"Ugh, isn't that your own fault?" he drawled into the phone, his voice a mixture of boredom and exasperation. Kyle Brennan had just finished his opening shift at the grocery store, and had a mere half hour of freedom before starting his shift on campus as a repairman. He couldn't stand university students, who flew into panic at the tiniest sink leaks, before fishing out their parents' credit cards so he could save them from "that awful dripping sound" interfering with their studies. Sometimes he wanted to ask them if reading Plato put food in their bellies, as it had clearly fixed their sinks. But full-time campus jobs came with a good salary and even health insurance, which was a huge score for a high school dropout like Kyle. Besides, he actually liked the work itself, working with his hands, where things made sense, and he could make things happen. At any rate, his day was long, and he certainly didn't want to spend his precious break time listening to his mother rant drunkenly about the latest loser boyfriend to leave without paying his share of rent for her decrepit trailer.
"That's cold! All I did was refuse to take his shit! There are some things a self-respecting lady just can't put up with!"
Kyle sighed, remembering the call from the trailer park manager last week, something about his mother drunk and naked in front of her trailer, throwing beer bottles at some piss-smelling tweaker and cursing him as he left. As usual, a promise of free repairs had staved off a call to the police.
"Besides, I never had to worry about rent before you moved out, so isn't it your fault?!" Another sigh. This again, huh? "Hey, why don't you move back in? It's cheaper than whatever yuppie apartment you live in, maybe you could cut back on work and actually live a little!"
"Mom, you already know my answer to that. Don't start." A slight edge was creeping into his voice. He shuddered at the thought of ever again living in the trailer-turned-brothel-turned-traphouse he had grown up in.
"See?! It's all your fault! I never should have had you! You know, I-" And with that, he hung up and set his phone to Do Not Disturb. He had long ago stopped getting angry when she did that, and now he could enjoy the rest of his walk to campus with Metallica coursing uninterrupted through his ears, drowning out any fatigue or annoyance that life could throw his way.
He had almost finished engulfing himself in his monstrous headphones when he saw her just ahead of him. She must have turned onto this street at the last intersection while I was on the phone. She's probably going to campus too. I'll just stay behind her so I don't have to talk to her. Michaela Sommers. Student. He only knew her because she was a part-timer at the grocery store. Like all students, she annoyed him. She came with the extra annoyance of being oddly unconcerned with others. Once, they had taken lunch at the same time, and she had been alone in the break room when he had walked in. She had looked up from her book to greet him and as how he was doing, and her smile had seemed genuine enough, but as soon as they had finished exchanging niceties, her face was back in her book. Maybe she's shy, he had thought. But she had just sat there with her book, smile on her face, happily absorbed in her own world as she abandoned real-life responsibility. She even giggled at her book! Like they had some secret too good for the actual person in front of them! Maybe they were even laughing at him! How rude, in a public place! Doesn't she understand how uncomfortable she makes people? He had finished his lunch out back with a cigarette, even though he was trying to quit.
That was just Michaela. Every free moment of hers was spent in her own world with some bliss she refused to share with anyone else. She always turned down party invitations from coworkers. Given her chubby cheeks and puny frame, she was probably too young to drink; he honestly would have taken her for a teen if he didn't know she was a university student. But he was only 20, and got on just fine! It wasn't like people were terribly opposed to buying for minors around here! No, she didn't turn down invitations because she was young, she did it because she was a stuck up prude who probably got off on some dead philosopher rather than making actual friends. Well, let her!
At least she worked hard and never called out, which was honestly more than Kyle had expected from her. Most students worked part-time just so they could post selfies in uniform on Instagram with "#worklife," but called out if they were ever scheduled for nights, weekends, or more than five hours per week. Who would take a job seriously with Mommy and Daddy paying all their bills? Michaela would, it seemed. Good. One less thing to worry about.
