Human After All (A Short Story)

This story was first published years ago on Front Porch Review (as “Human After All” by Hila Katz).

After the fire ruined her face and body, Aisling didn’t want to live among people. She moved upstate to a cottage that had stayed unoccupied for years; it was set down a narrow drive and surrounded by forests and fields. The first floor was divided between a kitchen and a sitting room with a fireplace opposite the front door. The second floor was furnished with a bureau and bed. During the day Aisling worked from her computer or poked around the derelict garden out back. Sometimes she took long naps from which she was faintly surprised to wake up. In the evenings she made a point of lighting the logs in the fireplace. Though they made her stomach clench, she ate dinner in front of the flames and watched them lick and consume.

It took a week for her to get used to the absence of city sounds. Instead of cars grinding and voices shouting up and down the street, there was a thick silence disturbed unpredictably by cries, chirps and lonely calls. Her keyboard sounded loud and percussive in the quiet; the water came out of the kitchen faucet in a roar. She felt she was in another world. The silence formed a membrane that folded around the cottage, and the cottage and garden conspired to keep her tucked away. The two windows on the cottage’s first floor were coarse with dust and dirt, as good as curtains for frustrating curious eyes. Weeds spilled over from the garden and the woods, flanked the cottage walls and kept sentry at the front door. At her roll-top desk or on the ratty armchair before the fire, Aisling ate, read, dozed, and wrote instruction manuals and technical articles for pay. She told herself that in time the seclusion would seem completely natural.

Real people were impossible to be with. As if she needed a reminder, she ran into two of them on a walk through the woods several weeks after moving into the cottage. During the walk she wasn’t wearing her veil, which she kept only for errands in a nearby town. She thought she would have the woods to herself. As she strolled along a narrow dirt path between the trees, her hands skimmed over leaves that were deep green in the shade or bright green-gold where the sun touched them; her heart was lighter than it had been in months. From somewhere nearby a stream whispered to her, and she was listening to it so intently that she almost missed the voices drawing closer from up ahead. Within seconds an elderly man and a young boy appeared with fishing poles slung against their shoulders.

The boy saw her first. He screamed and hid his face against the man’s side. The man placed a hand on the boy’s head and stared at Aisling with horror and pity.

Aisling turned around and jogged home, her throat tight. Memories swelled up – pity, misery and revulsion from the few people close to her, her niece crying at the sight of her face, the taunts from neighborhood teens and some adults (nicknames of “Lava Woman” and “Third Degree,” the boy who pulled her veil down and snapped a photo with his phone). Surgeries, infection, skin grafts that failed, flesh that either didn’t feel anything or blazed with pain. When she got to the cottage, she climbed the stairs to the second floor and curled up on the bed, her fingers fisting into the deep green coverlet. Her mind roared faintly, like an inferno heard from miles away. An hour passed; her breathing steadied, her mind went quiet and numb. She sat up, tugged off her boots, and forced herself to go through with the rest of her day. There was a lawnmower manual to finish writing and vegetables to chop for a stew. She needed to send her weekly email to the handful of family and friends who still kept in touch, to assure them she was alive and functional enough to use a keyboard, or voice recognition software when her fingers were too stiff. When night came she lit the logs in the fireplace.

Aisling stayed indoors for two days. On the third day, when she stepped outside to bring in more firewood, she paused just past the front step. Several tall thorny weeds that had crowded around her door were gone. On the step lay a dandelion, yellow and crumpled, as if the wind had played with it for a while before tossing it her way. Aisling picked it up and rolled the stem between her thumb and forefinger. She made her way around the cottage to the garden. No one was there. The corner closest to the woods looked like it had been weeded a little, though she wasn’t sure.

These tweaks to her property wouldn’t have amounted to much had she never noticed anything like them again. Instead Aisling spotted new changes every few days: more garden weeds gone, some fresh loamy soil in spots that had offered only cracked earth. Random dandelions appeared on her front step, sometimes two or three at a time, more than could be explained by a stray breeze. She placed them in a glass jar on the sill above her kitchen faucet. Against the dirty window their yellowness seemed unhealthy, a color stemming from illness and pollution. Aisling ran a rag under the faucet and scrubbed at the windowpane until her arm ached.

