I stare up at the rickety door frame that seemingly holds up my entire house. Whenever I look at it, I always imagine removing it, like a puzzle piece, and watching the whole house fall in on itself. Imagining how one little altercation could bring down a whole structure. Even though I don’t want it to, it reminds me of the structure of the government, how they say “everyone has a part in keeping our society stable; fulfill yours”.
I shake my head to get the thought out. That shouldn’t be my focus right now. What should be is my mother, shaking and trembling like a leaf in the wind, on the verge of flying away.
My mother twists her finger around a lock of hair, over and over and over, until I almost feel as if I’ll get dizzy just by watching. “You have everything, right? You didn’t forget any of your books? You might get homesick without them; oh, let me go and grab some-” She is about to turn and sprint back into the house when I catch her wrist in the nick of time.
“Mom,” I say gently, trying but failing to soothe her. “I’ll be fine. It’s not like I’m going to another planet.” I lower her wrist but still hold it loosely as if she’s a wild animal, just in case she makes a break for the stairs again.
She shakes her arm so I’m forced to let go. “I know that. It’s just that I’m worried. Isn’t that my purpose? To worry?”
I smile. “Not when there isn’t any reason to.”
We hear a thump from inside the house, and we both turn our heads. My father is panting after dragging my luggage all the way down the two flights of stairs.
“Honey,” he starts. “I don’t know exactly what they’ll be teaching you while you’re learning for your government job.” He pauses to wipe a streak of sweat from his brow. “But I doubt you will need any bricks.”
I take the luggage from him, and though he doesn’t verbally confirm it, I can tell he is relieved and grateful for my doing so. “There are no bricks. They’re just unnecessary things Mom thought I should bring along, though I am positive I won’t use them.”
Mom intervenes, annoyed. “You might!”
Before she can get in another lecture, I am both relieved and startled to hear the honk of the bus as it pulls up a few feet away from where we all stand at the foot of the porch.
My father squints in its direction. “71… Yup, that’s yours, Andromeda.” He smiles at me, as if he personally directed it here by memorizing its number.
I nod anyway, wanting him to know I am still grateful. I proceed to lift the luggage, and it immediately digs into my palm; I am astonished my father got as far as two flights of stairs. Maybe my mother really did pack bricks. “Well, I’ll see you two in a few months for our break.”
My mother is twisting her lock of hair so hard I am afraid she’ll pull it right out of her head. My father turns to her and, aware of this, gently puts a hand over hers, untangles it from the hair, and lowers it to her side. I give him a smile.
“Just remember to call when you can,” my mother reminds me. She rushes over and gives me a warm hug.
I wonder how much I’ll miss it.
We stand like that for a second, her hiccuping from held in tears and me closing my eyes, trying to memorize her smell, the way she always clutches a little too tight as if she wants to be the first to let go, until my father breaks us apart with a little ahem.
He puts his hand on my mother’s shoulder, smiling. “Sorry, but could I have a turn with her?”
My mother hiccups, then stands back. “Sorry, I didn’t realize she was so popular.” As my father comes in to hug me, I see my mother mouth the words He’s jealous, and I am strangely proud that she can still make a joke through her misery.
Stereotypically, my father’s hug isn’t as long or as touching as my mother’s. If you could even classify it as a hug is a question all on its own; it was more of an intimate pat on the back.
Finally, we all break apart, and I have a weird feeling of me breaking off from them, as if floating away from their little island, as I step away from them and towards the bus, towards my life.
I spin around slowly, taking in our neighborhood. Neat little houses that barely differentiate from the other, only distinguishable by their colors and the amount of flowers growing in each yard. Barely anyone is out now, even at the prime of the day, except for an elderly couple and a stray cat or two.
It is so neat and orderly, and it has kept me sheltered from the chaos that I have now seen a glimpse of, just by doing what they told me to do and going through the Door. Am I glad for the shelterment, glad for the obliviousness, or do I wish I were more familiar with what I am now entering full on? How can I survive such a harsh world?
Looking back at them, glancing over my shoulder as I walk towards the bus, I am still unsure of how, but aware that no matter, I will have to either way.
And I will do so valiantly.
The bus ride is uneventful, except for the sudden stop in the middle of the trip when someone asked for a bathroom break, with no bathrooms in sight. I resist the urge to join the rest of the desperate group, having never gone to the bathroom outside of a clean, functioning toilet.
The rest of the ride, however, is very peaceful. The route the driver ensues consists of an abundance of wildlife, closing in almost all sides. I have never seen so much nature in my life, and I wonder if I will ever will again. I hope so.
Finally, we reach the final destination; my home for the next year, excluding all the extra training I will most likely be brought back to do.
And in all honesty?
It is very bland.
