(This is an original work by the author of this blog. Copying and distributing, whether or not for monetary gain, is not permitted without the author’s express written permission.)
San Antonio, TX – Modern Day
“And don’t forget your poetry projects are due next Wednesday. Have a great weekend!”
The final bell and the sound of 25 chairs being simultaneously scraped across the tile floor drowned out Marissa’s last words. She stepped quickly behind her desk to avoid being run over by a horde of eighth graders, aimed her eyes heavenward, and said a quick prayer of thanks that the week was finally over. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been this tired. A vertical line appeared between her arched eyebrows as she tried to think of a reason why she would be so tired.
“Hey, got a second?” A head of dark, wildly curling hair popped through the swinging door that separated Marissa’s classroom from her co-worker and friend, Sophia. She kept talking as Marissa nodded and headed into the room next door. “I know it’s Friday and you want to get out of here, but my SMART Board stopped working. I’m going to need it first thing on Monday. If I call the Help Desk, they will put it in the queue and it will sit there for days before they send anyone out to look at it.”
“So, since I’ve fixed it before, and I’m right next door, I’m guessing you want me to take a crack at it,” Marissa asked with a grin tugging the corner of her mouth.
“Pretty please, with sugar on top!” Sophia was earnest and cute, with sparkling brown eyes, a petite frame, and a general sense of fun and goodness. Marissa didn’t even have to think about it; she knew she would cave.
“Okay, fine. But you owe me.”
“Just add it to my tab for all the other electronic and tech stuff you have fixed, programmed, and set up for me,” Sophia said mischievously.
“You know, one of these days I’m going to collect on your tab,” Marissa began as she walked around Sophia’s desk to check all the cable connections on the wall. She started to say more, but a sharp, stabbing pain in her back as she bent slightly to check the connections made her gasp out loud and grab the side of Sophia’s desk for support.
“Mija! Are you okay? You’re white as a sheet!” Sophia asked in concern.
Marissa couldn’t answer at first. It felt like someone was taking a knife and stabbing it right into the center of her spine, then twisting it around her ribs. Sweat popped out on her forehead and upper lip.
As suddenly as the pain came, it left, taking all of her energy with it.
“Marissa! Answer me!”
Marissa took a cautious breath and realized Sophia was talking to her, trying to get her attention. A face that normally was full of fun was wreathed in concern and a touch of fear.
“I’m sorry, Sophia. I didn’t mean to scare you. Just…. Give me a minute, okay?” She sat cautiously in the office chair behind the desk and took slow breaths.
“Do I need to call the office for the nurse?”
“No, I’m fine. It’s nothing. I just overreacted to a little twinge. No need to bother Miss Patricia.”
“Little twinge my ass,” Sophia retorted. Her eyes were snapping with anger now, a darker brown than usual, and her cheeks were starting to flush. “This is not the first time I’ve seen you have one of these ‘twinges.’ Last week you were walking down the hallway to your room using the wall to prop you up because you could barely stand. Now what in the hell is wrong with you?”
“I don’t know, okay? I’m sure it’s nothing. I don’t see the point in going to the doctor when they’re probably just going to tell me it’s all in my head or I’m too fat like they did a few of years ago.”
Sophia stared hard into Marissa’s gray eyes. “I’m worried about you.”
“There’s nothing to worry about. I’m sure I’m fine. I’m just probably overreacting. Someone else probably wouldn’t have even noticed a little thing like that.”
“Just promise me you’ll think about going to see a doctor. A different one this time. You’re allowed to get a second opinion.”
Marissa mustered up a weak smile for her friend. “Sure, if it keeps bothering me, I’ll go to the doctor. A different one than before.”
“Thank you. Now, go pick up Jack and go home.”
“But your SMART Board still doesn’t work –“
“Don’t worry about it. The kids will live. You’re more important.”
“No, I’m not. But I will admit this week has kicked my ass. How about I come in and work on it this weekend? I was planning on coming in for a few hours tomorrow and doing some grading anyway.”
Sophia grimaced, considering. “Only if you feel up to it, and only if you really do decide to grade. I don’t want you making a special trip. If you decide to stay home and rest, it can wait until Monday morning before school.”
“Deal.” Marissa slowly stood up and carefully made her way through the swinging door back into her own room. Sophia watched her with a concerned scowl the whole way.
Marissa jerked her car to a stop in front of the high school technology lab, wincing as the movement of the car made her spine protest. She looked down at the clock on her dashboard. Only 20 minutes late. Considering she was often an hour or more late, she was practically on time today. She parked in a free space and dialed her son’s number on her cell phone.
It went straight to voicemail.
She huffed and jabbed the disconnect button. She considered maybe his phone battery died, or he had forgotten to turn it back on after school. He was supposed to keep it turned off during school hours, except for lunch.
Marissa craned her neck to see if Jack was visible waiting inside either of the glass double doors. She saw many examples of the male of the species Teenagerus Americanus, but no Jack.