At two or three in the morning most nights she woke and drifted downstairs to fill a glass with tap water. She drank it by the dark kitchen window. She didn’t expect to see anything or anyone, but she still wondered about the small acts of kindness around her cottage. Maybe there was a friendly elf in the woods. It wouldn’t feel any disgust towards her or perpetrate any cruelties. It would be sensitive to her and try to help as best it could, giving her dandelions as tokens of good will and staying out of sight so as not to make her self-conscious.

After her woodpile was tidied and a wheelbarrow she had left overturned was righted, the impression of a benevolent presence strengthened. She began to write notes on index cards and leave them on the front step before going to bed. Who are you? the first note said. And four nights later it was a Thank you after another small patch of weeds vanished from the garden. On a round of errands in town, Aisling bought seeds and gardening tools, a shovel, hoe and spade, and she liked the sight of them propped up inside her cottage by the front door. I can do something with the garden now, she wrote. I’ll start soon. And feeling foolish but also a little happy she left the note where the others had been.

She received no replies. The notes were never on the front step by the time she checked at eight in the morning; it was possible the wind blew them away just as it sent dandelions to her door. Aisling was too nervous to find out for sure. She never pinned the index cards down with a rock. On two nights she set up a video camera aimed at the front step, but never hit record. What if the camera showed her no one at all? She suspected sometimes that she was fooling herself. She might be caught up in a daydream, the pathetic but potent longings of a woman still unaccustomed to living alone. Maybe she was completing those minor chores herself, in fits of absent-mindedness.

When she heard a knock at the door at 7:30 one morning, just as she was cleaning her breakfast plate, Aisling turned off the faucet and stood still, listening. Another knock came, and she set the plate down with hands that had started to shake. She dried her hands on her skirt and took a few abrupt steps to the door. “Just a minute,” she called, and her voice came out in a croak. She cleared her throat. “Just a minute.” She leaned her forehead against the door and held her breath, trying to listen for any noise outside. But she heard nothing, only felt someone or something there. She shouldn’t have announced that she was at home. But whoever was out there knew already, so what was the point of pretending? She gripped the doorknob, then released it and put on her gloves and veil first.

When she yanked open the door, the boy standing before her front step flinched. He was staring off to the side, and Aisling in her shock had several moments to study him. It was the young boy she’d run into in the woods, who’d screamed when he saw her. He was nine or ten years old if she had to guess, with a long pale face and brown hair matted with sweat. An index card, probably the one she’d left outside the night before, poked out of the front pocket of his jeans.

His head turned fractionally. Then his shoulders relaxed, and he turned to face her fully. His hands were clenched, but he stared resolutely at her, at the veil and through the veil, then down the length of her, then away again, his cheeks red.

Aisling sensed that she had to be the first one to speak. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to bother you.”

“You aren’t.” She leaned against the doorjamb, and saw his gaze slide by her into the cottage.  “Is anyone with you?” she asked.

“Uh…  no.” His voice was high and nervous. “I know a shortcut to get here from my grandparents’ house. I can get here in ten minutes flat.” He looked up at her face, his eyes tracing the patterns on her veil. “Grandpa and I followed you here. You know, when we bumped into you.”

Aisling reached back and shut the door. She stepped towards the boy, and he stumbled back. She stopped, laced her fingers together, and spoke over the pounding of her heart. “You should go home,” she said, feeling nauseous suddenly. The boy’s fear of her, the disgust he could barely control, was like a brand on her skin. A wild thought crossed her mind – to do something wicked to him, disfigure him – but it passed quickly and left her even more nauseous.

He cleared his throat. “I just…  I wanted to say sorry for screaming. I felt really bad.”

His face was pained and earnest. She looked down and saw his hands, grubby, as if he’d been messing around in the dirt. “Apology accepted,” she said, “on one condition. Tell me if you’ve been here before. Not with your grandpa but by yourself.”

The boy licked his lips and glanced at the woods, wondering maybe if he could make a run for it. “Yeah,” he admitted at last.

“Why?” she said. Then she spotted a thread of fresh blood between the thumb and index finger of his left hand. “You’re hurt.”

He stared at his fingers. “I couldn’t find the gardening gloves today. Grandma must have put them somewhere else.”

“Wait here,” she said, and slipped back into the house. She fully expected that when she returned with the antibacterial wipes and band-aid he would be gone. Maybe she was imagining this conversation too. But he was still waiting by the door. He mumbled his thanks and cleaned his hands; there were smaller cuts on his palms.

“Where do you live?”

He hesitated. “I don’t want to get in trouble.”

“You won’t.”

