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02 | Routine

The blaring sound of my alarm wakes me up the following day. I blindly reach for my phone, feeling the nightstand with the tips of my sleepy fingers. My thumb lingers over the snooze button as I notice not even the sun is ready to wake up.

Tempting.

I digress from the enticing thought of an extra eight minutes of sleep and sit up. My legs hang loosely over the side of the bed as my fists rub the drowsiness out of my eyes. Stretching my arms, I slip into my flip-flops and walk to the bathroom. My eyes squint, preparing themselves for the bright light over the mirror. I remember a time where my body would show the effects of running on three hours of sleep—dark circles were a signature piece under my eyes, headaches were a headband that stretched from ear to ear, and the vertigo that was induced by my sleepless nights were the salsa lessons I couldn’t afford. But as I stare at my reflection now, those signs aren’t present, and I don’t know if I should be concerned or impressed with the way I’ve adjusted to my lack of proper self-care.

Fully dressed in jeans and an oversized t-shirt, I press my ear against the bedroom door and listen for any movement from the kitchen. This has become part of my morning routine as I try my best to avoid my mother and Ralph so early in the day. Certain that they’re not up yet, I gently turn the doorknob and make my way to the kitchen. The fluorescent lights flicker before they stay fully lit, illuminating the mess that has become a permanent staple in the kitchen.

There are ring stains left behind on the laminated countertops from the red solo cups Ralph never seems to finish drinking. A trail of ants runs from the overflowing sink to the trashcan and fruit flies hang around the rotten oranges that were bought over a month ago. Pulling my hair back with a scrunchie, I prepare myself to clean up the mess they’ve left behind. I used to leave the kitchen as is, afraid that the smallest amount of noise would wake them up from their drug-induced coma. But I soon realized that they’d force Ben to clean up after them when I was gone. I don’t want him to experience the same childhood I did. He shouldn’t worry about picking up after adults. His worries should be those of a six-year-old like picking between his two favorite candies at a gas station.

I rinse all the dishes and place them in the dishwasher. I’ll wait to run it right before Ben and I leave. I sweep up the crumbs left behind from expired leftovers and empty the dustpan into the trashcan. I use the last of the paper towels to remove the stains from the counter. Placing a new bag into the trashcan, I stomp on a family of roaches.

Rinsing my hands of any grime, I head to the fridge, and to no surprise, I find it empty of any consumable nutrients. The gallon of milk is past its due date and the dozen carton of eggs is filled with empty eggshells and one last uncracked egg. I find one clean pan and squeeze the last drop of olive oil to make scrambled eggs. Picking through stale bread, I manage to salvage a couple of slices and pop them into the toaster. I used to worry that if Mom and Ralph could smell the food I was making, they would come into the kitchen demanding a plate, but I’ve learned that whatever shit they’re on can keep them asleep through almost anything.

I place everything on a plate and head down the hall to wake Ben. He lays in bed so peacefully that I don’t have the heart to disrupt his slumber. I put the plate of toast and eggs on the nightstand and sit by his side, enjoying the way his stomach rises and falls with every breath and the noises he makes that remind me so much of when he was younger. I honestly don’t know how he was able to survive the first year of his life, but for that, I will always be grateful to his doctors. I swipe his curly hair from his forehead and kiss his cheek sweetly, whispering, “Good morning, Benny.”

His eyelashes flutter as he turns over onto his back and stretches out his arms, letting out a sleepy groan.

“It’s time to wake up. Look, I made you breakfast.”

“Hmm, it smells like my favorite,” he says with a yawn as he sits up in bed. Ben has such a kind heart. If all I had for him was cereal with spoiled milk, he would eat it with a smile on his face.

I hand him a cup of water and wait until he drinks it all before giving him his food. “How did you sleep?”

He shrugs his shoulders. “Ralph tried to come in yesterday.”

“What? Why didn’t you call me?”

“I think he was on his meds again. He tried the doorknob, but the door wouldn’t open, so he started pounding on it instead. He gave up after a while.”

“Did Claire help?”

He shakes his head. “She wasn’t home.”

Ralph and Claire.

They are more like shitty roommates than respectable adults.

I’ve never corrected Ben when he calls them by their first names. It doesn’t feel right to make him give them a title that is meant for someone whose sole purpose is to teach and guide, love and protect unconditionally when they never so much as acted as if they wanted it or deserved it.

Ben might never know the lively version of my mother, but I do and to me, she will always be Mom, not Claire. No matter her mistakes. No matter her moments of weakness. God knows I have my own. No matter her silence. She is a broken soul, and just like anything that is broken it only takes one person to put the pieces back together. That foolish person is me.

“Are you going to be home late today?” Ben asks with his head down and his eyes on the empty plate.

I kiss the side of his head. “I’ll be home as soon as I can.”

I grab his plate and send him to the bathroom before guilt overcomes me. “Finish up and get ready for school. You don’t want to be late.”

I rinse off our used dishes and put them into the dishwasher. As I sinch the elastic bands of the trash bag, I’m hit with a gust of days old food that triggers my gag reflex. I pull my shirt over my nose and hold the bag away from my body as I toss it into the bin outside.

Stepping back into the house, I notice Mom is passed out on the sofa. Her black, curly hair is a bird’s nest held together by a toothless hairclip. Her arm hangs loosely from the couch cushion and an empty syringe grazes her fingertips. A feeling of sympathy tries to overcome me and before I get the chance to push it onto the back burner, I’m standing over my mother’s limp body.

