A Pretty Good Day
Mrs. Hickling smiled as Clara laid the completed exam on her desk, and whispered, “Good for you!” Clara stood there as the teacher ran the answer sheet through the grading machine, and watched the older woman raise an eyebrow as the device spat out the sheet—marked with a zero, meaning no wrong answers. “Really good for you,” Mrs. Hickling whispered. “That’s it for the day. Why don’t you head home early?” Clara packed her things and slipped out of the classroom.
Clara had practically run out of the school building, skipping happily down the worn, cracked concrete stairs in the front. Going home two hours early meant she’d avoid the usual teasing, bullying, and mean looks that often accompanied her walks home. It also meant she’d avoid the hordes of SUVs zooming in and out of the school parking lot, picking up the kids who were too good to ride the bus but lived too far away to walk.
The Las Vegas weather was just starting to turn hot as summer approached, but this particular afternoon was near perfect. Clara took the school’s great stone staircase two at a time, and then looked back. The tall, deep-red building contrasted sharply with the bright blue sky, and for a moment, she felt out of place here all alone. The teasing, bullying, and name-calling of her schoolmates was so routine, so usual and predictable, that Clara could practically conduct it all without anyone else present.
It would start with Danica, who would remark—particularly after Clara had been dismissed early after a perfect Math score—on how nobody liked smart girls, or how Clara thought she was smarter than everyone else, or how Clara was such a smarty-pants, or whatever. Danica was terrible at math, and not all that great at anything other than making fun of other people. Clara refused to even try to understand how being smart was supposed to be bad. After almost a year in this school, Danica’s comments—Oh, you think you’re so much smarter than everyone, Clara! and Nobody like smart girls, Clara!—were pretty easy to filter out.
Thomas’, less so. Thomas was one of the students picked up in a sleek black SUV—driven not by his mother, as was the case with most of the SUV crowd, but by an actual chauffeur. Clara had long wondered why Thomas was even in this school, as she supposed he lived in a much more affluent area of town, but she’d never worked up the courage to try and find out. Thomas’ insults were personal, cutting, and mean: Clara was poor (which was true enough), she didn’t deserve to go to this school (even though there was no other school nearby for her to switch to), she and her family lived on charity (which they didn’t, and why would it have been a bad thing if they did?), Clara was short (true) and ugly.
Self-consciously, Clara ran a hand through her hair. It was a little frizzy today, but that was because she kept forgetting to use the conditioner Mom had bought her. She dropped her hand and shrugged. It wouldn’t matter. Thomas was rich and Clara wasn’t, and that was all that really counted in Thomas’ mind. He was smart enough to never make overtly racial comments, but there were plenty of other ways to bring someone down. Clara tried not to care about what Thomas thought or said.
But she couldn’t ignore his go-to comment: You don’t belong here.
Daria was a basic bully. Clara took great pains to make it out of the building well before Daria, because on the few occasions the taller girl had caught her, Clara had wound up with black eyes, bruised cheeks, and, one time, a split lip. There was no reason for any of it: Clara had never said anything more than a polite “Hello” to Daria, but Daria had an intense need to exercise power over someone, and she’d chosen Clara to be her whipping girl. “She probably doesn’t have a very pleasant home life,” Dad had told Clara. “We’ve spoken to the principal about it,” Mom had added.
“Still,” Dad had finished with a small frown. “Might be best to steer clear of her.”
Then there was the gaggle of better-than-you girls led by Samantha—“Sam,” as her hangers-on were permitted to call her. They’d surround Clara, unleashing a litany of petty commentary: Where’d you buy those shoes, Clara? A Dumpster? or Can’t afford makeup, Clara? It’d sure help with than skin of yours! or How can your parents let you out of the house in that sad excuse for a shirt? Mine wouldn’t even let me wear that to dig a hole!
Clara would simply put her head down and push on, forcing the girls to follow her to the street corner, where they’d finally break off with a parting shot: “What makes you think you belong here?”
