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She was five years old, when she saw her for the first time. Chess was building a sandcastle with her favorite shovel and humming a song she had just learned in kindergarten. Suddenly someone was screaming from a few feet away and then crying. She looked up and spotted a girl lying on the ground next to the monkey bars. The girl was holding her knee and big tears were dripping down her cheeks.

Chess put her shovel down and stood up.

Why did no one help the girl?

It wasn’t hard for Chess to decide to just leave her castle and show it to the girl. It would for sure make her feel better. She got up, still looking around, in search of an adult, but no one came

She tipped the girl’s shoulder and with big brown eyes the girl looked up.

“Are you ok?”, Chess asked. The girl didn’t answer, she was still holding her knee. “Did you fall down?”, Chess continued, pointing at the monkey bars over them and the girl nodded. “I don’t like them, I like playing in the sand pit”, Chess stated.

The girl smiled a little through the tears. “I like them.”

“Where is your dad?”, Chess asked. “Why didn’t he pick you up?”

The girl shrugged. “I don’t know.” She looked around but didn’t seem to find him.

“Do you want to help me build my sandcastle?”, Chess offered, when she still didn’t see anyone about to help the girl.

The girl hesitated for a moment, but then nodded and got up. Her knee was scratched open, but Chess didn’t mind, and the girl didn’t seem to care anymore either. “What’s your name?”, she asked.

“Chess”, Chess answered.

“My name is Kate”, the girl said sniffling, but still smiling up at Chess, since she was a little shorter than her.

“That’s my sandcastle”, Chess said and pointed at the sandpit, where her sandcastle was still waiting to be built to perfection.

Kate looked at in awe. “Did you build this all on your own?”

Chess nodded proudly and sat down in the sand, taking her shovel again and handing Kate another one. Kate thanked her and looked at the shovel fascinatedly. “Yes, I built it on my own”, Chess beamed. “But now you can help me. It is going to look even better then.”

“Really?”

“Yes.” Chess pointed at the castle in front of her. “What do you want to build first?”

Kate hesitated for a moment. “How about a moat?”

Chess immediately nodded. “Yes. And will you build a bridge, too? Then only you and I can get into the castle.”

Kate nodded with excitement and started digging with the shovel. “I never had one of these”, she said, pointing at it, and put the first shovelful of sand to the side. “My dad says that I shouldn’t play in the sand, so he never got me one.”

“You mean a shovel?”, Chess asked.

Kate nodded. “Mhm. He doesn’t want me playing in the sandpit. He doesn’t want me to get my clothes dirty.”

Chess didn’t understand. “Your clothes aren’t dirty.”

“I know”, Kate laughed. “It’s really fun playing here.”

“It is”, Chess smiled. “Every time I come here with my dads I go to the sandpit first. And sometimes they even help me, and we build a castle together.” She pointed at her own castle. “This one is small. The castles I build with my dads are so big, daddy always says I could live inside of it.”

Kate listened fascinatedly. “Can we build a castle with your dads?”, she asked.

“Today only my dad is here”, Chess explained and shook her head. “But next time daddy will come too and then we can.”

Kate nodded at the idea. “It is going to be the biggest castle ever”, she daydreamed, putting away another shovelful of sand, already looking at the little hole she had dug proudly.

Chess smiled. “And then you and I and my dads will live in it.”

“And we’ll eat chocolate ice cream every day”, Kate smiled.

Chess nodded. “And my dads will cook for us.”

“Can we help them?”

“Of course!”

They fell silent and focused onto their sandcastle. Chess noticed Kate admiring the details she was working on. She was especially proud of the little towers and the small pebbles she used to decorate them. Sometimes she complimented Kate’s work and smiled at her.

“She knows how to climb much better than I do”, Kate suddenly said and pointed at the monkey bars, where another girl was climbing, a proud smile on her face.

Chess’ gaze followed where Kate was pointing, and she nodded. “Should we ask her how she is so good at it?”

“I don’t know”, Kate answered. She looked at the girl again. With ease she was climbing up and down, sometimes even doing tricks like jumping down to the ground. “Can we ask her?”, Kate asked.

“Maybe she wants to help us build the castle”, Chess smiled and got up. Kate got up as well and together they walked over to the monkey bars. Kate didn’t say anything, so Chess looked up at the girl. “You’re very good at climbing!”, she said.

“Mhm”, Kate hummed admiringly.

The girl noticed them and climbed down, landing in front of them with a leap. “Thank you”, she beamed, her cheeks a bright shade of red. “I’m Reese.”

“I’m Chess”, Chess introduced herself.

Kate looked at Reese. “I’m Kate”, she said silently. “Uhm, how did you get so good at climbing?”, she asked shyly, hiding a bit behind Chess’ back.

“I do it a lot”, Reese said easily. “Every time I come here, I climb. It’s fun.”

“Oh, ok”, Kate hurried to answer, still not looking into Reese’s eyes.

“We were wondering, if you wanted to help us build our castle”, Chess said, pointing at the sandpit, that was empty, now, that they had left it.

Reese’s gaze followed where Chess was pointing, but she shook her head. “It looks really cool, but I’d rather climb some more.”

“Oh, ok. Sorry to bother you”, Kate murmured quickly.

“It’s ok”, Reese shrugged it off. “Have fun building your castle, it looks really cool!”

“Thank you”, Chess said and with that they turned around and walked back to the sandpit.

Chess didn’t mention that she had noticed, how shy Kate had been in front of Reese. Instead they both sat down, and Chess continued building a small tower, occasionally looking up and smiling at Kate encouragingly, telling her how great the moat looked.

But only a few minutes later a bark coming from afar made her stop. Her eyes searched for the source of it and she grinned, when she spotted it.

There was a tall man walking a dog. The dog jumped up and down and wanted nothing else than to be released from its leash so it could run around. Chess laughed at it. If she could she would probably stand up and pet it and play with it and never let it go.

The owner let the dog run around loose now and Chess smiled even brighter. “Look, a dog”, she said and pointed at it.

Kate looked up and followed the direction Chess was pointing with her eyes. “It’s so cute”, she beamed. “I wish I could run around like it.”

Chess nodded. “Mhm. No one would ever be faster than me, that would be so cool.”

They both followed the dog with their gazes, until a second dog followed the first one and they imagined, that every one of them owned one.

Chess already planned a room in her castle, purely for their dogs, with a couch and beds just for them and started working on it again. She only averted her gaze from the castle, when she heard Kate talking again.

“That’s a flat-dog”, Kate said proudly.

“What’s a flat-dog?” Chess looked at her confused, while she was continuing to build the sandcastle she had been working on, ever since she had convinced Kate to join her in the sandpit.

Kate pointed at the dog. “That. Don’t you see how long and small it is? That’s a flat-dog!”

Chess looked up and shook her head. “Do you really think that’s what they’re called?”

Kate hesitated for a second and then nodded. “I think so, yeah. Can we get a flat-dog and live with it in our castle?”

“Of course, we can. I want to get a dog, too”, Chess said, returning to work on the sandcastle. Kate took the shovel again and dug another hole.

“Mine is going to be named Chocolate”, Kate grinned. “And it is going to be the cutest dog.”

“I want to name my dog Lassie”, Chess said. “Because of the cool dog on TV.” She looked up from the sandcastle. “And then we’re going to play every day and we’re going to cuddle and we’re going to be the best friends.”

“Can I be Lassie’s friend, too?”, Kate asked and put the shovel, she had used to dig the moat around Chess’ castle, away.

Chess nodded. “We’re going to be her best friends.”


The girl with the small frame hid behind the door. She glanced into the kitchen, where her parents were shouting at each other. Why were they shouting again?

She didn’t understand what they were talking about or why they were shouting and couldn’t just speak normally. But she was too scared to ask.

The last time she had asked, her parents had shouted at her as well, and she had felt so guilty for questioning their behavior, that she had cried herself to sleep and never even dared asking her parents anything again.

She had thought, that maybe one day they would stop and get along again.

And now they were shouting again.

She hated shouting. It made her feel scared and vulnerable.

“Riley? Why aren’t you coming back?”

Her best friend appeared behind her and she turned around. “Mom and dad are fighting again”, she said. Riley left the door and walked over to her best friend, who was standing at the stairs. “Do you know why they’re shouting?”, she asked.

Her best friend shrugged. “I don’t know.”

They stood there for a few minutes, until her best friend grabbed Riley’s hand. “Can we go back to your room? We could play the new game I brought”, she suggested.

Riley hesitated, but then nodded. “Ok.” They went upstairs, Riley still hearing her parents’ shouting, when they closed the door to her room behind them. “Your parents are so nice, Cairo. I wish they were my parents, too. They never shout.”

“Then you would be like my sister”, Cairo smiled. “But your parents will stop shouting. Now that we’re in elementary school, they won’t even have time to shout anymore, because they will be so proud of you.”

“Are you sure?”, Riley asked sitting down and opening the box to take the playboard out of it.

Cairo sat down on the opposite end of the playboard and nodded. “Totally sure. Do you want to play now?”

Riley’s parents were still shouting, but she nodded and smiled. “Mhm. Can I have the red meeple?”

Cairo handed it to her and took the green one for herself. She handed Riley the dice. “You start.”

When Cairo was picked up by her parents, Riley had forgotten about the shouting of her parents, who now, that they were chatting with Cairo’s parents, got along nicely. She decided that they would never shout at each other again.

Why would they, now, that they were smiling at each other all the time?


Kate wanted to enter the big school, but something held her back.

Her whole family had already left, so there was no one waiting for her. Not like all the other kids. Every kid, who experienced their first day of school right now, was surrounded by at least one family member.

Kate was alone.

She heard barking behind her and turned around, spotting a small dog. In kindergarten she had always called them flat-dogs. Her mother had told her, that they were actually called dachshunds, when she had asked her about it and her father had told her to read a book for once in her life and had rolled his eyes.

Maybe after her first day of school, she would be able to read and then she would read a book and make her father proud.

All the kids around her were now hugged goodbye by their parents one last time and she decided that it was time for her to enter the school as well.

Proud, that she had remembered the number of the room she was supposed to go to, she made her way through the hallway. But only after a few feet she came to a halt and looked around. Where was the room with the number again?

Searching for it, she met the eyes of a girl from across the hallway and the girl smiled at her slightly.

Kate smiled back at the girl. She seemed familiar, like an old friend, so she lifted a hand and waved at her. The girl waved back. But before Kate could even do anything else, a group of students had closed in on her and pushed her with them. She tried getting out of the group and somehow managed it, landing right in front of two other girls. 

"Are you ok?", one of them immediately asked, reaching out a hand to help her up.

Kate looked up and gladly took it. "Mhm", she said quickly. "Uhm, do you know where room 103 is?"

The girls looked at each other and nodded. "We can show you where it is", the girl with an orange bow in her red hair suggested and her friend nodded. 

"Thank you so much", Kate smiled. "I'm Kate, by the way."

The girls started walking down the hallway. "I'm Cairo", the taller one introduced herself, smiling at Kate. 

"And I'm Riley", the girl with red hair said. "Cairo and I have been best friends since kindergarten."

“That’s great”, Kate grinned through the gap between her teeth, looking up at the older girls. “Can I be your friend, too?”

Both girls nodded, excited at the prospect of having a new friend. They showed Kate to her classroom and she thanked them. The promised each other to meet up during recess and with that they left. 

Kate forgot about the girl she had waved at in the hallway quickly and – thankful, that she had already found new friends – sat down.

-----

The school day was over soon. Nothing interesting had happened after she had gotten to know Cairo and Riley, but Kate was still excited. She was one of the big kids now! She would get to do homework! All by herself!

Swooning she left the building and watched, as all of her – hopefully soon to be friends – were being greeted by their parents and promised ice cream or pizza as a reward for going to school now.

Smiling she waved Cairo and Riley goodbye. They were picked up by Cairo’s parents, who smiled at her as well and then they left.

Kate searched for her own family but didn’t find them.

So, she waited. She leaned against the grey wall of the building before remembering, that her father didn’t want her to make her clothes dirty and standing up straight again. She looked down at her watch. Her brother had had it before her and now it was hers.

Just having learned how to read the time, she checked it every few seconds, without a reason. Maybe she wanted to feel like she was an adult already. Being an adult sounded so wonderful to her. She could just eat chocolate ice cream all day and no one would tell her not to do so. And she could just go home, without waiting for someone to pick her up.

A girl passed her by, and she recognized it, as the one she had seen in the halls this morning.

She shyly waved and the girl waved back. But before they could even start talking to each other, the girl was crushed in a hug from two adults.

“How was it, sweetie? We already missed you!”

“Good”, the girl beamed.

“Do you want to get ice cream after dinner?”, the other man asked, and the girl nodded.

“Mhm.” She waved Kate goodbye, when her fathers walked her to their car and Kate waved back.

“Did you make a new friend?”, one of her fathers asked, looking at Kate and winking at her in a friendly way.

Kate laughed, feeling a little less alone and winked back, accidentally closing both of her eyes.

The girl nodded. “Yes.”

Something Kate couldn’t quite place made her feel warm and she waved the girl and her fathers goodbye until she couldn’t see their car anymore.

It was half an hour later, that her brother Martin showed up, waving at her from across the street to join him. Kate snapped out of thinking about her day and nodded eagerly, starting to walk. When she crossed the street, there was a loud honk of a car horn and she jumped to the side.

Only a few seconds later her brother was standing next to her. “What was that, Kate? That car could’ve hit you!”

