When I was born, my parents probably had no idea that the girl they named Holly Althea Brennan would be the subject of national thoughts and prayers. Nor could they have imagined that their daughter would receive outpourings of sympathy, disbelief, and horror on the 24-hour news networks and social media. How could anyone predict that parents would go home and hug their children a little bit tighter after hearing about events that devastated my family and altered the course of our country? That thousands of people I didn’t know and never will offered flowers, teddy bears, and tears in my family’s honor? I hate teddy bears. And tears. Even now, a small portion of this country probably recognizes the name Holly Brennan. That’s in large part why she no longer exists. But it’s not the only reason why Althea Green has risen in her place.
I am Althea Green. I just exited a coffee shop, where I left my seventh resume of the day. I doubt I’ll get the job. The manager’s gold and brown Color surrounded his figure like a swarm of bees. Wary. Hostile. I don’t want a part-time job, but the Science Society feels strongly that teenagers should be productive. Since I have zero after-school activities to speak of, Dan and Mary have instructed me to find one. It’s important to my adopted parents that I try and fit in.
I cross the street past a group of teenagers lingering under warring billboards—one an admonishment from the Science Society warning that “Excess Feeling Hurts, Get Your Feeling Test Today,” the other an advertisement for a therapist specializing in Aberrant counseling. Each kid is surrounded by his or her own unique mix of Color—everything from lavenders and tangerines to cherry reds. Nobody makes eye contact with me. It’s partly due to the cold, but also because it’s easy to be mistrustful these days. It doesn’t matter, though. Their Colors are exceptionally strong, wrapping the kids in brightness, revealing their strongest characteristics. Kindness. Fear. Guilt. Intelligence. The Colors, which have been with me ever since I can remember, are like good friends—reliable, comforting, and telling. They let me know who people truly are.
I have a whole hour before I’m supposed to pick up my little brother, Joey, so I take the long route by the harbor. That way I can avoid the Innovation District and the Science Society headquarters. Crowds of people, usually cancer survivors or anti-Aberrant nuts, are always gathered outside in that area, their Colors too intense, too eager.
I slip around the corner, and the road comes to an abrupt end in front of the harbor. A damp chill drifts in, saturating the air with a mist of salt and sea. Ignoring the navy vessels, I gaze out over the water. I never tire of looking at the ocean, maybe because there’s no controlling it—no matter how hard the Science Society tries.
To my left is an ancient-looking ship that’s missing its sails. Tucked between the larger boats, it’s easy to miss at first. Three wooden masts reach into the air, long and narrow, like skeleton bones. A battered flag, which was once purple but has faded to gray, hangs from a look-out ledge and flaps in the wind. Faded and rotten in places, the ship clearly has seen better days. One good kick could probably send the whole thing sinking to the bottom of the harbor.
I step closer. On the side of the vessel is a metal sign that reads “Alabaster Chambers.” Below it in italicized writing are the words Old and Rare Books, alongside a tiny etching of an open book. It takes a second for me to make the connection. This ship is a bookstore. I try to remember the last time I’ve read any sort of novel. Years ago. Some people still read them, but most don’t bother since the Science Society has proven they’re a waste of time.
At the edge of the dock is a wooden plank. A rusted chain with a large “Do not enter” sign blocks the path, but I easily duck under it. I dart across the wood, aware of the water sloshing below. I breathe a sigh of relief when I make it to the other side.
The cabin windows are greased with grime and fingerprints, partly concealing a yellowish “Help Wanted” sign taped to the glass. A small stone panel engraved with a poem hangs on the cabin wall next to the entrance. I read the first line as I twist the latch on the door.
It swings open with a loud groan to reveal a massive space filled with books. The interior is lit with a soft warm glow, a surprising and cozy contrast to the beaten-down exterior. With its wide plank floors, high arches, and thick beams, the ship’s cabin might have been lifted straight out of the 17th century. A balcony runs around the perimeter, and the entire middle has been gutted—leaving an oval of open space from stern to bow, filled with couches, tables, and reading nooks. I inhale the smell of weathered paper and coffee, slowly running my fingers along a row of book spines. Joey would absolutely love this place.
“How did you get in here?” a harsh voice demands.
I jump, whirl around, and come face to face with a white-haired man who looks like Albert Einstein—only angrier and skinnier. His body is surrounded in a gnarled brown Color that only I can see. It’s rough at the edges, almost like tree bark, and contains just a hint of rose and pickle green.
