All things considered, she’s honestly never had her room be this clean before: it’s distractingly empty, with all of her goofy wall posters and useless knick knacks, among everything else, having been shoved deep into each of the brown boxes that litter the carpet floor. After surveying the remaining pale, naked furniture for a few more contemplative seconds, Alyssa moves to sit atop one of the cardboard mounds with her ankles crossed, dainty. She fixates on the ceiling, on the slightly ajar-bedroom door in front of her, and finally, on her hands as her thumbs shakily twiddle themselves.
Following the sound of the bathroom toilet flushing from down the hall comes June from around the corner. She eases into the empty bedroom with an expression as neutral as ever (“Resting bitch face,” Alyssa would tease if the mood between them was lighter), absently drying her damp hands on her jean shorts. “You finished up with the last one?”
“Yeah, it’s.” Alyssa feels her ears burn, quietly. Something unspoken lingers uncomfortably in her throat. “It’s all done now.”
June just nods. She hovers in the entrance of the doorway, and then Alyssa watches her with unease as June takes baby steps that feel like an eternity to the pile of childhood stuffed animals Alyssa has left pointedly on her mattress: a splotch of fluffy baby-pinks and baby-blues amongst the empty cream of the rest of the bedroom. Without saying anything, June snatches up Mr. Tinkles the Bunny from his bed rest and waves him in front of her, the corners of her mouth tipped upwards in a smirk. “You’re forgetting something important,” she remarks casually, causing them to both giggle, loud and unexpected.
Somewhat of a running joke between them, Mr. Tinkles had been with them through pretty memorable moments: acting as a catalyst for their friendship as a peace offering on a Kindergarten playground to being an object that Alyssa, quite infamously between them, threw on the floor in frustration when she struggled to confess her feelings to June in the 8th grade. Perhaps most infamous of all was his playing witness to the first time the pair very clumsily made love, which June absolutely refused to let Alyssa live down for a couple of months—and poor Alyssa could certainly never look at the dumb bunny the same way ever again. Remembering the hilarious memory causes her giggles to surge, but then completely cease when the tension that was originally in the room slowly returns to seep within her. Likewise, June seems to sense the growing thickness between them; as her laughter halts, she moves to gently place the plush back on the bed as she found it.
It comes from nowhere—her last remaining nerves, maybe. “I think we should break up,” Alyssa manages, her voice unsteady, not quite reaching. As soon as it escapes her, the weight between them changes and the world is suddenly moving too fast around them for the slowness with which they need to interact. It comes to Alyssa then there is a distant ringing emptiness in her ears, and abrupt with this realization, she finds herself being taken out of her own body. Her palms moisten as she imagines herself watching she and June interacting from afar: the leaps and bounds of space between them in the blank bedroom, uncomfortable; Alyssa’s head bowed, embarrassed, panicking; June looking at her with an unreadable expression, thinking.
When Alyssa musters the strength to look back up at her at last, June is staring straight at her, utterly stoic, rigid. And then—Alyssa sees a hint of it in her eyes, she knows her too well: June had been anticipating this all along, and the pain June flashes back at her is miserably resigned, if not a little bitter. Her mouth quirks into a tiny, angry pucker; Alyssa braces herself.
“It’s because you’re going away,” June says at last. It’s not a question, and Alyssa knows better than to actually respond when she’s emotional like this, so she nods quickly, unsure. “Because you’re doing your whole school thing, right? So it’s easier if we just fucking forgot about this. Long-distance rarely works out anyway.”
Alyssa rises from the box to stand and meet June’s pacing gait, then. She will never not be intrigued by June’s manner of expelling her emotions in sudden bursts like this: even as she works herself up into hysterics, it’s as if there is always a lid on her feelings that keeps them from overflowing, so that they can only be displayed in a very angry yet contradictorily reserved way. Dismayed, Alyssa starts, “June—”
“—No, it’s,” Her voice raises a couple of octaves, startling them both—June still doesn’t know where to look, eyes wild, between at the ground and piercingly into Alyssa’s soul. “I knew you were going to say something like this. You’re already running away from here, to your fancy school that’s who-knows how many miles away from here, and now you’re running away from me too.” Alyssa flinches; June laughs hollowly, disbelieving. She stands a couple of feet away from Alyssa now, nails digging anxiously each of the arms she has folded across her chest. “I can’t believe you! Actually—no, I can.”
