Summary: Nora is returning home for a quick change of clothes, but comes to discover a peculiar sight sitting in her living room. Her son and his circle of friends are lounging about, paying her no mind as they engage in some harmless activities, and even though they seem to be well-behaved, Nora can’t help but feel simultaneously suspicious and pleasantly surprised by their presence.
Nora only has fifteen minutes. She pulls up to a two-story house composed of steel and wood, glass and stone. The silhouette of the looming house rests upon the tinted shield of the black Mercedes.
She exits the vehicle and glances at the backseat. A faded blue jumpsuit stained with blotches of an unknown substance mars the pristine appearance of the black leather interior. Nora looks down at her current uniform. A coffee stain has settled into the fabric and the white stripes among the red have faded to a dull yellow. Both uniforms need to be washed but there’s not enough time.
She turns away from the vehicle and strolls past the manicured lawn. Loose strands of coiled hair fall into her face as she steps up to the oak wood porch. She attempts to fix the haphazard bun atop her head but groans when the bun just slips to the side. Before entering the house, she would usually contract the urge to cover the small holes in her clothing or hide the stains that seem to just show up sometimes, but she’s gotten better in the past few years.
Nora unlocks the mahogany door and strides into the foyer, quickly removing her shoes and placing her red pea coat on the hall tree next to a fitted blue trench coat. She pauses. That damned coat has been hanging there for years. Lately she has been meaning to put it away, maybe somewhere in the attic where it can slowly be ruined by cobwebs and moth bites, but there it remains and there it will stay until she finds the courage to do what needs to be done.
The image of an entwined silver band bearing the weight of a two carat-diamond appears within her thoughts. She finds herself rubbing the faint discoloration on her ring finger. Her eyes wander over to the downturned picture on the decorative table near the hall tree. She shakes her head in exasperation.
The parlour near the front of the house is quiet, but not all is silent. There is a rustle somewhere in the distance – a slight din, nearly imperceptible.
Nora thought for sure no one would be home at this time. She pads silently across the white marble floors towards the living room and kitchen, preparing to greet the phantom presence. She approaches the living room and stops in the doorway. Her words of greeting die on her lips. Slowly, she backs away and steps to the side, hoping that she has not been seen. She leans her head out and takes in the scene before her.
Settled in the comfort of the living room is a group of seven, among them her son. Those sitting on the sofa have their backs turned to her but she recognizes their profiles. The others might have spotted her but made no move to indicate they had acknowledged her presence.
Her eyes wander over the group.
Sitting in the center of the black leather sofa is Jay, a strikingly handsome boy with silver hair fashioned into soft spikes, and ice blue eyes. His signature diamond earring pierces his right ear – a token from his father.
She’s known the boy since he was just a baby. He’s probably the cleverest person she knows, even more intelligent than her own Kiyan. All the teachers at school also know he’s quite intelligent, but that doesn’t stop them from giving him detentions on a daily basis. The boy’s tendencies to turn his homework in much too late and to solve matters with his fists often leads to his afternoon imprisonments. Nora shakes her head as she recollects the constant calls she receives from Jay’s mother who often complains about her son’s backpack full of pink slips. In an effort to support her best friend, Nora tries to scold the boy when he comes over, but he simply gives her a dazzling smile and promises to do better.
Sudden movement within Jay’s hands captures Nora’s attention. He’s holding ivory colored sheets of paper lined and dotted with black. She gives a knowing smile. He must be composing a new symphony. Narrowing her eyes a bit, she spots his violin – scuffed with greyed chords – lying in wait upon the glass coffee table. She shakes her head in awe. If only she were that talented.
Nora diverts her attention away from Jay and settles her gaze on her son, Kiyan. Faded smudges of black paint stain his lithe fingers. She notices that he, too, holds something in his hands. A sketchbook.
Her boy is always drawing, always painting, always imagining. Kiyan’s eyes wander around the room, searching for something. Nora follows his surveying gaze. Her eyes glide over his canvases that are hung throughout the living room, stunning pieces of art that she proudly displays to all. Most of his works are in blacks, greys, and whites. But he always gives her paintings filled with bright, ardent colors. She keeps those in her room and covets the variegated portrait of herself he gave to her on her birthday last year.
After a few moments of perusing the surrounding space, his eyes fall upon the Box Elder tree planted in their backyard. He begins to sketch. Nora smiles proudly before inspecting the rest of the group.
A girl with raven hair – with one side buzzed and long tumbling tresses of black on the other – is curled up in a leather armchair next to Kiyan. Nora has only met the raven-haired beauty a few times, but remembers her name to be Elizabeth. The boys sometimes call her Lizzie.
