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The candle flickered eerily in front of Jay, casting shadows on his face and giving his room a soft, orange glow. Jay was sprawled out on his bed, tangled in the faded dirty sheets. His pillow barely had any stuffing inside of it, so the dark-skinned boy had to whack at it every few minutes to mold it into a comfortable shape. He was squinting his eyes, trying to read his small book by candlelight. If any of the local kids saw Jay reading this book in public, they probably would have beaten him up. This is exactly why Jay kept his interests to himself.
The old, beat up book he was reading was a political book written by some rich, government hot-shot. Jay could have cared less about who this man was, but he had to admit, there was some great advice in the book. It was all about choosing the right programs in college, or picking out jobs in the government.
Jay had realized that ever since he was little, he was different than the other kids in his village. While they liked to wrestle and play games, Jay was more of the studious type. He’d rather discuss important issues than get all dirty. When a neighbor had an issue, Jay was the one who was there, volunteering to help think of a solution.
Jay sighed heavily and closed the dusty book, dropping it on the floor below him. He swiftly blew out the candle and closed his eyes, falling into an excited sleep. Tomorrow would be the day… he’d show everyone… maybe…
He awoke to that darn rooster’s crow early in the morning. Why on earth did his village even have the rooster do that? Groaning, Jay rolled out of bed, dropping onto the cold stone floor below him. He stumbled around his tiny room, squinting from the sunlight that was pooling its way in through the cracks in the walls. After pulling on a green shirt and tattered pants, Jay pulled aside the curtain and walked into the next room; the small kitchen where his mom was currently standing, no doubt trying to cook something for breakfast. Unsuccessfully…
His kitchen was so tiny; barely he and his mother could stand together in it. The walls and floors were made of stone, and most of the room was taken up by a rough wooden counter. No room for chairs… There was also a small stove where they could light fires, and the well they used for water was outside. Even if it was almost unlivable, it was home to Jarred.
“Morning mom,” Jay said, maneuvering his way around the counter and kissing her on the cheek. His mother was a skinny little thing with curly, out of control hair and wild green eyes. Jay remembered when her eyes used to be gentle. Ever since dad left, they weren’t so gentle anymore, however.
“Good morning sweetie,” his mother mumbled, not looking up from her delicate task. Jay peeked over her shoulder and wrinkled his nose. She was trying to cut up some mint leaves that she must have found in the forest. Well, it was better than nothing, at least.
“I’m guessing the chickens didn’t lay any eggs?” Jay asked, taking the knife from his mother’s timid hands. He started to chop the small leaves up himself, and his mother gave Jay a grateful pat on the back.
“No. They’ve been useless lately,” his mother sighed. “I think they might be ill.”
“Ill with what?” Jay asked doubtfully.
His mother thought for a moment. “Maybe they have the chicken flu?”
Jay snorted and handed some of the cut up mint leaves to his mother. “Chicken flu? Really?”
“It could happen!” She protested, scooping up the tiny pile and throwing it in her mouth. Jay did the same, but he was still starving and the leaves didn’t help much.
“Well, do you want me to stay home today and check them out?” Jay asked his mother, walking to the tiny doorway and slipping on his dirty, mud-caked shoes.
His mother shook her head wildly. “No! You have that career thing today, don’t you?!”
Jay smiled sheepishly. Yes, he did actually have that thing today. Once a year, some people from the education department in the government drove all the way out to Jay’s tiny village. They came to talk to the kids in the schoolhouse, encouraging them to try their best and never give up on their studies. They’d also talk about different job options for the future.
Most of the kids thought it was a total joke. They were coming to a poor, beat-down village like Jay’s? Why? The government should know what’s bound to happen. The families in the village are dirt poor. Jay and his mother could never afford fancy clothes, phones, or cars. They could barely afford food. Just to support the family, most kids would scoff at the idea of education, and would instead do all of the manual labor around the village. Farming, harvesting, cutting down trees, building new houses… No one in Jay’s village had the time or the money to go someplace as crazy as college. Could they get a full scholarship? Maybe. Was anybody that smart in his village? No. Not even close.
