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CHAPTER 9
MIDNIGHT EMAILS

“HE JUST SHOWED UP?” Ericka gaped, almost crashing into an older woman as they rounded the aisle’s end. Elle grabbed the cart and steadied it with a nervous smile at the other customer, whose Reading was far from pleasant. 

“Yeah,” Elle sighed. Their list was reasonably short, but, as usual with high school supply lists, it was unnecessarily specific; they were currently scouring the store for a lavender notebook for Ericka. The ones they’d found so far were “too close to royal tones”, in Ericka’s estimation. “They literally had to escort him away.”

Ericka groaned and buried her face in her hands. “That’s so embarrassing, dude. I would have just died right there. Just…that’s it. The end.” 

“He was so upbeat, too,” Elle said. “Like he used to be, remember?”

“Nah, I just remember the vomit and the medical bills,” Ericka shrugged. “The rest I block out.” Elle frowned at her sister’s cynicism, then Read that she was joking before Ericka said, “Of course I remember, I’m not an infant. But how did he even think it was okay to be there? Was he…” she mimed a bottle’s contents sliding down her throat.

Elle shook her head. “He was totally fine.” She didn’t mention the smudged Reading because she’d looked it up and found that alcohol didn’t affect Readings. It changed your mind, when you drank enough; it changed what you did and how you saw the world. But Elle couldn’t find anything about smudges. “But that part was kind of weird on its own, because when was the last time we saw him totally fine?”

“Like, forever ago,” Ericka agreed solemnly. “He hasn’t been totally fine in a long time. I figured he’d be worse without Mom.”

“Maybe they’re better off without each other,” Elle muttered. Ericka looked up at her with big, hurt, naïve little sister eyes.

“I don’t think that’s true. They love each other, right? Still, deep down?”

“Eri, don’t ask me to figure out love and stuff,” Elle groaned. “Readings just make that stuff a million times harder to understand.” Ericka hung her head, and Elle wished immediately she hadn’t been so harsh. “They at least…liked each other a little,” she tried. “Back before everything. I remember their Readings. Dad thought Mom was gorgeous, that she could do no wrong, some days. And that day Dad fell off the roof cleaning the leaves? Mom’s Reading was super cringy. She definitely liked him then. So they at least liked each other, I guess.”

“Well, when does that change to love?” Ericka demanded. “Because I bet whatever it is that changes you from like to love, they still have it. Does love start, like, when you want to kiss someone, or like you just think they’re cute? Or what is it?”

“Look, lavender!” Elle interrupted. 

Ericka turned, excited, then her shoulders dropped. “Dude, that’s duct tape.”

“You can use it to cover up a notebook. That’s easy enough.” Elle dumped the tape in the basket. “Now, are you going to keep asking dumb questions about love, or do you want to hear what Dad told me when he came to the cafeteria?”

“He came there to say something?” Ericka asked, horrified. “What, does he have, like, a secret family or something? Is he remarried?” Her voice dropped. “Does he have cancer?”

“Nope,” Elle replied. “Wow. You think I’d keep it a secret from Mom if Dad had cancer?”

“Well, you really haven’t liked her the last couple months,” Ericka shrugged. “I thought maybe you might.”

Elle frowned. She hadn’t meant for Ericka to notice how Elle felt about Mom. “I wouldn’t keep something like that from her,” Elle said shortly. “It wasn’t a big deal, anyway. He just told me about this internship thing.”

“So he’s still working at a school somewhere?” Ericka gaped.

“No! You’re so bad at guessing,” Elle said, grinning despite herself. “He totally doesn’t have a job. Or, if he does, it’s like, under a fake name or something.”

“He looks like he could be a Rick,” Ericka nodded. “Or, like…Orville, or something.”

“Orville…the popcorn guy?”

“Sure. Do we need popcorn?”

“Probably. Do you want to hear about the internship?”

“Oh, there’s more?” Ericka checked the list. “We need glue or something next.”

“It’s in Boston,” Elle said, letting the words sound dramatic as they fell.

“Glue is?” Ericka asked, eyes still on her phone.

“No! The internship. That Dad wanted me to do.”

At last, it seemed to hit Ericka. She looked up at Elle in surprise. “Whoa. Like, actual Boston, or is there a Boston, Texas?”

 

Elle shook her head. “Real Boston. With the cold and the city and the up North and everything.”

“How do they even get to do that? Isn’t Boston in lockdown?”

