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Pen Your Pride

We eat breakfast in silence  the next morning. Dad came in late, after I had already fallen asleep the second time around. If Mom told him about the strike, he isn't saying anything about it. When I've finished my oatmeal, I wash up the dishes, putting them in the rack to dry.

"It's 6:25," Mom calls from the living room.

It's the first thing she has said to me since my scolding.

"Coming," I reply, going to my room and collecting my bag before meeting her in the living room.

"Got everything you need?" she asks, straightening up the button-down uniform shirt I wear.

"It's all in my bag."

"And you got enough rest?"

"Probably too much."

"Full enough?" She pats my stomach, smiling at the hollow sound it makes.

"Yes, Mom."

"You're going to do great today, Quinn. You got this."

"I'm not-"

"Don't be nervous, honey. Everything will go smoothly. Take deep breaths; take your time."

"Seriously, Mom, I'm-"

"I know, it's a very important test, but you've worked hard. It will be okay."

"Mom," I say, grabbing the hands that are picking through the messy curls of my hair. She looks up at me, wide-eyed. "I'm not nervous. I'm fine. Stop worrying."

Telling her to stop worrying, though, is like telling a fish to stop swimming or a bird to stop flying. She takes a deep breath, and a smile reappears on her face. We stare at each other for a moment, until Dad comes in, patting me roughly on the back. He's a man of few words. I didn't expect a speech from him.

The sound of a doorbell makes us all look up.

"That's Alexis, I'm sure," Mom says, waddling off to answer the door.

Sure enough, she returns with Lexi, who seems to have brushed her hair this morning. Her normally wrinkled uniform has been ironed and is buttoned all the way up today. She only smiles a little, biting the inside of her cheek.

"How are you feeling, Mrs. Austin?" she asks. Normally she refers to my Mom as Cathy, like everyone else. Something must really be wrong this morning.

"Oh, you know, fat mostly."

Mom chuckles, giving me a gentle shove towards the door.

"You two had better be going. You don't want to be late."

I nod, giving her a kiss on the cheek before stepping out of the door. Lexi follows, lacking that spring in her step that she normally has. I have expected her to tease me about the kiss.

"Good luck you two," Dad finally says, waving at us from behind Mom. We nod together, heading down the steps and into the soft sand. Her little sister Riley is waiting for us there, her uniform in its normal state of disarray. One shirt sleeve is rolled up; the other is falling down already. Her messy red curls are pulled up into a ponytail, and there's dirt on her nose.

"Come here," I mutter, grabbing the ten year old by the arm. She doesn't argue when I lick my thumb and rub at the spot on her skin.

"Thanks, Mom," she says, stumbling away from me. She glances over at Lexi, like she expects a reaction, but the older redhead is staring off towards the working district, eyes unfocused.

"You okay, A?" I ask, touching her elbow. The act startles her, and she jumps half a foot in the air.

"What?"

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