If it wasn’t for the fact that it was about six thirty in the morning, Riba would have her slammed her hand on the car horn. As it was, she settled for drumming her fingers along the steering wheel, eyes occasionally flicking over to the front door.
James slumped over the passenger’s seat, his eyes tired and half-lidded as he asked, “Do you want me to go get him?”
“He’s coming,” she mumbled, leaving off the At least he better that sat on the end of her tongue.
He didn’t seem convinced, but leaned back anyway with his arms crossed while he looked out the window.
“Why don’t we just go without him? The bus will be here soon, and he can ride to school.”
“He said he’d take the bus yesterday, remember? And then he slept in and missed it,” she said. Her eyes were drawn back to the dark green paint of the front door. Maybe it was just her imagination, but it was almost as if she could see the paint chipping the longer she looked. “Uck-! I don’t get it- didn’t you wake him up?”
“Yea, he threw a pillow at me.”
She laughed against herself, grip relaxing slightly. It tightened again when she saw a head of red hair coming out of the front door.
“Damn it, Ross- what took you so long?”
He shrugged, throwing open the passenger’s side door before sliding in without a word.
Containing a groan, she finally pulled the car out of the driveway and started down the road.
“You boys are too old to still be sleeping in.”
“I didn’t sleep in.”
“Oh? So why were you taking so long?”
“Because James was in the shower too long!”
“What? I only took, like, ten minutes.”
“That’s enough! This won’t happen again or I’m having both of you wake up at five thirty, got it?”
“Why am I getting punished?” James grumbled, probably not even meaning for Riba to hear.
“Oh? What was that Mr. ‘I’ll go to bed in a second, mom- just let me finish this episode?’ How many did you watch after I went to bed?”
James didn’t say anything this time, his fingers digging into his upper arms as he clung to himself in silent embarrassment and, more importantly, submission.
The most of a celebration Riba allowed herself was a small “Humph,” of victory as she started the car.
As much of a hassle as mornings like these made it out to be, her position as a teacher really did make their lives as a family easier. It was enough money to support both of her kids and a good way to keep an eye on them. It was a bit of a problem when they were in elementary school, as she wasn’t able to stay home and get them ready on her own. For that, she’d relied on a kind neighbor and a gamble on leaving her front door unlocked when she left.
That rough patch was long behind them all at this point. Now, she could just revel in the smooth road ahead.
“Do you guys have anything going on today?”
“No,” Ross said, his eyes fixed on the window.
“Any permission slips you need signed last minute? Tests today?”
“I have a test on wednesday, but it’s no big deal,” James said with a shrug that she was only able to see out of the corner of her eye. “Phil’s gonna help me go over stuff.”
“Oh- tell Phil he left his clothes over. Ha, that boy is so forgetful that he makes your memory look like a steel trap.” She found his eyes in the rear-view mirror and pointedly added, “Don’t tell him I said that.”
That, when paired with James’s cheeky grin, caused her to give a shrill laugh. “No, no! But seriously, he’s a sweet kid. I’m gonna have to kidnap him. In fact, tell his mom he’s mine now. The next time he comes over, he’s not leaving.”
“Oh boy, another nerd in the house.”
“Ross,” James hissed.
“What? I thought nerd was cool again,” Riba said, feigning shock if only to keep her children from arguing.
“Nerd was never really cool,” James said. Still, he took the hint and shifted back against the seat.
“Tch, Neither is Phil.”
“Come on, mom! The kid’s name is Phil. He should expect this.”
“He’s a sweet kid who is always welcome under my roof. More than I can say of- oh god, what was his name? The boy with a big forehead.”
“Nelson?” James offered.
“Don’t help her!”
“Help me what? Remember the name of the boy who brought pot into my home?”
“I told you- he didn’t have any!”
“Bullshit, and you know it. I still don’t know how you managed to get that out without me noticing, but I know what weed smells like.”
“It was a skunk.”
“Whatever. You have your friends that are only your friends as long as they consider you cool, and James has a friend who he’ll keep for a very long time. I know which one I’d rather have, but I’m just your shrew of a mother. So,” she made a point of flicking on her turn signal, “what do I know?”
Ross scowled, eyes moving up to the rear-view mirror where he made eye contact with James.