“Just across the woods.” He looked at her again. “I wasn’t doing anything bad. I wasn’t playing tricks on you.”

“Wash those out again when you get home.” She didn’t know why it was so hard for her to ask the next question; maybe it was because she was afraid of what she’d hear. “I still don’t understand why you’re here. Why did you go to so much trouble? You’ve been here most mornings, right?”

“I need to go,” he said, as he wound a band-aid around his index finger. “I can sneak back into my room easy, but it has to be early enough or else they’ll know.” He shrugged. “Grandpa feels bad too.  He’s probably going to come around and say hi some time. He hasn’t done it yet because he thinks you’d be embarrassed.”

Aisling was sure it had more to do with not wanting to look at her again. “How about you?” she said.

“The first time I came here it was just to say sorry. I meant to. But I was afraid to knock. You know, because I don’t know you,” he hurried to say. “I thought maybe it’d be nice to help out in the meantime. Your garden’s a mess.” He bit his lip. “But today I told myself I’d do it, I’d knock. I heard you washing up so I knew you were awake. I’m sorry I bothered you.” He stepped away from her. “I need to go.”

Was this it, then? Would he never come again? She looked around the yard, thinking of the disappearing weeds, the righted wheelbarrow, the notes she had left at the door. Had he read them all? Had he kept each one? There was still so much she didn’t know, and already he was edging away from her.

“I’ll go with you,” she said.

His eyes widened. “You…  you don’t have to. I got here by myself.”  Then he muttered, “I’m not a baby.”

“It isn’t safe,” she said. “No one knows where you are.”

You know,” he said, and for the first time he cracked a little grin.

She huffed a laugh. “Let’s go.”

The trees closed in around them. The morning was cool, and patches of mist were parting with reluctance from the branches. A couple of minutes into the walk, the kid wriggled into a clot of shrubs. Aisling followed, holding her veil in place to keep it from catching on something and tearing off.

They were now on another path, more neglected, with tree roots and broad-leafed plants crowding against them. Aisling stumbled a couple of times, the toe of her shoe jerking against a root.

“You ok?” the kid asked her.

“Yes, thanks.” She was uncomfortable with his concern. “You’re visiting your grandparents for the summer?” she said.

“No. I live with them.”

They were silent for the next few minutes.

“My parents died,” he said, not turning around to look at her.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured.

This time he did stop, and she almost bumped into him.

“Car crash,” he said, glancing back at her. He started walking again. She could barely hear his next question as they crunched over some loose stones. “How did you get hurt?”

“House fire,” she said. She had lived on the top floor of a four-story walk-up, a narrow Victorian home that had been converted into a set of apartments, one on each floor. She didn’t tell him that a bunch of middle school kids, drunk on their parents’ pilfered whiskey, had started the fire by accident.

She heard him take a deep breath. Then he said, “My mom was burned too.” He looked at her over his shoulder, then turned away quickly. “When she died.”

“I’m sorry,” Aisling said again, but this time her words barely had a sound.

The woods were starting to thin out. The path broadened.

“I didn’t get to see her after,” he said quietly. “They wouldn’t let me.”

They reached the edge of the woods. Up ahead was a house painted the color of goldenrod, with a dark gabled roof and a vegetable garden in the backyard.

“My house,” he said. He didn’t look at her. “Do you think I could bring Grandpa some time?” 

“Bring Grandpa?”

“To your place.”

Did he really mean to visit? The thought of him knocking on her door, his grandfather with him, gave her a thrill of fear and delight. She could picture it, the three of them awkward in her cottage, staring at the floor and walls, the conversation strained. She would be wearing her veil to spare them. At least she would be hospitable, offer them tea. Maybe she would bake something when she got home. Or work on her garden some more, make her place look less derelict. It would look better to her too, even if no one did come.

“I don’t see why not, but it’s up to him.”  There, she’d given him an out. If he never came again, he could always tell himself that his grandpa didn’t let him.  “You can’t come alone. Promise me.”

“You don’t have to treat me like a baby.”

“Promise.”

“Fine.” He blew out an exasperated breath.

“I’m Aisling, by the way,” she said.

His eyes brightened, and he smiled. “Kevin.” He stuck out his hand.

She stared at his hand, before catching it in a light grip. He tensed – no doubt remembering what was hidden under her gloves – and his smile slipped. They kept their handshake up for three seconds (Aisling counted, maybe he did too), before letting go.

