A frozen expanse of never ending white opened in front of her. The sun was shining, a blinding orb suspended in a shapeless blue vault. Elisabeth squinted into the distance. She could make out the skeletal branches of trees, corpses stretching their stiff limbs towards the light. It was going to be a cold day, the icy panes of her window already promising below zero temperatures.
Elisabeth inhaled deeply, appreciating the fresh scent of a new day. The house was still asleep, whispering with the soft sounds of cracking wood and ice settling. She closed her eyes and found herself appreciating the perfect stasis. The silence deepened, her regular breathing adding to the overall melody.
A door slammed.
“If just for once!” Elisabeth hissed in between her gritted teeth. She turned to the closed door of her bedroom. Her hands closed into fists, and it took her a moment to regain the calm composure the silence had managed to infuse. Her brother, Akira, had evidently woken up.
Elisabeth forced herself to close her eyes again. The peace, however, had evaporated, and if she didn’t start getting ready, she was going to be late for school. She approached the dresser and struggled to get the first drawer to open. She then extracted a pair of socks. The dresser lay crooked against the wall. Two legs were missing, while one of the drawers was bent. Her brother had kicked it.
Elisabeth considered the weathered piece of furniture with a frown. Irritation came back, accompanied by the brooding layer of repressed anger, her constant companion. The dresser was just one of the many things that didn’t work in her life. She pushed the drawer, trying to force it to slide back in place. The wood whined, its surfaces scraping against each other, but it didn’t close. Elisabeth pushed harder, frustration infusing violence into her actions. The entire dresser tilted forwards, threatening to smash her. She stopped pushing, before it toppled over.
Elisabeth sighed, passing a hand through her long, ashen blond hair. Her fingers got tangled in a few knots. She pulled unceremoniously and managed to free her hand. She then glanced at the alarm clock on the end table. Elisabeth was still perfectly on time. Nothing could break her clockwork precision, not even a crumbling dresser.
Another sharp noise broke the silence, and Elisabeth almost jumped. The drawer, which had stubbornly refused to cooperate, seemed to have decided to close on its own. A shiver traveled down her back.
“Don’t be silly, it’s just a coincidence,” Elisabeth muttered, but the words failed to reassure her. Her eyes darted around the room. It wasn’t the first time something like that happened. Over the last few weeks strange things had occurred. Things she could hardly explain, and that she refused to acknowledge.
Elisabeth sat on her well-made bed, quickly putting on the socks. Her eyes drifted to her worn-out sneakers. No matter how much she tried to make them presentable, her shoes desperately needed to retire. The irony was that she couldn’t grant them such a privilege. She had no other personnel to replace them. 
Elisabeth put her sneakers on, her feet immediately finding the well carved shape time had created for her. She then rushed to the door, eager to get out of the house and forget about the stubborn drawer. School always provided the perfect distraction. It was a vacation from her existence at home. For a few blissful hours, she could leave her problems behind. She could leave her family behind.
Elisabeth froze under the pealing doorframe. She was forgetting her backpack. Every night, before going to sleep, she left her backpack leaning against the foot of her bed. It was the ideal spot for her to take out books, if she wanted to do some last-minute reading, and Elisabeth always wanted to do some last-minute reading. It was a habit she had taken on since her first years in elementary school.
Elisabeth read everything she could get her hands on. She read novels, essays, manuals, and even endless collections of reference books. It was like an addiction, a desperate need to fill a hole that nothing could replenish. Assimilating knowledge was her comfort food.
There was something else Elisabeth often did before going to bed. Over the last few months, she had started working on a sketchbook. It had at first started as a hobby, but the white pages had soon turned into a diary of images and words. The sketchbook had become a confidant, a silent friend she retold her life to. Before switching off the light, Elisabeth would drop it inside her backpack, with all the other schoolbooks. For Elisabeth never left her sketchbook alone or unattended.