Lizzie. What a name. She doesn’t look like a Lizzie to Nora. More like a María or an Ísabella. She remembers the girl has a slight accent when speaking. Portuguese perhaps? Or something of that nature.
Whenever Nora sees Lizzie, she can’t help but imagine her son and the girl partnered together. Both stand tall – the girl nearly six foot and her son six-foot-three – with sun-kissed skin, athletic builds, and particular charms that seem to captivate those around them. A pairing couldn’t be more stunning than those two. But Nora knows they can never love each other in that way. They are too busy treating each other like siblings and her Kiyan is too busy making fleeting acquaintances with any girl who says hello and has long brown hair.
Many times Nora returns home and visits her son’s room to briefly check on him, only to find a girl – does it matter who? – lying next to him, her body somewhat covered by the white cotton sheets. Her underwear is strewn across the room, the blanket somewhere under the bed, and her son slumbers on, oblivious to Nora’s presence.
It doesn’t anger Nora to know that her son has girls. It doesn’t bother her that he never introduces them to her. They are always gone the next morning, long before she opens her eyes to the early morning light.
She sometimes wishes that just once he might look at a girl and think she’s the one even though she may not be. Nora imagines her son experiencing that premature heartbreak that only occurs in the hearts of misguided teens who believe in love at first sight. She wants him to come home one night, his heart heavy with regret and pain, to complain about all that had gone wrong in the relationship and how he wishes that he can go back and tell his past self that there is no such thing as love at first sight. Nora would mend his broken heart and tell him there’s a girl out there waiting for him to get over his current heartbreak and go find her.
But Nora knows that this scenario is impossible. Even if her son ever found himself a girlfriend, she wasn’t so sure she’d ever get the chance to offer relationship advice. Besides, she admits she isn’t the best person to give advice on keeping a relationship alive.
Nora dismisses her silly thoughts about her son and Lizzie holding hands. Her focus returns to the girl whose name should be Ísabella.
Lizzie is madly scribbling words into a leather-bound journal with a worn binding and frayed pages. Emotions flit across her face – anger, sadness, joy, and confusion – all displayed in fleeting, intangible expressions. Nora spots some faded scars on the girl’s hands, probably some remnants of an eventful childhood. Every child has a scar or two. She can’t count the multitude of scars her son has imprinted on his lithe figure. Medals of honor her son called them after he had returned to her one afternoon with a wide gash across his forehead, a token left behind by the gnarled branch of the sycamore tree standing tall in the Graysons’ front yard next door.
Standing in front of the dark plasma screen television is Noah, the blonde, curly-haired boy with navy-framed glasses. As usual he is wearing headphones and bobbing his head to the music. He’s mumbling something under his breath, most likely lyrics to a catchy song. From the few times she has met him, the boy’s behavior is nothing new.
She thinks back to the first time she shook hands with him, his lips pressed into a tight line and his eyes wide and unblinking behind the glass lenses. He had sat on the couch the whole night, his head tilted to the side as he listened to his iPod. Later that night, Kiyan had played a few songs for him on the piano while Noah looked on with wide, expressionless eyes and lips moving in synch with the notes released from the black and white keys. He had not said a single word to her that night. In fact, Nora has yet to hear the boy speak a full sentence to her. He only grants her a cursory hello or nod of the head when passing her by. The boy’s quiet disposition doesn’t bother Nora but she can’t stop her heart from beating faster every time he stares at her until it seems he is staring straight through her. She often wonders about the type of thoughts that zip through his mind as he stares at the world around him. But as long as her son and Jay take solace in his company, Nora tries to suspend her suspicions.
Still, Nora prefers not to receive the brunt of Noah’s stare any time soon. So, she looks to Jorge, who prefers to be called Georgie, a tan-skinned boy with light brown hair and hazel eyes. He is lying on the floor with a bright smile plastered on his face. His smile and tendency to laugh at anything that’s even remotely funny makes him one of Nora’s favorite members of her son’s group of friends.
Sounds of laughter erupt from Georgie’s laptop followed by a muffled, incoherent voice accentuated with an echo and subtle sounds of static. There are moments when he bursts out laughing, and then writes something down in a notebook he keeps next to his laptop. Narrowing down the possibilities, Nora determines he is watching a stand-up comedy show and writing down his favorite jokes.
Looking at him now, Nora reminds herself to water the tulips he had bought for her the other day that now sit in an alabaster vase set in the center of the granite island in the kitchen.