“I-I didn’t notice”, Kate stuttered flabbergasted. “Where are mom and dad?”

Her brother rolled his eyes but took her hand. “Hold onto my hand, I don’t want something happening to you.”

“Where are mom and dad, Martin?”

Martin looked down at Kate and sighed. There was something in his eyes that Kate had never seen before, but she forgot about it quickly, after Martin had told her, that they were just at work. “But how about you tell me about your first day of school?”, he suggested smiling down at her and Kate looked up.

She smiled as well. “You want to hear?”

“Of course, I want to hear!”, Martin said. “Tell me everything. And then I can tell you about my first day of high school.”

They talked until they arrived at home, Kate excitedly telling Martin about Riley and Cairo and the other girl, who she didn’t remember the name of and how she hoped that they would grow to be best friends.

When she went to her room to put down her school bag and passed by her parent’s room, Kate frowned. Her father was asleep in the bed. Kate wondered, why he didn’t even change into his pajamas. “Martin, dad is home! He isn’t at work”, Kate shouted.

Martin joined her, looked at their father and quickly closed the door to their parents’ room. “Yes, but he is very tired”, he explained hurriedly, lowering his voice a little. “Let him sleep and we can play soccer with Frank, how does that sound?”

“Awesome”, Kate grinned through the gap between her front teeth.

“The last one there is a lame duck!”, their other brother Frank now appeared next to them, and Kate looked up. He was already holding a ball in his hands and laughed at her.

“Hey, that’s not fair!”, she laughed and let her bag fall to the ground, following her older brother outside.

Martin joined them a little later. Kate didn’t know why, but she didn’t care. Because only a few minutes later the three were playing on their lawn, as if they were the next global super stars and would win every soccer game they would ever play.

Their parents were forgotten.


Cairo watched her best friend from the stairs. A part of her couldn’t stop wondering, why Riley didn’t just stop watching. Riley didn’t like it, when her parents were fighting, so why was she watching them again? After a few more minutes she walked up to her and tapped her shoulder. Riley turned around and looked at her. Cairo took Riley’s hands and pulled her away from the door that led to the living room. “Why are you watching them again?”

“I want to find out why they’re shouting”, Riley explained. “Why can’t they just talk normally?”

“Don’t you think it would be better to ask them after they return?”

Riley’s parents would be gone for two weeks in just a few hours and Riley would live with Cairo again. Both of them had been looking forward to it all week, but now Cairo was a little worried about Riley.

She just wouldn’t stop watching her parents shouting at each other.

“But if I find out now, maybe they will stop fighting for me.”

Cairo looked at the door leading to the living room, let go of Riley’s hands and closed it. She still heard the voices of Riley’s parents behind it. “Maybe we should just go to your room and play. We could meet up with Kate”, she suggested.

Riley looked at the door as well. “But I want to find out.”

“Maybe they will tell you when they return from their trip.”

Riley looked up at Cairo. “Are you sure?”

“I don’t know. But I think they will.” For a moment there were only the voices of Riley’s parents to be heard and Cairo started to understand, why Riley didn’t like it, when people shouted. “Do you want to pack your stuff?”, she asked, to distract them from the situation at hand.

Riley shook her head, but then nodded. “Ok”, she murmured. “Will you help me?”

“Of course”, Cairo smiled and they went up to Riley’s room.

-----

At Cairo’s house, Cairo told Riley to go to her room. When she was gone, she made her parents promise her, that they would never ever shout, when Riley was over.

In the afternoon Kate came over. She taught them how to play soccer the way she and her brothers always did, and when one of her brothers – Martin, Cairo remembered – came to pick her up, he even played soccer with them.

Their parents were once again forgotten, at least for a few hours.

Chapter Text

Chess loved her dads. Of course, she loved them! How could she not? They were always reading stories to her, no matter if she was sick or perfectly healthy or it was already late at night. If she couldn’t fall asleep, they read stories to her.

One of her favorite stories was the one about a young bear. His mother promised him, that she would never leave him. That she would always be there for him and catch him when he fell.

She loved the story.

The little bear left his cave, whenever he wanted to, and his mother just let him. Because she knew, that he would be ok. And when anything happened to him, her mother was immediately at his side and helped him out of every situation.

One day his father came back from a long trip and told the little bear about all the different things he had seen. He told him about the different rivers and fish he had seen, wonderful rocks they would someday visit and all the animals he had met along the way.

And when the little bear grew up, he went on the same trip his father went onto. But he saw even more of the world, because he accidentally vanished into the woods, instead of following the street his father had walked along. But he didn't mind. 

When Chess grew up, she wanted to be like the little bear.

She wanted to follow his model and travel the world and make friends.

She had already heard this story so often, and, even though she was in third grade of elementary school already, she didn’t grow tired of it.

Every time her fathers told it to her she noticed new things about it and sometimes even lay awake at night, wondering, how wonderful it would be to travel the world like the small bear.

Now she was old enough to read the story herself.

This night, Chess left her bed silently and got the book to read it. She already knew parts of it, if not the whole story, by heart, but she just didn’t grow tired of it. She liked reading the story, that made her feel safe.

Sometimes she wondered what having a mother would feel like.

Maybe it would feel different to having two dads, maybe it would feel the exact same way. Not that Chess wasn't happy with the way things were, she was! She didn’t want them to change! But still, no one could tell her not to wonder or dream.

It was crazy to Chess, that there were people out there, who didn't dream. She didn’t understand it.

But as long as she could dream of the little bear’s adventures, she didn’t worry about it.


There were lights. Far too many lights. They were far too bright, made her feel too at stake, like something bad was going to happen. "I don't understand, mom." 

“He is fine, they’re just checking”, her mother reassured her and returned to solving sudokus. Every few seconds she erased the same number and replaced it with another one.

The five-year-old didn’t understand, why she didn’t just fill in the right numbers. But she didn’t ask. Somehow, she had the feeling, that her mother wouldn’t tell her, why she kept doing it.

She leaned back and investigated the bright lights again. The chair she was sitting in was uncomfortable. She tried sitting in it and feel welcomed, but there was always something poking her back, that made her want to stand up and run away. Run as far away as possible.

“Can they turn off the lights?”, she asked.

Her mother shook her head. “They can’t sweetie, I’m sorry.”

“Ok.”

She continued gazing at them nevertheless. They made her feel insecure, but it fitted the mood too much to stop gazing into them.

Suddenly there was a loud noise to be heard and her head shot up. Her mother put down the sudoku and looked up as well. The young girl shifted in her chair and stood up. Doors were pushed open and there was something that looked like a bed pushed into the room.

Many people in green and white coats were pushing it. She couldn’t detect who the person on the bed was.

“What-what is it?”, her mother shrieked.

“Surgery”, one of the doctors replied flatly.

“Why?”, her mother asked, her tone not having changed in the slightest.

“Difficulties”, another doctor said.

She tried to steal another glimpse at the bed, and another one, and another one. A smile made its way onto her features when she recognized the person. “Hi dad”, she smiled. He didn’t answer, so she simply kept up with the doctors pushing the bed. She didn’t listen to her mother. Instead she jumped up and down to catch another glance at her dad. “Is everything ok, dad?”, she asked. “I love you, I’m so glad you’re back again.”

Her mother was speaking quickly; even if she had wanted to, she wouldn’t have been able to follow her.

“Dad?”

He didn’t respond.

There suddenly was a huge double door he was wheeled through, and she followed him.

Not even a minute later her mother pushed her out of the room to wait for her grandparents. The doctors were shouting commands, shouting at each other, shouting at her mother. She put two hands over her ears.

This was too loud. Far too loud. She didn’t want to understand what they were saying! Why couldn't they just stop? In the next moment she saw her grandparents running through the halls towards her.

“Eva!”, her grandmother shouted, to get her attention.

Eva looked up and recognized tears in the eyes of her grandparents. “Why are you crying?”

“It’s nothing”, her grandfather dismissed her question and picked her up laughing. “Now come here, we’ll drive to our house, and you can watch a movie with us. How does that sound?”

Eva nodded and laughed a little. “Do I get to choose the movie?”

“Of course, sweetie”, her grandmother smiled, while her grandfather sat her down on his shoulders.

Up there, she felt like the queen of the world. Like nothing could ever happen to her.

Until suddenly she was on the cold, hard floor. Her grandparents were gone. Her father was somewhere she didn’t know. Shocked she looked around and tears welled up in Eva’s eyes. Where was everybody?

She stood up, shaking and crying. She looked around, she looked up at the ceiling and down to the floor. But she was alone.

Everything around her turned black and suddenly she was trapped.

She heard footsteps behind herself and turned around. Her mother was walking towards her. The tears lessened for a second and her legs began running towards her, before she had even decided to.

“Mom, where is everyone?”, she cried loudly, her voice echoing through the nothingness.

Her mother didn’t look at her. She just kept on walking. Eva ran faster and tried enveloping her in a hug, but when she reached out to hug her mother’s legs, she didn’t feel anything. In the next moment her mother had walked right through her, still following an invisible line.

“Mom?”, Eva cried. “Mom, why can’t you hear me? Mom!”

Her mother didn’t answer, only walked away. In the flash of a second, she had disappeared. Eva ran after her, but what she found was gaping emptiness.

“Mom!”, she cried again. “Dad!”

Her father didn’t come. She ran around in circles, in squares, searched for them everywhere, but the black only grew darker. And no matter where she ran, it stretched on into stifling endlessness.

“Dad!”, she shouted again, her voice already weak of the exhaustion. She sat down and was left to cry. “Where are you?”, she sobbed.

 

Eva sat up crying. Big tears fell onto the mattress and she was shaking. “Dad!”, she shouted, her voice breaking. “Dad?”

Only a few moments later the door opened, and her father came in. He immediately noticed the tears and sat down next to her. Eva hugged him tightly. “You’re here”, she cried silently.

“Did you have a nightmare, sweetie?”

Eva nodded. Even though it had happened two years ago, she still remembered every single thing. Every command that had been yelled, every blinking light, every doctor’s face.

How her father hadn’t reacted, when she had told him, that she loved him.

“I love you, dad”, she murmured.

“I love you, too, sweetie.” He placed a kiss on Eva’s hair and wiped away one last tear. “Do you want to talk about the nightmare?"

Eva shook her head.

“How about we go to the forest tomorrow”, her father suggested. “We can collect some berries and then go and eat ice cream. You’ll feel better then.”

“Will we go to the ice cream parlor you took me to when I was sick? The one, where mom shouted at you afterwards?”, Eva asked silently.

Her father laughed and nodded. “Yeah, exactly that one.”

“And can we get some berries for mom, too?”

“Of course”, her father smiled, a tired look in his eyes. “We will collect as many berries as possible and then we’ll go and eat ice cream, ok?”

Eva smiled a little. “Ok. Promise?”

“Promise”, her father answered. “Are you ok now?”

Eva nodded a little. “I think so”, she said silently. “But can you stay? Can you tell me a story?”

Her father nodded. “Of course, lie down again.”

Eva lay down, let her father tuck her in and wiped at her eyes. Her father smiled at her. “Ready?” She nodded.

With her father telling the story of a young bear and his adventures to her, she fell asleep. Knowing, that he was there and wouldn’t disappear into the black and unknown, was the best feeling she had ever felt.


Kate didn’t want to go to middle school at first. She didn’t like, that it was bigger than elementary school. Bigger meant more students.

She didn’t want to get lost in the crowd.

She asked her brother Frank to show her around in middle school sometime, so it wasn’t a new place to her, but he refused to do so. “I’m a sophomore now, I’ll never go back to middle school”, he said, followed by him pushing Kate out of his room.

And her oldest brother Martin was at college. Kate had tried calling him using her mother’s cell phone once, but he hadn’t picked up. So, she tried again this afternoon.

After a few seconds he picked up. “What, mom?”

“Martin, hey! How are you?”

“Kate?”

Kate nodded, nervously fidgeting with one of the bracelets on her arm. “Yeah, it’s me. I have a question. Could you maybe show me around sometime before I go to middle school?”

“What?”

“It’s all so new and Frank doesn’t want to show me around and I don’t want to go to a new school where I don’t know anything or anyone.”

“Slow down Kate”, Martin told her over the phone.

Kate thought, that maybe Martin didn’t notice, but his voice sounded different to when he had still been in high school. And it didn’t only sound deeper, that wasn’t it. Maybe it sounded less thoughtful?

“Can you please show me around?”, Kate repeated.

There were a few seconds of silence before Martin answered. “I have to do too much homework, Kate”, he said. “I really can’t come home.”

“But…”

“I can’t talk right now. We’ll skype tomorrow.”

Before Kate could even say anything else, Martin had ended the call. She left her room, handed the phone back to her mother, and went back to her room again.

From that moment on, she tried not to think of middle school until her first day. But the moment she stood in the middle of the hallways of the new, big building, she wished she had. She felt lost.

In elementary school she had been friends with Cairo and Riley for some time, but they had gone to middle school earlier than she had and had stopped talking to her. Kate tried talking to someone else, but everyone was walking around in a group; everyone seemed to be part of a clique.

She spent the lunch break alone outside on the playground, while everyone played silly games.

Kate felt someone tipping her shoulder and she turned around, to see a blonde girl that was a little taller than her standing there.

“Do you need some help?”, the girl asked. Kate looked around, wondering, if the girl was really talking to her. “Yes, I’m talking to you”, the girl laughed. “You look like you’re a bit lost.”

Kate returned her gaze to the girl and nodded shyly. “Uh, yeah, I am.”

“Is this your first day?”

Kate nodded. “Mhm.”

“Don’t you have any friends?”, the girl frowned, and Kate looked around, in search of someone who was looking for her, or intending on joining her. She didn't find anyone. So, she nodded. In the last year of elementary school her father had asked her, why she didn’t have any friends. He must’ve been right, after all.

“I’m in fourth grade”, the older girl smiled. “If you want to, I can show you around.”

Kate felt a little better at that, maybe even less alone. “That would be really great.”

“Awesome”, the girl grinned. “I’m Bridget, by the way.” She reached out a hand to Kate, which the younger girl shyly took.

“My name is Kate”, she murmured. Her father had always told her that no one wanted to get to know her, if she didn’t educate herself, so she was surprised, that Bridget even wanted to know her name.

“Don’t you have something to eat with you by the way?”, Bridget now asked, starting to walk towards the school and Kate followed her.

She hesitated for a moment, but then shook her head. “No. My mom was already at work in the morning and my dad told me, that I don’t need lunch.”

“Why would he do that?”, Bridget frowned.

“I don’t know”, Kate answered. “He told me that I can just eat at school.”

Bridget nodded, but still frowned. “Yes, you can, but the cafeteria normally isn’t open until two weeks into the school year. Do you want to eat an apple? You can have mine.”

Kate looked up at Bridget. “You would share your lunch with me?”

“Of course”, she smiled easily and pulled and apple out of her pocket. “There you go.”

Kate beamed and took a bite of it. “Thank you!”

“Of course”, Bridget laughed.

They walked towards the building, when Kate remembered the words of her father again. Would Bridget even want to show her around, if she knew, that she wasn’t smart? “I don’t read a lot”, she confessed, looking up at Bridget.

Bridget looked down at her and laughed. “So what? I don’t read a lot either.” They crossed the pavement to get to the school.

“And you have friends?”, Kate wondered. She took a last bite of the apple and then she had finished it. After all, she hadn’t eaten anything all day.

Bridget nodded. “Of course, I do. Why wouldn’t I?”

Kate felt a little stupid. Had what her father had told her been a lie? “I don’t know”, Kate answered, instead of telling the truth. “I just wondered.” Even though her father had always told her that he didn’t think that anyone really wanted her to talk to them, she continued talking to Bridget. “What is it like being in eighth grade?”

Bridget shrugged. “Pretty cool. It’s better than first grade, that’s for sure. You get to study more different stuff, which is cool.”

“It sounds cool.”

“Do you have any older siblings, that went here before?”, Bridget asked curiously, entering the school.

Kate nodded. “I have two older brothers.”

“Didn’t they show you around?”

Kate followed Bridget’s big steps, nearly jogging next to her now. She shook her head. “No, we don’t speak that much anymore. My oldest brother is at college now and my other brother is a sophomorse in high school.”

“Sophomorse?”, Bridget laughed.

“Yes, what?”

“It’s called a sophomore”, Bridget explained, still laughing slightly.

Kate’s cheeks flushed a bright shade of red and she looked down. “Oh, I’m sorry.”

“It’s ok, don’t worry about it”, Bridget shrugged it off easily. “There, that’s the library”, she then said, pointing at a double door leading to a big room. “You can always spend your free time there.”

“Thank you”, Kate murmured, fidgeting with the bracelet on her arm. She had figured that wearing just one to school would be better than wearing five.

“Is everything ok?”, Bridget asked gently. “You don’t have to worry about the sophomore thing.”

“My father always told me to read more”, Kate blurted out. “He always told me that I don’t read enough, and that no one will like me, if I don’t read and know a lot. And I never listened to him and now I don’t even know that a sophomore is called a sophomore and not a sophomorse.“

Small tears were dripping down her cheeks.

“Oh, Kate, that doesn’t matter, don’t worry about it.” Bridget immediately wrapped Kate in a hug and pulled her a bit closer. “Don’t worry about it, no one cares about it.”

“Really?”, Kate asked, wiping away the tears when Bridget pulled back from the hug.

“Really”, Bridget smiled.

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

Kate swallowed and nodded. “Ok.”

“And if you want to, I will be your friend”, Bridget added smiling.

A small smile appeared on Kate’s face. “Really?”

“Of course”, Bridget smiled. She turned the corner and pointed at a room. “This is the cafeteria. If you want to you can sit with me and my friends as soon as we can have lunch there.”

Kate smiled a little. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome”, Bridget smiled warmly.

For the rest of their lunch break Bridget showed Kate all the other important rooms she would have to go to, and her home room, so she would find it on her own the next day. Kate didn’t stop smiling the whole time.

-----

“Dad, I made a new friend!”, Kate shouted, when she opened the door to their house.

For the first time she had taken the bus home. Not like all the other students her age. Everyone hade been picked up by their parents, who smiled at them proudly, asking them about their day.

Kate had been told in the morning already, that her parents wouldn’t come to pick her up.

“It’s time to grow up”, her father had said.

And there was even something that made her feel older than she should have at her age, when she sat down on the bus, Bridget and her best friend Emma sitting in the seats in front of her. There was something about being the only first grade student on the bus, that made her proud of herself.

“I made a new friend, all on my own!”, she shouted, taking off her shoes and running to the living room.

She found her father sleeping on the couch. She shook his arm, that he had lain over his stomach and his eyes fluttered open. He grumbled. Kate wondered why he had been asleep that early, but she didn’t think any further of it. Instead, she just grinned with joy.

“I made a new friend, dad”, she smiled. “Her name is Bridget and she is nice and in fourth grade and cool and we’re friends now.”

Her father’s right hand wandered to his forehead and he groaned slightly. “Is she smart?”, he asked.

Kate frowned. “I don’t know", she said. Her father sat up and rubbed his forehead. “But that doesn’t matter, does it? The only thing that matters is that she is my friend.”

Her father squinted and shook his head. “Bullshit.”

“But she is my friend”, Kate said, noticing, that she was even a bit taller than her father, since he was sitting on the couch and she was standing up straight. It made her feel empowered. Her father’s breath smelled of something she didn’t know, couldn’t even describe, but she didn’t like the smell. “Bridget is my friend”, she repeated. “And I like her.”

Her father stood up and she stumbled backwards a little. “I told you to get friends who are smart”, her father said loudly, his voice not sounding the way it normally did.

“Are you ok, dad?”, she asked worriedly and stumbled another few steps backwards again, when her father moved towards her, his bad breath making her feel a little dizzy.

“Hold your tongue”, he said loudly. “You are better than anything or anyone else, I want you to have smart friends!” His voice was even louder now. He pronounced certain letters in a wrong way; Kate had never heard anyone pronouncing them that way. “Don’t make friends with the wrong people!”, her father shouted, and Kate covered her ears. The shouting hurt them.

“Can you please stop shouting?”, she asked silently, not daring to speak louder.

“Don’t tell me what to do!”, her father shouted even louder now. “I know what I’m doing!”

“But Bridget is my friend”, Kate whispered.

“You’re fucking useless”, her father said. “Go to your room, I don’t want to see you. Go!” His voice grew louder and louder until the end. “Go the fuck away!”, he shouted.

Tears welling up in her eyes, Kate turned around and ran to her room.

She closed the door behind herself and crawled into her bed, hiding under the blanket. She pressed it to her ears to get the words her father had said out of her ears, new tears constantly dripping down her cheeks.

She heard her father shouting from downstairs and pulled her pillow over her ears as well.

For the rest of the day Kate didn’t leave her room.

Chapter Text

“Now you listen, Farrah. Are you listening?”

The girl’s gaze wandered around until it came to a halt at the tall woman, she called mother.

Farrah nodded.

She had gotten used to the harsh tone of her mother’s voice. At first it had been different, and she had feared that she had done something wrong, because of the accusatory tone. Her mind had always wandered to the past week and tried to find anything that she had done wrong which she would have to apologize for, but she never found anything.

One day she simply decided to make something up. She told her mother that she had taken an apple form the neighbor’s garden. To the question why she had done it, she told her that she had been hungry and didn’t think.

Her mother had told her that what she had done was wrong and made her apologize to the neighbor. Farrah would never forget the face he had made, since he hadn’t noticed the allegedly missing apple.

“Sit down, Farrah. We need to talk.”

Her mother’s voice still sounded harsh, but it didn’t have the accusatory tone it normally had. So, Farrah didn’t start making up a lie.

She sat down next to her mother on the couch. “What is it?”, the eleven-year-old asked.

Her mother folded her hands in her lap and looked up at Farrah. She had only worn the expression she was wearing now once: When she had spoken to Ms. Lenny a few months ago. Farrah hadn’t seen Ms. Lenny for nearly a month now, but she knew, that she would see her again soon.

“I know that this isn’t easy”, her mother started, and Farrah was brought back to reality.

“What is it?”, she asked again.

Her mother sighed. “You remember Ms. Lenny, right?”

Farrah nodded. “Is she coming to visit us?”

Her mother shook her head, which soon after turned into a nod. “Not really.” Farrah didn’t say anything, silently wondering. Why would Ms. Lenny come to their house but not visit them? Would she live with them? “She is coming to take you somewhere else”, her mother stated.

Farrah’s pupils widened. “What?”

Now, that the words had been said, it seemed to be easier for Farrah’s mother to continue. “She is coming to pick you up and take you somewhere else. You don’t belong here.”

“But…” Farrah had thought that she would never have to hear these words again. The last time had been a few months ago, but she had known, that they had been true. Here, it at least felt a bit more like home; the words felt wrong.

“You don’t belong here”, her mother repeated. “Ms. Lenny will bring you somewhere, where you belong, but you can’t stay here.”

Farrah was tongue-tied.

There were so many words that she wanted to say, but only a simple sentence made its way over her lips. “But I want to stay.”

“You can’t”, her mother said. “I already packed your stuff while you were at school. You will find another family, but your place isn’t here.”

Farrah didn’t say anything. After a few seconds of sitting there, shocked, she stood up and practically ran to her room.

Her mother hadn’t been lying. There was the beloved Winnie The Pooh suitcase she called her own ever since she could remember standing next to her bed - packed. It was childish to keep it, but it had come with a Winnie-the-Pooh plushie inside of it, and wherever she went, the suitcase and the plushie went with her. She didn’t want to lose that one constant in her life.

Her room was nearly empty. Her schoolbag and a second suitcase, one, her mother must’ve gotten her, stood next to the Winnie The Pooh one. It was packed as well.

“I don’t want to go!”, she shouted.

Her mother appeared behind her and after short hesitation passed her by, taking both suitcases and the bag. “Ms. Lenny will be here any minute. Come, we’ll go outside.”

“But I want to stay here. I want to stay with you and dad.”

“You can’t stay with us”, her mother said calmly. “Now come.”

Farrah couldn’t do anything except for letting herself get guided out of her room, then the living room, then the house. She didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye to the man she called dad, before Ms. Lenny pulled up in the driveway and got out of the car.

Farrah walked towards her and hugged her. Ms. Lenny hugged her back, sighing a little. Farrah felt Ms. Lenny lifting her head and noticed her looking at her mother, while slightly shaking her head.

“How about you get in the car, I’m going to get your suitcases”, Ms. Lenny suggested smiling slightly.

Farrah nodded.

“Do you want your plushie?”, Ms. Lenny asked a bit more silent and before Farrah could be embarrassed about it, she nodded.

Ms. Lenny smiled at her and went towards her mother. “Bye”, Farrah murmured, with a look at what she had hoped would soon be her mother.

“Goodbye, Farrah.”

Farrah sat down in the back of Ms. Lenny’s car, behind the passenger seat, where she always sat. Because like this she could talk to Ms. Lenny during long car rides. She watched as Ms. Lenny talked to her mother, and even though she didn’t understand a single word, she knew that they were talking about her.

After about five minutes Ms. Lenny returned, put Farrah’s luggage into the trunk of the car and sat down behind the wheel, handing Farrah Winnie-the-Pooh. Farrah took him and held him close to herself.

“Why can’t I stay?”, she asked.

Ms. Lenny bit her lip, but smiled at her nevertheless. “We will find something better for you. Something, where you belong.”

Something, where you belong.

The words burned itself into Farrah’s brain.


The big flying buttresses outside made the church look big and mighty. Like a building, that would have space for everyone.

The girl looked up at the ceiling. No matter, how often she had already been inside the building, it never failed to amaze her. Every time she entered the church, she immediately felt a shift. She couldn’t even describe it any other way, it was as if everything was fine and she felt great. Better, than she usually did.

She felt save inside of the church.

Her parents had taken her to church ever since she had been able to think, and even now, that she went to middle school for the second year already, she loved nothing more, than going to church and trying to notice new things about the decorations or architecture.

She sat down where she always sat with her parents and smiled up at the altar. It made her feel like she belonged. When she looked at the altar, she felt a familiarity, that she never wanted to lose.

Her parents smiled at her and she smiled back, already folding her hands and waiting for the priest to come out.

She had always had the perfect life.

“Annleigh”, her father whispered and pointed at the big organ behind the altar. “Look, they’ll start with a song again.”

Annleigh smiled. These were the Holy Masses she loved most. It gave everything a completely different atmosphere. Somehow mystical, somehow all too well known. “I know”, she answered.

They stood up when the priest came out and the loud noise of the organ echoed through the church. Annleigh smiled a little. This was where she belonged.

She would always belong here.


Cairo looked up from her homework and took a breath. This must’ve been the best essay she had ever written. It would be even better than the essays of all the fourth graders! Maybe the headmaster would even mention her, when he held his annual morning speech.

She stood up and looked at the essay again. This was perfect.

She folded it neatly and went downstairs, to show it to her parents.

It had grown to be a habit of her, to show her parents everything she was proud of, because they would praise her for it and tell her, how proud they were, of their perfect daughter. She liked being the perfect daughter. The special, perfect daughter, that her parents would always love.

In the next moment she stood in front of her father and she handed him the essay.

Waiting for a reaction, she looked around, while her father’s eyes wandered over the paper. There was this odd shimmer in the room. She couldn’t describe it; had never seen it before. It was weird, dipped the room into an odd light.

Her home looked like her home and the complete opposite at the same time. Like the place, where her father always smiled at her, when she told him about school and her mother tried getting her to talk about boys.

And at the same time, it had this strange, cold side, that Cairo couldn’t name - had never even seen before.

She only knew, that it felt off, and that it was everywhere.

Something was wrong.

The dark wood of the dining table seemed to be a little darker in a corner, right where the sun’s light normally would hit it. The corner of the kitchen counter Cairo could see, was dipped into a dark shade of black, that had a stifling sparkle to it.

It didn’t feel good.

It wasn’t perfect, like it normally was.

Shaking her head, she let her gaze fall to her feet and only looked up again, when she heard her father turning over the paper. She watched, as his face lit up and he turned the paper over again. And again. And again. He read it three more times, before eventually handing it back to her, smiling proudly. “Did you write this all on your own?”

Cairo nodded. “Mhm.”

“You are the best”, her father grinned. “You’re the best daughter I could’ve ever wished for.”

Cairo’s cheeks turned a little red. She was already thirteen and she knew, that getting compliments from her parents was supposed to be something embarrassing, and wasn’t considered “cool” by her peers, but she couldn’t quite understand why. There was nothing more wonderful, than people telling you, that you had done something well!

That you were perfect.

That’s what she wanted to be. She wanted to be perfect at all times, no matter what. Always. Because then people would be nice to her and her parents would always be proud.

The most important thing in her life.

“Can I go over to Riley’s house now?”, Cairo asked. “We talked about it in school, I can just walk over to her house.”

Her father smiled. “Of course, you can. Tell Riley’s parents I said Hello.”

Cairo bit her lip at the thought, but nodded nevertheless. “I will. Thank you, dad.”

“Of course, sweetie.”

She waved him goodbye, before making her way out of the house. She was already planning the best way to startle Riley when she arrived at her home. It was an ongoing game between them.

The last time simply sneaking up behind Riley had done the job, but Cairo figured, that it wouldn’t work a second time as well. Riley was a quick learner. She settled on simply bursting into her room, not even caring how childish it was, because that was just the way Riley and Cairo were.

Being childish made them what they were. They would never change a thing about it.

After what seemed like only 2 seconds later Cairo arrived at Riley’s home and opened the unlocked door, as usual.

There was an odd noise coming from somewhere that Cairo heard while climbing the stairs to Riley’s room. It reminded her of the odd black glimmer in her house, only that this was a sound. It still felt the same – unreal.

She slowed down, as soon as she reached the door to Riley’s room and then ripped it open.

“Surprise!”

But instead of Riley jumping from her chair or looking up as she had hoped it would happen, she didn’t get a reaction. She only got an empty room.

Frowning, she pulled out her phone and checked, if Riley had sent her any messages, but she hadn’t. The noise suddenly seemed more important to Cairo and she followed it, calling Riley. She didn’t pick up, so she let her phone slide into her pocket again and made her way down the stairs.

The noise suddenly seemed louder than before, and everything around her shimmered blackish. She followed it, her heart beating a little faster. Her brain started piecing together the situation and told her legs to run towards the noise, but they didn’t react.

There was this small spark of hope and care for her best friend, that made her believe, that maybe she was just imagining things.

She wasn’t.

The closer she got to the room, the louder the noise became, and Cairo could make out snippets of words. Words, she didn’t want to hear.

She walked a little faster, towards the door. The voices became louder, clearer. There was this knowledge inside of her. Cairo couldn’t name where it came from, or why she knew, that it was true, but she knew, that she needed to get to the room as quickly as possible.

Noises. Louder noises. Noises, noises, noises. Voices! Killing, stifling noises, that would bury her underneath them.

 

Cairo sat bolt upright and rubbed her eyes. Breathing heavily, she looked around, blinked a few times and then shook her head. Slowly, she lay back down.

It had just been a dream. Just a dream.

There was no black glimmering.

She heard voices from downstairs. Loud voices. And she didn’t feel the warmth of her best friend’s body next to her. Cairo opened her eyes again and her eyes searched for Riley’s big alarm clock. It was almost 11AM. Surprised, that she had slept in that long, Cairo sat up and placed her feet on the floor.

She ran a hand through her dark hair and combed it lazily using her hands.

She yawned and got up, to pull the clothes she had prepared for the day out of her bag. The voices were more silent now, so Cairo felt no need to hurry, went to the bath room and pushed some water into her face, to get rid of the last bit of sleep that was left inside of her.

When she got dressed and Riley still hadn’t returned, Cairo decided to go downstairs, hoping to find Riley there. Maybe she had already made breakfast.

The voices grew louder and suddenly Cairo realized, that she wasn’t dreaming anymore, but was wide awake. And the closer she listened to the voices, the surer she was of who they belonged to.

She ran downstairs, towards the doors leading to the living room.

Hadn’t they told Riley, that they would only return in two days?

Cairo ran to the room as fast as she could, the voices now unmistakably the ones of Riley’s parents. She ripped the door to the living room open and saw Riley standing in the middle of it. Big tears were staining her cheeks.

Cairo ignored the shouting that made even her own ears hurt and walked towards Riley. She grabbed the hand of the smaller girl and Riley looked up.

“Come on”, Cairo said. She pulled Riley away from her parents, fastening the grip around her hand and then pulled her out of the room. “Why didn’t you leave?”, she asked, her voice shaking a little.

“I…”, Riley started, but didn’t finish. “They were supposed to come home in two days. Not today.”

Cairo closed the door to the living room and pulled Riley with her again; away from it. She couldn’t even tolerate the thought of Riley having to endure her parents' behavior. Even though there was no shouting to be heard anymore, probably, because Riley’s parents had noticed the absence of their child, Cairo didn’t feel save. She pulled Riley with her.

“Come on, let’s go for a walk.”

Riley didn’t complain, only put on her shoes as quickly as possible. Cairo did the same and pushed Riley out of the house, following her and closing it. They ran away from the house and left the driveway.

As soon as they reached the street, Riley stopped walking and wrapped her arms around Cairo. “Thanks for getting me out of there.”

“Of course”, Cairo said, panting slightly. “But why didn’t you just leave on your own? Why did you listen to them?” She pulled back from the hug and looked into the tearstained eyes of her best friend.

“I couldn’t”, Riley said silently. “I tried, but it was like my feet were glued to the ground. I couldn’t move, I could only listen to them, even though I know, that it doesn’t make me feel good.”

“What did they say?”

“They…” Riley closed her eyes, opened them again and Cairo could see her swallowing the lump in her throat. “They told me that they hate having me around. That my presence is just… inconvenient.”

Cairo’s heart shattered.

Already in the last year of elementary school she had been completely sure, that Riley’s parents were awful, but she had hoped that it would change. Now they were in their third year of middle school and nothing had changed. It had only gotten worse.

Cairo pulled her best friend into her arms. “They didn’t mean it”, she said with a soothing voice. “They didn’t want to say that, they didn’t mean it.”

“They promised not to shout again”, Riley said silently. “They promised not to shout at me. Or at each other. They promised.”

Cairo felt a pain in her stomach at that. “Sometimes parents can’t keep promises, but that’s not your fault.” She started walking, grabbing Riley’s sleeve, so she would follow her. She did. “My parents once promised me, that we would go to Italy, but we never did.”

Riley nodded. “I know that they can’t, it’s just… I really hoped they would never do it again.” There were already new tears threatening to leave Riley's eyes and Cairo felt powerless. 

She should help. But how?

“I know”, she sighed. “How about we walk a few rounds around the block?", she then suggested, trying to smile a little. "We can talk. Or just don’t do anything.”

Riley swallowed and nodded. “Ok. Thanks, Cai.”

“Of course.” Cairo squeezed Riley’s hand slightly.

Riley squeezed back.


Kate kneaded her hands. She took a deep breath and went towards her mother. It felt like in kindergarten, when she would ask her, to talk to Riley’s and Cairo’s parents, so they could meet up and play.

Only that this was different.

In kindergarten, she had still been able to ask her father, if her mother had said no.

Chapter Text

Kate’s knees felt a little wobbly. She had done this so often already, but something about this day felt different. Her father was probably asleep in his room so he wouldn’t hear her, but still. It didn’t feel quite right.

She pulled her hoodie jacket close around herself and made sure that the hood wasn’t covering her face entirely, even though this imagination seemed much more pleasant right now.

“Hey, uh...” She coughed slightly before speaking again. “Mom?”

“Yes?” Kate’s mother looked up from the book she had been reading, her eyes piercing and warm at the same time.

“I was wondering, if I could, uh, meet up with Bridget.” Suddenly the floor was far more interesting to Kate, than the conversation.

Her mother put the book down and took off her reading glasses. “Isn’t she very busy? Isn’t she a sophomore now?”

Kate nodded. “Yes, she is, but we want to meet up anyways. She wants to tell me about the new subjects she’s taking.”

“Oh, ok.”

Kate couldn’t quite place her mother’s tone. She looked at her and Kate felt uncomfortable. The way her mother eyed her ripped jeans, multicolored socks and the way she wore her hoodie jacket over the black T-shirt, made her feel like a criminal.

“And her best friend, Emma, will also be there. And I think a friend of hers too. I can’t remember her name though.” Kate continued quickly, just to ignore her nervousness and fear, that her mother wouldn’t let her go.

This was the one thing she had been looking for ever since school had started again. She hadn’t seen Bridget all summer because she had been away at some summer camp, while Kate had been stuck listening to Panic! At the Disco and My Chemical Romance songs on repeat.

And being either judged by her mother or trying not to let her father catch a glimpse of her.

Kate didn’t know why but something made her believe that her father wouldn’t relish seeing the eyeliner she wore every day.

Her mother looked at her in a strange way. She had never worn this look before. Normally Kate could read her like a book!

But in the course of the summer holidays it had become harder and harder.

Right now, Kate didn’t have a chance of even guessing what her mother was thinking of.

“Go ask your father”, she then sighed, lifting her book again, while she put on her reading glasses.

Kate’s heart skipped a beat and she shook her head, before thinking of the consequences.

“Why?”, her mother asked. “What’s so bad about it?”

Kate tried to shake it off. “Nothing, I just… I don’t want to wake him up. He’s always…” A cough left her mouth. “He’s always a little grumpy when I wake him up.”

She didn’t know if he was asleep again, it was a lucky guess that Kate saw as her best chance to avoid seeing her father. She couldn’t stand the constant cloud of the scent of alcohol – as she had now found out – surrounding him.

Her mother hesitated for a moment, but then nodded sighing. “Ok that’s fair”, she murmured.

A weight was lifted from Kate’s chest and she felt her heart beating normally again. She hadn’t even realized its beat increasing.

“So, am I allowed to go?”

She didn’t dare looking up but when she saw her mother nodding slightly from the corners of her eyes, the corners of her lips curled into a small smile.

“Yes, you can”, her mother decided. “Ask Frank if he can drive you.”

Kate knew that Frank would never drive her, but she nodded nevertheless. “Yeah, I will. Thanks mom.”

“Of course, hon”, her mother smiled slightly and leaned back, opening her book again. “Oh, and Kate?”

“Yeah?”

Her mother pointed at her outfit. “Maybe you should think of wearing something a little less… unusual to Bridget’s house. You don’t want to make a bad impression.”

Something pulled at her heartstrings, but she bit the inside of her cheeks and nodded. 

“Sure”, Kate lied. “I will.”

Ignoring her heart that had started to sting at her mother’s words, Kate sped up to her room and closed the door behind herself, quickly grinning all over her face. She would have to come up with a way to persuade Frank of driving her or a lie, that made her mother believe that he did but that was a problem she didn’t want to think of right now.

She heard steps from downstairs and immediately recognized them as her father’s. Only his feet made such a loud noise, when stepping onto the wooden floor.

Immediately Kate stopped everything she did. Hopefully her mother wouldn’t tell her father about her plans. He would never let her visit Bridget. He was still under the impression, that Kate couldn’t be friends with whoever she wanted to be friends with.

She heard him mumbling, or maybe talking out loud, she only knew that she didn’t understand a word.

Part of her was thankful for it.

Ever since he had left them a few days ago and then came back home only yesterday, he had been sleeping in his bed. But when he had returned, he had shouted like there were no tomorrow.

The words hadn’t even made sense! But they had scared Kate.

They still did.

She didn’t want to hear the senseless babbling again. Not, if she had the chance not to.

Quickly she took a piece of paper and pulled out her pencil case from her school bag. She took a pencil and started drawing. Kate didn’t even know what she was drawing, but it calmed her down and gave her something to focus on - to get lost in - while the world around her was scary and practically screamed at her, to escape.