The backpack wasn’t where she had left it. Elisabeth inspected the spacious room. The discolored wood floor stared back at her. A pool of sunlight danced under the windowsill, glittered in tiny specks of floating dust. Her twin-size bed occupied the left side of the room, the light blue comforter almost gray. An end table stood on its right, where a small lamp, an alarm clock, and a pink quartz sat on its weathered surface. The end table had also been blue, once upon a time. Yet, life had carved heavy lines through the wood, eaten the paint, lined it with white.
Footsteps echoed in the corridor, and once again a door slammed. The bang was even louder this time, but Elisabeth ignored it. She threw herself on the floor, lying face down. Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the shadows underneath her bed. Dust clouds were the waves of a silver ocean. Elisabeth sneezed, and her eyes started watering. She rubbed her nose, trying to contain a second explosion.
The backpack wasn’t there.
“Fuck,” Elisabeth mumbled, pushing herself to her feet. A gnawing feeling tightened her stomach. Her sketchbook was in that bag. Her life, her secrets and her fears were inside those pages.  
“Liz, if you don’t move, I’m leaving without you,” Akira’s voice boomed down the corridor. It echoed, reverberating in the silent, crumbling house. There was nothing friendly about Akira’s voice, and Elisabeth wasn’t surprised. Her brother was never friendly.
“I’m looking for my backpack,” she whispered, not caring whether Akira heard her or not. Rushed footsteps descended the staircase, faded to the lower level. Elisabeth wondered if Akira was actually going to leave without her. It would have been the first time. He was usually the one who was always late. Elisabeth had left the house on foot more than once, and Akira had caught up with her halfway to school, driving down the country lanes too fast for anyone’s safety.
A loud sound came from downstairs.
“Oh, for god’s…” Elisabeth growled. Akira was one of the most silent people she had ever had the displeasure to meet. It was a miracle if he uttered a word a day. Yet, he seemed to enjoy making a lot of noise, particularly in the morning. Slamming doors and kicking the furniture were just some of his favorite pass times. 
“Your backpack is here!” Akira’s voice reached Elisabeth’s ears muffled. Elisabeth froze, her muscles tensing. A myriad of questions flashed through her brain, all asking the same exact thing: how had her backpack descended the staircase on its own?
Elisabeth rushed out of the bedroom, descended the stairs. The steps creaked underneath her feet, the stairwell a dark tunnel of spiderwebs. The entrance door was bright in sunlight, the dusty glass shining golden and white. Rainbows refracted through the layers of glass, prisms that diverged one from the other.
A tall, young man entered the hall. His hair was black, spiky, but prone to fall over his forehead. Deep dark eyes darted to meet Elisabeth’s blue ones. Predictably, Akira looked exasperated. He extended his hand, an old black backpack hanging from his fingers. Elisabeth didn’t move, holding onto her brother’s indifferent gaze. Staring Akira down was like trying to get a piece of ice to react to an insult.
“What were you doing with it?”  Elisabeth asked, barely concealing the anger that threatened to explode. She hated when people touched her stuff, and she particularly detested when her brother touched her belongings.
“Nothing.” Akira opened the entrance door. Elisabeth put her hand on the glass, the crystal as frozen as the outside landscape. She pushed the door closed. It was the fourth loud bang that morning.
Akira took a step back.
“What did I do now?” he asked. His voice was low, monotone, yet no less on edge. 
Elisabeth crossed her arms over her chest.
“I thought we had discussed the meaning of privacy, Akira,” she said, each word vibrating in the attempt to remain steady, controlled.  
“Ah.” Akira’s lips twitched. For a moment, he looked amused, before his face sank into an even deeper frown.
“I mean it,” Elisabeth hissed.
Akira looked down at his wristwatch, mumbled something under his breath.
“What did you say?” Elisabeth raised her voice. Akira spent his existence muttering. In contrast, Elisabeth could have spent her life screaming to the top of her lungs.
“I was, politely, considering the fact, that, for once, I was on time,” Akira replied, and their eyes met again. Akira’s irises shone, the inky blackness brighter than before. It was as if a spark had ignited, a dangerous fire that always loomed under the surface.
Elisabeth opened her mouth, but Akira interrupted her.
