I sit, swirling my straw around in my drink as I stare down the bar. He's making the pretense of going to the bathroom, but I could tell from the moment we walked in here that he was off. I brushed it off initially because I wasn't quite ready to see what was so plainly in front of me, but now there isn't really a way to get away from it. She's staring me right in the face.
Tall, red hair, tight jeans, and a cherry red pout. She's a few seats down from me, and she's been watching Todd since we walked in together, hours ago. Now, they're talking in what I assume are hushed, amorous tones. The room is crowded enough and I've drank enough that they think I don't notice the way they're leaned in close enough that he can probably feel her heart beating through her artfully ripped band t-shirt.
I don't miss much, though.
I've been with Todd for a while now. Three months, seventeen days. It's not a record for me, but it does come close to the top of the list, length-wise. So, I've always known about her, just as I've always known that he's not over her. Todd's never told me about her, of course. He didn't ever need to. She's written all over his mind. She's in the way he talks about loving me, the cute nicknames he calls me, the dirty shit he whispers into my neck when we fuck. He loves her, and he didn't expect to see her again, not so soon. Not like this. I pretend that I haven't noticed them as he glances at me.
Lips finding my straw, I take a bracing sip.
I've never truly met her before, but she's relatively simple. No tricks, no skeletons, nothing. A young girl, fresh out of a study abroad in some European country. She was the one who broke it off. She wanted to experience the world without limitations, but evidently she never stopped loving him. In a way, I'm glad she isn't complicated. When I look at her, I see a tidy little apartment overlooking a city scape. The walls are beige, but they're dotted with sponge-painting and tacked up pictures of family and friends. Someone whose personal relationships greatly define her own self, then. I look to her bed, and the sheets are incredibly rumpled – looks like someone had fun abroad – but he's there. Todd's mark is unmistakably present.
I should say, I'm not just being purple here. I can actually see her whole little life laid out before my eyes. And that's why I can't hate her for how much Todd loves her. She's really a good kid.
Maybe I shouldn't even be blaming Todd. After all, I could see her in him this entire time. I just elected to ignore it. Though, in my defense, I didn't think she'd ever reappear. He certainly didn't seem to think so.
And yet, here I sit. My drink is finished, somehow, so I flag the bartender down and ask her for another. I let her see my baleful gaze, and she follows it to Todd and his redhead, who is now giggling as he tickles her sides. God, he's drunk. The bartender rolls her eyes for my benefit and fills my cup to the brim with fruity cocktail.
Ignoring the straw, I take a gulp from the rim. Some of it sloshes onto my cheeks, so I drag the back of my hand over my mouth, smearing my lipstick a little. I run my fingers through my hair, a dishwater blonde that can't make up its mind whether it wants to be gray or brown. Whatever. I'm still determined to have a good time tonight, and it isn't like I haven't been scorned from every possible angle already.
I wobble away from my barstool and towards the happy couple. "Todd!" I crow, scaring the shit out of him. The flash of terror I see in his eyes is rewarding. "Who's your little girlfriend?"
"Oh, hey, uh, Marnie!" he replies, regaining enough of his composure to keep from actually pissing himself in public. For once, he does not refer to me as "lady". That's her nickname. "Sorry, I just ran into someone I never thought I'd see here in a million years!" He gestures good-naturedly to the girl, "This is my old friend Angie."
I smile widely. Probably a bit too widely, but I've never really been able to control my facial features drunk. "Angie, it's a pleasure," I croon, "You have beautiful hair!"
The girl smiles a big, friendly smile, eyes electric. "Thank you so much, but yours is so much longer and wavier and nicer! What do you use?"
"Shampoo!" My top lip curls up a little. Dammit, she really is just a nice person. And I can see that she has no idea who I am. Todd has failed to mention a very crucial piece of information. I know exactly what to do.
"I just wanted to let you know I'm heading out, Todd, but it was good seeing you!"
Quickly, my eyes lock with Todd's. For him, it happens in an instant, but for me, time begins to feel liquid as I delve into his mind. Everything looks familiar to me, all cluttered shelves and soft light. Todd really is a sweet guy. I quickly locate the silver locket on the bed. In everyone's mind, I'm always a locket. The placement of it makes it fairly evident what I mean to him – twined around an embellishment on the headboard, dangling down but not quite touching the pillow. It slips through my hands and into my own mind room, removing it from his forever. The emotions and memories of myself from his perspective rush into me at once, and I can feel the tips of my fingers and toes tingle.
I blink sharply, like the shutter of a camera, our trance broken. I'm certain he didn't even feel me do it.
Then, blowing a kiss, I sashay away. I'm almost to the stairs when I realize I forgot to finish my drink, but I'm committed to this exit being as dramatic as possible, so I mount the steps heavily, and soon I'm breathing in the night air.
Inhale. "Fuck." Exhale.
I duck into the bar across the street. This one's loud, incredibly so, but that's what I want, and it won't matter how many people invade my personal space now that I'm good and drunk. I assimilate into the crowd, dancing and wiggling through people in an effort to get to the bar, where I promptly get a vodka-cranberry. After that's about halfway gone, I work my way back into the crowd to try and make the seeing stop.
When you have Sight, can be hard to stop seeing. I can do it, usually, but when I'm plastered, it just sort of does its own thing. Like right now, being tired and sweaty and drunk in this room full of people is not a good environment for focusing Sight. I'm only getting impressions right now, though. It's kind of like, in addition to the auditory noise in the bar, there's also a good bit of cognitive noise that is currently making me pretty dizzy. Then again, drinking is probably doing that, too. If I were to focus, I could give you a laundry list of these people's deepest fears and desires, but I won't because I don't really give a shit about them. But I could.
They're called bloodlines – abilities you get because they're in your genes – and some people's aren't so functional. Like Todd's. His is one of the more common ones, the Sense bloodline. He can sense whatever people around him are feeling, collectively. Not individuals, but that just makes things simpler for him, easier to ignore. When I ambushed him and his little Angie, he couldn't tell that I wanted to tear his balls off. All he was feeling was the general good vibes from all the drunk people around us. Maybe less so due to my malice tainting it, but either way, it isn't a particularly useful bloodline to have.
Suddenly, I'm being spun around, and a short, stocky brunette is screaming in my face. "What did he do, girl?!"
Sweet, gentle Paige. Best of my friends. "I need another drink!" I yell back.
She is gone for a second while I keep dancing, but it isn't long before she comes back, a Long Island in each hand. "Bless you!" I yell again, taking a sloppy gulp from one.
"What did he do?!" Paige asks again, frantically drawing out the "ooo" on do for maximum sassiness.
"Remember how I told you he has a thing for redheads?"
"Nooooooo," she moans, mouth pressed to my cheek, arms draped around me. She's careful not to spill her drink, though. Girl has poise.
We stop talking because it's just too damn loud, but I'm cool with it. I'll tell her later. Besides, wow, I'm fucked up right now. I pre-gamed the first bar pretty hard, yeah, and I had Todd buy me, like, two cocktails before I left.
