Kaitlin Warner sat at the reception desk in that dreadfully stuffy room, watching the wounded come in and out. Her eyes followed the girl in the navy-blue sweater, taking in her smudged eyeshadow, red nose, and puffy cheeks. Just an hour before, that girl had been a porcelain doll: hair coiffed, makeup flawless. Kaitlin was sick of looking at broken people.
The boy writing things down by the window, he was a shelter dog. The look in his eyes said the world had screwed him, but he still had some life left. Kaitlin couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was something off about him. Her eyes always came back to him and his notebook.
The guy in the corner seat was different. He didn’t belong. Kaitlin guessed he’d always been picked first in gym class. What’s your kryptonite, she wondered. She was willing to bet that his parents were involved. It was almost always the parents’ fault. Addiction, abuse, you name it. There was too much room for error. Kaitlin believed the success of the counseling industry would plummet if people who weren’t meant to have children would stop having children. The likelihood was just too great that the kid would end up another sad puppy, leaving this office once a week with dried tears on her face and her shoulders sagging.
Just two more months at this desk, Kaitlin told herself. Then back to the real world. She glanced at the dark screen of her desktop, where her bored reflection looked back at her. She could just barely make out the bags under her eyes. The landlord needed her rent check. Yesterday. Pursing her lips, Kaitlin turned her attention to the trees outside the window. They were bending a bit in the wind. She had to get out of here. The constant glimpses into these kids’ screwed-up lives made it impossible to ignore her own. Just fifty-six more days and her job would once again be a perfect distraction. Not a neon sign pointing to everyone’s suffering.
With her favorite eyeshadow cried almost entirely off, Bailey pursed her lips in frustration. She pulled her sweater down as she walked past the tan chairs and snobby receptionist. Exhaling, she remembered when this same sweater hadn’t been so tight around her hips. Not important. She wanted answers. No matter how much that nice man told her to be patient and notice the good, he couldn’t tell her why. His PhD in clinical psychology answered all of her other questions. He gave her deep-breathing techniques, metaphors, statistics. They all made sense. But she would never know why her brain chemistry was different. Why an invisible hand was always pushing down on her chest, despite the fact that she had a fine life: good grades, okay job, perfect little sister. She hated complainers and she hated how her face got blotchy when she cried. She just wished the pushing would let up for a second.
As she opened the door to a gust of cool air, she looked back at the dreary waiting room. Her eyes stopped for just a second on a boy her age in the corner chair. Cute. Sporty. With a deep inhale and a swipe at her frizzy hair, she tore her eyes away. Hearing the scratch of a pencil on paper, she glanced at the seat near the window. Every time, that sound brought her back to standardized tests, time-cramped and stressful: a room of tired kids rushing to finish essays and mark every multiple-choice bubble, hearts racing, obsessively checking the big white clock as the seconds dwindled. That sound still freaked her out a little.
Like always, the lanky boy leaned against the window ledge. He wrote frantically, eyes darting up at the room every few seconds. Bailey had seen him before, and he made her mad. The type of person to not look away when you caught him staring at you. He watched everything with buggy eyes, like he was somehow above politeness. She let the door swing closed behind her and turned her attention to more important things.
Walking with long strides, Bailey snuck up behind her round-faced sister, whose perfectly messy French braids were waiting on a rusty bench, staring off at the yellow leaves blowing. Smiling, Bailey tickled the side of her neck that got her every time. “Shit!” Chloe yelled, jumping up before bursting into a fit of giggles. Bailey laughed for the first time all day. “I said no cussing!” Trapping Chloe in an unsolicited bear hug, she thought about her to-do list: groceries, dinner, help Chloe study, work, laundry, homework. Her face fell for just a second before snapping back to her casual smile. The pair started their walk home, with the pushing on Bailey’s chest only slightly less intense. Through the glass door, she heard the receptionist calling the next boy’s name. William.
The shrill voice cut through the sleepy song in Will’s ears. He took off his headphones and prepared to enter battle: another hour of that well-meaning man prying his mind open. It always started with a broad question. How was your weekend? Any winter break plans? Then the prodding would start, like a cross examination or an awful job interview. Will would talk as much as he could to delay the next question. His heel would bounce on the ground over and over as he stuffed the air with filler words. Then, without fail, those square-framed glasses would bring up that one subject that made him want to disappear. His heel would freeze and his long-winded sentences would melt into one-word answers. He’d look up at the clock and watch the long, red second hand move while his mouth betrayed him. One by one, the words would be pulled out of him. The banging, the yells, the silence after his mother slammed the door. The glasses would pull out more memories — the quiet, the loneliness — while Will would try to force his mind to think about the World Series game coming up.
Standing up, Will gave the receptionist a stiff smile. He looked around the room while struggling with his sweatshirt’s broken zipper. The nervous girl had just left. The only person left in the sea of tan chairs was the boy with the notebook. At this point, Will considered him a harmless piece of décor, like one of those abstract paintings that didn’t make any sense. He wasn’t sure if their schedules aligned, or if the notebook boy just never left that chair. Will didn’t waste time thinking about it. Instead, he brainstormed generic winter break activities he could use to appease the man behind the door.
4pm, Jacob wrote in his charcoal gray, spiralbound notebook. The girl with the puffy hair left. I saw her laughing with a younger girl outside, which is nice because she looked so sad before. Her shirt is a bit too small, but her eyes look a lot prettier when she laughs. Maybe the little girl is her sister. That’s good for her. I don’t have any siblings, but I always wanted one. Now it’s the tall boy’s turn to talk to Dr. Douglas. The lady at reception called his name and I saw him jump a little, which is funny because he seems like the type to not be startled by anything. I bet he has brothers. They probably play video games together and their mom probably shouts at them to keep it down.
Jacob looked up. The lady behind the reception desk was looking at him. His pencil hovered over the paper for a moment, and she looked away. His pencil started moving again. The tall boy’s expression is different from the girl with the sad eyes, but his smile doesn’t look quite right either. He doesn’t look sad. He seems tired. Maybe he didn’t get enough sleep last night, or maybe it’s the type of tired that doesn’t go away overnight. How mom gets sometimes. Tired, but not because of a lack of sleep. Jacob hoped his mom would make her mac and cheese for dinner. No one made it like her.
He decided it was time for him to go. He snapped his notebook shut and felt eyes on him. Turning his back to the nosy receptionist, he grabbed his backpack and rushed through the door. He began the long walk to the train station, stopping every few minutes to write. When a group of men yelled to him, he hurried to the other side of the street.
Ten stops later, he stepped off the train platform. Just one block to go, he thought with a smile. Arms pumping, he stared ahead until he saw the house with the broken shutters. There was no car out front. He stopped walking and took out his notebook. No luck, he wrote. There’s no car here. Shuffling forward, he wrote, but she’ll make her mac and cheese tomorrow night. I’m sure. He closed the notebook and stepped inside.