"You're late. Fourth time this week," said Ms. Park, her hand rapping the surface of her desk. Her eyes were wide with annoyance; her nostrils flared. Wilted flowers twitched inside their unattractive vase. A faded petal broke from one of the plants and fell to the desk.
'At least it's not Thursday…'
Yeah, well, trying to get six underage teenagers with no adult supervision out the front door in the morning – on time, for crying out loud – was a feat not even the most organized of 'Super Moms' could achieve, let alone a sixteen year old boy.
Surely one could imagine the chaos that ensued during such morning routines with one teen – never mind six teenagers of different ages and stages of puberty. That was a nightmare.
And that's what Zachary Bennet dealt with on a daily basis.
Ms. Park couldn't really blame them, but she did; the look in the woman's eyes said it all. That glare the principal sent to the six teens was enough to make each of them squirm in their hard, wooden seats. Zach took a deep breath, steadying himself.
Time for some damage control.
"We apologize, Ms. Park," said Zach, keeping his tone respectful. He glanced at his friends, who were wearing different levels of respect and politeness on their faces. Except one: the youngest girl was not so much polite as she was downright hostile. "We'll do better next week, right, guys?" he asked, looking at each of them with a hint of pleading in his eyes.
Oh, yes, blessed day that it was a Friday.
There were a handful of polite replies, while there was one irritated reply. Zach gave her a stern look; her next response wasn't much better. He sent a nervous, apologetic smile to the principal, hoping to appease the woman.
It wasn't effective.
Ms. Park leaned forward onto the desk, her fingers pressing together as she gazed over them. The light there was dark. Zach straightened his back and met her gaze, refusing to be intimidated.
'We are more than you think we are. We are better than you say we are.'
"I realize that your priorities lie… elsewhere—" Zach stiffened, his eyes narrowing a fraction. He resisted raising an irritated eyebrow. "—but this school takes pride in the accomplishments of its hard working students, who take learning seriously. Being tardy four school days out of five is undermining all of their hard work!"
"Yes, ma'am, we understand," said Zach. The more polite we are, the faster we'll get out of this office. His jaw clenched. "We'll do better."
Brielle let out a disgusted huff and slid down in her seat, her neck resting against the back of the chair. Blonde bangs blended with her short black hair, draping over her forehead and hiding her eyes from Zach.
"Not like anyone cares if we learn anything," muttered Brielle, folding her arms with an air of defiant petulance. Zach winced and sent her another stern glance, just for show. His heart clenched at the truth. The thirteen year old dutifully ignored him.
"Only you can decide that, Miss Durante," said Ms. Park, her tone cold. Another petal fell onto the desk. Both petals were brushed aside into a waste basket with a dismissive motion. "I suggest you put more effort into your studies, despite your current occupation and limitations. You're dismissed. This is your last warning, understand? Do not be tardy again."
'Can this day end already?'
It was not starting out well – nope, not at all.
With that, Ms. Park turned her attention away. Zach stood up, more than ready to leave. Together, the six friends left the grey office. With a fierce expression, Brielle attempted to slam the door to the principal's office closed behind them, but Zach grabbed her arm. She glared at him as he shut the door without a sound. She jerked away, folding her arms and staring down the empty hallway. The six of them lingered there, their backpacks swung over their shoulders.
Zach looked at his friends. Each kept their heads lowered with grim reluctance on their faces. He sighed. Getting through the school day was always hard, but being late for so many days… They were going to get a lot of flak from the other students. The hours were going to ache along at a snail's pace.
"Today's a new day, okay?" said Zach, giving them a smile.
Brielle rolled her amber eyes, frowning. "So is tomorrow, but that doesn't make today any better," she said, sighing as her stance softened, the hostility easing from her body.
"If tomorrow comes at all," said Sevati with an impassive face, yet there was a twinkle in her brown eyes. She stroked the long, dark brown braid that flowed over her chest. These words gained a squeak of fright from the youngest of the group.
"N–nothing bad is going to happen, is it?" asked Jacob; his nearly black eyes were wide behind rectangle glasses. There was a chuckle and the eldest, Drake, ruffled the curly black hair of Jacob.
"Don't you worry, Sev's just rattling your cage." There was a pregnant pause. "Again."