He hurried away across the yard, ducking between the raised vegetable beds, until he reached a window at the side of the house. He hauled himself over, out of sight.

Aisling remained at the edge of the yard until the patio door slid open and the grandfather stepped out. He didn’t notice her; he was holding a blue mug and looking up at the sky. Just as well. He’d be startled if he saw her now, even with her veil. Aisling helped herself to another look at his house, before retreating into the woods, out of sight.

Inescapable Questions (A Work of Flash Fiction)

It’s the first week of fifth grade, and Jessie is about to give a presentation to her class.

As part of an autobiography project, the students have been asked to bring in a photo of themselves as babies, toddlers, or preschoolers. Jessie picks one of her dad’s favorites. In the photo, she’s 3 and has no neck, because she’s hunched against the spray from a waterfall. She’s smiling, water spangling her short, silky black hair. She’s wearing black shorts and a yellow sweatshirt, like a little bee shivering in the water.

Back then, her hair was cropped around her ears. These days, it falls to the middle of her back, thick and coarse. She pushes it away from her face, strides to the front of the room, and displays the photo to the class.

They crane forward, and it’s Mike B. who says, “That was you?”

He sounds so surprised that Jessie glances at the photo to check. “Well, yeah.”

His mouth falls open for several seconds. Someone else giggles, but otherwise the class is silent. Jessie, feeling unsure for the first time, remembers to hand the photo to a girl in the front row so that the class can pass it around.

“You were so cute,” Mike B. says. Then he asks, “What happened?”

The way he says it isn’t mean. There’s no sly, malicious triumph in his eyes. He just sounds stunned, full of puzzled sorrow.

No one else says anything, not even the teacher. The 3-year-old in the photo continues to squirm in the water and smile, as one person after another glances between her and her older self at the front of the class.

Jessie’s cheeks burn. So do her eyes. She can’t bring herself to look at anything but the floor as she mumbles about her life. In the seven years since the photo was taken, she has started playing cello. She has read hundreds of books and has gotten a pet dog, Nelson, a miniature schnauzer. She was fitted for glasses in the third grade.

When she has shared everything she is required to share of herself, Jessie returns to her desk, where someone has tossed her photo on the chair. As another student stumps to the front of the room, Jessie folds the photo in two and tucks it into the front pocket of her yellow dress. A pressure has built up in her throat. She stares at her legs, encased in purple tights, and at her body, swelling and bulging under a bulky yellow dress. She looks monstrously swollen, every part of her bloated and disfigured. What has she become? What is she becoming?

On the bus ride home, alone at the front, she doesn’t look out the window for fear of seeing her face in the glass.

Graveside Closure (A Short Story)

The owner of the bed and breakfast had no skeletons in his closet, Linda hoped. But he did have a number of them buried close to his backyard. The B&B was right next to the Western Cemetery in Portland, Maine. 

At the moment, the cemetery was haunted by an androgynous teenager dressed in black. From her first-floor room, Linda peered at this specimen of adolescence, who reminded her of herself as a teenager, 14 years ago. Teen Linda had dressed like an honorary member of the Addams Family. She had thought of herself as a cynical witch, drawing black magic out of the wellspring of the world’s miseries. She had been so innocent then.

Adult Linda’s trip from Staten Island to Portland, Maine had no innocence. She hefted her suitcase onto the squealing four-poster bed and fished out a red silk tie belonging to her lover, who had recently died. She hadn’t killed him, though after his death she wished she had. To find out from an online article that he had been survived by a wife… that revelation had robbed Linda of peace.

Soon after his death, she had started to see the ghost of him all around Staten Island: by the fish tanks at the ferry terminal; at the beauty salon responsible for making her a blonde; at Alice Austen House, where, much as she liked the old photos, she liked even more to sit on the lawn, drink beer, and watch the ships pass under the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. He had also popped up repeatedly at her home, a roach-friendly studio over a Chinese restaurant.

And damn it if she hadn’t cracked apart in tears at nearly every sighting of his ghost, her one-weekend-a-month lover (sometimes two weekends!), a businessman who was regularly on the road. Even now, she wore the pendant necklace he had given her one year into their two-year relationship, after she had landed her first gig as a part-time jazz oboist. The pendant was a gold treble clef with garnets.