Belong. She’d tried so hard, this year, to fit in. She’d been polite. She couldn’t exactly dress the part, not with the family living so close to the wire, but she’d tried. Mom had even helped, taking some of her own clothing and distressing it in exactly the way the other kids seemed to admire and pay so much money for. Dad had managed to give her cash to buy lunches at the school cafeteria, like almost everyone else, instead of bringing her lunch from home. She’d tried to join the popular activities and clubs. She’d tried to cheer on the football team at home games. She’d tried so hard. But it wasn’t enough.
She’d found that most kids at most of her previous schools were pretty forgiving at first, willing to give the “new kid” a shot. But inevitably, most would draw away. That was the pattern: a few weeks of effort, followed by Clara ending up with a few bullies and no real friends. It was like she gave off a “weirdo” vibe, and eventually, everyone picked up on it.
So although she’d started this school just a month into the term, Clara had still made no real, long-term friends.
A new year, a new school had become Clara’s mantra; no matter how bad each school was, Clara got through on the near-certainty that she’d never see any of these kids again after summer had passed. Although this year might be different: Mom and Dad had both said they fully intended for her to finish high school in this city, and Dad had even given up a high-paying job as a civil engineer to move them all here. He was in construction now, taking hourly work and overtime to make ends meet while he updated his credentials so that he could find a better job here in Vegas.
She groaned a bit as she fully realized that her tormentors could actually be a long-term thing this time. Samantha and company, Daria, Thomas... oh, right. The triplets.
Harriett, Idalia, and Johanna—youngest of ten children, they’d once mentioned in class. The others were all boys: Abraham, Benjamin, Carlton, Daniel, Edward, Franklin, and Gerrold, according to a presentation they’d given for a genealogy project. The other kids had twittered at those names, but Clara had found the alphabetical names eminently practical: you’d always know who was oldest and who was youngest. The triplets had apparently been a surprise: their parents had been aiming for a nice, round eight and had gotten the girls instead.
It wasn’t that the triplets were mean, Clara reflected. They were just so... aloof. They ignored most of the kids, but always seemed to have a special, intense, disapproving stare that they’d fire at Clara in tandem, piercing her with three identical, hard gazes. Without saying a word, they made her feel stupid in a way that Danica would doubtless appreciate, if she’d ever looked up from her phone long enough to notice. The triplets made Clara feel as lowly as Thomas tried to make her feel with his biting insults. They’d never once touched her, but Clara almost wished they had,because in their case, she suspected she’d make an exception to Mom’s strict rule about never fighting. Clara longed to smack the condescension off of their pale faces.
Shaking her head to clear it, Clara turned right off the school steps and began the long march home. Turning right was what really set Clara apart from her classmates.
Turning right meant Clara wasn’t headed to the affluent neighborhood to the south, nor was she headed for the pickup zone that was always packed with fancy SUVs. No, Clara was headed north, through a small commercial district.
She watched restaurants wrapping up their lunch service and preparing for the evening dinner rush. She saw bar doors were thrown open as the staff cleaned out the previous night’s evidence. She caught glimpses of lawyers working in mid-rise concrete office blocks as they scurried back from late lunch—
Clara stopped so quickly she had to windmill her arms to keep her balance. The loud, harsh call had come from an odd-looking bird, sitting right in the middle of the sidewalk and cocking its head back to look up at her.
KAW! it repeated.
It was a crow—or a raven? Clara wasn’t sure what the difference was, completely black except for one bright white feather in its left wing. It fanned that wing now, as if waving to Clara. “Shoo,” she told it, taking a step forward.
It cocked its head to one side, hopped backwards, and then took flight, aiming for a point just above Clara’s head, forcing her to duck as its furiously flapping wings churned the air above her.
