Chloe Burgess sat at the desk in her room, tapping her pencil against the laminate as she scanned the catalog of classes for Portland Community College. On the scrap paper pinned under her right hand, she scribbled classes and scratched them off, line by line. She’d been through the catalog more than a dozen times already, trying to find the right classes for her second term of school. Knowing her desires wouldn’t have weight made it even more important to pick classes with a reasonable explanation why. Assuming her mother was reasonable today.
Thumbing through the pages, she glossed over the subjects that didn’t apply to her, like their Aviation program, or the subjects she wasn’t ready to tackle yet, like math or science. English, history, and art drew her interest; the things that would most likely get ignored. Even if she got her way, Chloe knew she’d burn through her electives and get stuck with terms full of nothing but math and science.
She shuddered at the thought. It was too hard to concentrate on an empty stomach. And it was too hard to concentrate with a headache forming right behind her left eye.
“Chloe, it’s time for dinner!” Nathaniel called from the bottom of the stairs.
“Yes!” Chloe punched the air victoriously as if she’d won out against evil forces and her reward was her step-father’s cooking. The pages of the catalog fluttered together as it closed. Before she left the haven of her room for the mess hall, she stopped in front of the mirror looking herself over.
Today she wore little makeup since she had no plans to leave home. Only enough to hide how stressed and tired she was. She pulled her long bleached blond hair into a side ponytail draping down her right shoulder. The side-swept locks across her forehead were perfect. Since she stayed inside from the cold, she opted for a knee-length dress with a lovely Cabernet chemise separated from the black skirt by a thin black belt. She wore black stockings with them.
It was one of those few days Chloe actually felt good about how she looked. Though she had no self-esteem problems to speak of, she always felt like she was under the microscope of her mother’s scrutiny. Some days she couldn’t leave her room until she made herself up from head-to-toe, but today wasn’t one of those days. Today was one of those days that just made her smile at herself in the mirror like a foolish schoolgirl.
“Good enough,” she said with a nod.
Anita was already nursing a glass of wine at the table while Nathaniel put the finishing touches on their meal. As Chloe slid into her seat hoping to avoid her mother’s steely gaze, Anita turned and offered a smile.
“Good to see you today, Chloe,” Anita said warmly.
Confusion mixed with Chloe’s own smile. She never knew which version of her mother she would encounter. So far, it seemed to be the nice one. “I’m sorry. I was looking at classes for next term.”
“Oh,” Anita said, “I forgot registration is due soon, huh? Do you know what you want to take?”
“No, not yet,” Chloe said.
“Why not just take a math class, an elective you want to take, and an English class? You’re smart; it wouldn’t be anything you can’t handle.”
Chloe looked to her lap. “Thank you.” The young woman wasn’t sure how to accept compliments from her mother; most of them didn’t sound genuine to begin with, so how could she feel happy about hearing them? Still, when the rare compliment emerged, Chloe often found herself at a loss for words and looking away, trying to find something to say.
“Ladies, dinner is served.” Nathaniel said. He looked to Anita, waiting for her to serve herself like he always did. Then he gave Chloe a nice smile and gestured for her to serve herself, too, before taking his own meal.
Poor Nathaniel. Being eight years younger than his wife, but eight years older than his wife’s daughter was always a challenge. When the fights broke out, he was the one sacrificing his own peace-of-mind to bring a cease-fire to their home. And when there was something worth celebrating, he was the one to start the party; he was the glue holding them all together.
(Nathaniel never liked to call Chloe his “step-daughter” because it implied a paternal relationship that had never existed. Nathaniel and Anita married three years ago—they were together for four; not long enough to consider himself a father figure, but enough to know how they could all live together in relative harmony.)
Ever since the day her mother introduced Nathaniel to her, Chloe liked the man. He usually kept his hot cocoa colored hair short, but the more he relaxed at work the longer he’d grow it out and a little wave would form. His azure eyes would always get this extra light behind them when he was happy or excited about something; it was contagious. When Chloe saw that light it would spread like a virus, keeping her good mood for days on end.