She missed him. But she also wanted him to stop haunting her, the lying SOB. His ghost had never said a word, and she hadn’t figured out how to make him disappear. Not until her upstairs neighbor, a palmistry expert, recommended visiting his grave. “Bring something that belonged to him,” her neighbor recommended. “Leave it there as a parting act.” Apparently all a ghost and his betrayed lover would need was some graveside closure.

Continue reading “Graveside Closure (A Short Story)”

Dragonflies (A Short Story)

We’re sitting by a pond that looks like a half-formed handprint, fingers of water extending from a murky palm. The dragonflies are out. So many of them, skimming the water, swooping, flinging themselves around in tight circles.

With a cup of coffee held to your lips, you say, “I just remembered something from when we were kids. When we played together, we used to say, ‘Dragonfly, dragonfly.’”

A memory shivers like a creature in a mound of leaves. I’ve never forgotten that eerie sing-song. But I’m surprised you remember it.

Continue reading “Dragonflies (A Short Story)”

Lewis the Loyal Labrador Retriever (a Work of Flash Fiction)

When Clarissa adopted her lab, Lewis, she loved him so much that she knew she had to set up a YouTube page for him. Within months, thousands of people came to agree with her that Lewis was a fantastic doggo. They tuned in for short clips of him flinging himself into puddles in city parks, mauling new toys, and clambering onto his hoomans’ bed.

The humans were just Clarissa and her husband, Andrew, who lived in a two-bedroom apartment. Andrew worked in his home office (the second of the two bedrooms), while Clarissa worked from her laptop at the kitchen table or from a corner of the couch in the living room. Lewis preferred Andrew to her and often lay on the rug in the home office – unless Clarissa opened the fridge or a cupboard door, which made him materialize at her side. Clarissa wasn’t too upset about that; she reminded herself that he was an affectionate dog and loyal to both her and Andrew.

She had a great idea of how to demonstrate his loyalty to YouTube. A year after adopting Lewis, his owners – or parents, as YouTube called them – took him on a hiking trip out of the city. He responded well to a recall command, and they could trust him off leash.

The trail was hilly, the woods bare and dusted with snow. At first, Clarissa walked close to her dog and her husband. Then, with her phone recording, she slipped behind a tree and waited to see how long it would take them to notice that she had fallen behind. She expected her husband to remain oblivious, but she was sure that Lewis would soon pick up on the fact that he couldn’t hear her steps anymore or smell her around. “Lewis is going to return any moment now,” she whispered to her phone. “He’s going to come back for mama.”

Both dog and husband continued down the trail. Clarissa watched, with a deepening coldness in her stomach, as their figures grew smaller. When they followed a bend in the path, she emerged from behind the tree and scrambled after them.

“Wait,” she tried to shout, but the word got stuck in her throat. She slipped, landing with a cry on the thin coating of snow and half-frozen mud. Her ankle pulsed with pain, and her phone skittered out of her hand.

The following day, she rested in bed. Her ankle was propped up on a pillow, and her mind tiredly reviewed the way the hike had ended: husband and dog eventually backtracking, the hobbling trip back to the car (her eyes fixed to the ground, her ears ringing with her husband’s complaints), the wait in the emergency room.

Her husband was now in his office, taking a work break by playing a computer game with lots of gunfire. Lewis lay beside her on the bed, watching her expectantly. Clarissa gave him a wan smile and took out her phone. Yesterday’s footage was worthless, but here was an opportunity for new content.

“I have the best dog in the world,” she recorded herself saying, in a YouTube video that would later go viral. “I hurt my ankle the other day, and this snuggle monster won’t leave my side.” Off-camera, she produced another turkey treat and fed it to him. “Good boy,” she cooed, as he wiggled closer on the bed.

The Tutor Who Wasn’t the First to Give Up (A Short Story)

Adam starts volunteering as a tutor because it will look good on college applications. As a high school junior, he doesn’t yet know which colleges he wants to apply to, but he figures that showing an interest in students from disadvantaged backgrounds will appeal to admissions officers.

The community center assigns him a girl who’s currently in seventh grade. Adam is worried at first that he’ll have to waste time gently fending off a crush; his younger sister’s friends seem to adore him. But it turns out he doesn’t have to worry about Tasha.

She’s a large, expressionless girl in a neon pink hoodie. She doesn’t look at him or register any emotion at his presence. When the tutoring program director introduces her, she keeps her mouth in a flat line and says nothing. 

