“Helen, time to wake up!”
I turned over with a groan. “My alarm hasn’t even gone off yet, mom,” I complained, burying my head further under the pillow.
“You set that thing way too late, you’re always rushing yourself in the morning!”
Mom clicked the light on and I groaned louder. “Come on, I’ll make you pancakes but you have to get up now little missy.”
I gave in and sat up. My hair was a nest, my muscles still asleep. I yawned and stretched, and got up to walk out of my room to the bathroom to fix my mess.
My name is Helen Morris. I’m sixteen, tired of life, and ready for retirement already. It’s currently 5:30 a.m. thanks to school being an hour’s bus route away from home. In three months I turn seventeen and qualify for driving unsupervised. Not that I have a car to drive, but at least I’ll be able to work without the school stepping in, too. I live with my mom in an old, rickety two-bedroom, one bathroom house with walls that creaked and water that didn’t always run hot for very long. It wasn’t much, but it was paid off and in her name. My dad’s in prison, but I don’t want to think about him.
I got dressed in plain jeans and a blue t-shirt and walked through the hallway to the kitchen. Mom had some homemade blueberry pancakes made up ready the way I usually eat them. I groggily sat down and took a bite, enjoying the flavor for the moment. Mom glanced back at me from the sink where she was cleaning the pans and bowls.
“See, isn’t this nicer than rushing off with no breakfast?” she said matter-of-factly.
“It is, thanks Mom.” I really was grateful to being woken up like this. Mom usually works overnight as a nurse, so mornings like these are the result of her still being awake after her shift. It was hard to fully appreciate it in the moment, though, with the not being fully awake yet and all.
I finished my pancakes and milk, and dropped the dishes in the dishwasher. After finishing up the rest of my boring morning routine of brushing my teeth and getting dressed, I grabbed my bag, hugged my mom, and went out the door for the ten minute walk towards the bus stop.
The air was still cool and crisp, but I knew it was a lie. In two to fours hours it would be hot as hell. I still wore a jacket nonetheless because the school, in addition to being terrible already, did not know what the meaning of climate control is, and tended to have its classrooms ranging from stuffy to freezing. But for these ten quiet minutes, it was a nice morning.
The aged houses and trees of my neighborhood gave way to a more modern urban sprawl, the neighborhood of the better-off kids. I like to think I was only envious of the fact that they had less things to worry about, given their financial stability. Granted, I had no idea what kind of lives lived behind those doors, but I couldn’t help the bitter feeling that it surely couldn’t be anything nearly as bad as the rest of us. I haven’t really been out in the world necessarily yet, but I did see how much mom struggles to keep us afloat and happy.
Past this neighborhood was the community center and library, which is where my bus stop was. Behind this was a large, forested area which I sometimes use as shortcut to get here from home as it cuts the time in half. Which I frequently have to do. It can be pretty creepy this early in the morning, even more so after dark. But the five minutes of sunset was where it’s at; the way the golden-red rays fell through the trees...it was pretty magical.
Fun fact about this forest; there’s this huge creepy castle that no one ever goes near, somewhere right smack in the middle. It’s not like people aren’t allowed to go near, but, inexplicably, people avoid that place anyway. Some say it’s haunted, some claim it’s not even there. Apparently some have even actually gone in but never came back out. None of it is backed up by anything, but I’ve always avoided the area nonetheless. It’s a bit out of the way from my route home anyway, and I’m not dumb enough to go trespassing on someone else’s property in the middle of the woods.
The bus arrived, and thank goodness, because the other kids at my stop started to arrive at the same time. I didn’t want to interact with anyone if I could help it. One dude quickly put out a cigarette soon as he saw the bus, and a couple girls my age looked disappointed to not have any time to gawk and gossip about the shabbiness of everything in general. Since the bus barn is close to this area, ours was the first stop to be picked up in the mornings, but also the last one to drop in the evenings. Which meant we got first pick on seats but also had to deal with everyone else for the maximum amount of time possible. And this bus picked up both junior high and high schoolers.