In all honesty, Jay was the only kid who looked forward to these annual visits. Deep down, he felt like the only kid in the village who liked reading from textbooks…
“You should hand in a copy of your grades to those guys,” his mother said slyly, looking at her son. “They might be impressed. Maybe they could tell you about some colleges.”
“Mom,” Jay said sternly, pulling on his faded coat. “I’m not going to college. I’m staying with you.”
“Oh nonsense, I’m fine on my own.”
“No you’re not! You can’t even cut up leaves!”
They both stared at each other, brown eyes clashing with green. Finally, his mother swiftly turned away, avoiding looking at Jay any longer. “If only you’re father were here…”
“Yeah,” Jay muttered bitterly. “Like I’d want his sorry butt around here.”
His mother shook a little bit at his harsh words, but recovered quickly and said, “Just promise me that you’ll consider college. Jay, you’re different than those other kids. You’re smart. You’re a dreamer. Don’t let this place stop you from dreaming…”
Jay nodded slightly, growing uncomfortable at her thoughtful words. “Sure…” he whispered, and was out the door in a flash. Dreamer, huh? Is that was his mom had called him?
Jarred walked along the dirt path toward the schoolhouse. He passed the tiny huts on the side of the road, all belonging to people and friends he’d known all his life. There was little Horace, chasing his family’s chickens around. And Mari, a girl who went to his school, was just running out the door to catch up to Sandra and Carol. Everyone was outside, or visible from inside their houses. This was a tight-knit community, and everyone did whatever they could to help each other out. There wasn’t much food to go around, anyway…
“Jay!” A voice called from behind. Jay whirled around and waved at the group of boys approaching. They all sauntered over to him, and one boy, Leo, grabbed Jay in a headlock and tousled his hair. The other boys laughed playfully, but Jay squirmed, feeling rather uncomfortable.
“Er… Could you…?” Jay muttered, struggling against Leo.
“Ohh, alright, whatever,” Leo said, releasing Jay. He rubbed his neck painfully, hoping he wouldn’t be sore tomorrow morning.
“Leo, man, I’m surprised you’re even going to school today,” Kyle said, scratching his head. “What about your pa out on the farm?”
“He said he didn’t need me today,” Leo explained to the group of boys and Jay. “So I came here. You think I should have ditched anyway?”
“Nah,” Dan piped up. “Your parents would have found out.”
“True,” Leo muttered. “Ah, whatever. We aren’t learning anything today. Those career losers are coming.”
The group of boys groaned. “Ughh, them again?” James complained.
“They… uhm… they might be interesting this year,” Jay offered hopefully, his voice quiet.
“We all know better than to run off to college though,” Leo said angrily. “No way are we leaving our families behind. They’re so dumb… why do they even come to a place like this?”
The boys kept ridiculing the government officials, and Jay kept his mouth shut and his head low. His mother wanted him to try and get an education? She wanted him to deal with this?
Along the way to the schoolhouse, Jay got side-tracked once when the boys ended up getting into a wrestling match on the side of the road. They were rolling around in the long grass, wailing on each other. Jay was pulled into the fight, and was not happy about it one little bit. He’d rather watch the fight, not be in the middle of it!
And strangely, while he was getting pounded on by Leo, Jay started having some weird… ideas. Or were they visions? He pictured himself dressed in a suit and tie, riding an elevator up to the top floor. He’d strut into the meeting room, where everyone would be sitting, discussing important events like the economy, or politics. Jay wanted to be a world leader… he wanted to make a difference… he didn’t want to tend to the chickens all his life, checking for chicken flu…
“Kids, kids!” A voice called. Mrs. Nelson came rushing over to the mass of tangled boys. Leo was still playfully but painfully beating on his friends. Jay had managed to escape, and was standing off by the side. As he watched Mrs. Nelson lecture them, Jay turned around and walked into the schoolhouse, which they had been so close to before the fight broke out. The schoolhouse was literally just a small, wooden log cabin with one classroom inside. There were no desks in the classroom, but somehow they’d been able to get a chalkboard and some chalk. Jay waved and smiled to the few people already in the room, and took his usual seat in the corner on the floor.