Like almost everything in our town, I’m starting to realize.
Like the building where I went through the Door, the outside is almost completely white, except for a few splashes of color making up doors and outlining windows. I inwardly hope to be pleasantly surprised with the fact that there is at least some color on the inside, also like the building where I went through.
Unlike the building with the Door, however, there are not dozens of students swarming around each and every opening and exit. In fact, there aren’t many people on the outside at all, and this gives the building a little of a haunted feeling. I embrace the goosebumps that stand on my neck, slightly happy for this small enthrallment.
The bus heaves to a stop, the mechanical parts grinding, and it pants to a stop a ways away from the main entrance; or at least what can be presumed to be so. It is the largest and most noticeable door, graced with a deep crimson red. Above it reads “Government Training Classes”, as if sealing its importance.
The bus driver leans over the edge of his seat and gives a little grunt, and I can tell he is advertently telling us to move it, though I seem to be the only one to pick up on his secret message.
Annoyed, he says, “It’s not for you to stare at. Get a move on!”
Finally, everyone gets the message, grabs their things, and spills out of the bus in a rush of excitement. I hang towards the back, cautious of bumping into anyone and hitting them with the unidentified objects my mom packed. Once I reach the door, however, I pause.
Turning to the driver, I ask, “How many times have you been here?”
He doesn’t answer for a moment, and I am debating between just leaving or asking the question when his head snaps up to me. His facial expression makes me want to laugh yet pity him at the same time; does he get ignored so much that it is stupefying when someone finally does acknowledge his presence?
He shakes his head as if to clear it. “Oh, I can’t say for sure. I’ve been here countless times, watching kids fulfill the dreams I never could.”
I am almost annoyed with his answer; I hadn’t meant to get into a meaningful conversation with this man, just to seemingly offer friendliness. But beneath this, I pity him once again. He really had no one else to tell this to? Does that make this even more pitiful?
Sensing my confusion, he gives another grunt, as if that’s all he can do. “Anyway, what do you care. Off my bus!”
My answer blurts out before I can stop it. “Is that why you have such a mean disposition?” I immediately want to snatch my words right out of the air and shove them back into my mouth. How could I say that? I’ve never been that rude or brutally honest with anyone.
However, he just gives a laugh. “Yeah, I guess you could say that. Now would you please leave? You’re confusing me.”
I want to say he is doing the same to me, but I decide that’s enough of my insults for one day. I nod and then descend down the steps to the ground.
Before I completely step off though, I look back at him.
And then I am out.
The bus peels away, its wheels skidding against the concrete. I assume the man just couldn’t take any more of my bluntness, which even I hadn’t seen much of before.
What was I thinking? I don’t even know exactly what I was sorry for, but I guess I was at least sorry for something. Shaking my head, I turn towards the building.
That bus ride is behind me.
Now, my future.
The about 30 kids I was riding the bus with seem to be as confused as me. We’ve been preparing our whole lives, yet we weren’t informed what we were to do once we arrived.
My bag digging into my shoulder, I turn to the closest person to me, a short and stocky boy, and tap his shoulder lightly. It takes a few moments for him to fully face me, and once he does, I try to give him a bright smile. After a 4 hour trip and many lectures from my mother, I am worn out, and I hope it doesn’t show.
“Hi,” I say through my teeth. Does this make me sound hostile? “Do you know what we’re supposed to do? Maybe where we could put our bags? My mother fully stocked mine; twice!”
I am trying to crack a joke, but the boy just stares at me. Finally, he shrugs. I take note that he seems to have delayed response times to almost anything.
“I don’t think anyone-”
Suddenly, the door behind him slams open. Startled, my shoulders jump, causing my bag to dig into them even more. I wince.
Standing in the doorway is a tall and downright intimidating woman. She stands in high heels, as if her height needs any addition, and her hands rest propped on her hips. A bun sits at the very top of her head, seemingly so tight I’m afraid she’ll pull her hairs right out of her head. Momentarily, I think of my mother, fretting and pacing at home, her vulnerability shown briefly, and I feel bad for making fun of her.
The woman claps her hand, and I watch her long, manicured nails wave through the air, slicing it into shreds.
“Children!” She says, and I hear someone yell out, “We’re seventeen!” A few people laugh, but they are immediately silenced by the woman’s withering glare that I feel could make milk go bad.
“This is no place for games. You are training for the government now. The best of the best. Do you think that is a laughing matter?” She looks pointedly in the direction of the comedian, and no sound comes. She seems pleased, and one end of her mouth curls up into what one could possibly call a smile.
“You will all be led to your dorms by me. I will hear no disruptions while we walk. Once we arrive, you will be given tonight to unpack and settle in. You are allowed to roam until curfew at 9 pm, and lights out at 9:30. Lessons will begin tomorrow. Understood?”
