps thumped in the kitchen against the hollow wood floor: Ericka heating up the casserole Elle made earlier that day, shaking the whole house. 


“It was really good,”  Ericka said when Elle came down. “Did you get the fancy sauce?”


“I made the fancy sauce,”  Elle replied. 


The thing about Ericka – the good thing about Ericka, not the annoying little sister habits about Ericka – the best thing about Ericka was her brightness. When Elle Read Ericka, it wasn't the dark sort of scrawl that filled most people's minds. Ericka's mind was light, filled with the best thoughts of the people around her, the cheesiest of hopes for herself, and the most sincere view of the world, all tied up within the delicate images floating in her head. Of course Ericka got mad; everyone did, but the thing about Ericka was that she found ways around the darkness that other people didn't. Sometimes, that made Elle mad. Other times, it made her feel like her little sister was the only one in the universe she could stand to be around. 


“Was it too spicy?”


Ericka smacked her lips. “I had to guzzle about two cups of milk, but I survived.”


Elle sat down at the kitchen table and noticed for the first time all the papers sprawled all over the surface. She Read the answer in Ericka's mind before Ericka could explain that it was her physics packet that was due the first day of school, and she'd fallen a little bit behind her own self-set work schedule, but she was picking it back up, it was just difficult to keep herself on schedule when none of her friends were in this class this year.


“Did you ask Mom to help?”  Elle asked.


“It's fine.”  Ericka kept her eyes on her phone, which had magically appeared from her pocket. Elle could see in both her Reading and in Ericka's oversized glasses that she was looking at nothing, just an excuse not to meet Elle’s gaze. “I can do it by myself.”


“You shouldn't have to,”  Elle muttered, before she could stop herself. “ Dad…”


“Fell off the Christmas float, so there's no use bringing him up,”  Ericka said, jumping off her seat and swinging her backpack to her shoulder. “I think I'll go work upstairs.”


“I can help…”


“I don't need help,”  Ericka said, louder than she needed to in their little kitchen. She picked up her work from the table in a messy pile and dragged it all with her up the steps, reverberations echoing through the house, and then Elle was left in a silent kitchen with a casserole that had barely been touched.


She frowned at it. How long had Ericka left it sitting out? And had she licked the fork?


Stupid questions. Elle had made the casserole; didn't that make it safe?


No. No it did not. She should have learned this lesson the first week she noticed the Afterthoughts. 


The dark thoughts, the second-guessing, the tightness in her throat some days that arbitrarily refused to allow her to eat –  it was something that has quickly become part of her everyday life. And, from what she could find on the internet, Elle was pretty sure it wasn't a Reader thing. It was just an Elle thing. 


And today was a bad day. Today, Elle was Afterthought Central. They were everywhere, connecting tissue that tied Elle back to Dark Places, Hidden Shadows, Dangers that Weren't Relevant to Ordinary People. Afterthoughts pulled her fingers back from the fork like invisible strings, whispering about what could be wrong with the casserole. It could have gone bad. It could have already been bad, and maybe you didn't notice. Someone could have cleaned the counters and accidentally sprayed cleaner in the casserole dish. The Afterthoughts were ridiculous and they were everything and they were everywhere and they were nothing.  Elle’s stomach turned, predictably, from hunger to nausea.


She stood and carefully slid the plastic wrap back over the casserole’s face. It would go back in the fridge, like good casseroles should. 


Ericka had left a pencil on the table. Elle watched it as she took the casserole to its place behind the milk and the salad, weighing her options. She could take the pencil upstairs to Ericka, so Elle had the chance to apologize. Or she could leave it down here and wait, hoping her sister would venture down sheepishly and ask if Elle wanted to help her with physics. 


But the Afterthoughts were too strong for Elle to stay in the kitchen. Every surface seemed tainted somehow by a thousand unlikely possibilities. When putting up the casserole, she had to open the fridge, and a slight stickiness on the handle sent her spiraling. Leftover residue from someone touching the door with raw chicken on their hands? Dried, congealed milk? Some hidden danger Elle couldn’t even imagine….


She set the casserole in its place and let the fridge door swing shut on its own. Her feet carried her to the sink before she knew she was there. She washed her hands once. Okay, it wasn’t right that time. Some of the sink water could have splashed up onto her hands and now they were worse than when they started. One more time. The drain was clogged; cloudy water began pooling in the sink’s basin, splashing and swirling with day-old food bits and silverware that wouldn’t fit in the dishwasher. She washed in the hot water until her hands burned and the cracked skin around her wrists began to sting again. 


More irritated than anything, she forced herself to stop and gave up on any kind of dinner for the night. She went to bed hungry, staring at the ceiling that shifted shadows every time a car drove by the quiet street. 


If Mom would just pay attention to you, I think I would be okay.   


When the Afterthoughts got bad, Elle found herself retreating into imaginary conversations, saying the things it was easier to avoid in person. 


If Mom would just pay a little more attention to you I think I'd be okay, she repeated in her mind to Ericka. It's just something with her, alone, and me getting to have Dad be a part of my life – even though he's ruined the past few months, he spent time with me while I was in high school that she's not spending with you. I know what he did, and I know it was wrong, and believe me, I'm not forgiving him anytime soon – but before that he was actually a pretty awesome dad. 


I just know that I have to go back to college eventually, like in just a couple weeks, and that really sucks. Thinking of just leaving you in this house sucks. This house... Okay, the house is fine, but the floors suck. They're so loud, which makes them so quiet when no one's here, and she's never here. She's always going to choose herself.


 I just don't want to leave you, too.

 The Afterthoughts waited for her when she closed her eyes (You drank water before bed. Are you sure there is nothing in it that could hurt you? What about your toothbrush? Can you be sure?), so Elle stayed up, staring at the window where normal people were living their normal lives until early into the next morning.