“I didn’t touch your bag.” He, once again, reached for the door. Elisabeth slid in front of it, and Akira swore.
“Politely?” Elisabeth cocked her head. It was her turn to smile. Akira leaned against the wall. His eyes darted to the door. From that perspective, they could see the icy yard, the empty road, and the white expanse of fields behind. The door rattled. Cold wind picked up snow, transformed the still air in a wild dance of evanescent ghosts.
“OK, I don’t mind being late,” Akira exhaled.
Elisabeth glanced outside. The sun was rising higher, the sky turning an even lighter shade of blue. Her eyes got lost in the distance. The road was a gray snake, appearing and disappearing under layers of drifting snowbanks. It seemed to go on to infinity, fade into the horizon, the sky and the snow becoming one.
“Me neither.” Elisabeth spoke in between gritted teeth. Akira stared at her blankly. It was an even colder look; an expression Elisabeth would have given anything to match. She glanced outside a second time and tapped her foot on the floor. She was never late. Her routinely perfection risked being interrupted. Yet, she wasn’t going to give up.
“I never touch your stuff, Liz,” Akira broke the silence.
Elisabeth looked down. The wood floor looked especially battered in that part of the house. The door had scraped the smooth surface, which was now a tangle of infinite semicircles.
“I don’t…” Elisabeth started saying and met Akira’s eyes again. Akira’s expression had shifted. He suddenly looked concerned. Elisabeth closed her mouth, the words fading away. Akira wasn’t lying, and if he wasn’t lying, it meant that someone else had taken her backpack.
“That woman!” Elisabeth growled, and anger sparked again. Yet, this time, it was accompanied by another feeling: dread. There was no telling what her mother was going to do to her, if she read what Elisabeth had written in her sketchbook. Vivian had already stolen Elisabeth’s sketchbook once, a few weeks before, and she had explicitly forbidden Elisabeth to keep on writing down lies.
Elisabeth had challenged the order. The things she wrote weren’t lies. They were a truthful account of her life, and there was nothing pretty about her existence. Vivian was one of the main reasons why her life was a nightmare. Since Elisabeth could remember, Vivian had never behaved like a mother should. She was mean, manipulative, and hyper-controlling. Akira had often compared her to an army general, a heartless monster that should have never had kids. And that was one of the other things Elisabeth had challenged in her sketchbook. Elisabeth had never been sure Vivian was really her mother.
Elisabeth made to rush back upstairs, but Akira’s expression caught her attention. He was staring out of the glass door, his eyes fixed. There was something wrong. Elisabeth turned around. A massive black pickup truck was coming to a full stop in front of their yard. It looked like it was about to pull inside, invade the sleepiness of their house. Elisabeth made to dismiss it. It could have been anybody about to make a U-turn. Yet, Akira’s eyes were glued to the black vehicle, as if searching for something the darkened windows concealed.
The pickup truck slowly turned around, paused a moment longer in front of the house, and then turned left. Before Elisabeth could do or say anything, Akira grabbed her wrist.
“What are you…” she started to protest, but Akira didn’t let her finish. He dragged her out of the house. Freezing wind caressed the bare skin of Elisabeth’s arms. Elisabeth didn’t flinch, the icy kiss always a comfortable touch. Akira pushed Elisabeth to their rusty sedan, hurriedly opening the door for her.
“Get in,” he said.
“There was no need to drag me to the car,” Elisabeth growled under her breath. Her arms were tightly folded over her chest, preventing her from jumping off the running vehicle in a fit of anger. Akira was speeding down the road, the engine a rattling roar. His eyes kept on darting to the rear-view mirror. He wasn’t paying attention to where he was going.  
“We’re late,” he said, unconcerned by Elisabeth’s tone. Elisabeth laughed. It was a bitter outburst, her voice high pitch, unpleasant.
“As if you cared.”