“I don’t know.” Elle hadn’t thought of that.

“Well, are you going?”

Ericka seemed to mean the question. Like it was a possibility she thought might actually happen.

“Of course not,” Elle said, shaking her head. “I have to finish school.”

“But you’d still be doing school. Right? That’s how internships work?”

“Not really. I mean, yes, that’s how internships work, but this would still put me behind. It just counts as three credits. That would leave me at least nine behind my current schedule.”

“...but you’re already fifteen ahead, thanks to high school, soooo….”

“I wouldn’t be able to come back home for four months,” Elle reminded her. She had forgotten her high school credits. They would fade into the background once she got to an actual university, but at a community college, they definitely counted. 

Ericka shrugged. “Mom’s a grownup. She can figure it out. And I’m getting there. I can already do the dishes like a pro, and Mom’s buying a guy to do her taxes, so we’ve got all the adulting stuff covered.”

“Mom’s buying a guy?”

Ericka nodded, then lowered her voice. “It’s a guy from a dating app.”

“Who?”

“The guy who Mom bought.” Ericka made an obvious sweep of the grocery store around them, as if dating app guys were known to frequent Tap’s Grocery (which Elle seriously doubted). “His bodybuilding business isn’t doing so good, so he’s doing people’s taxes on the side. She didn’t really buy him,” Ericka added, her voice rising back to its normal levels. “She’s just paying him to help her out with money stuff.”

“There is no way that’s going to end well,” Elle sighed. 

 

Boston swirled in Ericka’s Reading, confusing and new. It followed them around the store, and it distracted Elle so much that she didn’t remember to check the dates and the seals on the grocery items they picked up.

The cheese was bad. It wasn’t supposed to go bad until December, but moldy milk-smell filled the kitchen and Elle didn’t notice (boston boston boston rattled in her head, egged on by Ericka’s chaotic Readings) until she’d mixed it into the casserole. “Do we need to take the trash out?” Ericka asked when she came downstairs, which made Elle realize it hadn’t all been in her head, and there really was a horrible smell.

Not that anyone would care – especially not Mom or Anne – but Elle was glad the cheese was actually rotten. She had a legitimate excuse not to eat. Ericka went out with friends for a pizza with some of the emergency money Mom always left. Elle curled in her bed and let the hunger pull her to sleep.

But sleep didn’t cooperate. Boston, her stupid brain said. Boston and door and go.

“Don’t make life decisions at midnight,” she muttered to herself. Her stomach growled in response, and Elle grabbed her sides as a wave of nausea shuddered through. She could smell the cheese on her fingernails.

This was stupid. She picked up her phone and punched in the name – Grumbly Muffin Studios. An animation company that did commercials. It looked like they were branding for pandemic customers, which made sense; cartoons didn’t have to deal with social distancing protocol. Elle knew nothing about animation. She knew even less about marketing. She flipped through their website, watched a couple videos, and decided they were pretty mediocre. Much better than anything she’d seen come out of GJC before. Dad would know that she had no idea about animation, of course, and unless he’d completely fabricated a resume, Grumbly Muffin Studios had to know, too. And they’d still agreed to let her on. 

A name caught her eye. Rosie Pollin. It was the name on the card Dad had given her, which Elle had stared at a little too long before shoving it back in the folder – for someone who wasn’t going to Boston, anyway.

Rosie’s name was on a list of community college internship coordinators who had worked with Grumbly Muffin Studios before. They were all in-state. GJC was close to the top, followed by a few Elle knew, but mostly names she didn’t. She was sure no one outside of the Greenville area had heard of GJC. They were far too tiny to attract attention. It was surprising to see her community college on this list at all.

There was the email. What time was it in Boston? She checked. 1 AM. They were an hour ahead. She wasn’t sure if Ms. Pollin would be in Boston or Texas. Either way, it was too late to expect a response.

Surely Ms. Pollin had her emails muted for the night. It wouldn’t hurt to send her a quick question and get a response back in the morning. Elle held the phone up as she lay in bed, squinting to see if she could get service. It was just one email. It wouldn’t take much.

And if she woke up the next morning and regretted it all, Elle just wouldn’t follow up.

She hit send.

The phone buzzed.

So good to hear from you, Elle! The message read. Your dad has said great things about you. Would tomorrow be a good day to meet and discuss things in more detail?

1:07 AM in Boston. Rosie must be a very light sleeper.

THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH!

CHAPTERS 7-10 will be available in June!

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