“Well?” the man demands again. He has some sort of European accent, and his jaw angles down and ends in a hard point, like an ice-cream cone.
“I crossed the plank,” I say, finally finding my voice.
The man’s eyebrows furrow together. “That old piece of wood is not an entrance,” he says, glaring at me. “The entrance is over there.”
I follow his finger to the far side of the ship, where I see a newly painted door. Why would anyone want to use that thing when there’s a real plank?
“What do you want?” the man asks, in a tone that clearly indicates he wants the answer to be “nothing.” “I’ve told you kids a million times to get lost.”
Suddenly I remember why I’m here. “I’m looking for the manager,” I say, trying to make my voice sound confident.
“I’m the owner, William Hart.”
Of course he is. I nod, unsure whether or not I should extend my hand. An awkward moment passes, and Mr. Hart continues to stare at me.
“I noticed your sign out front—out back. I’m looking for a job.”
Mr. Hart’s eyes flicker to the window. “That sign is from ages ago. I’m not looking to hire anyone. Except for a few rare gems, the people I’ve had in here usually prove to be more trouble than help.”
Despite—or maybe because of—his unpleasant manner, the bookseller and his ship intrigue me. I’m slightly irritated to discover that I want to impress him.
“What’s your name?” Mr. Hart asks.
“Althea Green,” I say, and this time I do extend my hand.
Mr. Hart grasps it. His fingers are rough and chapped, as if he’s been flipping paper his whole life. He releases my hand, and my fingers tingle.
His eyes narrow. “Have we met? You look familiar.”
It figures that he would be the type of person to recognize me. “I don’t see how,” I mumble. Quickly, I dig into my purse for a copy of my resume, which is predictably short and includes my first and only real job, at a big box store, back when I lived in Ohio. Unfortunately, the Colors—by far my best and most impressive talent—are not resume-appropriate.
Mr. Hart barely glances at the paper before returning to his desk and increasing the volume on an old radio. It’s tuned to a segment on the growing Aberrant registry. He frowns—I’m not sure if it’s meant for me or the news bulletin.
“This is a real bookstore, increasingly rare in this age,” Mr. Hart finally says, his eyes blazing. “I sell used and hard-to-find books, all of them valuable in one way or another. Many of my customers arrive knowing what they’re looking for. If not, it’s up to me to inspire them.”
My gaze shifts to the handful of customers scattered about the bookstore, their Colors brightening and fading as they browse different books. Though I could probably predict what they’ll purchase just by their Colors, I keep the thought to myself. How has the bookstore managed to escape the scrutiny of the Science Society? Then I spot the large display of books authored by organization members placed conspicuously by the front entrance. There’s nothing the Science Society appreciates more than adoration.
“I like books,” I say. “We have something in common. I can be helpful.”
“Helpful?” Mr. Hart snorts, as if he can’t imagine anything less likely. “Well, then, perhaps you wouldn’t object to a little test?”
As if I don’t get enough of those in school. “Give me your best shot,” I say, with a confidence I don’t feel.
“What’s the name of my bookstore?” Mr. Hart asks.
Is he serious? Does he think I can’t read? “Alabaster Chambers,” I answer. Maybe the old man has lost it.
“What does the name refer to?” Mr. Hart’s mouth twists into a thin, challenging line. He must be one of those people who constantly tests others, expecting, maybe even hoping they’ll fail. His Predominant Emotion is probably Irascibility or Obstinance.
I block out Mr. Hart’s impatient expression and recall the exterior of the ship. There was a panel with a poem. The Science Society and I may not agree on much, but we both disdain poetry. I mean, if someone is in love or dying, why not just say so instead of wasting time on a bunch of words that people won’t appreciate anyway?
My grandmother, however, loved poetry. I close my eyes, but that doesn’t prevent her smile from appearing, so vivid I can almost touch it. Suddenly she is sitting in front of me, her gray hair tucked back carefully in the bun she often wore. She’s blanketed in a soft lavender Color, and her voice is clear as she reads from a thick volume of Emily Dickinson poems.
I shake myself, pushing away the memory. Outside the ship, I had barely glanced at the poem. But that doesn’t matter, because I’ve read it before, thanks to my grandmother.
“‘Alabaster Chambers’ is the first line of an Emily Dickinson poem,” I say, not quite able to keep the smugness out of my voice.