Akira squinted. The sun glare bounced off his black eyes. Reflections flooded his irises. Elisabeth had never been able to make out her brother’s pupils. Akira accelerated, and Elisabeth studied the speedometer. The hand was shaking as it slowly climbed the semicircle. The car was about to hit seventy miles an hour. Elisabeth looked out of the window. The pale light of the sun blasted the snowy countryside. Occasional patches of woods intermingled with open fields and farms.
“There’s a black ice warning,” she said.
Akira didn’t slow down.
“And how do you know that?”
Elisabeth fumbled for her backpack. It felt lighter than usual. She opened it. The backpack contained a notebook and a few library books.
“Ashley told me.” Elisabeth put her hand inside the backpack, excavated through the unimportant books. As she had expected, the sketchbook wasn’t there.
“I can’t believe it.” She dropped the backpack to the car’s floor and buried her face in her hands. Akira glanced at her, then at the rearview mirror. He searched the traveled road for the thousandth time. Elisabeth looked back. The road was deserted.
“Did she take your s…” Akira started saying, but Elisabeth snapped her tongue.
“Sketchbook? Yes, she did.” Anger cut Elisabeth’s breath. She forced herself to breathe in deeply. Her heart was pounding hard, a bird banging against the bars of its cage.
“Anything else missing?” Akira asked. There was something hesitant about his voice, an edge that bordered teasing. Elisabeth scowled at him.
“Never mind.” Akira returned his gaze to the road.
Elisabeth grabbed her backpack again, opened the outside pocket. She didn’t have to look. It was empty.
“She took my cigarettes, the…” Elisabeth hissed.
Akira snorted, grasping the steering wheel harder. Elisabeth studied him out of the corner of her eyes. The countryside was slowly leaving space to the buildings of a small village. Houses piled up one after the other, each one of them hosting a small yard and a garden covered in snow.
Elisabeth’s eyes followed the different structures. Tourettes rose from the dilapidated buildings, reminiscent of abandoned castles. The houses were dressed in the faded versions of their original selves. They had seen too many snowfalls.
The sleepy sign of the town movie theatre stared back at her. The lights were still off.
Elisabeth was so used to seeing this landscape that, for years, she had barely noticed it was there. Routine was a gray blanket that spread over her life, transforming everything into a never-ending monotony. Yet, the accelerated perspective brought colors to her hometown; colors that, to her eyes, had been totally absent.
“I’m leaving.” She broke the silence. Akira turned to look at her, taken aback. Elisabeth had meant to say the sentence for a long time. The car slowed down. They had reached an intersection.
“To go where?” Akira asked. Elisabeth gauged his reaction before replying.
“The City, with my friends.”
Akira frowned, thoughtfully caressing the steering wheel. 
“Is that what you drew in that sketchbook? A portrait of the new happy family?”
Elisabeth smirked. Akira’s statement had rubbed her the wrong way, yet she knew she had made an impression. Akira wasn’t smirking, anymore.
“No.” She had not written about leaving. It wasn’t a secret, nor a wish. It was a fact. Catherine had asked her to move with her and her cousin, Ashley, at the end of the school year. It was going to be a new beginning, a brand-new life.
Elisabeth observed the intersection. There was more traffic than usual at that time of the day: people getting to work, families taking their children to school. A few pedestrians ventured along the icy sidewalks, carefully entering stores, taking refuge in cafes. Akira started accelerating but stopped suddenly. The car jolted. He turned around; his action so abrupt he managed to startle Elisabeth. A massive pickup truck had snuck up on them.
“What are you doing?” Elisabeth snapped, staring at the pickup. It was then that she realized that it was the same oversize vehicle that had made a U-turn in front of their house.
“Wasn’t it the same truck…” but she didn’t finish the sentence. Akira nodded and pressed on the gas pedal. The wheels screeched on the pavement, as they cleared the intersection. The pickup peacefully followed.
“And how did it…” but once again she didn’t complete her statement.
“I don’t know,” Akira retorted.  
They entered the school parking lot. A few students rushed to the side to avoid their vehicle. Elisabeth raised her hands, bewildered.
“You almost killed them.”
