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Maple and Pine

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“We’re going to put you down for the lumber department, then. It’s where we definitely need the most people. The first week is all online training for product knowledge and customer service, so you can do the various lift training after you’ve been on the floor for a while. Now, I understand you have limited availability?” The manager, Brian, said. He was probably in his 40’s, deep dimples in his cheeks from his wide grin. There’s a twinkle in his soft brown eyes that she isn’t sure how he could possibly have retained this far into life when she is half his age and hers flickered out years ago. His tight curls bounced as he looked down at her application and then back up at her encouragingly.

His energy must rub off on her a little bit and Adora nods, a bright smile masking her nerves at the thought of not only having to operate heavy machinery but also give advice to customers on projects that could cost them thousands of dollars. She was really banking on her strength and cheery outward appearance to help her thrive in this new job, especially with how hard she pretended to care about customer service. She knew from the trips she had taken to this very store that, while she sure didn’t care much about lumber, as long as she could lift heavy with a smile she was golden. The guy said himself that they would do a week of product training, and if there was one thing she could do it was memorize and regurgitate facts. You don’t become valedictorian if you’ve got a bad memory.

“I gave my schedule to HR for the remainder of the soccer season, which lasts until late November, but my availability opens up significantly after that. I still have class and team training but it is way more flexible and individual than it is at the height of the season. I am happy to work around it where I can to better serve the department’s needs, and then it won’t be a concern again until next Fall,” She replies, voice steady.

They shake on it, his warm hand engulfing hers. Her 5’ 8” wasn’t short, but the manager had to be at least 6’ 4” and his massive hand dwarfed her own. With a few parting words she agrees to come in for her first day of training on Friday, 3 days from now. Her shoulders visibly relax as she exits the conference room and makes her way through the warehouse. Pulling her hood up over her head and buttoning her denim jacket tighter, she wishes the cashiers a good day as she walks out of the exit, in much better spirits than when she walked in. As long as she left that day with a job she was happy, and honestly relieved.

The bus ride home was long, rush hour traffic slowing it significantly. The Home Depot was just on the edge of the city limits, and unfortunately that meant that to get home she had to take the bus Northwest through the center of campus and then transfer to the line that ran due East to her apartment, in a giant frustrating triangle. No one lived in the industrial district just outside of town, so even though it would make her life a lot easier, there wasn’t a bus that ran the perimeter of the city. She stared out the window at the angular, gunmetal skyscrapers looming overhead. Dotting the sidewalks were expertly pruned trees, changing leaves that whipped in the wind through the grey mist. She observed for a few minutes, getting used to the sway of the lumbering machine before pulling out her Biology textbook and a spiral notebook to get started on her homework questions. It was absolutely packed, but she managed to find standing room at the front right next to the ledge behind the driver’s seat. Having a spot to place her book was nice, but the real benefit was the fresh air that came every time the driver opened the door, a brief relief from the musky dampness of rubber boots and soaked clothing. Bending a leg and shifting her weight, bracing a shoulder against the window to balance herself, she got to work reading through the chapter, taking notes and working to absorb the material. The slightly bent over position wasn’t great for her back but she pushed that thought out of her mind to get started on her work. She would have to be even more on top of her studies now that she was taking away a lot of her free time to start working. The height of soccer season might not have been the best time to get a job. Her performance on the team and academics had to come first, but there were things her scholarships didn’t cover, things she couldn’t pretend she didn’t need anymore.

Not when people were starting to notice. When people started to notice is when they tried to help, and she couldn’t let them waste their resources on her if she could do something as simple as getting a job.

The bus rolled to a stop outside of the biggest apartment complex in town, over half of the occupants disembarking to head home. She gathers her books and makes her way off, thanking the driver and moving to stand in the shelter of the bus stop. The mist has turned into massive droplets that hammer the plexiglass in loud torrents, an almost deafening roar battering her eardrums. While she waits for her next bus she pulls out her phone to pass the time and finds a few messages from Glimmer.

Good luck at your interview!