And here she was. Despite the baby-pink scarf and matching fingerless gloves, the black oversized sweater, and the faded denim blue backpack stuffed to full capacity, (no doubt with more damn books) her beige work pants and black non-slip boots gave her away. Furthermore, her black hair was pulled out of her face into a sporty ponytail. She must have work after class today. She seemed like that practical type of girl who would wear her uniform to school so she needn't carry it (probably because there was no room in that book-crammed backpack).
But, for once, she wasn't reading. Now, she strolled down the block, constantly looking up to stare at the trees lining the street. Trees, of all things?! Just WHAT is this girl's deal? Although, following her gaze, Kyle realized for the first time that the trees had pink leaves, same as the girl's scarf and gloves, rather than the green he assumed all leaves were. He also thought how odd they looked, blooming on such a cold, gray February day. But the sight was not entirely unwelcome. Maybe such a dreary day needed some pink leaves. Kyle found just the slightest hint of a wry smile sneaking onto his face. Is this the kind of world she sees? So far, it didn't seem so bad. He couldn't imagine having the time to notice such a world, though.
He draped his giant headphones atop his shoulders and continued to watch her as they made their way down the street. Someone's got to watch where that dumb kid is going, because she sure isn't! He didn't understand how she could be so careless. He didn't understand how any of these kids could be so careless. He had never been able to be careless. He had worked since he was about 10 to keep himself and his mother in that shitty trailer. He had always been careful not to waste time, money, or food, because his mother would do that for him, and he would have to fix that before rent came due. Now he was careful to ensure he would never again have to live that way. He was too used to his own studio apartment, tiny but his own, his music collection, and the occasional carefree night at a concert or party. Unlike Michaela and the other college kids with trust funds and whatnot, Kyle was always one mistake from losing everything he had worked for, and he took this reality seriously. He, for one, always watched where he was going.
He was a few feet behind her when she walked through a tunnel of construction scaffolding affixed to the shop next to her. Apparently, she hadn't noticed the "Workers Above-Watch For Falling Objects" sign, because her eyes were still on the trees across the street. Damn kid. As he entered the makeshift tunnel, he lazily looked up, just in time to see a worker knock over a wrench that had been left carelessly behind him. The wrench began to plummet.
Straight. For. Michaela's. Skull. And still she smiled, blissfully unaware of the tool coming for her. Blissfully unaware that even a small metal tool from that height could crush her skull, tear into the brain beneath it, even take her life. So blissfully unaware that this could be her last peaceful moment…
Kyle didn't realize he had lunged for her until after her tiny body was wrapped in his arms, her hazel eyes turned up to him, open wide in astonishment. The wrench clattered harmlessly to the ground right behind them. The worker who had knocked it over was screaming "my God, are you kids, okay?" But Kyle didn't register this yet, nor did he register anything that had just happened. The first thing he noticed was Michaela's heartbeat pounding against his chest, so intense it might even be her heart, and not his own, sending his blood rushing through his ears in a torrent. He realized he was still holding her, and put her down, his face growing hot.
She seemed to recover quickly. She glanced at the fallen wrench and gently patted the spot on her head where it would have landed. She looked back up at Kyle with a warm smile and a soft chuckle.
"Well that could have ended badly. I'm glad you put a stop to that!" and then, a little softer: "Thanks, Kyle. Really."
He wasn't sure why her nonchalant acceptance of what had just happened made him uneasy, only that it did, so he started on her. "Christ, Michaela, can't you watch where you're going?! You kids are all so damn careless! It's a miracle you even made it to 18 like that!" She had been handing the wrench back to a construction worker while Kyle scolded her, but as he finished, she turned and fixed him with a stare, cocking her head slightly, before chuckling and continuing on her way. With nothing else to do, he caught up and fell into step beside her. She was still glancing at trees! Damn kid!
"Anyway, what's so interesting about trees?"
At that, she paused to look at him. He felt like her gaze was taking him all in, absorbing his existence into her strange world, and it made his face grow hot again. When he averted his eyes, she answered his question with one of her own:
"Don't you think such a dreary winter day could use pink petals like those to brighten it?"