The world screamed at her to escape into a world of her own, where she could create everything and be a part, of what seemed like a kingdom of safety. The world screamed at her to escape.

So, she did.

-----

A few days later Kate stood in front of her house and waited for Bridget’s parents to pick her up.

She had somehow managed to convince her mother that it was fine and didn’t bother Bridget’s parents, which was the truth! But her mother refused to understand that for far too long. She had assured Kate that she would have driven her if she could have, but that she had to go to work. Kate couldn’t rely on her father and she didn’t even want to think of asking Frank.

So, she was left waiting for Bridget’s parents, her eyes checking the time every few seconds.

She was excited to see Bridget again, even though it was probably stupid. They were just friends. Nevertheless, she tried justifying her excitement by just telling herself, that it was normal to be excited to see her best friend after she hadn’t seen her in weeks.

Kate heard the engine of Bridget’s parent’s car and looked up, smiling slightly when it came closer.

She waved Bridget’s parents. Bridget’s mother didn’t wave back, since she was driving, but smiled slightly, while her husband waved at Kate and opened the car door for her, as soon as the vehicle had come to a halt.

Kate got in and smiled at Bridget’s parents. “Hey.”

“Hi Kate, how are you?”, Bridget’s mother beamed, her freckles showing as well as her dimples. Her hand landed on the gear shift, while she looked back at Kate.

“I’m good”, Kate smiled. “How are you? How’s Bridget?”

Bridget’s father grinned. “She’s just fine. I think she can’t wait to see you.”

Kate blushed slightly. “Really?”

“Of course!”, Bridget’s father exclaimed laughing. “You spent almost every afternoon of the last school year together, and now she hasn’t seen you for I don’t even know how long. How could she not look forward to seeing you?”

“Calm down”, Bridget’s mother chuckled, putting a hand on her husband’s arm.

Kate’s parents never showed affection like this.

It made Kate wonder, if they ever would. Sometimes she wished they did. It all seemed so normal and easy, when Bridget’s parents did it, Kate couldn’t imagine how wonderful it would feel, to see her parents instead of them. To see her parents picking up her friends and laughing with her and smiling at them and showing affection towards each other.

She tried imagining it, loved the fantasy, but still she somehow knew, that it would always stay to be a fantasy.

“So, Kate. How is everything? How are your brothers?”, Bridget’s father asked, and Kate shrugged.

“Martin is a junior at college, he doesn't really talk to me, he’s very busy.”

Thinking of Martin made her heart twitch a little, but she ignored it. He would call her tomorrow. When he hadn’t been able to skype all these times, he had been busy. Now he was free for sure. He would call her.

Kate hadn’t lost hope yet.

“Oh ok”, Bridget’s father replied a little numbed in his enthusiasm.

“And how’s Frank?”, his wife jumped in, trying to smile at Kate reassuringly by glancing at the rear-view mirror.

Kate’s thoughts wandered.

 

“Kate, Kate come here! Look what mom bought us!”, Frank called. “Hurry up, you don’t want to miss this!”

“Calm down”, Kate heard her mother saying.

“But this is too sick to stay calm! This is… this is… Kate, come here!”

Kate drew the last line of the drawing and stood up from her desk. She made her way down the stairs, where Frank was already waiting for her, impatiently tapping the handrail. He had always done it when he was excited, so Kate didn’t question it anymore.

She went down the stairs and looked at her brother laughing. He was jumping up and down, grinning.

“Mom bought us the new Nintendo!”, he shouted.

“What?”

Suddenly Kate was far more interested in the situation and came speeding down the stairs, accidentally crashing into her brother, but neither of them minded. They both ran towards her mother, who tried to slow them down, but instead they tried to catch just a glimpse at the new gaming console.

“Can we play now?”, Frank asked, trying to seem cool and collected. “We’ll take turns, I promise. Right Kate?”

Kate nodded. “Promise.”

Their mother sighed. “No longer than half an hour”, she told them, handing them the package.

What felt like a short amount of time didn’t matter to the siblings, instead they thanked their mother more than just once and then took the black shiny console upstairs.

They ended up playing all night, switching turns and laughing at each other, whenever the other one failed a level.

 

It had happened last year during summer vacation. The time where Frank and Kate would play video games together was long gone though. Still, it remained to be one of the memories Kate loved most. But now, everything was completely different.

Kate didn’t ask Frank for advice anymore, because every time she did, he threw her out of his room or muttered something Kate couldn’t understand.

She didn’t really like talking to him as well.

“He’s ok”, she replied. “He’s very stressed out because of graduation. And mom and dad are good, too.”

Bridget’s parents both smiled a little.

“But, how are you?”, Kate quickly asked.

She liked listening to Bridget’s parents, everything was so joyful, when they said it.

“We’re ok. We went to Italy while Bridget was at that camp and it was truly wonderful. Have you ever seen the sea, Kate?” Bridget’s father smiled back at her and she shook her head. “Well, you really should some time. Maybe your parents will take you or you can go with us.”

A small smile made its way onto Kate’s face. “Really? You would take me with you?”

“If there’s enough space in the car, why not. You would only have to wash off that eyeliner of yours, so the sea doesn't smudge it”, Bridget’s father smirked.

“It really suits you though”, his wife added. “It goes really nicely with your necklace.”

Kate laughed a little, looking down at the thin black choker. “Thank you”, she murmured blushing.

For the rest of the car ride Kate felt at ease and didn’t think of her parents. Bridget’s father felt more like a father to her, than her own. He was always smiling and cracking jokes.

Not like her own father.

She got out of the car, waved Bridget’s parents goodbye and went inside. As soon as she opened the door, she was crushed in a hug and felt Bridget’s familiar wavy hair tickle her arms.

It must’ve grown over the holidays.

She hugged her back. “Hi.”

“Hey!”, Bridget beamed. “How are you?”

“Now that I’m with you, awesome”, Kate answered in her thoughts, though she didn’t know where that thought came from. So, she simply smiled. “I’m good, how are you?”

“Now that you’re here even better”, Bridget grinned.


“Bridget will be here any minute”, Emma said, putting her phone down. “And she’ll bring Kate so we can play Monopoly together.”

Chess rolled her eyes. “So, we couldn’t have played without them?”, she laughed sarcastically, playfully nudging Emma’s shoulder.

Emma rolled her eyes as well. “You know what I mean. It’s more fun the more people join the game. Also, it would’ve been very odd of us to sit in Bridget’s room, without Bridget actually joining us.”

Chess laughed. “Yeah, I know. I really like us spending time together, though. We haven't done it very often ever since your sophomore year started.”

Emma sighed and nodded. “Yeah, I know what you mean. But there’s so much more schoolwork to do, you don’t even know. It’s awful. Bridget complains all the time about it as well.”

The smile on Chess’ face faded slightly. “You and Bridget spend a lot of your time together now, don’t you?”

“Well yeah, practically every second”, Emma replied, now finally having found the Monopoly carton and putting it down on the ground. “Why are you asking?”

Chess shook it off. “Nothing. I just…” She hesitated for a moment.

Was her request selfish?

She just didn’t want to lose a friend, above all not her best friend. Just the idea scared her, and she was sure, that without her best friend she would soon be lost, especially in high school. Not that she wasn’t sure that she would somehow manage it alone as well, she would! But the thought of someone being there and guiding her made the storm in her head calm down significantly.

“What?”, Emma asked, ripping open the package with the brand-new tokens.

“Nothing”, Chess shook her head. “Just a stupid thought.”

“Well then turn it into a smart one”, Emma laughed, shuffling the cards, getting ready for the first game.

Chess swallowed hard and nodded. “Yeah”, she laughed slightly, covering everything up. “You’re right.”

One of her dads – Tommy – always told her that she should just tell someone if she was worrying about anything, but Chess felt like Emma didn't care enough for her to do so.

So, she didn’t.

“Choose your token before Bridget claims it”, Emma said, putting down the now shuffled cards.

Chess looked at the tokens and hesitated. She found herself noticing that she hesitated a lot more than she used to, even though she didn’t find a reason for it.

“Come on, it’s not like a matter of life and death”, Emma joked and took the token Chess was just going to choose, placing it on the start-field. “There are far more important decisions in your life. And even if you don’t choose the right one sometimes it doesn’t matter.”

Chess looked at her, nodding, swallowing hard. “Yeah, I know.” She placed a token, the dog, on the big red arrow that was printed onto the board right next to the black GO. “But sometimes they do”, she said. “Like choosing which college I’ll go to.”

Emma laughed. “That’s ages away, don’t worry about that now!”

Chess nodded. “Yeah, right.”

It wasn’t that Chess liked worrying, she hated it, but still. Something about sitting in Bridget’s room together with Emma made her think about her future more than she usually did.

Her train of thought was interrupted quickly though, as the door opened and Bridget came in, a girl at her side that had to be Kate.

“Hey”, Bridget greeted, and pointed at Kate next to her. “That’s Kate”, she introduced.

Kate waved. “Hey.”

Chess immediately noticed the eyeliner circling both of her eyes, the thin choker around her neck and the hood of her jacket that was covering her face just a little. Still, she noticed the smile playing around the girl’s lips.

“We already prepared the Monopoly board, you only have to choose your tokens”, Emma immediately said, pointing at the board and the stacks of play money, that were neatly organized by their worth, with her gaze. 

“Great”, Bridget said and sat down next to Emma on the floor.

Kate sat down next to Chess and Chess greeted her, introducing herself. Kate introduced herself as well and only a few minutes later they were caught up in playing. Soon, Emma and Bridget were playfully fighting about the fact, that Bridget wanted to get the blue fields, which Emma had already bought.

Chess and Kate only occasionally looked at each other and broke out into laughter, when one of the older girls tried to convince the other one of their possession of the field.

“Have you and Emma known each other for long already?”, Kate asked when the two didn’t seem to make a move of stopping and Chess gave a half-shrug, half-nod.

“More or less. We don’t get to see each other that often though. What about you and Bridget?”

“She basically saved me on my first day of middle school”, Kate laughed. “I was completely alone and lost but she showed up out of nowhere, so that’s cool. We don’t spend much time together as well, though. I hope it’ll change when I’m in high school.”

“Yeah, that makes sense”, Chess smiled. “When will you go to high school?”

“Two years”, Kate replied. “You?”

“One year”, Chess grinned. “And to be honest, I can't wait. I’m so sick of middle school already.”

Chess wanted to go to high school and join real sports teams, not only the ones outside of school that were just boring her.

“Yeah me too”, Kate laughed. “It’s just all so tiring. I want to get to know new people.”

“Me too”, Chess grinned. “I mean, at least I know you now.”

In that moment Chess heard a loud noise and she looked up. But her muscles quickly relaxed, when she found Emma and Bridget lying on top of each other now, Emma laughing and trying to get the dice from Bridget, who must’ve taken them from her.

“God they’re childish”, Chess murmured and heard Kate agreeing with her. “It’s almost as if they were raised by my dads.”

Kate raised an eyebrow. “What?”

“My dads always tell me to stay childish when I have to do school work", Chess explained laughing. "They’re very fond of paying attention that I don’t work enough." She chuckled again, but then shook her head slightly. "They’re great, really, but sometimes they’re just so horribly foolish, you don’t even know. They hug me just to keep me from working so I don’t spread myself too thin. Sometimes I can’t with them.”

“That sounds like a good thing though”, Kate said, her smile had suddenly faded. She was looking at Chess in a slightly pained way. Maybe even sad. She bit her lip, tried smiling at Chess, but then shook her head. “Uh, I’m going to go to the bathroom, if you don’t mind”, she then said, a forced smile on her lips.

“Are you ok?”, Chess asked.

Kate nodded quickly, but then stood up and left the room.

Emma and Bridget didn’t even realize.

Chess felt a dull pain in her chest and hesitated. The game was probably over, since Emma and Bridget were only making fun of each other now, which made Chess overthink what she had just told Kate.

She had just talked about her parents and how they fell on her nerves sometimes. It was normal, wasn’t it? Every middle schooler did it.

She felt the dull pain in her chest again and decided to follow Kate.

The younger girl had left too sudden, something had to be wrong. It didn’t add up.

So, she left the room and went down the dimly lit corridor leading to the bathroom. Besides the sound of her socks on the tile floor, she suddenly heard someone sniveling. She turned the corner, where she found Kate leaned against the wall, furtively wiping at her eyes.

“Kate!”, she called her name.

Kate looked up, wiping at her eyes again. Surprisingly, nothing of the eyeliner was smudged.

“Did I say something? Are you ok?”

Kate nodded. “Yeah, don- don’t worry”, she stuttered, wiping at her eyes again.

“Are you sure?” Chess took a step closer to Kate and hesitantly put a hand on her shoulder. “Hey, you can just tell me", she said gently. 

“It’s nothing, it’s stupid”, Kate shook it off. “Don’t bother.”

“Nothing you think is stupid”, Chess clarified.

“Oh, then you don’t know the way I think”, Kate said sarcastically, and Chess chuckled. “Ok, good. I don’t know…” Kate let herself slide down the wall and sat down on the floor, wiping at her eyes one last time. “I’m just… jealous, I guess?”

Chess sat down next to her. “What of?”, she frowned.

“Your family”, Kate chuckled watery. “See, I told you it’s stupid.”

“It’s not stupid”, Chess argued chuckling again. “But who would dream of having two overprotective, foolish fathers?”, she added sarcastically, lightly bumping Kate’s shoulder with her own.

Kate slightly raised her hand. “I would”, she chuckled, wiping away another tear.

