Monday, September 29, 2014


by Brandy Jean Shipman
Hollow heart and hollow soul.
How long before I find what makes them whole?
Heart is aching and my soul is breaking.
My mind is losing all control.
My moon, my sun, my stars have all died.
Sadness is all I know.
I have nothing behind my hazel eyes.
Darkness is all I can seem to follow.
I cry but no tears can fall.
Staring blankly at the shadows on the wall.
How many times can I go crazy before I lose it all?
My life is breaking and I am the only one to blame.
Bad decisions is all I have seemed to make.
You came into my life in suddenly I had strength.
Everything began to change.
The past I faced day by day seemed to just kind of fade away.
You made me want to change.
Now all I know is the pride I have for you.
I created you.
You are now my sun, my stars, and my moon.
You fill my heart with joy and my soul with meaning.
You are my baby boy and the reason I’m still breathing.
Take this poem and know that is true.
You are special my love and forever in my heart you will stay.


by Cassidy McGuire

Chapter 1

Life in Psioncia

In a society run by psychics, immortals, clairvoyants, and more of the telepathic or telekinetic nature, I’m not one of them. Instead, I’m labeled as a Trick. A Trick is a person who doesn’t have a Talent. With a Talent, a person has a special skill they hone until they can use it in a special job called a Sector. If they do well in their Sector, they will be rewarded with riches befitting royalty.
Julian sits next to me, a psychic. She looks at me knowingly, “You will get a Talent next month. Not all skills are there when one is born.”
Oh, yeah, like the last time you told me I had to wait how long? I scowl. I highly doubt that.
“Don’t scowl at me like that. I am really certain that they found a way next month to help Tricks have Talents to integrate them into the Sectors, Aerona,” Julian soothes. “It won’t be long now.”
Psioncia is notorious for making up fake stuff to keep the psychics and clairvoyants satisfied from time to time, but I am secretly interested in finally having a power I could use. Tricks were not allowed a Sector, nor were they allowed to live on their own without a Talent individual. I am stuck with Julian until the day I die, unless I’m really a carrier for immortality. My mother and father, a clairvoyant and an empath respectively, were a little disappointed when I couldn’t read feelings or see the future—precognition happens with a cross between the two Talents. They tried me on different Talents, but with little success. I felt more and more like a Trick each time the tests failed. Parents were supposed to test their children with different types of Talents to see which ones stuck the most. If not, then The Center—which was like a doctor’s office—would see if their child was either a late-starter—one that would later show their powers in adolescence—or a Trick.
 They took me to The Center to see what was wrong with me. It wasn’t the news that Mom and Dad wanted. I was a late-starter, but could very well tread the line to Trick territory. I call myself a Trick because that’s what I feel like every day.
Julian elbows me. “Trust me. It’ll be okay. Psioncia isn’t telling fibs this time.”
“I sure hope they aren’t. I hate being unable to live alone.”
“They’re just worried about you getting in danger with the Psyches.”
The Psyches are anyone using their Talents for crime. Some of them are locked away, the severest of crimes awaiting lethal extraction—the equivalent of the lethal injection, but worse—but most of them are still out there and dangerous. They will do anything from theft to murder. They can fool even the wisest in The Centers and Sectors. Tricks were often the victims of their crimes until the Sphere intervened and said for the Talented to live in their homes. Although the Psyches have realized the Sphere hasn’t given up, they still commit crimes. They just can’t enter a Trick’s house anymore. A Talented will always know that they have unwanted company. The Sphere is always careful in tender situations if the Psyches have enacted a potentially-lethal crime against a Trick—attempted murder, rape (attempted or not), assault, or so on. They order extra protection around the Trick until the Psych has been caught and brought to justice.
It is good, I have to admit, but it limits my independence. Julian likes to come with me to pick up some more yarn for knitting. It gives me peace of mind. However, I sometimes long for the day that I can run out and get something on my own. She is bubbly when she isn’t getting a psychic vision, which tightens a piece of yarn around my heart when I want some alone time. She isn’t annoying, but her unwillingness to leave me alone for a second wore me thin.
She always is working on one project or another for a “special someone,” but she never, ever tells me who it is, not even when I asked.
“Oh, she’s someone special,” she will redundantly tell me.
Whenever she is done with a project, she will always take it to the post office, which is a block or two away from my home lot. About a week later, I will get mysterious packages, mostly without a return address, and although the contents look like Julian’s work, I always think it is someone else’s work.
“I’m surprised that they haven’t come out with it now,” she tiredly says, looking as though she would faint on me, which happens six to seven times a day. Unlike some psychics that come out of having a vision refreshed but confused, Julian always came out of a vision tired, confused, and weak. I keep reminding her to eat something if she went into vision mode, but she keeps insisting that eating makes her visions go into a weird array—from seeing a dog riding on a unicycle in a whale’s mouth to her visions gaining a color hue change. She still refuses to eat, even if I force her to. The Center told me to leave it alone—each Talent has a specific set of his or her own rules that he or she only can follow.
I wash the dishes. My living quarter is a quaint two-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a small entertainment area—a TV, one video game console with two controllers, and a beat-up stereo that I hope to get fixed when I finally realize my Talent. It also has a kitchen area that looks like it has been on the set of the old show Friends.