On days like today, when it was a nice calm day, Nathaniel would often trade his black slacks and dress shirts for Converse, jeans, and sweaters. It was a look that Chloe often saw her peers teased for in high school. Not that he cared what anyone—other than Anita and Chloe—thought of him.
“I went for easy classes my first term,” Nathaniel said. “I took a running class, pottery, and intro to business technology. Don’t do that though.”
“Got lazy?” Chloe asked.
“When I talked to the adviser at school, she mentioned taking just a couple light classes to ease into the flow of things. She suggested something like PE, math, and something I’m interested in, though I’m not sure what I’d take for that.”
Nathaniel looked toward Anita, found the answer to whatever it had been that he was looking for, and turned back to Chloe. “It sounds like your adviser thinks like your mother.”
“Y-Yes…she does.” Chloe smiled. “I’ll do more research on it tonight. David’s taking—”
“Your roots are showing.” Anita said.
Chloe scrunched her eyebrows. “What?”
“Your roots,” Anita gestured to her own hair. “They’re showing. Do you want to get it touched up tomorrow? I’ve got a half-day.”
“Uh…” Chloe looked to Nathaniel, who only shrugged, then back to her mother. “Sure.”
“I didn’t know it was a half-day tomorrow.” Nathaniel said.
Anita and Nathaniel worked for the same company as accountants. Anita worked with the team on the receiving and shipping side of the business. She received and collected payments, set up payment plans, things like that. Because of her stubbornness, she excelled at it. Nathaniel was better suited for payroll. He understood how taxes worked. He understood how to best work with the department managers to get everyone’s time sheets back in a reasonable time. And he understood holiday and sick pay. Those were important. A mutual friend introduced them. The rest is history as they say.
“I’m taking a half-day tomorrow so I can go in Saturday. One of the new guys hasn’t quite gotten how audits work and made a big mess of things. So I’ll fix it all. I don’t want the new guys to freak out so we’ll have two half days.”
“Right,” Nathaniel said uncertain. He cleared the dishes from the table once it was clear they were all done eating. Anita kept sipping her wine.
“Oh, what were you saying about David?” Anita asked Chloe. “I got distracted. Sorry.”
“It’s okay, Mom. David is taking a horticulture class just for fun, but it really seems interesting, so I might take that one.”
“It could be. Did you know two florists were just murdered in Tigard a few weeks ago?”
“What?” Nathaniel came back into the dining room. “What does that have to do with taking a horticulture class?”
“Florists are horticulturists. It reminded me of the news.”
“That is sad,” Chloe mumbled. She looked from her mother to Nathaniel once again who shared the same concerned look. The only difference was he could talk to her about it.
A sharp pain stabbed the back of Chloe’s eye; a reminder she spent the day staring in the catalog with nothing to show for it yet. “Do we have any ibuprofen or something?” She winced as another sharp pain stabbed her. “I have a headache.”
“Of course, sweetie,” Anita slid from her chair and headed up the stairs. Years ago, when David came into her life, her mother moved all their medicines into her bathroom. While Chloe tried to ignore it, the coincidence always bothered her; she felt so childish.
Nathaniel put a glass of water in front of her. “Here. This will help. You shouldn’t stress so much about your classes.”
“Thank you.” Chloe drank half the glass. “I just don’t want to struggle and—”
“Stop it,” Nathaniel interrupted. “If you don’t do well in a class, so be it. Don’t worry about the money.”
When her mother returned she placed two reddish pills into Chloe’s hand. “I put the bottle on your desk, just in case.”
“Thank you,” Chloe said before swallowing the pills.
“Honey, can I talk to you upstairs for a minute?” Nathaniel asked. He didn’t wait for a response before starting up the stairs.
“Of course,” Anita refreshed her glass of wine before following her husband.
Chloe knew better than to follow. One of two situations would arise: her mother would become affectionate or she would scream. Either way, the sounds that would come from the room were definitely not what she wanted to hear. So, she settled on washing the rest of the dishes as her way of expressing gratitude for a nice meal.