Akira parked the car, abruptly. The seatbelt cut off Elisabeth’s breath. She bounced back on the seat and turned to her brother outraged. Akira didn’t pay her any heed. His eyes were glued to the road. The pickup truck slowly passed in front of the school, lazily turning left at the next intersection.
“They should take away your license.” Elisabeth fumbled with her seatbelt. Her heart was still pounding. Akira grinned, turning off the engine. The vehicle was now silent, and he was still looking at the road.
“And then who’s going to take you to your beloved school?”
Elisabeth grabbed the door handle. She had enough of her brother’s incoherent and irrational driving.
“I’ll walk. It’s not that far.”
“With this weather?” He still wasn’t looking at her. Elisabeth made an impatient sound with her tongue. She glanced at the car’s electronic clock. They were barely on time. Two minutes more, and she would be officially late.
“You know that I never get cold, and… oh, it doesn’t matter.”
Akira turned to her. His eyes traveled her body. It was an analytical look, disturbing in its intensity.
“Why are you not wearing a jacket?” he asked.
Elisabeth stared. She hadn’t expected the question. Akira never asked personal questions. He never noticed changes. He never noticed anything.
“I’ve never worn one,” Elisabeth replied.
Akira extended his hand towards the back seat. He grabbed his leather jacket, considered its weight.
“Wear this.” He handed the jacket to Elisabeth. Elisabeth shook her head, but Akira dropped the jacket on her lap. Elisabeth took the jacket in her hands. They had fought over it in the past. Elisabeth loved its consistency, how it looked, even if it was too big on her. Akira had never wanted to give it up.
“So, what did you write in the sketchbook?” Akira ignored Elisabeth’s bewildered expression. Elisabeth tried to give the jacket back to him. Akira didn’t take it, and Elisabeth glanced at the clock. They were four minutes late.
“I thought you wanted to go to school.” Elisabeth hinted at the clock. Akira turned to the road again. It was empty, but his expression darkened.
“I’ll pick you up after class,” he said.
Elisabeth’s eyes widened. Suddenly, she wasn’t sure she knew who she was talking to.  Akira’s odd behavior was unnerving her.
“No, you won’t,” she muttered, opening the door, and making to step outside. Akira grabbed her arm, stopping her from getting out.
“Please,” he said, and their eyes met. Akira’s eyes appeared even darker than before and, to Elisabeth’s surprise, he looked worried. A strange feeling settled on her chest: something wasn’t right.
“I’m taking the bus. I’m spending the afternoon with Ashley,” Elisabeth said, not liking to have to explain herself. She was used to being independent. There weren’t many buses that passed from their town, and they usually didn’t stop by her house. Yet, she had made a deal with the bus drivers, and they made an exception for her.
Akira nodded.
“I’ll be at the bus station, then,” he said, turning to the school building. For a moment, Elisabeth wondered if Akira was looking for something. Yet, his gaze was vacant, distant. It was the cold stare Elisabeth knew well.
Elisabeth opened her mouth to protest, but Akira interrupted her.
“I’ll be there at six. Wear the jacket.” He opened the car door. Elisabeth hurriedly followed him outside. She didn’t agree to the plan.
“We’ve to talk, you can’t leave.” Akira slammed the door and rushed towards the school building. Elisabeth stared at his back, frozen in the middle of the icy parking lot. A polar breeze brushed the naked skin of her arms. She didn’t flinch.
Elisabeth looked back at the road. It was still empty. She lifted one of her hands, made to call her brother back, stopped. Silence encircled her, as she tried to make sense of what had just happened. She then looked down at the jacket. It felt heavy in her arms.
A strong wind blew, the snow swirled in white clouds, lost souls on the pavement. Elisabeth leaned forward. The wind moaned, as the sun disappeared behind a cloud. The blue sky was turning white, a storm lurking close by. Elisabeth looked down at her notebook. It was covered in doodles, miniature drawings of houses. She took the pen in her hand, pressed the tip on the piece of paper. The wind brushed against the window. It sounded like a voice calling. It was calling her name.
