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CHAPTER 7
BLURRED LINES

ELLE DUMPED PEACH TEA POWDER into her water bottle and gave it a good shake. The lid betrayed her and spurted half-mixed juice all over her knuckles. Great. Nobody noticed because she was in the cafeteria and everyone had their own problems, and she was sitting alone, so she grabbed the napkins in front of her and started dabbing at the bottle. 

 

A commotion erupted at the cafeteria entrance. “I really don’t think you’re allowed in, sir!” one of the ladies who checks IDs yelped.

“I’ll pay the ten bucks, it’s fine!” someone growled back.

The voice was familiar. So was the Reading.

Elle’s stomach dropped, but there was nowhere to run, nothing to do but stare at her water bottle and hope she was wrong until a pair of dusty dress shoes came to a halt at her table.

“Is this seat taken?” her father asked.

Mr. Coker’s presence itself, if it were anywhere but here in this cafeteria, wouldn’t be much cause for upheaval. He was an ordinary-looking middle-aged white man with brown hair that was starting to thin in twin burrows at the corners of his forehead. His eyes betrayed a smile that many found charming even with the majority of his face hidden behind a disposable blue mask, and he always kept his face clean-shaven. 

But in this cafeteria, he might as well have a red plastic nose and polka-dot suspenders. And a big sign pointing to Elle that said “I’m with stupid”.

“What are you doing here?” seemed like the right question to ask, but Elle hissed it under her breath anyway, in a vain attempt to keep from getting anyone else’s attention. Of course it didn’t do any good; everyone was already craning their necks to see the ridiculous ex-president and his loser daughter. 

“You blocked my calls,” he replied, grabbing a curly fry off her plate, dropping his mask to his chin, and chewing thoughtfully. “Did you know I was the one to get these introduced to the menu?”

“Dad. Please.” She couldn’t decide whether storming away or staying would be more humiliating. The fact that she could see no easy way out kept her frozen to her seat.

“Seriously, Elle. It’s not a big deal. No one even recognizes me except for that crazy lunch lady, anyway.”

‘That Crazy Lunch Lady’ was on the phone with someone (presumably campus security), talking in a loud and obviously angry chatter that was too fast for Elle to catch in her current state. She could pick up the Reading, though. That Crazy Lunch Lady wanted Dad out. “Just say what you want to say and get out of here,” Elle told him. She knew Dad. He wasn’t going to leave until he got what he wanted.

 

He smiled in that old, charming way that used to make Elle feel like the most special daughter in the world. “There we go. Now, I know better than to ask for forgiveness…”

“Please don’t…”

“I know what I did was wrong. Honestly, when I think back…” his brow furrowed. “It doesn’t even feel like something I did. You know?”

 

Sleepless nights wondering if he would come home. Learning what to do if blood began pouring from his face. Fighting the insurance company over medical bills that piled over their heads until it felt like there was no escape.

It wasn’t like anyone else had been doing it.

Her glare sobered him. “Here.” He plopped a folder on the table. “This is the paperwork.”

“Paperwork for what?” She didn’t look at it. She didn’t look at him. She stared at her stupid peach tea and tried to ignore that her voice wavered.

“Haven’t you Read that part already?” he asked quietly. He sounded so much like the Dad who used to brush her hair back from a feverish forehead, give her a high five for good grades, take her to see the latest movies and stay up past her bedtime analyzing the plots. It made Elle’s stomach twist so sharply it was hard to breathe.

He was waiting for an answer. “It’s so crowded in here,” Elle whispered, but she’d been really trying to avoid Reading him. She had no interest in what her father was thinking, especially as he watched her closely with a face that looked so like Elle’s own.

 

A face Elle had last seen on the news as they replayed last year’s drunken topple from the GJC Christmas parade float as a remix set to dance music. 

The week after her father’s fall, termination, and the collapse of their family, Elle had gotten sick. Very sick. She didn’t remember much, just the panic as food clogged her throat in its haste to leave her body, half-digested pieces of Mom’s lackluster cooking chafing her throat raw. The horrible clenching of her stomach coming up with nothing but acid burned Elle’s throat and caused an infection that almost sent her to the hospital for tonsillitis. Ericka helped keep Elle’s hair back. Mom didn’t.

Dad was gone. He came back after New Year’s, promised to be better, and continued to drink himself to the brink of death until Mom finally snapped.

Now, Elle tried Reading, even though she didn’t want to (she never wanted to). Even though she’d tried to convince herself for the last six months that there was nothing in Dad’s mind that would ever make her forgive him.

And for a moment, it seemed like there was nothing in Dad’s mind at all. The Reading was so smudged and disjointed that Elle couldn’t break through it. Was this the effect of alcohol on Readings? She wondered with a sudden jolt if he was drunk right now. But he seemed coherent and pretty normal, on the surface. Sitting across from her, he looked just like normal Dad – minus the wedding ring. Inside, though, his Reading bled and blurred in ways Elle had never experienced. She pushed through the fog and found a straggling bunch of Readable images.

“All I see is a door,” she said. Her voice wasn’t shaking any more, but she kept it quiet anyway, to mask any betrayal of the emotions she was fighting to hide. The smudged Reading just reminded her how much she missed her real father, and how far away he really was.

Dad’s face broke into the old genuine grin. “It’s so interesting, every time. I never really know what my own thoughts look like until you see them. But that’s exactly what it is. It is a door. For you.” He gestured to the cafeteria. “Out of this.”

She pulled the folder apart to see what looked like HR papers.

“It’s an internship,” Dad echoed his Reading, words and images bouncing around almost as nervously as he was. He had one eye on the cafeteria workers, who were gathering in an angry, humming mass in the corner. “This semester. Through the college, so you get credit.”

 

“I wouldn’t be taking any other classes,” Elle read, running her finger down the first page. Grumbly Muffin Studios. “Dad, what kind of internship is this?” 

“One that needs a Reader,” he smiled. “And one that’s in Boston.”

Elle’s mind buzzed. “Boston?”

A man in a uniform arrived, his hand on a holstered radio, and Dad bolted up from his seat, haphazardly readjusting his mask over his nose. “You’re already in,” he told her, nodding to the folder. “I met up with an old friend about a week ago who did me a favor. You don’t have to. I just thought…” he shrugged, then glanced at the man in the uniform. “Hey, Emile! It’s Greg!”

 

“I know who you are,” Emile grunted. “Come on, Greg. You shouldn’t be here.”

Dad pouted. “A man gets drunk one time on national television….”

“Bye,” Elle said quickly, bolting up before Emile could retort.

It was only after she escaped the cafeteria and was hurrying toward the dorms that Elle realized she had taken the folder with her.

 

 

 

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