This time Mr. Hart isn’t so adept at hiding his surprise. The rose and green specks in his Color pop out—an indication that my answer isn’t what he expected. I hide a smirk. I’m not as stupid as people think. I just don’t give a crap. There’s a difference.
“Well, aren’t you a little prodigy,” he says, his tone indicating that it’s not a compliment.
A customer appears, and I wait while Mr. Hart rings up the purchase. The woman’s avocado Color pulls in tight around her body, as if trying to shield her from notice. After she departs, Mr. Hart removes a book from his desk and begins flipping pages. Clearly he thinks our conversation is over. I open my mouth to argue and then shut it. I could waste an entire afternoon trying to convince this crazy old bastard to hire me, and he still wouldn’t change his mind.
I’m about to walk away when something catches my eye. A man hovers near the entrance, clutching a backpack, but it’s his seaweed Color that stands out—twisting above his head, slithering like a snake before disappearing into a thin vapor. Deceit. I recognize it immediately, because I see it often—especially when someone’s cheating on a test or not telling the truth. There are a lot of liars in this world. I look closer and notice the bulge in his bag.
“Hey!” I call out.
“What are you yelling about?” Mr. Hart looks up, his Color prickling.
“That man’s stealing a book,” I blurt out. “I just saw him.”
“Is that so?” Mr. Hart scoffs. He thinks I’m full of it.
“Look,” I say, pointing across the aisle. Despite himself, Mr. Hart follows my command. The man, reacting to the commotion, shifts his gaze nervously between us and his bag before averting his eyes. Guilt is written across his face. Not a very good thief, that’s for sure. Mr. Hart must see it too, because he charges over, surprisingly agile for an old man.
They argue, and Mr. Hart lunges for the bag. The man tries to move it out of reach, but not before Mr. Hart grabs the strap. A tussle ensues; they jostle the backpack back and forth. Finally a book on World War II tumbles out and lands with a thud on the ground. Before Mr. Hart can react, the would-be thief sprints out the door. Mr. Hart mumbles a curse as he bends down to retrieve the book.
A minute later he ambles back over, still breathing hard. “How’d you know he shoplifted this?” he asks, showing me the book.
“I told you, I saw him.”
“The World War II section is upstairs,” Mr. Hart says, and now there’s accusation in his voice. Even his Color looks skeptical.
Crap. It’s never good to stand out, especially now. Why did I open my mouth? “He must have brought it downstairs,” I say, though the excuse sounds lame, even to me.
“Maybe.” Mr. Hart gives me a new look, one I haven’t seen before, not even when I passed his stupid poetry test. It’s appraising. He stares, just like I do when I’m analyzing someone’s Color. I’ve always wondered what normal people hope to see. I hold his gaze.
Mr. Hart shifts and glances at my purse, his eyes lingering a moment too long on the wallet sticking out of my bag. For a second I’m confused, and then it hits me. Jesus. Do one thing, and all of a sudden everyone thinks you’re one of them.
“I’m not Aberrant,” I say, reaching for the wallet. “I can show you my ID.”
Mr. Hart’s face reddens, and his Color darkens and sharpens like a razor’s edge. Embarrassed. Good. I’m glad I called him on it.
“I don’t care about that,” he snaps.
“Everyone else seems to,” I argue back, annoyed and—if I’m being honest—a little pissed that he thinks I could be Aberrant.
Mr. Hart’s Color softens a touch. “I suppose I could use some help,” he admits. “Particularly with all that social-media stuff people are constantly telling me I need to do. As you can imagine, my customers are a discerning bunch.”
I freeze, aware that I may be the only sixteen-year-old on the planet with a self-imposed social-media ban.
Mr. Hart sees the look on my face. “You do know how to use social media?” he asks. “Isn’t that a requirement of your generation?”
“I would be happy to help with it.” I decide to lift my ban for the bookstore.
“All right, then. When can you start?”
My heart leaps. “Right now, if you want.”
The bookseller shakes his head and scowls. “God, no. I’m expecting a shipment of books this afternoon, and I don’t have time to train you.” He pauses. “Tomorrow morning, nine a.m. Don’t be late.”
My heart leaps. I finally have an after-school job! With any luck, I can forget about the Science Society for a few hours each week and get Dan and Mary off my back.