“Ms. McFlay, are you still with us?”
Elisabeth blinked. The pen had left a small pool of ink on the paper. The biology teacher was staring at her, his arms crossed over his chest. His glasses had slid down his nose, as he studied her critically. He was giving an unusual lecture that day, preparing the class to welcome a guest speaker. She hadn’t paid attention to a single word he had said. 
“I suppose so,” she said, quietly. A few of her classmates giggled. A girl with black curly hair laughed. The teacher glanced in her direction, shook his head in exasperation. Dark bags outlined his eyes. He took off his wire framed glasses. The glasses’ rims left circular imprints on his nose.
“If that’s the case, could you tell us what you know about hummingbirds?”
This time the entire class laughed, loudly. Elisabeth looked around. The laugher didn’t touch her. She smiled.
“Hummingbird: the New World bird, the smallest of its kind. The beating of its wings creates a humming sound, while the rapid wing flapping rates is around 50 times per second. It has the highest metabolism to conserve energy when food is scarce. It migrates, traveling 3,900 miles one way from Alaska to Mexico: a distance that equals to circa 78,470,000, its body length.” Elisabeth paused. The class had fallen silent, and the teacher was eyeing her thoughtfully.
“I’d assume you’d like me to say more, if the class was actually on hummingbirds,” Elisabeth added. A smile crossed the teacher’s lips. He looked down at the floor.
“At least pretend to listen.” He went back to look at the class. A few people turned around, whispering something to their classmates. The teacher resumed speaking, and Elisabeth went back to look at her notebook. She started drawing.
Elisabeth stopped, her pen an inch from the paper. She turned around. A short haired young man was handing her a piece of paper. She considered him, and then grabbed the paper unceremoniously. Her classmate laughed, a confused grunt. Elisabeth pierced him with a quick glance. He stopped laughing immediately.
Elisabeth turned around to face the professor. The piece of paper hosted a round and polished calligraphy she had come to associate with an extremely annoying individual: Natasha Taylor. She looked up. The black-haired girl glanced at her, teasing her with her white teeth.
“How does it feel to be the class’s fool? Hummingbirds! He’s been talking about Upstate NY fauna for one hour.”
Elisabeth pressed the pen on the piece of paper, scribbled: “I guess I’m not the fool then.” Her oblique writing stared back at her. Her narrow letters leaned forward, falling flat under an invisible wind. She folded the paper, passed it back to the short haired young man. He made the motion to open it, but Elisabeth kept her eyes on him, unblinking. He swallowed, passed the message back. When the message reached Natasha, her cheeks blushed.
The bell rang, the class rose. The air was suddenly filled by the loud scratching sounds of chairs on tiles. Elisabeth took her time to put her notebook away. She knew what was about to come.
“Ms. McFlay, could I have a word?” the teacher asked.
Elisabeth looked up. Natasha’s eyes darted from the teacher to Elisabeth. Her footsteps were heavy, as she hurried out of the class. She glanced back once, before she disappeared amidst the rush of students. Elisabeth walked towards the front of the room. The biology teacher studied her for a long time before speaking.
“You’re a bril-liant student,” he stuttered, paused. He suddenly looked uncomfortable.
“I know,” Elisabeth confirmed.
The teacher’s gaze drifted nervously out the window.
“You could get in a good college, you know? Have you given it thought?”
Elisabeth’s eyes darted towards the window, too. The sun was peeking out from behind the clouds. Everything was turning white.
“No.” Elisabeth’s voice was as cold as the outside landscape.
“No? Is it because of money?” the teacher asked.
Elisabeth looked down. Her sneakers were peeling at their tips. The teacher took Elisabeth’s silence as a “Yes.”
“You could get a good scholarship. With your grades…”
“I don’t care,” Elisabeth interrupted him. Her voice was sharper than she had intended it to be. The teacher narrowed his eyes, and his hands clasped together tightly.
“Is it your family?”
Elisabeth bit her tongue. She couldn’t deny that her family was a problem.
“Akira is your brother, isn’t he?” the teacher added.  