All Tricks and late-starters want to see if they are Talented. I really hope I get to see if I’m either precognitive—I have been getting little visions, but they are too intermittent to fully cement that I’m Talented—an empath, or immortal. If what Julian says is true, I don’t want to lose my friendship with her if she leaves when I do realize it—the Talented don’t have to leave when they find their Trick was just a late-starter if they don’t want to. The Sphere is merciful on that front.
Julian dries the dishes. I’m still sure that there is more to her “special someone” than she is saying, but say nothing. She will always know, even though she can’t read minds.
I look at her and marvel at how beautiful she is. She only moved in with me a few weeks ago when I found the house. She’s blond with brown eyes and a bright smile that seems to light up the room. She likes to do yoga and biking when she wants to leave me alone on one of those rare occasions, but she always calls a Trick Sitter, which is like having a babysitter, but this babysitter is a guard that stands outside the house to watch for Psyches. She likes to color when she’s not knitting. She makes me wonder if she’s supposed to watch me or if I’m supposed to watch her. However, she reminds me when I ask that she is going to keep watching me.
When she has a vision, her eyes cloud white, and her long hair flies up everywhere. It’s not deadly, but I do have to monitor her. That’s one of the rules of having a psychic as a Talented. If she’s in a vision too long, she’ll pass out and have “a power outage,” which involves uncomfortable twitching. The only way to recover a person in one of those “outages” is to send her to The Center as soon as possible.
She looks at me. “What? Did I leave something in my teeth?”
I realize I’m staring at her too long and say, “Sorry. You—I was about to say that you know how to dry dishes,” I stammer awkwardly.
I think of her as one of those perky friends that often left you feeling mighty exhausted when they went home, except that she lives with me on a constant basis and needs me as much as I need her. She often has “outages” due to her wanting to test her endurance, which recurrently ran our bill up every Center visit. Luckily, she works for a help line, and her superiors tell her to stop her visions when they notice she’s about to enter outage mode, which hefts a major paycheck for us when we need to pay The Center.
“It’s okay, Aerona. You are pretty, too.”
I almost drop the fork I was holding. “W- ¿Qué?”
“I could see the look you were giving me, Aero. Don’t think I don’t know,” Julian teases.
“I don’t know what you are talking about.”
She reaches into the water, which is devoid of any dishes now, sans fork, and pulls out the plug. “Oh, Aero…You think I’m pretty when you don’t realize you’re beautiful, too.” She then gets out two towels, one for me, and one for her. “You don’t put on any of Tina Power’s makeup and beauty products because you don’t need them. You don’t listen to all those weight loss or gain ads because you are wonderfully trim. Face it, Aero. You’re naturally gorgeous, and I’m surprised that no one has come to sweep you off your feet yet.”
“You’re the one to talk,” I banter. “You are brilliantly beautiful, yet you never tell me who your ‘special someone’ is.”
“That’s because I believe you’ll find out sooner or later,” she winks. “She’s closer than you think.”
I roll my eyes. “The only female next-door neighbor is our 75 year old Pyrokinetic, and she is still young after all this time.”
“She still knows how to make an ice sculpture without melting the whole block of ice.”
“Yeah, and she does bring us brownies every now and then.” We dry our hands. “That was a good shrimp meal, by the way,” I say, brushing a strand of my brown hair away from my face. “You have a great cooking skill.”
“I learned from my uncle before he passed away. He was great, even though firm.”
I often forgot that Julian’s parents had passed away before she was five, and that she was taken to a relative her parents could trust. Her aunt and uncle were rumored to be immortal when really they were telekinetic. They were bashful about their talents and would only use their talents alone, which was a detriment to the Sector. Finally, they found that if they wore a virtual reality device that made them believe they were alone, they could work on what needed to be done, helping both themselves and the Sector.
They were sweet, according to Julian. But in their later years, when Julian was working in a Sector, they were feeling strained beyond measure. When the Sphere saw that they were, they were told to start retiring. It wouldn’t look good if they worked themselves to death. However, she lost her uncle first from accidental strain and exhaustion. Her aunt took a few years before she died from old age.
Julian and I rest on the couch, watching You Know Cathy Morrison on television. It is one of those dumb, boring talk shows, until Julian changes the channel to something we both enjoy, an oldie from the 1950’s called Gunsmoke. We both love to watch it because of Festus Hagen. He would always come up with something grammatical in the Old West times that would probably not make sense today.
We watch it until one of us starts to nod off. I turn off the television and pick Julian up. She weighs no more than I do, but with my exhaustion, she feels heavier. I don’t know what it is about her, but she definitely lights up my world when I need it. I carry her to her bed and set her stuffed animals—one of them, a pony by the name of Featherweight—in her arms when she reaches out in her sleep. In her mind, she told me, it would be considered a bit embarrassing if any other Talented came here, so she hides them. However, I think she’s overreacting.
I shut off the light, revealing those old, adhesive glow-in-the-dark stars, and leave the room. She likes to keep her door open, because she sleepwalks, and will bump repeatedly into the door of the room.
I go into my room, a pink and purple room with a king-sized bed. Julian helped with the cost of the bed, thanks to her Sector. I am asleep when I flop onto the bed, cuddling close to my own stuffed animals—a bear named Benson, a pony of my own named Soarin’, and a sugar pink bear I call Amor.

