Chamomile

Katya Volkova holds a mug of steaming chamomile tea in her hands, and she has never felt lonelier in her life. Her world is spinning around her, with people buzzing as they chase their dreams, head to college, find happiness, and leave her in the dust. And the kicker? She's not sure if she should even try to catch up to them. After all, it's easier to let go. But Viktor Lelikov, the person who insists on giving her the chamomile tea, isn't ready to let her do that. Katya doesn't even know what he wants from her. "Chamomile kickstarts the healing process if you believe in it."

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1. Opening Day

Будь что будет.

Be what it will be.

I don't know who thought it would be a good idea to entrust a (somewhat) clueless freshman's social life in my hands. 

I'm that kind of person who never knows how to hold anything properly—I always grip too tightly or juggle too gingerly. With regards to the actual freshman, I don't know which attitude to give: my honest-as-fuck upperclassman persona or my nurturing, supportive senior vibe. I decide to go with the former.

"Should I be honest with you?" I say to the kid, who shrugs and adjusts his tie. 

It's no biggie. We haven't spoken to each other in four minutes. That has to be a record since I usually like to maintain a steady flow of conversation to avoid the awkwardness. 

I appraise him. I think he'll be well-off here; he seems to be part of the popular crowd, if there's even one in the freshman class, with his swept-back dark hair and rolled up sleeves. There's something about his smile that he sends to his friends around him. This certainly makes my job a lot easier – I don't have to worry about introducing him to people or anything since he seems to have that covered.

"Coming here will probably be the worst decision you've ever made in your life."

"Wait, really?" he responds, turning away from his friends. "You really can't mean that."

I shrug. "Tell that to my AP homework."

"You didn't have to choose to take AP classes," he points out, shrugging right back at me. He brushes his hair to the side in that way.

It's not that he's said anything wrong. It's just that his choice of words bites at me, the way everyone else looks at me whenever I say a single negative thing about my classwork. I really do have to get used to it, especially if I'm going to survive this senior year. But it doesn't feel right to deny the feeling.

I choose my words carefully. "There's not really a choice," I say, watching him. He's not paying full attention to me. Like a nervous tic, his fingers twitch as they rest over his pocket, where his phone must be.

Freshmen are infuriating sometimes with their obliviousness and charm. It comes with being new and completely unaware of the hell the next four years can turn out to be.

I really do hope that I'm not that boring or grumpy today. In the silence that has settled between us, my face has returned to its resting position. I've been told that, no matter what I do, I look like a devil possessed when I'm not in a good mood.

My mentee returns his eyes to me, remnants of his smile for the picture still on his face. I remember the days when I was once that carefree and happy overall, and a pang of nostalgia hits me. I shake it off quickly enough because he says, "Isn't that one of the reasons Excelsior is special? Because we have more courses than other schools?"

I want to tell him exactly what I think: that every single thing that this school's administration has ever spit out during the freshmen's application process is a PR trick. But I know my limits. Besides, I don't want to sound too pessimistic just yet. After all, the school year has only begun.

"To a certain point." I glance at the clock behind his head. Five more minutes until I can go back to my English Lit class—not that I'm excited. "It doesn't concern you for now; wait a couple of years."

"Okay." He shrugs once again, and then we fall back into our awkward silence. 

After I've grown tired of overanalyzing the creases in my palms, I look back up at my mentee. It's now that I've realized that I don't even remember his name, which has to be a problem. (I'm charged with bringing him to numerous senior-freshman social gatherings mandated by the school throughout the school year.) He's been watching me the entire time, and I don't know how that is supposed to make me feel.

Respected, perhaps. Put on the spot, definitely. Inadequate, abso-fucking-lutely.

"Any more questions?" I offer once the clock ticks one more time. We have two minutes left together.

He raises an eyebrow at me. "Um, do we have to, like, stick together for the entire school year?"

"Unfortunately so. I'm sorry you didn't get assigned a more enthusiastic senior who will tell you about the wonders of this school." I watch his expression—which doesn't change. "And hey, what's your name again?"

He's fiddling with his phone now, for which I don't blame him. "Tyler."

I nod. "Cool."

Around us, everyone is standing up, bags rustling. I pick up my U.S. Gov textbook and glance at Tyler. He's standing up now, and I realize that he actually towers over me. We make eye contact for one second, and he offers me a little smile.

"Thanks, I guess."

That's one thing that I don't deserve—from him or anyone. 

"See you around," I respond and head toward the other way out of the cafeteria, where the rest of the seniors are streaming out.

A little voice in the back of my head nags at me: it's too bad that the only thing that I've looked forward to this week has ended.

Really, it's pathetic that I've fucked up the one thing that I thought I would enjoy this week. The feeling of humanity in close quarters—the overzealously used elbows, the body heat, the pressure all around me—only serves to reinforce my feelings of insignificance.

Thus, my day begins.

The seniors around me are already speaking of homecoming, and it bothers me. In the cafeteria, there's a bustling and rumbling of conversation that's too familiar to me. The voices that surrounded me in freshman year are now deeper and supposedly more mature. By my side sits Greta.

It's very familiar, all of this.

Greta is, once again, unwinding her braid to redo it. In the summer-like light of the afternoon, her hair glints gold. I still have no clue why the type of braid on her head matters, even after eating lunch with her for three years now. 

Despite the sound around me, I can feel nothing but silence around me. There's nothing meaningful in the chatter, and it's not like I can count on Greta to supply it to me. She's my lunch buddy, as she would say while we take almost meaningless pictures together to post on social media, and really, nothing else. 

It's like I can predict exactly what will happen next with this school year.