Elisabeth nodded. She was still contemplating her shoes.
“An interesting student, as well. Impossible to deal with, though,” the teacher continued his monologue.  
Elisabeth looked up, found herself smirking. She knew too well her brother’s temper. He had to repeat one year of high school due to his behavior. They were in the same grade, though he was one year older.
“You don’t look alike,” the teacher added.
Elisabeth nodded. They couldn’t have been more different. Akira was a tall dark-haired man, and his features had a pronounced East-Asian influence. Elisabeth was thin to the bone, as white as the outside snow, her eyes the color of the summer sky. She met the teacher’s eyes, and he flinched.
“I suggest you talk to your academic adviser. Deadlines are coming up, but you’re still on time for many schools,” the teacher said.
Elisabeth glanced at the window once more. The sun had disappeared completely behind the clouds.
“Thank you for your interest.” She didn’t look back at him. The teacher bent down, grabbed his briefcase hurriedly.
“I’ll see you next week.” He almost ran out of the classroom.
“Next week,” Elisabeth whispered, approaching the window. The parking lot was a snowstorm. The wind dragged the white crystals up and down, a dance that hid colors. The parked cars were white shapes, slowly disappearing in the snow. Elisabeth narrowed her eyes. A massive black pickup truck was parked just outside the school perimeter.
“So, that’s why I told him to go fuck himself.” Ashley concluded what had been a long narration, putting a potato chip in her mouth. Elisabeth glanced at her friend. She had no idea what Ashley had been talking about.
“You did?” Elisabeth said.
Ashley’s red hair glowed, as she brushed it behind her shoulders.
“Shouldn’t I have?” she asked, looking worried.
Elisabeth bit her lower lip, attempting a smile.
“I don’t know.”
Ashley’s golden hoop earrings dangled happily, as she adjusted the red scarf around her neck. The scarf barely covered her semi-naked shoulders, while a necklace ran down the long cleavage of her shirt.
“Did you hear anything I said?” she asked, a note of exasperation heightening the pitch of her voice. Elisabeth grabbed a potato chip, studied it. It was round, fragile. Salt and other powders stuck to it, while its left side was chipped. She ate it.
“I knew it,” Ashley sighed, shaking her head. Elisabeth turned to her friend surprised.
“Was I that obvious?”
Ashley grabbed her fork and started eating the pasta that was left on her plate. 
“You look out of it,” she replied, chewing loudly.
Elisabeth glanced out of the window. The wind had subdued throughout the morning, and the sun had once again managed to poke its fiery head from behind the clouds.
“I guess I am,” she mumbled.
Ashley grabbed a napkin and brushed her mouth clean.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. Yet, before Elisabeth could reply, she took her phone and scrolled down the open chat. Elisabeth studied her friend’s movements, waited. When she didn’t reply, Ashley looked at her.
Elisabeth smiled.
“I thought you were busy,” she said, pointing at the phone.
Ashley sighed.
“You’re just like my cousin,” she groaned, theatrically putting the phone down.
Elisabeth found Ashley’s addiction to her device fascinating. She had never had the pleasure to experience such superficial distractions. Her mother had never allowed anything electronic in their house. Elisabeth had often wondered if Vivian was afraid that an invisible force was spying on her, or if she simply didn’t want her children to communicate with the outside world. If that was the case, Elisabeth couldn’t blame her. She didn’t have anything good to say about her upbringing with Vivian as mother.
“I’m listening.” Ashley pressed her hands on the table, opening her eyes wide.
Elisabeth chuckled. Ashley was a natural clown.
“Vivian, she took my sketchbook,” Elisabeth explained, and her stomach tightened. The unsettling feeling and the anger she had experienced that morning resurfaced. Ashley’s shiny eyes narrowed, and her expression darkened.
“That woman!” she grumbled and grabbed her cup with a little bit too much vehemence, almost losing her grip on it. The cup was empty. She put it down disappointed.
“Did you write about our plan, there?” Ashley asked, nervously fidgeting with her napkin. Elisabeth shook her head, and Ashley sighed. She sounded relieved. Her eyes darted to her phone. She tapped the central button.
