MY PEN runs out of ink before I’m finished writing the outline of my essay. I groan as my train of thought breaks and cursive grows too light to read. I start digging around the backpack at my feet for a replacement. When I come up empty, I push myself off the edge of my bed where I’d been writing, and stretch. While the interruption cuts into my flow of work, it does feel good to straighten my back.
My family doesn’t have much money, so I don’t have a desk of my own to do my homework, let alone a computer. I use the school library or the (thankfully close) public library most of the time, but it’s Sunday evening and the libraries are all closed. The assignment is five pages of historical research, so I want to get a head start on it. I have a small stack of books I checked out yesterday that I spent the late afternoon skimming and prioritizing. I’ve also got my smartphone—new this year!—for some Internet help. (And the occasional chess game.)
I leave my bedroom to hunt for another pen. Whenever I get frustrated about my lack of desk or computer, I try to remind myself how lucky I am to get my own room, even if it is too tiny for more than a bed and dresser (with two of the four drawers broken and clunking out instead of sliding smoothly). Both of my brothers share a bedroom, as do my parents, obviously, so I’m the only one in the family with any sort of privacy.
I try not to be bitter about being poor, but sometimes it’s hard not to be. Especially when I see all the other kids at school parading by with an endless display of stuff.
I go into the living room, where Sam, my twelve-year-old brother, is watching TV with his mouth slightly ajar.
“Hey, bean,” I say, scratching playfully at the top of his head. His hair is just a messy mop falling over his forehead into his eyes. “Do you have a pen?”
He’s absorbed in what he’s watching and doesn’t respond beyond pushing my hand away. I leave him sitting on our rather grungy carpet and go into the kitchen, pretty sure I used a pen the other day to write down groceries for the next trip. I’m right. Like all of our pens, it’s a cheap, free one companies order in bulk and give away to get you to remember their business. This one says “Reedsburg Police Recruiting Department” on the side with a phone number and website listed next to the logo. It’s from a career fair my older brother, Jimmy, went to a few months ago.
The side door bangs open and, as if conjured by my thoughts, Jimmy clomps in amidst a gust of fresh, cool spring air. The smell of outdoors gives me a contented feeling, and I smile at him.
“How was work?”
Jimmy’s employed part-time at PetSmart. He’s been there ever since he graduated from high school two years ago. He especially likes the downtime in the store, when he can go and pet the animals in their cages. The other parts he doesn’t care for so much, and usually looks tired and… small when he gets off a shift.
“Fine,” he says, opening the fridge and bending over in half to look inside. Unlike me and Sam, Jimmy is very tall. Like me and Sam, he’s very skinny, with a slightly unhealthy cast to his skin, the result of poor diets our whole lives. I’m very conscious of it and try hard to exercise and get as much nutrition as possible outside of home to attain a movie-star glow, but no matter what I do, I can’t quite shake it.
We’re a light tan, and under summer sun I darken so much I sometimes get mistaken for someone from a multiracial family—between my skin and my brunette hair and dark eyes. My father says it’s because we have Native American blood from generations back, but no one in my family cares enough about genealogy to find out if that’s true. I mean to look into it this summer, so I can apply for additional college scholarships if I prove ancestry.
“Where’s Mom?” Jimmy asks, shutting the fridge without getting anything. It’s kind of a reflex he and I both have: check the fridge whenever you go past to take stock of supplies.
“Bedroom,” I say, lowering my voice, though it’s impossible for her to hear us in the kitchen, the farthest point from the master bedroom.
Part of the reason we don’t have much money is that my mom has trouble holding down a steady job. She’s never been diagnosed with anything, because she hasn’t been to a doctor for herself in years. Since Sam was born, I think. But I’ve researched some online at school, and it sounds to me like she has severe bipolar disorder. She goes through these periods where she just locks herself away in her and Dad’s room. Sometimes she’ll get a job—her last one was in an office—but they never last. She’s tried different things: working as a driver, working as a freelance editor, working in retail…. But every time, after only a couple of months, her mood swings and unreliability don’t let her keep it. My dad works evenings and nights as a security guard (and as much overtime as possible), and even with his insurance, we can’t afford medication for her.
It makes me angry. I’ve tried to present other solutions: take a loan from a bank, ask a friend for help, or switch jobs; get insurance from another company. But my parents won’t do anything. Maybe they have their reasons.
Anyway, when Mom’s locked in the bedroom like this, it’s never a good sign.
Jimmy sighs and says, “Pizza?”
I shrug unhappily. “I guess so. Dad couldn’t get to the grocery store before work.” He spent the day in the bedroom talking to Mom.
Jimmy gets out his phone and leafs through the cutouts of coupons littered around the kitchen for a deal. As he calls to place the order, I go back to Sam.
“Dinner’s in thirty,” I say. He blinks away from the TV and peers up at me. I notice how dark the room has gotten and flip on the lights.
“Is it pizza?” he asks. I nod. “Cool.” Unlike me, Sam hasn’t gotten sick of the monotony of unhealthy food every day.
Jimmy sticks his head around the corner and says, “It’ll be ready in fifteen minutes. I’m going to run out and get it from Vapiano’s.”
“No, I’ll go,” I say. “You stay with Sam.” Jimmy’s been on his feet working all day.
“Yeah. I’ll just grab a coat.”
I go to the closet that doubles as a coat closet and storage place, and paw through the dense inside to get my spring jacket. I’ve only got two coats: a heavy brown one for winter and a lightweight green one. Outside it’s in that in-between period where it’s still a little too cold for the light one to be effective, but the heavy one will make me hot and sweaty after walking to the pizza place (pickup means no need to tip a delivery person, and walking means no gasoline spent). I hesitate, then opt to be cold rather than hot.
