The pain she felt with the kids fading was like nothing she had ever experienced before. It seemed to go to her bones, both emotional and physical. The group watched in silence and hated that they could not go to her. Ethan had put his hand up when Emily had tried, knowing that it would likely only increase her pain as well as cause it for the others.
She was hunched over sobbing into the ground, and Ethan slowly made his way over to her. He knelt in front of her and called for her. It took several times before she was able to look up.
“Why?” she asked, but then began to choke on her tears again.
“I will explain later, but now you need to calm down. I know it is hard and that you hurt, but try to remember that they are at peace now, and that is because of you.” Ethan reached out and put his hand by hers; it was the closest to comfort he felt he could provide.
He looked up and saw the group watching. Emily was crying while Gabrielle held on to her, and Josh rubbed her back. Mike looked uncomfortable, and even Miller looked as though it hurt her to watch this unfold. He nodded to the group, giving them silent permission to leave. Emily quickly turned and left, unable to watch anymore, and Gabrielle followed after her. The rest of the group took their time, but they slowly left.
Ethan continued to watch Riley until her sobs slowed. “Do you think you can head back?” he asked quietly.
Riley was silent and still for several beats but then finally nodded. Ethan backed up to give her some space as she stood but was close enough that if need be, he could grab her. As she stood, he noticed how shaky she was and slowly reached out, letting her see. Riley hesitated but offered him her covered arm. When he touched her there was a slight burst of pain, but nothing the two couldn’t handle. He tried to help her as swiftly but as carefully as he could.
When they reached the house, Riley stopped. “I need to be outside,” she said softly.
Ethan called into the house for another blanket for her, not wanting to leave her for even a moment. Especially in case, she thought to do anything rash. Josh brought a blanket, and when Riley had wrapped herself up, she sat down and stared forward. She didn’t seem to be registering anything around her, and her tears, while flowing, were silent.
“Is this okay?” Josh asked.
“It is hard to say, each empath is so different.”
“So no more tests?” Riley asked quietly.
“We still need to do tests. There is a lot to determine other than just whether or not you are an empath.”
Riley’s only reply was a small shrug. “Will it always feel like this?” she finally asked.
“You already know the answer to that question. It did not feel like this when you helped Abigail.” Ethan let her reflect on this, knowing that she needed to work through some of this on her own. He and others could guide her, but she needed to trust herself. When she nodded, he continued. “The difference is the amount you had to call out. Abigail came to you. She wanted your help so desperately that it took little for you to connect with her. The impact was naturally lessened and also easier to ignore because we were exhausted, and you were experiencing something you never had before.”
“I didn’t even realize I was calling out.”
“I assumed as much. We were all frantic and were exceptionally motivated with this case. I am sure you also had personal motivations,” Ethan said, looking at her pointedly.
Riley swallowed a little but did not deny it. “How do I?” she began but was afraid to continue. What if there was no answer to controlling this?
“Training will help you control how far you reach and how to control reaching on accident. It should also help you to recognize when you are calling out to spirits. The more awareness you have, the more control you will have. It will also teach you how to manage the pain after, although you will always have it.” Ethan let out a deep sigh. “If you do not want to risk that, I can send you back and make sure you get some training, so you are safe.”
That seemed to snap Riley out of her haze a little. “How can you ask me that? You heard what I told the kids, that it was worth it. Did you think I was lying?”
Riley studied him, and her eyes narrowed. “I think you want me to quit. You don’t want to deal with me, but want me to make the decision to help your guilty conscience.”
Ethan quickly pinched the bridge of his nose. “I am trying not to think that way, but I cannot deny there is a little some truth to the accusation.” He hated how it sounded, how it felt to say, that even felt it when he told himself to stop pushing her away. But he didn’t want to lie to her either.
“So you don’t want me here? Why even offer me the job if you were so hesitant?” she asked softly. She sounded so defeated that Ethan cursed himself.
Ethan looked at her apologetically. “You must understand, Riley, it is not a matter of not wanting you around.” He groaned, then leaned his head back and continued, “I do not wish to go into details at this moment, but you are not the first empath I have had on my team. I failed the last time, and I take no pleasure in having my past mistakes laid out for me.” He looked deeply into her eyes. “I do not want to fail you.”
“I deserve my own chance, not to be haunted by your past.”
“I know that, and have already told myself as such. But it does not change that there is a small part there.”
“You either get me as an empath or not at all.”