Chapter 2

The Trick-Sitter

I feel Julian’s hand shake me awake before I feel her elegant fingers comb through my hair. Once upon a time, this was an annoying occurrence, but as time went on, I grew comfortable with her. She told me that this was from when her aunt and uncle adopted her. Her uncle would first gently shake her awake, and then comb his fingers through her hair. That carried over even when she went into her Sector as a helpline.
I open my eyes. “Mm… What happened…?”
“We fell asleep. I need to go to work now, but your Trick Sitter will come around shortly.” She initiates our handshake as I groggily follow—a bird taking flight with short whistles follows up with us singing oldies word-by-word backward—it varies by the day which oldies song we sing, and we rarely sing the same song twice. Today’s song is the second and first verses of Damn Yankees’ “High Enough.” We don’t share it with anyone else. That would break our trust with each other.
She gives me a smile as she gets ready to go to work and leaves. She means well.
I take a long shower before my Trick Sitter gets here. She is a no-nonsense soldier lady. Many Trick Sitters are. Don’t get me wrong, there are nice Trick Sitters. I just end up with her.
She mostly stands outside, eyes scanning for Psyches. She only comes inside to feed me. Trick Sitter food is not as good as Talent food, but it is needed for our health. I know this one’s story by now.
She was once a bright and happy child until a Psych took her innocence away. Rumors flew that the Psych was her father, but it turned out that her father was innocent, but her older cousin—who was living with them after being laid off for tardiness—was the Psych. He would dream walk into hers while asleep, lulling her into a false sense of security. Once in the falseness, he snuck in and stole it. The Sphere took him to justice and found him eligible for lethal extraction. She hardened over the years and tried not to look back. The Sphere wanted to help her, but she refused, thinking it was her fault.
“How’re you doing?” she grumbles.
I almost choke on my meal. She rarely speaks to me. “¿Qué?
“That’s not an answer! How’re you doing?” she growls, standing up and spraying me with spit.
I pull myself together. “I’m doing fine, ma’am.”
“That’s better.” She relaxes her stance, but only a little. She knows a Psych might jump up and attack me if she isn’t careful. “If you weren’t fine, I’d report this to the Sphere and The Center.”
“But I’m just a Trick. I don’t have any Talent, at least not yet. I think it’ll come next month.”
She doesn’t reply, but I have to admit. That is the first time she ever said anything to me.
“Don’t get used to me talking just yet, Sweetheart.”
Her accent sounds like it comes from New York, a state in the old United States. I roll it around my head, mentally recording the sound. I’ll have to bring it up with Julian later, I think. She’ll be so amazed.
She waves a dismissive hand. Apparently, that means “Yeah, sure, go right ahead.”
I realized that she had telepathy when she came in the second time. She was still quiet but any time I made a motion to do something I considered fun, she automatically pointed out what I should do first before doing what I wanted. We had some fun; however, she still had a heart of stone from her past, so she didn’t smile much.
She walks outside to guard the house after I am done with my meal. She’s still showing the same stone-faced expression from the time that Julian had to leave for work. However, there is a slight shift in her demeanor. A tear, just one, falls down her face. I wonder if today is the dark anniversary of the day her cousin turned Psych.
I walk outside, to which she almost blocks me with one motion of her arm. “Easy, ma’am. I’m only out here for you.”
She gives me a look, and then raises the arm. I look at her and give her a hug, feeling her stiffen in my arms. I know she’s not touchy-feely, but I want her to know that I understand her, even though I never had my innocence taken away from me.
When I release the hug, she looks at me with a face that is a mixture of shock and anger. “W-WHAT WAS THAT FOR? DO YOU WANT THE SPHERE TO THINK I’M WEAK?!”
I shrink from her yell. Yelling always makes me do that. “N-no… I-I just…I saw your tear…”
“Tears are a sign of weakness. A weakness I can’t have.”
“They aren’t a sign of weakness to me. Dad always told me that they help your eyes…”
She glares daggers into me. “Well that’s what your Dad believes! I can’t afford to be weak!”
I shut up and walk into the house. I watch some other oldies shows. It is a bit too quiet without Julian with me, but I try to tough it out for the Trick Sitter’s sake. She is tough as nails, and will not stand for me quivering like a baby because I miss my designated housemate.
She comes in again to make me supper. It doesn’t matter if a Trick is a natural cook; the Trick Sitter always cooks the meals for them. Natural cooking is not a Talent, it’s a skill. Skills don’t count as Talents. Now don’t get me wrong, we do have cooking competitions—ranging from segregated contests to coed (between Tricks and Talent Individuals)—but they are still skills. We do have a few cheaters in contests here and there (a Talent puts an unfavorable ingredient in a Trick’s brew, a Trick purposely drops the egg off the spoon in the antique egg and spoon race, and so on), but we have fun for the most part.
She whips up my meal and gives it to me. I try to swallow it down, even though it makes me gag.
She doesn’t blink to react to me. I believe she thinks I’m a waste of her time and money when she snaps her fingers in front of my face. That means, “No! Don’t you even dare think that way ever again!”
She had me learn her language early, non-verbally. She sat me down and used various signals to indicate which signal meant which message. She got annoyed when I didn’t get it, got angry if I mixed one of the messages for the wrong signal, but stare at me if I got it right. It was a long, arduous process, but soon, I got what she meant with her motions.
“Sorry.” I lower my head and pick at a part of the meal.
She growls. She really doesn’t want me to think that way again. I nod and finish my meal. She indicates that I should wash the dishes before Julian comes home. I don’t complain and obey.