Kyle froze. Did this girl read my mind earlier? Just what kind of scary powers has she got?
"Do you know what kind of trees those are?"
"…not really…I never thought about that kind of thing." Does she study trees in school or something? Was she doing her homework while walking? Why else would she care?
"They're cherry blossom trees, native to Japan. In springtime, they bloom en masse and shed their flowers immediately, so the entire air is dancing with pink flowers. Even though Japan starts their new year on January 1st like we do, their school and fiscal years start in April, around blooming time. It's said that when the cherry blossoms fill the air, any new beginning is possible. Isn't that sweet?"
"That's…kinda cool, I guess." He now remembered cleaning the streets after the spring festival a few years ago. He had felt like he and his broom were drowning in a sea of those pink flowers. But when he was no longer the one cleaning it, he had to admit it had been a refreshing sight. Is this the kind of world she sees all the time? He wondered where a student with a job found the time to notice this world. Especially one who actually showed up top work. Come to think of it, he saw her at work quite frequently. Could she possibly be full-time, on top of her schooling? That would make the time she spent in her hidden world even more miraculous. Even the yuppie kids without jobs didn't seem to have that kind of time, between exams, books, staring at their phones, parties, and whatnot.
"But hey, here we are, in February, still shrouded in cold and gray. No one tells the trees that Spring is almost here, that they just need to hold on a bit longer and then they can share their blossoms in warmth and safety. But still they bud; they work hard because they know their time of suffering is almost over. How do they know?"
Kyle couldn't even begin to answer that. He wasn't sure he even understood what she had said. It sounded like nonsense, like the ravings of a mad little girl who had forsaken reality. But, strangely enough, he found himself asking if her nonsense world was such a bad place, or if it was even truly nonsense at all.
He didn't notice that he was staring at those beautiful cherry blossoms, or that he had slowed his voice, until he heard her voice again, softer as it gained distance: "Do you think nature speaks a language that we could understand if only we actually listened? Do you think maybe we would even be happier?" Once again, he had no idea how to answer, but he had a feeling she did, and he found himself wanting to hear. Before he could ask, though, she changed the subject:
"By the way, what makes you think I'm 18?" Kyle wasn't expecting that, but he supposed if the girl could go on tangents about trees and hidden languages, he better be ready for anything. He shrugged.
"Well, you attend university, so obviously you're at least 18. No offense, but I doubt you're any older than that." He quickly eyed her up and down to indicate how young she looked. Was she about to tell him she was really 30 in some immortally youthful body or something?
She just chuckled again. "I'll be 17 next month. My home life wasn't great, so I graduated early and became legally emancipated last year. I chose this school because it was the furthest I could go from home without paying out-of-state tuition. I came here for a new beginning. I worked hard for it, and I still do. I don't resent it any more than the cherry trees resent Winter, because I always know Spring is on its way." She finished with a flippant smile.
It was Kyle's turn to stare and take her in. Michaela Sommers. 16 years old. Alone in a new city. A child living as an adult. Tiny, so, so tiny. But that tiny girl fought for her future, making it happen with her own two hands and willpower. Yet, still she could be gentle; still she could giggle, despite the looks she got, at things she couldn't possibly share, because who would understand? Still she could notice things like cherry blossom buds in February, and the hard work the trees put into those buds. She was a tough girl, tough, but not hard, unlike weary, hardened Kyle. And he couldn't help but think that was simply amazing.
Of course, he couldn't tell her any of that. Who would say something that awkward? She would, probably, but…oh, hell, I can't do this! I need to get out of here, damn it! His face was burning and his legs felt like rubber for some god awful reason. He had to get out while they would still move! He picked up his pace and left her behind him, muttering that he had to get to work. Damn it, Kyle, don't be a dick! He turned around, feeling feverish at this point, unsure of what to say, settling on
"it…was nice talking to you, Michaela. Really." Then he turned and practically fled the scene, speeding off to the repairs waiting for him. At least those made sense!