Be safe! See you when you get home! We’ll wait up for you before we leave for dinner!

She smiles at the thoughtful messages and types a quick reply, letting her know that she was at the transfer stop just as the bus pulls up. She has to deal with standing room again for the first couple of stops, but by the fourth traffic has started to wind down, and she manages to find two adjacent seats at the back of the bus so she can spread her things out and get back to studying. Passengers come and go in the five or so stops remaining on the way to her apartment complex, but it never fills up to the degree that the first ride did on the way into town. The buses would only get more full as the weather worsened, already unseasonably cold for mid September.

It’s nearly dark when the bus lumbers up to her stop, and she thanks the driver as she departs. The cool breeze and few raindrops that dodge her hood wash over her face and help beat back the nausea from the swaying bus ride as she walks down the sidewalk to her building. Making her way up to her floor she unlocks the door and barely makes it into the apartment before she is bombarded with questions.

“How did it go?”

“Did you get the job?”

“The weather was terrible, how was the bus ride?”

She stares back and forth at Glimmer and Bow, waiting for them to calm down so she can get to answering their questions. They’re in matching sweaters; Glimmer’s so big it swallows her and Bow’s hugging his muscular arms and shoulders.

“The interview went great and I got the job! I start training on Friday after class. The bus ride was fine, and I even got some studying done.”

They each congratulate her with a hug and set out to dinner, giving her a look and making her promise to eat before they get home. Having their date night on Tuesdays meant they could stay up as late as they wanted since neither of them had class until the afternoon on Wednesdays. Adora never looked forward to spending the evening alone, but at least the quiet would allow her to study.

Their apartment was small but cozy, a shared space just big enough for their TV, couch, an armchair, and a coffee table. There was a kitchen with so little counter space they often had to encroach on the dining table for cooking space. On the opposite side of the apartment from the entrance door was the hallway that led to their bedrooms, hers on one side and Glimbow’s (she didn’t call them that, but Bow immortalized their ship name with a plaque on the door) on the other with the bathroom at the very end of the hall between them. She smiles when she looks around at the framed photos hanging on the walls. Pictures of herself, Bow, and Glimmer as well as a few of each of their parents from birthdays, anniversaries, graduation, holidays, random movie nights, and any instance in between. She was loved, and she loved her found family, but at the same time she tried not to think too hard about how the majority of those photos had three kids, but only two sets of parents.

She wipes away the tear forming at the corner of her eye, the one that had been threatening to fall ever since she saw the date on her phone this morning.

Eleven years. It had been eleven years since her best friend was adopted, leaving the foster home, and her, forever. Eleven years ago today they had gotten home from school to find the two women that had visited a few times before, there to take her best friend home with them. Her heart tore itself in two that day. She was happy, so deliriously happy that the person she loved the most got a happy ending, got the family they had always talked about, whispered about on those nights that they were kept awake from the nightmares. Yet there was a sadness that drew her down into darkness at the thought that they would never see each other again, would never get to spend their lives together like they talked about.

She allowed herself to dream, for a while after the adoption, that she would find the same thing. She thought if she was good enough, well behaved and got good grades that she would be adopted too. She would get out from Ms. Weaver’s home, with a family of her own and new parents that would want her, and she would go in search of her best friend again.

Dreams are just that; dreams.

Shaking herself from her memories, their bitterness leaving her mouth slanted with a foul taste, she returns to her homework. She pours all of her focus into the remainder of the questions in her Biology chapter and then switches over to her Calculus problems. The problems scramble her brain, her least favorite subject wearing away at her emotional and intellectual energy as the quiet of her apartment sinks into her bones. While she liked Biology, she was excited for next semester when she got to take Advanced Anatomy and Physiology, and Kinesiology 325, the prerequisite for which was some stupid lower level oral communication class that she had to finish before registering for upper level classes. Every day when the bus ride home took her by the Sports Science Research Center, part of Brightmoon Hospital’s extensive research partnerships, she got more and more excited to just get her degree over with so she could work on getting her Doctorate of Physical Therapy. She had a pretty good relationship with the head of the department, and already knew that when she graduated she would be more than willing to write her letters of recommendation. She just had to get there first.