“What?”

“I would”, Kate repeated. She sat cross-legged on the floor and held onto her knees. “My dad is… nothing like yours. And my mom isn’t all that pleasant as well. And my brothers…” She silenced and then sighed. “Well, they’re my brothers but sometimes I feel more alone the more parts of my family are near me, than when I’m actually alone. And… big hugs to keep me from doing too much is something I’ve never even heard of. The opposite, in fact. If my father isn’t d-…” Kate shook her head. “If he’s not asleep he tells me to study. So you make friends”, she imitated her father. “It’s… I don’t know… weird, to hear someone talking about their family like you.”

Chess swallowed hard. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know that. I wouldn’t have bothered you with… you know.”

“It’s ok”, Kate smiled. “You didn’t know, it’s no big deal. I just… don’t really like to think of my family, if that’s understandable.”

“Yeah, of course it is”, Chess smiled. She hesitantly opened her arms to hug Kate. It felt like the right thing, to hug the tough looking girl, who didn’t seem to get much affection at her home.

The younger girl looked at her, chuckled thankfully and hugged Chess.

Chess pulled her just a little closer. “If you’re not getting it from your family, then you’re just going to get this hug from me.”

Kate chuckled slightly. Chess felt her smiling against her shoulder, though there were still small tears dripping onto her light blue shirt. But Chess didn’t mind.

It would take long for the tears on Kate's cheeks to dry. 

Chapter Text

A few months into the school year – the first one in high school, at that – Riley found herself sitting in the middle of math class and feeling just slightly unpleasant. Sitting in the middle of the classroom was something she didn’t like in general but sitting there and knowing that soon she would be called on to solve the problem on the blackboard made the whole situation a whole lot worse.

She fidgeted with the pen in her hands, turned it around, pressed the ends of her fingernails into it. “Back and forth”, she thought, as she swung the pen lightly. “Back and forth.”

As if she was projecting her thoughts and angers on the pen, she swung it harder. Back and forth, back and forth. She only focused on the motion of the pen, that was constantly repeating itself.

The class around her was louder than usual. They talked to each other and their teacher had given up on trying to quiet them down. As if everyone had something important to say. How did everyone have something important to say?

Riley never had!

Already in elementary school she had rather kept her voice down and only spoken up, when the teacher called her on. Then in middle school, her parents had done the job of telling her that her opinion didn’t matter. They just kept telling her to shut up and keep her thoughts to herself. So, she did, hoping that maybe her parents would be proud of her then.

They still weren’t.

She had been fine with it for a long time! She had managed to suppress the memory of every single panic attack she had ever had. They had started in her last year of elementary school and in middle school there had been times where having a panic attack nearly every day had been normal to her. Then there had been months where she had thought that everything had ended. And then it had come crashing down again - more horrible than she had ever imagined it to.

She felt her heartbeat increasing slightly and took a breath. It didn’t work though. So, she tried again. And again. And again. The pen in her hands started shaking, as if it wanted to show her the amount of fear inside of her. She wanted to let it fall, but as soon as she let go of one end, her other hand clung onto the pen even harder. She grabbed it again.

Unknowingly she continued doing exactly that for the next minutes. Letting go, immediately clinging onto it as if it was her lifeline, letting go, clinging, letting go, clinging. She continued until her knuckles hurt and the bones in her hand threatened to snap.

She focused on the pain for a short moment, but it had disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared, so it was of no use.

“Just continue breathing”, she told herself. “Breathe, in and out. It’s not that bad, it’s ok.”

“Riley”, her homeroom teacher called her name and Riley’s gaze shot up, away from the pencil in her hand. “Can you answer my question?”

“W-wha…” Riley’s voice betrayed her, and she was left staring into her teacher’s eyes, clenching her teeth.

“I wanted to know what the solution to number two is”, her teacher smiled warmly, pointing at the sheet that was lying right in front of Riley.

“Ah, o-ok, number two, number two”, Riley murmured. The letters and numbers in front of her eyes seemed to mix up and suddenly she couldn’t find the pagination. “I…”, she started, but once again her voice betrayed her.

She turned the sheet of paper over, in search of the number and people around her started whispering.

This was her first year of high school, she couldn’t allow this happening to herself! She had to keep up the façade of everything being fine. She couldn’t let the perfect picture everyone had of her be destroyed.

Where was number two? She had done it, hadn’t she? She had done her homework! Yesterday, right after dinner. First, she had gone to her room, then lain in her bed for half an hour, and then she had done it. First number one, then number two. So, where was the solution?

Ignoring the whispers as best as she could she blinked rapidly to regain focus and her eyes clung hard onto number two as soon as she found it.

“Do you know the solution, Riley?”, her teacher asked.

Riley looked up and quickly nodded, swallowing hard. She found number two quicker this time and opened her mouth to give the answer. “I-it’s num-ber two i-is… I mean, it’s…”

She silenced. Her heartbeat increased rapidly and blew all words out of her brain. Now, the only thing left was gaping emptiness, that made her feel stuffed and empty at the same time. Like the most awful feeling she could ever imagine, only so much worse.

“Riley?”, her teacher repeated.

The students whispered louder, as if they were shouting into Riley’s ears, telling her, what they really thought of her.

“You’re worthless!”

“Wallflower!”

“Your parents will always be too busy to spare time for you!”

“They will never love you!”

“Wallflower!”

“I…”, Riley started again.

The first tear welled up in her eye. Before she could control her actions, she stood up and looked around like a deer in the headlights. Her peers were laughing. Laughing so clearly at her, it hurt in Riley’s chest. She looked at her teacher and then the students, teacher, students, teacher, students, teacher, students, teacher, stu-

“Toilette”, she choked out and ran in the direction of the door. Everything she needed right now was to get out of the room. She couldn’t stay here any longer. She couldn’t! There was no air in the room! It had been sucked away from her, like she was in a horror film scenario. She was trapped in a room, that’s walls closed in on her and in the process took every single breath of air that was still left inside of her from her.

She dashed out of the room and closed the door behind her, walking away from the room as quickly as possible.

Everything in front of her went form black, to white, to too bright, to black, to normal, back to too bright colors, and then completely white again.

She looked around. There was no one near her. She was standing right next to the bathroom. How she had gotten there, she didn’t know. It was all a horrible blur.

Number two.

Damn number two!

She opened the door and went in. Her body shivered under hot and cold blurs of colors, the bright white tiles were blinding. But it was silent. The blessing silence spread in her body in the form of a cold light, that extinguished the fire of panic inside of her.

It went to her stomach and throat and made her feel sick. Before she knew it, Riley knelt on the floor and was crouched over the toilet bowl, her arms wrapped around her stomach. Nothing came out, but still her legs felt too weak to carry her weight. She leaned against one of the sidewalls and pulled her knees close to her chest.

Why couldn’t she just be normal?

Why couldn’t she just answer, but always have to freak out? Why did there always have to be this weight on her chest, that made breathing harder and harder with every passing second and drown her in embarrassment?

It had been going to well, apparently.

The last time she had experienced a situation like this had been in her last year of elementary school. It had been the exact same then.

And now she was back at it again. She was back on the floor in the toilet, hiding from everyone and being embarrassed. High school had been supposed to be a place for her to show everyone the things she was good at and become the best at doing what she loved. Cheerleading.

Now only the hope that this occurrence wouldn’t influence her being on the team was left.

She heard someone knocking on the door and looked up, when it opened. Her best friend looked at her and immediately sat down on the closed toilet. “Ms Kay sent me to check in on you”, she explained. “Sorry that I didn’t react sooner, I wasn’t thinking.”

“Ok”, Riley murmured.

“What happened?”, Cairo asked.

“Couldn’t answer”, Riley answered numbly.

After these kinds of panic attacks, she always felt exhaustion take over her entire body and the desire to just lie down and sleep spread in her chest.

“Why couldn’t you?”

Riley shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Do you want to go back to class?” Cairo’s voice was gentler than before. Both her feet were stood on the floor, but one of her legs nervously twitched up and down.

Riley shook her head. “I can’t go back now”, she murmured, supporting her head with her hands. Her eyes followed the pattern of the mosaic stones and the joints between them. Their even pattern added the one factor that had still missed for her to calm down completely.

“Do you want me to stay with you?”

Riley looked up. “Please?”

Cairo nodded, stood up and closed the door of the stall, making sure it was locked. “Sure.” She sat down on the toilet again and for a few minutes of silence, both enjoyed the others even breathing. “Do you maybe want to go the mall after school?”, Cairo suggested.

Riley looked up and smiled a little. She knew how much Cairo hated going to the mall but still kept doing it for her. She nodded. “As long as you’re ok with it.”

“Of course, I’m ok with it”, Cairo smiled. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have suggested it. Do you want to get ice cream? I’ll pay.”

Riley rolled her eyes playfully. “It’s too cold outside for ice cream.”

“So what”, Cairo shrugged. “Do you want to get ice cream or not?”

“Of course, I want to”, Riley laughed watery, her thoughts being drawn from the occurrences of only a few minutes ago to the idea of being able to sit down in the mall with her best friend and talk about insignificant stuff no one but them cared about. The numbness form seconds ago was filled with the imagination of a warm and comfortable feeling.

“Then it’s settled”, Cairo smiled, softly nudging Riley’s shoulder with the tip of her finger.

Riley managed to laugh. “How long until the lesson’s over?”

Cairo looked down at her watch. “Fifteen minutes”, she answered. “Do you want to stay here for the rest of the lesson? I can just tell Ms. Kay that you’re sick.”

“That’d be great”, Riley smiled exhaustedly. “Thanks Cai.”

Cairo stopped unlocking the door to smile at Riley and nodded. “Of course.”

Staying in the toilet stall had been the best decision Riley had made that day. The rest of the day hadn’t been particularly good, but she had managed to get through it without having to endure another panic attack and had found back to her old elementary school self, who had always blended in with the crowd.

Getting lost in the crowd was one of the most special skills she possessed. It was that one skill she had perfected. The skill she was proud of.

In the afternoon, when she arrived at the mall, Cairo wasn’t there yet, so, she sat down on one of the many benches and leaned back, closing her eyes.

It was weird, but here – at the mall, that was stuffed with people – she felt more comfortable than at her home. Her parents weren’t home which was good, the best scenario that could possibly happen in fact, but still; every time she entered her home, there was this feeling in her stomach that she couldn’t describe as something else but a mixture of fear and disgust.

Staying at the mall spared her this feeling, at least for now.

She pulled a few coins from one of the pockets of her jeans and checked, if there was enough left to buy ice cream for Cairo and herself, smiling slightly, when it was just about enough. She looked around, pulled out her phone – a simple, white smartphone, that was a little smaller than her hand – and entered Cairo’s name. But before she had the time to call her, she felt someone gripping her shoulders and jumped to her feet.

Riley looked around, and immediately found her best friend standing right in front of her. Cairo grinned at her smugly. “You’ll never not be frightened, right?”

“You know how jumpy I am”, Riley complained.

Cairo sat down next to her. “I know, calm down. So, are you ready to get that ice cream or what?”

Riley nodded. “Sure. If you promise that we’ll stay at the mall for as long as possible?”

The mall was inside of Riley’s comfort zone and having Cairo there as well was the best thing possible to happen. She didn’t really like her aunt – she looked after her, when her parents weren’t home – but at least she let her stay out as long as she wanted to, because she couldn’t care less about her.

And now, that she had this opportunity, Riley wouldn’t spare a second in using it.

Cairo frowned but nodded. “Sure.”

So, they stayed until the staff told them to leave. They wandered around the mall, looked at nothing and too much at the same time and ate way too much ice cream.

“We should do this more often”, Riley grinned, as they went home in the dark. It was already cold outside but that didn't matter. She was with her best friend, nothing mattered right now. 

Cairo nodded, smiling a little. “Yeah."


A few hours earlier Kate looked up from the floor and noticed herself passing by a familiar looking redhead. She remembered Riley from elementary school, and even though a part of her wanted to walk over to her and Cairo, something held her back.

“Everything ok?”, Bridget frowned.

Kate nodded. “Yeah, don’t worry.”

“I wasn’t worrying”, Bridget clarified laughing. “Do you know these gals?” She nodded towards the direction where Cairo and Riley were sitting on a bench, laughing about something.

Kate shook her head, then nodded and then shook her head again. She cursed under her breath. Why couldn’t she just behave normally around Bridget? Nothing about her had changed! At least nothing that was responsible for making her act like a brain-less donkey. The only difference to their first encounter was their age. Kate had behaved normally then, too. It just didn’t make sense that suddenly her stomach got all tingly as soon as she saw Bridget and that she wanted to spend time with her again, as soon as she had left her.

“Yeah, I know them”, she murmured, ripping herself out of her thoughts. “We used to be pretty close in elementary school, but our friendship… kind of got lost. I don’t really know why.”

“Oh, ok.” Bridget frowned a little but shook the subject off relatively quickly. She pointed at a shop. “Do you want to go there?”, she asked. “These skirts look cute.”

Kate sighed. “You know that I only came with you because I need art supplies, right?”

Maybe there was also something else that had made Kate come with Bridget, but what it was she didn’t know. It was as if something inside of her wanted to spend all her time with Bridget, no matter what she wanted to do and how much Kate hated it. The feeling was strange, something she didn’t know.

It didn’t fit and fit all too well at the same time.

