The Human Scale

Note: Adult theme, some graphic content. May not be suitable for all ages or audiences.

Friday Afternoon

“Rumor has it this is your super-power,” John remarked casually as he steered the car onto the highway.  The mountain home was perhaps thirty minutes out from the city, and John wanted to make sure he’d learned what he could about his special guest before they got there.  On arrival, there would be other people around, and probably little time to talk privately.

Indy smiled. “Super-power? If that was a text, I’d respond with the laughing-to-tears emoji.” 

John chuckled, then asked, “Well, what is it, then?  The counselors call it ‘magic.’ They say your readings can change everything for their clients.” The radio was playing softly in the background, with Indy bouncing slightly to the music, but now John turned it down further, barely audible against the quiet road noise of the sedan. Indy stopped his microdancing and focused (somewhat) on his host.  John went on. “I’ve known you in passing for a while now, but I have no idea what they could mean.  I just know that Dan said to take you along this weekend.  He said you might be able to reach out to Cammi, get her to come out of her shell.” John paused with a glance at his passenger, then added, “Dan’s not just the director of a successful rehab, he’s a good friend of mine.  He wouldn’t be sending his receptionist with me today without some good reason.”

“Office manager, actually.” Indy said this absently, his eyes searching the farmland along the road, as though the fields that slid past the car windows held an answer that he might use.  The question John was asking had come up many times over the years.  Friends, lovers, family members, even the occasional stranger had asked essentially the same thing, usually in the form of, “How do you do that?”  Indy had given many different answers to this question.  Usually he would give only a brief response, like “it’s magic,” or “I’m just cleaver,” or “a little bird told me.”  Other times, he would give the long answer, about how empathy works, and his own natural ability to respond to the vibrations of his fellow beings.  Once in a while, he would be honest.  After a few moments of silence, Indy said simply, “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know, or you won’t tell me?” John looked mildly amused, but his tone was direct. “My curiosity is getting, well – is it like, a secret, or something?  Are you a cold reader?”

“No.  That’s not it.”  Indy sighed as he decided to try, once again, to describe what this thing was like for him.   “It’s like this: sometimes when I meet someone, I get this feeling.  It gets my attention.”

“So, you’re saying you’re psychic?”

“No,” Indy shook his head, “I really don’t believe in telepathy.  It’s more like an impression.  It’s like… I blink, and then think, ‘There’s something I need to say to her,’ but I have no idea what it is.  It makes me want to talk to her, to learn more about her.  Pretty much every time this happens, I eventually learn that she has been abused as a child, like molested.  Somehow, I pick up on this, and it generates an emotional response.”

John was clearly skeptical, and more than a little concerned.  “So, you have a thing for abused women?” he asked, “That’s kinda sick, you know…”

Indy would have laughed, but he had gotten this question many times as well.  “When I was younger, I used to believe I was falling in love whenever this thing happened, but I’ve learned to think of it as something else.  Perhaps you could call it a protective instinct.  Like there’s still a scared child inside this adult women, and I feel called to help.  In fact, I tend to think of a woman who evokes a very strong reaction in me as having an emotional ‘beacon’ lit up.  Like she’s broadcasting on some frequency I can hear.”

“You’re describing empathy.  We’ve all heard of empaths – isn’t that what you are talking about?”

“No.  I don’t know, I guess.”  Indy was shaking his head, “I think the idea of an empath is the same as telepathy.  That’s magic. This is real.”

“But you were born this way, right?  If you’ve always been this way, it must be some kind of innate ability.  So, I’m going back to calling it a super power!”

Indy actually laughed aloud – this was a new remark, and refreshing change from rehashing the threadbare explanations he had given time-after-time.  “Yes, I think you’re right!  It’s definitely my super-power!”  His laugh faded, and he added, “But I was not really born this way.” 

John’s eyebrows were raised slightly as he took a longish look at his passenger, but said nothing.

“Here’s what I think happened.  First, I was abused as a boy. I mean, I don’t ‘think’ that happened, I know that part is true.  I was molested by the pastor of a church near my house.  Repeatedly.  This may sound odd, but it was not actually a bad experience at the time.  The man was nice enough, and always seemed so caring and, well, priestly.” 

Indy paused to gather his thoughts a bit.  Outside the window, the landscape had changed from rolling hills to the rocky bluffs of the low mountains they would soon ascend.  Indy was trying to visualize their destination from the descriptions Dan had given.  A “cabin in the mountains,” later said to have “at least five bedrooms.”  Cabin?  Must be quite a big cabin to have such space. 

A sudden stab of curiosity prompted Indy to ask, “How big is your place?  Dan makes it sound like you have a lot of room.”

“Right around five thousand square feet, I think.  It was originally built as a retreat center for architecture students.  Don’t remember the man’s name, but I guess he was a Frank Lloyd Wright wannabe. I got it cheap.”  Brief pause.  “So… you were saying something…?”

