by Chloë Manning
CONTENT WARNING: mental illness, suicide.
The first rule of mind-reading for the sane and stable was to know the difference between someone else’s mind and your own. As Vee exchanged coins and pleasantries with the barista, she could sense that fine distinction between his fatigue and her own, and knew that the aching pain of smiling too much for too long was on his face and not her own.
People were always unsettled by the idea that someone could ‘hear’ their thoughts — or feelings, as was the case with Vee’s broad-strokes empathy. On the whole, though, she thought they overestimated how much they kept private in the first place. The background feelings of the university café — exhaustion, affection, stress, impatience, depression, frustration, anxiety, relief — were all readily apparent through people’s faces and voices and the way they tapped their fingers irritably or took a deep sip of their drink. Her power didn’t even make her better at finding people: she had been looking around for almost a full minute when she finally noticed Jeremy waving at her from a table near the windows, set against the grey sky outside. She went to join him. ‘How was your exam?’
He made a face, and his mood deflated slightly. ‘I never want to have to write another word on bone composition.’
‘You may want to reconsider becoming an archaeologist.’
‘I’m thinking about it. How about you?’
‘Well, Hien can’t fail me, but he seemed disappointed.’ Trần Hien was a lecturer in Gender Studies, but he sometimes took on students with telepathic abilities. Vee was the first empath he’d ever taught, and although he wasn’t the kind of teacher to show it outwardly, she could feel his frustration at her limited ability. He knew she could feel it, too, which made something of a feedback loop between them. ‘I think I’m going to get another talk about nuance.’
She could feel him beginning to formulate a sympathetic reply — all of Vee’s friends knew that Hien was forever lecturing her about the importance of nuance — when he was hit by a wave of recognition. Vee turned around to see the cause — a broad-shouldered young woman handing a reusable coffee cup to the barista. She turned back to Jeremy. ‘Friend?’
‘I have Ancient History with her — I think she’s in Classics. Hey, Penny!’ He gestured for the girl to join them.
Vee didn’t need any of Hien’s theories of nuance to tell that the girl was reluctant to do so, even from a distance. Jeremy was determinedly friendly though, and went up to speak to her. A few minutes later he was leading the girl, now cradling a full coffee cup, back to the table.
Hien insisted that their abilities meant they were capable of judging a person’s character before they even opened their mouth, but Vee usually only picked up on their mood. As the stranger approached, Vee was hit by a familiar sensation, like being filled up with icy water. Swirls of self-doubt and self-loathing flowed over her, and numbness spread through her senses. Vee took a moment to push the sensation away and her mind cleared.
‘Vee, this is Penelope. Penny, this is Vee.’
‘For Vendetta?’ the girl asked as she sat down.
Vee smiled slightly. ‘For Verity.’ It hadn’t always been for that, but she’d kept her nickname when she’d changed almost everything else — her legal name, the country she lived in, her studies, her friends. It was something to hold onto, when a million other minds pressed in around hers.
Despite her private conviction that empathic powers didn’t really give her much more insight than ordinary people, Vee had to admit that the impression she was getting from Penny was unnerving in a way Jeremy seemed completely oblivious to. There was something strange — off — wrong about the way Penelope felt, even beyond the thick cloud of depression. Vee tried to find a sense of anger, of desperation, of any feeling in the other girl’s mind, but there was only distant serenity. Her own heart felt cold in her chest as Penelope answered Jeremy’s questions about their Ancient History exam.
She knew that feeling. She’d sensed it before. Hell, once — at a very dark time in her life, not quite as long ago as she’d like — she’d felt it herself.
This girl was going to kill herself.
Vee watched her carefully, looking for any outward sign, as though she might have imagined it. Hygiene? Average, probably above average at this point in the semester. Tiredness? Penny had dark rings under her eyes, but no more than the rest of the students here. Her replies were perfunctory, but enough to fool the casual observer. For someone so deep in depression, her manner was almost chipper.
Some people got a burst of energy once they made the decision, she’d heard somewhere. It hadn’t been like that for her, but she could see the logic. You had a plan. You knew what to do. The end was in sight.
‘Vee’s probably seen the British Museum a million times, seeing she’s from there,’ Jeremy was saying, then turned to her to explain. ‘We had to do an essay on the Elgin Marbles, you know, Vee — four thousand words on an international dispute nobody’s going to resolve this century.’
‘So, you’re… British?’ Penelope asked her uncertainly.
Vee nodded, trying to seem normal. ‘From the border of England and Wales; people find my accent hard to place. You?’
‘Australian. I mean, my family’s British originally, but you have to go back a few generations.’ A sliver of embarrassment stabbed at her, only to be smoothed over by that eerie calm.
‘Vee’s an empath,’ Jeremy said brightly. ‘She’s studying under Dr Trần.’
Vee realised with a pang that the sense of ambition he was feeling was not meant for him — he was trying to set her and Penelope up. Oh, for fuck’s sake.
Penelope’s sense of alarm was once again drowned, but she was on her guard. ‘He was a guest lecturer for our Roman History class once. Does he always read people’s minds?’
