Title: There's More to Life than This

Rating: T

Genre: Teen/YA

Summary: Eliot's life has never been simple, but with new friends, an awkward crush, and the sudden appearance of a shadowy figure from his past? Sometimes, he wishes things would just slow down. (Novel length)

Chapter One

His hands are unfaithful, slick around his pencil as he writes out his name in letters so careful he can barely recognize them, each one tall and straight black in its individual box. E-L-I-O-T J-A-M-E-S S-M-I-T-H, a name that is a living testament to his father, whose name was James, whose well-worn copy of The Wasteland was left on the foot of Eliot's bed two years ago, the night he ran away.

That is what Eliot is thinking of as he pencils in bubble after bubble, heavy and dark, not listening to the drone of the Testing Administrator as she instructs everyone to give up their addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers, etc, in a light tone referencing kindergarten. In some number of minutes, he will be tested on everything he has learned in sixteen years, but all he can think about is how his mother's smile still doesn't seem real, and how he'll probably never put The Wasteland up on his bookshelf, and how absolutely none of this is fair, and still. When he gets to those probing personal questions about ethnicity and religion (Caucasian, unsure?), he falters for a moment before marking 'prefer not to respond' on each and closing his eyes.

Behind his eyelids, he can see red and gold, framed in black, all composing a little street map out of skin and veins. He tries to follow it, wishes he could follow it, hoping it might lead to some place new. He traces a path until he reaches the edge if his vision and hears footsteps from somewhere behind him, and, suddenly, everything is light again.

"Please open your books, turn to page two, and begin." the Test Administrator coos, a few feet away from him. He glances over his shoulder for a moment to get his first real look at her. She is a just past middle age woman with a pleasant face and gray streaked hair falling in wisps from her ponytail. There are lines on her face, but he thinks they are laugh lines, and she sort of reminds him of his grandmother, back when she was still around. She raises an eyebrow at him now, not unkindly, and gestures vaguely. He's supposed to have started by now. Beside him, a girl he only knows by sight is already on the next page, filling in each bubble with a certain ferocity that looks out of place on her.

Eliot opens his book, sets pencil to paper to follow along with the passage, and begins to read.

/

At a state specified amount of time later, he has come to the conclusion that, though he very well can read, he doesn't enjoy having to answer ambiguous questions pertaining to articles he didn't particularly care to read to begin with. There is something expressively wrong about having to read about someone else's family car trip this early on a Saturday morning.

They are taking a break before starting the math section, and he and the girl beside him are the only people who haven't escaped to the haven of the bathrooms.

"Did you think you did well?" she asks, then continues before he has time to answer. "I think I did incredibly well. Don't you?"

"I'm, uh, sure you did." he says, hesitantly. She stares at him for a long moment in which he wonders whether he said the wrong thing, then smiles, looking satisfied. They don't say anything else while people begin to drift back in, looking paler than before as they pull out their calculators and check casually for the programs they had frenziedly shared with each other this morning.

He has his mother's old calculator, and it barely turns on, nevertheless indiscreetly give him answers while he looks like he is in intense thought.

"Sit down, everyone!" the woman's voice rang through the cafeteria, a bit more desperately than it had before. "Please! Open your books to the math section and begin!"

The room falls silent except for the sound of shuffling paper and the click of calculator keys. Eliot takes a long breath before opening his book, staring down the first problem.

/

Once more, they are instructed to put their pencils down and stop writing, informed they are not allowed to go back to any of the previous test, and released to contemplate their fate for five more minutes. Eliot is still shell-shocked from realizing what only half paying attention for 11 years of math classes will leave you with, and can only watch as the girl beside him assures herself by assuring him.

She has blond hair that she has parted carefully in the center, framing a soft face and sharp brown eyes. Looking at them for even this long has given him the impression that she could, and would, if she saw fit, see straight into his soul. The idea was at first frightening, but also, as he thought about it more, comforting. She says something about the mean test scores to get into some very prestigious university, and he nods like he's already thought about all this. She is playing with her pencil compulsively as she speaks, small fingers lacing around and around it.

"So where are you going?" she asks, leaning her head to the side, the universal sign that you are either a dog or just trying to look acutely interested in what the other person is saying.

