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Since you guys are so awesome, I'm also giving you the first chapter... RIGHT NOW. Read on! Then preorder :)
“Asher! Please, get in the car!” This kid was seriously going to be the death of me. I knew that scheduling my classes earlier in the day would be a problem, but Western college didn’t offer the classes I needed to take after four.
“I’m not going!” His whiney voice carried from the living room, which was just a step inside the townhouse. I was just about to get into my car and start our day, but his temper tantrum brought me back inside. I slammed the car door shut and double checked the time on my wrist. We were already five minutes late. But I guess it wasn’t as bad, since people expected this of me. I shouldn’t have cared what the general population thought. But I still did.
I stormed into the house. I’d never seen my feet move so fast this early in the morning—especially after such a laid back summer of going into work at ten and getting home by five. There were two short cement steps up to my home, and I grabbed onto the black wrought iron railing to catapult myself through the front door.
I found Asher sitting on the small love seat. His face was streaked with crocodile tears. He looked up at my loud entrance with wide eyes and a trembling lower lip. His eyes were red and blotchy. I couldn’t stand seeing him this upset. His tears were my weakness. The fact that we were late didn’t matter anymore. I just had to make him feel better.
“What’s wrong, baby?”
“I don’t want to go to school anymore,” he said between ragged, sobbing breaths. I walked over to his side and sat next to him. I wrapped my arms around his skinny body and pulled him towards me. He was reluctant to accept my comfort, but when his arms circled me, I let out a sigh of relief.
I let him rest his head on my chest as I brushed his overgrown brown hair off his forehead. He soaked my tee with his tears, but it hardly phased me.
“Why not? You love school,” I said as his breathing started to even out.
“Because you can’t come, too.”
I didn’t know what to say. We had spent the entire summer together, every day and night playing in the sun and going on adventures. I even brought him to work with me most days. But it was September now, and we both had responsibilities other than each other. I had to admit to myself, I was attached just as much as he was.
“Buddy, I have to go to school, too. Trust me, I’d rather hang out with you all day, but summer’s over. Back to school time.” I laced my words with conviction.
He looked up at me through his long, dark lashes and pouted, sticking his cute ruby bottom lip out and up. I had to hold back a smile so he didn’t get upset.
“Come on.” I hopped up off the couch and reached down, grabbing his hands and tugging. He let me lift him up, although he let out a frustrated groan that I couldn’t help but laugh at this time. He glared at me so I turned away. I started to walk us to the front door, his stomping steps behind me. Victory at last. Maybe all the self-help books I had been reading were finally paying off.
I locked the chipped yellow door behind us and watched Asher run and jump into my brand new Honda Accord. Well, it was new to me, but I had bought it used about a week ago. It had 130,000 miles, but the dealer had promised that it was in tip top shape. Luckily, the dealer was a friend of my dad’s so I got a good deal, and despite the cutthroat nature of him, I trusted him on the car details.
I got into the car and started the ignition. As I pulled out of the complex’s driveway, I caught Asher’s face in the rearview mirror. He was no longer crying, but his face was pinched, his breaths short and through his nose, almost like he was snorting.
“What do I have to do to cut that crazy hair of yours?” I asked him, noticing that his long bangs were now bothering him. Although he would never, ever admit that he wanted it cut, I knew that he had to be annoyed with the way the strands tickled his eyes and nose.
He loved the shaggy-dog look that most athletes bore. All summer long I tried to get his hair cut, but he refused, claiming that all the cool hockey players in professional leagues let it hang. But as I glanced at him in the mirror, I caught him blow the hair out of his eyes and tuck it back behind his ears.
“I like it long,” he muttered as he turned to look out the window, squeezing his bottom lip between his pointer and thumb. His eyebrows pinched together in the cutest way, but I felt sorry for him. “But, I might do it for a special hockey stick.”
I smiled at his guts, but at the same time, my stomach rolled. My mouth felt like cotton balls were stuffed inside. My skin prickled. I knew what stick he had been wishing for—he showed me in every damn magazine and had a picture on the refrigerator door. My budget didn’t allot for that kind of purchase.
Yet, as I looked back again in the mirror when I stopped at a red light, his green eyes captured me as he leaned forward, and I couldn’t say a thing. I’d do anything for this kid—including spending my entire paycheck. Maybe I could dip into my parents’ money if I got really behind.
“Deal,” I said, nodding. I reached my hand backwards between the passenger and driver seat. He grabbed onto it with a sly grin and shook it, sealing our little deal.
“Can we go today?” His voice perked up like it was infused with positive energy, and I knew that his day was already looking up. And I did that. I felt stronger as my lungs expanded with a satisfied breath.
“No. Tomorrow we can. Lisa is stopping by to watch you until I get out of school.”
“Dang-it!” he yelled. He crossed his arms over his chest, his thumb snaking its way towards his mouth. His eyes drooped a little.
“Ash,” I whispered, not wanting to start another fight. But I had been trying to break him of his thumb-sucking habit forever. I tried the lemon juice, wrapping it with an ace bandage at night, even gloves. But nothing worked.
Two months ago, I decided that we needed to see a therapist—both of us. Doctor Cohen told me to let him cope in his own way. She said that if thumb sucking was his biggest vice, then I was doing okay. So I dropped the subject despite the fact that some people—my grandmother Margo—rode my ass about Asher and his negative habits.
