Horace Howard was a good man, if there ever was one. He woke at five a.m. each morning, except on sundays, when he’d wake at six. After taking a short, hot shower, he’d dress in his jumpsuit and head out of his trailer to walk the mile it took to get to the school where he worked. Horace had seen a lot of things in his time, students hung-over outside the doors, girls crying – having slept overnight in the bathrooms – under sinks, and sometimes wild animals that snuck their way in during the dark. His brother, Carl, greeted him today.
“Morning, Hor.” Carl jingled the heavy set of janitorial keys casually.
“G’morning.” Horace said, opening the door and heading to the back rooms that served as his classroom and office.
Carl followed, “You should have seen Maybelline yesterday.”
Horace’s brother had a perchance for gossip and the comment was clearly a hook thrown out. Biting his lower lip, he quickened his pace and said nothing.
“Some kids tore up the bathroom upstairs.” Carl added, hurrying to keep beside his taller brother.
Horace shook his head, smiling as he recognized Mrs. Beezle, the social studies teacher with stringy red hair that hung to her waist. She waved meekly before darting away into a different hallway.
“Made a fine mess of the place, spent all evening fixing it up.” Carl scratched his jaw, “But Miss May, she rightly freaked out when she saw it.”
“Well,” Horace finally gave way, joining the conversation as he opened the classroom door, “Bathrooms aren’t cheap to maintain, especially when the kids are always doing stuff to them.”
“Right,” Carl nodded, “But that’s not what I mean.”
Horace led into the classroom, passing the large studio desks that were cluttered with art supplies and splotches of paint. To the side, he had a small office with another door that he kept locked. It had a large window, but the dusty blinds were closed. “Huh?” He asked, “What do you mean?”
“When I say freaked out, I mean, like,” Carl waved his hands, keys jingling as he tried to convey meaning through gesture, “She acted like she’d seen the devil, himself. Hair was all-a-mess and she, even, fell in front of some students.”
“That’s odd.” Horace commented politely, “She’s not an easily startled woman.”
“Right?” Carl nodded, “So, that’s what I’ve been thinking about all night. What could have scared her that much? I cleaned that entire bathroom and still couldn’t figure it out.”
Setting down his folders, Horace went to the small coffee pot in the corner of the room. “Coffee?” He offered his brother as he peeled open the black lid of the Folger’s container.
Carl shook his head, sitting down in one of the two plush visitor seats, “That’s alright.” He cricked his head to the side, then violently snapped it the other way to get it to crack, “Ahhh…” Rolling his shoulders back, he settled into the chair, “So, anyways, I wanted to ask a favor of ya.”
“Oh?” Horace was careful to measure his voice. It wasn’t rare of his brother to ask for favors. He didn’t mind helping out, but he thought it odd that he never found any favors to ask for in return, “What’s that?”
“Could Melissa stay at your place for a week or two?”
Horace watched as the coffee brewed. Removing his jacket, he placed his hands on his hips and inhaled sharply, “Your daughter is always welcomed at my home, but why?”
“I’ve got a lady coming,” Carl explained, “From the cities. But I didn’t mention I’ve got a teenager living at the home.”
“Don’t you think that might be something she would want to know?” Horace said.
“It’s not like that.” Carl shifted in his seat, “Besides, it isn’t anything serious or long-term or nothing, but we’re figuring a good week or so is enough time to-”
Horace raised a hand, cutting his brother off, “That’s enough, sure.” He shook his head, “Melissa can stay, it’s fine.”
Carl stood, reaching over the desk and patting him on the shoulder, “You’re a good brother.” Turning to the door, he added, “I’ll let her know once I get home.”
Nodding, Horace sat down in his computer chair. It sunk under his weight.
“Oh.” Carl paused at the door, knocking against the frame in remembrance, “And you should really get a haircut, you’re looking pretty mangy. Ma would die if she saw that nest.”
“Get out of here.” Horace playfully retorted, waving a hand. Once Carl had left, he swiveled in the chair to look at his reflection in the window. His dirt-blond hair was ragged, forcibly pulled into a casual ponytail. Pulling at a reckless strand that hung against his cheek, he groaned. At least, there was coffee brewing.
The rest of the day went like any other day. Students came and went, messes were steadily accrued over the course of the day and finally, the art club met after school to clean up. The art club was a gang of teenagers that had joined because one, extracurricular activities were required by the administration, and two, art was the universal attractor to those who didn’t want to do anything much at all. Half of the students spent the entire time talking about smoking and drinking, anyways. Horace didn’t mind too much, as long as the classroom was clean by five.
Sitting in his office, he browsed his e-mails. He was searching for a coupon to one of the restaurants nearby, but the search seemed futile. A knock at the open door gained his attention.
“Uncle?” A squat girl with curly black hair stood partly in the office, and partly behind the frame, her dark eyes staring like a doe.
“Melissa!” Horace shut down his computer and stood, “I was wondering when you were going to come on by.”
She smiled faintly, “Well, here I am.” Walking into the office, she glanced around, “I’m hungry.” She commented.