“Here,” says Jimmy as I head out the door. He fumbles some crushed dollar bills into my hand. “Payday was this Friday. I got to the bank yesterday.”
“Thanks,” I reply, gratefully kissing his cheek. He rolls his eyes but allows it. There was a period when he was at high school where he hated any sort of contact from us. Once I tried hugging him in front of his friends, and he shoved me off so hard he knocked me to the ground. I burst into tears, and he hurried away with his crowd. He doesn’t hang out with the same people anymore, and having a job has steadied him a little and made him softer toward us.
The cold air, getting colder with the sun gone, makes me shiver as I hurry down the driveway. Out of the corner of my eye I see a new car parked in front of the last house on the road. We live on a street that dead ends, and the last house has been vacant for a while. I stare at it curiously for a moment, but nothing happens, and I continue to Vapiano’s.
I don’t mind the walk. It’s a peaceful evening, people in their homes, windows illuminating brief flashes of their lives, and the sky overhead retaining a little of the sunset’s glory. I pass over what I think of as the “poor line,” the street that starts the section for lower-income people, and walk into the neighborhood that is so different from my world. The houses here are all sprawling, two-story affairs with obsessively manicured lawns and gleaming cars. I like to pick out which house I would want to live in, if money were no object. I have whittled it down to three beauties. One appears as I turn left to get to Vapiano’s. It looks a little like a castle to me: spacious, with gabled roofs pointed like turrets. It’s nestled into a small rise of land, with professional landscaping bracketing the walk to the porch and all along the front. The paint is a creamy yellow with light blue trim and the windows are so shiny. I play a little game as I near Vapiano’s, trying to guess how many rooms there are in it. Nine? Ten? More? Probably more.
I’m preoccupied trying to map out a floorplan in my mind as I crunch my way over the parking lot to the savory smells coming from the Italian restaurant, and that’s why I don’t notice them until I’m nearly upon them. A small group of kids from school.
My stomach drops. I don’t hate the people at my school, by and large, but I prefer to only see them in that setting. Having them intrude on my Sunday evening is like a splash of cold water in my face. But they’re blocking the front door, laughing and loud and not noticing me, and I’m not sure how to get past without speaking.
Before I can reach a decision, the brown-haired girl nearest to me moves back to make room for someone exiting the restaurant and steps on me, her sharp heel scraping the skin of my shin exposed by the gap between my old khakis and the top of my shoe. I jump back, leg stinging, and she starts and jerks around, apologizing. That’s when I realize who it is, and my heart drops for the second time in less than a minute.
“Oh, geez, I’m sorry….” She halts when she sees who she accidentally mauled. Her eyebrows raise, and she glances back at the now-attentive crowd around her. “Hey, am I going crazy or was Audrey not here before?”
I don’t see why this is funny, in fact find it a little hurtful in a way I can’t explain, but everyone else laughs.
“I think she teleported here, man,” says Serhan, who’s been her best friend for as long as I’ve been aware of them both.
“May I get through?” I ask Scarlett West, trying to keep my shivers under control. I warmed up some walking over, but it’s still cold, and standing still just made that more apparent.
“Yes, you surely may,” she says with a stupid grin, bowing and gesturing grandly. It doesn’t do any good—everyone else is still in the way—but I’m spared the humiliation of having to walk through the overweening group like they’re an honor guard by a waitress opening the door.
“Your table is ready,” she announces, unintentionally including me as part of their night out.
They all move for the entrance at once, bottlenecking it, and I’m forced to wait next to Scarlett while everyone slowly files in.
“You’re eating out on a Sunday night?” I ask, trying to remember if I’ve ever done such a thing. Not even in the summer.
“Well, Audrey, it’s like I thought earlier: ‘Why be bound by society’s expectations of us?’” Scarlett says. Things have thinned out enough for her to reach around the remaining kids and grab the edge of the door, holding it open and letting everyone go ahead. “We had nothing at home, so I wanted to eat out. When I brought up the idea with Serhan, he shot me down with that same line of thinking: ‘We don’t go out on a Sunday. It’s more than a school night. It’s the First School Night.’ Serhan’s not the visionary I am. Luckily, the others didn’t need much persuading to agree we’ve been denying ourselves a viable option, and a few texts later, here we are. Flash mob diners.”
We’re finally through the doors into the warm interior. A bunch of tables have been shoved together in the center of the mostly empty restaurant for the huge group of teenagers. They’re gibbering and excited as they pick out their seats and settle. Scarlett lets the door shut with a little burst of wind and stands next to me. Carelessly lovely, she puts her hands in her back pockets and surveys the group and then me.
“You’re welcome to stay, if you want,” she says.
“Thanks, but I can’t.”
“Don’t think like that! The whole point of the experiment is to prove that you can,” she says earnestly.
“No,” I say with an amused snort. “I mean, I’m picking up something for my family. Have fun bucking society’s expectations, though.”
“Oh, I always do,” she replies, a sly smirk on her lips. “Later, Audrey.”
She saunters over to claim a seat at the bustling table, and I go to the pickup counter. I can’t help but feel like people are watching me. Like Scarlett is watching me.
“Hi. I’m picking up an order for Anderson,” I tell the same waitress who admitted our group. It looks like she is working alone tonight. Scarlett’s impromptu decision means a windfall for her in terms of tips. The thought makes me smile at her as she takes Jimmy’s cash and works the register with a concentrated brow.
Jimmy must have gotten a buy-one-get-one-free deal, because she gives me two large pizzas for only fifteen bucks and change. I head for the door, still feeling self-conscious. I look back as I shoulder it open, just in time to see Scarlett, still smirking, saying something to the girl next to her as they both look straight at me and laugh.