It's like me to get introspective over a particularly good club sandwich. I shrug it off and glance at Greta again. She's finished her braid, and she's now picking at her pasta with a raised eyebrow. It doesn't really seem like she's up for any conversation, but I try anyway.

"How were your classes?" I say. I take one slice of bread off my sandwich and inspect it. My attempts at nonchalance get worse each year.

She makes a noncommittal sound. "Okay, I guess. I got Kauffman for AP Lit; I'm gonna have a hell of a year in that damn class."

I guess I'm supposed to fake sympathy, so I nod and scrunch my eyebrows together, still staring at my sandwich. "Sorry, I guess. I got Holman, so I don't think I'll be too screwed."

Greta doesn't respond.

It's really all right. I never asked her to be concerned about my life.

Idle conversation has never been my forte, and it isn't now. Instead, I drift off into a haze. I don't know anything anymore, really, aside from my sandwich – which is perfectly fine with me. Socializing with people? Completely overrated.

Besides, my AP Gov homework has never seemed more interesting.

Twenty minutes later, after saturating my ears with silence and absolute boredom, I stand up, holding my lunch tray in my hands. Greta barely looks up, blue eyes flat. (That's how I must look all the time.) "You going already?"

I shrug. I can say that I'm bored of her, but I was brought up better than that. "I have to finish up some stuff with my counselor."

It's a lie. My meeting with my counselor starts in the middle of next period, so I have nothing to do not only during the lunch period but also for half of next period.

"Okay, sure. Have fun." Greta stares back down at her phone in her hand, scrolling down her feed.

I really don't know anymore.

I walk away from Greta and her obliviousness, gingerly balancing my lunch tray in my hands. (My school has a thing about using actual ceramic bowls and plates and fancy silverware, which puts me a little on edge. I'm not very coordinated.) As I weave my way through the lunchroom, carefully dodging other people's chairs, I glance up at the clock.

Half an hour to waste—I really do make the best decisions in life.

As I pass by the lunch line, where more people are standing in a line, my eyes can't help but linger. And it's ridiculous of me, really—absolutely presumptuous—but I glance away, feeling the familiar rush of heat in my cheeks. It seems a little more difficult than usual for me to place my lunch tray and assorted utensils in the cleaning booth, where they take all the used trays and whatever to be washed. It's awful of me.

It's hard for me to admit it to myself, but the thought is all but branded in my brain. Maybe it wouldn't be too bad of a thing if he acknowledged me.

That thought alone jerks me out of the reverie I've been in since the morning after I finished my first meeting with the freshman. I cough into my elbow. Sometimes, my own thoughts frighten me. Since when do I come up with such preposterous ideas?

Sometimes, my ideas aren't too preposterous, which I realize as I sit in my second-row seat in my AP Statistics class—with Viktor Lelikov sitting exactly three rows behind me.

All of this is undermined by the fact that I did, indeed, voluntarily choose to take AP Statistics instead of some easier calculus class or something. Statistics has never made sense to me. It never will. And I'm sitting here like an idiot who's made an awful, awful decision for her senior year.

The teacher is, thankfully, oblivious to my sentiments and rambles on about "finding normality" or "rarely knowing the population parameters"—none of which makes any sense to me. I'm guessing I've just misunderstood the fundamentals of statistics, which shows me exactly how underprepared I am for this course.

And the rest of the school year, really.

So I sit in my desk, ruminating on why we are using a college textbook in this course and hoping that I don't look too bored. I've been told that I look like I'm plotting worldwide domination when I'm bored.

Over an hour passes by, during which I learn absolutely nothing. At least nothing aside from the fact that statistics seeks the big picture about a population, not the details, and that this goes against everything I've ever learned in math previously.

I'm rather confused. 

It seems like the teachers brainwash me into a different way of thinking every year, setting me up for inevitable failure. This time, it's maybe a graver situation than that of the year before. Last year, I was a junior. Swamped with work, forced into taking a standardized test for the sake of my future, which was two years away, and stressed as hell—but still a junior because I had one last year in high school.

My teachers have told me the same horror story year after year: college isn't going to be like anything I've experienced before because the professors won't handhold me anywhere. After all, teaching me independence by not teaching me a single thing in their damn classes will get me somewhere. In fact, I'll even miss high school after I go.

I call it all bullshit, I think to myself as I chew on my number 2 pencil pensively. 

I'm a senior now. I'm a big girl. I'm screwed for the rest of my life because everything I've been told is a set of contradictions. And with the end of this statistics period comes the end of the school day.

There is no bell system here, which is one of the things that my school proudly boasts to prospective students. It's because they want to immerse us in a university-style education, one with more independence incorporated, not some rigid, structured place for children. As usual, it's bullshit.

I shrug to myself as I stand up, gathering my books in my arms. I'm resigned to another year here and to the fact that Viktor Lelikov shares this class with me.

All of my pensiveness flies out of the open window (which won't stay open for long as this year progresses) as soon as I sense his presence behind me. It hits me immediately—the embarrassment of knowing how aware I am of him. He doesn't matter to me the way I don't matter to him. Nevertheless, my hands feel sweatier than usual as I exit the classroom, nodding at the statistics teacher.

I stand to the side of the door to the classroom in the crowded hallway, desperately grasping at an excuse in my head. I'm standing here because I have to clarify something with the teacher. I'm standing here because I don't know where I'm going. I'm standing here because I'm not ready to go home.

The truth is pathetic, even in comparison to the half-assed lies I've conjured in my head.

I'm standing here because the feeling of watching Viktor Lelikov walk past me, barely sending a glance in my direction, fulfills some sort of inner satisfaction.

And with this ending my school day, I face the reality of how truly depressing my life is.

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