“Oh, I’ve got food at the trailer.” Taking out his key, he smiled, “Did you want to go on ahead of me, then?” Glancing at the art club, he added, “It’s probably going to be another hour or so here, but there’s no need for you to wait around.”
Melissa nodded, her smile becoming brighter as she took the key, “Right, okay. See you then?”
“See ya then.” Horace left the office, hurrying over to stop a purple-haired boy who was unintentionally crushing some stored paintings.
Melissa left in a hurry, not bothering to make conversation with any of the students there. She sped down the halls. On the way to the exit door, she nearly ran right into Mrs. Beezle, “Excuse me.” She apologized to the wry woman before escaping the school.
Taking a deep breath of fresh air, Melissa felt free. She skipped down the steps and into the parking lot There were students here and there, hanging out for various reasons and in the near distance, she recognized a couple familiar faces. Hurrying over, she waved to the siblings, “Hey there.”
Roxy was a Junior and a good friend of Melissa’s since they shared nearly all of their classes together. The petite, round-faced blonde smiled cheerfully. Roxy’s brother, Evan, was a Sophomore and he was not petite, his arms were bulky and his shoulders too wide. When he smiled, though cheerful, his teeth were covered in metal braces. It was only in their hair color that the two looked related.
“Hey Melissa,” Roxy greeted, holding tightly onto her pink backpack straps, “What’s up?”
“Nothing much.” Melissa shrugged, then raised the key to show them, “I’m staying at my Uncle’s place.”
“Mr. Howard?” Evan asked.
Melissa nodded, “Yeah, my dad’s got company coming over, so he wanted to get me out of there.”
“That’s messed up.” Roxy bluntly commented, then turned to face the road which led out of the parking lot and towards downtown, “You guys want to go to the grocery store? I’ve got some money.”
“Where’d you get money?” Evan asked, frowning.
“Dad gave it to me.” The blonde began to walk down the road, the other two following, “He said I was a perfect daughter and the best kid ever.”
“You’re such a liar.” Evan laughed, “You stole it from the principal’s travel jar, didn’t you?”
“Shut up.” Roxy retorted.
“Travel jar?” Melissa asked.
Evan slowed his steps, walking beside Melissa. They were the same height. “You know, one of those jars that people fill with money so that they can look at it and be like, look at all that green.”
“She’s not the principal, by the way, you dipshit, she’s the superintendent.” Roxy interrupted.
“Whatever.” Evan shrugged, “Same diff. Anyways, I’ve got one of those jars, you know?”
“You guys are staying with the superintendent?” Melissa scratched her head, confused.
“Yeah,” Roxy answered, slowing down to join the line, “Or, our dad is. He wanted us to have dinner with him last night, so we had to go. You know how it is.”
Melissa nodded, “Sure do.”
“Don’t you want to know what my jar is for?” Evan asked them, raising his hands to gain their attention.
Roxy rolled her eyes, “To travel somewhere?” She said in a strained pitch.
“Nah, nah.” Evan shook his head, “It’s for something much grander.”
Melissa hummed, guessing, “Are you going to get a car? Because then you could travel anywhere.”
“No!” Evan laughed, “I’m saving up so that I can,” He hopped in front of them, holding his hands out to stop their walk, “Throw it up in the air, like this,” Tossing his arms upwards, he struck a pose. Despite herself, Melissa giggled. “And then, I’ll make it rain!” Evan concluded, shaking his hips and dancing in a ridiculous manner.
Roxy rolled her eyes, walking past him, “God, you’re so annoying.”
“Hmph.” Evan glanced at Melissa, smiling coyly before turning to follow his sister, “Well, you’re not not annoying.”
Roxy groaned, “If I have to hear you say that one more ti-”
“Hey,” Melissa paused, realizing they had reached the road that sat between the sparsely wooded park and the back of the police station, “Do you hear that?”
“What?” Evan asked, stopping as well and looking around.
With a sigh, Roxy fixed her hair and slowly came to a halt a few steps ahead of them, “I don’t hear anything.” She remarked.
“Shh.” Melissa told her.
The trio listened.
There was a clattering of metal from the manufacturing yards at the end of town. A faint breeze ruffled the varied leaves of trees. Nearby, a bird trilled for attention. The soft noise of cars driving along the roads came in and out. Still, none of the sounds were worthy of stopping. Roxy frowned.
Evan shook his head.
Melissa’s eyes widened, “There, that!” She pointed to nothing, “Did you hear it?”
Roxy shook her head, “Nope…”
“Sorry,” Evan began to walk again, “I don’t know what I should be listening for.”
“But…” Melissa glanced around, “It’s like a… uhm, a… singing, almost, but maybe humming?” She turned around with a gasp, “What?”
“Are you okay?” Roxy asked, “I don’t hear anything like that. Maybe you need to eat.”
Melissa licked her lips, frowning. The sound didn’t return. She nodded, slowly, “Yeah.. maybe.” With a shrug, she turned and they began walking again. Behind her, she heard footsteps, but she didn’t look back to them as she listened to Evan talk about the money he was collecting for his jar.
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