Chapter 3

Julian Returns Home/Family Feud

Julian returns from work, a bit weary, but not as weary as before. My eyes widen in surprise. Usually she’s wobbly—it’s a wonder that she knows how to drive in that condition—and needs me to help her stand before she gets her bearings. She tries to use energy pills, enhancers, patches, and drinks, but they just don’t work on her. This time she looks sturdier.
“Were you sent home early?” I ask.
“Nope. I worked the full shift.”
If she has an “outage” at work and has to go to The Center, she’s then marked as “sent home early.” If she’s marked as that, she brings home a smaller payload. Her being able to work the full shift makes me both proud and surprised.
“No near outages, this time?”
“Not once, Aero. Relax…” She smiles and comes close to me. She’s one-eighth—or is it sixteenth? I can never read a family tree right—empath due to one of her great-grandparents being one. Only an empath and an aura reader can churn out a psychic, like a pyro and a glaciem can get together and churn out a terra. However, how those two have sex is, to me, a bit difficult to explain without grossing myself out.
She has me lie down on the couch on my belly, but not before she dismisses my Trick Sitter and pays her for her time. My Trick Sitter coolly accepts the cash and leaves. Then Julian starts to unzip my shirt from Tara Harper’s fashion line and rub my back and shoulders. “You stress about me too much. I think it’s time for your monthly massage from yours truly today.”
I don’t complain. She has magical fingers that help me relax. I often tell her that her Sector should be a masseuse, but she doesn’t want to. Right away, her fingers start at my knots. “Maybe we should do this weekly instead. You really stress so much.” There’s a flirtatious tone in her voice, but I think she’s joking. She has joked before.
It isn’t long until she cracks her knuckles. A few seconds later, I feel something cold and wet smooth over the skin on my back. The lavender scent indicates what the substance is instantly—lotion. The lotion spreads all over my back.
She’s so gentle that I sigh and coo, feeling more and more relaxed. Eventually, she finishes, giving small giggles. “You’re so cute when you coo.”
I feel my cheeks heat up. “I bet it would be the same if I were doing it to you.”
“You’ll get the chance to do so tomorrow,” she says. “I can’t wait, Aero.”
I smile, “I can’t wait either.”
“Your brother is going to call,” she giggles.
He and I hadn’t talked in years. The last time we did, we dissolved into an argument about my lack of Talent. Unfortunately, I was the one who ended up in tears. His words cut into me. Mom sat in my room and held me while Dad chewed my brother out for what he did to me. Then the two switched rooms so my mother could rip him a new one and my father could comfort me. It was one of their tried and true methods, and it worked off well.
Like clockwork, my Trick Watch rings. I only need to look at the screen and a holographic projection of my brother appears. “Hi, Trick-sister!” he spits, or would, if the projection is real enough. It’s not.
“It’s Aerona, Troy!” I spit back. “And no amount of the nickname will change that.”
He ignores me, as always. “I just want you to know that I found a lovely Talent wife. Too bad I didn’t invite my traitorous sister!”
If I am not still in the massage daze, I will have let him have it. “I was born without Talent, remember?”
“Still a traitor to our family,” sings he.
“Mom and Dad don’t think I’m a traitor to the family.” It’s true. Mom and Dad tell me countless times that I am not a traitor when Troy manipulates me hard enough. Troy doesn’t understand me because, unlike me—where I am not Talented—, he inherited precognition from the mixture of Talent genes. He is older than me, making me the baby of the family.
He tried to push more tests when he found out that his baby sister was either a Trick or a late-starter when I was eight. Mom and Dad shook their heads. The Center was dead serious about me finding my power on my own instead of having more tests pushed upon me. Outraged, he cursed me and called me his traitorous Trick-sister. I didn’t know the meaning of his words back then, but as I got older, they hurt.
“You there?” Troy sneers. “Or are you trapped in your own Trick-sister world?”
I shake my head. “No! I just…was thinking of Julian.”
“You suck at lying and you know it.”
I don’t respond. He wins if I do. The best way for me to deal with him is to ignore him when he tries to rile me up. Instead, I glare at him. It works every time.
“Want to know how the wedding went, my traitor?”
I shrug, my glare going dry. “Okay, why not? What do I have to lose? After all, you know it better than I do.”
“Well, my turncoat, it was a large wedding, filled with 900 people, all Talents. We wedded at sunset and it was so romantic. Our honeymoon was filled with all sorts of activities that you probably would’ve enjoyed if you weren’t a Trick-sister. We even have a daughter on the way. Her name will be Carrie.”
It hurt that he got married without me being there. I always wanted to be his flower girl, his bridesmaid, or his woman of honor, whichever he wanted. This was before he found I was a Trick. He chuckled and ruffled my hair. “Maybe when we find out you are a Talent.”
However, he denounced me when they found me as either a Trick or a late-starter, declaring, “You are not welcome to the wedding!” Mom and Dad tried to change his mind, but he refused. “I have no sister!
“Well, I better help Holly—my wife—by feeding her cravings. Bye!” Troy disappears from my watch.
“He’s still a jerk,” I tell Julian.
She scoffs with a smile. “He’ll warm up to you again in two months.”
“Ain’t that the truth?” I sigh. “He disowned me when I was nine.”
She sighs back and pats my shoulder. “I know. You told me when we were just starting out—I mean when I moved in with you. You were so emotional about it.”
“I know I was.” Then I realize something that sticks out in Julian’s second sentence. Unfortunately, I am too relaxed to ask what the heck she meant. I sit up and stretch. Maybe I’m overthinking what she just said. She will tell me in her own time.

