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1.) Solicitude

My alarm clock blared, jolting me awake. I shook my head, clearing my dream from the frontline of my thoughts. It’s always the same dream, the scared voices, the stars, and then sleeping. I’m not sure where the dream stems from, but it’s become normal to experience it every night. At this point, I’ve come to expect it.

I turned off my alarm and swung my legs out of bed, sitting there for a moment contemplating. So much of me just desires to skip school today, I’m just not mentally ready to deal with whatever the next few hours have to offer. With a long exhale I pushed myself up and forced myself to stumble to my dresser, the crisp breeze coming in through my window encouraging me to pull on a sweater and jeans.

I could hear my Aunt Amelia downstairs bumbling around, louder than usual. She’s excited, I let out a groan. Somehow, I’d forgotten my birthday. It’s easy to forget, I guess; when you have no people to celebrate with. See, despite attending the same school district my whole life; I somehow managed to not make any friends at all. I found myself unable to click with people, which is fine. I like the quiet anyway.

“Astra, breakfast!” She called up to me, and I internally groaned with dread. Never do I dare do it outloud, I know she’d hear it. Raising me had given her ears like a hawk, and eyes in the back of her head. Mothers instinct. I forced a practiced smile, staring at myself in the mirror a moment to psych myself up for my Aunt’s unbearable energy.

“Here goes,” I muttered, pushing the hair off my forehead and making my way out of my room.

The kitchen smelled delicious, and I found myself dropping into my seat eagerly to help myself with the french toast she made.

“Good morning, dear! Happy eighteenth!” My aunt beamed at me from the stove, and I smiled back at her with as much gusto as I could. She’s a beautiful woman, my aunt. With cinnamon-colored curls and warm brown eyes, it’s hard not to double-take when you see her. I may lack my aunt’s enthusiasm for life, but something we do have in common is appearance.

My hair is the same color as my aunts, but it’s chopped short just under my chin and it’s not pretty curls. Our color is a family trait, she told me. My mother had the same beautiful curls; only I don’t remember what my mom looked like. The only thing that makes me different is my eyes, they’re not a chocolaty brown like my aunt. They’re gold, a striking gold that tells people I’m too weird to be around. But again, I don’t mind.

“Good morning, Aunt Amelia. Thanks for breakfast,” I said with a full mouth of food.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full.” My Uncle said plainly, from across the table. He read his paper and doesn’t even look up at me, but he still scolds me.

“Oh shush, she’s just enjoying my cooking.” She scolded him, tapping him lightly with a spatula. He grumbled something under his breath but said nothing further, I’m sure she already told him to lay off me since it’s my birthday. Not that I care, anyways. I don’t have much care for anything, which is probably an issue but we don’t do anything about it.

“Morning, Steven,” I stated, staring bullet holes into his forehead. Then I chewed in silence, while my aunt flipped more french toast and my uncle sipped his coffee. I’m comfortable in the silence, enjoying the food, but my aunt doesn’t like it because she started humming under her breath. I know my uncle doesn’t enjoy the humming either, but he loved his wife and never commented. Aunt Amelia mentioned in passing that he fought in a war, which is why he tends to be off putting, but nobody ever elaborated on the fact.

“Don’t forget to feed yourself, Aunt Amelia.” I reminded her kindly, knowing that she will undoubtedly just feed us then start tidying up the kitchen. She’s like that, someone who always puts other people’s needs first.

“Don’t tell her what to do.” My uncle scolded me again, without even taking his eyes from the paper. I sighed, he’ll never let up. I can never do anything right, even if it’s the polite thing.

“Steven-” My aunt started, but I stood quickly and crossed the room to her, planting a kiss on her temple.

“It’s alright, Aunt Amelia. I’ll see you after school?” She smiled up at me, even though I’m of average height. Her eyes hold sadness for me, I’m not sure why. I hope it’s not because of her grumpy husband, I’m used to him.

“No fun plans, dear?” She said to me, sorrow milking her tone. I shook my head no and her eyes somehow grew even sadder. What had gotten into her? Usually, she is so excited, about anything and everything. It’s not rare for me to not have plans, so why is it so much sadder for her now? Because it’s my birthday?

“I was thinking of stopping by the library and grabbing a new series, I finished the last one.” It’s not the truth, but naming something off probably made her feel a bit better. Her eyes brightened a bit, and a smile returned to her freckled face. I put my dishes in the sink and ran hot water over them, just to make them easier to clean. She did enough as it is.

“Okay, have a good day Astra.” I grabbed my backpack and slipped on my converse, her eyes on me the whole time.

“I’ll try my darndest,” I said, only slightly sarcastic, saluting her as I made my way out the front door.

“Astra-” My aunt said urgently, opening the door a crack and reaching out towards me. I stopped, my shoes hovering just before going down the stairs. We stood there in silence for a moment, her sudden urgency made me nervous. A next-door neighbor’s dog barked, and someone who lives on the first-floor slammed the door while we stood there.

The pause is pregnant, so I ask again,“Aunt Amelia?” She sighed, shaking her hand slightly in the air before letting it drop onto my shoulder.

“Stay safe out there.” My Aunt Amelia said finally, giving my arm a comforting squeeze. I scoffed slightly until I realized that she’s being serious.

“Yeah, of course-” she cut me off by shaking my arm.

“You, honey, are so unbelievably strong. Do you hear me?” My mind went blank, she knew I’m not one for sappy talk so why this? I just stared at her wide eyes, confused. “Astra, please hear me. You are going to be great.” I just nod, my tongue felt oddly heavy in my mouth.

“Ok, I hear you.” I said quietly, “I’ll see you later, love you. And please, some breakfast.” She smiled at me finally and I made my way down the two flights of stairs to get outside. My hand lingered on the doorknob to the outside, a feeling in my gut telling me not to go.

My aunt has never been so serious the way she had been upstairs, it had me on edge. Her scared eyes etched into my brain, and her urgent voice rang in my ears. I checked my watch, there’s no time for me to run back upstairs and then back down and to the bus. So I pushed my gut feeling down, the thought that maybe something bad is going to happen, and I rushed to the bus stop.

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