Paul, a handsome boy blessed with a full head of sand blonde hair and a boatload of charm, is sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor, his upper body bent down as he scribbles in his notebook. A calculus textbook lies before him, the pages clean and white, not a single mark in them. He’s writing quickly, no hesitations or confused expressions. He doesn’t even take the time to look in the back of the book and check his solution before moving on to the next problem.
Kiyan is always bragging to Nora about Paul’s proficiency in mathematics but she’s never seen him in action before. She shakes her head in disbelief as she spots something else. An SAT study guide lies next to Paul, the pages open to the reading comprehension section. The tests won’t be administered until after winter break and it’s only October.
A bit dumbfounded at the boy’s tenacity and more than a little embarrassed by her own mathematic abilities, Nora moves her gaze away from Paul to focus on the last boy in the group.
The boy called “Z” is possibly the most enigmatic creature Nora has ever met. No one knows his real name and no one asks about it. Standing nearly six-foot-five, pale-skinned and black-haired, “Z” is easily the most imposing of the seven. He barely spoke to her the first time they met and he barely speaks to her now.
Wondering what he might be doing in his spare time, she looks to his hands to see if he might be doing his homework as well, or writing a symphony, or sketching, or anything of the sort. Instead, she sees nothing. He is doing nothing.
The boy is staring straight ahead, his hands lightly resting upon his thighs, his face expressionless. Confused, Nora trains her eyes in the direction of the boy’s gaze, but there is only a blank, ivory wall. No pictures, no cracks, no window. Nothing.
Nora dismisses the boy quickly. She begins to question her son’s choice to befriend the mysterious boy but quickly repels the thought. If her son and Jay like “Z,” then there must be some redeeming quality about him.
Though her son has introduced her to each person in the group, Nora has never seen them all at once. She wonders how often these seven teens come together after school.
Nora knows that she worries too much about her son’s actions but several times she has caught him staring at the picture in the hall, and other times she has caught him smoking on the porch late at night, staring into the curtain of darkness with dead eyes. When she works up the courage to confront him, he simply shrugs and laughs it off. He pats her on the head and tells her not to worry.
But seeing him there with his friends chased away all her worries. Of course he’s a good boy. She raised him to be so. She’d be damned if all her hard work to keep him happy – working three jobs a day and paying as much of the mortgage as she can manage – went to waste.
Nora finally steps into the doorway. “Hello, everyone!” she says with cheer.
All seven gazes turn upon Nora. No one seems surprised to see her there but most of them give her bright smiles.
“Hey, Mom,” Kiyan says to her. His dark brown eyes glimmer in the sunrays streaming in from the glass windows.
“Hey, Momma,” Jay says. Nora loves it when he calls her that. His real mother might love it as well, if only he’d say it to her. If only he’d say anything nice to his mother.
Nora walks up to her son, kisses his forehead, and backs away. She does the same to her honorary son who reciprocates with a kiss to her cheek.
“Sorry, Miss Momma. Didn’t get you anything today except my heart,” Georgie says to her from across the room.
“Oh, how sweet of you,” Nora says with a laugh. The smiling boy gives her a wink before turning his attention back to his laptop. Paul waves at her and Lizzie blows her a kiss. Noah and “Z” say nothing as expected.
“Don’t mind me. I’ll just be a minute before I leave. See you in a bit.” She waves to the group of seven before turning away and heading up the stairs to rest her feet for a minute or two and prepare for her next shift.
A few moments pass. Downstairs, the group of seven hear the sound of a door closing. Once sure Nora is out of earshot, the seven speak.
“Dammit! What the hell is your mom doing here? She’s supposed to be at work,” Jay growls as he looks to Kiyan.
Kiyan shrugs nonchalantly. “I don’t know. Maybe her boss let her off early today.”
“Well, this makes things a little more difficult,” Elizabeth says, a slight accent tingeing her soft, lilting voice.
“Yeah. So what do we do?” Georgie asks as he closes down his laptop and focuses his attention on the conversation.
Jay pauses for a second before answering. “We do what we always do at this time.”
Kiyan looks to his best friend and raises his brow in surprise. “You sure?”
“Yeah,” the blonde boy answers without a second thought. “This is the only time we can all be together.” He eyes the clock on the wall before turning his gaze on Kiyan. “How much time do you think we have?”
“Well, when she arrived, she had fifteen minutes to rest. She wasted about ten minutes spying on us and it takes her about fifteen to twenty minutes to get to work. So, I’d say about five minutes. Probably less.”
Jay nods slowly. “All right then. Any ideas?”