Clara hated birds. Flying rats, Dad called them. Full of diseases. Keep your distance. She looked back, up, and around, but caught no sight of the crow. Weird. She resumed her journey home.
There were no tree-lined streets here; everything was hard. The cracked asphalt gave way to concrete sidewalks, which ended at concrete, brick, or stucco walls. Alleys—filled with stinking garbage, puddles of oily water, and graffiti-covered walls—sliced blocks in half.
The transition back to residential neighborhoods was noticeable only because the homes here were single-story, in sharp contrast to the tall buildings of the commercial area. But there were still no tree-lined streets or grass yards: the people on this side of town couldn’t afford the water bills that would come if they ran irrigators for trees or sprinklers for grass. The yards were hard—bare dirt, or, at best, rough gravel. The houses were simple, squat concrete boxes with almost-flat roofs, walls punctuated by creaking wooden doors and single-glazed windows. Dam homes, Dad had said when they’d moved in, built quickly and cheaply to house the families who’d moved here to work on the giant dam project an hour away. Ancient air conditioners squatted on the roofs, huffing and groaning to keep the homes’ occupants tolerably cool in the advancing heat as summer began to take hold. Everything was faded, bleached to a light gray by decades of relentless sunlight.
The last herald of the commercial district was the small neighborhood market, a sturdy block building with wide windows. Hand-lettered signs advertised their key services: EBT Accepted Here, You Buy It, We Fry It!, and Milk - Liquor - Wine. A faded yellow Western Union sign hung lopsided on the glass door. An old man had plunked down on the dilapidated metal bench out front, huddling in the sliver of shade cast by the wooden eaves of the building’s flat roof. He nodded politely at Clara as she passed, and she solemnly returned the gesture. The people on this side of town were polite to each other, but they didn’t speak much. They were mostly older, their own children having found better fortunes elsewhere. They sat around now, watching the few passersby, staring at rickety televisions, waiting for life to come to its inevitable conclusion.
It was one of the cheapest places in town to live, and it was why Mom and Dad had moved here. And because it was “close” to the school, a solid forty-five–minute walk being well within Mom’s definition of “close.”
As Clara stepped up to the short stretch of crumbling concrete that connected the sidewalk to the front step, she noted that Dad’s ancient Toyota pickup truck was missing. The Blue Banger, they’d named it, in honor of its cracked and fading paint job and the almost-regular backfiring bangs it would make. Its absence meant Dad was still at work, which was good: working as a day laborer in the construction business was like rolling a pair of dice every morning. But if he didn’t have a job by lunchtime, he’d give up and come home for the day. He was anxiously awaiting the state’s approval of his civil engineering license so that he could search for better employment, but apparently, there had been a hiccup in their conversations with the last state they’d lived in, delaying the process.
“Hello?” Clara called as she unlocked the front door’s deadbolt and stepped inside. The worn floorboards creaked as she closed the door behind her. “Mom?”
“Back here, honey,” Mom’s voice called from the rear of the house.
The little building’s layout was simple, essentially dividing the interior into four roughly equal squares. To Clara’s left was the living room, and to the right, the kitchen and dining area. At the back of the house was Clara’s room on the left and her parents’ on the right, with a little bathroom squeezed in between them.
Mom popped out of Clara’s room. As always, seeing her made Clara feel lighter and happier. Safer. Her dilapidated glasses sat slightly askew on her face, and she absentmindedly straightened them. Her close-cropped hair stood in stark contrast to Clara’s own voluminous afro, although her dark eyes sparkled with the same interest and intelligence Clara had learned to recognize in her own. “I was just tidying up. Why are you home so early?” A look of concern briefly washed over her features; Clara coming home early from school had, unfortunately, been an all-too-regular feature of their lives, although it was usually preceded by a call from the principal, the police, or worse.
“Finished the Math final early,” Clara said and watched Mom’s shoulders relax. “Mrs. Hickling sent me home after she graded it.”
“One hundred percent!” Clara grinned.