Indy sighed again. “This bit is hard to talk about, but not for the reasons you might think.  I’ve come to terms with what happened.  But – like grief – it doesn’t really go away, even if you’ve learned to cope.  In fact, I suppose that is exactly what it is: grief.  It’s a sense of loss. It’s like my internal sense of self, the corporeal home of my spirit, had been invaded by a trespasser while it was still under construction. Boundaries crossed before they even existed.  If you have not had it happen, there is no way for you to understand.  For those of us who have, this feeling of violation is unmistakable, not like anything else.”

John made a small noise, as though he would speak, but seemed to change his mind.  In a moment, he tried again.  “So, I get that you have had a horrifying experience, and I am guessing you feel like you share something with other people who have had something similar?”

“Not exactly, and yes, and no.  It was not horrifying.  Like I said, the pastor was kind to me.  It wasn’t until later that I realized it was wrong, and that I’d been violated.  I suppose it worked something like this: I was born predisposed to some kind of intuitive talent.  Then, my own experience fine-tuned that intuition.  I think this perspective does cause me to resonate with certain people, but the feeling I get is not commiseration, it’s – as I mentioned – a protective instinct.  As far as I can tell, this is why it happens with women who were abused.  It has almost never happened with men, and I can’t think of any reason why not, except that I do not feel protective over them.”

“I see.  So, this is why Dan hired you at the rehab – it’s a women’s facility, right?  But, you aren’t a counselor, you’re a recept….”

“Office manager,” Indy chuckled.  “Actually, I’m a writer.  I make more than half my living off of reviews, blog posts, and the occasional article in one of a handful of magazines I freelance with.  I have no desire to be a counselor, and probably would suck at it – not my temperament.  Dan and I became acquainted years ago through a mutual friend, and – Dan being the way Dan is – he saw an opportunity to use me in his front office.  I like it, and he pays me ok – certainly very well for a receptionist.” 

“Office manager.”

“Just checking!  Anyway, it’s not like I report my radar detections to him, he can just tell by the way I act.  When a new client comes in, the more I like her, the worse condition she’s in.  It helps Dan’s staff know where to start, or when there is more to uncover, I guess.  It’s kinda crazy, but I’m Dan’s canary in the mine.  When I stop singing, they know there’s poison in the air!”

“Well,” said John, “we’ll have to see how you do with Cammi.  She came to us by way of some friends, but they wouldn’t tell us exactly why she needed a place to stay.  They just said we’d have to ask her what happened…”

Indy clamped his hands over his ears in mock deflection, saying, “No advanced information, please!  No preconceived notions!”

John, laughing out loud, said “As far as she knows, you’re just one of the guests, here for Saint Patrick’s Day dinner and a couple of days at the lake. In reality, the same is true for you – you are part of my extended family for the weekend, no expectations beyond green beer, corned beef and perhaps a few games of bocce ball.”

Saturday night, late

Jill found Indy in the den, perusing her and John’s extensive and diverse collection of books.  There was a small stack of books on the table, while Indy was holding a poetry anthology.  There was a fire in the stove, but the damper was mostly closed.  The flames moved slowly back and forth in search of air, licking the glass black with their sooty breath.  Most of the house was asleep, or soon would be.  Jill had only stayed up to help John put dinner away, and prep for breakfast.  Now he’d gone to bed, but she was too wound up to go to sleep.

Jill remarked, “You and Cammi seem to have hit it off pretty well.”

“She’s nice.”

“Dan told us of your talent. He seemed to think you would be able to help us understand her.”

Indy seemed to pivot. “Where did she come from?”

“She’s a friend of a friend.  They contacted us.  All we know is she needed a place to stay, perhaps to retreat for a while.  Honestly – she came with nothing but the cloths she had on.  We figured we’d get more details from her, but we don’t want to pry and she doesn’t offer anything up.”

Jill was tall, with an imposing air in spite of her slender frame.  Realizing that she was towering over her seated guest, she sat down in the couch across from Indy, who relaxed visibly once the field had become more level.  There was a tacit question attached to the end of Jill’s sentence, but Indy didn’t bite.  Instead, he asked about breakfast.

“Corned beef hash and eggs – it’s a tradition, uses up leftovers.” Jill paused, then decided to be more direct.  “So, is what Dan said true?  Can you read minds?”

Indy set down the book, and shifted in his seat.  Jill was sitting directly across the coffee table from him.  He shifted again, leaning forward slightly, and looked Jill straight in the eye.  “Something happened to you.  You weren’t exactly a child, but were too young to deal with it.  It was sexual, but not something you consider assault.  It was not a family member.”  He paused, watching a mosaic of fleeting expressions spark in Jill’s face, while she tried to look impassive.  For a long moment this silent game of poker lingered, a slight chill creeping into the edges of the room.  “It was ongoing.  There is something about it I don’t recognize, like it was a lover, or a friend, but it changed.  I can’t put my finger on it, but can feel it.  Like you were in the middle of something, and couldn’t – or wouldn’t – leave.  You wanted to will it away.”