"Going?" He's fairly certain that she's aware of the fact that he hasn't been listening, but she's smiling anyway, and that must be a good sign.

"To college."

"Oh. I don't really know." The look on her face that this brings up is abject horror, and the pencil falls from her hand and hits the table with a clatter.

"You don't know?" she cries, just as the last person sits down and they are forced into silence again to begin the section that will test their abilities to discern exactly where a comma should and a semicolon should not go.

/

Three hours later, it is finally over, and Eliot is about to gather his thing to leave when the girl steps in his path.

"How can you not know where you want to go? This-this is your future!" she demands, hands placed firmly on her hips as she glares up at him. He frowns in response, too disconcerted to reply right away. Her eyes widen impatiently, and that isn't helping matters.

"I just don't know." When he starts to walk away, she stumbles forward to walk beside him, clutching a notebook firmly to her chest. As they walk out the double doors, he turns to squint at her in the sudden burst of sunlight.

"I'm only sixteen."

She makes an angry sort of noise in her throat, half laugh and half scoff, then turns on her heel and disappears down the sidewalk in a whirl of hair and floral perfume. He is sure that this will not be the last time they meet, but he waits until he is absolutely certain that she is gone before he blinks, curiously, and sets off in the opposite direction.

/

The leaves are starting to fall on Main Street and, at any point in the day, at least three shop owners can be seen attacking the sidewalk with their brooms. Eliot dodges the owner of the local bookstore, nodding a greeting and quickening his pace. If he hurries, he'll beat his mother home, which is the ideal situation for both of them. By the time she arrives, he might be hiding in his room or asleep, and they won't. He's noticed that doing that with her has been getting progressively more difficult, and it's better for both of them if they just avoid the act altogether.

Their house is six blocks from the school, and he walks them every day, two miles each way. This has been the routine since he was six years old, when the idea had given him a feeling of ultimate independence. Now, though, he just wants to sleep when he gets home, and that doesn't bode well for the state of his geometry homework.

Relief floods him as he sees his stoop from the end of their street, the house with the bright red door, and his legs unconsciously speed up until he collapses on the steps. There is mail sticking out of the mailbox and even more leaves sticking underneath him, but he takes one long moment to breathe in the cold air and sunlight before moving on. The leaves he will leave for later; he gets out the mail and lets himself in.

It is colder inside the house than it is outside, but it's normally like that, except in the summer. He slips a jacket on with one hand as he sorts through the mail. Bill, bill, you could already be a winner!, a credit card offer for his grandfather, and letter from him, as well. He drops the rest on the coffee table as he passes it and takes the letter into his room. Every time he steps inside his room, he locks the door, even though he doesn't know why. The sound of the lock helps him to calm down, sometimes, like he's truly safe.

He sits down on his floor and opens the letter with one finger, a long tear at the very top of the envelope. Inside, through the paper, he can see that the writing is messy and dark, bleeding through to black. His grandfather's handwriting has been getting worse ever since he moved away, and that's almost worse than not seeing him. The Assisted Living Center (they call it an Assisted Living Center, even though it's a nursing home and everyone knows that it's a nursing home) is four hours away, and they can almost never find the time to get down there, so they are stuck living alone in his house while he's all alone there, and sometimes Eliot can't even look at his mother, knowing that she did that to him. The letter sticks to the sweat on his fingers, smearing ink beneath them as he carefully unfolds it.

Dear Hannah and Eliot,

I miss you both, accordingly, and I cannot wait until you can come and visit again. I just needed to ask a favor of you, for when that time comes. In the attic, there is an old chest that used to belong to me back in school. I stored a few photo albums there when we first moved in. If you could, please bring that to me. It will help to have those old memories, too, as well as these new ones.

Please make sure that you are treating yourselves well, and Eliot, good luck on the testing you were telling me about in your last letter. You are a brilliant boy, and you will be able to do anything you want when you grow up. Never forget that.