Regardless. Paige is my best friend, ever. We've known each other since college, and I love her so, so much. She's my forever girl, my roommate until the end of time. If I need anything, she usually knows about it before I even need to ask. Sometimes before I even know what I need. Her bloodline is a little tricky like that. She can predict stuff, but it's not like she can see things the way I can. If she can see the future, she hasn't told me about it. She just kind of knows what you need without having to be told. It's probably why she showed up when she did, without me having to tell her which bar to go to.
Eventually, they announce last call, we get our last drinks, and before we know it, we are being swept away with the crowd out of the bar as it closes for the night. We all spill onto the streets into the autumn night air, drunk as fuck and loud as shit, and amidst all the noise and chaos, Paige and I keep a tight grip on one another, both of us laughing as we are jostled around. Eventually, she pulls me from the throng and we walk, tired but for the moment happy, towards home.
The next morning finds me in the kitchen with a bowl of cereal, dressed in my robe and listening to a smooth jazz station on the radio. My hair is wet and done up in a towel from my morning shower, and I am absolutely a zombie. The price I pay for everything that happened last night, I guess. Paige always knows how to cheer me up, but she is also pretty good at getting me wrecked, too.
Speaking of, Paige shuffles in, her slippers making a swishing noise on the carpet of the living room portion of our apartment. It turns to a soft click when her feet hit linoleum as she passes the counter I'm sitting at, and she mumbles her "good morning" as she rifles through the cabinets for food. Once she manages to locate a bowl and the milk, she's right next to me, all questioning stares and comforting silence.
I take a bracing bite of my cereal. "I erased myself from Todd's mind last night."
"No," she moans softly, touching my wrist briefly, "What did he do?"
"Reconnected with the girl that he's been in love with since before he even met me," I reply, "You know, usually I see it coming when a relationship is gonna go south."
"You can't see everything, Mar," Paige reasons, not unkindly.
"Except I kind of can," I protest.
I lean back on my stool, taking in the soft glow of the early afternoon light playing across our white painted cabinets and Paige's array of plants that line the tops. Three months and seventeen days isn't a long time to be in a relationship, by normal standards, but then again, I sort of do them differently. I know what's going to disappoint me, going in. Todd had career aspirations, good education, refined manners, a kind heart, etcetera. His only faults were that he didn't brush his teeth at night and that he was in love with someone else. I gambled on whether or not he'd reconnect with that someone else, and I lost. Also, I shamed him daily about the tooth-brushing thing. It had almost worked. Maybe with another couple of weeks, but nope.
Knowing what's going to hurt you doesn't make it hurt less. It just makes you feel like more of an idiot for trying. It also kind of takes all the fun out of meeting people, trying to sort through all of the men I'm interested in, trying to figure out who is the "safest" choice. Paige tells me all the time about how she thinks a dude is the perfect guy until one day she realizes he went to jail for possession of child pornography, or works for a drug ring, or plays Dungeons and Dragons professionally. As someone who has never been particularly surprised by anyone, it seems kind of fun to have to take a chance. But I can't. I actually, physically can't. Sure, I could just not poke around in boys' heads. I really couldn't, though. I'm laced way too tightly for that.
Of course, it's not all bad. In fact, that's literally the only downside. I make a ton of money off of it, so much so that Paige and I haven't had to work a day in our lives. I just sit in our living room all day and wait for my phone or the doorbell to ring. I guess what I do is sort of like therapy in the sense that I'm helping people fix their problems. My Sight just makes it so much faster, and the fact that I can manipulate what I find inside their heads? Well, let's just say, you get what you pay for. I'll tell you what's wrong for cheap. If you want me to fix it for you, that costs extra. A lot extra. But, unsurprisingly, most are willing to pay. And so I am well-kept in fancy clothes and wine.
Today's Saturday, which means that I'm going to have at least one client come in. Monday through Friday I have the standard nine to five business hours for people who just want to be seen. But Saturday is when the ones who want to be changed come in. I don't know why, but that's just the way it works out. Maybe they think they'll need the weekend to shake side-effects, which they don't. Or maybe the weekend is all they have free, and they think it'll take a while to erase their memories. Guess what? It doesn't.
Some call ahead, some don't. What I do is technically legal, but it is, as we say in the business, incredibly shady. Seeing into people to help them sort their problems itself is generally considered okay. But then there's the whole issue of me poking around in their skulls and actually changing things. That's the part that gets a little gray. Seeing itself is pretty rare because it's the best bloodline you can have. I only know of a couple of families besides my own that can do it. Being able to manipulate what you see in people's heads, though, not even Mom can do that, and she's the best at seeing except for me. It's got to be in our family somewhere. Bloodline is determined by whoever your mom is, so somewhere along the line, I must've had a kickass lady relative.
Paige interrupts my train of thought with a light knock to the shoulder. "Cheer up, bud, at least we've got a full day of nothing to do!"
Literally, just as she gets done saying that, the doorbell rings. "Oh, my God, Paige." She had to have Sensed him. That joke was just too perfectly stupid.
She just giggles and flounces towards the hallway that leads to our bedrooms, making herself scarce for the benefit of whoever is my client today.
I snag my beaded shawl off of the coatrack next to the door and check my face in the mirror. Looking terrifying thanks to a night of binge drinking, the ghost of my eyeliner still smudged around my lashes. At least I look kind of eerie and mystical.
I swing the door open to greet a nervous-looking man in a suit. His mind is quiet, but it's the kind of unsettled quiet that precedes nervous mumbling. "Good morning," I drawl with a lazy smile, half leaning on the doorframe.
"Hello, are you Marnina?" he asks, hands fiddling in his pocket.
Probably in his mid-forties, if the salt and pepper at his temples is anything to go by. His tie clip looks expensive. "I am indeed. Please, come in."
He's got to be a referral. I get a certain, shall I say, type that come to me. They're all varying levels of middle age, consistently wealthy, and always eager to pay whatever I ask to make their extramarital problems go away. It comes with the territory of living in Easterburg, which is mainly populated by hipster yuppies and conservative, middle-aged businessmen.
Anyway, back to this guy in my living room. He walks in, taking in the décor with a shy smile. "You have a lovely home."
"Thank you, Charlie," I reply, sitting down on the loveseat in the living room portion of the apartment and motioning for him to sit with me, which he does after a short moment where he is shocked that I know his name without being told it. For some reason, they always are. Now that I'm sober, I'm much more efficient at managing the impressions he's giving off. Enough so that I've got a good bit of demographic information on him. "So, do you want to do any talking, or do you just want me to take a look?"
"Yes, about that," the man pauses, hands fisted in his lap. He's so nervous, God. I mean, I guess I can't blame him too much. "When you, er, see, can you see everything or just some things?"
I smile my warm, motherly smile, the one I developed specifically for dealing with nervous clients. "Charlie," I say, voice soft but firm, "Trust me when I say that I've well and truly seen it all. I assure you that I am a professional, and that I will keep your secrets if, in return, I have your discretion."
Charlie nods. "Right, sorry. Go on, then."
"I'm going to look now," I caution him.
I'm still aware of myself in my living room, but I can vary my focus on either place, like switching the hot and cold taps on a sink to different levels. Right now, I let the whole of myself pour into Charlie's mind room - the water completely hot. I've learned not to have any preconceived notions about people, so nothing surprises me anymore, least of all Charlie, who is the most curious mixture of proper and creepy. The red paint is peeling off of the wall in large chunks. Sconces on the walls hold candles that have been burned almost to the nub. A single writing desk is sitting in the center of the room, papers and folders stacked high on top of it, so high that they're taller than I am. His bed is a bedroll, crunched up in the corner and covered in cobwebs. Wow. Sucks.
I look around for a moment until I can find what I'm looking for. I'm looking for a marriage symbol, and it's definitely on the desk. With these guys, the wife always gets buried under the workload somehow. Lo and behold, his wedding ring is sitting underneath a paperweight. I look at it for a moment before carefully replacing it.
One final spin around the room and I catalogue the locations of several other key objects: a child's baby doll stuffed in a bottom drawer, a mirror lying broken next to a window that is boarded shut, and, of course, a flask hidden in the desk. And, obviously, there's what he came here for: an unclasped bra lying on the bedroll in the corner. This is something I always let myself have preconceived notions about.
I shut the tap off, or more accurately for the metaphor's sake, I let it run completely cold, allowing myself to come completely back to my living room. Charlie is looking at me expectantly. I have been gone for perhaps a whole minute, but I know for a client, that can be excruciatingly long when I am evaluating their entire life in one fell swoop.
"So, I'm assuming you want me to make the mistress go away. Correct?" I ask him, crossing my legs at the knee and clasping my hands.
"I would give anything to love my wife again," he asserts, hands balled into fists on his knees.
"Alright. So, make the other woman disappear, make the wife a priority. Anything you want me to do about the alcoholism?" I ask.
Charlie winces. I try to be as gentle as I can, but it's never really been my style to beat around the bush. "Oh, yeah. That, too. And, uh, did you see anything about my problems at work?"
I blink rapidly and shift my eyes upwards, recalling the broken mirror and the enormous stack of paperwork. "Yes."
"Alright, well, I'm willing to pay if you're willing to do it," he asks, reaching into his suit jacket's inner pocket and pulling out a leather-bound checkbook and a pen. "My friend, the one who referred me to you, gave me some kind of idea, but what am I looking at here?" Talking about business seems to have renewed his confidence. No doubt all the talk about feelings and his personal life was unfamiliar territory for him. Something tells me he might become a repeat customer.
"It's gonna be $200 for the initial look and $500 for everything I fix," I tell him, popping my knuckles idly. Talking money always makes me a little nervous.
Charlie pouts his bottom lip and lowers his eyebrows, giving me a short nod as he scribbles down the figures on a check. "Reasonable."
See. No need for nerves.
He tears it off before stopping short. "Who should I make it out to?"
"Don't worry; I'll fill that part out later," I reply quickly.
Charlie hesitates, I see it in his eyes, but he hands the check over anyway.
"Alright, this might pinch a bit," I joke. Charlie seems genuinely alarmed. "I was kidding." God, and I think I'm tight-laced.
I delve back in. I snatch the wedding ring from underneath the paperweight and place it gently on top of the pillow of the bedroll, removing the black lacy bra from the sheets. Jeez, these are some big cups in this bra. I'm a little impressed that Charlie managed to pull this girl, whoever she is. I stare at the bedroll grimly for a second. Can't really do anything about his sexual prowess, sadly, or I'd turn that dingy little thing into a four-poster bed, for his wife's sake. Girl deserves it.
Next, I turn to the mirror. I don't really feel like taking the time to piece the whole thing back together since it's shattered into approximately a million pieces, so instead I pick up as many pieces as will fit into the cups of the bra and carry them over to the desk. I shimmy the drawer open with some effort and dump the pieces inside. That'll be enough to get him by for now. Like I said, I'm anticipating him coming back, and besides, he really only asked me to deal with work-related problems. He probably doesn't even know how badly his ego is broken. I don't think I'm going to tell him, either. After all, it wouldn't be therapy if I did all the work for him.
I snatch the flask and shut the drawer. I weigh it in my hands, casting my gaze around the room as I think about where to put it. I'm not taking it with me, that's for sure. The people I take with me don't usually affect me as they aren't from my own memory, but I have no idea what this'll do. It's my policy never to bring addictions home.
I remember the drawer that held the doll that I saw earlier. Crossing the room, I crouch down and slide it open. Plunk. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say. My gaze shifts to the doll. It has yellow yarn hair and a pretty blue dress. I pick it up and hold it for a second, studying its button eyes intently and trying to imagine the type of girl that this would represent. Its little doll face has a frown stitched into it. Thinking better of it but totally doing it anyway, I take it out and prop it up on top of the chest of drawers.
There. That one's on the house.
I tune back in to the living room to collect my due praise from Charlie.
"So, Charlie, how do you feel?" I ask.
He looks confused, but then I see him remember why he came here in the first place, and the pieces click together. "I don't remember her!" he announces, "I don't know who she is, and I don't care! It worked. It really worked."
I just smile and nod at him. Obviously it worked, duh, but I don't rain on his parade. This is a big deal for him, even if it's old hat to me. He is babbling about how excited he is to go take his wife out to dinner as I wave him out.
"Alright, Paige!" I yell, sliding back into the loveseat and taking a second look at the check. Five hundred for the self-esteem, five hundred for the addiction, five hundred for the affair, five hundred for the marriage. Two hundred for the initial look. "Honey, we are getting drunk tonight. Again."
Paige comes out into the living room and flops down on the couch next to me. She looks at the check. "No kidding? Dope. So, how was he?"
"Same old, same old," I reply, flipping on the TV. It's tuned to a nature documentary about jellyfish. "Low self-esteem, loveless marriage. Estranged daughter was new, but what can I really do about that? God, what I wouldn't give for a little variation once in a while."
Paige shrugs, fixated on the screen. "I mean, you can't really complain, can you?"
I look back down at the check and smirk. "Sure can't."
"So, anyway, how are your, you know, feelings?" Paige asks.
"About Todd?" I clarify glumly, knowing full well she's asking me about Todd. "God, three months and seventeen days. It's enough to make a girl think that it might just work out."
"You disengaged from that situation pretty quickly there, bud," Paige remarks, referencing the way I drunkenly ripped his every memory of me out of his mind and ran away.
I put my face in my hands, elbows on my knees. My shawl drops from my shoulders. "Dude, I know. But what if I'd left myself there? He would've either dumped me or cheated on me and then dumped me."
Paige puts a hand on my shoulder. "Girl, you can't know that. Maybe he would've picked you instead."
"I saw the way he felt about her," I remind her, "And about me. It was no contest."
"Again, you can't know that," she asserts, "Yeah, his feelings for her were stronger, but he could've still decided on you for other reasons." I give her a dubious look. "Marnie, you think you've got it all figured out because you're crazy psychic, but I think you overestimate your bloodline sometimes."