Chapter 4


It is the day before I am due to go to The Center. My nerves are super high, making me not want to eat. Julian tries to make me eat, but to no avail. However, my Trick-Sitter—throughout the month—gives me the eye and I eat.
“It’ll be okay, Aero. I’ll be sitting in the hall next to the room waiting for you,” Julian reassures for the hundredth time. “I can’t tell you what will happen in there, because the Sphere won’t allow me to.”
“I’d rather be surprised,” I try to lie. Despite Troy rejecting me as part of his family, he is right about one thing: I am a horrible liar. I am often found out.
“You’re lying, Aero. You want me to spoil, like I would about an episode of Gunsmoke. The Sphere would label me a Psych if I did.”
I give up. She’s loyal to both the Sphere and me. I can see she doesn’t want to commit treason. It isn’t so much as selfish as it is torn loyalty.
My heart is still racing. I try to utilize Julian’s yoga moves that she has taught me. It works for two-and-a-half hours, however.
I pace when I’m not doing yoga, unable to sit down for more than a minute. The butterflies in my stomach make me squirm if I sit down too long.
My Trick-Sitter stops by, even though today is Julian’s day off. I ask, “Ma’am, what’s going on? Today’s Julian’s day off.”
She looks me dead in the eye. Then she blinks and then claps her hands once. Throughout this, she doesn’t smile. This new message apparently means, “I came only to make sure you eat.”
“Eat?!” I scoff hysterically. “That’s a laugh!” My insides rattle.
She grabs hold of my shoulders and, in front of Julian for the first time, says, “AERONA! Calm down! Getting all worked up over this will harm you in the long run! Now calm down and eat!”
I swear, back in the ancient United States, she would be a good drill instructor. She had the makings of a Sergeant Major in the currently-historical Marines. She was strong when she wanted. However, she needed to know that it was okay to cry. Julian sometimes did it when she felt a wave of sadness put a damper in her powers. Since we rarely got visitors, the only person who could help her landed on my shoulders.
In the corner of my eye, I see Julian’s jaw drop. Since she is at work most of the time when I’m with my Trick-Sitter, she never has the chance to hear her speak. I understand where she is coming from.
“Julian, are you okay?” I ask.
My Trick-Sitter waves her hand in front of her face. “Did I scare her?” For once, she sounds very concerned. Maybe talking has freaked Julian out.
“You probably did,” I say. “But it’s okay. You didn’t know.”
“Well, for one thing, at least you are calm, now.”
I look at her. I guess I haven’t realized it now. She does have a point. I am calmer, thanks to her. Now, all I need is to find someone to do that again, so I could be calm for The Center. But I know it won’t work. Julian said it herself. She’ll be sitting outside the hall while I’m in The Center’s room. I know I won’t be alone, but it sends shivers down and up my spine and wiggles in my heart.
Slowly, ever so slowly, Julian comes around. Suddenly, she yells, “I DIDN’T KNOW THAT YOU COULD SPEAK!”
My Trick-Sitter looks to me as if in a harsh glare. I shrink. “Perhaps, I have forgotten to tell her?”
My Trick-Sitter intervenes. “It’s not as much as forgotten, Julian. She may have neglected to tell you. It happens all the time; people forget or neglect to tell people. It’s nothing to worry about. In fact, it probably only crossed her mind once. I surprised her as well when I spoke to her the first time.”
I sheepishly walk away, but Julian pulls me close, preventing an escape. “You are a crazy friend of mine.” Then she says something that I don’t hear. I scratch the inside of my ear to figure out what she has just said.
“I’m sorry, what was that?” I didn’t hear it quite clearly.
She looks away, blushing. “Oh, nothing, nothing… Just think of new knitting patterns I could do…”
“You’re lying,” my Trick-Sitter says.
Julian shakes her head. “I am not.” I can feel her fingers tremble. Is there something Julian is hiding? I want to know someday, but for now, I’ll just let it rest. “I love to knit. It’s one of the things I am good at. I also like to give massages every now and then. Aerona like them a lot, don’t you, Aerona?”
I nod. “It’s true. She does give good massages.”
My Trick-Sitter shrugs and gives up. “Maybe I don’t know what you’re talking about. Maybe you’re not thinking about—” Julian covers her mouth with her hands. Then she hisses something into her ear. Unfortunately, I can’t hear it, so I don’t know what they’re saying.
She removes Julian’s hands and gives her a death glare. “Don’t you ever do that to me again! That was gross. About as gross as…my past…” She trails off, as though haunted by her past. She doesn’t wish to remember it. It’s what makes her hardened in the first place. She hates it; she doesn’t hate me or Julian. That much is clear.
“Is it about the Psych of a cousin you had?” I ask out of concern. I hate to bring it up, but she mean so much to me just as Julian is to me, too.
Throughout the month of March, she began to open up to me more while Julian was at work in her Sector. There was more to the story that I originally had thought: Even worse still, her father didn’t even notice it was happening at first. Then one day while she was at school, the school nurses began to notice that she was starting to fear boys and men more and more. They had no idea if it was her uncle or her cousin, so they called up The Sphere and had her placed into the protective custody of The Sphere’s legal system. Her mother and father were furious as Hell when they found out that their daughter had been put into custody. However, they had to wait until the investigation was completed.
It wasn’t fun for my Trick-Sitter, either. The other kids and protective custody of The Sphere’s legal system tormented her, calling her dirty names, saying that they would never allow her to fit in with their group, ever. The Sphere took notice of that, and isolated her, giving her friendly treatment while at the same time slowly figuring out what happened that caused her to be fearful of boys and men. At first, she refused, thinking that she would be in trouble; however, The Sphere told her that no one was going to harm her. When she refused to open up, they called an aura reader to read her aura. The aura reader took one step into the room but instantly balked, saying, “This child’s aura has been tainted with the evil one…”
The Sphere had no idea who she meant. She was vague, and would not give any other clues. They then labeled her as superstitious for good reason. However, she did give a little tidbit: “I cannot tell you who it is, but I do know that the bad seed is within the family…”
Next, they assigned a masterful hypnotist, who then put her into a deep trance and immediately found out who it was who stole her innocence. “It is who I feared. My Talent may be hypnotism, but I’m also part psychic. However, I did not want to know that it was her cousin that did this. Her mother and father will be very much in tears,” she told the investigators. “Just give her time to…recuperate from all this, because she needs it more than anything. If you have to, I implanted a special trigger that should help if she doesn’t recover from this. But it can only be used in the event of an emergency. You can’t just put her to sleep any time you darned want.”
The Sphere understood, and she gave them the trigger word. Then she packed up her equipment and left without a trace. However, as the days went by, it weakened every time The Sphere tried to use it with her, so it was useless. They were so disappointed. Unfortunately, they couldn’t take away a Talent’s gift; it was unorthodox and illegal, and it would leave many lasting impressions for their life on in. In fact, the last time they tried it, a Talent died for giving out false reading to the Trick that they were protecting. They vowed never to do it again, for if they do they knew that it would lead to the Talents’ doom.
She nods, her eyes clouded with immense and lasting pain. “It hurts me more than I know.” She looks at me again. “Sorry for yelling at you earlier.”
“Hey, I needed it. If it wasn’t for you, I would still be hysterical and not want to eat. So, in a way, you saved my life.”
Julian nods in understanding. “I would do same if it weren’t for you… Um… I didn’t catch your name.”
I suddenly agree. “Yeah…what is your name? I never heard you say it aloud before, and it would be nice to know, it’s just us.”
She thinks it over, as if her name is a secret from all of us. Then she says, “It’s…Rowena.”
I roll it over and over in my head, mentally recording the sound of it. I love the name. “Rowena…yeah. It’s super pretty. And I love it all the same.”
Julian nods, a smile on her face. “It reminds me of those Harry Potter novels. I’m in love with Ginny and Harry being together as well as Ron and Hermione being together. J. K. Rowling didn’t make a mistake when she shipped Ron and Hermione together. Instead, she made a miracle”
Rowena almost chuckles. “Yeah. But my last name isn’t Ravenclaw. However, sometimes I almost wish it was.”
“Ah, well… At least we got Aerona calm now,” Julian says.
I smile wider. “That’s true.”
We eat a French dinner in peace, enjoying each other’s company. Rowena leaves after dinner, after we ask her to stay, but she tells us she’ll accompany us tomorrow. Julian and I try to get some sleep before the procedure. However, our nerves are shot.
Eventually, we settle down and fall asleep.