They broke gazes, and sat in electric silence for several minutes.  Indy picked up the poetry, again, but only looked at the cover.  Eventually, Jill asked The Question: “How do you know that?”

Indy, in all honesty, answered, “I don’t know.  Am I right?”

Jill’s look became distant. “I was 13.  I had been developing somewhat earlier than the other girls, and I thought I liked the attention I was getting from the boys.  During PE, one of them groped me.  Just a little grab-ass, you know?  And the boy was good looking.  I was embarrassed, but that died away when I realized no one saw.”  Jill looked at Indy before continuing.  “There was another boy in the class – one that I liked.  With only a little bit of choreography on my part, I gave him the same opportunity.  He took it, of course, and that time it made me feel good.  It got to be a regular thing, however, and I started to feel… well… not right, I guess.  I still can’t explain, but I decided it should stop.  By accident, when trying to avoid the boy I liked in PE, I actually backed into another boy – a creepy one.  He grabbed me, by the hips, and pressed himself into me.  I couldn’t get away – he was strong.”  A frown, and another pause. “The whole class saw it.  The thing was, as much as the boy disgusted me – even scared me – I could have just walked away from that.  It was the girls – the looks on their faces.  They made me feel like I did this, like I deserved it.  No one said anything, but you could hear the word ‘slut’ just under their breaths.  So, ya, not really an assault, but it left a definite scar.  You nailed it.”

Indy was nodding in agreement, but said, “That wasn’t it.”  Jill looked shocked, and somewhat offended.  Indy elaborated.  “I mean, sure, that happened, but that’s not all.  It’s not enough to get the kind of signal I get from you.  Something like this happened again, didn’t it?”  Jill was getting visibly uncomfortable, so Indy answered his own question.  “Yes.  In fact, it was a pattern, wasn’t it?”

Jill seemed to be fighting an internal battle, perhaps between anger and grief. While grief was losing, curiosity came in like the cavalry, and anger was dispelled for the moment.  “Supposing it did. What does it mean?”

“Nothing.  It means nothing.”

Jill had that look you get when there’s a thorn in your shoe, but you can’t find it and put your shoe back on anyway.  Only worse.  “Several times,” she said. “Well into college.  I changed the way I dressed, let my hair go, quit wearing makeup.  Didn’t matter. Different circumstances, different places, different people, but essentially just like middle school. It would feel good, then it didn’t, then I’d end up getting mauled by a bystander while others looked down their noses at me.”

“You exaggerate.”

“Not by much.”

“But it stopped.”

“Eventually.  I have never understood why.”

“It was not your fault.”

Jill looked sharply at Indy. “How could it not be?  I led people on!”

“No.  You only played the same game everyone else plays.  Not your fault.”

Back in the battle of Jill’s mind, anger had regrouped and returned to the field.  “But, I put on weight.  A lot.  Looking back, it was intentional.  That didn’t stop it!”

“But it did stop.  Something you did changed it.”

“It never completely stopped until I got into grad school.”

Indy was impassive.

Jill seemed to be struck by a thought, and said, “Wait.  It stopped when I graduated. I even stayed at the same campus for my masters. Nothing else had changed.”

Indy said nothing.

“It changed the way I felt about myself.” Jill didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, at the silly obviousness of it.  “I stopped it.  It was me all along.”

Indy said again, “It was not your fault.”


“People are responsible for what they offer us.  We are responsible for what we accept.  It was not your fault.”

Jill pulled up short.  There was a moment in which Indy thought he could see her head dip, like a horse at full canter who has suddenly been made to stop abruptly.  Then she cocked her head to one side, gave a very slight smile and said, “I wonder how many times I’ve heard that?”  Indy raised his eyebrows a notch.  “I mean, people have told me it wasn’t my fault, and on some intellectual level I’ve known it to be true.  But I don’t know if I’ve ever really believed it, until just now.”  Indy just shrugged.  This part always made him feel awkward, as much so as the confidence he felt a few minutes earlier. “You really need to be one of the counselors!” She added, with exasperated smile.

“Can’t do it.  Not my thing.  I’m too unpredictable, and I tend to get attached.”

“Ok. So now that you’ve run me through the wringer, what about Cammi?”

“She’s nice.”

“Seriously, Indy?  I’m asking for your expert opinion here – do you have one, or not yet?”

Now it was Indy who looked distant.  “No.”  He said. “And I probably won’t.  It happens within the first few seconds, or pretty much not at all.”