We all just stare back at her. Does she really expect us to answer after that introduction?
“I said, am I understood?” Her eyes coast above the crowd, almost meeting mine for a terrifying moment, before moving on. I feel that if we don’t answer soon she’ll make a meal out of one of us. Everything about her reminds me of a vulture.
We all answer back in halfhearted yeses and grunts, even the shrug of a shoulder. What even is the right answer? There are a million ways to say we understand.
Her glare hardens. “I will ask one more time. You will answer ‘Yes Ms. Haven’. Now, for the last time, am I understood?!”
We all answer back definitely, confident in our answer and firm in our terror. “Yes, Ms. Haven!”
“This is the cafeteria,” Ms. Haven clucks, pointing to a room with a long finger. Though you would imagine a cafeteria would hold food odors, all I can smell are the harsh disinfectant smells of a hospital, and they cling to my nose no matter how much I try to get them out of my nose.
The building looks like a hospital. Of course it would smell like one too.
She takes us through the hallways and seemingly secret passages effortlessly, and I am amazed at how anyone could memorize all the shortcuts and turns, all the passages of this building, making me wonder exactly how long Ms. Haven has been here, how many empty hours she has had to fill by walking these routes over and over, or maybe just becoming familiar with them unknowingly, like how you could navigate your house with your eyes closed after years of oblivious training.
Finally, we reach the back of the building. Ms. Haven turns to look at all of us.
“The dorms are separate from the building, so we’ll have to walk over. Follow me.”
She then boldly steps out of the building and straight towards the building on the opposite side, waiting for her. She walks so ferociously it’s as if she is walking into battle at that very moment.
No one hesitates after our first encounter with disobeying her; we all stride out as well, trying to copy her physique as we walk, but it comes out wrong, like when you copy someone else’s artwork and it just isn’t right.
As I’m walking, having given up on even resembling Ms. Haven’s strut, a girl bumps into me. We lock eyes, and there is something there that I just can’t place. She has long black hair, so straight that I imagine running my fingers through it and not even noticing I was touching anything; opposite to mine, which could trap fingers like a snare. She had greenish gray eyes that twinkled somehow, even in the cloudy evening. But what mainly caught my attention was the way she held herself, tall and proud, as if she knew she deserved to be seen by everyone. I didn’t slouch myself, but I had never even known a posture by itself could be so assertive.
At first what I can’t quite grasp seems to be ferocity, a kind of anger, but the rest of her features are so gentle I can’t imagine it, so I decide to go with defiant curiosity. Strange, I know, but it is the only way to describe it.
She smirks at me in a kind way, as if I just told her a joke. “Sorry about that. Ms. Haven sure is keeping us jittery, huh?”
I consider my answer. If we were back home, I probably would’ve avoided her answer. Not shy, but I probably would have just ignored her completely until she grew tired of me and left. But there is something about the situation, something about just having gone through the Door, something about this girl, that makes me want to match her sarcasm, her quirkiness.
“Frightened out of our minds would be more like it,” I respond, raising an eyebrow.
She just chuckles. “These wimps, maybe. But she can’t break us.” The girl puffs up her chest and elbows me gently, as if for emphasis.
“Didn’t know you were such a tough guy,” I smile, giving her a weak elbow back.
She gives me a mysterious gaze. “There’s lots you don’t know about me.” And just as soon as she arrived, she’s gone, disappeared into a sea of kids.
I just give a little grunt in disbelief, but I don’t know what else. In a way, I’m proud of myself for making a new friend, if she could even be called that. And what did she mean by that last sentence? There’s lots you don’t know about me? What is there to know?
And do I want to know more?
As the kids around me thin out, and someone a few feet in front of me tells me to get a move on, I realize that I do.
I stare at the bunk above mine. After dueling it out in a kid’s hand game, I lost to the girl above me, and ended up taking the inferior lower bunk.
I had searched lightly for the black haired girl, to no avail. I had to come to the conclusion that she had been assigned to a different room, something I was unreasonably disappointed by. Besides, I already had an abundance of neighbors; 11, to be exact, though the dorm rooms were big; so why was that one girl so intriguing to me?
I wished I knew.
All of my mom’s little trinkets surround me, like bugs on a hot summer day. They almost feel to buzz around me, and I feel overwhelmingly homesick, letting my fingers brush over them. With each one I touch, another memory floods in, and I have to choke it back down.
I narrow my eyebrows. I shouldn’t be feeling so sad. I am happy to be here, happy for this opportunity, relieved to not have to join my brother, and I must work to justify my incredible luck. Even if I miss home, I will go back to it soon. I must go back to it triumphant.
My hands ball into fists.
I won’t let you down, Mom.
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