Chapter 5

The Procedure, Part 1

I hold Julian’s hand, trembling. “Even though it was nice to see Rowena last night, I’m still nervous about what’s going to happen at The Center.”
Julian gives me one of those trademark smiles she always has. “Oh, relax, Aerona. You’re going to be all right, and that’s all what matters,” she sings.
I giggle, relaxing as she sings a song from a movie that I like. “You sure know how to cheer someone up, and relax them without even using a massage.”
“Hey, that’s what friends are for. They pick you up when you fall down. They can help soothe your nerves, ring the bell when they count you out, and they risk their own lives to rescue you when you need it.” She then cries out from a sharp jab in her ribs.
Rowena draws her fingers back. “She doesn’t need to be hysterical before she goes in to see The Center! The Center abhors it if they have a hysterical patient to deal with. I know, because I was once a patient here. I was so panic-stricken, that they had to sedate me before they could test what had happened.” She sighs. “At least they – at least they didn’t find that I was pregnant, because I wasn’t. And at least they didn’t find any STDs. That would’ve been real bad.”
“You almost sound as bad as Aerona when she’s paranoid,” Julian says, bored out of her mind.
“Yes, I know,” she sighs.
We enjoy the rest of the trip in silence, which is strange because Julian likes to talk about random subjects as we go along. I guess she is jittery about what my outcome will be. I can’t blame her; I am, too, but I try to keep myself busy as much as possible. Otherwise, I’d go crazy and hysterical to the point where I can’t recognize myself anymore. I keep myself busy with the daily crossword. Hmm… A seven letter word for madness. Oh, I know! Insanity! I fill the word in. It matches up with the words nest (with the s), incomprehensible (with the n; the longest word in the crossword so far), and yelp. Now I am 22 answers away from finishing the crossword.
“We’re almost there,” Julian whispers in my ear, almost jolting me from my crossword thoughts. Someone drops something fuzzy into my hands. It makes me feel warm. I look down to see what it was, but Julian’s hands redirect my head, so I’m staring up at her.
“I want it to be a surprise for when your procedure is done,” she whispers, rubbing my shoulders. “You’ll love it. It’ll all make sense in the end, after we get done.”
“Since when do you get all cryptic, huh?” I jab after stuffing the object in my pocket, giving a small elbow to her arm. “Usually, you aren’t that way. Usually, you give me the fullest description.”
She giggles. It’s like a tingling feeling when I hear her laugh. It is almost like broken glass that tinkles musical sounds on the ground. I can listen to her laugh all day. It fills my heart with glee, especially when I’m having a day where I'm ticked off. I don’t think I can last a day without her laughing.
In the beginning, it was annoying, mainly because I didn’t want it to be that way. I tried to ask my Trick Counselor to have another Talent living in my house. To the contrary, the law states that only one Talent can live in the house with their assigned Trick. Julian had a cow when she heard that she would be staying from now on. I, however, felt internal conflict about this. Here I had an overactive, over-excitable Talent in my house. Yet, I was quick to learn that she had a mind of her own. I know, I know, that was how all humans work.
They had minds of their own until the nuclear war happened. It drove people insane with their nuclear warfare. When it happened, their minds began to change. Those with psychic abilities became stronger in their psychic abilities. Those without ended up with rudimentary Talents. With those rudimentary Talents, the skeptics became believers and the believers finally found faith. It was then that The Sphere rose up and called our land Psioncia. Why didn’t I explain that earlier? I’d rather not think about the past and think about the future. To me, history was boring. It was a wonder that I passed the course.
All that aside, however, the bus comes to a halt at The Center entrance. My stomach is swirling with nervousness as I take the first steps off the bus. The weather is nippy, and I pull my loose sweater over my black shirt. The Center advises us to wear only loose clothing so they could work on us. That means we cannot wear anything that will be difficult for The Center to get us out of. Prom dresses are super difficult to get out of for one thing. We also cannot wear jewelry either. Yet, it’s okay, because I don’t wear jewelry anyway.
Julian and Rowena take my hands and lead me into The Center. It’s a grandiose building, not like any of the hospitals of old. There are several handicap ramps, a mercy to some of those who still use wheelchairs and walkers. There aren’t any stairs to use--it’s illegal to have one of The Centers built with stairs. So we walk up one of the ramps, and then walk onto a platform. Once there, we an overhead eye scans us from head to foot. It’s imperative that patients in The Center have been scanned. If you don’t get scanned, you can’t go in. The only exceptions to this rule are power outages and other emergencies. Examples include heart attacks, strokes, and appendicitis. Once the scan is over, we hear a female robotic voice say, “Come in, Julian Pegasus, Aerona Absentia, and Rowena Crawford. The Center wishes the best.”
The interior looks as if someone took tips from royalty. It has plush seating, enough to fit more than nineteen people. The reading material has improved from the old United States—where only magazines sat in holders or on the tables. There are books from the past—Harry Potter, still a great classic, Deadly Heat, and The Bar Code Tattoo, to name a few. The atmosphere is welcoming, despite the song “Pegasus Device” playing on the radio right now. It's playing on loop. It seems that one of the employees is still an old-time brony—or, fan of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
We walk up to the elegant receptionist’s desk, the tile clicking under our shoes. A man is sitting in the desk. He has a small build and brown eyes. He doesn’t have hair, but I don’t mind that. The name tag on his desk reads “Slyph Quantum.” “Hi,” I say to him. “Aerona Absentia to see the Trick Specialist.”
Slyph smiles, a warm glint in his eye. “Okay, let me see.” He types at the keys. Then he nods, closing his eyes for a moment. “Yes. Amelia will see you in a moment. Just sit down in the waiting room and she’ll call you later on. She is still with another patient.”
I nod in understanding. “Thank you, Mr. Quantum.”
“Please, call me Slyph, Miss Absentia.” It makes sense. I have been here before and again because Julian often comes here. I shouldn’t use formalities like I did before. I could call him Slyph.
I give him an apologetic look, then go to sit down next to Rowena and Julian. Julian isn’t giggling at the fact that we found out Rowena’s last name. It’s unusual, even for her. In fact, she’s acting as if the name is nothing to laugh at.
She laughed when she found out my last name. The initials reminded her of “Alcoholics Anonymous.” In the old United States, "Alcoholics Anonymous" was group therapy that was used to help stop drinking. In Psioncia, we served alcohol only to those who could handle it. Anyone that couldn’t was immediately kicked out of the bars and pubs. Kids who came to the bars were served soda, milk, hot chocolate, tea, or water, depending on their tastes.
“I know what you’re thinking, Aerona,” Rowena says. “She’s only taking my last name in stride. She doesn’t think Crawford is funny. It’s only your last name that made her laugh.”
I scoff a little with a small smile. “Thanks, Rowena.”
“Now sit up nice and straight! You are a lady and should look beautiful,” she orders.
I obey, waiting for Amelia. She and I speak on the Trick Watch every now and then. Amelia and I went to school together until they found I was either a late starter or a Trick. I remember telling Amelia everything about what the officials found. Her arms wrapped around me as I cried to the high heavens screaming one word:  Why? I still remember her telling me it’d be alright as her fingers stroked my back and her fighting back the urge to cry with me. We were excited about us going into a Sector, and we were both hurt when we found that one of us couldn’t go. She matured into The Center Officials while I was held back. We cried before she went in to hone her skills. We didn't want to leave each other. We were best friends. We tried to keep in touch as best as we could. But her mentors kept her busy and our communications became shorter and shorter with each passing day. We kept trying, although we thought we were deluding ourselves even further.
