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CHAPTER 3
READ RIGHT THROUGH YOU

“ISN’T TODAY YOUR COUNSELING DAY?” Ericka asked as she entered the kitchen the next day. She'd caught Elle in the middle of attempting breakfast; four pieces of buttered toast had already hit the bottom of the trash can as the Afterthoughts took over. “Also, it’s almost one. You totally slept in.”

 

Elle set down her knife and tried to find her bearings between the stretching what-ifs and Ericka’s bubbling Reading. She hadn’t slept in. She hadn’t slept at all. Ericka didn’t know that.

 

“Counseling?”

 

“The thing you do,”  Ericka reminded her, grabbing her own piece of toast and popping it into the toaster oven without so much as washing her hands. “The thing the government makes you do. The video therapy...the journal stuff?”

 

“Oh, Anne,”  Elle nodded. 

 

“Yeah,”  Ericka said. “Isn't that today?”

 

She was right. It was. Elle gave up on breakfast, grabbed a cup of water, and returned to her room upstairs to prepare (or not) for what was coming.

 

When they were discovered, Readers, it was a surprise to them (Readers) that not everyone could Read. Most Readers just thought no one talked about the images floating through the air during face-to-face conversations. It explained how they knew when to speak and when to be silent; it explained how some people just knew exactly what you needed to hear. Readers just thought that they were better at choosing the right things to say than the others. They didn't realize they had a legitimate, almost supernatural advantage. 

 

A year of isolation (and some political scandal Elle didn’t really understand) led to worldwide recognition that mind-Readers existed and that they were nothing like the movies. The whole “images” thing was new; past understanding of mind-Readers had limited itself to word for word telepathy or similar invasion of personal privacy. 

 

Reading didn't feel like that; it was just part of the natural world, part of body language, even, no more invasive than seeing how many times someone blinked when they spoke to you. 

 

But not everyone felt that way. 

 

Once Reading had been definitively proven as something that existed, it became something that needed to be regulated. By the tail end of the global quarantine, Readers in America were required to be registered and receive monthly counseling. It was marketed as something that was “good for them”  and “a way to help Readers develop safely”,  but most Readers had already figured out how to live with their powers by the time the world found out. Speculation that it was a government scheme to mark the Readers and get data to exterminate them was largely mocked. But nobody really believed it was for the Readers’ well-being, either. 

 

Malicious or not, nobody really had a choice in the matter. The Readers complied. Those who didn't – well, Elle hadn't heard about anyone who didn't. This was her eighteenth month. Her assigned counselor’s name was Anne, and she was a college grad student near the end of her second to last semester, working with a counseling center for her practicum.

 

Anne did not find the Afterthoughts interesting. “Did you try our anxiety-reducing exercises?” she asked, like she was supposed to, flipping through the notes in her bullet journal. Elle felt her face prickle. Anne made her feel like everything she did was quantifiable, understandable, and manageable. Maybe that was the way counselors were supposed to make you feel, or maybe Anne was just bad at her job.

 

The food stuff was common; she knew it was. Plenty of people her age had some kind of anxiety caused by a life transition, and Elle could nail down what caused her issues to the day. But that didn’t make it easier when her Afterthoughts took over, almost like her own personal Readings, whispering what was wrong, why she couldn’t be like everyone else. They didn’t feel quantifiable. They felt like they were winning.

 

Anne, to the best of Elle’s understanding, only cared about the Readings. Elle didn't really blame her. It wasn't like Anne herself ever ran the risk of being Read by Elle; counselors were chosen from across the country, and if they ever did meet their patients on accident, they were immediately reassigned. Hearing Elle describe the Readings, having her draw out their forms as best she could remember, talking about what they really meant – that got Anne out of that ever-present bullet journal and back into the conversation.

 

“I haven’t eaten since lunch,” Elle said. She really felt like talking about the Afterthoughts today. Maybe just getting it all out and hearing how dumb she sounded would help her break the cycle and get back to normal.

 

“It’s only four-thirty,” Anne said. “Are you hungry?”

