On what looked like the last day of humanity, Katherine Morse opened her eyes. She quickly determined that it was 6:45 a.m., saw that the sun was shining, heard her mother in the shower and remembered that her brother was buried at Broadlawn Cemetary, still dead. Dead at 16, if he was alive he’d be 21. Instead he lay beneath the earth with broken bones that would never set. All of him was down there, just not in the same order it had been in up here. In the daytime, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t remember his face or what his voice sounded like. It was at night that he talked to her. His voice was deep and his face hidden in shadows but still familiar.
She rose and made her bed. The girl inside of her head told her to leave the room, instead she pulled the blankets and sheets completely off and made the bed again. This time she was satisfied. Looking back from the doorway she bit the scarred skin on the inside of her mouth and coughed to choke down the moan that seemed to be stuck in her throat.
“Just go.” Katherine ran her fingers over the wallpaper. Her entire life in 8X10 rectangles navigated her toward the stairs. Her grandparents diminished and vanished outside of her bedroom. Her brother disappeared by the bathroom. Her father dropped off three steps from the stained-glass window. He wasn’t dead, just gone. When Jack had been killed, this family had been irrevocably broken and John Morse hadn’t been keen on the whole recycling movement. They had been thrown away and replaced with a shinier version.
Her mother stepped out of the bathroom and their eyes met, shiny and both sets contained a multitude of fury. Quickly the emotions were buried, smiles plastered across their faces and all was right with the world. Maggie Morse’s gaze shifted to the door of her daughter’s bedroom. Katherine took a step toward her. Quickly her mother’s hand shot out and pulled the door shut. Her wedding ring clicking on the brass knob.
“What would you like for breakfast?” Her voice was high and her knuckles were white as they held the door closed.
Katherine held her hands across her stomach. Her mouth twitched as she chewed, blood mixed with her spit and she swallowed hoping that she wouldn’t throw up.
“We have the cereal you like or I could make you something.” There were other words not being spoken. These were the ones that they both were concentrating on. Katherine wondered what it would be like if her mother just said what she truly felt. You crazy little shit. Get your weird ass down over the stairs and forget about that damn bed. Who gives a flying fuck if the sheets are wrinkled? No one, that’s who.
“Cereal is fine.”
Maggie nodded and pulled her robe tight around her thin waist. Unconsciously, she patted her pocket. Reassured that her cigarettes were there, she followed her daughter down over the stairs. The silence between them was so toxic, the 42-year old woman’s hands shook.
“You’re going to miss the bus.” Maggie watched out the kitchen window, ignoring the dust on the sill. She lit a new cigarette off of the butt of her old one.
“Brody’s picking me up.” Katherine zipped her backpack slowly.
Her mother’s head whipped around. “He has his license?”
“No. We’re going to walk.”
Maggie nodded and inhaled a lungful of menthol flavored smoke.
“Leave the bowl. I’ll get it.”
Katherine’s hands froze over the dirty cereal bowl. “Are you sure? I can do it.”
“I know you can.” Maggie’s words were sharp and she closed her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said softly avoiding her daughter’s face.
“It’s ok.” She handed her dirty dish to her mother and stepped back. “I’m going to go wait on the steps.”
Katherine felt her mother’s relief as the door closed between them.
It was early October and the leaves blanketed the walk. Thankfully, the disorganization of the cast-off foliage didn’t incite Katherine’s anxiety. Those feelings were exclusive to the house behind her and the things that touched her. As long as nothing out here touched her, she would be fine. At least that what’s the therapist had said.
“Hey.” Brody kicked through the leaves as he approached. Katherine felt her heart constrict. Her mouth pulled into a smile that she couldn’t hide if she wanted to.
I love you.
“Hey.” She looked back over her shoulder and waved to her mother. There was never any doubt that she would be watching from the window.
Brody hiked his backpack higher onto his shoulders. “She looks pissed.”
Katherine laughed. “It would be weird if she didn’t.”
“I think she hates me.”
“Yeah, me too.” Katherine watched her sneakers appear and disappear in the fallen leaves. “But she hates everyone.”
Brody sighed. “Do we have AV Club today?”
“Shit. I forgot my laptop at home.”
Katherine stopped at the corner. “I think Mr. McCluskey backed up all of our files onto his system. You can retrieve your work from there.”
“Yeah, but he’ll still give me crap about leaving my work at home.”