For all of Ethan’s doubts and fears about having another empath on the team having it put like that, and the thought of losing Riley made Ethan’s gut twist. “I apologize, Riley. Of course, I would rather you stay. You will just have to give me time to work on my insecurities and fears.”
Riley nodded and also leaned her head back. Ethan studied her carefully and noticed some of the color coming back in her cheeks, and her breathing seemed steadier.
“Haunted by my past, pun intended?” Ethan tried to lighten the mood a little.
Riley smirked but offered little else, much to Ethan’s disappointment.
“You knew I was going to suffer a lot?” Riley asked, and Ethan nodded. “How?”
“I did not know to what extent. However, after what happened in the ditch, I realized that you had been unconsciously pushing yourself. For you to have disconnected like that was no small thing.”
“Did I do something to make them not trust me? They made it so hard.”
“Riley, I cannot give you a clear answer to that. I can say that I do not believe you did anything wrong. They were kids, which always makes it hard. The spirits of children are always more fearful, and they are not motivated by the same desire to see justice that many adults are. I also think they might have been uncertain how to connect.”
Riley bit her lip and started to silently cry a little again but processed what Ethan said. “Why does the pain happen?”
Ethan sighed heavily at this question. “I do not have the best answer for that. Empaths are, as you know from your own reading, I imagine, extremely difficult to study. Our best guess is that when you reach out and make a connection, the spirits actually binds with you, that is how they are able to share actual emotions. So when you pass, it pulls a part of you with them.”
“Like a piece of my soul?” Riley asked, horrified. “Am I going to be less of me with each case?”
“No,” Ethan said quickly to calm her panic, “It is not like that.” Ethan struggled to find the words, and Riley remained patient now that her initial panic had passed. “It is more like the bond you create with all people, they leave an impact on you. The difference is the bond that a spirit makes with an empath is more primal, and yes, connected to your soul. It does not take a piece of it, but there is something deeper to the bond formed. I also think the fact that it is such a quickly developed, but quickly destroyed, bond makes a difference. That is the best way I can think to explain it, but it is a rather abstract concept. I am also not an empath myself. Your trainer will be, though, and they can help you more. A trainer will also help you learn how to handle it better, and how to control the extent to which you connect.”
“I don’t like feeling emotions that aren’t my own.”
Ethan sighed heavily at this. “I honestly cannot imagine how that must feel. To have your feelings overtaken or influenced by others. But Riley, you know who you are, you know what you are feeling and what is from your abilities. That is one of the harder parts of this, but I have every faith you will rise to that challenge easily. The rest will be learning to compartmentalize and how and when you use them.”
“But it’s not just the emotions of spirits that I feel.”
“You experience the emotions of others when you are around them, especially when they are projecting them a lot. However, does it actually influence you? I do not know the answer to that question, but before you try to find it for yourself, remember that you are being influenced right now, so it would probably be best to think on it later. I think deep down you know the answer, though.”
Riley nodded and let herself reflect on the information. It was a lot to take in, and she could tell it was only scratching the surface. Ethan was not wrong, her readings on the subject had been rather limited, it seemed as though empaths were kept secret even in the world of the paranormal. His description was crude but helpful. “It’s a lot to take in,” she replied.
The two sat in as comfortable silence as possible. Ethan could tell she was still struggling, but for the most part, it was nice to just be. He tried to control the feelings he was having. The man in him noticed that he had responded to Riley and was a bit concerned. While it was true that they had exchanged emails over the years, they did not know each other well, so he was surprised at how quickly it was growing. Instead, he tried to focus on the questions the scientist in him felt more comfortable with. The uniqueness of each empath made it nearly impossible to control his curiosity.
“How do you feel?” he asked after some time.
“Better, but it is still rather painful.”
Ethan gave her a short nod and bit back the other questions he had. Riley studied him carefully, though, and noticed that he wanted to say more. She thought about it, and realized what he was stopping himself from searching for.
“It was like my heart was ripped from my body. It was physically and emotionally overwhelming,” Riley said. “The phrase heartbreak comes to mind, but so much more real and deeper than how we normally understand it. I was completely lost to it and thought it might kill me or, at the very least, that I would never feel anything but pain again. I did not know it was possible to hurt like that.”
Ethan stared at her while she explained. He was fascinated, but felt for her, and was also confused as to why she volunteered the information.
“You are a scientist at heart. You wanted to know but felt it would be disrespectful to ask.”
“Are you reading me?” Ethan asked, a bit alarmed.
“Not that I know of, at least not intentionally. You mask your emotions well but not your curiosity or desire to know.”
