“We cannot afford to have you spend another semester here.”
Those words echoed. I was sitting at an empty table looking out the window and staring at the far end of the campus grounds, where the sidewalk met the road asphalt. Students were in the midst of moving to the first class of the winter session and wearing as many layers of clothing to keep the freezing at bay. It was around two in the afternoon, and unlike them, my whole schedule had been wiped clean.
I went outside and breathed in the smell of questionable green grass in winter. These went along with artificial smells of flowers that were created in some lab and when I walked toward the end of the street, even the smell of synthetic meat invaded my nose from a food stall nearby. It’s all fake. Still, I bought myself a piece of that fake meat in the shape of a hot-dog for just a few bucks. One bite in and it tasted great. The meaty bits had reached a level impossible to discern from the real thing. I needed anything to keep my mind off from knowing full well that I wasn’t going to come back to this academic institution. I walked to the bus that had just arrived and took one more look at the campus. There were a few students rushing to class. The main campus center where I remembered having my picture taken for my I.D. Then the Bax building where I attended my first classes.
I got inside the bus. The campus was moving farther away with each passing moment. I sat by the window and let my eyes wonder on everyone inside. There were no students from my university. On the next stop, one homeless man with a graying beard was let inside to sell newspapers. The stop after that picked up two high school freshmen that were skipping classes by the guilt that seemed to have built in their eyes. They looked around the same way a criminal in the making would look like before deciding to steal something. It was a funny sight to say the least. I might have had a slight grin on my face.
“Fifty scents,” said the homeless man. He shoved today’s newspaper on my chest. It was the university newspaper to be exact, since it was decided that printing on paper again would serve for nostalgia in part where technology had long ago taken its place. I took out a dollar and gave it to the homeless man.
“You can keep the change,” I told him. The man smiled and continued selling his papers, though technically they were free to students.
The article talks about some strange findings and an interview with one of the scientist leading the study. A Section of the beach, as I remembered, was closed down. Not like anyone would want to go while its cold out. Below that was a mention on an increase on filed missing person’s reports.
The bus reached my stop. It was nearing three o’clock and instead of going home, I sat and waited on the steps of someone’s house. A good ten or so minutes later and the bus came, not like the normal Cepta bus I rode in, but the yellow school bus. The doors slide open. A group of kids made their way out and one in particular made their way to me. Rosy pink cheeks made from the cold and small uniformed tucked under a few layers of winter clothing. This little one was my sister, Kylie. Her light brown eyes were glued on me.
“How was your first day at school?” I asked. We walked home while turning a corner hand-in-hand.
“It was okay,” she said with a smile on her face. “I got miss Malia as my teacher again.”
“How about your friends?”
“Yeah! Susan and Evalyn are in my class again, too!” she yelled in excitement. “Hey, Aoi?”
“Can I start walking home by myself now?”
That again? This was the second time she has brought the up. Nothing wrong with it when I take into account that our house is only a few blocks away.
“Pleaasee,” she begged. I couldn’t tell her that having heard that pains me a little as her older brother.
“Okay,” I gave in, “but only a few times a week. Deal?”
Her face sparkled and joy oozed out of her mouth as she cheered, though a part of her forgets that she’ll have more chores, too, as she gets steadily older.
We arrived home to a furniture scarce living room. One sofa and a television. The hallway leads to the kitchen and the doors to the sides were my room and hers, also the bathroom. It was a simple one floor house with a tiny basement. We sat together on the kitchen table and started with some math problems. Then moved to science now that the curriculum had changed to accommodate a higher need for science. I left the last parts to herself and made dinner with time to spare before I had to leave off to work.
“I’m going now,” I said. My little sister walked to the door with me.
“Buy milk and eggs,” she demanded. “And bread, and fruits, and–”
“Alright, alright,” I cut in. She hugged and waved me goodbye.
* * *
At work I was lucky that it didn’t require previous experience at first. Meaning I could start with training and received decent pay almost immediately. My boss greeted me as he was speaking to a customer. He as a man in his forties, a bit of a beer belly with more than subtle crow’s feet showing his age. I walked past the two and headed to the back where the smell changed from cardboard and moped floors, to one with concrete, oils, and sweat. I began work. All I had to do was operate the forklift and move things around. Other times I had to arrange things and take inventory. Easy.
I did this for the next few hours and finished by ten with the sun long gone and headed straight for the bus home. The trip home took no more than twenty minutes, faster than usual because there would be less people being picked up. Once home I realized I had forgotten something. Milk and eggs. I sighed. I’ll need to buy that tomorrow.
Once inside I turned on the lights and saw the TV was on airing a cartoon show on monsters that could be caught and tamed. Kylie had tucked herself with her bed sheet on the sofa. I picked her up and made off to her room where I had her rest on her bed.
The next morning, I woke to the smell of coffee and eggs. I looked to the side of my bed and on the night stand. It was eight, it would be twenty minutes before my morning class would start and the shock lifted me off my bed. I ran to grab my books and stopped.
“That’s right,” I didn’t have classes anymore.
I headed for the kitchen where I was met with my kid sister who wore an apron over her school uniform. She had readied a plate for me on the table along with a cup of hot coffee. She always managed to wake up before I ever could, even with an alarm. She gave this concerned look as I took a bite.
“They taste fine,” I said.
“It’s not that,” she said and removed her apron. “Those were the last eggs. You forgot to buy some!”
“Ah, sorry… I did forget.” We ate together.
“I thought you had class today,” she said.
“I decided not to. Now I’ll have more time to make money this way.”
“You don’t seem happy about it.”
I stopped midway in taking another bite and saw her eyes fixed on me.
“Who would? That forklift is a pain to drive, especially in tight areas. I’ll be siting all day so it doesn’t do much for my health, you know?” I gave her a smile.