‘We can’t turn it off,’ Vee said frankly. Maybe if it was out in the open, she could confront her? ‘But you’d be surprised how little it matters. Most people only lie to be polite.’
‘Or to avoid lending people money,’ Jeremy added.
‘That’s politeness too, avoiding outright rejection. Everyone fears the embarrassment of rejection, at least a little bit.’
A faint hint of wry humour rippled through that barren emotional scape. ‘I thought that was only boys. Isn’t it “Men are scared women will make fun of them, women are scared men will kill them”?’
‘You’re cheery today,’ Jeremy grumbled.
If only he knew.
Vee managed to give her standard response, even as her mind was reeling. ‘If women had no fear of being made fun of, lesbian dating would be a lot easier. Trust me, women excel at emotional torture. Actually, men do too, if what I’ve heard from straight girls is true.’
Penelope shrugged. ‘I’ll take your word for it. I don’t really date.’
‘You do sometimes, though?’ Jeremy asked anxiously. ‘You’re not, like, what’s it called, aromantic or something?’
Vee wondered if she could ask him to fetch something from the other side of the uni. Or the other side of town. Or the other side of the planet.
Penelope, uncomfortable with this line of questioning, shrugged again. ‘I don’t think so, but I… It’s not something I do.’ She stood up abruptly. ‘Sorry, I need to go.’
Vee hesitated as Penelope walked away — she couldn’t force someone to keep living if they didn’t want to, could she? — before standing up. ‘You can have my coffee,’ she told Jeremy, ignoring his feelings of triumph, before hastily following the other girl out of the café.
Outside, the wind was sharp and cold, and the dark clouds overhead had begun to thicken. Penelope was heading for the edge of campus, making her way past the university food court. All around, hundreds of students and staff milled around, their feelings weaving a tapestry of anxiety and sleep deprivation across the back of Vee’s mind. Penelope was tall, with a long stride, and Vee had to run to catch up, before falling into step beside her.
‘Are you following me?’
Vee was about to deny it when she realised that was exactly what she was doing. ‘Yeah. You don’t seem like you’re okay.’
Penelope fixed her with a pointed glare, but Vee could see the enormous effort it took just to summon that anger. ‘That’s kind of an invasion of privacy. Don’t telepaths have rules about that?’
‘There are exceptions for when someone’s life is in danger.’
Penelope’s stomach twisted with an uncomfortably familiar sensation — shame. She turned away. ‘You think I’m selfish.’
‘I don’t have time for that bollocks. Depression’s an illness, not a character flaw.’
‘People die from illnesses all the time.’ She said it matter-of-factly, as though she weren’t talking about a struggle with her own brain, one that had gone on so long it had drowned her self-preservation instincts in concrete. It was such an easy lie to believe, Vee knew — that this was natural, that all roads had led to one final destination.
But it was still a lie.
‘Did you actually need to get somewhere or were you just trying to get away from Jeremy?’ Vee asked.
Penelope hesitated on the edge of a lie, but finally admitted, ‘Trying to get away.’
‘Yeah, he means well, but he’s really bad at helping. Want to get something to eat?’
‘Because it’s twelve thirty, traditional time of the midday meal known to me as dinner and to you as lunch? Also,’ Vee added, nodding to the reusable cup still clutched in Penelope’s hands, ‘caffeine tends to go down easier on a full stomach.’
That Why? had meant everything but ‘Why get food?’ but Vee knew enough — remembered enough — of what it felt like at this stage to realise that trying to convince Penelope of her value as a human being, both in general and in particular, was pointless at this stage. The all-consuming serenity of the suicidal would take more than that to relinquish its prey. A pang of despair — not Penelope’s, but her own — caught Vee by surprise. I can’t do this. I have no idea how to help someone this far gone. I don’t even remember how I got out of this feeling, and I…
Penelope stopped walking. ‘Food sounds okay.’
I can try.
Ten minutes later, they were sitting on a bench outside of the languages building, sharing a halal snack pack. Vee didn’t know how the Scottish had yet to pick up on this glorious tradition of chips covered in kebab meat and swimming in sauces, but she was betting that it would only be a matter of time.
Penelope was silent for a while, watching the leaves on the ground as the wind tossed them around. An emaciated fox sat in the bushes a few meters away, staring hungrily at their food. Vee tossed it a slice of kebab meat — the fox snapped it up and then beat a hasty retreat. ‘I know they’re invasive,’ Vee offered apologetically, ‘but there aren’t any native animals for it to eat around here anyway. Maybe if it gets its strength up, it could catch a rabbit.’ Of the two invasive species on their university’s campus, the rabbits were doing substantially better than the foxes: hundreds of plump bunnies could be found throughout the gardens and ovals. ‘So, do you have family around here?’
Penelope nodded. ‘I live with my parents. And my sister, but she’s overseas at the moment.’ A feeling like soft blankets and hearthfire settled across her, and for once, the eerie calm didn’t completely suppress it.
‘You love them.’
A sharp spike of guilt. ‘It will— it would hurt them if I went through with it.’
