She rose with the dawn and showered first, scrambling eggs and shuffling Sarah up and out of bed. Lena always walked with her to school in the mornings.
Some of the parents thought she couldn't take proper care of Sarah even though Lena made sure she was always there at eight in the morning, hair brushed, teeth brushed, clothes clean and sometimes even ironed neatly. Several times the calculus class let out late and Lena would rush across the city, only to find the teacher waiting armed with a concerned parent or two, arms crossed, cross as could be.
She would always apologize, deflate, and lead Sarah home, another nail in the coffin of her credibility, her ability to 'parent'.
Lena went through the motions of school and work, barely able to concentrate she was so tired. And so hungry. Her scholarship didn't cover a meal plan, so it was cheap peanut butter on nearly moldy half-priced bread. Only using one slice because it needed to stretch two weeks.
No one noticed her in class scribbling notes furiously down. She was invisible. She had no time to hang out with friends or go drinking with classmates, not with a child to take care of. Her professors praised her work in private when she went to them for extra help, but she didn't show off in class. She didn't have the energy to.
Today, thank god, the class ended early and she was on time. She rode the bus, getting off at the block before the school. Dinner would be leftover soup, despite Sarah's complaints, so she could study for her Physics final the next day and put the finishing touches on her undergraduate thesis.
Together they boarded the bus; Sarah as usual wanted to tug on the wire to signal the stop, even though she was a little too short to reach it properly. And after dinner, Sarah vegged out on the computer, her homework done while Lena sat on the floor, heaps and stacks of books around her, reviewing, revising, rereading.
"I'm going to Bridget's house," announced Sarah. Bridget was the daughter of their next door neighbor, a single mother that sometimes brought over food and traded recipes with Lena. Sometimes Lena could hear Bridget and Sarah squealing over their celebrity crushes next door, or hear the faint pounding of Radio Disney vibrating through the walls.
Lena was relieved. She'd already asked her professors ahead of time for an extension on her thesis just in case. Her new part time job would start the day after. They would make rent without having to sell anything else. She'd already finished the cad drafts of her engineering design, and was just writing the final touches on her thesis. In a week, she would be graduating. She could get a full time job. She could get an apartment with an actual lease, not being shifted from sublease to sublease. Or...she could save up for a house.
Lena smiled. A house in the suburbs, in a safe neighborhood would be a huge blessing. Sarah could go to a good public school instead of the expensive private school she was in currently. Lena had been granted a full ride to community college in the city, and though it wasn't the prestigious Ivy she'd originally been enrolled in, after the house was sold there had been no money and she hadn't been about to take over two-hundred grand in loans out.
Refocusing on her work, she decided to move on to physics. She had just wrinkled her nose and scratched out her incomplete answer to problem three when she heard it.
Screaming. From next door, from Bridget's apartment.
Her blood ran cold.
Oh no. Oh no no no no.
She was paralyzed. She couldn't move.
Why didn't I just cave in and buy insurance? Get a loan? I can't afford a trip to the ER. Oh god!
She finally made herself move, and just as she started, the doorway burst open.
Bridget and Sarah ran in, screaming, holding a landline phone. Lena did a quick visual check, no blood, no bruises, no broken bones or missing limbs and breathed a sigh of relief.
"Answer it!" begged Sarah.
"Who is it?" asked Lena, confused, and slightly annoyed. Sarah didn't answer, just thrust the phone against her ear.
"H-hello?" Her voice trembled awkwardly. Lena wasn't used to talking on the phone much, it made her uncomfortable. Disembodied voices. She shivered.
"Hi, this is DJ Rox from Radio Disney. Are you Sarah Brenner's mother?"
"Sister," she said coldly, then re-evaluating her answer, added "Her legal guardian."
The DJ didn't miss a beat.
"We just were taking calls for a contest where you guess the number between one and one-hundred, and Sarah won. The winner gets an all-paid, abroad trip during the summer to visit the boyband One Direction, including two weeks stay in a five star hotel and all living expenses paid for. Plus you'll get every album they've ever recorded, autographed by every member, and an autographed poster of each member." The DJ paused.
"It's a huge opportunity," he added, as though he could sense her reluctance over the phone.
Lena shot a death glare at Sarah, who at least had the sense to look guilty.
"I don't know sir, I'm about to finish up my undergraduate degree and go job hunting," said Lena, slowly.
"Of course, since Sarah is ten, if you as her legal guardian can't come with her, then we'll have to redraw the offer..."
Lena looked at Sarah and Bridget, dancing up and down, pleading with their eyes. She thought of cold soup and pinching pennies and crying in the bathroom while Sarah slept. It had been three years since she'd had a real vacation. Since they'd had a real vacation, as a family. Then again she had never felt like it had been much of a family even when they had been alive.
"Oh, alright," grumbled Lena good-naturedly, unable to keep a grin off her face.
Sarah shrieked with Bridget, splitting Lena's head nearly in too.
"She's excited?" chuckled the radio host.
"You think?" said Lena dryly. "My little sister's only been gushing about Louis Tomlinson..oh, since forever."
"Excellent. Just give me your contact details so I can send you the information on how to claim your prize...."
"How do I know this isn't a scam?" asked Lena suspiciously.
"If it is, you can sue me and Disney for all we're worth," promised the DJ.
So, as Bridget and Sarah whooped and hollered, Lena complied. Sarah was too excited to sleep that night.
"Hey, Lenny lenny Leeehnah?" she asked, twisting back and forth under the comforter.
"How come you never got a boyfriend after Charlie?" Lena had dated Charlie, and broken up with him after the thing had happened because their flimsy foundation had cracked under the weight of so much pain and expectations for what might have been.
"I told you, sweets. I don't have time for a boyfriend and time to take care of you too."
Sarah paused, absorbing it.
"You know, you act like an old lady sometimes. Maybe you are an old lady. Maybe tomorrow you'll have a wrinkle or a gray hair."
"Thanks, Silly Sarah. Now try to get some sleep."