Ethan let out a lone chuckle at that.
“Did your other empath never explain to you?”
“She did but each empath experiences something different. There are some shared experiences, but mostly yours will be your own. She said it felt as though she were burning from the inside out.”
Riley nodded. “The kids knew.”
“Most spirits seem to. There seems to be things that become innate once you turn into a spirit.” Ethan paused as Riley continued to look out at the desert. “I am going to have someone else sit with you, I need to make sure we get the rest of the case worked out.”
“Thanks boss,” Riley said quietly.
Ethan smirked, but internally he chided himself for his mixed reaction to the nickname. He had never disliked the team jokingly calling him that before. He was happy that she seemed to be coming along at a decent pace, however. Not long after he went inside, Gabrielle joined her.
“I am surprised, I expected Emily,” Riley said, then quickly added, “Not that I mind that it’s you.”
Gabrielle nodded in understanding. “Watching you suffer like that was hard on Emily. She’s afraid she’ll start crying again and make it harder for you to recover.”
“I doubt it would hinder my recovery, but I admit it would not feel great to watch her cry.” Riley paused, and her brows furrowed. “Even if I am having problems connecting with my emotions, it seems.”
“I have heard other empaths mention a sort of numbness that can result from something like that. You’ll have to talk to your trainer about it when you get one, but I have theorized it is a way to help protect you.”
“Now, dear, do you want to explain why you were reaching so hard?” Gabrielle asked sternly.
“I honestly didn’t know that I was,” Riley admitted.
“That answer is not entirely unexpected. What about all the extra stress you are carrying about this case?”
“I don’t know. I have felt on edge the whole time, felt like something was looming over me. I think I am just so nervous about being dead weight. I helped at the library entirely by accident. What if it was all a fluke, you know?”
“No one expects you to be amazing right out of the gate.”
“It was internal pressure. But then Ethan started being weird with me, and Miller showed up, and I realized she saw us as competition.”
“You aren’t. That is her perceptions, not ours, but continue.”
“Then I finally did get the kids to talk to me, and they gave me so little. There wasn’t activity, I didn’t get much from the kids, and I became desperate.”
“May I offer some friendly advice?”
“I am in no position to turn down advice, friendly or otherwise.”
“You cannot bring these insecurities into this line of work. I am not going to tell you to magically cure it, I understand things don’t work that way. But Riley, you have to understand your abilities aren’t always going to be the most helpful or what we even need. Your usefulness is more than just you being an empath. Your research is excellent, especially for a first case, you are a quick learner who is willing to work, and a good pair of hands. We can’t have you overreaching every case just so you can feel like you are doing enough. It is dangerous and could even get in our way. You won’t always be the rock star, but we will always want and need you.”
“Excellent advice,” Ethan’s voice came from the door, causing both women to startle, at which Ethan smirked. “I apologize for eavesdropping, but I felt it was vital I know what advice you were planning on offering. It would help me know if I needed to undo it.”
Gabrielle glared at Ethan and huffed. “Also, remember boss here doesn’t have any abilities. They aren’t needed to be useful, and we both already have a leg up on him.”
The two of them got into a staring contest when Riley’s laughter interrupted them. “You are like an old married couple. Are you sure you aren’t secretly in love?”
Both groaned at the comment, but were happy to hear Riley’s laughter, so they let it go. Of course, their reaction only caused her to laugh harder.
“I am sorry, I don’t even think I am really laughing at you.”
“We assumed, dear, you are just releasing pent-up emotion. You will likely go through many stages on the way back to normal,” Gabrielle replied.
“Oh good, she’s laughing does that mean we can get back to work?” Miller snapped as she joined them outside.
Riley paused for a moment, then started laughing even harder. Deep down, she knew that it would only make things worse between her and Miller, but she couldn’t stop herself. Miller rolled her eyes but let it go while Ethan watched her with a surprised face, expecting Miller to burst. Gabrielle eventually started chuckling too.
“Now would actually be a good time for a team meeting,” Ethan admitted. He was not looking forward to this, but he was not pleased with the way the case unfolded for several reasons.
Riley nodded, and Gabrielle helped her up. Emotionally she was feeling better, but physically, Riley felt like she had been hit by a truck. Everyone crowded into the base. Riley could see that a lot of the equipment had been packed up and stacked in neat piles. She wondered how she had missed people coming and going as they would have to go outside. Riley realized that she truly had been out of it. The thought made her a little nervous again, but she slowly tried to ease herself. They hadn’t left her alone, and she would have to trust that they would keep her safe. It would be challenging to give that level of trust, but she knew it was vital.