Jill pondered this for a moment, then, “So, you’re the litmus test, right?  If you don’t react… she’s all okay?”

“I didn’t say that.”  Indy was beginning to look distraught.

“I don’t understand.  You just opened-up my head, reached in, and pulled-out a nasty skeleton from my otherwise fairly clean closet, and in almost perfect detail.  Do you have a read on Cammi, or no?”

Indy pursed his lips, looked at Jill for a moment, then let out a long sigh.  “I don’t know if I can explain. In fact, I don’t really understand it.  This is a new one on me.”  Jill’s expression said, “Keep talking,” and Indy reluctantly went on, haltingly, as though picking his way through a swamp with a walking stick to locate the rare clumps of solid ground.

“Cammi is ‘silent’ to me.  No broadcast, no beaconing, nothing. She is like empty space in the room, like a cardboard cutout and not a person.”

Jill was shocked.  “So, you can’t read her at all?”

“It’s not even like that.  I always feel something from other people, even if I don’t get a clear read.  I think everyone does.  We all sense people – their presence, their moods, whether they are listening or not, whether they’re hungry.  You do this, right?  We are all empathetic in this way, we are all connected.  I have an especially good sense of these things is all, and I seem to be tuned to particular frequencies or something.  That’s how it works.  But even with people who are not on my channel, so to speak, I know they’re there – just like you do – just like everybody.”

Jill nodded, mulling this over.

Indy went on.  “Cammi is not there.  It’s like she is intentionally clamming up emotionally.  It freaks me out.  I feel sucked into this void.  Normally, when my radar actually does get triggered, there are two phases: First, I feel like there is something I need to tell this person, but I don’t know what it is.  Next, I open up a dialog, and I receive a flood of emotional signaling from her.  It gets hard to handle sometimes – like drinking out of a firehose.”  Indy looked up from the table and met Jill’s gaze.  “With Cammi, it’s like looking into a dark room, and I feel like I need to shine a light – a very bright light.”

“So… are you afraid of getting lost in the dark, or of what might come out of it?”

Monday morning

Jill was getting ready for work.  John was straightening the living room.  All the other guests had left, either last night, or earlier this morning.  Cammi and Indy were finishing a cup of tea in the kitchen.  Looking out the window, Indy could see the morning mist lingering on the lake in the distance.  He’d never made it down to the water, in spite of every intention to take the short trek.  As he sipped his tea, he noticed that there was smoke coming from the chimney of the neighbor’s house and drifting down toward the lake.  “Perhaps,” he thought, “that isn’t mist at all.  Perhaps that’s smoke, settling on the waters – or even both. Yes, it could be both.”  But he didn’t voice these reflections, instead taking the opportunity to say good-bye.

“I think John’s about ready to take me back to town.” He said.  Cammi nodded.  “It was very nice to meet you, Camille,” he said.

Cammi giggled, “Funny, but a common mistake – my full name isn’t ‘Camille,’ but ‘Chamomile.’  I think it was, like, an autocorrect on my birth certificate or something, but I never got the chance to ask my mom.”

Indy laughed, took another sip of tea, and said, “Well, my full name is ‘Indygo,’ with a ‘y.’ It’s an intentional misspelling of ‘indigo.”

A smile from Cammi.  Two sips of tea.  Outside, on the lake, it was really looking like both.  Indy thought he could see the slight difference in color between the mist and smoke, which was mostly at the shore closest to the neighbors.  Cammi was gazing out the window, so Indy asked, “Do you think that’s mist?  Or smoke from the neighbor’s fireplace?”

Cammi looked mildly surprise for a moment, “What?” Then, refocusing her eyes, asked, “on the lake?”

Indy nodded.  “I thought you were looking at it, too.”

“No, I wasn’t really looking at anything.” Cammi paused for a moment. “It could be either. What do you think?”

Indy just shrugged. He felt awkward, helpless.  Indy had long known, with no arrogance, that his intuition gave him an advantage in most situations.  But at the moment, he felt a kind of blindness. It was like what one feels in a deep cave with the lights out.  Inky, oppressive blackness that seems like a physical pressure on one’s eyes.  It was the intuitive equivalent to that.  He wondered if this was how people were supposed to feel.

Cammi broke the silence.  “Have you ever hit someone?”

Indy was taken aback, and didn’t speak for several seconds while composing an answer to this rather startling question.

“I mean, a woman,” Cammi added. “Have you ever hit a woman – lover, spouse?”

“No.” Indy had no idea where this was coming from, and didn’t know exactly what to say. “I don’t think I could, either.”

Cammi did not explain her question, but went back to sipping and looking out the window. The sun was poking a few rays into the smoky mist on the lake, and the early morning birdsongs were starting to fade in advance of the morning buzz that would slowly start up as the bees began to wake.  After a long pause, she said, “Actually, you could.”