Both of my eyebrows shoot up. "You think?" I wiggle the check in her face. "If I wasn't good, would I have this?"
"No one's arguing how good you are at it," Paige says, hands raised, "But when has using your bloodline in your love life ever made you happy?"
A retort is on the tip of my tongue, but I swallow it. She's got a point there. "If I hadn't known about what that girl was to Todd, I probably wouldn't have thought much of them together last night."
"And maybe, just maybe," Paige continues, "She's a different person now than when he was last with her. Maybe he decides to stop holding onto the illusion and focus on the present, which would have been you."
"Yeah, but what if he didn't?" I counter, "All signs pointed to heartbreak."
"But how can you really know unless you take the chance?"
I stay quiet, thinking.
Paige nudges me. "Who's the one who deals in future-y, prophetic stuff?"
"That would be you," I acquiesce, sighing, "Sorry, Paige, I was just… so disappointed. And drunk. It was a gut reaction."
"Hey, hey," she coos, petting my hair, "If you want my honest opinion, he wasn't that interesting, anyway." My face wrinkles up in confusion. "Listen, nothing against you, girl, but it's kind of boring, isn't it? Like you said earlier? Knowing what a person's going to be like from the get-go? Adding on top of that the fact that he was so, so boring."
"It wasn't that bad," I mutter.
"Oh, my God, but he was! The most boring. He always thought you cared about shit like what he did at work, like, blah blah paperwork blah office meeting blah."
"That he did, friend, that he did," I agree with the tiniest excuse for a laugh.
Paige frowns. "Sorry, I know you're still all roughed up about it. But you're gonna get better. Did you really even love him that much?"
"I mean, I guess not?" I frown, nose wrinkling, "I really cared about him. How could I not? I spent so much time with him. I'm just disappointed."
"Disappointed that you two are over or disappointed that you aren't in a relationship anymore?"
I stare at her. "I mean, is there a difference?"
Paige stares back, incredulous.
"Either way, it doesn't matter now, does it? It's over."
Paige huffs. "Throwing people away is super unhealthy, Marnie. Maybe you should think about putting his memories back and, oh, I don't know, talking to him about redhead? You still have his memories, right?" she asks, tapping her fingers against my forehead.
I shift into my own mind room a little, immediately heading over to a trunk at the foot of my opulent sleigh bed – the biggest I've ever seen in anyone's mind room, thank you very much – and prying the top open gently. Inside is the oddest assortment of trinkets – watches, pins, rings, two mismatched heels, necklaces with pearls, diamonds, bracelets, diamond bracelets, several bras (including the black lacy one from Charlie's mind room) and two identical silver lockets. I know which contains his version of me, and I slip it over my head.
His memories flash in and out of my head in a rush. I catch snippets of feelings, but these memories aren't mine, so they can't take hold anywhere. The phantoms of his feelings make my heart feel very heavy. What if Paige is right? This is what I gave up for pride. Whispers float through my mind.
"Lovely, intelligent, brilliant, distant, beautiful, calculated, blue eyes, darling."
I slip the necklace back off and place it in the chest, slamming the lid shut, and I'm back in my living room with Paige. Three seconds might have gone by. "Yeah, I still have it."
It's around four in the afternoon when the second doorbell ring of the day comes. We were just grabbing our purses to head out – today's been slow. Paige peeks through the peephole and huffs in annoyance. "It looks like a client. No one I know. Make sure to do him quick, Marnie, I wanna hit that sale at Lane Bryant!"
"I know you do, Paige, chill," I call after her as she stomps moodily down the hallway and out of right. Setting my bag back on the kitchen counter, I pull the door open.
Standing on the stoop is a tall guy with dark red hair. I say tall, but I'm pretty tall myself, so it takes some doing to make me look up when I'm talking to someone. "Hello," I greet him, taking in his appearance. Starched button down underneath a red hoodie, grey jeans, and ratty-looking sneakers. Over his shoulder is a brown leather backpack. His mind is quiet, but unlike my earlier clients, he's quiet the way an abandoned house is quiet. He's just a kid, maybe only a little younger than me. I hope this isn't a waste of time.
"Hi," he says, sticking out his hand, "I'm Peter."
"Hi, Peter," I reply, grasping his hand and shaking it.
"I was told that a girl named Marnina lives here. That, uh, that you?" he asks. His eyes are positively sparkling. I'm surprised he isn't actively bouncing up and down with how much friendly energy is radiating off of him.
"You got it," I confirm, glad he at least knows my name, "Please, come in."
I'm not even fully turned around before he breezes by me, taking in the room with a smile on his face. "You got a roommate?"
"What?" I ask, incredulous. Mostly, though, I'm caught by surprise. People are 100% always way too intimidated to make small-talk with me.
He points to the floor by the door, where there are approximately a million pairs of shoes.
"Oh, well, yeah," I reply weakly, "She usually leaves the room when I have a client."
"Just one?" he laughs. "Man, you guys have tons of shoes!"
"Is there something you came here for today, Peter?" I ask, feeling a little testy.
At once, he looks embarrassed, and I feel a little sorry for snapping. It was definitely nervous energy, then. I can tell by his reversal. This, I can deal with. His hand goes to the back of his neck. "Sorry, I didn't mean to be rude. I've just never met someone else with Sight before."
"What?" he asks, fidgeting.
"Someone," I enunciate the words slowly, "Else?"
His eyes widen a fraction. I can tell my expression is scaring him, but I need to be sure he isn't messing around here. He rubs the bridge of his nose with a finger. "Yeah, I can see, too, I guess. Well, I used to be able to. I guess I still kind of can, so yeah."
Someone else with Sight is in my apartment. Right in front of me. This kid has Sight, no matter how indecisive he's being about admitting it. Yeah, I know other people with Sight outside of my own family, but I only know of them. Not like, personally. I gravitate towards him slowly, looking him up and down as if seeing him for the first time. We're about a foot apart when I ask, "And what brings you here? What do you want from me?"
"I want you to see me," he declares without a trace of trepidation.
"Say no more." My eyes are locked on his and I start to phase into him. It seems like it's taking me longer than usual. My knee-jerk reaction is that maybe it's harder for me to get into someone else with Sight. It usually doesn't with my family, but then, I don't know whose family he is.
This is taking entirely too long.
It's empty. Peter is empty.
I'm so startled for a moment, I can't move. Did I mess up? I have never messed up before, that's impossible. How would I even go about messing up something innate? I wouldn't. I don't make mistakes. His room is blank. Completely. White walls, white floors, no furniture, no windows, no doors. Nothing. I walk forward and tentatively knock against the wall with my knuckles. It doesn't feel hollow, so there aren't any hidden cubbies in there, which I have seen a few times before. Next, I try the floors, feeling for any trap doors on my hands and knees, but no.
Peter's room is honest to God empty.
I shift my focus back to Peter in my living room, and all I can do is stare, mouth hanging open a fraction.
"Tell me you see something." A sigh. "You can't see anything, can you?"
I shake myself out of it. "It's completely empty." I walk over and flop down on the loveseat. "It's there, but there's nothing in it."