“Did you write anything else you really cared about?” she asked.
Elisabeth bit her lower lip. Suddenly, she wasn’t breathing.
Ashley shot Elisabeth a sideways glance. She then turned to her phone and darkened the screen.
“What was it?” she asked.
Elisabeth’s teeth closed around her tongue, as an avalanche of words threatened to explode out of her mouth.  
“Akira wants to pick me up after school,” Elisabeth said, managing to control herself. Ashley leaned back on her chair, and the chair creaked noisily under her weight.  
“Really? That’s strange.”
Elisabeth nodded, forcing herself to take in a few controlled mouthfuls of air. Ashley was still observing her intently.
“He was acting funny this morning,” Elisabeth continued.
Ashley tapped one of her hands on the table, her bright amber eyes searching Elisabeth’s face, waiting for Elisabeth to elaborate.  
“Ok,” she said, when Elisabeth didn’t continue. “What did he do?”
A loud burst of laughter exploded a few tables behind them. Elisabeth turned around. Natasha Taylor was pointing a finger at her, entertaining a group of giggling students with what Elisabeth was sure was an amusing conversation. Natasha’s friends eyed Elisabeth teasingly. Their faces looked bleached in the greenish hue the fluorescent lights cast all over the plain, food smelling room. The cafeteria was a large place. The walls were painted a sad shade of cream, while the floor was a yellow and gray reflection of the walls.
“What does she want?” Ashley asked, outraged.
“It doesn’t matter,” Elisabeth muttered, waving her hand. Ashley, however, looked distracted again, and this time it wasn’t her phone.
“Speak of the devil,” Ashley said.
Elisabeth turned around again. Akira had just entered the school cafeteria, accompanied by his best friend: Jim. Jim was a college student. Yet, somehow, Akira always managed to get him inside the school during breaks.
“Indeed,” Elisabeth said, grabbing another potato chip.
“Do you think he’d come if I invited him?” Ashley asked. She sounded oddly thoughtful, as she gazed at Akira. Elisabeth stared. She had missed something important.
Ashley raised her hands, fed up.
“Akira, of course.”
Elisabeth looked even more confused.
“And where would he need to be invited?”
Ashley took a long moment before replying. Her eyes bore into Elisabeth’s.  
“The party and please, don’t say what party?”
Elisabeth tried not to laugh. Her lips trembled, as she put yet another potato chip in her mouth.
“What… ehm… party?”
“This Friday evening! I’ve been talking about if for ages. And what was I telling you about before?” Ashley burst, looking incredulous.
Elisabeth shrugged.
“Yes what?” Ashley asked, her eyebrows arching. Elisabeth grabbed a napkin and cleaned her fingertips with a few methodical movements.
“I don’t think you should.”
Ashley tapped her knuckles on the table, returning her gaze to Akira.
“You know he’s a lost cause,” Elisabeth added, and this time she tried to infuse some warmth into her voice. Ashley sighed. She leaned back, but her eyes kept on lingering on Akira.
“You’re right,” she mumbled. Her lips curved down, but it was only a moment. Her expression brightened up again. “I’ve to tell you something.”
Elisabeth rolled her eyes.
“Not again, please.”
“I haven’t said anything, yet!” Ashley protested.
Elisabeth started laughing.
“You’re a nymphomaniac!”
Ashley frowned.
“A nympho-what?”
Elisabeth grabbed her backpack, pushing her chair back as she stood up. Natasha was standing in front of Akira’s table. She was talking excitedly, her hands moving up and down as if in the process of describing something. Akira’s expression was as warm as a stone. Jim, on the other hand, was observing Natasha with mild interest. Elisabeth, however, wasn’t sure Jim was actually listening to a word Natasha was saying.
“It doesn’t matter.” Elisabeth started walking out of the cafeteria. Ashley’s eyes darted from Elisabeth to Akira. She looked even more confused.
“Wait!” she exclaimed, rushing after her.

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