“It’s not like that,” Alyssa tries, permanently unsettled; somewhere along the way, her head began to spin and wouldn’t stop. “You know I can’t stay here with the way everything is going. With my mom and,” her voice trembles and she’s not even sure she believes her own words, “everything is changing and closing down, you know how it is, June—”
“—Some of us don’t have the luxury to leave,” June answers, definitive. Her words hang in the air like a triumph, and June stands, shaking a little, breathing hard but remaining steady on her feet and refusing to budge, Christ, that’s just like her: it scares Alyssa, who doesn’t even know what to think or say. She feels her eyes brimming with something, feels her mouth opening to speak—
“Hey!” A new voice, tiny. They both whip their heads around: at the entrance of the doorway obliviously grins Marie, Alyssa’s little sister. Too surprised to say anything, the older pair just stare at the little girl, who remains puzzlingly silent without any preamble or explanation. After boring into Alyssa’s eyes for another couple of painful seconds, little Marie places her closed fists determinedly on either of her hips and looks upward at the bedroom ceiling with a fixed, contemplative gaze—the ultimate, Wonder Woman-esque power-stance. At the sudden turn of events, Alyssa feels herself deflate immensely, and peers over at June, who’s now pointedly looking downwards at her feet and ringing her hands out, her face unmistakably pinched. Truly, Marie has never had more impeccable timing than to interrupt them right then.
Marie keeps looking upwards, thinking hard in her little power-pose. The strap of the Avengers backpack she’s carrying slides down her arm just a bit, and even then, she remains unflinching. “What is it,” Alyssa finally snaps after she can practically start to sense June’s trademark, anxious nervous-sweats radiating off her body—June’s never been one to want to set a bad example for Marie, as continuing their fight in any semblance probably would.
“I’m running away,” Marie says, meeting Alyssa’s eyes once more. June gives an incredulous, breathy laugh to her side; Alyssa stares at her little sister blankly.
“You’re running away.”
“Yes.” She lifts her chin, challenging.
Alyssa shares a quick glance with June. “Can’t this wait?” she asks, serious, and when Marie just shakes her head—a totally expected move—Alyssa and June share another look, but this time of the we’re not gonna win this one so we’ll talk it out later caliber. Confirming this, she says, “Okay,” out loud at last—she has her priorities, plus faith that June will play along and postpone everything until they inevitably get back. Marie’s beaming wide at her and June is looking at her knowingly as she moves out the bedroom doorway to peer over the staircase railing. She shouts, “Mom! Marie is running away.”
“Okay!” Her mother cheerily shouts back from somewhere downstairs, probably the kitchen. “Stay safe, and be back at a reasonable time.”
“Sure,” Alyssa says. She takes a careful step back or two into the room again, then turns to face the determined little Gremlin that is Marie Meyers; Marie’s grin is practically tearing her face into two. After adjusting the straps of her backpack with her grubby little fingers, she’s rushing to race down the stairs with tiny little thumps that echo in her wake—and June is watching the kid take off with this stupid reluctant yet admiring look on her face, already standing up; she knows the drill.
It doesn’t take long: the trio make their way out of the house and start together down the neighborhood sidewalk shortly thereafter, Marie bouncing determinedly in front of the older pair, who trail behind with lingering steps and lingering thoughts.