Half an hour later, Joey races down the steps of his school. He grins, but his butterscotch Color wavers. He’s worried about our upcoming Feeling Tests. Every day this week, his Color has grown a bit paler. My little brother—Dan and Mary’s real son—is the only good thing in my life. If I could, I’d wipe away the test.
“How was science club?” I ask, trying to cheer him up.
Joey loves the program, which is offered through his school during winter break and uses a Science-Society-approved curriculum. I try to avoid anything related to the Society, but it’s pretty much an impossible task.
“We built homemade hand-warmers today,” he says. “This is for you.”
He offers up the hand-warmer. It contains a surprising amount of warmth.
“Thanks,” I say, as he slips one of his gloves into mine.
“You’re lucky it doesn’t work on you,” Joey says, as we wander through the city marketplace—one of his favorite spots. Joey hasn’t said much about the Feeling Test to Dan and Mary—probably because he doesn’t want our parents to know he’s scared—but he’s confided in me.
“For now,” I say. “I’m sure the Science Society will come up with a new test soon.”
That much is true. Everyone has to get the Feeling Test once a year. It’s been mandatory ever since the March 14th terrorist attacks, when it was announced in the second Presidential Edict, almost four years ago.
Joey had Elevated Feeling Levels last time, and he’s eight—the age when kids often fail their test for the first time. I still get the test every year, though it doesn’t work on me. I’m one of an estimated 0.05 percent of society that is immune to it.
“I don’t want to fail,” Joey whispers, and grips my hand tighter.
I bend down so I can look him in the eye. He’s the only person I’ve ever met whose eye color matches his real Color.
“You’re not going to fail,” I say, though I don’t know that for sure.
The Feeling Test is like a DNA test. It measures the molecules inside a person. Everyone gets a number and a Predominant Emotion, which the Science Society says is like a dominant gene. But I’ve seen people who cry at every sappy movie pass their test, while the most stone-hearted individuals fail. There is no way to predict how someone will score, how much feeling is inside them. The one thing everyone knows is that too much Feeling is dangerous.
Joey closes his eyes. “If I’m Aberrant, then…”
“Then so what?” I say, but the thought of him being labeled as one makes my stomach churn. Joey’s Predominant Emotion is Compassion, which fits him perfectly. He has more sweetness in his little finger than I have in my whole body. “You’ll have to register, but it’s not that big of a deal,” I say. “Nothing is going to change. You’re still you.”
Again, that’s only partly true. Aberrants—those who score Dangerous Levels on the Feeling Test—are required to register with the government, carry a special ID card, and undergo an annual interrogation. That was Presidential Edict number three. The last one. So far. There’s been some debate about whether those with Elevated Levels should have to register too, but for now it’s just the DLs who have to. Nobody is supposed to discriminate against Aberrants, but that’s not the way it works in reality. They often get bullied at school and have trouble finding a job. Lately it’s been worse.
I have mixed feelings about Aberrants. On the one hand, I should hate them. They’re dangerous, just like the Science Society proved. Aberrants committed the March 14th attacks that killed my grandmother, the only real parent I’ve ever known. But I also know Joey. He’s sweet and smart. And definitely not dangerous.
“Come on,” I say. “Let’s go.”
It’s cold, so we cut across the middle of the marketplace, inhaling the rich aromas of pizza and clam chowder. We pass a woman surrounded in a crisp melon Color. Hope. She removes a pink ribbon from her pocket and ties it around a bench. Ribbons of all colors have been popping up in random places across the country, ever since the Science Society discovered a cure for a handful of cancers. I’m not sure how the tradition got started, but the Science Society encourages it, as a way to honor those who have been saved.
The marketplace is packed with customers, and I do my best to ignore their Colors. Too often in crowds it becomes overwhelming. I’m about to buy Joey a hot chocolate when I see a “No Aberrants” sign taped to the window of a clothing store. Something new. I block it from Joey’s view and usher him across the street to his favorite toy store before he has a chance to read it.
“Can we go inside?” Joey asks, pointing to the oval-shaped sign for Enchanted that hangs on the side of the building. It’s outlined in tiny gold lights, and the loopy, cursive writing reminds us that the store offers “toys and tricks for today’s scientists and dreamers.”
Although I’m tired, I allow him to tug me forward. It’s one of our traditions. We go at least once a week.