“Oh, baby! Oh, I’m so proud.” Mom walked to Clara and gave her a warm hug. Clara immediately relaxed into the embrace, savoring it. “That’s two down. What’s tomorrow?”
Clara tensed a bit. “English, which will be fine. And History. Ugh.”
“History’s important, Clara.” Clara’s mother released her and stood back a bit, her hands on the girl’s shoulders.
“I know, Mom. But Mr. Brant is a badly made animatronic. He’s boring.”
Mom’s face grew stern as her hands fell to her sides. “You already expecting to fail?”
Clara shrugged. “I’ll pass. But probably barely.”
“I suppose I’ll take what I can get at this point. Your test scores have been fine all year, though. Why the worry now?”
“Those were all multiple choice. The final is an essay.” Clara gave her mother a quick up-and-down, realizing that she wasn’t wearing an apron. “Did you have any jobs today?”
Mom had been taking jobs cleaning homes, picking up clients from Fiverr, TaskRabbit, and other “gig economy” websites. The money was okay, and it helped close the gap between their bills and Dad’s income, but the work was tough. With only one car, Mom was forced to walk four blocks to a bus stop, lugging all of her cleaning supplies with her, and then spend an hour or more on the bus to reach her clients’ homes.
“Not today. The Dickinsons cancelled, but they’re doubling up next week to make up for it. I’ve got three tomorrow. Big ones, too; I’ll be gone until dinner. If you’re going to come home early again tomorrow, I’ll leave a sandwich in the fridge.”
“History, Mom. Essay.”
“Oh, right. Sorry, babe.” Mom offered her a tired smile. “I’ll see if I can get Dad to pick up a chicken for dinner, then.”
The family had long since decided that being able to buy cleaning supplies at Costco would save Mom a lot of money, and the store’s $4.99 chickens were one of the least expensive and most filling meals they could get, more than justifying the membership fee. The Thorns ate a lot of Costco rotisserie chicken.
“Anything exciting happen aside from being a math whiz?”
“Teddy Burnett probably flunked Social Studies this morning. His phone rang right after Mr. Simpson passed out the papers. He got sent to the principal, and Mr. Simpson said he wouldn’t get any extra time to do the exam.”
“Yet another reason kids your age don’t need phones,” Mom teased.
Clara had longed for a smartphone since she was old enough to understand what they were, but the Thorns had never been able to afford one for her. Even Dad was using a cheap prepaid flip phone now, and even that was only so he could call around to potential job sites rather than having to drive to them all. Clara had stopped pestering her parents about it once she’d started to understand the family’s financial situation.
“Although I guess it’ll be harder for you to keep in touch with your friends once school’s over?” Mom’s voice was hopeful.
“No friends, Mom,” Clara said with a sigh. Clara’s lack of friends was a long-running concern in the family. With Mom and Dad, at least; Clara found that she didn’t mind.
She gave Mom a hug and plopped onto the battered sofa that sat next to the door.
“I’m sorry, babe.”
Guilt prickled in Clara’s chest. She knew that all of the constant moving weighed heavily on Mom’s mind. She forced a smile. “I don’t mind. Honestly, nobody lives near here anyway, and it’s not like I’m going to take the bus across town to have a playdate or something. I like helping you around here.”
“But this’ll be our first summer in one spot in a long time, Clara,” Mom protested. “We thought you’d finally have a chance to make some friends.”
“There are no other kids around here, Mom. I’m actually thinking about volunteering at one of the museums. They take summer docents if you’re thirteen.”
“Really?” Mom sounded hopeful but uncertain. “Well, that could be an interesting place to meet people. Which one? Natural History?”
“That’s what I was thinking. Because, you know, dinosaurs.”
“Ha! True enough.” The uncertainty seemed to have vanished. “Well, let me know what you need. I expect they’ll want Dad and me to sign off on something.”