Feeling really tired, irritable, and sore from her earlier spell, she picked up her phone and tried calling him again.
Jack was very forgetful, yet prone to hyperfocus on things of interest to him. He was supposed to stay after school for Cyber Patriot practice – a cybersecurity competition with divisions for elementary, middle school, and high school teams designed to encourage youth to pursue Information Security jobs. It had been of utmost importance to him all four years of high school. Jack had been team captain the last two years. She suspected his phone was off on purpose.
Smiling to herself, she pulled up the contact information for Jack’s best friend, fellow teammate, and Marissa’s “adopted” son, Scot, and hit the call button.
“Hello, Scot, this is Marissa,” she said when he answered. “Is my wonderful, darling, forgetful son with you?”
Scot laughed. “Yeah.”
“I see. And are there a bunch of your friends with you guys, as well?”
“So, I need you to give Jack a message for me, and I want you to repeat exactly what I say, exactly how I say it. Can you do that?”
Sensing he was going to enjoy this request, Scot started to snicker. “Yes…”
“Okay. Tell Jack, ‘Your mommy wommy is outside in the parking lot waiting for her widdle snookums to come out so we can go home and have din-din,’” she said in an extremely annoying baby-talk voice.
Scot started guffawing, but was able to straighten up his voice enough to repeat her message verbatim. In the background, she could hear her son say “Oh my Gawd!” followed by the sounds of a scuffle and the phone line going dead.
Less than a minute later, Jack came charging out of the building, his dirty blonde hair sticking up like he had shoved his hands in it repeatedly in aggravation. He arrowed straight for her car, threw his backpack in the back, then flopped into the front passenger seat.
“Was that really necessary, Mother?” he steamed.
“I wouldn’t have had to resort to that if you had remembered to turn on your phone,” Marissa replied primly.
“You are so freaking embarrassing sometimes!” he fumed.
“What’s the point of having children if you can’t embarrass them in public?”
“I’m not talking to you anymore.”
Marissa smiled. “You just did.”
Jack crossed his arms and stared out the window. She could feel the waves of anger coming off of him. It filled the car, making the ten minute drive through the not-great but not-terrible neighborhoods to their home feel like it was taking an eternity. She rolled her eyes.
“I saw that,” he growled.
“I thought you weren’t talking to me.”
“You know, sometimes I wonder who the adult is in this household,” he snapped at her.
“Oh, honey, so do I,” she laughed as she pulled into their driveway.
Jack jumped out of the car, getting out his own set of keys so he wouldn’t have to wait for Marissa. He moved to the front door.
“Wait! Aren’t you forgetting something?” She pointed at the mailbox.
“Can’t I check the mail later?”
“No, do it now. You are 50 feet from the box. It makes more sense to do it now.”
“Fine.” He stomped the whole way to the mailbox, jerked down the lid, snatched the letters in a fist, and started trudging back to the door.
“Go back and close the lid.”
Grumbling the whole way, he did as he was told. By this time, Marissa had opened the front door and moved toward the kitchen to let the dogs out into the back yard to do their business. They had been cooped up inside all day and were tripping over themselves to get out in the grass.
“Here,” Jack practically threw the mail at her, then raced upstairs and closed himself in his room. Soon, Green Day’s “Dookie” album was blasting. “At least he has good taste in music,” Marissa thought to herself.
She stood and watched the four dogs do what was needed then frolic in the grass and sun for a while. She couldn’t help but laugh when Ziggy, the smallest and oldest (10 lbs and 12 years), didn’t appreciate something George, the second biggest and youngest (65 lbs and 4 years), did and started barking at him. Although George was six times Ziggy’s size, he still ran in fear when Ziggy started barking and growling at him. It was just too comical seeing a Staffordshire Terrier running from an old, half-blind Bichon Frise!
As she laughed, she got a smaller pain in her back, reminding her that she needed to sit down and rest before she tried to cook dinner. Despite her nonchalance in front of Sophia, she was worried and in pain, but also more than half-convinced she was just being a baby. Her doctors hadn’t taken her seriously, after all. One had even suggested she was exaggerating to get attention. In fact, for most of her life, medical professionals had been dismissing her whenever she said she was in pain or sick. It was second nature for her to doubt herself.
Marissa called the dogs to come in, then moved gingerly over to the couch to sit down. The dogs assumed their usual positions: Baby Girl at her feet, Buddy wriggled in between her and the arm of the couch, Ziggy jumped up on the back of the couch behind her head, and George jumped on the ottoman and settled down up against her legs. Since she had brought with mail with her when she went to sit down, she decided to kill two birds with one stone and examine the day’s offerings.
The first three items would be stuffed in a drawer and left to be thought about another day: A past due notice from an old medical bill for Jack’s asthma, the new electric bill, and a teacher’s union monthly newsletter.
But the last item made her heart start thumping in her chest. It was the size and thickness of a greeting card. Although there was no name in the left corner, and she didn’t recognize the street address, the city and state printed there made her feel like crying.