Kiyan tilts his head in contemplation. After a few moments he finally says, “There’s a Camaro down the street.”
The other members of the group begin to nod their heads in agreement.
“No, no. I’ve seen that car a couple of times. The engine’s too loud,” Jay says, quickly dismissing the thought. He then looks to the raven-haired girl.
“Well,” Lizzie begins quietly. She stops and thinks for a second before continuing. “There are some grey walls in the district over.”
“No. We did that last week.” Jay moves his gaze away from Lizzie and looks to the next person. “No–” he begins before stopping.
Noah – still wearing headphones – is moving his head in synch with some musical rhythm, completely oblivious to the events taking place.
“Never mind,” Jay says drily. He points to the next person. “Georgie?”
“Mrs. Simmons has an awesome flat screen!”
Jay groans heavily and shakes his head once more. “No. I’m not in the mood for that. Too much of a hassle. Paul?”
Paul lifts his head from his homework, his grey eyes distracted. He frowns as he looks down, eyeing an unfinished math problem. “I’m fine with anything,” he mumbles before returning his attention back to his notebook.
Jay rolls his eyes and sighs heavily. There is only one more person left and there is absolutely no guarantee that he will even say anything.
Looking to the boy sitting to his left, Jay asks weakly, “Z?”
No one says a word. When a minute passes by, everyone in the group begins to give up hope that “Z” will answer. Before Jay can throw up his hands in defeat, the pale-skinned boy speaks.
“There are a few abandoned warehouses in the business district. I’ve heard gas has leaked onto the floors. We should go.” He turns his blank, green eyes upon Jay. “And bring a few matches, maybe?”
A slow, gleeful smile creeps onto Jay’s face. He looks to everyone in the group, their expressions matching his own.
“Well, I guess we know what we’re doing this weekend,” Jay concludes.
The seven nod their heads, Noah being the only one to nod his head to the music, before settling back into their silence and resuming their activities from before.
As if on cue, the sound of an opening door fills the space, followed by a hurried pace and staccato breath. Nora comes flying down the dark wooden steps, outfitted in an uninspiring ensemble of black pants, a simple black t-shirt, and a black waist apron. A ponytail has replaced her bun, allowing her long, chestnut brown hair to flow down her back in a riot of curls. Three of the boys exchange a cheeky smile.
Nora sweeps into the living room and stops for a second to take in the scene once more. It all seems so wonderful but she can’t help to feel a bit uneasy. She’s watched the Lifetime movies and she’s seen some high school dramas. It’s common for kids to spend time together in large groups but it’s also common for kids to engage in some unseemly activities while the parents aren’t looking.
A twinge of fear clutches Nora’s heart. Does her son and his friends always behave this way when she’s not here or did she just catch them at a good time?
No. These are good kids. Teens nowadays get swept up in all kinds of things but these seven are different. They could be doing whatever they want at this time but instead they choose to engage in something productive. Nora is relieved to know that there are still some good kids out there and her Kiyan is one of them.
They continue in their occupations, oblivious to her presence. Nora sighs happily. “You all are such great kids.”
There’s a diner that Nora visits every Friday afternoon during her lunch break. It’s an old brick building with red vinyl booths that were bought during the sixties and ivory laminate counters edged with weathered bands of metal. An old jukebox sits in the corner of the restaurant, but it’s just for show.
The menu hasn’t changed since the diner opened. Greasy cheeseburgers served with slightly overcooked steak fries and chocolate banana milkshakes crowned with an extra topping of whipped heart attack are the staples of the restaurant’s obscure name. Every Friday, Nora indulges herself with this cheap, delicious meal while sitting in the second-to-last cracked vinyl booth near the back wall, next to the large window facing the busy street.
She had taken her son to the diner a few times when he was much younger, but his interest in the retro diner had faded many years ago, as did many other things. She’d invited him to eat lunch with her one Friday afternoon recently, but he’d made such an effort to criticize the little restaurant that she couldn’t bear to invite him along again. Her son didn’t very much like the brightness of the diner or the smiling waiters and waitresses who offered to refill his water glass every ten minutes.
He found it bothersome. She found it remarkable. Despite their views on the diner, he had offered to buy her meal, possibly as a peace offering for his behavior.
Nora smiles as she makes her way to the diner. Though her son has his flaws, it seems he always tries to make up for them. A colorful painting here and there, a special dinner date, a surprise birthday party he had planned with the help of his best friend. She cannot help but be happy with him around.