“I will. Ms. Barrett suggested it and said she’d bring me a form tomorrow.” Clara paused for a moment as Mom stepped into the kitchen. “How’s Dad?”
Mom made a clucking noise with her tongue as she opened a cabinet. “He’s good. He called about an hour ago; he’s in a good spot today. Actually, a great spot. He’s helping with a survey, which means he’s making contacts with civil engineering firms. With any luck, one of them will have an opening once his license finally comes through.”
“So we’re... good?” Clara asked carefully.
“We’re good, babe,” Mom said lightly. Then she turned and met Clara’s gaze through the kitchen doorway, and her eyes widened. “Honey, we’re fine. I know this isn’t as nice as the last place, but it’s cozy, right? There’s plenty of food. The roof doesn’t leak. We’ve got the power bill covered. We’re good.” Her eyes locked with Clara’s. “Are you okay, babe? Truly okay?”
Clara’s stomach knotted. She hated complaining about their situation, hated that her parents didn’t think they were doing their best for her. It felt like Mom was constantly on the edge of apologizing. “Of course! It’s not that stuff, Mom. I don’t mind the house. Even school’s fine. I just... I wanted to make sure we’re not going to have to move again all of a sudden.”
“Oh, babe.” Mom walked over, leaned down, and cupped Clara’s face in her hands. “No, we’re not going to have to move again all of a sudden. I think this is the right town for us.”
“I thought you hated it here.”
Mom had been quietly opposed to the move here, but Dad had simply repeated, “You know this is what we have to do,” until she gave in.
“Let’s just say it’s grown on me. And I’m really happy you’re doing well.” She paused for a moment. “You are doing well, aren’t you? Not just school?”
It was Clara’s turn to sigh. “I’m fine, Mom. I just... I know Dad gave up a good job, and... I guess I feel guilty that we had to move. Again.”
Mom’s voice was suddenly guarded. “Guilty? Why guilty, hon?”
They’d never spoken of it, but it had been eating at Clara as the school year wrapped up. The end of the school year always seemed to be when everything went wrong.
“Danny Davis,” Clara said quietly.
“Babe, what happened to Danny and his family was tragic, but you can’t possibly think—“
“Mom, he beat me up on the last day of summer vacation. He’d been teasing me and pushing me around all summer, and he finally hit me. And the very next day, their house burns down?”
“Clara, you can’t—“
“And the town before that, Mom. Des Moines, up north. Last week of school, I got my first period, I was so stressed out, and there was that earthquake.” It had shattered windows throughout the school, burst pipes in the girls’ room, and set off car alarms for blocks. Clara still had nightmares about it.
“Do you seriously think you could have—“
“It’s just weird, Mom. It’s always in summer, it’s always right after something bad happens to me, and we always have to leave.”
“Hon, we came here for this school." Mom’s voice was firm now. This was ground she and Dad had been over many times, and she’d finally embraced it. At least in front of Clara. “Nothing bad is going to happen to you.”
“Why this school?” Clara had never managed to get a straight answer.
“They’re known for their Math program, for one, and we’ve known you were a whiz for a long time.” The same answer they’d always given.
“Seriously, nobody taught math in the last place?” Clara had never pushed her parents on why the family moved each time, but it suddenly felt like the right time.
Mom’s nose twitched as she considered Clara—a sure sign that she didn’t have a good answer ready. “Not like the program here.”
“But why couldn’t we wait until Dad got a job?”
“He tried, sweetheart. But we’d already missed the enrollment deadline, and we were afraid if we waited any longer, you’d fall behind. You’re important to us, Clara. Your education is the most important thing in the world.” She offered her daughter a wry grin. “Granted, Dad didn’t think it would take quite this long to get his state license sorted out, but it’ll come through any day now, he says.”
Clara stared at her mother for a long moment, sure there was still something she wasn’t being told. “So we’re staying.”