She finished her homework and, with distractions dwindling the cough deep in her chest and the ache in her back grew more pronounced until she had to take a break to lay down. She had to remind herself that she was happy. She had love, friends, a family that she had pieced together from scratch, the means to get the career that she wanted, the support she needed to do so. She just couldn’t shake that feeling, that knowledge that there was a piece of it that was missing, would always be missing.

That feeling of loss, of grief, broke the dam holding in the rest of the feelings she didn’t feel like processing, was too busy to allow herself to lose focus and confront. She couldn’t let it distract her; the weight in her chest, the hand around her heart, the lead in her lungs, the dagger twisting in her stomach. She couldn’t let something intangible, that wasn’t even really hurting her, distract her when she needed to be focused.

There would be time, just not now. She could wait.

This time of year, when the leaves turned and she could see her breath in a cloud of fog, she could close her eyes and tattooed behind her eyelids was the image of that car driving away from her, a pair of mismatched eyes looking back at her, disappearing over the hill at the end of the street.

And never coming back.

Everyone said things wouldn’t always be this hard, but when exactly were they supposed to get easier?

***

Catra tries her hardest not to slam the door when she walks into her house, knowing that it would just wake her moms up and make them worry. Worry always leads to a discussion around the dining room table, something that she was never into and seldom ready for. The cold seeped into her and made her quake, while the ache she felt, the ache she could normally deal with, was compounded over the course of her particularly long day. Kicking her day off with a Chemistry lab, followed by a lecture in the Humanities building across campus, and ending with an 8 hour shift made Tuesdays her worst day of the week by far.

Brightmoon University was one of the nation’s most prestigious colleges, each major featuring a program curated by some of the most brilliant minds in the world. For Catra it was her dream college, the Art program in particular was headed by faculty who had done everything from freelance sculpture, working on movie sets, and curating art in museums in France. While digital media had grown on her in the past few years, to her nothing beat more traditional media. There was just something about the sound of a brush flowing over paper, the smoothness of wet clay in your palms, the raised hairs on the back of your neck when a palette knife scraped just right against canvas. Those sensations were always accompanied by the feeling that you were making something, really creating.

The School of Business was one of the top programs in the world, with faculty from fortune 500 companies and startups alike. By the time she left she would have the tools to excel in her own work and a business portfolio to get her any job in the city. BU’s campus took up the entirety of the Southeast quadrant of their largest metropolis, Brightmoon, for which it was named. It was surrounded by firms and companies that hired most of their interns and entry level employees from the university directly. It was an opportunity she needed, the low acceptance rate meaning that she was in the upper percentile of high school graduates to have applied.

The grandeur of the city could not outweigh the exhaustion of the commute. Upon her acceptance to the accredited institution she was met with the decision she had been dreading since she was 14 and classmates began to talk about their fantasies of what college would be like. All she felt was unparalleled dread at the idea of having to share a room, living in a dorm with so many strangers in such close proximity. She was disappointed to say the least when she learned that her options were to share a double, or live off campus. Housing was guaranteed to incoming freshmen who applied for it, but it was rare for freshmen to get a single room, and thus her decision was made. The anxiety that came with the possibility of having to share a room, and finding out later if the person she was sharing it with was safe or not, wasn’t something she was willing to mess with while she was supposed to be focusing on school work. The commute from her parents house was usually eaten up by a podcast, but when traffic was bad enough that the episode she was listening to ended before she even got into the city proper, and not only was she over an hour into her drive but the groove she was in had to restart with the intro of the next on her list, her mood worsened by the mile. Not surprisingly, with the rain, today was one of those days.

