Monday morning was a long one for Rachel, she’d been up since 2am, so her morning was off to an abnormally early start.
She packed her bag, sorted out her books, got dressed, read a little; and by the time she felt like she had been up for an eternity, it was only 6:15am
So, with an exaggerated groan, she fell back onto her bed, dozing off instantly.
“RISE AND SHINE SLEEPING BEAUTY!”
An hour later, this yell made its way to Rachel’s ears and she was jolted back to the land of the living.
Rachel stretched, happy that she had one of those unexpected naps that felt like a decade. Joey talked about getting to breakfast in time but stopped to look at Rachel – only realizing then that her friend was already dressed and ready.
“Did you get ready for school before bed or something? Talk about eager”
But Joey was already out of the room.
At the breakfast table, most of the kids were half asleep or still grumbling about five more minutes. The only morning people were Joey, Mark and Conner. Rachel was in an animated discussion with Connor about contemporary art as Wesson entered the cafeteria. Everybody greeted him with a polite but sleepy ‘Good Morning’, everyone, except Rachel.
“Yo, Raich? What was that?” Joey leaned in
“Nothing” she beamed, all too wide to convince Joey.
“You’ve been acting weird since last night. What happened?”
“Him,” Rachel nodded vaguely towards Wesson at the teacher’s table.
“Him,” Joey almost laughed, “What did he do? What could he have possibly done?”
Rachel took a sip from her glass of milk followed by a deep breath, “I was at the library last night. Wesson mentioned knowing my folks so I asked him about them and by the end of our conversation I had ranted about my … dislike … for dad.”
Joey shook her head, “So the reason you’re so upset is cause you let loose the inner Rachel?”
Rachel pursed her lips and squinted at Joey
“Raich, Wes is a cool guy. He’s there for us, he hears us out … quit feelin’ so embarrassed about being yourself.”
“We meant it when we said that he’s like a parent. He is the same level of protective and loving as you would expect a father to be. He’s fun too. And honestly speaking, even though all of us here barely knew our actual dads … I think he’s got to be the best one out there.” Joey reasoned through a mouthful of waffles.
“Raich, he told you stuff about your parents that you never knew. I mean, you didn’t even know much about your mom other than her name now, did ya? Before last night, of course. ”
The distant ringing of a bell was everyone’s signal to get up and head to school. Rachel pushed her tray aside, grabbing a muffin as she slung her bag across her shoulder.
“Mornin’ Grumpy” Mark stopped her
“Is it really that obvious?” she pouted
“Totally! You’re like this giant flashing neon sign of-”
“Okay – I get it.”
They began walking to the school, “So, you gonna tell me, then?”
“Okay” he shrugged dismissively
“Why does everyone care so much? I’m fine!”
“Raich, I know this place is a handful. It’s a lot to process and you don’t feel like one of the gang yet. We just wanna be there.”
“You all are too there.”
“Can’t get rid of us, Raich. You missed you chance when you ripped up Dana’s offer. We’re gonna be your annoying, pain in the neck siblings now.”
“That’s sweet, Mark. But dude, don’t expect me to knock on your door and have a heart to heart with you. Trust me when I tell you that I’m fine, okay?”
“Your insistence on the fact that you’re fine only emphasizes the fact that you’re not” Anna teased as she walked by the duo. Rachel hit her over the head as she did.
“Alright,” He laughed, “See you after?”
Rachel nodded and turned around, not expecting Mark to drive his knuckles into her skull. She yelped and laughed, struggling out of his grip, “See you later, Raich”
“Yeah” she nodded out of breath. Straightening her shirt on her way to class, “Idiot” she mumbled under her breath, fighting off a facial twitch that would trigger a smile.
That night, after dinner, everyone was at their usual spots in the living room. Reading books, staring at screens, battling each other for the new high score and doing homework.
Wesson walked through the door with a booming, “Minions!” eliciting a laugh from everyone in the room. He smiled at everyone, gaze landing on the posters on the walls, freezing at the latest addition: Rachel’s painting.
His mouth fell open and he stood there, unblinking. Wesson walked up to the painting, fixated on the girl in the picture, “Holy shit.” He whispered.
“QUARTER TO THE SWEAR JAR!” Jake yelled out.
Wesson regained his composure and grinned, “Sorry, I’ll pay up, promise!”
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Connor asked
“Rachel painted it!” Joey quipped, earning an elbow to her ribs.
Wesson looked at Rachel, eyes glimmering with pride? “You got talent kid … Your mother was a brilliant artist too.”
Rachel was still blushing under the praise when Jess walked in, balancing several bowls of popcorn in each hand, “Anthony, Connor, get away from the TV. Ben, switch it back to cable. Mark” Jess kicked his foot, “Move.”
“What’re we gonna watch?” Rachel asked.
Joey and Jess exchanged a knowing smile, “The best TV show on this planet.”
There was a groan from every boy in the room.
Rachel’s phone pinged with a text message notification from Gavin: Your stupid show is on in one minute.
She glanced up in time to see the show’s title card flash on screen and laughed, “Perfect.”
