Souhegan High School
The mug warmed her hands but tethered her to the shop. If they’d given her a paper cup she’d be able to leave. Now, she had to contemplate.
It wasn’t as if she had places to be. More that there were places she didn’t want to be, and the family-run shop was one of them. She’d be much more comfortable eating out by her post where the looks she got fit the setting. Her grungy hat masking her grungier hair. Her Homeless™ overcoat. She’d be better suited to a bar dressed as she was, and she was beginning to wish she’d gone to one instead. But the shot of caffeine was too tempting to pass up, and she preferred to be sober when she scammed. A drunk homeless person was one that “couldn’t be saved.” A sober one was an oddity, to be cherished and fed, only one tier below unsheltered puppy.
What she didn’t like was work.
She hadn’t gone to an interview in two years. Staying alive was work enough. Her “cubicle” was open to the public, her seat back, the chipped blue wall of a newspaper kiosk. So what if she was forced to listen to the same crappy Starbucks playlist for months on end and people were more inclined to give her a goddamn salad than cash. She could always take a detour to the bar to alleviate her general irritation before stumbling home, hair matted and tongue loose. And besides, she was generally eye level with all the dogs that passed. The sniffs made up for everything.
Her thoughts turned to home—real home. The home she’d been banished from half a decade ago, the home she couldn’t return to.
She could, technically, but her parents held her to standards. A steady income, sobriety, church on Sundays, hobbies, sobriety, at least 4.67 acts of kindness a day, perfect hair and teeth and skin, and sobriety. They asked too much of her, expected her to adhere to their ridiculous expectations just because her sisters never had a problem with them. Like Amelia never stumbled through the door, blackout drunk. Like Jess never skipped church to nurse a hangover. Like Hannah didn’t have days when all she wanted to do was pull an ostrich and bury her head in the sand, blot out the climate of aggressive politics, anger, and money money money.
But beauty queens could stop in high-end bars after magazine shoots and come home without spending a single penny. Brain surgeons needed their sleep and deserved a drink or two after successful operations, the only kind they had. Students with 4.0s and scholarships galore should concentrate on their work, shut out the world and find the cure to cancer. Ugly, unemployed dropouts didn’t have excuses. Ugly, unemployed dropouts only had debt.
A bell rang and she looked up, listening to the swish of the door. She surveyed the man who’d entered, taking in every detail at a lazy tempo whilst he pointedly ignored her. It’s rude to stare. Well it’s also rude to glance repeatedly at someone out of the corner of your eye, make them feel like the shit you see them as, unworthy to sit on the same plane you strut across like a peacock. Like Amelia owning the catwalk.
And yet, at the core of all that anger and frustration, she missed them. Jess, Amelia, Hannah, even mom and dad. There would always be something she regretted walking out of. The family dinners, before fighting became something more than teasing. The comradery she and her sisters used to share, the way they always had her back. Why could she never return the favor?
When her first boyfriend cheated on her, Hannah had comforted her—all common sense and serene understanding. Her calming aura had meant the world, prevented drastic measures. Then Amelia had taken her out and they’d keyed Chad Donoghue’s car, and Jess had cleaned up the mess with her parents (“Well it’s not like they totaled it, ma. Besides, everyone knows Chad’s got like half a dozen cars to fall back on”). All three working as a well-oiled machine to mend the eldest, the child who was supposed to be looked up to. It was her job to look after them, not theirs to hold her hair back as she vomited misery into the toilet bowl of life.
But when Jess lost her first boyfriend, her protector had been out getting high with people she barely knew under the bleachers of a high school she rarely attended.
When Amelia stumbled home from a party, sobbing and blubbering about handsy boys and Solo cups and how it wasn’t her fault, the eldest had been too engrossed in the winding grains of the floorboards to defend her from the motherly screaming, fatherly cursing. “I warned you not to wear that fucking dress!”
When Hannah traded her car in for a wheelchair, lost the use of her legs, trust in her arms, the one meant to look out for her was long gone, sitting on the corner of a Boston curb and begging for money she should have been able to earn.