Peter hurls himself down next to me. "You were basically my last shot. I've tried everything now."
"Who the hell are you?" It's more of an expression of disbelief than a question. Peter seems to pick up on that.
"I shouldn't have let myself hope it'd be any different. But I thought maybe that was just a thing, that you could see everyone but yourself."
"What's your last name?"
Peter looks sideways at me. "My adoptive father's name is Card."
That tells me nothing. I study his profile. His nose is long, and so are his eyelashes. Sharp cheekbones. Freckles, but not a ton. I've never met a ginger with hair quite as dark as his before, and he clearly straightens and styles it because I can see a few stray curls around his ears. They're wide curls, though, not like those little ringlet things that are impossible to manage. He finally realizes I'm staring and turns his head to look back at me with eyes the color of an Oreo wrapper. For the first time in a while, I'm unnerved. I don't know him at all. Even with strangers, I always sort of know them because, even if I don't see their mind room, I can kind of get a sense of them. With Peter, nothing. All I can glean is what I get from his facial expressions, and I will admit that I'm out of practice in that department. He's a complete wild card.
I break the silence, unable to bear not knowing. "What does your mother think? You got it from her. Maybe she can't, either."
Peter shrugs. "Mom's dead. She died giving birth to me, so I never got to ask."
"Dad?" I question.
"Never knew the guy. He might be dead, too." Peter shrugs again.
"If it were that easy, Marnina, I wouldn't be here, and I wouldn't have an adoptive father, either." He isn't being hostile, just defeated. He sighs. "I meant it when I said you were literally my last shot, or at least the only thing I could think of that I haven't tried. I've never been able to see myself, and I don't particularly mind that much," he admits, "The problem is that my ability to see other people has been getting worse and worse. Other rooms aren't blank for me, but they're getting there. I don't want to lose it."
We sit in silence for a few moments, soaking up this revelation. I've always been able to see, well, everyone. Furthermore, I've never heard of someone with Sight being unable to see themselves. Deterioration, sure, that can happen with any of the senses if your line isn't strong, but he's pretty young for that to be happening. I'm trying to wrack my brain here, but Mom and Pop have never mentioned anything like this to me before.
"Well," Peter announces, false assuredness ringing in his voice, "Guess that settles that. Sorry to have taken up your time. Thanks anyway."
He's up and heading for the door. I shoot out of my seat, physically reaching out a hand as I call, "Wait!" Peter turns around, looking at me quizzically. "You can't leave yet."
"I can't?" he asks.
"Can't you?" I ask back, confused at myself. I shake my head. "Sorry, I'm not completely sure why I said that. I just," I pause, looking at him quizzically, "I didn't think you'd want to go just yet."
"Sorry if I offended you," he laughs, embarrassed. "To be perfectly honest, I probably would have come back tomorrow once I realized the chance I would have passed up. I've never met anyone with Sight before, ever."
"Well then, stick around. My roommate and I were just about to go to the mall, actually," I tell him, "If you want to come with, I'm sure she wouldn't mind."
Peter smiles, relief painted all over his face. "Yeah, I mean, I don't have anything going on today."
Almost as if she knew – ha ha – Paige comes skipping down the hall. "Marnie, who's your new friend here?"
"Paige, this is Peter." I gesture uselessly.
She pouts, eyes squinted appraisingly as she eyes Peter up. I look at Peter questioningly, wondering how much I'm allowed to tell her. Bloodline is kind of a private thing, after all.
Peter holds her gaze. "I've got Sight, too. I came here to learn from, uh, Marnie."
Paige is floored. "What?!"
My mouth pops open a little. It's a decent cover story. No, it's a great one, actually. "And I agreed to take him on as a student."
"Like an apprentice?" Paige presses, mouth quirking up as she glances at me, "Didn't ever think you'd play teacher, Marnie."
"Well, whatever," I shrug. She seems like she's buying it, and I realize that it might not be a completely untrue scenario.
"I didn't think I'd ever meet anyone besides Marnie that could do that stuff," she remarks next, "That's super cool. Are you gonna be living here?"
Peter has no idea what to say. I laugh as I cross the room to grab my purse and keys. "We haven't worked that much out yet. Maybe? Depends on how slow of a learner he is. Come on, Paige, you've waited long enough for your sale."
"Sale!" Paige sings as she bounds out the door, Peter and I close on her heels.
There is briefly an awkward moment wherein Paige and Peter mutely dance around each other over who should sit in the front seat. For a moment, it looks like they're both going to climb in the back. "God's sake, you guys. Paige, you have seniority, you take the front."
I fire up the engine and wiggle my way out of my parking space.
"So, anyway, where are you from?" I ask, eyes raised to look at Peter through the rearview. He looks profoundly uncomfortable back there, but I guess that's to be expected. It's a small car. I don't usually have more than one passenger.
"Uh, North," he replies.
"No shit?" I ask, taken aback.
All the cities and towns around here are grouped relative to the biggest one, a place called Center City. That's where all of the long-distance infrastructure is based, and it's the heart of our region's economy. Easterburg is part of the quadrant that is, in general, east of Center. The border between East and North is super far from my apartment. We're closer to South, but even that's a decent trip. Taking the trains to North would take upwards of an hour. "How'd you even hear about me?"
"Oh, don't worry about that. I didn't, like stalk you or anything," Peter clarifies, "Finding your name wasn't that tricky, but considering the rumor mill doesn't know what you look like, though, or where exactly in East you live, that stuff was a little bit harder. I dug for that on my own. I had good information, though. A friend pointed me in the right direction. From there, it was just a matter of following the trail." I'm starting to realize Peter is kind of a talker. "It wasn't super hard, but I wouldn't worry about it, you know, for your privacy. It's not like its super common knowledge because, you know, they don't keep family records online or anything. Just the normal amount of privacy invasion that happens on the internet."
I mull this over. Maybe I should be keeping a lower profile. If word got back to my parents, I'm not sure whether they'd be proud of my ability or pissed that I never told them about it. I don't even want to think about what would happen if my extended family got wind of it. Say goodbye to normal life, anyway.
Paige, who had been absently fiddling with the radio dial, suddenly screeches with delight as she lands on a station playing her favorite boyband – East's Top 40 station, I note with a glance down. She promptly begins belting out her own, slightly off-key rendition of the song, and my conversation with Peter is rendered unimportant for the moment.
We roll up to the mall in no time, and Paige is off like a shot. She hardly waits up for us before she bolts into the first store. Peter and I stroll in after her. I twirl my keys absently around in my hands, wondering whether I should ask him specifically how he found me or if it even matters at this point. But really, I have no idea where to even begin. Like I said before, I've never met anyone who has Sight before other than Mom and Pop (again, excluding my extended family, who don't even count as people, really). I have so many questions bouncing around in my head right now, but he looked ready to bolt earlier when he found out I couldn't help, so I don't know how much I'm allowed to push.
We're walking past a display of positively hideous sweaters when I decide to test the water. "Can you see me?"
Peter glances at me. "Yeah, I can."
That's honestly kind of surprising. "I thought you said it's getting worse."