 

“I meant lunch yesterday,” Elle corrected.

 

Anne’s eyes flicked down to the bullet journal. “Are you hungry?” she repeated.

 

Elle didn’t feel like Anne deserved to hear about it, the aching that wasn’t quite hunger, but certainly wasn’t contentment. The Afterthoughts’ results, scribbled in her stomach like an inky promise. “No,” she lied.

 

“Maybe try to eat something you really enjoy,” Anne suggested. “If you’re hungry for a while, it can feel like you’re nauseous when really that’s your body telling you that you need to eat. Eating something you really like might be able to help with that.”

 

“But the Afterthoughts….”

 

“We’ve already talked about them. Remember? You just need to face them and see that they aren’t true at all. You’re safe. Nothing you eat is going to hurt you.” Anne’s glasses flashed. She’d opened up her social media on her browser, next to the video call. This boring client won’t shut up about her dumb paranoia, Elle imagined her typing. Maybe she would add a screenshot of Elle looking frazzled to the post, to boost it in the algorithm.

 

Of course, Anne wouldn’t do that. She wasn’t a good counselor, but it’s not like she would ignore the one thing everyone expected of her: patient confidentiality.

 

“I used Reading again to try and find my mom a date,” Elle said, just to see if Anne would pay attention. Right on cue, her eyes snapped away from the social media and back to Elle.

 

“Again? We haven’t talked about this before.”

 

Elle shrugged. “I didn’t think it was relevant.”

 

Anne’s pen clicked irritably, and Elle felt a quick moment of satisfaction. “I think it’s relevant.” Anne wasn’t amused. “Your father has only been gone since January, right?”

 

“March.” He didn’t leave until Mom forced him out, and it took her a long time to do that. Elle hadn’t been there. Ericka had faced it by herself. 

 

Ericka faced a lot by herself now that both Mom and Dad were gone. “I made PB&Js three nights in a row and didn’t even get tired of them,” Ericka had told her proudly the first week of summer. It made Elle’s stomach sick to think of Mom spending all day cooking and serving total strangers only to come home too late and ignore her hungry younger daughter. “It’s easier to find guys her age when I’m home,” Elle decided to say. “Instead of at GJC, I mean. The only guys there old enough to date my mom are either professors or non-traditional students.”

 

“Do you have a problem with non-traditional students?” Anne asked, with an edge to her voice that made Elle think her counselor might hide her age behind a filter on their calls. 

 

“No,” Elle said quickly. “They just don’t have very much money.”

 

“And why… oh.” 

 

Elle watched the pieces click into place, feeling slightly satisfied that someone else knew at last. “If someone else is paying the bills, maybe Mom won’t work so hard.” 

 

And maybe I won’t lose my little sister because Mom pushed her away. Maybe Ericka will stay. 

 

“And maybe you’ll get to leave and start all over.”

 

“What?” Elle snorted. Anne, as usual, wasn’t paying attention. “That’s totally not the point of it at all. I’m not doing this for me! Ericka needs a dad. She needs parents who care about her. That’s it.”

 

Anne was off her socials now. She didn’t look convinced.

 

The call ended exactly at the fifty-minute mark, just like every call before and every call after. This time, Elle stared at her own reflection in the darkened laptop screen for a little too long, until the front door creaked open and Mom’s humming filled the background of her thoughts like an inescapable whining. 

 

She was supposed to keep the journal every month and discuss it with Anne, but after four months in a row of failed efforts, Anne stopped asking about the journals (maybe to preserve a little of Elle’s dignity). But tonight, Elle took out the little green notebook with a grand total of three entries for the past year and a half. She chose a pencil, then put it back and got a pen. 

 

She didn’t write any words. She just let the pen tip fall on the paper.

 

She tried to draw what her Reading would look like, if she could have one.

 

When she was done, Elle watched the page, as if it would move, float into the air, become a real Reading. But it stayed stagnant. False.

 

She put the date in the corner anyway and tucked the journal back into its place on the bookshelf, where it would probably stay for another year and a half or two.

Thank you for reading!

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