“… Okay.” Kylie got her back pack ready and signaled me to hurry up. “Take me to the bus stop.”
We waited at the bus stop with other kids, a few of which waited with their parents, more than usual for some reason. I saw Kylie’s eyes that wandered around then looked to me. Those light brown eyes of hers.
“Today,” she reminded me of yesterday’s conversation. “Okay?”
I was still reluctant, but I could always watch her from a distance to start off as a trial run. That might seem a little over-protective, but she’s the only family I have. That’s an option. I waved her goodbye once the bus arrived.
“I’ll see you home then.”
Back home I used the new time I had to search job listings on the internet. I could always ask my boss to give me more hours, either way I will be earning more income. Selling my books would also net in a hefty sum. After hours of searching nothing but one listing came up that looked favorable. It was close and they had an opening for forklift operator. The pay was dollar greater than my old job, even more with people who had experience.
I made a phone call to the company and they agreed to meet with me the same day. It was a ten-minute ride on the bus, and it was half past one. I met with my potential employer, an old man with wrinkled face and hair passed the graying phase and now a pure white.
“You meet every requirement,” he said while he looked through my papers, “and then some.”
“But it seems you already have a job elsewhere,” he commented.
“Truthfully,” I said, “a job here will make the commute home that much sooner, and will make things easier at home.”
“Ah,” he said. “A family man? Even better. You can start in a week. That’s enough time to give your boss at your current job enough time. How does that sound?”
“Yes! Thank you.”
I think I might have been brimming with joy on my way out. I had a smile I was not aware of until I saw my own reflection. But that smile died down as I remembered how I got to this point. It’s always about money. There was more than enough daylight that I could take Kylie to the park if she wanted. She wouldn’t get out for another half hour so I could also go buy some very needed groceries.
* * *
The school bus doors opened. I got out and waved to my friends as they remained on the bus for the next stop. When I looked at the bench he’d usually be waiting for me on, it was empty. As promised, my brother wasn’t there. I looked around just to be sure he wasn’t hiding somewhere and confirmed that he wasn’t around.
The walk home didn’t take long. Kids from my school were either walking home or the playground. Ah~ maybe I can have him take me to the park. When I finally got home, the door was locked. I was about to knock as I remembered I had a spare key for this situation, though it never saw any use since Aoi was always the one to unlock it.
The lights were out.
“Aoi?” I called out. There was no answer. I turned on the living room lights and went to check his room only to see it was empty. I knocked on the bathroom, no answer. I saw the clock and it was a quarter past three. I started on my homework on the kitchen table. At six o’clock I went to take a shower. I got dressed and went to check the fridge to see it was empty except for a plastic wrapped week old sandwich and half gallon of milk we had left. We also had cereal but with one small serving we could split in two for breakfast tomorrow. I stayed up watching cartoons until my eye lids too heavy and myself too tired.
When I woke it was already morning. I yawned and looked around the sofa. The TV still on and playing the news about the weather. I turned it off. I washed my face and brushed my teeth. Then in the kitchen I placed two bowls with cereal and added milk. It was almost eight in the morning.
I ate my cereal and waited for my brother to come out of his room, but nothing. He didn’t come out when I finished. I checked his room and found he wasn’t there.
“Aoi?” I called for him, and hoped he was around the house since he still needed to take me to the bus stop. There was also his portion of cereal left. I looked at the cereal flakes while they had become soggy. Aoi wasn’t going to eat it if he wasn’t here. For that, I ate his portion. “Gah! There’s no crunch!”
I walked alone to the school bus. Some kids were walking on the block with their parents. Others without them walked in groups. Once the bus came, I met with my friends from yesterday inside. Evalyn and Susan.
“Kai!” yelled Evalyn. I sat right next to her. Susan had her eyes locked on her phone. “Did you do your science homework?”
“Yeah, why?” I asked.
“Can I see it?” she begged.
“Hmm… did you do the language homework?” I asked in return.
“I’ll trade you.”
* * *
When school was over we made a line to the bus. Susan’s parents came by to pick her up by car and I left with Evalyn on the bus shortly after. Every stop saw a few kids get off until we reached my stop. I saw out the window that in the groups of people who waited, my brother wasn’t one of them.
“Is your brother letting you walk home by yourself again?”
“Guess so,” I waved at Evalyn. “See ya.”
I walked to my house and stood outside. When I reached for the door it wasn’t locked.
“Aoi!” I yelled in excitement, but was quick to lose it when I realized I had forgotten to lock the door when I left this morning. I was never the one to lock it. The lights were out, no one home, and everything was as I left it.
A few hours were spent going through Math and Science and at six I started looking inside the fridge for something to eat, but there was only that sandwich that Aoi was supposed to eat a few days ago. I checked the sandwich and it smelled a little funny so I put it back. In the living room I turned on the TV and laid back on the sofa.
Three more hours were spent as I browsed through a hundred channels, each time I found nothing interesting that could have tethered me to keep watch for more than a few minutes. It was already nine o’clock. My body was telling me it was past my bed time, but something was keeping me awake. I got up from the couch and headed for the door. Outside was an empty street lit by nothing but the lampposts on every corner. I stood there waiting for five minutes, then ten. There was no sign of anyone coming. I locked the door and went straight for the kitchen.
That cold sandwich was there staring back at me. I opened the wrapper on dinner table and took bite into it, and it tasted a strange. Just a little, but definitely noticeable. I didn’t get anything drink with it, but I felt something wet and salty mix in the sandwich. I put it down and found that my own tears were falling.
I sat the rest of the night there… waiting.
I – Next Chapter >>
Author’s Note: This is an update to the original. Last updated 01/15/2016 —