It's not long until I hear a sweet, bell-like voice say, “Aerona Absentia?”
I look up from the Harry Potter book I am reading. It's Amelia. Her shimmery, red hair is curled in beautiful wisps. Her clear blue eyes, behind glasses—because she tells me she has farsightedness—, beckons me into a safe place. Her uniform is typical of a nurse's, but sewn on the left breast is the symbol of a rainbow with a stork flying above it. That's The Center's symbol on all employees’ shirts.
“Hello, Amelia.” I get up to follow her, smiling.
She giggles, the bell-like sound of her voice making it sound as though she is made of wind chimes. Her arms wrap around me. She remembers that I love it when she and I get to see each other on these rare occasions. I never want to let go, but know that we have a procedure to do. I take in the scent of her deodorant—motion activated, but sweet smelling, like a flowery garden.
We hold it for a few seconds until she and I let go. We smile before I follow her into the building. I hear Julian follow. “I’ll sit outside and not disturb,” I hear her say to Amelia.
“It’s fine. Just remember: Only one at a time,” she tells her.
From the corner of my eye, Julian is shaking. I whisper, “Creo que todo va a estar bien.”
Right away, she relaxes. Was it something I said? She walks without any need for hysteria.
Amelia and I walk inside the room. It’s almost like a doctor’s ultrasound checkup room. The bed's to a far wall and the monitoring equipment is next to the bed. However, instead of the gel and the transducer, there are electrodes, wires, and an I.V. drip. Having gone through different tests as a child, I know what the electrodes and wires are for, but the I.V. is new to me.
Amelia draws a curtain around me, separating us.
“Please strip off everything, including your bra and panties, and put on the gown that you see on the bed.”
I do as she tells me to. No need to anger the best friend I had before they held me back and removed from school. The gown is purple with darker purple paw prints. I put my clothes in the sack to signal to Amelia that I’ve done what she asked. “Is it okay if you help me tie up, Amelia?” I suck at tying my back.
She opens the curtain. “Sure.” She helps tie my back. “Anything for my friend, I will do.”
The tiles warm up automatically under my feet. That’s another thing they do differently around here than when the United States was here. They made thermal tiles. No more cold feet—if you pardon the expression.
Amelia takes my height and weight into account. It’s still necessary, I think. She then takes my temperature and asks the usual questions like my last cycle or if I’m pregnant. I answer to the best of my abilities. I lay on the bed, and she orders some warm blankets—standard procedure at The Center.
“What’s the I.V. for?” I ask, curious. Outside, I hear soft giggles. Julian is either having fun, or just thinks my curiosity is funny. I’ll check with her later.
Amelia doesn’t even blink. “For this, we need to use a sedative, but you’ll be okay.” She attaches the first electrode onto my head and connects the wire. “That’s the only painful part of the procedure. After that, it’ll be smooth sailing.”
“Thank you, Amelia.”
“You’re welcome. This will take only a few minutes to find your innermost Talent.”
“And if it doesn’t…?” I can’t help be worried.
“If it doesn’t, we’ll just try a bit harder. Not all Tricks are the same. For you, it could take a few minutes or up to an hour,” she breathlessly says, adding a second electrode to my head.
“I can handle that long. By the way, do you think you can swing by later on so we could catch up?”
“I will check my schedule, but if I can’t this week, I’ll check in next week.” She continues the electrode-wire process until the last one is secure. “Okay, we’re all set!” she cheerily announces. “How are you feeling right now?”
“Pun-wise, wired; outside the pun world, I am a bit nervous, but I’m fine,” I report as honestly as possible.
She giggles at the pun. “That’s why we’re still friends.” Then she produces a needle. “Give me your arm, please?”
I obey, wrapping my other arm around the bear I came with—Amor, not Benson. The Center, like the ancient hospitals, allows us to bring a stuffed animal with us. I try to keep my arm relaxed for Amelia while I face her face, not trying to make her feel guilty for having to do this. There is some minor discomfort as the needle goes in my arm and finds a vein to work with. I see some tears well up in her eyes. I let go of Amor and gently wipe them away. “Todo va a estar bien.”
She gives a gentle smile. “You know how to make me feel better. When I heard that they assigned me to you, I felt both excited—since it’s been a while since we last saw each other—and nervous. I guess my nervousness is taking precedence over my earlier excitement.” She gives it a final push, and the shunt is in. It is one of the weirdest feelings in the world to have something to feed into your veins. She tapes it down so it doesn’t come out.
I feel an all-familiar buzz in the back of my head. The machines have just kicked. “Is zz—it okay if you ch-change the tune?” I ask, the buzz making me sound weird, hearing another round of “Pegasus Device” playing.
“Oh—yes. John must’ve played it on YouTube and forgot to turn it off after the first round. He likes those over an hour videos. He once played ‘Awoken’ for ten hours straight. He almost made me quit this Sector, even though I didn’t want to.” She walks out of the room, saying something to Julian before taking a right down the hall.
Julian walks in. “So far, so good. The vision is coming true so far.”
“You knew this zz—part would happen?” I ask, curious.
“Yeah. Plus this song made me addicted a week before we got up to this point,” she cheerily smiles.
I can’t help but smile again. Something about her smile is contagious. Yet, I wonder how she remains so cheerful. Even after all that has happened to her, like her parents’ death, and then her aunt and uncle’s deaths she remains so vivacious. She must be hurting deep inside, or on the outside, she must be hardened, like Rowena. Instead, she’s bubbly and zany.
I see Julian’s smile turn into a curious frown. “What are you thinking about?”
“How do you zz—remain so…animated?” I ask.
“Oh…Aero, you already know the answer,” she giggles and rubs my arm, careful not to dislodge the shunt. “I would ruffle your hair, but that’s not allowed for the moment.”
“Yeah, I know. Even my parents knew to leave it be.”
She kisses my hand—something even I don’t know she’s capable of doing. “You’ll be okay. I’ll be out in the hall when you are done.”
I nod, blushing and smiling. “Thank zz—you, Julian.”
The music changes to a mixed bag of genres. I sigh in relief. “Thank you, Amelia Heartstrings.”
Julian giggles. “I know.”
A short amount of time later, Amelia returns. Julian returns to her spot outside the hall. “There we go. That better?”
I nod. “Aw, Naw” is playing. “Let’s hope zz—that John zz—character d-doesn’t change it.”
“His shift ended five minutes ago. He won’t change it again until his shift tomorrow morning.”
“Thank you, Amelia.”
She types on the keys. “The machine is ready.”
“I zz—know…” The buzzing makes my speech sound like a spastic robot.
“It’s time.” She sighs, eyes darkening. I frown in understanding. She doesn’t want to do this, but she has to. She picks up the I.V. tubing. Regret is drawing lines in her usually peppy face. Her entire body trembles as she gently grasps my arm. She’s whispering to herself, and I don’t pick up the words. She doesn’t have to repeat it. She’s trying hard not to break down and cry.
I look into her dull eyes. “No llores tú, por favor.”
She gives a small squeak before wiping her eyes. “S-sorry…”
“It’s okay, Amelia,” I say. “It’ll be zz—okay. Julian says zz—so.”
She nods, taking a shuddering breath before she starts to calm down. “Thank you, Aerona.” Her professional attitude takes over as she puts the bright blue-colored liquid in the shunt.
The fluid feels like fire in my veins. It’s as if it will incinerate me from the inside out, but I know it’s for the best. I keep a hold on Amor, feeling my strength decrease by the second. The buzzing on my head intensifies. My thoughts start to diminish one by one as my vision clocks out for the day. I mumble something incomprehensible before everything goes black.