"You're really clear," he tells me casually, "It depends, person-to-person. But yours is really clear and fairly simple. Not to say that you're, you know, simple or anything because you aren't. I didn't mean it in a dumb way," he babbles, "Just that you seem really honest with yourself. And your personality it strong."
"Have you been staring?" I tease.
He flushes. "I haven't, I swear!" He splutters a little. "I mean, I guess I looked a little at first, but it's not like I-!"
I cut him off, laughing. "Dude, no, it's cool. I was just wondering."
"I could do it again, right now."
I freeze. He said it kind of off-handedly, but I'm still taken aback. No one's seen into me since I lived with my parents. Except myself, of course. But I don't do it that terribly often. When both methods are available to you, it's easier to understand yourself using plain old self-reflection. That, and I don't usually have problems that necessitate deep, extensive soul-searching. External problems, hell yeah. Internal problems, not so much. I like to think I know myself pretty well.
"Sorry, Marnie, I didn't mean to overstep."
What am I afraid of? Judgement, probably. Or of giving too much information to someone that I really don't know that much about, other than a last name that doesn't match any of the other Sight families I'm aware of. He's a mystery. I size him up, wishing he was wearing some kind of sign that told me whether or not I could trust him. He looks back, blushing slightly and itching the space between his eyebrows with his fingers. He shoves his other hand in his back pocket, and even though he is clearly embarrassed, he retains eye contact with me. I can respect bravery. "Go ahead, if you want."
"What?" he asks a little too loudly. Paige looks over at us briefly, as do about four other shoppers near us. He looks sheepish as he continues, "You mean, go ahead and see you?"
I shrug. "Why not?"
"Well, I mean-,"
"It's way personal, I know, but I've seen what's up there, and you could probably see it anytime my guard's down, anyway," I explain with a half-shrug, "This way you have permission to get it out of your system. What's the worst thing that could happen?"
As he focuses on me, I find myself squirming the way I used to when my parents used to do it. I was instructed very thoroughly on respecting the privacy of others when I was younger, and I have a very healthy appreciation for my own. When you parents can, at will, know everything you're hiding from them, well, let's just say that it's pretty hard to keep secrets. The only one I ever managed to keep was the little bit of "extra" I can do with it; even though I love and trust Mom and Pop, there was no way little teenage me was going to admit that I'd been messing with people's minds. They would have had dual coronaries at my disgusting lack of moral compass.
I suddenly feel a little bad for my clients.
Peter is frowning, and that's not a good sign. I resist the urge to join him in my mind, instead opting to rifle through a rack of dresses in the store. I can still feel him, though, and it kind of tickles in an unsettling way. He's sure taking an awfully long time doing whatever it is he's doing up there.
Paige wanders nearby and shoots a questioning look at him and then at me. I incline my head towards him, eyes wide. She does a 180, heading instead towards the check-out with a pile of clothes in her arms.
Eventually, Peter shakes me off. It's kind of cute how visible it is. He's still staring at me, though, not saying anything.
"Well?" I ask, eyebrows raised, "And what did you learn?"
"I'm," he starts, looking distraught, "I'm sorry, Marnie, really sorry. I don't think I should've, well, it took me so long to figure out what to do, I accidentally, uhm, I don't know?"
"What the hell did you see?" I interject, voice lowered as I step towards him. I'm not trying to make a scene here, but I can't help the way my panic sounds unmistakably like rage. "Why do you look so affected?"
"Your, um." God's sake, this boy can't even put one sentence together right now. He doesn't seem to be thinking well under pressure, so I step back to give him some space. I can't do anything about the impatience on my face, however. "Your trunk."
Oh. Oh, that. The memories.
"Why?" he asks, seeing the way the tension drops from my shoulders and sensing incorrectly that the coast is clear, "How?"
"Let's take a walk," I suggest as non-threateningly as I can. I take his arm at the elbow and lead him out of the store into the crowded mall.
"What do you know about Sight?" I ask him, point-blank.
"Well," he starts, rubbing the bridge of his nose with an index finger, "Now I'm not too sure. Because your Mind Room is different from any I've ever seen before.
He cocks his head. "When I look into people's minds, I usually see a library-type deal. Lots of books on shelves, and I have to read through them to get information on a person. I'm super good at skimming and speed-reading stuff as a result of that, but that isn't the point. It's generally arranged chronologically, and the accounts are in first-person, so it's a little different from reading actual books." He shakes his hair out of his eyes, pushing it into place with his fingers carefully. "Anyway, yours isn't like that at all, which is why it took me so long to figure out what I was looking at. Also probably why I stumbled onto your, um, trunk. I didn't know what I was looking for or what to avoid like I usually do."
I nod slowly. So, he's definitely not from within my family. That settles it; I trust him. "The whole spatial aspect of my Sight can be tricky, but yeah, it's predominantly symbolism. Kind of surprising that you see me how I see others instead of… Well, anyway," I continue as we pass the Jamba Juice, which momentarily distracts Peter from the conversation at hand, "In addition to seeing people's minds, I can manipulate them, too." Peter's head whips around to look at me, smoothies forgotten. "I know. My parents can't do it, or at least if they can, they never told me about it. I'm assuming it's some kind of aspect of the bloodline that only shows up in some generations. But I can change the way people think and feel by, essentially, moving stuff around in their head."
Peter whistles again. "So the drawer?"
"Sometimes, clients don't want me to just look." Admitting this is harder than I thought. "It's super unethical, I guess, but I can make things go away. People, ideas, feelings, poof." I flutter my fingers in a wave.
"And you keep them all in a box?"
I nod. "You can't really destroy memories, or if you can, I don't know how to. Some of that stuff's really heavy; I can't just let it lying around in my mind room. So, the box. Honestly, I'm surprised you could open it."
"Why?" he asks, nose wrinkling.
I shrug my shoulders, head inclined. "No reason. Just didn't expect it."
Peter seems to accept this for a moment, and we walk in silence. As we're passing the Nordstrom, I can feel him getting uncomfortable again, but he doesn't say anything until we're almost to Game Stop.
"I saw memories of you in the drawer, too."
"It's cool if you don't want to talk about it," he backpedals.
"Nah, I will. The other night, I broke up with my boyfriend. Yanked myself out," I tell him. "He was in love with another girl. I knew it, too, kind of."
"God, that sucks."
"Doesn't it just? I'm fine, though. I've rationalized it." Compartmentalized, more like. "We weren't even dating for that long, anyway."
Peter digests this. I don't mention the second set of memories I have of myself, and I'm glad he doesn't seem like he's going to, either. I can see something isn't sitting well with him, though.
"Kind of seems like a trivial reason to mess with a dude's head," he says at last.
He puts his hands up. "All I'm saying is that, if it were me, I'd want to remember you."
I stop walking for a moment and just look at Peter. To his credit, he only looks a little sheepish. Not like he regrets saying it, though. His hands are in his pockets, but under my gaze, one of them darts out to rub his nose. I'm starting to recognize that this is his nervous gesture.
"Why wouldn't you want to forget me?"
"Well," he says slowly, like he's rolling the word around in his mouth, "I wouldn't want you to make the choice for me. And even if I didn't end up staying with you, I wouldn't want to forget being with you."
"But this is easier," I argue.
We start to walk again.
"Well, yeah, but that doesn't make it better."
"Bullshit. It's my way. Of course it's better."
Peter laughs. I get the feeling he thinks I'm joking.
Paige comes strolling up to us, already carrying several shopping bags in the bend of each of her elbows. "You have a good chat? Connect emotionally and spiritually? Discover passion together by retreating into a world created and shared solely within your minds?" she asks, smirking.
Peter turns bright red. I slap Paige's shoulder playfully. She is cryptic and full of garbage.
We walk out of the mall together into the crisp fall air. I breathe in that unique scent of dead leaves and cold air that you really only get during the months where the seasons are actively changing. It smells like nostalgia, like my old home away from Easterburg. Fall has always been my favorite season. I wonder if perhaps more of my important memories have happened in fall because there's just something about this time of year that makes me feel like new and exciting things are going to happen.
"I wanna go home," Paige announces as she throws her bags into the trunk of my car.
"Cool, can do," I say with a nod in her direction before shifting my gaze to Peter, "What about you?"
"Oh, uhm, I'll do whatever," he agrees with a shrug.
"You hungry at all?"
Peter appears to be actively assessing his hunger levels, if the thoughtful look that crosses his face is any indication. "Sure. I could go for food."
I was hoping he would say that. I need to learn more about him, and I love Paige, but it's going to be much easier getting him to open up if we're alone together than if she tags along. I didn't miss the way he instantly relaxed as soon as we were away from her at the mall. I don't know if it was the absence of Paige specifically or just being alone with me, but I need to replicate it if I want to cover any ground with this kid.
We swing by the apartment to drop Paige – and my car – off before setting out on foot. I live in one of East's quieter cities, but we aren't too far from some restaurants, bars, and little shops. And it's a seriously nice day. I'm not a huge fan of summer because I can't layer my clothes the way I can in fall. And if it's too hot to wear a leather jacket and a flannel shirt at the same time, I'm not into it. Today, though, the weather is just chilly enough for my preferred fashion statements, and the air is just breezy enough that my ponytail-and-bangs combination look artfully ruffled – not messy, but not perfect, either.
"What are you feeling?" I ask him, "There's a good pizza place near here, a café that does paninis that I really like. Um, oh, do you like sushi at all?"
"Anywhere that's kind of quiet," he replies, looking over at me, "I'd really like us to get to know each other a little better."
"Yeah, sure," I agree, trying to play it cool. After all, I can't see his intentions. Don't know if he's into me or if this is a friend-type thing. Best to play it casual for a while. "I've still got to crack your mystery, after all."
He's quiet at this. We walk for about half a minute like this, and I feel like the silence is uncomfortable, but I don't know what to do about it. Then, he suddenly lets out a rush of breath. "It's still panini, you know."
"The plural of panini. It's still panini."
Peter huffs out his breath again. "You said paninis. It's panini. The true Italian singular is panino, but everyone here just says panini for the singular."
I chuckle. "Okay. Please excuse my ignorance."
"I forgive you," he replies graciously.
"Regardless, are you trynna get paninis, or what? Was that you indicating that what you want are paninis?"
He whines in frustration, but he's laughing, too.
We do, in fact, head for the café. It fits the criteria of being quiet, largely because of how it's built, not because it's unpopular or anything. Actually, the place is kind of packed, but it has plenty of secluded corners for us to hide in. Divider walls break up the flow of the storefront, pretty lattice barriers with fake ivy twined in it. I place our order at the counter and we duck through a trellis covered in fake roses and grab one of those little circular café tables that are up real high, so you kind of have to jump up into your seat.
"So tell me about yourself," I say once we're seated, "Start anywhere, really. Let's unlock that backstory."
Peter looks thoughtful. "Okay, well, you already know some things, so stop me if I start to repeat myself." I nod and he continues. "I really only figured out that I had Sight when I was in foster care. I think I was probably around 4 or 5. Don't really know where I was before that, but I was in a group home then, and I just assumed all the other kids could do what I could do, initially. I started to realize that they couldn't when I was consistently the only one who knew to stay away from the Moms."
Peter nods. "Two of them. There were eight of us including me that lived in the house with them. They did," he pauses, eyes focused above my head for a moment, "Bad stuff. I caught less of it because I saw them for what they were. When they lied to us, tried to make us think that we deserved the punishments, I could tell. I got good at using my bloodline pretty quickly that way."
He pauses as a waitress brings us our plates. He smiles and says thank you, but I'm too busy processing his story to react.
"Oh, God, this is so good," he moans after taking a bite, "Turkey and pesto, take me away." He takes another, entirely too large bite and does a happy little wiggle with his shoulders.
I giggle, tension gone, and pick up my own – cheddar, chicken, and jalapeno – and take a bite. Oh, my god. "Dude, you have to try mine." I hold out my panini and he leans in.
"Yo, that cheddar is no joke," he asserts through a mouthful of cheesy, spicy goodness, "Anyone tries to tell you that you make bad restaurant decisions is wrong. This place is so much better than anything we have in North."
"I've never been to North, so I wouldn't know," I tell him, snatching my sandwich back before he can take another bite.
"It's not exactly a tourist destination." He stuffs approximately half of his panini into his mouth and nearly swallows it whole before continuing. "Anyway, I'm sure the thing you can do to rearrange people's mind rooms would have come in handy with the Moms, but I wasn't there for more than a few years before I went to live with my first family. My bloodline had started to go a little bit out of whack, then, but I didn't think much of it. Just figured people were less complex. And less books to go through meant less time wasted rooting around for what I wanted."
The way he says this makes it obvious that he's glossing over a ton of bad memories, but I don't press it. "And what were they like? Your new foster parents," I prompt instead.
"Well," he pauses, thinking, "Pretty ideal, actually. Nancy and Dan. They were an older couple whose kids had left home, but they had this big house. I used to mow the lawn for them and paint the fence and stuff, and Nancy would make dinners every night that always had a carb, a protein, and a vegetable. Dan was a teacher at the local high school, so we'd ride to and from school together every day. I was in junior high then."
He stops talking to take a gulp of water. "I was the problem in that scenario. The stability was nice, and for a few years everything was fine. As I got older, though, things changed. I got into a lot of trouble. Snuck around with girls, broke curfew to hang out under the bridge, stole stuff, broke things. I was a punk, and at first, Dan and Nancy pretended not to notice. Then, the cops started bringing me home, and they couldn't."
"What did they do?" I ask, enthralled. I grope for the straw in my water glass with just my lips, eyes trained on his face.
"They gave me an ultimatum." He sighs. "Clean up my act or clear out of their house. Things were really awkward. I didn't want to go back to the group home, but I didn't want to submit to their authority, either. They were so good to me, put up with so much. Of course, I didn't realize it at the time. No one understood me, Nancy and Dan were just wasting their time on me, I was old enough to take care of myself, blah blah. Dan sat me down and gave me a couple of "man talks", and Nancy tried to be extra-nurturing, then extra-strict, but of course none of that worked."