The light turned and they stepped out into the street. “You need to stop worrying about what people think of you. McCluskey’s an asshat and his opinion of you doesn’t matter.”
Brody bent down to tie his sneaker. “I know, it’s just that…”
A little red car turned the corner against the light. Katherine stumbled back and tripped over the curb. Her throat seized as she heard the thump and crunch as the car wheels ran over Brody’s backpack.
“Get out of the road, loser.” The driver shrieked.
Brody picked up his mangled sack and slowly walked to where Katherine stood shaking. He fell to the ground and sat with his head between his knees.
“Holy shit.” Katherine’s voice came back. “Are you ok?” She sat down beside him and put her hand on his shaking knee.
Brody shuttered and looked over at her without lifting his head. “Was that Megan?”
Katherine looked after the speeding car. “Yeah.”
“Was Leta with her?”
“I think so, yeah. In the back seat but she…”
Brody stood and caught himself on the stop sign. “Don’t defend her, Katherine.”
Picking up his bag, she opened it and winced. She pulled out his flattened lunch. “I suppose you should be grateful that you forgot your computer today.”
He grabbed it from her hand. “I can’t believe you’re still friends with her. She treats you like dog shit.”
Katherine put her hand in the crook of his elbow. “Aw, come on it’s not so bad. Leta puts her dog shit in those little pink perfumed bags, after all.”
Brody shook his head and looked down at her upturned “forgive me” face. “She pretends that she doesn’t even know your name at school. It’s sick that you allow it.”
She let go of his arm. “We all have secrets that we keep to uphold our image, Brody. You do.”
He stopped and she looked back at him. His face was blank, but his eyes were wide. She shrugged her shoulders. “I do too. Leta just wants to be in that clique. It makes her feel like she’s accomplishing something. Who am I to argue with that?”
Brody caught up to her and she looked up at him and smiled.
“It’s sick.” He repeated.
“Yeah, well we’re teenagers. I don’t think life is supposed to be healthy.”
Her heart beat steady and strong as he lay his heavy arm across her shoulders. Their relationship was like this, a game of arguments and expressive touch. Katherine wondered if he had any idea of how every cell on her skin sang when he touched her. Or was it just the expression that he got caught up in. Did he feel her body as anything more than an exclamation point?
“There’s Sidney. I’ll see you at lunch?” Brody walked backwards, waiting for an answer.
“Yeah. Do you have any money or do I have to buy your lunch?”
Brody stopped and frowned. “Oh yeah.” He smiled and pointed at her. “I’ll pay you back, or even better you can get Megan and Leta to pay you back.”
Katherine rolled her eyes and waved to the girl with the bright purple hair who was waiting for Brody. “Hey Sidney. You look like you’re about to explode.”
The pregnant teenager nodded. “I’m pretty sure that is exactly what’s going to happen. Practice safe sex, kids, or you’ll end up splattered against Mr. Manning’s Social Studies maps in Period One.”
“Gross.” Brody tried slipping his arms through the straps on his bag. The buckle splintered and fell apart and the backpack fell to the floor. He looked at Katherine accusingly.
“I didn’t do it. In fact I’m happy as all hell that you’re not roadkill.”
Sidney struggled off of the bench. “What happened?”
Brody simply shook his head. “It’s a long story.”
She took a bite of her apple and shrugged. “Good, I really wasn’t that interested.”
Katherine laughed and walked into the school alone. She had three minutes to get to Algebra. A missing math gene and a mild anxiety disorder had forced her into the most basic class. General Math/Pre-Algebra consisted of four football players, two cheerleaders and a pot head with the rest of the class made up of the typical invisible students who were somehow deemed mathematically-challenged.
She opened the door and winced. Any given day may present itself with a shower of spit balls, visions of Sam Johnson’s butt boil or the hair and cosmetic makeover of an unconscious stoner named Milton. The cheerleaders had determined that he was an Autumn.
A few heads turned but no one said anything as she slipped into the desk nearest the door. The room was unusually quiet.
“Hey, Kathy.” Megan leaned against Katherine’s desk. “You shouldn't let your little friend play in the road. My mother would have shit if I had run over him or something.”
One of the football players laughed. “Jesus, Megan! Did you kill another kid with your car?”
Megan stood up and glared. “I didn’t kill anyone, ever.” She tapped her fingernails on the desk and Katherine cocked her head and stared at them, trying to determine if they were real.