Adam adopts the friendly big brother tone he uses on kids who aren’t his little sister (his sister is too familiar and annoying for such a pleasant voice). When he asks her how she’s doing, Tasha continues to look past his shoulder. When he suggests they find a place to sit in the community center rec room, she shrugs.

The rec room has several shelves of donated books, and a row of laptops chained to tables. Adam picks a table with a laptop, figuring that a seventh grader may need to use it for research or for typing something up.

“So… what do you want to start with?” he asks.

She stares at the wall. Her backpack remains unopened beside her.

“Um…” he tries. “Do you have any reading to do?”

For several seconds, he thinks she’s going to remain unresponsive. But after another shrug, she hoists her backpack onto her lap and extracts a heavy binder from it, along with a copy of The Giver by Lois Lowry.

“Hey, I remember reading that,” Adam says. “Do you think Jonas and Gabriel die at the end or not?”

“We haven’t gotten to the end,” Tasha says.

Adam flushes, but he’s also pleased that he got her to speak. Surely, that’s proof that he can tutor.

She slaps the binder open to a page with three questions on it in bold type. Under each there’s space for a handwritten paragraph. The first question is: What is the definition of a dystopia?

Without looking at him, Tasha hunches over the page and begins to write. Adam tries to squint past her arm, but her neon pink sleeve is all he sees. He doesn’t have to wait for long, though, before she finishes, and her one-sentence answer comes into view: A bad place.

“Is that all?” he says. “Maybe you need to… It’s true, a dystopia is a bad place…” He pauses and runs a hand through his hair. “Maybe you need a more well-developed answer?”

For several seconds, she stares at the wall again. “Like what?” she finally says.

“Uh…” As he flounders, she presses on to the next question. What are Jonas’s pills for?

“Like, maybe at least write in a complete sentence,” he says.

She keeps writing. When she’s done with the second question (Dreams is her answer), he tries again. “I really think you should write in full sentences.”

It’s as if he’s a bird at her window or a fly circling her head. She moves on to the third question. Do you think other people should decide what job you should have? Why or why not? 

Sure, she writes and closes the binder.

“Wait, you need to say ‘why,’” Adam insists. “Why is it ok if someone tells you what you should be when you grow up? Would you really want that?”

She shrugs. “I need to do math.”

“Won’t your teacher take points off if you don’t answer the questions?”

“I did answer them.”

“I mean, more completely.”

“He won’t care,” Tasha says, with a sigh. She flips to a different section of her binder, to a page of basic algebra exercises.

But Adam can’t let it go. “He’ll be fine with what you wrote? Really?”

“He just checks off that we handed it in,” she says, and taps her pen against the math worksheet.

“If he took the trouble to come up with questions, he probably wants full answers,” Adam says quickly. He can’t stand how he sounds like a whining old teacher himself, but his duty as a tutor compels him.

“He takes the questions from some website. Most of the kids just copy the answers off the internet,” Tasha says, hunching over her math.

She solves problems inconsistently, getting some right and missing others. Sometimes, she balances an equation. Other times, she forgets to. Sometimes, she observes the rules of PEMDAS. Other times, she’ll seem not to notice a parenthesis or a multiplication sign. He wants to keep jumping in to correct her, but maybe it would be best to wait until she’s done plowing through everything? He isn’t sure.

He scans the room for the tutoring program director, but he doesn’t spot her. He studies the other tutor-student pairs. All of them appear to be in a state of cooperation, leaning together towards a book, a homework sheet, or a laptop screen.

Beside him, he feels the weight of Tasha’s silence and hears the jab of her pen. He wonders if she should be working in pencil, to better erase her mistakes.

She gets about halfway through the exercises before he can’t resist jumping in. “Let’s fix some of these,” he says, and her hand immediately stills. “You’re getting some questions right, but you’re making careless mistakes on some of the others.”

She finishes the problem she’s working on and – he notices with some amazement – uses her fingers to count when performing a simple subtraction.

Steeling himself for resistance, he reaches over and tugs the binder over to him. She lets it go and starts to tap her pen against the table.

“Ok, so with this problem, you forgot to do the same thing on one side of the equation that you did on the other, see?”

Tap, tap, tap goes her pen.

“Tasha, look. See?”

She glances at the page and nods once. He shifts the binder back to her, and she immediately starts on a new problem.

“No, wait,” he says. “Fix that one. The one we just talked about.”

She releases a sigh. “What do I have to do again?”