After approximately 17 years of being around each other day-in and day-out, Alyssa still isn’t sure how to approach June when she gets like this. Whilst Marie is playing happy-go-lucky leader in front of them, Alyssa can’t help but steal nervous glances at June in her peripheral, trying to gauge how she’s processing everything; June’s face is permanently stuck in that hard, pinched position, and it’s clear that she’s still reeling from the conversation they were having before Marie interrupted them with her innocent spontaneity. Unbothered in her stubbornness, June keeps her green gaze unwaveringly forward, her honey-olive skin glistening a bit in the sun. Her silence and her presence are both so, so unspeakably distracting; if it weren’t for her bitter-as-a-pill mood, if it weren’t for their goddamn argument, the afternoon walk between the three would feel the same as any other they would all sometimes take on a breezy afternoon like this. Emotionally deterred, Alyssa decides to fixate on the dumb, blond Captain America winking assuredly at her from the back of Marie’s backpack.
The lazy afternoon is tainting the lush suburbia around them in a familiar, faint golden glow that grows to feel uncomfortably warm the longer the silence stretches out between them: Alyssa feels more and more like she wants to jump out of her own skin as the blocky, hot sidewalk under their feet begins to meld into urban concrete. Before she can think about what she’s doing, on a spur of the moment she’s rushing ahead to grab one of Marie’s tiny, brown hands in her own—Marie, who’s been very content with playing “I Spy” by herself for past twenty or so minutes, even though that sort of defeats the purpose of the game, but, well, it’s Marie.
“…Something red,” Marie’s saying when Alyssa catches up to her, and points to one of the many street shops across the corner with a maroon awning; as they head further into town, homely little shops like this pop up in brown and white, clustered little stacked rows along the streets on either side of them. The brisk but quiet, afternoon town-crowd parts ways for the trio as they continue to make their way up the streets. Alyssa murmurs in agreement.
“I spy something black,” Marie says next, and when Alyssa doesn’t hear her instantly move on to her next “I Spy,” she looks inquiringly down at her little sister to see her smiling wide right back at her, pointing with her free hand to Alyssa’s bouncy, dark curls. Laughter creeps up unexpected in the older sister’s throat, and the two share a brief fit of juvenile giggles between themselves. By the end of it, Alyssa has grabbed her little sister up and is balancing her in her arm and on one hip for the first time in what feels like forever, since they haven’t been able to spend as much time with each other these past couple of months. The stance comes off as warm and familiar to the both of them, but, Alyssa finds, surprised—is a little uncomfortable now, considering that Marie is a bit too heavy for this, is now a bit passed the age when being carried by adults is a commonplace occurrence.
She isn’t sure why Marie’s uncomfortable weight in her arms startles her so much, and finds herself absently responding to Marie’s following “I Spies” while her mind wanders again. It’s something about how holding her feels the same as it did in freshman year of high school, and yet also feels slightly skewed from before—just like everything and everyone else in the small little town of theirs. In just four short years, the eerie quiet of her hometown has grown exponentially more noticeable; she doesn’t like to think too much about how the ice cream parlor just around the corner from her home that she loved going to in the second grade now has Closing Down Soon signs stamped claustrophobically on its every window; about how her mother has a stack of resumes lying near the sink in their kitchen; about how June’s kept her hair cut rebelliously short for the past couple of months, and stands with a defiant pout now, face reflecting green in the faintness of the streetlight they’re currently stopped under. For a moment, they make eye contact: June’s expression shifts into a neutral one, and she looks away.
When Marie quiets down and buries her face in Alyssa’s neck, Alyssa quickly senses her exhaustion, and motions June to follow her into a hole-in-the-wall café down the road that’s closing just within the hour.
Inside, the dimly lit, mostly empty coffee shop radiates a warm, friendly atmosphere: happy-go-lucky mug-drinkers smile at them from various portraits on the candle-lit walls, and a pungent, caffeinated aroma scents the entire front room. June wanders to find a bathroom while Alyssa settles Marie down at a small table and takes to helping her retie her shoes—sometimes, Marie’s fingers are too small and clumsy to get it exactly right. By the time Alyssa is finishing up the second shoe, Marie is pulling her backpack to the front of her chest and fishing out an orange from one of its front pockets. Alyssa balks. “That’s all you brought?”
“I guess,” she says, looking down at the fruit in her lap. She begins to carefully peel it with her nails, and Alyssa just watches her for another contemplative beat, before moving to pull up a chair to the table so she can sit beside her.
