A two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew and a large bag of Reese’s Pieces. This was my go-to fuel for getting through the three-hour study session that loomed at the end of the day. But this formula didn’t work for everyone, so I clutched the bottle to my chest as I searched the aisle. Blaire liked anything sour. A pack of Sour Patch Watermelons would do. Elise hated candy (a fact I still didn’t understand) so I picked her up a bag of pretzels and got in line with my armful of treats.
A kid in front of me was having a debate with his mother. For breakfast, he wanted to eat the candy bar he held instead of the banana she did. I sensed I was going to be here for a while. I glanced at my phone. 7:20 a.m. I hadn’t scheduled in a kid tantrum, but I’d still make it to school on time.
I pushed my glasses up my nose. I wished I had some flash cards to study. Instead I was stuck staring at my surroundings. A sign by the register announced that the Powerball jackpot was up to thirty million dollars. Thirty million dollars. I could think of a lot of problems even one-thirtieth of that amount would solve. Possibly every problem in my life: The inevitable foreclosure of our house. My brother’s student loan debt. My upcoming college tuition.
“You ready?” the cashier asked.
“Oh.” I looked around. The kid and his mom were gone. Had he gotten the candy bar or the banana?
I stepped to the counter and dropped my haul.
“Isn’t it a little early for all this sugar?” the woman asked. Her name tag read Maxine. She was perched on a high stool behind the register. I hadn’t seen her at the Mini-mart before, and I came in here at least once a week. She must have been new.
“Yep,” I said. I didn’t feel like explaining my weekly routine to a stranger.
She curled her lip, then asked, “You want to buy a Powerball ticket?”
“I noticed you looking at the sign. Thirty million is a lot of money.”
My eyes went to the sign again, and I tried not to laugh. “Playing the lottery is like throwing away money. And besides, I’m not eighteen yet.” I would be in exactly twenty-four hours, but Maxine didn’t need to know that.
“Throwing away money? Tell that to the people who win.”
“Do you know the odds of winning the lottery?” I asked. “One in nearly two hundred million. Million.”
Maxine didn’t seem to think this statistic meant next to impossible. She stared at me, probably wondering how I knew that number. I was weird; facts just stuck in my head.
“There are higher odds of getting struck by lightning,” I added to help.
“Is that a goal of yours?”
“No. It’s just, I think I’ll put my effort into something that has much higher odds of success—like hard work.”
“Hey, it doesn’t hurt to dream.”
I wondered if that sentiment was true. Because I felt like dreaming about the impossible actually did cause damage. Dreaming about how life could be “if only” was a waste of time.
“Your total comes to $5.42.”
I pulled my debit card out of my pocket and handed it to her.
“Big Friday planned?” Maxine took me in, from my dull, light-brown hair gathered up into a messy bun, to my oversized cardigan and ratty jeans, down to my holey Converse.
“School, work, and then study session with friends.” I pointed to the pile of snacks that would be eaten at said study session. I guess I’d ended up explaining my schedule to a stranger after all.
“Study session. On a Friday night? What a life.” She handed me my receipt.
We study together on Wednesdays, too, I almost said, to see how she would react. But I settled on, “It’s the best.” I knew she was being rude, so I’d stop while we were ahead.
I liked Tustin High School. I know that makes me sound like a total nerd, but I’d accepted that fact long ago. I loved nearly everything about school: the structure, the classes, the assignments, even the way the bell sounded, ringing for exactly two point five seconds. That bell meant it was time to move to the next experience, the next thing to learn.
The one aspect about school that I didn’t like was the one nearly everyone else did—lunch. Mostly because my friends always had something going on at lunch—extra-credit work, library study time, teacher’s aide duties. And when I didn’t have any of those responsibilities, I was stuck either eating lunch all alone, or searching for my friends. Which was what I was doing now.
I pulled out my phone while heading toward the library and typed into a group text: Anyone available for actual eating today?
“Madeleine Nicole Parker!” A voice I recognized immediately as Elise’s came from behind me just as I hit Send.
I turned with a smile. She did several leaps across the grass to reach me. The tips of her blond hair were dyed purple and she wore a rainbow-colored tutu.
“You dressed up for the rally,” I said.
I tugged on my cardigan. “Yeah.”
“Did I look like a ballerina when I was jumping?”
I tilted my head. “Um … the books clutched to your chest kind of threw off the whole vibe for me.”
“Maybe that should be my major in college.”
“Dance? I’m pretty sure college-major dancers have been dancing since they were three.”
Elise gnawed on her lip. “True.” Unlike Blaire and me, Elise didn’t have her future planned to the second, so she was constantly trying to figure out what she wanted to do. And with her less-than-stellar grades, she felt limited.
“But!” I said, not able to handle her sad face. “You shouldn’t deny yourself. Maybe you’re a natural.”
She rolled her eyes but gave me a side hug. “I could be. You never know.”
My phone chimed and I read the text from Blaire: I’m in the library.
Elise was attempting a pirouette so I took her by the arm and led her across the campus.
The smell of barbecue filled the air as we passed the one food truck we never ate at. Well, I didn’t eat at most of the food trucks. I brought lunch from home.
“Ugh. Why must they tease us with their fifteen-dollar sandwiches?” Elise asked, staring longingly at the truck.
“Keep your eyes straight ahead. Don’t let the smell weaken your defenses.”