“I’ll be home to tuck you in, promise,” I told him as I pulled down the dead end street to his school. Woodbury Elementary was a beautiful school, set back in the rural woods and endless dirt driveways. I went there when I was a child, and I knew that Ash was in good hands when I dropped him off every day.
It wasn’t the teachers who I worried about. I knew the kids in this area were entitled little assholes, but I agreed with Dr. Cohen when she said not to uproot him more. I rented the townhouse last year so Ash didn’t have to switch schools right in the middle of his elementary school career. I knew that it was better for him, but I just wanted to find a new place that would accept me more. Living in refurbished old mansion-turned-apartments wasn’t my idea of living the life.
I parked my car in the southern lot, since I had a meeting with the guidance counselor. Asher didn’t have any problems with school. He was a smart kid, didn’t get into trouble, and was a joy to have in class. He was only nine, but I swore he acted older. Maybe our parents’ death aged him, but he was like his before, so I didn’t believe that much. But the counselor wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing, and Dr. Cohen told me to meet with her just to check in regularly.
Asher jumped out of the car with his Guardians of the Galaxy backpack slung over one shoulder. I stepped out into the strangely warm air and reached over my seat into the passenger side to grab my purse.
“Are you coming?” Asher asked as he stopped before the road and waited for me. He rubbed his forearms and adjusted the backpack so it was perfectly even on both shoulders.
“I have to talk to one of your teachers.”
“Am I in trouble?”
“Of course not,” I said as I grabbed his hand. We walked across the street together. Two lines of stopped buses had their lights on and blinking as they let kids off. All the other children were so excited to get to school. I recognized one of Asher’s best friends get off bus 14, but he didn’t even look our way.
“Isn’t that Logan?”
“Yeah!” Asher giggled, bouncing from foot to foot, but he made no move to go see Logan. I looked down at him with narrowed eyes but let it go. He clutched my hand as I held open the front door for him. A security guard posted at the front stopped me when I entered.
“I have to go sign in. Have a great day, Ash.” I bent down so our eyes were level and grabbed both of his shoulders. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” He kissed me on the cheek, hugged me so tight I groaned, and then disappeared into the crowd of students all bustling through the stark white halls. My stomach twisted with worry, but I couldn’t dwell on it. Ash was going to be fine.
I’d never felt this awful before, but already, I missed him. I let out a heavy sigh as I tried to mentally shake it off. I clutched the hem of my tee-shirt and cleared my throat as I bent down at the guard’s desk. I signed my name, flashed my driver’s license to the gray-haired man, and then walked towards the office, which was just the next door down.
I hadn’t been in the school in a couple months, but already it felt different. The way the too short ceilings seemed to press down on me. The sparkly tiled floors were almost too buffed and shined; it agitated me. I pictured myself on ice, slipping and falling all over the place.
“Maggie Larken?” a woman asked as I stepped into the office. She eyed me up and down skeptically, as if questioning my age. I’d seen the woman around before—I think she was even working here when I went to school. Her white hair was coiffed up and to the side, her eyeglasses dangerously low on the brim of her nose. They were probably only being held up since her chin was jutting out, her nose turned up to me.
“Yeah. I’m here to see Mrs. Kellar.” I stopped in front of the large desk that ended right at my shoulders. The office smelled acidic, kind of like Lysol cleaner. I looked around and it was clear that the place hadn’t been updated in decades. Its blue carpets had brown colored stains in wide ringlets. The painfully white walls were barren and uninviting, which was dumb since this was the main office. They should want people to be welcomed.
“Miss Larken, just through that door.” I nodded and walked past the desk to a door that read Counseling Center. I peeked in first, not wanting to interrupt, and when I saw a single woman at a desk, I walked in.
“Hi, Maggie!” The woman jumped up from her seat and held her hand out to me. “I feel like I already know you through our emails.” She laughed, and I got the feeling that it was genuine.
“It’s great to finally meet you,” I said as I sat in a blue chair across from her desk. The chair matched the carpet, both in color and stains.
“I’ll just get right to the point since I know you’re a busy woman. From what you’ve told me, I don’t see there being any issues, but I just wanted to check in.” She folded her hands over each other on her light wood desk and leaned towards me. She had nice eyes—plain brown, but wide and curious. Her hair was a dirty blonde, styled in waves that fell to about her shoulders.
“I appreciate it,” I told her honestly, making solid eye contact. “He didn’t want to come today. But he seemed fine when I left him. I don’t think he needs any special help, but I just feel like as long as you know about our parents passing and the fact that I have custody of him, the more eyes the better in case something were to happen.”
“I think that’s very wise of you and proactive.”
“Thanks.” I blushed because it was rare that I heard words of encouragement and positivity about my situation. Most of the time it was my grandmother breathing down my neck, trying to steal Asher from me.
“I’ll stop by his classroom later today. I won’t say anything, just observe.”
“Thank you so much. I really do appreciate it. Like I said, he was fine over the summer, but his therapist suggested I take an extra step and notify you. He hasn’t exhibited any depression or anxiety since early May.” I paused and then remembered, “Other than the thumb sucking.”
“That’s very common though. Some children who haven’t even gone through the death of someone, let alone losing both parents, suck their thumbs. Like I said, I’ll keep an eye on your brother for you.” She stood from behind her desk, and I took that as my dismissal.
“Thanks for everything,” I told her as I took her hand in goodbye.
“He’s going to be okay.”
“I hope so.”