“You would’ve starved pretty quickly, huh,” the older sister deadpans humorlessly.
“I woulda figured something out.” Marie shrugs, unphased.
After much hesitation, Alyssa manages a, “Sure,” in reply, because convincing a stubborn six-and-a-half-year-old about the harsh realities of scraping for food on the streets is not something that’s on her agenda for the night. “But, uh,” she rubs a hand tiredly on her face, trying to remain as casual as possible, “you wanna tell me why you thought this was a good idea in the first place?”
Marie’s staring intently at her half-peeled orange, very concentrated but also so, so, visibly tired: the thick braids on either side of her head hang limply forward with the rest of her demeanor as she slumps in her chair. Alyssa can’t tell if she’s thinking hard about her orange or about how to answer her, or both.
“…Mommy,” she finally begins, trailing off. Alyssa waits patiently as Marie gathers the rest of her thought. “…She doesn’t pick me up from school anymore.”
“Ah,” Alyssa remarks, wondering. “Carpool?”
Marie nods. When Alyssa catches her little sister’s expression wavering, a new, sinking feeling in Alyssa’s stomach makes itself known to her: a feeling that has possibly always been there, but dormant. “And,” Marie suddenly picks up speed, on a roll now, distressed and emboldened by Alyssa’s lack of protest, “she doesn’t—she doesn’t tuck me in bed anymore. She doesn’t cook anymore, Eliza does—” —she’s referring to the Meyers family’s long-time babysitter— “—and I don’t see her anymore.” Her eyes meet Alyssa’s at last, all huge, sincere, anxious. “Well, I do, but—”
“It’s different,” Alyssa finishes for her, and her tone rises, barely concealing her shock at her own visceral understanding of Marie’s worries, “so you don’t want to be home anymore.” Marie nods vigorously, her half-peeled orange no longer of concern to her.
Grappling for a sufficient response, Alyssa flounders, desperate, as images of her future college, thousands of miles away, flash by in her mind; as June’s words from earlier ring incessantly in her head: “Some of us don’t have the luxury to leave.” The realization of her own hypocrisy makes Alyssa’s ears burn, a sensation amplified by the fact that she’s noticed just then that June has emerged from the bathroom, purchased a drink, and is now eavesdropping on them from afar while feigning reading a menu on the wall. Alyssa swallows hard, her throat suddenly dry.
“You might not understand now—” She stops, mentally corrects herself, attempts to not struggle under the combined weight of June’s listening and Marie’s melancholy regard, then tries again. “I know it’s hard to understand, but, uh. Mom is working really, really hard right now, and in a way, her not being there means that she’s trying harder to be there for you.” Marie scrunches her brows and tilts her head, clearly not understanding, so Alyssa tries to explain. “It’s because she doesn’t have a job right now. She needs a job so that she can have money to support you, but looking for a new job is hard and time-consuming, so that means she can’t be there for you as much anymore. And that sucks.”
Marie remains completely still as she tries to process this new interpretation of her rapidly changing, elementary school life. Her brows are still a bit scrunched. “I just miss her,” she says at last, sounding alarmingly small. It honest-to-god hits Alyssa like a deep blow to her chest.
“I know,” Alyssa says, and it sounds weak to her own ears. “Yeah, I—sometimes, you have to learn to live with changes like this. At home.” June’s not even pretending to not be eavesdropping on them anymore, and as her stare burrows into Alyssa from afar, Alyssa finds that she’s hearing herself less and less. “It’s… hard, but you learn to live with it.”
The soft, ambient music filling the café had turned off at some point during their exchange as employees began to close up the shop in the background; it makes Marie’s quiet pondering all the more agonizing. After an anxious minute, Marie utters a loaded, “Oh,” that is too telling of her emotional state in a complicated, too-adult way; too telling of how she is still confused despite conveying her understanding, and is still unsure of how to emotionally proceed in this type of situation. Alyssa doesn’t quite know how to either. She reaches for Marie’s orange and determinedly begins to finish peeling it herself, not wanting to think about it any longer.