Another moment of weakness.

I think back to a time where it was only Mom, Dad, and myself. When she didn’t need drugs to feel alive or a man’s affirmation to feel worthy but after my father’s death, she went into a depressive state, and we lost everything. She lost herself and I lost my mother.

Not long after Dad’s passing, Mom was put on antidepressants and when the pills no longer did the trick, she experimented with other types of drugs—heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, anything to numb her of the pain of losing the only man she had ever loved. When every last cent was spent on her addiction and she had no other way to pay her dealer, she started selling herself. Ralph pimped her out as his personal whore and used her as a way to pay him back for the drugs she couldn’t afford. He used her for years until I was old enough to replace her. I was new and fresh while she was old and worn out.

I cover her with a blanket and notice Ben coming into the living room, so I snap out of feeling sorry for someone who willingly put herself into this situation. She had no regard for herself and none whatsoever for her only child.

I smile when I see Ben dressed in his regulated school attire. His white collared shirt is free of any wrinkles and a striped burgundy and yellow tie peaks under his buttoned up burgundy vest. I am thankful for his black pants as they cover the bruises Ralph left behind a couple of nights ago. My boy looks handsome and ready to become someone in this world. “Ready?”

“All set!”

“Did you lock the door?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s get going then.”

Summerlin’s Preparatory Academy is an hour away from home, leaving me with only a few minutes to say goodbye. I quickly unbuckle my seatbelt and open the passenger door, helping Ben with the straps of his bookbag as he mistakenly tries to place both on the same shoulder.

“There,” I say. I squat and kiss him on the forehead. “I love you, Benny. I’ll see you later. Have a great day.”

“I love you, too Mommy,” he whispers and rushes to join a crowd of identically dressed children. How the staff tells each child apart, I haven’t a clue. All I know is that Summerlin has a very strict uniform policy, and the headmaster doesn’t hesitate to give citations to students who violate any of the academy’s regulations.

I remember Ben’s first citation—all over a pair of shoelaces. This place expects students and parents to be by the book at all times. I roll my eyes just thinking about Headmaster Turner’s condescending tone.

“Only Velcro or slip-on dress shoes are allowed, Miss Walsh,” he’d said.

Headmaster Turner had me pick Ben up early that day. I felt horrible for being the reason he had gotten in trouble. It isn’t fair that an innocent child has to deal with the consequences of the actions taken by an adult. I was supposed to be the responsible one and make sure he had everything he needed for his very first day of kindergarten. I failed him.

It was Ben’s reaction that made the whole incident better. He’d said, “It’s okay, just because we got the wrong shoes doesn’t mean I don’t like them. They are really comfortable!”

One thing I know for sure, Ben has a heart of gold and deserves the best this world has to offer.

Getting back into the car, I swerve in and out of school traffic and make it just in time to my college campus. Parking in the guest parking lot, I weave through crowds of students heading to class. Some look like they woke up at five in the morning just to look their very best. Others look like they just rolled out of bed and got dressed in the dark.

Unlike most universities in Nevada, this one is incredibly modern and rich in its futuristic architecture. As I pass the library, I can see through the massive glass panels rows upon rows of oak bookcases filled to the top, and shaped tables with students already studying for their upcoming exams. Finally making it to the College of Arts and Fashion building, I jog up the stairs and plop onto the floor outside of room 206. I pull out my sketchbook and coloring pencils from my bag and silently watch Professor Betsy from afar as she begins her lecture on textiles.

From where I’m sitting, I have the perfect view of Professor Betsy and the three students that sit in the front row. They all dress distinctively and individually but each carry the same white measuring tape around their necks and the same dream as mine. Posters hang from the bulletin boards that are attached to the cream-white walls with designs from previous students. Each sketch is unique and so incredibly detailed that I am able to imagine the model wearing the drawn outfits.

Every student sits behind a massive desk that houses three plastic containers filled with threads, needles, and scissors. They even have a giant drawing pad for any ideas that might come to mind while designing. Bare mannequins are set up beside each desk and on the far-left side of the class are rows upon rows of shoes and accessories.

Professor Betsy pulls out an array of fabric patches and adjusts her oversized glasses atop her head to rest on the bridge of her nose as she looks through for the perfect textile. She hands the student in front of her an emerald patch and asks him to feel the texture of the fabric. He rubs the silk between his forefinger and thumb and gives the professor a lengthy answer to her question. She hands him another patch as the man passes the silk to the woman on his right. The first fifteen minutes of class are spent discussing the textures of fabric on the skin and the purpose each serves.

As the professor begins to draw several different patterns on the whiteboard behind her, the students copy and repeat each design onto their sketchbooks. I try my best to pay attention to the small details Professor Betsy draws but I sit too far from her to gauge every minuscule feature. Before I know it, I’ve drawn my own version of her design.

My laser focus gets interrupted by a text message from Andrews.

[Andrews]

Bellagio. 7:00 PM.

[Annabelle]

I’ll be there.

I mentally go over everything I have to do today.

Ben has to be picked up from school at three, meaning I have to leave my unit no later than one-thirty to have enough time to drop off my dress at the cleaners. I have to feed Ben, help with his homework, and pass by the grocery store. Then we have to drive home, unload the dishwasher, unpack the grocery bags, and make sure Ben showers before I head out of the house and into my unit again to prepare for my date.

With no time left to waste, I quickly pack up my belongings and head out of the College of Arts and Fashion building.

This is going to be a full day.

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