She kicked off her boots, rolling her jeans up so the soaked hem didn’t get her socks or the floor dirty, and made her way to the kitchen. It was a single family home, a ranch style that she was thankful for since it meant she didn’t have to go up stairs with her ever stiffening hip. The entry door opened to a cozy den, a plush carpet where she would play in the evenings, watching the front door for her mama while mom sat in an armchair reading. She remembered the excitement of hearing a car pull up in the driveway, a door slam, and the creak of the storm door swinging open as she scrambled to get up and run to meet her at the door once it finally opened. Her mama would drop her messenger bag, scoop her up in a hug, and they would spend the rest of the evening playing on the floor until it was time for dinner. She smiled, thinking of those early memories of the first house she had lived in that really felt like a home. Living at home in her second year of college, when all of her friends were in the city, made her feel stunted sometimes, like she was moving slower than they were. But when this place meant so much to her, and the people here loved her, the feeling she got when she walked in the door made it so much better.

She worked close to campus so she could get to her shift as soon as she finished class, but that meant that she worked far from her house. Her shift ended at 11, and with the drive home it was now much later than her moms normally went to bed. She definitely didn’t expect them to be up, and was surprised to see the kitchen light on.

Why they like being high school teachers is beyond her, when they’re both qualified to teach college and they wouldn’t need to be at work at 6:30 am.

If they hadn’t taught at her high school, though, nobody would have found her that day. No one would have known where to look and, while they didn’t think it was healthy to talk about what would have happened if no one found her, she knows it would have been too late.

“Hey kid, rough day?” Netossa said leaning in the entryway. She was cool and calm most of the time, but it was obvious when she was worried. She had lived here for eleven years and the woman still tried to act cool when she was really just a big softie for her family. It’s late, and while they must have had dinner hours ago, ma sets a warm bowl of soup on the table with a grilled cheese sandwich and a steaming cup of tea, while mom places a hand on her upper back between her shoulder blades and ushers her over to the table to take a seat. She’s their kid after all, and they knew better than anyone what day it was and how she would feel, not to mention how bad Tuesdays were and how much worse it was made by the weather.

“Leave her alone, dear. She’ll talk if she wants to. You know how college is,” Spinerella chides, kissing her wife on the cheek and taking her hand.

They both eye her with gentle smiles and she blushes, looking down and taking a spoon full of the tomato soup, feeling the warmth soothe her aching throat. Even after all this time, when she knows they love her and she loves them back, she still catches herself surprised that it hasn’t ended yet. They accepted her through everything she threw at them, all of the horrible things she said about herself when she was still discovering who she was and what that meant. They never let go, even when she wanted to let go herself.

A weight still settles in her chest when she overhears a conversation in the library or from customers in the next aisle over, talking about her whether they know it or not. How would they react, how would they treat her if they knew that she was one of “those people?” They debated about her fundamental rights in classrooms as though people like her weren’t really people at all. Like her existence was something sensational; to be joked about and laughed at. Like her body was something for other people to control. It made her feel hopeless, like the fight she had put up to accept herself didn’t mean anything because others would always see her as someone dressing up for attention.

“Yeah Ma, rough day,” She whispers, voice raspy and losing the pitch she worked so hard to keep up for the last 14 hours. It just made her feel worse.

Oh we’re spiraling today are we?

“Hey, kid,” Ma starts, placing a warm hand on her shoulder. She flinches a little at the contact, a byproduct of her day spent guarded and cautious. Netossa takes it in stride and squeezes gently, grounding her with the comforting embrace. She could tell when the flinch meant let go and when it meant please don’t let go.

“We love you, you know that? And I’m proud of you,” She says it with such conviction, such absolution, that Catra forgets for a moment that she is 20 years old and lets herself be the 9 year old she was all of those years ago when she laid in her new bed in her new home, and her new moms took turns rubbing her back until she fell asleep on nights when she just couldn’t stop missing Adora.

Today would always be rough, though. She still had that image in the back of her mind of Adora standing at the end of Ms. Weaver’s driveway, smiling and waving at her like she was going to see her again.

She never did.

Everyone said things wouldn’t always be this hard, but when exactly were they supposed to get easier?