I remember being in junior high, I grimaced as a bunch of fourteen/fifteen-year-olds loaded up at the next few stops. It really wasn’t all that long ago honestly, but it was such a weird age. Girls figuring out puberty, boys learning how to be asses but not understanding why girls won’t be attracted to them, but at the same time both genders thinking the other is stupid. I really hated that age. Not that high school is much different, but at least everyone has enough going on to keep out of each other’s business.
The hour passes and I nearly fell asleep as the bus dropped the high schoolers off first. I got my stiff legs moving and made my way into the building.
Classes pass in a daze like usual. Nothing is very interesting, but at least it’s consistent. I know what to expect from my day, and what’s expected of me. I know what periods I’m going to hate, and which ones I can relax in. It really isn’t as bad as I complain about, sometimes. That’s just how life goes. You settle into monotony and enjoy the calm ride however you can.
Unfortunately for today, I had forgotten about my math test. I’m not bad at math, but I’m not great at it either, and the teacher is REALLY confusing most of the time. She needs to seriously consider retirement; hardly anyone could make heads or tails of what she’d say. I bombed the test of course, I forgot to do the practice homework to prepare for it. When I got my test back, there was a note in red pen telling me I need to apply myself or I’m going to have to take remedial lessons. The last thing I needed was even MORE time at school. That would mean I’d have to miss my bus and catch a public bus. Which means getting home after dark and making mom worry.
Last class was just a seminar hour for study, and thankfully I had this with my best friend, Emily. We both took a dead language class as an elective and were translating a runes assignment.
“Tell me if you think this is close,” she said quietly. “Here be a person of shared...tree?”
“That’s the symbol for parent, not tree,” I corrected, “so it should be ‘Here be a person of shared parent.’ They’re saying it’s their sibling.”
“Ooooooohhhh I get it now,” Emily mused. “I swear though, I had to have gotten somebody’s eulogy or something.”
“It might be, it’s gotta be more interesting than mine. I’m pretty sure I just have someones written layout of their town.”
“Seriously though, how are you so good at this? These are dead languages, and the teacher freakin’ loves you.”
I shrugged. “I dunno. I have a hard time with the roman based letters sometimes, which is dumb, but give me runes and I’ve got it. I think it’s because there’s a simpler pattern to decipher for me. Like, the structure just makes sense with the language syntax or something.”
“I dunno,” Emily stared dubiously at her text. “We’re already in the second course and this is still all just gibberish to me.”
“You got that far, though, didn’t you?” I said, gesturing to her project. “You got halfway through the assignment before getting a symbol confused with another.”
“Yeah, but I still have to use a cheat sheet.”
I shrugged again. “Nothing wrong with that. Plus, no one else has it as easy either. Maybe I’m just a weirdo.”
She laughed, and I grinned. Our seminar teacher shushed us angrily, even though we weren’t being that loud. I narrowed my eyes his direction but just let it go. He had always been an ass that could only ever amount to a gym teacher, but it wasn’t worth picking a fight with him. Besides, there was nothing I could really do about it.
School let out and Emily walked with me to my bus. She was one of the lucky ones whose parents were able to have time to pick her up after school. “You think you’ll be able to come over today?” she asked hopefully.
“Sorry, not this time either. Mom wants me to pick up some stuff from the community center for her work and by that point it’ll be almost dark.”
“Dang. You should ask her if it’s cool if my mom just picks you up from school and then takes you home.”
“Ha! Good luck with that, she barely feels comfortable with me riding the bus, let alone someone else’s car.”
We said our goodbyes and I got on the bus to settle in for the hour-long drive back. The town flew by in a blur of hills and houses and trees, every now and then passing through the small business district again as the bus weaved back and forth, unloading it’s contents like a slowly hatching spider’s nest. The tiredness of the day began to weigh on me, and I felt a little guilty for lying to Emily. Mom didn’t actually have anything I needed to get; I just didn’t want to ask her again, only to be told no and reminded of the dangers of why. And with her busy schedule, she really didn’t even have time to meet parents and give proper assessment. It was so frustrating, but even more so because I understood why.
At least, in a few months, I’ll legally be allowed to work, and I’ll be able to use that as a reason for her to allow me to start making my own decisions.