One of his grandfather's many skills (along with actually being able to cook and base jumping, back in the day) was making Eliot feel better about himself in the worst of condition. Even though they might not admit it, even teenagers sometimes enjoy being told that they can still be astronauts or cowboys if they want to. He sets the letter aside and stands on his bed so he can reach the string. Narrowly missing getting hit in the head by the ladder, he manages to catch it and get a precarious footing. The bottom of it presses firmly into his carpet, and he realizes that he hasn't gone up there since Christmas. As he climbs up, he can already see the light from the single bulb reflecting broken ornaments and silver tinsel, the sort they always complain about having to hang around the windows. The thin glass shatters quietly beneath his sneakers when he steps into the attic, ducking to avoid the low ceiling.

A long time ago, his grandfather had taken him up here and shown him the chest, pulling out memories and explaining them intently. They had looked through the albums for hours while Eliot learned the faces of family members he had never met and will never be able to meet. He remembers dark hair and eyes that look like his, even in black and white, and how he felt different for days afterwards, bigger, somehow.

The chest is still in the same place, almost hidden in a corner behind a black trash bag filled with his old stuffed animals, and he drags it out into full view. It's made of a dark wood he can't recall the name of, and his grandfather's initials are burned into the front of it in block letters. His father, Eliot's great grandfather (who to him is just another face in a picture), made it for him when he went off to college, and he has kept it ever since.

The latch catches when he goes to undo it, and he spends an inordinate amount of time fumbling with it until it finally swings open, revealing a small cloud of dust and insects. Beneath it, though, there are a stack of albums for him to pull out, and beneath that are old clothes and school books and letters. Eliot considers reading them, knowing that his grandfather wouldn't mind, but he knows that he should wait. After slipping them gently inside one of the albums, he puts the trunk back in its spot and makes his way back down into his room.

More dust flies up when he drops the albums onto his bed, and one photographs falls out and slides across his floor. It makes him feel guilty, the look of disuse, the edges of photographs and pages showing from beneath the binding, torn and yellow with age. His eyes move to the fallen photograph, curiously, spotting his grandfather's old handwriting on the back of it in neat, self-assured lines. The edges of it crumble in his hand when he picks it up, and he lays it delicately on his palm to read.

Lily, only. 1950.

In the confusion we stay with each other, happy to be together, speaking without uttering a single word.

On the other side is a picture of a girl, maybe a woman, smiling with teeth at the camera. Only one of her arms is shown, bent at a strange angle as she rakes a long hand through a sweep of pale hair. There is something in her eyes that shows she isn't as confident as she seems, that maybe the happiness there is just a show for whoever's taking the picture. He doesn't know why, but when he looks at her, he's reminded of himself.

Instead of putting the picture back into the album, he stares at it for a few more moments before opening a desk drawer at random and carefully pressing it inside one of his notebooks. When he goes to visit, he can ask his grandfather about her.

/

"Eliot?" His mother is knocking on his door, loudly now, like she had been doing it for a long time. At some point, he must have fallen asleep, leaning with his head back against the edge of his bed. His neck makes an uncomfortable click noise when he starts to rise, and he winces.

"Yeah?" he calls back, stumbling closer to the door.

"Have you eaten yet?"

His stomach provides an answer before he can deny it, and he sighs, moving to unlock the door. It takes them a few moments to get it open, because she is holding onto the knob at the other side while he is tugging on it from his, but eventually he falls out and straightens himself out.

"Food?" she asks, smiling awkwardly.

"Please." They walk out together to the kitchen, where a plastic bag is waiting on the counter.

". . .chicken?" he ventures, politely.

"Burgers." She pulls out the individually wrapped hamburgers and tosses him one. The grease makes his palm slick before he even opens it, and he makes an effort not to let her notice. It's quite possible that he should have stayed in his room today.

In a few long minutes, they are sitting side by side at the table and pretending to be enjoying their meal. Eliot is waiting for her to casually mention the test, like she's supposed to, but she seems to be pointedly silent. She might've forgotten, of course, it's not like it would be the first time, but this was one of those things she was interested in. It's one of her goals in life, he knows, to make him better than his father was, so anything that could ensure him a Brighter Future is generally her idea.

"Good day?" she asks, not looking up. She pokes at her food with a finger but hasn't eaten any of it. He tears the last of his in halves, then fourths, leaving it in a pile on the paper.

"Yeah." he replies, folding the paper up at the sides and throwing it into the trash can. Her eyes flicker up to meet his, but she doesn't say anything, and he didn't really expect her to. Once she looks back down, he walks away.