She carefully weaves through the pedestrians on the city sidewalk. Nora likes to spend her time at the diner on Friday afternoons but she never really has that much time. Only about forty minutes. Usually less. Thankfully the diner isn’t far from her afternoon job. On a good day, it takes her about ten minutes to brave the streets and find a table. Luckily, she’d recently become good friends with one of the waitresses at the diner. So, for the past few months she has arrived with a prepped table and an order already placed in her name.
Nora rounds the corner and stops. The front of the diner is cordoned off with gaudy yellow police tape that reads “CAUTION.” A small crowd is gathered near the entrance. Two police cars with spinning red and blue siren lights are parked haphazardly among the parked cars of the diner’s lot. An ambulance peels out of the lot and sails past Nora as she approaches the crowd. She spots a familiar face in the gathering and politely pushes past the curious bystanders to reach the young woman dressed in the diner’s candy-striped uniform.
“Valerie!” she calls out.
The woman turns around and motions for her to hurry. Nora sidles up next to the waitress and lifts herself up on her tiptoes to try to see over the onlookers. One policeman is holding out his arms in a makeshift barrier, shouting out a few “please step back”s and “nothing to see here”s. The crowd pulsates around her, slowly pushing her and her companion towards the front.
“What happened?” Nora asks.
“Don’t know, really. I showed up only a few minutes ago to start my shift and reserve your table. But the police were already here,” Valerie says to her. The woman cranes her neck and frowns as she spots something. “I think there might have been a robbery or something. Someone might have been hurt. The window’s broken and I think I see blood.”
Nora maintains her distance so as not to annoy the officer, but tries her best to peek into the gaping entrance of the diner. The interior is mostly intact with the exception of a few overturned chairs and the shattered window. Her eyes scan the ground littered with shards of thick cut glass and thin blood smears.
A small white flash emits from the floor, just a bit a ways away from the officer’s foot. Nora squints at the small little object. It’s a golden chain bracelet with a single charm in the shape of a leafless tree. A black and yellow number is placed next to the jewelry, marking it as evidence. Nora squeezes her eyes shut and tries to steady her breathing.
She can still remember the day, about ten years ago, when he had opened the small little jewelry box. Several black and white balloons had floated up to the ceiling as the party wore on. The cake was half eaten and Jay lay on the couch, exhausted from chasing his best friend around the living room. A mass of torn wrapping paper lay among the collection of toys and art tools the guests had gifted to her son. He had given them the best smile he cold muster, even though she could tell his heart hurt from the one missing present he would never receive again.
During the relaxing after party, a few of her friends and their children talked quietly in the kitchen while Nora and Kiyan sat in the living room. She drew him close and whispered to him, “I have a special present for you.”
She stole away to her room, grabbed the little box from her dresser and returned to her son, who waited patiently while curled up next to his sleeping best friend. He raised himself to his feet and gently cradled the box as she placed it in his small hands. Nora watched with a large smile as her son opened the box, smiled brightly, and flung his arms around her, and kissed her on the cheek.
Nora bent down to place the golden bracelet around his ankle. The leafless tree charm tinkled against the chain as he waltzed around the room, showing off his new piece of jewelry. He promised to never take it off.
As the years passed, her son had taken the bracelet to the jewelers to have the chain elongated as he grew into his teenage years.
Nora turns to the police officer and waves her hand to catch his attention.
“Excuse me? Excuse me,” she says to him quietly.
The officer, noticeably a rookie on the job, looks to her. “Yes, ma’am?”
“May I ask what’s happened? I come here often and I’d just like to know if anyone got hurt.”
The young officer hesitates for a bit, but could tell Nora was not a threat. “About fifteen or twenty minutes ago the diner was attacked. One person was shot in the shoulder. Bullet went clean through and shattered the glass. Those who were here during the initial attack say there was more than one perp. They were wearing gas masks though, so no IDs just yet. That’s about all I can say ma’am.” The officer dismisses her once more and shouts at the crowd to step back.
Nora heaves a great sigh and checks her watch. Her lunch break is over.
“So how was your day?” Nora says to her son after work.
He is lounging on the couch with his feet resting on the coffee table, his textbooks and notes scattered all around him. He is taking a break and sketching a rough portrait of her.
“It was fine,” he mumbles.
She bends down and kisses him on the cheek, sneaking a glance at his bare ankles. “Hungry?”
He finishes sketching her riotous curls and moves onto her eyes. She watches silently as he sets a bright, happy gleam in her two-dimensional irises.
“No thanks. I already ate,” he says without looking at her.
“All right then,” she says quietly. She ruffles his hair and moves away.
Nora glides upstairs and gets ready to face another long day of hard work.