Of course, June doesn’t let that last very long. A couple of minutes later, Marie is asleep in Alyssa’s lap, temporarily sated by her fruit; June sees this as the perfect moment to approach Alyssa, empty mug now in hand. She sits in the chair next to them without saying a word, and, abruptly, like always—Alyssa is struck dumb by how radiant June is: how full her pink lips are in the café’s subtle light, how sharp her high cheekbones; how long her lashes are, which fan out neat and dark on her cheeks every time she blinks. A twinge of regret bites readily at Alyssa’s gut, unforgiving.
June’s never been the type to waste time. She comments into the silence of the café, “It was a little ironic of you to say some of those things to her.”
“I know,” Alyssa says, flinching from the blow dealt; the hypocrisy of her past decisions has become a tangible, cold sensation now that runs deep within her veins. And yet—and yet.
“I… still stand by what I told you, earlier, about needing to leave everything.” Alyssa’s tone is defiant, but she’s not exactly meeting June’s eyes; there’s a reasonable possibility that her stubborn resolve would crumble if they made sustained eye contact. She feels June shift, calculating, and bravely trudges on. “Marie’s just a kid, and I… I don’t know. Our situations are different.”
“You think it’s time to really move on from here,” June carefully translates.
“Yeah,” she says, unsure of the meaning behind June’s stoicism just yet—but still not willing to back down. “I’m sorry for… everything. For making it seem like I don’t care about you or just wanted to get rid of you or something—you know that wasn’t what I meant.” She pauses, earnest. “…But, I do think it’s time for me to leave here.”
It catches Alyssa off-guard when June simply says, “Okay,” relenting for the first time that day. Alyssa looks up at her, finally, and June is giving hesitant nods, as if mentally marinating the idea of Alyssa permanently living thousands of miles away, of their relationship never being the same again. “Okay,” she says again, her eyes flicking between Marie and Alyssa; she nods to herself again, her mouth forming a somber line.
For the rest of the late evening, they slip into a silence again as they make their way back home, but somehow it’s more companionable, easing them into a much-needed rest from the tension of the late summer day.
During middle school and high school, I had a penchant for young adult novels. This is because the teen-hood period in my life was one in which I discovered my identity the most, and young adult novels had characters undergoing similar mental crises and changes as I was.
This specific brand of “young adult novel” change is what inspired me to write this piece. I know this change especially well from really living it the months before college, and then freshman year of college—during this time I found myself coming into my own quickly. From the end of senior year to the end of my freshman year of college, I had molded into a completely different person in a relatively brief amount of time; I would describe myself as a “late-bloomer” when it came to figuring out my identity, something it seems like my peers in high school had already done by senior year.
I sort of wanted to capture this “late bloomer” change in the two main characters of this piece, June and Alyssa. Both are still maturing and figuring out how to re-navigate the world in the wake of Alyssa leaving for college. Again, this is something experienced myself; as I began to embark on my new life journey thousands of miles away from home, one of the hardest things I had to undergo was learning which relationships to “take” with me on my young adult novel-esque journey, and which ones to leave back in Texas. It’s a difficult mental decision, one that obviously doesn’t come easily to either of my main characters as well.
Another thing that inspired me to write this piece was nostalgia. In the summer of 2018, I became a little infatuated with media and art that manage to capture a sort of “nostalgic air”—the visceral sensation of looking back at a completely different time and place. This isn’t to say that Alyssa’s time is different from ours (I meant to keep the time in which this piece takes place pretty vague, but fairly modern at the least), but that I wanted to build a nostalgic air through the setting; i.e., making the reader fawn over a place they’ve never been to and a time they’ve never lived in by way of setting description. I was hoping the scene in which our main characters walk the town would encapsulate an air of nostalgia in particular; I was hoping the reader could deeply resonate with air of nostalgia in my writing.
The combination of being able to capture a “nostalgic air” and a brand of young adult novel-mental change ultimately form the pillars making up this piece, and I hope these elements as they are incorporated leave an impact on the reader.
A quick note: this is an excerpt from a slightly larger piece, but I found that the scenes I included sum up the story’s overall messages pretty well on their own.