“We’re staying, Clara. Final answer. Even if—what’s that girl’s name? The one who bullied you?”
“Bullies, Mom. Present tense. Daria.”
“Even if Daria beats you up and you break her nose, we’re staying.”
Mom shrugged. “I’m not saying I want you to break her nose, Clara. I’m saying that nothing’s budging us from this school. So you might as well start making some friends.”
Clara flushed with embarrassment. “I try,” she mumbled.
“I know. But look, I grew up an Army brat. We moved every two or three years. I know how hard it is. And I know how mean kids are at your age. But it’s safe, baby. We won’t yank you away again. Not until you’re graduated, and at that point, you can move out and do whatever you want.” Mom cocked her head and asked, “So you sure there’s nobody?”
“Friends, I mean. Maybe... boys?”
“Mom!” Clara cried in horror. “Thirteen year-old boys are gross. They’re not... done yet.”
Mom laughed. “True enough, I suppose. Well, maybe this museum thing will be the perfect fit for you. You’ll meet some other kids your age who aren’t from your school. Maybe you’ll hit it off with someone when you don’t have all the school stuff going on around you all the time. Although…”
“It’s just that for someone so worked up about a History essay, you seem strangely eager to work at a history museum.”
“Mom! It’s not the same thing!”
“I’m teasing, sweetie. Although I do hope you’ll maybe make a friend or two. Promise you’ll try?”
“Maybe,” Clara allowed.
Mom looked at Clara for a long moment, considering. “Tell you what,” she said, glancing at the wall clock. “Dad won’t be home for a few hours at least, and I think that perfect score in Math deserves a celebration.” She grinned. “And I happened to get a very nice tip from the Ainsleys yesterday. What do you say we walk up to the market and I buy you an ice cream?”
Clara’s eyes lit up. Ice cream was her favorite treat, and she didn’t get to indulge all that often.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” Mom winked. “Let me slip on my sneakers.”
Clara stood and watched as her mother efficiently tucked her feet into her own battered shoes. It’d be another few months before they had the money for new shoes, Clara knew, and it’s be a trip to the local—
Clara’s head snapped around as the loud birdcall sounded, seemingly just outside the living room window. “Did you hear that, Mom?”
Mom had stepped back into the kitchen to grab a set of house keys. “Hear what, hon?”
“That. The crow, or whatever.”
“No. But crows aren’t that common here. You sure it wasn’t a pigeon?” Mom’s head was tilted to one side as she listened.
“Pigeons coo. This was a ‘caw!’”
Mom shrugged. “I’m not hearing it. You ready to go?”
Clara suddenly felt chilly. “Yeah.” A thought occurred to her. “Hey, would you walk to school with me tomorrow?”
Mom’ raised an eyebrow at the odd request. “I think so. Can we go a little early? I can catch the bus on the block over, and tomorrow’s folks all have their own equipment. I just need to carry my bag o’ chemicals.”
“Sure. I’ll help carry, even.”
“Then it’s a deal. Mind if I ask why?” Mom accompanied Clara to school once or twice a month, telling her they needed “girl time” out of the house now and again, but she’d had more morning jobs recently that had made the timing difficult.
“No reason, I guess,” Clara said, suddenly embarrassed. Was she eight, that she needed her mommy to walk her to school because there was a creepy bird outside? “Girl time? Maybe I’m nervous about History?”
“Little late for that, but I’ll take it,” Mom chuckled. “You sure that’s all?”
It wasn’t, but Clara couldn’t explain it. So she simply nodded and said, “Yeah. That’s all.”
Mom gave her a curious look. “You sure that’s all, baby?”
The chill spread to Clara’s thoughts, which grew dark and burdened. This wasn’t about History. Well, not entirely. She nodded slowly and forced a smile. “Yeah, that’s all. C’mon, I’m ready for chocolate!”
It felt like a lie. But Clara couldn’t tell the truth. Not when she didn’t even know what the truth was.