Her parents couldn’t claim they hadn’t tried. They tried boarding schools. She’d stay a month before administration after administration punted her back to her parents with an impersonal letter detailing her misconduct. Their school wasn’t a good match. A detention center might be better suited.
It came down to two things—no matter how many methods, tutors, therapists, clinics they tried—there was something wrong with her, and her parents didn’t want to deal with it, and her sisters didn’t deserve to.
Her memories of the day she left, the day they forced her out, were hazy, but she recalled their faces as she stormed past them, back and forth, carrying bags of useless junk she’d packed without thinking. Her mother’s face contorted in rage and regret, eyes red from crying. Her father, knuckles white and shaking as his steely eyes fixed on the floor at her feet. Jess, arms crossed, face cold. Amelia, pleading, tearful, fucking gorgeous. Hannah, eyes averted as she tried to shut it out, to remain calm, don’t break down don’t break down don’t break down.
They looked so distraught, so broken. It brought her satisfaction to know that she could topple those gods, could capture their attention, if only for one night. But her father couldn’t look at her. She would never make her mother smile. Her sisters—the ones she’d known were long gone.
There were articles on them, cropping up occasionally behind the glass of her kiosk as if to haunt her.
Young, Up-And-Coming Brain Surgeon Jessica Johnson saves hundredth patient.
Amelia Johnson excited to model Chanel’s latest line: “I can’t wait!”
Tragic accident paralyzes college student Hannah Johnson from the waist down. Doctors still working on cure.
Her fist tightened around the clay handle of her mug as she brought the rim to her lips, gulping down the scalding contents and relishing the burn that had her tongue prickling, throat enflamed. Her parents wanted fame, fortune, prestige. They didn’t want a scam artist minus the art, a cheapskate who was brushing the bottom of the barrel just to afford her rent.
They didn’t want her, they didn’t need her, but whether they liked it or not, she was irrevocably linked to them.
She finished her coffee, flexed her newly-caffeinated fingers. The man from earlier was munching a biscotti, crumbs cascading onto his lapel, his nose buried in his phone. His trimmed beard reminded her of her father, the deliberate indifference an added touch. He wouldn’t look at her. A trio of girls chattered across a table far from her concentric circle of filth. Their hands gripped mugs of their own, sweet smiles and excitement reminiscent of her sisters down to the lines creasing their cheeks. They wouldn’t stop her. The cashier stood behind the register, eyes unfocused as he twisted a rag in a mug repeatedly, reflexively. He worked in a family-run business, but his nametag didn’t match the name above the door. Did he feel like an outsider, too? He wouldn’t notice her until it was too late.
She reached into her pocket, feeling for a handle as her mind tried to talk her down. You can do better. You have to think this through. Go home.
But there wasn’t anything to think over. Nothing to ponder, contemplate. Think. She was so tired of thinking. Tired of wasting her brain. Tired of the voices, the confusion, which one to listen to. The meek voice, softness bearing a striking resemblance to little Hannah, urging her to reach for her wallet instead of the revolver? Leave a big tip on the table, make the kid’s day. You don’t want to do it here. He’ll just have more of a mess to clean up. Or the commanding voice, strong, powerful, convincing. Do it. There’s no reason not to. Your family doesn’t care now. Maybe you’ll make the news. Maybe they’ll finally see you on TV. This isn’t your mess to clean.
She heaved a shaky sigh, tears gathered in the corners of her eyes. The man finished his biscotti. The girls laughed at something. Maybe they were laughing at her. How foolish she must look, standing suspended at her table, looking ahead at nothing, hand paused at her pocket. Frozen. Numb.
She wanted it to stop.
She wanted to make her family proud.
This is such a well-written piece. It captures the human condition in all its complexity and gives an insight into how the modern mind works. It doesn't incriminate nor does it completely justify the actions of the main character.
A candid internal monologue, stream-of-consciousness, and cry for help all in one, it neither incriminates nor justifies the actions of the main character. This one is something special.
Evelyn Dowd attends Souhegan High School in Amherst, New Hampshire (Class of 2021). An aspiring writer, she hopes to one day break into the playwriting business. Hobbies of hers include acting, writing, and being passionate about things that don’t warrant a great deal of energy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR