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Every other Saturday mom would take me with her to volunteer at the local orphanage. It was her way of reminding me to be grateful for everything I had. Also, she used it a political platform to help dad with his campaign. It gave us a leg over our competitor Gregory Adams. She had a true passion for this kind of stuff. She knew every kid by name, a little bit of their story, and even got them birthday presents. I'd been going with her since I was thirteen and still I hadn't gotten used to it. The whole situation depressed me. I couldn't bring myself to do more than smile and nod at each face as they made eye contact with me.
"Neil, don't forget to give Riley his birthday present," I missed everything my mom had said. I stared mindlessly out of the window, looking at nothing in particular. "Neil!” she hissed again through her teeth so no one else could hear her "Give this to Riley!"
She gracefully, yet forcefully, shoved a box into my hand. It was elaborately wrapped in shiny paper that said 'happy birthday' in various, overly festive fonts. Written in the corner was my mom's famous haft print, haft cursive, haft print, handwriting saying "To Riley, from Jan, Ben, and Neil".
I analyzed it for a few seconds before asking, "Who?" Mom frowned at me in that way adults do to make you feel guilty. She leaned down to my ear and pointed across the room.
"Computer guy as you'd call him." I didn’t like her tone but I was in no place to make any type of retort.
I felt bad that I’d known instantly who she meant. I quickly walked away with my head staring down at the gift so she couldn't see my embarrassment. As I crossed the room I remembered what the gift was. My mom had gotten this kid one of those lap top, tablet things. Computer guy, or Riley, was some type of tech genius. I think my mom told me his parents were reporters or research nerds or something. Riley spent most of his time with his face buried into the one computer the orphanage had. It sat in the corner of the common room. It was oddly remote from everything else. The television, toy area, and various seating items all were clustered together. Majority of the kids crowded in those areas. They sat on bean bags and colored rugs playing with whatever someone decided to donate. It was never much. I’d never seen Riley anywhere but in front of the computer. I only saw his face when my mom would go talk to him. He didn't seem to notice me approaching him. He sat hunched over the computer, occasionally typing at what seemed to be lightning speed. Suddenly I'd gotten really nervous. None of the orphan kids liked me much. I did my best to be nice to them all but I knew each of them could feel my indifference. They were only cordial because of my parents. I could feel my palms sweating. I tried not to get it on the wrapping paper. I stopped in my venture to gain my composure. Quickly I glanced back at my mom. She was now distracted with some other kids. I think they were showing her the new books the library down the road had given them. I wiped my hands off on my pants. Usually I’d never do that. Dad had this rule about wiping things on your clothes. It was one the few rules I didn’t argue with. But these were relatively old pants. I regain my focus.
"Um, Riley?" I mumbled. I hoped he didn't hear the shake in my voice.
"Yeah?" He responded so quickly it startled me. He never looked away from the computer screen. I tried to look over his shoulder to see what he was doing. Before I could get a good look he stopped typing. I panicked.
"This is for you," I continued weakly. It took him a second to turn around. His eyes met mine instantly. They looked so blank, so uninterested. I tried not to look terrified. I was though. I contemplating introducing myself. Technically we’d never met before. Our eyes were still locked. How long had it been? Was I creeping him out? Finally his gaze shifted from me to the gift I’d holding out for him. I’d almost forgotten about it. He seemed to hesitate, but eagerly took it. "Happy birthday," I finished and swiftly turned away before he could even open it. I tried to walk fast enough to avoid any more awkward human contact but slow enough to not look like I was fleeing.
"Did he like it?" my mom asked even before I'd secured my place back by her side.
"I guess." I answered.
"Did you tell him it was your idea?"
I ignored the question completely then shoved my face into her arm. That entire ordeal exhausted me. I gazed up at my mom slightly to catch her waving at Riley. I assume he’d opened the gift. I did my best to look over at him without making eye contact. He wore a smile that I oddly found obnoxious. As I looked away I caught his lips mouth "thank you".
I spent the rest of the trip watching my mom play kick ball in the back field the orphanage. The field wasn’t much of a field. I’d nicknamed it ‘The Patch’ in my head. It was just big enough for kids to run around in. I avoided it at all cost. The patch was outdoors and outdoors meant dirty. In the end I preferred to observe from a safe and clean distance. On rare occasions I'd play too if the younger kids played. The younger kids were nicer to me than the teens. They'd run up and hug me and beg me to play with them with no problem at all. As my mom said goodbye to each kid one by one, something I always found tedious, I waited by the car. When she finished my mother came over smiling hysterically the way she always did after volunteering.
"I really love those kids." she said.
I did my best to ignore her. My mom was a saint, as my dad would say. She was the perfect politician’s wife. My dad was running for senator again and mom would go out doing a bunch of charity work that: one got dad votes but two made her happy. I didn’t understand how she juggled this, her job at The Pentagon, and me all at once. Still, I never cared to ask. I never felt the need to. She'd always tell me how we needed to use our influence to help others. It was something I admired about her a lot. Mainly because I was too selfish to do all of the stuff she did.
"So you didn't tell me what Riley said about his gift." I always hated when she initiated random conversations in the car, especially when they were about the orphanage. She had a tendency of waiting until I put my headphones in and nearly zoned out. I knew she was just trying to confirm if I'd actually spoke to him or not. Along with helping the orphans, her life mission was to push me to socialize.
"He didn't." I kept my eyes on my phone.
"Well did you say anything to him? Did you call him computer guy? What did I tell you about that? These kids have-"
I interrupted her, something I usually wouldn't do, but I knew where this rant was going.
"I told him happy birthday and then walked away. That's all. He didn't say anything." I did all I could to make sure my tone didn't raise.
"Riley's a good kid. You two would get along. He's only a few years older than you. And he's really smart. His parents were journalist you know!"
I did know. "He doesn't seem to like me very much." I commented just to humor her.
She continued "You don't try to make them like you sweetie. You always look so mean. You don't even smile at them. You act like an uncomfortable lap dog. I wouldn't want to be your friend either." My mother chuckled lightly. Her eyes never left the road. I didn't really know how to be offended by that joke.
We spent the rest of the ride in silence. I watched as each building flew by out of focus. When I was a kid, I’d try to stare through each window and see what was inside before we’d passed by completely. Sometimes I’d catch myself still playing it. The city always held my interest. It looked so exciting and busy. Each building had its own life to me. I thought it was cool how you could attach a piece of history to each one. I liked to people watch. The people gave the city life. They came and went like blood through a body’s veins. Through the car window I’d choose a person and see if I could analyze them from their look and surroundings. Reading people was a skill I’d inherited from my parents. My mom would often say it was a super power of mine. She’d tell me it made me special and nosy. Dad would say it made me a great future politician. It’d always be in a joking manner but I knew that’s what he really wanted. Before I knew we were back at dad's office in the dull suburbs.
"Your dad and I have a meeting this afternoon so Miss. Conway is taking you to and from karate today," my mom mentioned as we pulled into the driveway.
That news made me a little more gleeful about karate than usual. Miss. Conway was Gregory Adam's assistant and a college friend of my mom’s. She was this petite, Mississippi lady, who you couldn't help but adore. I'd known her all of my life and was closer to her than most family. Her daughter Jolene, named after the Dolly Parton song, was a year younger than me. Mom and dad would make jokes about her being my only friend. I didn't really care because she was. In politics you don't meet many kids who aren't totally flushed out by their parent's beliefs. We all usually label each other as rivals. Jolene, however, was just as sweet and gentle as her mother. In karate we were sparing partners. I insisted we be paired together solely to make sure she never got better than me. When dad would visit our classes he'd never forget to mention that we'd both make damn good ninjas.
I sat by the window until Jolene texted me saying they'd arrived. She and her mother waited parked outside of the office as I gathered my gym bag. As I zipped it up Jolene yelled out of her window,
"Stop messing with your giant purse and come on!"
Hunched over I shot her a friendly glared and complied.
"Hello ladies," I say as I settled into the back seat.
"Hey kid!" Miss. Conway says sweetly.
"I hope you're not still mad about yesterday." Jolene added.
I chuckled slightly. "I don't remember. I think I still have a concussion." I spit out my words as a friendly jibe. Sparring yesterday, we were practicing kicks. Jolene somehow missed the target and power kicked me in the temple. I compare the force to that of a small car crash. I don’t remember much after that. Just her hunched over my body as I lied dazed on the practice mat. Her face seemed both thoroughly concerned and amused. She said it was an accident but I don't trust her.
"I'm sorry. But hey, you could have ducked." Jolene turned back to me and smiled. Her hair was pulled out of her face into a tight ponytail, typical for karate. It made her look older than she really was. I could see her ribbon holding it all in place. Her and her mom wore different colored ribbons in their hair every day. I never asked why. It was just their thing. If their hair was styled the same way any person could have a tough time telling the two apart. Jolene turned on the radio which happened to be playing Carrie Underwood. I'd never listen to Country music if it wasn't for Jolene and Miss. Conway. I just didn’t have a taste for it. I watched as they both swayed to the melody. Jolene began to sing as if no one else is around. She's actually pretty good.
"Neil, how do you not know this song?" she asked mid chorus. I smiled at her as she keeps singing. "Okay mom the part is coming up." Her mom seemed to know exactly what she meant. Simultaneously, they both belt out "BYE-BYE, BYE-BYE, BYE-BYE!" They laughed warmly and a let them have their moment.
We got to karate early. "Text me when you're done!" Miss. Conway said before driving away. I held the door open for Jolene, as dad taught me. Naturally we began stretching. Every time we did karate it’d freak me out how flexible Jolene was. Actually, most of Jolene’s abilities impressed me. She tended to be great at things you’d never expect. It bothered me but she was way more athletic. Possibly even stronger. I’m convinced that she could I stood next to her struggling to touch my toes and she slid angelically into a straddle. She took ballet too. Her mom put her in karate when she was six. She says everyone needs to know how to protect themselves. Sometimes Jolene would brag about it. "I can jump-kick you in a tutu," she’d always say. Still, if anyone other than me mentioned her abilities she's be totally modest.
"So how was volunteering?" Jolene asked while punching the air. Her precision and aggression was incredible.
"Eh, it was whatever. It's computer guy's birthday." I brushed the conversation off not expecting her to reply.
"Oh cool, Riley." It annoyed me that Jolene remembered computer guy's name. Jolene had volunteered with me and my mom once or twice at the most.
We spent majority of karate class in silence; the occasional 'huh' and Jolene's chuckling when I messed up. Today's class was jumping which I apparently suck at. I kept losing my footing when I landed. Jolene, on the other hand, had no trouble. She never got tired of helping me back to my feet every time I fell. After cool down, I took a few more moments to stretch out once more.
"I called my mom but she's not answering." It wasn't odd for Miss. Conway to not answer the phone. Political parents were always busy. She'd call back in a few minutes. Jolene joined me stretching and called again a few minutes later. Again, her mom didn't answer. A few more minutes passed by. Slowly the other children in our class disappeared.
"Rents running late?" asked Derek the instructor's assistant. He was just about twenty or something but everyone really liked him. Jolene didn't answer. She didn't even acknowledge Derek. She sat there staring at her phone, waiting for it to spring to life.
"Yeah, as usual," I replied calmly for her. Derek touched her gently on the shoulder. She still didn't move. I'd never seen Jolene worry about anything. She and her mom were always the sunshine in every situation. I wasn't sure what to say. Derek lingered with us for a few moments and then walked away to finish closing up. He made sure to remind us that he was there if we needed a ride home. I responded thank you, still speaking for both Jolene and myself.
"She would have texted me if she was busy. She always texts me if she can't talk!" Jolene's voice began to raise and shake. She looked at me. "Can you call your parents?" Oddly, I hadn't thought of that. I reached to take my phone out of my pocket and, as if cued, my parents were calling me.
Suddenly I let out a sigh of relief.
"Hey mom-" I began in a way that might have been too cheerful. Before I could form another word he voice blared from the other end.
“Is Jolene near you?" Her words shot out so quickly that it took me a second to figure out what she said. I glanced over at Jolene. She was still motionless, her eyes fixed on the horizon. I could feel her unease radiating.
"Yeah, she's right here." I answered curiously. I could hear my mom breathing heavily. My dad was saying something in the background that I couldn't make out. I kept peeking over at Jolene who'd seem to have forgotten I was there. "Mom?" I said trying not to sound too concerned; for Jolene's sake. Besides, there was nothing to be worried about.
"Hold tight honey. We're coming to get you guys."
Without any other words my mom hung up. She had a habit of ending a call before the other person could agree it was over. Why were they coming to get us instead of Miss. Conway? I didn't mind, but I was sure Jolene would. As I dropped the phone from my ear I could feel her eyes on the side of my face. Slowly I gazed back. Her face looked now drained of any emotion. Bags had formed under her eyes. You could even see slight tears. I'd never seen Jolene panic before. Honestly, I'd never seen her upset over anything before. Even while sparring she wore a smile. She looked like one of the animals in the sad commercials. For a second I thought I could hear Arms of An Angel playing in the distance. Abruptly, I remembered the situation. My eyes locked back into focus with hers. I didn't know what to say.
"My mom said her and dad are on the way." Right after I finished that sentence I wondered if I'd said it the right way. Jolene didn't reply. Her focus returned to the blank distance. The sun was beginning to set. I couldn't help but stare at her sitting on the curb. She almost looked dead. Her torso didn't even move from breathing. I didn't dare sit down next to her though I wanted to.
The next few minutes took forever. I could never deal with silence well but I couldn't bring myself to say anything to her. I just stared at my phone. Every now and then I'd run my finger across the blank screen to make it look like I was doing something. I thought to text my parents to update me on their whereabouts. That wouldn't make them come any faster. Jolene had evolved from sitting completely still to bouncing her leg erratically. Her hands were clasped together and resting in between her knees. I felt terrible but I was just as clueless as she was. I checked the time on my phone. It had only been ten minutes. Without thinking, my leg began to bounce too.
My parents arrived a few minutes later and Jolene got in the back seat with me silently. "Is everything alright?" I blurted out before I knew I was talking. My parents seemed to ignore me. Both of them were completely focused on Jolene. She kept her face towards the ground. The entire car grew silent for a moment. All the suspense was driving me nuts. I felt insensitive for staring at Jolene expecting her to initiate the conversation. But I felt weird not looking at her when my parents were.
"Jolene, sweetie," goes my dad finally breaking the silence. You could tell bad news was about to come by the sound of his voice. I peered at Jolene slightly. She was already crying. I followed the tears as they ran down her cheeks. Everything inside of me froze. I feared moving so I kept my eyes on my parents. My mom's face was almost as heartbreaking as Jolene's. My dad swallowed hard before he continued. "Your mom was in a car accident." Right then I could hear Jolene let out a whimper. With it my heart sunk.
"Is she okay?" The words slid out of Jolene's mouth so frail and broken. My parents hesitated once again. I couldn't breathe. My mom took over.
"She was rear ended. It was a hit and run. They're still looking for the guy who did it. Her car was total-" Jolene must have known my mom was stalling.
“Is she okay?" she interrupted with a vulnerable brutality. Her words could almost cut with her verbal force. I wanted to dive out of the window. My eyes had moved from my mom to the back of her passenger seat. I tried to focus on the head rest. It took all my mom had to keep talking.
"No, her car burst into flames. She couldn't escape." Jolene buried her face into her knees. She didn't even try to contain her sobs. "I'm so sorry," my mom ended.
Dad drove us home to the sound of Jolene's screams. It seemed to be the only place we could take her. The entire time I kept thinking about how bleak the current situation was. I stared out the window. The sun seemed to take longer to set today. I found it weird that it still looked so beautiful even though something so bad had just happened. The city still moved just as rapidly as ever. I watched each person as they walked here and there along the sidewalk. Inside of the car I felt frozen in time. I kept hearing my mom tell Jolene the news over and over. Eventually Jolene’s sobbing settled into a steady series of drown out, breathy gasp. I still couldn’t bring myself to look at her. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Jolene's mom had just died. Moreover, she was killed in a hit and run accident. The word accident didn’t make it feel any less tragic. Jolene didn’t even have a body to go to. Her dad hadn’t been around for years. We’d never known Miss. Conway or her to have any close or even extended family. Her reaction was completely appropriate. In my mind questions kept popping up. How was she going to plan a funeral? Where was she going to go? I felt overwhelmed and it wasn't even my life. Jolene was only fifteen. Suddenly, she was left without a family. I felt completely guilty trying to imagine exactly how she felt. I was devastated, still that didn’t seem like enough. Both of my parents sat inches away in the front seats. It angered me how my parents seemed to direct their concern elsewhere as Jolene fell apart in our back seat. What could they do?
The day after the incident my parents and I tried to adopt her. It seemed like the only acceptable solution. We all didn't even have to talk about it. That day my parents spent hours negotiating and trying to find loop holes to ensure that Jolene could legally stay with us. I sat at the far end of the room with Jolene. She said nothing the entire time. I, on the other hand, shadowed my parents. Every few sentences I’d chime in. I knew I was getting annoying but I more than anyone felt Jolene had to be protected. I couldn’t explain why. The agency said it'd be a couple months before all the paperwork and stuff would be in order. The adoption was sure to go through, just not any time soon. I didn't really listen to their explanation of why. I don't think Jolene did either. All it translated into was that Jolene would be an orphan.