“That’s not what the paper said.” Sam winked at Katherine as if they were in on some grand joke together.
“That dude was like 80 or something and he fell into the road. I didn’t kill him.” Megan stomped her foot.
“Sure you didn’t.” Matthew Adams walked into the room and dramatically took the angry girl in his arms. “Leave her alone, Sammy.”
Megan turned toward Sam and stuck her tongue out at him.
Katherine looked at the kid next to her and rolled her eyes. Looking at her in surprise, he grinned and started to say something back, but she looked down at her book abruptly, halting the conversation before it could begin. She had simply been looking for commiseration and for a moment had forgotten that most people took that as an invitation.
The room went silent as the teacher wheeled a television set into the room.
“My name is Ms. Randall. Your regular teacher is out today.”
The varsity corner started to shake. “Fuck ya!” Sam Johnson slammed his meaty fists against the flimsy desktop, bending it almost to the floor.
The young substitute took a step back and moved behind the heavy video equipment. Katherine put her head down and closed her eyes. This was her version of Sam’s “Fuck ya.” It was less outgoing, but the emotion was the same.
Ms. Randall’s voice caught and she cleared her throat. “We will be watching a video on the practical uses of mathematics.” She fumbled with the machine. The noise in the room started to escalate.
“Does anyone know how to operate this?” Ms. Randall’s voice was starting to crack.
Katherine felt sorry for the woman. Obviously she was new to the fascinating world of substitute teaching.
“I think you need a remote to play the video,” Matthew said as the rest of his group ignored the teacher.
She ran her fingers through her hair and looked at him in desperation. “I don’t see one.”
Katherine watched the interchange curiously. Matthew Adams was the captain of the football team and the…hell you might as well say that he was the freaking captain of the school. If something needed to be led, he was sure to be the appointed leader.
He smiled at the woman, was do doubt no more than five or six years older than her current students. “I can go get it for you.” The woman practically swooned.
Katherine made a barfing motion.
“Do you need a pass?” Ms. Randall fiddled with the button on her sweater. He nodded as she filled out the slip of paper. “Your name?”
The varsity corner chimed in to help. “Harry Peters.”
“Uhhh, Shit head.”
Matthew laughed. “Nice one, Sam. Very imaginative.” He turned back to the desk. “Matt Adams, ma’am.”
She handed him the pass. “Thank you, Mr. Adams.”
“No problem.” He smiled and turned to the class. “Anyone know where the room is with the video equipment?”
“Last time I saw a video camera it was in your mom’s room.” Sam Johnson nearly fell over laughing at himself.
Katherine turned and looked at them, shaking her head.
Looking back at Matt she sighed. “The AV lab is in room 227.”
He looked at her with those future used car salesman, inevitable dirty politician, oh god stop looking at me or I’ll lose all respect for myself, eyes. “Thanks, Katherine.”
And all she could think about for the next fifteen minutes is that he knew her name. Evidently he hadn’t stopped looking at her soon enough. All self respect was lost.
The clock ticked and the anxiety on the teacher’s face increased with each second. Sam’s phone rang and the poor woman practically jumped out of her skin.
“Is it ok if I answer it?”
She looked scared. “Are you supposed to have your phone on in school?”
Sam looked at his friends who gave him no help at all.
“No.” He looked down. But it’s Matt.”
Megan laughed out loud. “He’s lost.”
Katherine didn’t say anything out loud, but she thought that the girl was probably right.
Ms. Randall buried her head in her hands. “Go ahead and answer it.”
“Hey, dude.” He listened for a minute before hanging up. “Yeah, he’s lost.”
Megan stood up and sighed as if the weight of the world were being laid across her narrow shoulders. “I’ll go find him.”
The teacher shook her head. “I don’t think so.” She looked at Katherine. “You know where the equipment is kept?” Katherine nodded. “Could you go get the remote and send Mr. Adams back to the classroom?”
Sam Johnson scoffed loudly. He turned around with his entire desk around his waist like a belt. He faced Megan. “Uh-oh, sugar pants, looks like you go some competition.”
“Bite me.” Megan sat back down and examined her nails.
“Alrighty then. I’ll be back in like five minutes.” Katherine clapped her hands together and turned on her heel. She opened the door and stepped out of Mr. Archer’s math class, not knowing that those five minutes were soon to become forever.