They didn’t have to speak in order for him to hear his brother’s voice saying something along the lines of, “I got the weed out, you dick.”
Whether or not that was what James was really thinking, it prompted him to roll his eyes before slumping back against the window. There he would remain until the car pulled up to the school.
“Be good,” she said as they all stepped out of the car.
“Yes, mom,” James said, his voice long and monotone, even as he smiled and slung his bag over his shoulder.
She smiled, gathering up her own bag as she opened up the rear door to retrieve the cardboard box of papers she’d graded the night before.
James watched her for a moment, reaching towards the back seat as he asked, “Do you need help?”
“No, no!” she assured, “I’ve got it. Oh, wait!” thinking quickly, she set down the box on the top of the car. Closing the door with her hip, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a couple of bills. “Does Ross need more lunch money?”
“I don’t know,” he said honestly.
“I know he missed a few more days than you,” she stared at the money, speaking more to herself than James. “But you were in the red, so he can’t be much better, right?”
“Maybe? I don’t really know. Want me to go get him?”
Riba could only roll her eyes and shake her head as she put all of the money into his hand. “Just split this with him and remind me the next time you guys need more in your accounts, okay?”
“Alright, thanks,” he said, pocketing the money. “Are you sure you don’t need help?”
“I’ve got it.”
A lopsided smile crossed his face before he took an exaggerated step forward and started to walk toward the building. Once he’d left her, Riba turned to another entrance, this one closer to her classroom. She rose a hand and slipped a lock of curled brown hair past her ear to hide a wry grin from the boy who approached her as she neared the building.
“Mrs. Levine,” he said, “Can I ask you about something?”
Her eyes warmed at the correction.
“Can this wait until class, Dylan?”
“Well it was kind of about the reading.”
It took a little more restraint than it should have to avoid blurting out, “You actually did it?”
Instead, she asked for clarification, two which he said, “Well, when you asked about symbols and stuff, I couldn’t find any.”
She raised a brow, pausing in front of the doors and turning to him. “You couldn’t find anything symbolic about Hamlet’s opening?”
“No. Like, I didn’t think it was gonna be a play. A play doesn’t have any descriptions or anything, so how am I supposed to ‘see’ the symbols?”
“Not every symbol, oh,” she paused as he opened the door for her. “Thank you, but not every symbol is physical. It could be a common phrase or metaphor, even a homonym.”
“If you’re looking for physical symbols, you could take the ghost’s armor.”
“For like, what? Him being a king?”
“No. You wear armor when you go into war. His armor’s already all beaten up, so he looks like he’s in the middle of a battle.”
“Right… and that’s Hamlet right?”
“Right,” he nodded slowly. “So, like, he’s got unfinished business?”
“Absolutely,” she said with a smile, fishing a ring of keys out of her jacket.
Dylan stood, silent in thought as she did so.
“I thought symbols were supposed to be obvious.”
“Some of them are, but you have to look a bit harder to see the others. Now,” the wooden block was jammed in place to keep the door open, leaving Riba to wretch out her keys and flick on the lights, “Do you think you can find at least two more before third period?”
“Probably, thanks Ms. Levine!”
He jogged off, leaving her to roll her eyes and return to her classroom.
It was too stiff from the night alone. The sound of her heeled-boots clacking along the floor rang in her ears, just as the scent of dry erase markers clouded her sense of smell. Distantly, that smell made her tired. Those were the remains of her days attending high school. Little else remained save for those fleeting feelings of rebellion. Now, she took her place at her desk with pride, leaning back and glancing about with a wide grin on her face.
Only the sound of a default ringtone could bring her out of her routine. The number was unknown, though she scowled at the area code, 914. The call was from New York. She glanced at the time, noted that she had a few minutes before class started, and picked up against a sinking feeling in her stomach.
“Hello?” she half-whispered.
“Riba?” a man’s voice said, “Oh my God- you kept the same phone number!”
Her nose wrinkled at the foreign voice.
“Who is this?”
“Oh, come on, you gotta remember me right?”
She went silent, face straightening with a disapproval she hoped could be felt through the phone line. Waiting a moment for the man “I’m hanging up.”
“No no! It’s Gabriel! It’s me- It’s Gabe!”
The name caused her to choke, chest heavy and pained. Finally, she repeated, “Gabe?”