Sevati averted her eyes, rolling them to the side. While it was faint, there was the unmistakable sign of mischief tugging at her lips. Brielle's foul mood lifted. Jacob didn't seem to get it, but he sighed in relief.
"We shouldn't stay in the hallway any more," said Hikaru, her voice soft as she glanced back and forth briefly for any straggling students or teachers. There weren't any. "We should get to class and avoid more trouble."
No one moved. They glanced between each other, the reluctance still in their eyes. There was a moment of silence.
Drake let out an exasperated sigh. "Fine, we better go," he said grudgingly. "I hope something comes up today during school. I'll take anything at this rate. I've got an algebra test that I'd rather skip."
"What're the chances we're called out during your algebra class?" asked Sevati, giving the older boy a flat, yet pointed look.
Drake ran a hand through his spiky blond hair. The light in his hazel green eyes darkened and he said, "Zero to none." He groaned. "Man, I hate math."
He gave the others a dramatic wave of the hand, acting as if he were going to the gallows. He turned to walk down the hallway with Sevati following at his side. Sevati, while being a sophomore and two years below Drake, had classes in the same section of the school as the seniors. The two of them were out of sight after a minute.
"Will you two be all right?" asked Zach, looking back at the youngest of the group.
"Yeah, yeah, we'll be fine," said Brielle, waving a hand dismissively.
"Do you need us to walk you—"
"We're fine, Mother Hen," drawled Brielle, shaking her head in annoyance. She grabbed Jacob by the arm and began to pull him down the other hallway. "Come on, squirt." The younger boy protested quietly along the way, pushing his glasses up higher on the bridge of his nose.
"Hey, I'm not a squirt."
"Yeah, ya are."
"I'm only a year younger than you!"
"Still a squirt."
There were a few giggles from Hikaru, her hand covering her mouth to muffle the sounds. Zach smiled, thankful that the middle school was combined with the high school. "Stay out of trouble," he called to them, as they turned the corner. Brielle rolled her eyes; Jacob gave a tentative smile.
It was much quieter now. Despite being around the same age and in the same grade, Hikaru had a different class schedule than Zach, leaving them with only two classes with each other.
"Well, we better get going, too," said Hikaru, turning to walk down a third hallway. She motioned with her head, a mischievous smile lifting her lips. "I'll be your escort, Mother Hen."
Zach chuckled. He hefted his backpack a little higher and quickened his steps to walk alongside her. "You know I'm not a mother hen," he said, giving her a nudge with his shoulder.
Hikaru laughed softly and brushed a hand through some of her long black hair, moving it out of her dark brown eyes. "Well, if you weren't, we'd never get to school on time."
"I'm not doing a very good job, then, am I? Seeing as we were late—" Zach drew his voice up as high as he could and imitated the principal. "—four times this week."
Hikaru laughed again, the light touch of her Japanese accent barely lilting her voice. She shook her head and gave him a playful, stern look.
"Be more serious about this."
"About what? School?"
"Yes, that," said Hikaru, returning his nudge with a light one of her own. "You do need to be more serious about school. It's important for our futures."
Zach's mood lessened and his steps halted. Hikaru stopped as well, turning around to face him. It took him a moment to collect his thoughts and she didn't say anything as she waited.
"Is it really?" asked Zach, his voice low. He shook his head. "I just don't see how. Now—" He put up a hand for emphasis. "—I'm not discounting it; we should have schooling, but we're not going to have a better chance in life just because we have an education. They've made that more than clear to us on multiple occasions. They've done all they can to ostracize us. So, why bother with the system? Nothing we do will change what we are nor will it change how they see us."
Hikaru gave him a pensive expression, her dark eyes losing some of the sparkle always held there. After a moment, she answered, her voice low and gentle, "It is better to be prepared and the opportunity never come, than it is to be ill prepared and miss the opportunity of a lifetime."
Zach sighed and ran a hand through his bright auburn hair. His mouth lifted somewhat in a tired smile. "Did you get that out of a book?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. "That sounded way too philosophical – had to be from a book."
There was a soft laugh. "No, I made it up myself," Hikaru said, smiling wryly. Her expression grew serious, the amusement fading from her soft gaze. "But really, Zach, there's always a chance things will get better. The world can't stay cruel forever."
"If you say so."
"I do say so."
He snorted and the two resumed walking. In a few moments, they reached their classrooms, which were next to each other this period. Zach didn't feel prepared for the separation.
'Things changing for the better?' Zach wasn't naturally a pessimist, but when the government itself was entrenched with cruel policies that locked their futures for its own designs and purposes – well, he wasn't about to hold his breath.
Change could take decades.
"Pay attention in class," said Hikaru, her hand on the handle, her dark brown eyes alight with her smile.
"Yes, Mother," drawled Zach.
"Oh, but I'm not the mother, you are," retorted Hikaru, playfully pointing a finger at him. She gave him a wink and a last smile, before she entered her classroom.
Zach's face fell. He wished they had more time together during school. The emptiness permeated the air. He glanced down at the floor, his lips thinning. It would've been better if they had home instruction, but that was against regulation. Of course, it was. After all, the government wasn't going to spend extra money on a bunch of dangerous orphans.
United, they could withstand the whisperers.
Divided, they were weak and isolated.
With a tired sigh, Zach straightened. He took a deep breath and mentally prepared himself. He stepped forward, turned the door handle, and entered his classroom.
"Mr. Bennet, so nice of you to join us," said the teacher. She folded her arms, her eyebrows furrowing in displeasure. "What's your excuse today?"
Zach swallowed. His classmates snickered, their eyes flickering over at him with little subtlety in their expressions.
"I don't have one," whispered Zach, his eyes dropping to the ground. The whispers grew louder, comments blending with each insulting slur. "We've been to Ms. Park's office already."
"Education is a privilege, not a right," said the teacher; her displeased look turned into a resentful glare. "Coming late is disrespectful to all your teachers and your classmates. You waste our time. You should be thankful you have this opportunity to learn. Many would give up everything to have this chance."
Zach's face burned. The snickers grew louder. The whisperers stared at him with their unfeeling eyes. He held his breath, counting to ten in his head. He let it out, his body releasing the tension.
'Privilege, not a right?' So, it was a privilege to know how to read? Was she dare suggesting that not everyone should have that privilege?
She was wrong.
Opportunity? Just what opportunity was this woman alluding to? They would never be allowed to go to college. They would never be allowed to choose a career that they wanted. They would never be allowed to step out of the box that the government had shoved them into.
'Who are you kidding? We're only here so we don't embarrass the government with illiteracy.'
"I'm sorry, we'll do better," whispered Zach. His jaw clenched.
'No, just bear it. Breathe. Relax. Ignore them.'
"Sit down," said the teacher sharply. She didn't wait for him, instead resuming her lecture as if he weren't there. Zach turned. The distance seemed to expand, appearing further away than ever. Eyes stared at him. Smirks and sneers blended with race, color, and gender. Zach focused on a mark on the wall and stepped towards the back. His mind tricked him and, for a moment, it felt as if he would never reach his seat. It only lasted for twenty seconds. He sat down in the corner on the back row. He let out a breath of relief.
He ignored the incessant whisperers.
Zach half listened to his teacher. He waited, before discreetly opening his backpack and pulling out a small washcloth. Within the confines of the bag, he wet the cloth with his water bottle, twisting the lid back on afterwards. As class time passed, he quietly scrubbed the black marker from the surface of his desk. Eyes flickered back at him.
His attention waned from the lesson. He wasn't called out, thankfully. Giving the reason wouldn't have gained him any sympathy, anyway. Scrubbing his desk didn't do much – water did little good against permanent marker – but at least the slurs and images were smudged beyond initial recognition.
The black lines were still branded inside his mind, however.
It wasn't even lunchtime when a voice rang through the school, the sounds shrill and cold over the intercom, "Mr. Bennet, please report to the principal's office immediately."
Zach slowly closed his eyes, groaning softly. 'Really? Really??' He slid downward in his seat, wanting nothing more than to vanish from sight. Those snickers and whispers inflated once again, faces glancing back at him, the unified, blatant question ghostly written on their countenances with defiling black ink. 'What had he done?'
Zach's thought was different, however: Who did what now?
Author's Notes: Thanks for reading! See ya next time! Comments/subs/likes = much love! ^.^