My stop finally arrived, I got off the bus like all the other little spiderlings, and began my walk home. I still have enough time before sunset actually happens and it gets too dark, so I decided to take my nature path through the woods. It was quiet, immediately a different atmosphere from the civilization around the community center. The trees were tall and loomed far overhead, not impossibly tall or really even impressively tall, but gentle. The oaks and sycamores and birches all commingled their leaves, creating this wonderful blanket of patterned light through the summer green foliage. A breeze would sometimes drift through, causing the treetops to shimmer and rustle and bring relief from the fading summer heat. Below my feet was a lightly worn path from all the times I’ve walked through these woods, every now and then branching off into other less worn paths from the times others had walked through here as well. I breathed in and enjoyed the peace. Sometimes I wish I could just live out here, in the trees, away from all the people. Away from all the noise and frustrations of everyone’s expectations.
The peace was short lived of course, as it always was. The path was only a five minute walk after all. And before long I was back near my house with its tall privacy fenced in yard and it’s peeling paint and creaky hinges.
Mom was already awake and getting ready for work, wearing her baby blue scrubs as I walked in.
“Dinner is on the stove,” she instructed, “ and I have the oven on warm so don’t forget it. Remember to keep the doors locked.” She kissed me on the forehead. “Love you baby, be safe.”
“You too mom,” I hugged back, and locked the door as she left. I checked all of the windows and back doors absentmindedly, thinking about how different things would be if things were...well, different. Mom could stay at home and wouldn’t need to work so much, I could possibly have a life outside school and home, though to be honest I don’t know how much I’d actually want that. Maybe we’d have a bigger, newer house.
I shook my head, assembling the chili tortillas mom had prepped for me and sitting down. No, this is nice, this is okay. We’ve got a warm home, enough good food, and new clothes when we need them. We’re not hurting for money, and getting by modestly. This was nice enough.
After cleaning my dishes and putting the food away, I went back to my room to my desk to deal with the remedial homework my math teacher had given me. I clicked the radio setting on my alarm and listened to music while I worked through the numbers. The song playing on the station made me smile; it was a pop classic Emily and I liked to make fun of, due to it sounding exactly like every other song out there but with the lyrics being horrifically bad. I sung to it softly, wondering what she was up to.
Just as the thought crossed my mind, the phone rang. My heart gave a start from the sudden noise. “Hello?” I answered.
“Hey! It’sa me!”
I laughed. “Hey Emily. I was just thinking about what you’d be up to.”
“Making pizza rolls. Well, waiting for pizza rolls. So I just heard our song on the radio and I thought hey, Helen better be hearing this too ‘cause I can’t just enjoy the hilarity of it again all by myself.”
I laughed again. “I was, actually. Trying to plow through this stupid extra math work Mrs. Marrow gave me.
“Ugh, Bloody Marrow, she needs to retire.”
“Anyway, so I actually wanted to tell you something that happened to me today!” she began, excited. “Erin asked me out in the most sweetest adorable way ever, she had given me her phone number last week ‘cause we had a science project together and had to coordinate outside of class and whatever, and today she sent me a text wanting to know if I like ice cream and would want to go get some at this new shop opening up at the mall this week!!”
I sat forward in amazement. “Emily! That’s awesome! You’ve had a crush on her for like, forever, I’m so happy for you!”
“I knoooooooow,” I heard her squee on the other end, and the sound of rustling as she was probably rolling back and forth on her bed happily. “She’s so prettyyyyy and I’m so gaaaaaaaaaaay.” I laughed.
“Well, I really hope it works out for you. It’d be really cool to see you two together.”
“Yeah, I’m a little scared though. I mean, this clearly sounds like a date, but I have no idea if she’s like, INTO me, or just ya know, looking for a friend or whatever.”
“Dude. She’s totally into you. How could she not be?”
“For reals though. I’ve seen the way she acts when you come around. Plus you’re not exactly hiding your rainbows. She’s totes into you.”
“Uuuuuggghhhhh I just don’t knowwwwww.” I heard her shift. “Have you ever had a massive crush on anyone? Or have a crush on anyone currently?” she added with a hint of probing in her voice.
“I did once,” I grimaced. “That was a few years ago. You remember James?”