Chapter 6

The Procedure, Part 2

In the drugged-slumber, I dream. I know some people do that, but the sedative has something that makes us do this in Psioncia more often than not. It is dark, but not dark enough that I can’t see my body. In spite of myself knowing that no one is with me, I say, “Hello? Is—is anybody here?”
Nothing is there.
Suddenly, a flash of lightning—or what I think is lightning—splits the black. I look around, ears pricked for the sudden clap of thunder. “No trueno,” I note, thinking it strange. The flash hasn’t gone away, and I’m hearing a soft hiss. Instead, it seems to be attracted to me! My heart hammering, I do what any person in those action films, minus that one film with the word “despicable” in the title, against heat-seeking missiles or the like do—run like hell and hope it avoids me. I scramble to find that my feet are kicking up dirt. “Why am I in a hole?” I assume, but when I realize I haven’t hit a dirt wall, I take it back.
Suddenly I stop, feeling something hit me from behind like a snake. I feel my body drop to the ground, jerking in all directions. I try to force out a scream, but it sounds like I’m gargling Shiny White mouthwash. My body is paralyzed. Once the numbness passes and my body seems to be in my control, I turn on the ground, seeing the lightning has not dissipated. It turns around, as if someone is calling it to the sky, but it whips around and charges after me. I scream, “Amelia! Wake me up! Hurry!”
The lightning strikes me again, and I give out a strangled whimper. What did Minute Earth tell me? I should crouch low and keep my feet together? It leaves once again as I weakly scramble to my feet. “Amelia, I think the procedure is finished…”
I see that it hasn’t yet finished what it wants to do. “Amelia, what are you doing?” I know it’s pointless to ask her while I’m in a dream. No one can hear me scream. Screaming is useless, but I did it twice.
It swirls and charges me again. I try to crouch, but it’s too late. In real life, I’ll be super crispy bacon. But in the dream, it hits me with enough force that I confuse lightning strike with car wreck. I’m flung back several feet into something hard. I try to use it to prop up, but feel splinters in my hands. Looking behind me, I see a tree. “T-thank you, tree…” I pant.
I try to search for the lightning again, but it’s gone. There isn’t a spark in the dark sky now. Did it do its job? Am I safe now? What just happened?
The sky starts to dissolve to white. My whole world is shifting. The ground underneath me began to tremble as I suddenly see some wildlife shoot out from the trees that I have taken cover in. What is going on? Is it time for me to stop dreaming? Am I going to die in the dream? Despite the shaking, I begin to shiver myself. This is scary, even for me. My arms wrap around myself. I lose all sense of balance as I fall into the dirt.
Suddenly, I hear a voice. “Aerona? Aerona, it’s time to get up. It’s over now.” It’s Amelia’s voice.
I wake up with a startled gasp, clutching my chest and breathing hard. Amelia looks at me in concern and asks, “Are you okay, Aerona? Did something happen?”
“I—I don’t know,” I say, clutching to Amor so hard that I fear her head would pop off its stitching.
Her eyes turn to the computer screen, a concerned look crossing them. “This is really weird! I don’t understand this at all. Something must’ve gone wrong, I don’t understand.”
I tremble on the bed as she hurries to remove the electrodes from my head. “Amelia, what is going on?”
She quickly turns to me. “Nothing! Nothing is wrong. I must have made a mistake!” She’s shaking, a sign that I know is wrong. Either she’s lying or she is trying to hide something. Her mannerisms are nothing I’ve ever seen from her.
“Amelia? Are you okay? What’s going on? Did the procedure fail?”
She shook her head rapidly. “No, if the procedure failed, you would have been brain-dead or worse.”
“What could be worse than being brain-dead?” I whimper.
She doesn’t say, but takes out my I.V. instead. “The only thing that we can do right now is to wait and see what develops.”
“You’re probably right. I’m not feeling any different right now.”
“It’ll be useless to tell Rowena a lie since she can read minds.” She prints out something on her computer, folds the paper up before I could see it, and stuffs it in her breast pocket. “Technically, the procedure is a success, but right now, the best course of action is to find out what you have developed. If anything unusual happens, call Slyph. He’ll set up an appointment for you and we’ll go on from there.”
I nod, trying to shake the heaviness from my legs.
She gasps. “I’ll get you a wheelchair.” Hurriedly, her long legs race out of the room.
“Thank you, Amelia.” Is she okay? She’s acting as if she just exposed something powerful to the Isle of Span-Fran.
The nuclear war didn’t just affect the United States. It went everywhere. Spain and France were separate countries. When the nuclear war happened, Spain went to France. There was a squabble amongst the two. Spain’s king at the time pleaded to France’s president to let them stay. Reluctantly, the president allowed them on the condition that they go home once the war ceased. When the people of Spain thought that the war was over, they took up their end of the deal only to find that their land was thick with the nuclear waste. No one could step foot in Spain. The waste made them dizzy. It was a mess. France’s president saw this and had mercy. Spain and France joined forces, making them into Span-Fran.
She returns with the wheelchair. The results from the procedure are gone from her pocket. Is she trying to hide something? Amelia isn’t usually that way.
I heavily sit myself in the chair, my mind heavy all of a sudden.
“It’s normal, Aerona. You’re experiencing what is typical of this new procedure.”
“You’ve done this type of thing before?” I ask, letting my head fall back.
She then gives a small gasp. “I’m such a Talent Dork! I forgot to give you something to perk up and get you dressed! No wonder you’re heavy.” She then has me lay back down on the bed. “I’m so sorry.”
I am so glad to be on something level. Sitting right now makes me think I’ll fall off the chair and hurt myself even further. Amelia opens the door, giving Julian a message in haste, and leaves the room. It seems my results are a spectacle.
Julian walks in, and I smile weakly. “Hey…”
She sits next to me, taking my hand in hers. “Hi.”