My hand slips from the door handle. I still can't do it. Every time I pass Travis's room, the urge to go in consumes me, but I haven't been able to go through with it. It feels like as soon as I open this door, the illusion that he could still be on the other side of it will shatter. And as much as I know that reality is isn't true, I'm not ready to go in there. I don't want to see his empty bed, or his clothes on the floor, or all of his things exactly the way he left them before he left us.
But that's a crap excuse. The Militia came through and did a full sweep of his room after he ran, so I'm sure nothing is the way he left it.
So why is it so hard then? Why does it feel impossible?
"Gracie! Breakfast is ready!" Mom calls from the kitchen, saving me from the direction of my thoughts.
They've been taking that turn a little too often lately.
"How's counseling with Coach going? Your next appointment is today, right?" Mom asks as I shovel a spoonful of oatmeal into my mouth with purpose.
I shrug and nod in response, humming the words "good" and "mmhmm."
She laughs. "How is he?"
"How...is Coach?" I ask while swallowing down another bite.
"Yes, how's he doing? I haven't spoken to him in years, aside from a few weeks ago, after our meeting with the principal. We used to be in school together. Did I ever tell you that?" And for whatever reason, Mom looks a little...embarrassed? Flustered?
"Mom?" I ask carefully.
"Why do you ask?"
Her cheeks grow pink. "I was just curious about the man and how he's doing is all. Don't you look at me like that."
I laugh. "You're adorable, Mom."
"Oh, cut it out."
"Really, though. And he asked me about you, too, last week."
Her eyes snap up to mine. "He did?"
And I laugh a little harder. Just like I said. Adorable.
Gripping the straps of my backpack tight, I walk out the front door, down the walkway, through the grass, and to the sidewalk, pausing. I might as well just wait for her today. Either I'm a little self-absorbed, or she's been waiting for me every other day this week.
Her front door opens within seconds of my feet hitting the sidewalk, and it makes me smile.
"You're onto me, aren't you?" Ashlyn asks shyly as she crosses the street.
I laugh. "You could say that."
And we begin walking to school in silence, like we have been all week. Well, mostly. I now know her age –sixteen, her class schedule, that she moved here from directly across the city, on the complete opposite side from here, and that she draws –really well.
"Have you ever watched any movies?" she asks when we're halfway to school, and it surprises me. As few words as we've spoken to each other, this is the first time she's invited conversation from me, on my end of...whatever this is.
"Yeah, we have quite a few at home," I reply.
"Oh, cool! Maybe we could swap a couple, watch something new."
"Anyway, I was watching one last night, and I realized how strange it is to have grown up without any little kids around. It's like...I remember what it was like to be one, of course, and I see them in the movies, running around, laughing, playing, crying. But I've never seen one in real life. There's something eerie and unnatural about that, right?" Her genuine curiosity intrigues me.
She laughs nervously, "Or is it just me?"
I look at her, almost as if in a new light. Like she's peeled back a layer of herself for me to see, and I really like what's there, what she's sharing with me.
"Absolutely," I finally answer.
She smiles, and nods, and we continue in the comfortable bubble of silence that surrounds us as we make our way to school.
And I realize that I like her, and her company.
"Rumor has it Travis did it for the girl, for Maddie. Do you think that's true?" Coach dives right in after winning yet another round of speed. I think he bamboozled me. I'm picking a different game next time.
I take a deep breath. "Of course it's true," I answer.
He raises his eyebrows, waiting for me to go on. We had a 'talk' before our session started today. No more simple answers. I have to answer with reasoning, details...or feelings. What kind of crap is that?
"Yes, I know he did it for her. They love each other. Always have. Even if it was blatantly obvious to everyone but them."
Coach seems pleased enough with that answer. "Tell me more about that," he continues.
"That's not a question," I retort.
He chuckles. "Fine, how do you know they loved each other? Enough for Travis to sacrifice everything for her?"
"Well," I sigh, "with Maddie, it was easy. She'd always ask about him, and I saw the way she looked at him when he wasn't paying attention. She adored him. Even when he was too dumb to see it, and even when he never acted on it. Even when he went out with other girls." And that's how I was sure she loved him.
Travis never knew it, but we sabotaged his dates all the time, purposely showing up at places they were, opening the front door before they could kiss goodnight, little stuff like that. And it was all Maddie's idea, under the guise of messing with the big brother, and of course I was down for it. I lived for being a pain in Travis's ass. It was funny. But I knew why we were really doing it.
It was the nights that I wasn't up for it, or that we had no idea where Travis and his date were going, or especially the nights he came home alone, after dropping a girl back at her place, that solidified it for me. Maddie couldn't hide her broken heart no matter how much she tried. It's a wonder Travis didn't get that sooner.
"What about Travis? How do you know he was in love with Maddie?" Coach asks.
"That sounds like a third question to me," I answer.
"I believe I asked, 'how do you know they were in love with each other?' But nice try."
The room grows quiet when I don't answer. My knee bounces slightly, restlessly. "Umm..." I bite my cheek, fighting back the sudden urge to cry. What the hell, Grace? Suck it up. "I don't know why I'm..." I say through a nervous laugh, wiping away an escaped tear.
"It's fine. You're allowed to have feelings about it, Grace. Talking about your brother will remind you how much you miss him, so it's bound to be difficult, and that's normal too. Just take your time," Coach says.
I clear my throat and take a deep breath, blowing it out quickly. Just get it over with... "That one's harder, I guess. He's always protected her, like he would me, but somewhere along the line I just noticed that his reason kind of shifted, or his attitude toward her shifted, I'm not really sure. Protecting her became more personal for him. It was just different." I shrug.
I'd see him watching her, and I could tell he was waging a war behind his eyes. The should he, shouldn't he. The reasons he should make a move on her, and all the reasons he shouldn't. I wish he would have talked to me about those things.
But I wish he would have talked to me about a lot of things...
Gah! Grace's take on Travis and Maddie breaks our damn hearts sometimes! *insert cry face emoji*
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Breeder NationScience Fiction
Living in a world where the human race is dying off faster than it can reproduce, sixteen year old Maddie Ryan has started her period, an almost guaranteed sign of fertility. Knowing it's only a matter of time before the government finds out and for...