Jay watched as Mrs. Nelson and the other boys filed in a few moments later, along with two other people; a man in a flashy suit, and a woman wearing a skirt and blouse. They went up to stand at the front, sending genuine smiles throughout the group of kids. None of those smiles were returned.
“Hi, everyone,” the woman said kindly, twisting her fingers together. “My name is Lisa Robins.”
“And I’m Derek Kingston,” the man announced with a booming voice. “We’re from the government, and we are here to talk about your futures. I know you kids may have not given much thought to the college process yet, but we think it’s time you started getting serious about your education!”
The boys around Jay were snickering, but Jay was soaking in Derek’s words, and falling into that daydream again. Fancy suits. Meetings. Travelling the world…
Jay knew that he was expected to follow his village’s tradition. He knew that he had to stay here for the rest of his life. But he didn’t want too… It wasn’t fair, being born into such a place. Yes, he did love his mother very much, and his neighbors, but he wanted an opportunity to climb up in the world. He knew he could do it he tried.
Suddenly, seeing these two people here, Jay knew that it was time to let it loose. He’d never told anyone except his mother about his secret desire to become a politician. No one suspected that he dreamed of a future other than staying here, cutting up logs all day. Even if Jay was just a poor kid from some village in the middle of nowhere, he wanted to show his friends that he wasn’t roped down. He’d study hard and make a life for himself.
“So, raise your hand if you’re interested in going to college,” Lisa said hopefully, looking around the room. It was dead silent.
“Oh, nobody?” She asked, a little taken aback.
“Same as last year,” Mrs. Nelson yawned, who also thought these visits were a waste of time.
“Wait!” Jarred suddenly yelped, his hand shooting up. Everyone looked at him, shocked.
“Yes?” Lisa asked, looking at Jay. “Fantastic! What’s your name?”
“Jay Carroll,” he said, ignoring the threatening glares from Leo and his classmates. He was breaking the tradition. He was interested in college. His peers were disgusted… but Jay didn’t care.
“What are interested in doing young man?”
Jay stood up, his shoulders squared. “I want to attend college with a full scholarship and study politics.”
“Are you joking?” Leo shot out, staring at him.
“No,” Jay said, looking down at him. “This has been my dream since I was seven.”
“Uhm… Mr. Carroll, that’s a big dream,” Derek muttered, scratching his head.
“I know,” Jay stated.
“Mrs. Nelson, how are his grades?” Lisa asked the old woman.
“Honestly?” She looked up and smiled at Jay. “All A’s. Brightest kid I’ve ever met.”
“Well then,” Lisa said, a little flustered. “I could… talk to a few people. Tell them about your situation, Mr. Carroll. I think colleges would be quite interested to have a student from a village where nobody else has ever gone to college.”
Jay couldn’t believe his ears. “So, you think there’s a chance? For me? For me too…”
Lisa nodded. “Absolutely,” she smiled.
Everyone in his village was going to think he was crazy, Jay knew that. But it thrilled him to think that he was different. Jay might have a successful future right before him. All he’d have to do is work hard and give it his all, and he’d have a shot. Growing up, Jay had been convinced he’d never get anywhere in life. But now… he knew that all his crazy dreaming was paying off.
He’d get that suit, that car, and that job, Jay was sure of it. Then, he’d come back to his village and take his mother away, and buy her a nice house. He’d make sure that the fridge was always stocked, so she’d never go hungry.
Jay smiled up at Lisa, standing there, lost in the future. This had been his biggest dream, something he’d thought was impossible growing up. Now? It was reachable, and Jay had never been so happy to be a dreamer.