“Yeah, I know that you did”, Bridget answered Kate’s question, rolling her eyes. “But come on Kate, let’s have some fun. It’s so hard for us to actually spend time together, I want this to be worth it.”

Kate looked at Bridget, and sighed, nodding slightly. “Uh, yeah, ok. Sure. Can we still get art supplies though? I really need new paintbrushes.”

“Sure”, Bridget grinned.

Kate nodded. “Ok, thank you. And we have to be finished in two hours, I have practice.”

Bridget frowned. “Practice? Again? Are you really that good at gymnastics?”, she joked. 

The way Bridget said it made it sound as if there was nothing more unbelievable in the world than Kate being good at gymnastics. Kate’s thoughts wandered to her parents, a place, she never wanted them to wander but they did anyways.

Her father had laughed at her, when she had told him, that she wanted to do gymnastics. But she had realized that it was something she was good at, at least her gym teacher had told her so, so, she wanted to do it. Her mother had frowned at her as well, clearly not liking the idea of her having to drive her child to the town’s sports hall fifteen minutes from their house.

It was only fifteen minutes away and still she didn’t want to drive Kate there.

Kate had never felt this unloved in her life before.

After talking to her mother about it every day and promising her that she would just walk there, if her mother didn’t want to drive her, she had eventually given in, but it had still felt like she only did it, so Kate wouldn’t talk to her about it anymore.

Bridget’s voice implied the exact same thing Kate had felt then. Like she could never manage to do gymnastics. And still, she could. She would just continue doing it and some day, she would show everyone what great of an athlete she was.

Kate nodded. “Uh, yeah-yeah I am that good, I guess. At least my trainer says so.”

Hearing this kind of disbelief from her best friend hit differently and hurt deeper down than hearing it from her father had. Still, she managed to keep calm. It’s what she always did. Eventually, it would probably change, and everything would come crashing down at once, but until then she would just keep calm.

Bridget shrugged easily. “Well, then let’s get started. I don’t want to be responsible for you being late, and not becoming a star athlete”, she smirked, softly bumping her own shoulder against Kate’s. “Let’s have some fun, before I cheer you on at the olympics.”

Kate’s heart skipped a beat, though she didn’t know why, and she laughed awkwardly. Every anxious thought she had had a few seconds ago vanished. “Uh, yeah, I guess. Let’s get started.”

Something about the grin that took in Bridget’s features and made her look like the sun made a small smile pull up on Kate’s lips as well. Bridget smiled at her warmly, as warm as the sun and Kate couldn’t help the small smile on her lips growing bigger and bigger.

She felt her phone vibrating in her pocket. She glanced at it and the text from Chess made the smile on her lips grow even bigger.

Maybe this day wouldn’t be so bad after all.


Eva smiled only slightly, as the headmaster handed her the certificate. Even though she had waited so long for this moment to happen, it still felt like nothing that had ever been supposed to happen.

She sat down next to two of her colleagues, both of them were crying a little. Eva smiled at them reassuringly, even though she had probably never said more than ten words to them.

Silently she watched the rest of the ceremony, smiling slightly. Not because she was thinking back to the time she spent in middle school – no. She smiled, because it was finally over. She smiled, because the thought of getting to know new people in high school brought something absurdly soothing with itself.

The headmaster said a few words, Eva didn’t really pay attention to. Instead she let her gaze wander through the crowd.

It landed on Zack. He was standing next to the headmaster, still that mean smirk on his lips he always wore, waiting, to hold his speech as the valedictorian – a position he had only gotten by cheating on every test and paying students to do his homework. Eva had been one of them.

She had once done a project with him, in second grade. On the day of the presentation Zack had pretended to be sick, just to poke fun at Eva for when she’d have to do the presentation alone. He hadn’t taken account of the fact that Eva had done most of the presentation anyways, though, so she had earned an A.

With that her fate as the nerdy kid had been sealed. Earlier, she had just been invisible – and had been happy with it – but now things had changed and soon enough she was walking down different corridors to get to her classes, just so she wouldn’t get shoved against a wall.

One day, Zack and a few of his older friends had thought it to be funny, to force Eva to drink toilet water.

 

“Tell us, that you like it!”, a friend of him, Cass, shouted. “Tell us how much you love it!”

Eva was too busy disgorging the toilet water to answer. Before she could even try to gasp for air, her head was forced down the toilet bowl again, the thundering of the flushing breaking loose above her and making her deaf for a few seconds.

“You could just be normal! You could just act and dress like everyone else, Miss goody two-shoes. You could just stop being every teacher’s pet!”

“But you’re not stopping, are you? It’s your own fault that we’re doing this!”

 

It had only happened half a year ago and Eva could still hear the thunder of the water crashing down on her.

At high school, she would be accepted. High school would be the place, where everyone would like her for being smart, she was positive about that. High school would be great.

She broke her gaze loose from Zack and looked down, at her shoes. She applauded like everyone else, when everything was over. She didn’t say goodbye to anyone, because she was invisible anyways and stood up.

It was over.

Now, things would finally change.

She went over to where she thought her family was waiting for her, but only her father smiled at her. Apparently, her mother was off somewhere, looking after her only three- and five-year-old brothers. Her father wrapped her in a hug.

“I’m proud of you, kid”, he smiled.

Even though none of Eva’s peers would let themselves be hugged by their parents, thinking they were far too mature for that now, Eva let herself sink into her father’s arms. She would never forget the time, where she hadn’t been able to hug him whenever she wanted to, so now she took every opportunity there was.

“Thanks dad”, she smiled.

“You’re going to love it at West High”, her dad continued, pulling back from the hug. “When I went there it was already the best school I could ever imagine, it’s going to be even better when you go there.”

Eva swallowed hard and nodded. “I’m sure it’s going to be great, dad.”

“I promise, it’s going to be the best years of your life.” He looked around, ending the hug in the process. He frowned a little and looked back at Eva, sighing. “Let’s find your mom and your brothers”, he suggested, his voice making clear, that he had been thrown off track by his wife running off so quickly.

He murmured something, that Eva didn’t understand.

She nodded nevertheless. “Ok.” She and her father walked away from everyone next to each other, looking for their mother. Eva noticed her father scratching his head from time to time and lay a hand on his shoulder. “Stop worrying, dad”, she smiled sympathetically. “It’s ok that she didn’t see me. She’ll still get to see Oskar and Jacob when they graduate.”

Her father smiled at her. “You’re the best daughter I could’ve ever asked for”, he chuckled slightly, letting go of another breath. “Now let's go, let’s find her and go eat ice cream.”

"Ok", Eva smiled. 

At that time Eva didn’t know that this would be the last time she would be able to genuinely enjoy herself, without having to worry about anything. Without having to worry about being perfect, without having to worry about her family, and without having to worry about the new – oh so wonderful – high school she would soon go to.

So, she enjoyed it.

Chapter Text

Annleigh looked at her father from across the kitchen table. “Are you sure that mom and you won’t get along again?” The time it had taken her to actually ask this question had lasted too long. The words felt strange on her tongue. So surreal. So self-explaining. 

Her father smiled sadly and nodded. “I’m sure hon, I’m sorry.” Annleigh nodded slightly. So, this was real. This was reality and not just an absurd imagination or nightmare. “But you can still visit her on the weekends. Unless you want to stay with her, you have the choice.”

Annleigh shook her head slightly. “I like staying with you, that’s not the problem”, she murmured. “It’ll just be so weird not having her around, you know?”

Her father nodded. “Yeah I know.” He let go of a heavy breath. “But it’s better that way.”

Annleigh nodded again. “Ok.” Her thoughts wandered heavily around her head, as if someone had glued them to the ground and they still tried to keep walking.

“Are you ok, hon?”, her father asked, that specific frown he only wore, when he was concerned about his daughter building up on his forehead. Earlier in her life Annleigh had never noticed it, but now it was clearer to her than ever. And it told her that her father honestly cared about her.

She shook her head. “Not really. I’m so used to you and mom always being together, it’ll be weird not seeing her sitting in the kitchen every morning while you make her breakfast. And not seeing her when coming home from school. But I understand that this is the best way.”

The frown on her father’s forehead vanished and he nodded slightly. “I understand. Take your time, sweetie.”

Annleigh nodded. “I will.” After hesitating for a little she stood up. “Can I meet up with Clark, though? He wants to buy me ice cream.”

Her father smiled slightly at the joy of his daughter and nodded. “Of course, you can, sweetie.”

Annleigh smiled at her father thankfully and gave him a quick hug before going up to her room to change. The way to the café only a few blocks away wasn't interesting. Even though sometimes Annleigh meant to spot her mother’s car in the middle of the evening traffic, but it turned out to be an illusion. Wishful thinking. Nothing more and nothing less. After even imagining seeing her mother in her car she got a move on and soon after arrived at the café, much faster than she normally would’ve.

She sat down at a single table, there was easily enough place for Clark, though. Besides, even if there hadn't been, Annleigh didn’t mind cuddling. It didn’t take long for Clark to show up, so Annleigh’s thoughts barely had time to spiral out of the tent she had put around them. She stood up, hugged Clark, blushed as he a blew a soft kiss to her cheek, and sat down next to him, cuddling into his side.

They had been together for just over a year now and still Annleigh felt herself liking him more every day – every day she spent with Clark seemed to be better than the previous one.

“Is everything ok?”, Clark asked caringly, a small frown on his forehead and still wearing this small smile that made Annliegh’s heart melt and skip a beat at the same time. Somehow, a certain feeling of belonging always returned when she was in his arms.

She sighed. “I don’t know”, she confessed.

“Is it the divorce?”

Annleigh looked up into her boyfriend’s eyes. “Yes, it is”, she sighed. “It’s like… I know that they won’t get back together but the feeling is just so… strange.” Clark listened concentratedly, making Annleigh feel like nothing in the world was more important to him right now than she was. “I don’t know how it’ll feel, not seeing them together every day. And I’m worried that dad is going to feel lonely.” She took a breath.

“Didn’t you say that he’s meeting someone else?”

Annleigh nodded. “Yes, he is. He hasn’t really talked about it, but I guess he’s happy. I hope he is.”

Clark smiled a little. “Well, there you go.” He squeezed Annleigh’s shoulder a little. “He’s happy.”

Annleigh looked down and laughed. “How do you keep doing that? How do you always manage to cheer me up with just a few words?”

Clark shrugged it off, blowing a kiss to Annleigh’s cheek. “Must be that I'm with you.” She blushed furiously and blew a kiss to his cheek as well. “Now how about I get you some ice cream? And we’ll visit some park and sit down and cuddle and just forget everything.”

Annleigh laughed. “You’re the best”, she smiled.

“No, you are”, Clark smirked, blew another kiss to Annleigh’s cheek and then left to go the counter.

For the rest of the afternoon the feeling of belonging never left Annleigh. She leaned into Clark, felt his warm, soft hand in hers and his caring attitude everywhere around herself. Just like Clark had said, they had forgotten about everything, just lived as they should. Without worries, only in each other’s arms. Like this, it was easy to forget about the divorce.


Kate let go of a relieving breath and opened the door. Finally. The last day of school was over. Her family hadn’t come to watch her at her graduation, everyone was busy. It hurt to sit there, in this crowd of students, knowing, that she was completely alone, but it was easier to shake off, now that she was home. She always shook everything off, so what did it matter?

In the kitchen she let her bag fall to the ground. She took a plate of leftover strawberries from the refrigerator and pulled a knife from one of the kitchen drawers. Humming she cut them in two, to put them in a bowl and put a big portion of whipped cream onto it. She deserved this.

Humming slightly, she cut the strawberries in two. One by one. One bye one. It was so easy. She could just keep going for hours on end.

“What the fuck?”, a loud voice slurred, and Kate spun around, cutting her finger in the process. She screeched and lifted it to her mouth, before the blood from the deep cut could land on the floor.

She looked up and saw her father standing in the entrance to the kitchen, holding a bottle.

“What do you want?”, she asked coldly, looking at her finger.

“Why the fuck aren’t you at school?”, her father slurred.

Kate rolled her eyes and walked over to him, taking the bottle from his hands. “It ended”, she replied dryly, putting the bottle down on the kitchen counter. “It’s the holidays, in case you haven’t noticed yet. Why are you home?”

Mr. Dalton blinked rapidly. “Don’t you dare talk to me like that. It’s none of your business.” He took a step closer to Kate and opened the fridge, probably searching for a new bottle.

“And it’s none of your business why I’m home, as well”, Kate said coldly. “It’s the holidays, so you don’t have to bother about where I am.” With every word she told her father, she felt their relationship falling apart further. But she just didn’t see a sense in caring about it anymore.

“I’m your father. I have to look after you!”

“Bullshit”, Kate said, letting water run over the cut now. It was deeper then expected. “You never look after me anyways.” Her heart hammered at these words. “So, how about for once you let me enjoy being home?”

“You have to go to school”, her father repeated.

“No, I don’t!”, Kate shouted. “If you had even one braincell left, you’d know that I graduated from middle school today! You just weren’t there because you had to”, Kate painted quotation marks in the air, “work. But apparently this is what your work looks like”, she spat out.

“You ungrateful child, are you really trying to lecture me? I work extremely hard to keep this perfect family together!” Her father took yet another step closer to Kate.

“This family isn’t perfect”, Kate said contemptuously, picking up her bag from the ground. “This family is fucked, that’s what it is. And the main reason for that is you!”

