Before a tragedy, and before people are on the news, they have lives as normal as everyone else’s. They have families and friends, jobs, schools, bills, troubles, fears, and happy moments. But it’s often hard to get past the headlines. It was nearly a year later, and the incessant apologies and baked goods had turned into an air of awkwardness. People danced around the topic gracelessly, firmly and stubbornly pretended that it didn’t happen, and were obnoxiously cheerful around me. I was eight, but I wasn’t an idiot: I knew what had happened, but it didn’t register to me how severe I was.
I think deep down everyone experiences lachesism: people think that surviving some tragedy will make their lives exponentially more exciting and special. Fortunately— or unfortunately, depending on how you want to look at it— most people will never be struck by a disaster; so they make due by profiting from other people’s suffering. When the fire first happened, they found their entertainment by consoling us and living vicariously through our experiences. I never gave any answers to their questions, however, and Mom got mad at them for asking, so eventually they stopped.
What had actually happened wasn’t nearly as interesting as what they had all presumed, and their curiosity burned out. I’d left the oven on when I went to school, after trying to cook breakfast; by the time I came home, the house was engulfed in flames.
Mom didn’t know. I feared how she would react when she found out I was the one to start the fire.
So I didn’t tell her, and I continued not to tell her, until the secret became so great that there was no way I could confess.
Mom had only worked a few hours a day before, she was there for me when I left for school and came back. But now, while Mom was working overtime, I was living with Mom’s sister, my aunt Lisa and her husband.
The stress of everything was almost too much to bear.
“I’m sorry I was home so late last night, they were only supposed to call me in for a few hours.” It was Monday morning, and yesterday Mom had gone to work despite it being Sunday, which meant that I had lost out on another day with her. “I’m even more sorry that you were stuck with your Auntie and Uncle all night,” she joked.
Though my mom was trying to make me feel better, I couldn’t even fake a smile. I just ripped my sandwich apart, piece by piece: bits of jam slathered bread lay all around my plate. “They made me play games with them all night.”
“They’re just trying to include you. Your Auntie really loves you, you know.” Mom put her breakfast plate on the counter and smoothed over her hair and outfit. “Damn Lisa, why does she keep buying this gluten free shit?” Mom muttered under her breath, not knowing that I could hear her.
I smiled a little bit when Mom made fun of Aunt Lisa, because I hated the food too. Everything tasted odd, and the food never had much flavour— especially the vegetables, and we ate a lot of vegetables. “Mommy, when can we go? I don’t want to stay with Auntie Lisa anymore, she smells funny, and Uncle Bruce never says anything. It’s weird. I wanna be with just you, Mommy.”
Mom glanced at the clock quickly, then back at me. “I need to tell you something,” Mom said suddenly, changing the subject. She walked from the counter to where I sat at the table, then she bent down so she was looking me in the eye. It could have been my imagination, but it looked like Mom was smiling a little.
“What is it?” I asked cautiously.
“I’ve been offered a better job, I can get a lot of money and we won’t have to live with your Auntie Lisa anymore. But we would have to move far away.”
Just then my Uncle Bruce walked into the room, I almost didn’t notice him. Despite talking up nearly the whole door way in size and height, he never seemed to make a sound when he walked. He just sort of appeared. Uncle Bruce didn’t say anything, just gave me a glance that told me I needed to leave. The clock said 7:40, so the school bus would be there soon anyway. “Bye, Mommy,” I said, she gave me a kiss on the cheek before I ran from the room.
“Have a good day at school, sweetie. Think about what I told you!” Mom yelled after me.
As I slung my backpack over my shoulder and kept running to the door, my backpack bouncing against my back. Then someone strange happened, I heard the low grumbling that I knew had to belong to Uncle Bruce. I’d never heard him make any kind of noise, but I was too scared to have him give me that stare again, so I didn’t stay to try and eavesdrop.
I let the door slam behind me and bounced down the steps of the apartment. The bright yellow bus sat impatiently at the curb, when the driver saw me he honked the horn, causing me to jump. I began running again and didn’t stop until I reached the bus.
“Yes, I understand Ms. Adner, just please come get her.” Mr. Kim held the phone close to his ear and turned so that it was harder to hear him. His voice was sharp, which was incredibly unlike him and made me nervous. I looked up at the clock across from where I sat on the long blue bench: 5: 32 pm. Mom should have been here to pick me up an hour and a half ago; the other kids were already gone, and it was just Mr. Kim and me now. This was the third time this month that Mom had come late. Mr. Kim put the phone back into his jean pocket and turned to me. “Your mommy says she’s on her way, are you sure you have everything for the weekend?” he asked, his sweet smile returning.
I nodded and clutched my space themed backpack closer, feeling the empty water bottle and show-and-tell toy inside. “Mommy’s going to take me for ice cream,” I told Mr. Kim.
“Did she say that this morning?”
I shook my head. “No, but she did last time.”
Mr. Kim’s thin lips pulled back in a dissatisfied smile.
Finally I heard a car pull up and the front door open. “Persephone!” Mom called, standing slightly out of breath in the front doorway. I jumped up from the bench and ran into her open arms. “Thank you Mr. Kim. Again, I’m very sorry.”
I didn’t see his expression but he sounded unhappy again. “Just make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“Right, okay. Persephone, let’s go.” I slung my backpack over my shoulder and grabbed Mom’s hand as we walked to the car.
The sun was still very high and bright, and I started sweating immediately after stepping out of the air-conditioned kindergarten. But it was okay, because this was perfect ice cream weather. I looked up at Mom and noticed that she was looking straight ahead rather fixedly. I pulled on her sleeve and finally regained her attention. “Can we get ice cream, Mommy?”
Mom smiled widely. “Of course.”
“I want vanilla,” I replied.