“Okay Mom,” he yelled, yanking the blankets over his head. “Okay, I’m up already! Gimme a break! I don’t know why I have to get up before the sun. It only takes a minute to get ready.” Struggling through the fog in his head, Justin rubbed his eyes and shook his head trying to clear it.
“Man, that dream was so real.” The dream, so vivid only minutes ago, faded quickly as he awoke fully. Only a vague memory of his father, long dead now, spoke to him as they stood together among the stars. While most of the conversation was gone now, there was something about it being time. Time for what? That was so fricking weird.
As the dream faded completely, Justin gave in to the inevitable, sat up, and tossed the covers to one side.
Today began as every other day began…unfortunately for Justin. Still having homework with only a week left in the school year, his ever growing and never-ending mountain of chores, his ancient cell phone, and, most important of all, the lack of privacy in his own home were chief among his gripes.
“Don’t give me that tone of yours, young man. Just get yourself up here with a smile on your face and get your breakfast before you miss your bus.”
Mumbling through his hands as he scrubbed his face, Justin argued back. “Maybe if you would drive me to school I wouldn’t have to get up so fricking early just to catch the bus.” He made that mistake once before of saying this sort of thing loud enough for his mother to hear and did not want a repeat of that long lecture again, so he was more careful to not let her actually hear his response. The twice-daily torment on the rolling yellow prison was unbearable. Did she really need to remind me about the bus? As he brushed his teeth, a new strategy came to him and his mood brightened. His mind searched through dozens of ways to open the conversation once again before settling on what he considered the most irrefutable, and logical argument. Putting on his best Mom-pleasing smile and one last check in the mirror, he bounded up the stairs. The meadowlarks sang sweetly in the field behind the house as he entered the kitchen.
“So Mom, I heard they’re going to start charging extra to ride the bus next year…”
“Hurry and finish breakfast so you can fix your lunch, young man. The bus will be here before you know it.” Justin poured a bowl of Apple Jacks and chugged his orange juice, then went to examine the fridge. PB and J on whole grain bread, an apple and an organic juice box. “Don’t forget to take one of those packs of carrots too,” his mom called out as he stuffed everything into a reusable bag.
“And another thing. I’m not going to be your personal chauffer, mister. We are perfectly able to afford any sort of bus fee. It won’t kill you to take the bus. You could even do some homework or extra studying on the ride if you put your mind to it. Your grades aren’t so perfect you couldn’t put more effort into them, you know…” Her soapbox speech lasted for a good three minutes, rambling from one pointless reason to the next. Justin zoned her out—a skill perfected by most teenagers. He only caught the edges of her diatribe and forgot the details.
He sat back at the table and added some milk to his cereal, but did not lift the spoon to eat any of it. Two fingers of his left hand scratched nervously at the table. “I don’t like the bus. They bully me on the bus and nobody does anything about it.”
She moved to empty the dishwasher, but cocked her head, carefully measuring her son’s mood. “Have you reported it to the dean at school?”
Realizing he had made the comment too loudly, Justin shrugged his shoulders, sighed, and decided his best course of action was to finish his complaint before the “I am your mother and you can tell me anything,” speech started up. He gobbled up a mouthful of cereal while he organized his thoughts. “I tried once, but that only made it worse. Nobody would be a witness so all they got was a warning. Everyone except Kevin looks at me like I’m some sort of freak. I try to fit in, but I don’t know anything about the benefits of Xbox versus PlayStation. I can’t text them, or go on Snapchat to talk with them. They all laugh at me in the lunchroom. I don’t fit in with them, so I’m a target. You don’t understand. The school can’t do anything about it so I just try to ignore it. Besides, they’re right. I’m weird.”
Justin’s mom stood up with a handful of plates and turned to face him. Her eyes narrowed as she tilted her head. “What do you mean weird? What makes you say such a thing?”
Justin swallowed another spoonful of his breakfast, sat back, and leaned on one elbow as he faced his mom. “You know… just weird. I don’t like the same things other kids my age like. Those video games they play all the time give me headaches. The glasses you got me help some, but they’re trash. Can’t I get contacts like everyone else? I don’t get what they see in all those dumb You Tube videos. I mean, like really, what’s so hilarious about cats playing the piano after the first eighty-three times you’ve seen it? And I enjoy reading real books, not Audible or Overdrive everyone has. I mean, like real paper books. Real books never give me migraines. Those books just don’t feel right to me. You see? I’m just weird.”
His mother sighed and placed a gentle hand on Justin’s shoulder. “All that means is you have better things to occupy your brain and your time with than all the nonsense those other kids are filling their brains with. You’re not weird, honey, you’re more mature than they are. You’ll see. In a few years they’ll all catch up with you and things won’t seem so bad.”
Justin rolled his eyes at her well-meant remark, knowing she simply did not understand the problem. “So, in the meantime, can you like give me a ride in to school instead of making me ride the bus?” Her look instantly told him the answer had not changed. “Well then, can I get a real phone instead of this piece of crap? At least they won’t be able to mess with me about having a junk phone.” That last statement escaped his lips before he even realized it. He knew it was a mistake, but just couldn’t help himself again. Oh crap!
“Justin Madrid, we’ve been over this before.” His mother’s voices suddenly became a lot less motherly as she continued her efforts to clean up the kitchen. “You said it yourself: going on the internet gives you headaches, and you know how I feel about kids your age being able to text anyone at any time. You don’t need that sort of distraction. You know I don’t even have one of those idiotic smart phones myself. A phone should just be a phone. Now let’s not have any more of this nonsense. I have work to do. Finish your breakfast. If you want, I’ll go in and have a talk with the principal about the bullying.”
“No!” he shouted, spewing cereal from his mouth. “Don’t talk to anybody about anything, Mom.” He turned to face her. His hands gripped the table so hard his knuckles turned white. “You’ll only make things worse. I can deal with it on my own. School is just about over anyway. Maybe next year I won’t feel like such an alien.”
She turned to face him, her eyes wide as if in shock. The muscles in her forearms knotted as her grip on the dish towel tightened. The morning sun coming through the window caught Justin at the perfect angle. For a mere second, his eyes reflected golden the soft light, the way a dog or cat’s eyes reflect a car’s headlights at night.
His mother’s face paled and she dropped the plate she was drying. It shattered loudly all over the floor. She grabbed the counter top to steady herself before kneeling down to recover the shards.
“Mom! Are you okay?” He jumped up to help her pick up the pieces off the floor.
“I’m fine. It just slipped. Must have still been wet, I guess. What was it you said?”
“No, I’m serious.” Her voice trembled slightly despite her effort to control the fear. “What did you say about being an alien?”
Justin sighed, rolled his eyes again, and reached for another piece of broken plate, forcing up a few tears for added effect. “I just said that sometimes I feel like I’m so different from everyone else my age I must be from another planet or something. Don’t go all crazy over it, okay? You have enough to worry about taking care of us on your own and all. It’s just… like a kid thing, Okay? Let’s not turn it into a big deal. Don’t worry about me, I’ll figure it out.”
His mom sat up onto her knees and took Justin’s hands in hers, capturing his attention with her gentleness. “Justin, I know things have been tough for you lately. I’ve tried to be both parents to you, but you’re getting older now and I’m not sure how to handle some of the things you’re going through. I’m sorry your dad can’t be here for you.”
He felt her hands shaking as he saw the worry on her face. “I’m fine, Mom. You’re the best mom ever and I love you. The only way I even know anything at all about him is because of all the stories you tell me. Are you sure you’re okay?”
She tousled his hair and placed one hand on his cheek. “Just go get yourself changed before you miss the bus. I’ll finish up here.”