With that she turned around and walked up to her room, hoping that her father wouldn’t remember any of this after his drunkenness would be over. She ignored her father calling after her and used the chair from her desk and a few books to prevent the door handle from moving. And no minute too early. Only a few seconds later her father had come up the stairs and was trying to open Kate’s door. He cursed loudly, shouting at her to let him in, but she didn’t. Ignoring it she pulled out her headphones from her nightstand and put them on. She put on some music on her phone and sat down on the floor, pulling a sketchbook and a pencil form under her bed. She let herself sink into the world of drawing, until the hammering on the door ended.

This afternoon, after she suspected her father having fallen asleep or having left the house, she left to go to the mall and buy some art supplies. It’s not that she liked the mall, but she needed an escape and hopefully the mall would provide her said escape.

She texted Bridget before leaving, so they could meet up, and then let the door fall shut behind herself.

She rode her bike to the mall. The sun was burning down on her, but the cool airstream seemed to clear her thoughts. It made it a whole lot easier to forget about her father and his addiction. Why did her father have to be an alcoholic, anyways? She wasn’t even angry about it anymore, she was just so tired of it. The wind cleared her brain. At least for a few seconds, she could let go of everything and everyone. A sudden sharp pain made her snap out of it, and knowingly she looked down at her finger. She had forgotten to put a band aid on it and now the cut was bleeding again, as if there was no tomorrow.

Kate sighed. She would’ve never thought that an ordinary kitchen knife could cut that deep. Well, it apparently it could.

Having arrived at the mall she leaned her bike against a wall. Bridget’s voice sounded in her ear, when she pulled the lock from her pocket. “No risk no fun, Kate. Come on, don’t always be that careful.” Kate smiled, locking her bike, anyways. “Fun’s cool, dude. But not if it’s about my only way to escape home", she murmured. 

With that she made her way inside the mall. Not as many people as usual filled the aisles, which she welcomed. It made her way to the art shop where she always bought her supplies much more pleasant. Her feet carried her to the store without her having to think about it and soon she lingered in the presence of the world where she felt at home – apart from the gym.

She went through the same aisle again and again, always spotting a new color or a new shade of a color, all while the pictures she would paint using them already formed in her head.

“Are you ok?”, a voice suddenly asked, and looking around Kate jumped with surprise, finding herself eye to eye with a familiar girl. “You’re walking down this aisle for the fifth time now, are you looking for something or are you just lost?”

“Uhm, I-I’m just weird”, Kate stuttered, nearly slapping herself afterwards. “I mean… I don’t know every color in this aisle yet and when-when I walk it down and see the different colors, there’s a picture in my head which is really cool, but… oh my god am I making sense? I’m sorry, I… Hi.” She ended her rambling by simply stretching out her hand, while combing through her hair with the other one.

“Whoa, what’d you there?”, Cairo asked, pointing at Kate’s finger.

Kate withdrew her hand and immediately buried it in one of the pockets of her jeans. “It’s nothing, I just… cut myself. I’m clumsy.”

“Yeah, you seem to be”, Cairo chuckled slightly, cocking her eyebrows. “You’ve always been a little clumsy, though.”

“You remember me?”, Kate asked incredulously.

“Of course, I do”, Cairo shrugged. “How could I not?”

“Oh, ok.” Kate let go of a breath. “Uhm, to get back to the topic of the conversation, though. No, I’m not crazy or lost. I just… needed distraction.”

It was astonishing how quickly the trust she had always had towards Cairo was back again. Even after years of not talking to her.

“Everything ok?”, Cairo frowned.

“Yeah”, Kate immediately nodded. “But what are you doing here, anyways? You never really liked art and that shit.”

Cairo only shrugged. “Riley’s parents won’t let her come for whatever reason and now I’m here alone. Besides, my mother’s birthday is coming up and I don’t know what to buy her, yet. Since painting's always been kind of her thing, I just thought of buying her something from here. I don’t have a clue what all this is, but who cares.” Shrugging again, she gestured around them.

"Do you need some help?”, Kate offered. “Finding the present, I mean.”

Cairo shrugged. “Sure, why not.”

The next hour was spent with the girls walking through every single aisle of the store at least twice and Kate explaining various things about painting – from the basic colors to how to paint objects in perspective to what she liked to paint the most.

“These colors are good for horizons”, Kate stated, pointing at a set of warm red and yellow acrylic paints. “Does your mother like painting horizons?”

Cairo shrugged. “I don’t know, most of the time her paintings don’t even make sense to me. It’s just a mess, to be honest. Do you like painting horizons?”

Kate nodded. “Yeah, it’s relaxing. It’s got this cool mysteriousness.”

“What’s so mysterious about a horizon?”, Cairo mused.

Kate shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe that you can always use different colors, and the horizon will still be recognizable if you do it right.”

“And you can do it right?”, Cairo raised an eyebrow.

Kate laughed a little and nodded. “Yeah, I guess. I’m pretty sure about that.”

“Ok, genius. How about we two get us some ice cream and then you show me a horizon you painted?”

Kate hesitated for a second. Bridget hadn’t answered her text yet, so she wasn’t counting on seeing her today, and she hadn’t planned on doing anything else. So, she nodded. “Sure. But I’m not sure if I took a picture of a horizon I painted that I can show you."

Cairo shrugged. “So what? Then you’ll just tell me about it.”

“Ok, sure. Then uh, let’s get that ice cream, I guess.”

Cairo smiled a little. “Sure, let’s go.”


Cairo sat down next to Kate, handing her back the change. “Thanks again for letting me borrow some cash.”

Kate shrugged. “It’s natural, don’t worry about it.” She took the money from Cairo's hand and let it slide into her pocket.

“The cut on your finger looks pretty deep”, Cairo stated, taking a spoonful of ice cream in her mouth. “How the hell did you manage to cut yourself that deep?”

Kate shrugged it off. Cairo noticed her looking down at her lap, as she started talking again. “Don’t worry about it. I wanted to make myself a fruit salad and then my phone rang, and it startled me.” She looked up again and took a spoonful of ice cream in her mouth. “That’s the best lemon ice cream I’ve had in forever, holy shit.”

“It’s your favorite, isn’t it?”, Cairo questioned, leaning back. In elementary school when they had had ice cream, Kate had always chosen lemon, Cairo remembered. Or strawberry.

Kate shrugged. “Yeah, pretty much. You remember that?”

“It’d be hard to forget”, Cairo laughed. “You always ate that shit up.”

“Well, nothing about that has changed”, Kate chuckled and then practically inhaled half of the scoop of ice cream.

Cairo nearly choked on her laughter. “How in hell’s name did you do that?”

“Dude, I don’t know. It’s probably some hidden special talent of mine.”

Cairo laughed again. She had forgotten how much fun hanging out with Kate was. Especially now, that they were older. To Cairo it seemed as if Kate hadn’t changed in the slightest. It was still the warm familiar feeling of lightness and fun that grew in her stomach when she was sitting next to Kate.

“How’s Riley?”, Kate questioned.

Cairo bit her lip at the mention of her best friend’s name. She still hadn’t responded to a single one of her texts. Not that Cairo was worried, it was just very unlikely of Riley not to answer her texts within a maximum of an hour.

“She’s fine”, she answered. “Still the same, I guess.”

Kate nodded and took the first bite of her ice cream cone. “That’s cool.”

Cairo shrugged nodding. “Yeah. But what’s up with you? Anything new happening?”

Kate hesitated for a second, biting her lip, but in the end shaking her head slightly. “I don’t think so. At least nothing I can think of at the moment.”

“Cool”, Cairo laughed.

Silently Cairo dreaded the moment, when they would have to part to go home. This was too good to end early. It was too good to ever end. The feeling confused Cairo. It didn’t make sense to her. The fact, that this felt so much better than just a regular friendship didn’t make sense to her. But it was deafening in the best possible way. As if it dismissed everything else, every negative feeling there was. It felt like she was sitting on a cloud together with Kate and they were floating over everything else.

“Hey, earth to Cairo. Anyone there?”

Cairo shook her head to bring herself back into reality. She looked right at Kate, who had raised an eyebrow at her and was nearly finished with her ice cream. She smirked at her, nevertheless frowning.

“Of course, I’m here. Do I look like I’m not?”, Cairo laughed it off. She loved getting lost in thought, but spending time with Kate was just as good, if not better. “Hey uh”, Cairo ripped herself out of her thoughts again. Kate looked up at her, wiggling an eyebrow. “Want to meet up again tomorrow?”

Kate nodded. “Sure.” A small smile spread on her features. “Would you like to get Ice cream again?”

Cairo nodded slightly. “Sure. I’d love to.”


Riley fidgeted nervously with the pen in her hand. She feared showing the report card to her parents. More scared, than she should be. It was just a B, it shouldn’t be something bad. But to her it was. She was scared of how her parents would react.

B

With shaking hands, she made her way towards the living room. It wasn’t as if her parents had actually been there to welcome her home after her last day of freshman year. But now that they were home, Riley didn’t even want to being to imagine their reaction. She cursed herself for the grade. She had studied so much, studied day and night. Still, her teacher would only give her a B. Not an A, a B. Because she had gotten a B on one of the exams. The B had taken a report card of straight A’s from her. From her parents.

In the living room she only found her mother sitting in front of the computer. Absorbed in whatever she was writing, she didn’t even notice Riley walking up to her. She only kept on typing. The noise made Riley sick.

“Mom”, she said, her voice sounding thick, though she tried not to let it sound like she was scared. She tried making it sound like everything was fine.

Her mother sighed and looked up from the computer. “What is it, Riley?”

“My report card came”, Riley said, handing the piece of paper over to her mother. “You have to sign it.” Her mother took the report card in her hands – Riley had already taken it out of the envelope – and picked up a pen from next to the keyboard. Immediately Riley noticed the frown building up on her forehead as she let her gaze wander over the piece of paper.

“What’s this?”, her mother asked, the tip of the pen resting on the grade.

Riley was shaking. “It’s just a B”, she tried to sound casual.

“Just a B”, her mother repeated. “You studied, didn’t you?”

Riley nodded. “I did. And I talked to my professor about it. He told me that it’s ok and that I have nothing to worry about.” Immediately a defensive wall rose fom the ground next to her.

Her mother sighed. She looked up from the report card again. Turning to the computer she saved the document. She had been working on the dissertation – as Riley now recognized – for over half a year now, it was everything and nothing she was concerned about at the same time. Sometimes Riley thought that the dissertation and being the best doctor was more important to her mother than she was.

“It’s ok”, Riley insisted, more talking to herself than her mother.

Her mother rolled her eyes and started typing again. “Go to your room”, she stated monotonous. “You’re such a failure.”

Something tugged on Riley’s heartstrings. “But it’s just a B.” Her voice was smaller than before.

“You’re a failure, go to your room and study. I don’t want to look at you right now.”

“It’s the holidays”, Riley said, her hands starting to shake. She feared her mother starting to shout. She wouldn’t be able to handle it. Just the thought of her raising her voice, made her eyes watery. When her mother wouldn’t respond to her, she took a small step backwards. “Mom…”

Her mother rolled her eyes closing the document. “You’re grounded”, she stated. “I’m going to the library. I need some calm and quiet, you’re just disturbing me.” She passed Riley by and went straight to the door.

That made Riley find her voice again. “It’s just a B!”, she shouted. “Shit, it’s just a B!”, she shouted again, running after her mother. Her mother had already put on her coat and shoes.

“You’re a disappointment”, she said again, emphasizing every single word. “And don’t use swearwords.” With that she let the front door fall shut.

As soon as the sound of the door falling shut filled the room, tears welled up in Riley’s eyes. Grounded. For a B! She stumbled backwards, wiping sweat off her face and tears from the corners of her eyes.

“You’re a failure.”

“I’m not”, she argued against the voice in her head. God, why couldn’t her mother just love her? What was so wrong with her? What would she have to do for her mother to notice her? In a positive way! Her hands shaking, she stumbled back further, before turning around and running up the stairs. The sound of her feet on the stairs was suddenly too loud to bear. She threw herself onto her bed and bit her underlip. “Stop”, she commanded, when she felt the familiar turning of her stomach. “Stop.”

It didn’t stop. Her heart hammered faster, wanting to jump out of her chest. Sitting up, she crossed her arms in front of her chest, ignoring her stomach. 

“You are failure.”

Once. Just once wanted she her parents to be proud of her! Or at least notice her in a positive way! At least once.

She tightened her arms around her chest, trying to hold herself together. “Why?”, she asked out loud, her voice shaking. “What did I do to appear oh so horrible to them? Whatever I do is wrong. It’s just a B!”

Her closet stared back at her. A cold white that blended her and ripped holes into her soul.

“It’s just a B”, she repeated. “It’s a good grade! I studied so much and I’m proud of it. Why can’t you see that?”

The closet continued staring back at her.

“Why can’t you see me?”, she said silently.

Not bearing to be blended by the closet anymore she stood up, went over to her schoolbag and pulled a sharpie from it. She sat down in front of her closet and stared at one of the white edges. Her hands trembling, she took the sharpie and wrote one single word onto the smooth surface.

“Why?”, she whimpered settling back against the closet, closing her eyes. The weight of expectations buried her underneath itself. 

Somehow, she would make them see her. These words had crushed her. Her mother telling her that she was a failure and a disappointment would haunt her for so much longer, she knew that. The words had been burned into her brain.

But trying to gather the courage to keep going, she looked at the word she had writtent. “Phoenix.” She nodded slightly to herself. Like a phoenix she would rise from the flame. She would pull herself out of this.