‘Yes, but that’s not the point. You love them. Even if death was a train to Narnia, you’d miss them like hell.’
‘I don’t think death is a train anywhere.’
‘Even so, you wouldn’t ever see them again. It’s a reason to stay.’
Penelope bit down on her lip, and Vee could feel her struggling not to cry.
‘I… I don’t know how to stay. I don’t know how to…’ She choked on the words and looked away. ‘I don’t want to keep going,’ she whispered. ‘I know it’s wrong, and terrible, and selfish, but just living hurts so much, and I just… I just want to rest. I just want it all to stop.’
‘Hey.’ Vee reached across and caught her hand, holding it tightly. Penelope kept staring at the ground, breathing fast and shallow. ‘Not going through with it doesn’t mean you have to just fight through the pain alone. I know it feels exhausting just thinking about asking for help — I know you think you’re protecting them—’
Penelope looked up, her face streaked with tears. ‘How do you know I’m not right?’ she asked hoarsely. ‘You can read my mind but you don’t know it isn’t true.’
Vee swallowed. I can’t… I can’t… She stopped herself and took a few deep breaths, extending the exhale the way the doctor had taught her years ago, back in England. Finally, she said, ‘If you’re anything like I was, you probably think you’re some kind of monster.’
‘How do you know I’m not?’
‘Are you a serial killer?’
Penelope managed to roll her eyes through the tears. ‘No, but—’
‘Do you run a human trafficking ring?’
‘Are you part of a white supremacist group? Do you beat up queer people for fun? Seriously, look me in the eye and tell me what makes you a monster.’
Penelope sighed. ‘Well, I can’t get a job and people are always telling me my degree is going to be useless, so I’m basically a burden on society.’
‘Unemployment being a crime only in the eyes of trashy newspapers which like to ignore basic economics.’
‘I have horrible thoughts all the time, and I probably am a serial killer, I just haven’t killed anyone yet.’
‘Invasive thoughts don’t make you a bad person, and trust me, I would know. I meet dozens of people every day who feel like they want to murder someone, and none of them have. And you can’t be a serial killer without killing at least three people in separate incidents, it’s in the definition.’
‘You don’t understand,’ Penelope said desperately. ‘Nothing happened to me. I don’t have a reason to feel like this. I just… There’s something wrong with me, okay?’
And there it was, a feeling so familiar that for a moment Vee wasn’t sure it was not her own. A certainty that by taking herself out of the equation, she was making the world better, relieving it of a burden.
‘No.’ All the ferocity of hope burned in the word — Vee’s own hope, the kind that was a lifeline of her worst days. ‘You are not some broken toy to be thrown away. You are a person, and yes, you’re sick, and maybe you’ll always have to manage that, but it doesn’t make you any less worthy. And I know thinking about ending it all means you don’t have to worry about the future, and that’s comforting, but death isn’t sleep. It’s empty. It’s nothing. And you might feel like everything feels like nothing right now, but if you keep going, if you get help, you will be able to feel again. You will be able to be happy again.’
‘But I haven’t, and I’ve been holding on for so long, and it’s not ending.’ Her desperation physically hurt. ‘’Why does it matter? Why would I matter? I’m not going to change anything, or make anything, or be remembered, so why do I have to keep going?’
It seemed so simple. So inevitable. Why shouldn’t she die? What did it matter, in the grand scheme of things?
‘Because…’ Vee hesitated. The inadequacy of her answer tore at her. ‘Because if you die, you don’t get to keep on living. And I think you want to live. Not just to survive. To live.’
Penelope wouldn’t — or couldn’t — look up. Her hands were shaking.
‘And,’ Vee added quietly, ‘I want you to live too.’
After a long silence, Penelope reached into her bag and pulled out a phone. She tapped the screen and put the phone to her ear, breathing deeply.
‘Mum? Hi… Nothing’s wrong, I just… Are you at home? Okay, could you go to my room and look in my bedside table drawer? There should be a tin in there, with some pills in it — they’re the ones from when I broke my shoulder. No, I didn’t take them, I know… Mum, I need you to throw them out. No, I don’t think it’ll be a problem if you flush them down the toilet. I’m at uni… Outside the languages building. Yes, there’s someone with me. Okay. Thanks, Mum. No, I won’t. Bye.’
She hung up and took a long, shaky breath. ‘Okay. Okay…’ She finally met Vee’s gaze: she looked exhausted. ‘My mum’s coming now.’
A fine spray of rain had been falling on them, and now thunder cracked overhead and the rain grew heavier until it was pouring down in sheets. Retreating from the garden, Vee and Penelope huddled under the eaves of the languages building. Vee could feel the calm certainty passing from her, the inner storm flooding in, but it was tinged, just faintly, with hope.
Once more unto the breach, my friend.
‘I’ll wait with you.’
Chloë Manning is a sci-fi and fantasy writer from Canberra, Australia. When not answering questions about why she didn’t do a useful degree like law or industrial basket weaving, she writes about mental illness, magic, and murder investigations (not necessarily in that order.)