He stops for a bit, taking another drink of his water. "I'm not being boring, am I?"
"Not at all!" I reassure him, "Your backstory is nuts compared to mine."
"I'm trying to only include the really interesting bits," he continues, still sounding unsure. "I really want to hear about you, too, you know."
"Don't you already know, though?" I quirk a brow at him.
"Why would I already know? We just met."
"You saw my mind room earlier when we were at the mall," I explain, confused.
"Well, yeah," he agrees, "But I didn't exactly do a great job back there. Plus, it's different when you tell it yourself, you know?"
"No, I don't know. If you wanted to know about me, you could just, boop, pop on in and have a look. I did it all the time with," I stop. With my boyfriends? Do I really want to draw that parallel? "With other people," I finish after a pause.
"Okay, well, that's kind of intrusive." He cringes a little as he says it, like he's afraid of offending me, but we both know he's totally right. My lack of respect for the privacy of others is blatant and shocking. "Sorry, but it is. And second, I prefer to get to know people this way. The normal way. Your mind room is your business. I don't look unless I have to, usually. Well, either that or if I'm practicing on strangers, but that's different." He tugs at his hair. It looks like he's struggling to find the words. "It's more meaningful, I guess, when you choose to share yourself with me, as opposed to me going in and taking it."
"I'd honestly never thought of it like that. I always at least take one good, hard look before I get close to someone."
"Well, your way is easier, for sure," he offers, "And safer. I can respect that."
I frown thoughtfully. "It's good for my peace of mind, certainly, although I can't say it's saved me much heartache."
"Well, anyway, what was growing up Marnie like?" he asks, shifting in his seat.
"There's really not much to tell," I admit, glad to be talking about something less emotionally charged, "I had two loving parents who tucked me in every night and encouraged me in my interests. They put me through school and now I use my degree as a wall decoration because I make more money messing with the lives of East's scandalous elite than I ever would at some boring desk job. Minored in art, though, that was pretty cool"
"Wait, you're an artist?" he asks with incredulous amusement.
I cock my head. "Do I not seem like the artsy type?" I ask coolly, folding my arms.
"Well, no. Wait, maybe? I guess I don't know what you seem like. English major, maybe?" he offers weakly. I can physically see him give up. "What kind of art do you do?" he asks instead.
"Painting. I did all sorts of stuff in school, but painting is what I like best, specifically landscapes. Comes from growing up in the country, I think. I want to travel the world someday so I can paint different landscapes. Maybe you noticed the ones hanging up in my living room? No, you were too fixated on the shoes by the door, for some reason."
"Nervous!" he protests, face flushing a little, "I was nervous, okay?"
"Still are, looks like," I tease. "I did major in lit, though, so you were right about English."
"I wish I could've gone to college," he muses, "I would've probably done English or history."
"You didn't go to college?"
He pulls a face. "Is that weird?"
"I mean, kind of." I purse my lips to the side, thinking. "I don't think I've met anyone who hasn't at least done two years in college."
He snorts then rolls his eyes. "Well, maybe that's how you do it in East."
Shit, now it's my turn to throw my hands up. "Hey, hey, not judging. Let's go back to your foster parents." I steeple my hands on the table. "I feel like we're getting closer to something here."
"Let me think. I told you about the ultimatum, right?"
I nod. "Did you get kicked out?"
He shakes his head. "No time to. Ed came for me before I could get thrown out. Hey, do you wanna walk and talk?" he asks abruptly.
"Sure," I agree easily.
A big gust of wind blows and almost whips me over as we step out of the café. Downtown can be kind of like a wind tunnel in the fall. Peter stumbles, too, and we laugh together as we head back for my apartment. "Reminds me of home," Peter remarks.
I shrug. "The region is big enough that we use qualifiers like North and East, but there isn't much difference, really."
"Still," he asserts, "When you've never left your part of town before, even the small differences can be big."
I give him an incredulous look. "You've never left North before?" Calling areas North, East, South, or West sounds kind of restrictive, but it really is just a label. It's not like we're bound to our quadrants or anything like that. I don't leave East too often, but I mean, I have before. Plenty of times. In grade school, we went on at least one trip to see Center City and all the important buildings that no ten year old is ever going to appreciate.
He shrugs. "Never had the chance to."
Not wanting to make another social faux pas like the college thing, I quickly push us past this particular strain of conversation. "So, Ed? Who's that?"
Peter smiles fondly. I don't think he's aware that he's doing it. "Ed knew my real parents. He was Dad's best friend. It took him a while to track me down and get his paperwork in to be a foster parent, but he made the deal to take me off of Dan and Nancy's hands when I was," he pauses, making a face of exaggerated concentration, "Probably 15. Ed knew how to handle me. We understood each other. He was the one who got me into reading."
Peter laughs, imitating my earlier indignant pose. "Do I not seem like the type?"
I laugh, swatting his shoulder lightly. "Come on, don't be like that."
Peter laughs, too, and shoves his hands in his pockets against the chill. We must have been in the café longer than I thought, because the sun's going down. Peter's quiet for a moment. Then, he lets out a breath. "Yeah, but Ed's always been one of those real macho, silent guys. That's why I was always surprised that sometimes, instead of going to the bar with his buddies, he would put on his plastic reading glasses and sit in his armchair with a book."
"Did you ever talk to him about it?"
Peter shoots me a skeptical look. "Ed isn't really much for deep conversations. He can talk about his truck, and he always talks about baseball, but he would never mention the books. But he would leave them on the table in the living room for me when he was done with them." He laughs, shaking his head. "I didn't know what he was doing, at first, but the pile on the table was about a foot high when I finally picked one up. I guess I was always predisposed to it, considering the way my bloodline works." He turns his face towards the sky, the setting sun casting shades of red and orange on his face. I think he's going to say more, but he doesn't.
So I do. "Well, he's our logical first stop, right?"
"Yeah, well, if we're going to get to the bottom of why your room's empty, we need to know about your parents," I explain, "As your dad's best friend, this Ed. His last name's Card, then? Like the name you gave me earlier?"
Peter nods, smiling. "Yeah, Peter Card doesn't have much of a ring to it, though, does it?"
I shake my head. "Hopefully your birth name rolls off the tongue easer. But Ed Card seems to be our guy, then, in terms of figuring all that out. Even if he can't tell us much, he can probably point to someone who can."
Peter looks hesitant. "We don't talk about my parents much."
"How could you not?" I ask, taken-aback, "Weren't you curious?"
Peter struggles for words, seemingly at a loss. "It's kind of like. Well. You see, we never talked about it because, I guess, he never seemed like he wanted to." He takes a deep breath. "Something happened to them – my parents – that he doesn't like to talk about. I think that might be why he took so long finding me. He never really mentioned it, but there were ways to tell, you know?" Another deep breath. "I think something really bad must've happened to them."
A/N: I'm just looking for general opinions, not necessarily literary crit. This is the first chapter of an 80,000 word novel I'm almost finished writing.