He shows her, more slowly this time, but he isn’t sure if she’s staring at the wall or glancing at him out of the corner of her eye. After his demonstration, she repeats what he does and immediately settles into finishing the worksheet. 

As she plows through the remaining algebra exercises, she curls her arm around the page. With a sigh, Adam sits back and checks his phone.

“Everything ok here?”

He startles, almost dropping his phone. The program director is standing behind him with an expectant look. He flashes her a smile and says, “We’re just working on math now.” A glance at Tasha shows him that she’s still solidly hiding her homework. “We worked on something together, now she needs to see if she can do it on her own.”

The director nods slowly and looks like she’s about to say something else, when she spots another tutor waving her over. “Keep up the good work,” she says and strides off.

It takes Tasha a while to complete the rest of her math homework. Adam isn’t sure whether she’s having trouble focusing or whether the exercises are getting harder towards the bottom of the page. “You know you can ask me questions,” he says. “And I’ll check your work when you’re done.”

Time crawls on, and Adam keeps glancing at his phone. When it seems like Tasha is on the final problem, he tenses, like a bird of prey poised to descend with grasping claws. As her pen leaves the page, he snatches the binder from her and reviews her answers.

On and off, on and off, right and wrong… and she’s made the same mistake he pointed out earlier, failing to balance the equation. “We should go over this. Do you have any scrap paper?”

After several seconds, Tasha leans over and roots around her backpack. Then she pulls the binder away from him and flips through it at a leisurely pace.

“No,” she says at last.

“Listen, it’s simple,” Adam begins. “This is why the problem’s wrong.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she says.

“What?”

“It doesn’t matter.” She flips the binder shut. “All we have to do is hand it in and our teacher checks it off.”

“But… what about tests?”

Tasha shrugs. “I get enough right to pass.”

Adam feels like his mind has gone blank, as if it’s caved in and become a pile of dust.

“Look,” he begins, sounding uncertain even to himself. “Even if your teacher doesn’t care, another teacher may care in the future. And you’ll be using what you learn now in other classes.”

“I’ve heard that before.” Her mouth settles into a firm, unyielding line. “It doesn’t matter.”

From her backpack, she extracts a science workbook. After a pause to yawn, she stares at the beakers filled with purple fluid on the cover. “I’m going to get water.” She pushes away from the table and lumbers off.

Adam scans the room again for the program director, who seems to have a knack for disappearing when he’s ready to talk. He could go looking for her, but he feels tired, not just physically. Playing with his phone is about all he’s motivated to do.

Tasha takes her time with the water. Adam vaguely recalls a drinking fountain in the hallway, but he wonders if she went in search of water farther afield – on a different floor, or in a different building. When she returns, she doesn’t respond to his nod of greeting. She huddles around the science workbook, blocking it with her arm and shoulder.

It’s only when she’s been working for several minutes that it occurs to him to ask, “If none of this matters, why are you here?”

Her pen stills, and she doesn’t reply at first. “Wasn’t my idea to be here,” she says at last.

He nods, and his mouth cracks open on a yawn. “Fair point.”

The tutoring session ends shortly after. Adam feels relief leap up in him, as he stands and stretches. Tasha crams her workbook and binder back in her bag. Although she doesn’t hurry, she also doesn’t make any slow ponderous pauses or drag her feet.

The program director hurries over to them before they can part ways.

“So, how did your first session go?” she asks.

For once, Adam and Tasha are on the same wavelength: uncertain silence. “Good,” Adam finally says, just as Tasha mumbles, “I need to catch my bus.”

“Of course!” The program director pats the girl on the shoulder. “See you next week.” She returns her attention to Adam. “What did you think?”

Adam’s mouth shapes a few words before he settles for, “Ok. Tough sometimes.”

“It can take time for students to open up,” the director reassures him. “Some of them aren’t used to personal attention like this, people really caring about their education.” She thrusts a paper towards him. “Don’t forget to fill out your tutor log before you go.”

Adam reins in a sigh and sits back down with the sheet, which asks him to list what he and Tasha did today, what skills they worked on. Reading, writing, math, science, he writes.

The next question asks him to report what needs to improve. Some of the math, some of the writing.

Finally, a question asking if he felt like they had a productive session, with two boxes to check (yes or no) and an optional follow up where he can explain why he chose one over the other.

Adam checks the box next to yes, leaves the follow up blank, and turns in the form. He shakes off the stale book smell of the rec room as he heads outdoors, texting his friends that he’ll meet them up for pizza.