Rachel eased into routine fairly quickly. She was glad to always have something to do. Being surrounded by people her age was comforting and always fun. Everyone made sure that boredom was out of the question. School, homework, basketball, babysitting, Joey and tutoring Anthony (or Tony), the worried looking nine year old, with math kept her exceptionally busy.
Soon, her room started feeling like it really was hers and the cabin felt like home. Joey’s journal showed up at her bedside table now and again but Rachel’s never quite made it. She was always texting Gavin, Nate and Hannah, trying to keep them in the loop and took out enough time every weekend to call the trio and tell them about how things were going.
Not thinking about that odd hollowness was a fairly easy task to do, considering how the institute’s busy schedule had no purpose other than to distract. However, nights were difficult and Rachel spent one too many at the mini kitchen’s counter, drinking soda that would rot her teeth and pushing back sad thoughts and pumping herself full of caffeine.
“You’re not sleeping at all, are you?” Ben’s voice interrupted her thoughts.
Ben was a strange character. He was tall, lean, and had mint green hair falling into his dark eyes. He had a square face and a sharp jaw, with thin lips that rarely quirked up in a smile. He was intimidating at first and towered over everyone in the cabin, but Rachel stopped fearing him when she saw him at the nursery, laughing with the little kids. He kept a watchful eye on them and sometimes, Rachel felt, that he was watching out for her too. They didn’t exchange many words but when he did speak, his voice was an odd, unwavering calm. The only time it ever went up or down, was when he sang.
The lights turned on. He was standing by the light switch, looking at her.
“I thought lights didn’t turn on past 11.”
“The kitchen lights do.”
Rachel raised her eyebrows at him in question, “Can’t sleep?”
“I don’t sleep. That’s why they call me Zombie.” He opened up the fridge and pulled out a carton of milk.
“Careful, you might have your title stolen.” Rachel took a swig from her Coke can.
Ben almost smiled, “What keeps you up?”
“Okay, Morbid.” He mocked, taking his seat next to her.
“What about you?”
“My head.” Ben shot her a pointed look.
“I can’t sleep cause there’s too much noise up here.” She pointed to her forehead, “Makes my dreams weird and my thoughts weirder.”
“You might want to deal with that mess before you explode, Rachel. Can’t go on like this.” He unscrewed the lid and took a gulp.
“You seem fine.” Rachel gestured at him, Coke can and all.
“I haven’t been sleeping much cause I’ve been trying to figure out which college to go to … what to do with my life.” He shrugged.
“That keeps you up at night?”
“Nah, now that I have nothing real to do, I’ve been binge watching shows on Netflix.” He smirked.
“So you don’t have a deep, sad, story that ends with a moral lesson to get me to sleep?”
“Nope. But I do have advice.” Ben offered.
“Bring forth thy words of wisdom, Zombie.”
“Be you, Rachel. It’s been a month, your act won’t last forever.” He shrugged as he said this.
Ben stared at her through the mouthful and then gulped, “Things’ll get real messy when the real you shows up in public. Lies are temporary.” He added, “You’re see through, you know? Don’t be the tough guy … gal … whatever. If you keep stuffing things in your head like that, you’re gonna run out of room one day and you’re gonna go crazy.”
“Non-sense. I have a solution.” Rachel said confidently
“Enlighten us.” Wesson interrupted.
Rachel gawked at him for a few seconds, then turned to look at Ben, who was still drinking directly from the carton and was completely unfazed by the Cabin Head’s presence in the kitchen at 1am.
“The kitchen light is the only light that goes on. It’s also the only light I can see from my window. And, it was on too long.” He explained before she could start.
“I’m sorry, I’ll go back to bed.” Rachel stood up and pushed the stool back. Ben pulled her back down.
“Go on. Enlighten us.” He insisted.
Wesson pulled up a stool opposite both the kids and put his face between his hands. He’d look ridiculous if Rachel wasn’t busy having an internal freak-out.
“Ignore it till it comes and bites me in the ass.” Rachel breathed out. Ben slid the swear jar into her line of vision.
“Huh?” Wesson arched his eyebrows.
“Push all the pain and agony in one corner until I am ready to deal with it.” Rachel stared at the swear jar in front of her like her life depended on it.
“So in your head, Nanna is still alive? And you’re just on a vacation?” Wesson asked.
Rachel swallowed, “No. I know where Nanna is. I know where I am.”
“Kid, you’ve way too much up there. Let it out.” He said, softly.
“Yeah. No.” She shook her head and emptied the can.
“Rachel, let it out in any way you need to. Think about this, please. The longer it stays inside of you, the bigger the blow out. Pick someone you trust, tell them what’s goin’ on. It’ll be okay.” He assured. Rachel wouldn’t make eye contact.
“Thanks, dad.” Rachel snorted.
Wesson stared at her, wide-eyed for a moment before shaking his head and standing up, “Ben, go to bed.”
“Yes sir.” He stood and patted Rachel on the shoulder before grabbing the milk carton and retreating to his room.
“Rachel.” He tried again
“Yes?” she was standing up too now, eyes on her feet.
“Rachel.” He said, more forcefully this time.
She looked up.
“Please.” Wesson pleaded.
Rachel walked out of the room, “Goodnight, Mr. Wes”