Riley sat on the couch between Gabrielle and Emily. While everybody took their seats facing Ethan.
“I think it’s time we had a little heart to heart. And by heart to heart, I mean you all shut up and remember I am the boss,” he snarled at them.
Everyone nodded slowly, they could feel the anger rolling off him in waves.
“First and foremost, no one is in competition on this team. That’s why it’s called a team. I am the coach, so I am the leader, but other than that, you are all just players.”
“Don’t most teams have a captain?” Gabrielle asked sarcastically. Seeing the look on Ethan’s face, she instantly silenced herself, and no one giggled even though most of them wanted to. “Sorry, boss.”
“The next one of you that feels the desire to make anyone else on the team look bad will be disciplined.” He glared at Miller and Emily when he said this. “Miller, Riley!” he yelled, and Riley jumped. “You two need to work it out. You two would actually be a lot more helpful if you worked together. This petty fighting stops now.”
Riley eagerly raised her hand, and everyone couldn’t help but giggle a little. Ethan hung his head, clearly annoyed. “What?”
“I don’t get how we’d be more helpful. You mean we just wouldn’t be undermining each other or?” Riley asked and shrugged.
“No, you two could actually confirm what the other feels,” Gabrielle answered for her.
“Got it boss,” Riley said, and Ethan glared a bit.
“I am sorry for that,” Miller said.
“I do not care how much you two hate each other, sort it out. It could completely destroy this team if it starts to impact cases,” Ethan continued, “And despite the fact that I apparently cannot even get through a talk without you all disobeying me, you need to start respecting me more. You are not to use your abilities without asking me first. If something reaches out first, I cannot do anything about that, but other than that, I want to know before you do anything.” This part had clearly been for Riley and Miller. Riley raised her hand again. “Yes, Riley, I know you do not know how to control yours, yet I will take that into account,” he replied, anticipating her question. “Also, please stop.”
Emily was trying not to have a giggling fit, and Riley started feeling a little guilty. She was giddy all of a sudden, but she didn’t need to make things harder for Ethan. She put on a serious face and mouthed an apology.
“As I was saying,” Ethan continued, “We need to be a team as a whole. We cannot try and outdo each other. Individually I see you all as an asset, but I am most thrilled with us when we work together. Sometimes a person in the group might shine a little more, but that doesn’t make them more important, because the next case, they may not. Sometimes you are the rock star sometimes you are the backup dancer.”
“Good metaphor Gabrielle,” Josh said, looking at Gabrielle, knowing where Ethan got it from.
Riley lost it at this. She started laughing and crying at the same time. The rest of the group, minus the stone-faced Miller, and annoyed Ethan, giggled a little too.
“I quit,” Ethan sighed.
“You did this a little early for her, I think,” Gabrielle said.
“I am really sorry, boss, you are 100% correct,” Riley said in between giggles and sobs.
Ethan was still annoyed, but he could see that Riley had not really meant to disrespect him.
“We get what you are trying to say, and we all agree. Still, most of us haven’t slept in 24 hours, and we’re overly stressed out. The disrespect is unintentional,” Gabrielle offered to Ethan. The group nodded in agreement.
“We will make sure to work as a team and to make sure to always come to you before taking any action,” Miller added, and everyone once again nodded.
Ethan sighed again and rolled his eyes. He was annoyed with his team, but they had at least gotten the message, despite doing it through giggles. Even though they were all adults, they were occasionally very hard to reign in. Ethan knew it was in large part to the emotional toll the job caused them. That much stress and tension needed to break out. Being silly was not the worst way to do that. They all sat there, and tension started to build again.
“We should get flowers for Jose and Jennifer’s family before we leave,” Emily said softly.
All other noise ceased. “Would they even want them from us?” Riley asked.
“I think it’s a good idea, and it might help Riley too,” Gabrielle said.
“It is not normally our way, but we can think about making an exception,” Ethan said. “For now, we should take turns showering and get to bed early. I want to get back on the road.”
For obvious reasons, Riley was elected to be the first to shower. Aside from how badly she needed it physically, it did help her grab a little more control over her still raging emotions. She crawled into her sleeping bag quickly after and, with some tears, finally fell asleep.
If you want to read more, we are about a month ahead on Patreon! Consider signing up and getting access to more chapters as well as other exclusive/timed writing https://www.patreon.com/meganezombi