The store is set at garden level. When I open the door, it gives a soft, harmonic chime. In contrast to the frazzled atmosphere of the marketplace, Enchanted is quiet and crammed full of items—everything from hydrogen-powered toy cars and infrared goggles to chemistry sets and solar glow bricks. The air smells musty, and there is a faint hint of smoke, as if something has recently been burning.
“I love this place,” Joey says.
Most kids would tear through the store, but Joey carefully takes in all there is to absorb. I pause at a “What your Predominant Emotion says about you” display that contains a row of electronic devices. I pick one up. Apparently you’re supposed to type in your Predominant Emotion, and it will tell you a whole bunch of things—fun facts about your personality, famous people with the same PE, complementary PEs that make good friends or partners, and more. It must be a popular item because only a few remain. I glance at the box and wonder—not for the first time—what mine would be if the Feeling Test worked on me.
“Does that interest you?”
I jump, expecting to see the usual cashier. Instead a young man in his early twenties hovers over my shoulder. He wears thick, round glasses, and his blond hair doesn’t quite sit right on his head. Besides that, he wears a ridiculous black cape. Normally I’d dismiss him as a dork, but he’s surrounded by a rich cinnamon Color that reminds me of the spice. It’s exceptionally strong, and I know he’s intelligent.
I shake my head and hastily place the object back in its proper place. Cape Boy, as I now think of him, scurries to the register, motioning me to follow. He slides onto a stool, and the edge of his cape catches on the table. He tumbles forward. The cape slides to the side and reveals the top left of his shirt, where two letter S’s are woven together. The Science Society logo.
He hastily adjusts the cape and looks at me. I pretend not to see, but he’s a second too quick. His eyes flash, and I know I’m caught. Is he a member of the Science Society? If so, he’s not just smart, he’s brilliant. Tens of thousands of scientists compete for a Science Society position every year, but the organization and its president, Oliver Savior, accept only a handful of the brightest and most talented applicants. So what’s he doing in a toy store?
What if you lived in a world where too much feeling was dangerous? In The Color Reader, a YA novel, the Science Society believes that the individuals most likely to commit crimes or acts of terrorism share one common feature: they possess too much feeling. Now Feeling Tests are mandatory for everyone, and that’s a problem for sixteen-year-old Althea Green.
Tragedy has always been a part of Althea’s life. Her mother and father died in a car crash when she was an infant. And the March 14th school-shooting attacks that killed her grandmother led to the Aberrant discovery and Feeling Test. But Althea has a secret. She can see Colors, aura-like hues that surround people and reveal their truest characteristics and feelings. Life with the Colors makes many things possible: Althea knows when her little brother is worried, if a classmate is cheating on a test, and what boy has a crush on her best friend. The Colors also make it easier to fall in love, as Althea does with a young soldier whose Color shimmers around him like a sunset.
When Althea gets a job at a bookstore, she learns she’s not alone. She’s a Reader, part of a rare group of children and adults who can understand Colors—the language of feeling. The Science Society also has an interest in Readers, and its leader wants Althea’s help in interpreting a secret book written in Color. The book holds the answer to a crucial question: how to determine what someone is meant to do, their purpose in life.
When her little brother fails his Feeling Test, Althea faces a choice: let her brother join the Aberrant registry, or accept an internship at the Science Society to translate the book. As the battle between fact and feeling worsens, the Science Society grows more dangerous. When another Reader encourages Althea to question the organization, she makes a discovery more sinister than she ever imagined. Ultimately, Althea must decide if she can embrace her purpose and save the people she loves.
The Color Reader is the story of one girl’s quest to overcome a devastating loss and find her place in a rapidly changing world. I’ve always been fascinated by science and culture, and in college I enrolled in a course that examined how a time period’s scientific ideology shapes individuals’ beliefs and behaviors. The professor offered a provocative thesis: the discovery that the sun was at the center of the known universe, rather than the earth, marked the beginning of an era in which people no longer felt connected. In the new world, how things happen became more important than why. That idea influences much of The Color Reader. The Colors are the “why” of the universe. They are the language of feeling, the language of the soul—our purpose and the thing that connects us all. I set out to write a novel about a girl with a special gift who helps us remember the connections we’ve lost.
Laura Wareck is a former journalist who currently works at a top public-affairs firm in Boston, Massachusetts. She graduated from Kenyon College, later earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College, and is a member of the non-profit creative-writing center GrubStreet.
Embark, Issue 4, April 2018