Her mother would tell her she was going to get killed dressed like that: a ratty sweater she tore to shreds with safety scissors and a skirt pulled up above angry, skinned knees. It would have been fine if she lived in a warmer climate, or maybe just a nicer neighborhood, but it was mid-November in Columbus, Ohio and it was useless to wish for impossible things. By 6 AM the sun had not risen and E17 bus was eight minutes late when it picked Raphaela Hoffman up, well after her canvas sneakers soaked up all the grey sludge on the patch of pavement and contracted some deadly disease that would get her on local television. Ela moved to the back seats, narrowly avoiding a fall when the bus lurched forward unexpectedly. Her phone was cheap and broken and the audio had fizzled out long before this morning, but she put on a pair of headphones anyway to appear less approachable. Most of the things she did were to appear less approachable. She had made the decision to never stare longingly at anything, particularly bus windows. She didn’t miss anything. There was nothing to long for in this town anymore. Columbus wouldn’t wake up for another couple of hours and the junkies that made up most of the Ohio workforce didn’t come out of the woodwork until noon. Franklinton Trailer Park was quiet when Ela left this morning, but it would slowly reanimate itself, an undead, ugly thing that ravaged the rest of the city, dragging it down to the depths of destitution. The north side of the park was mostly empty, only addicts who stayed away from the rest of the residents, satisfied to live solitary squalor. Ela lived on the south side, with her mother and her endless string of boyfriends that never stayed for too long, but enough for Ela to enjoy the rush of righteousness when Leroy or Daryl or Wayne packed up the few things they had into their truck and drove off to find another easy woman with another irritating daughter living in another hick town. Her mother would then tell her to focus on her studies, and never on a man. It was easier when her mother was single anyway. It was easier alone. Micah Novak left her alone in a hopeless neighborhood to find his own future. To find any future. Ela tried to remember what it felt like to not depend on anyone. She wasn’t able to.
She waited outside the church for over half an hour, attempting to politely greet parishioners and failing miserably. Finally Micah came out, speaking animatedly with the minister, who seemed more concerned with the boy’s enthusiasm than pleased.
“How’s youth group?” Ela mused, after Micah finished giving out goodbyes to several meek looking teenagers. Micah replied with a lukewarm shrug.
“Lucy’s grandmother has lung cancer so we prayed for her.”
“Did it work?” Ela asked with exaggerated skepticism.
They walked down to the local playground, the one that did not have any visitors ever since it was declared a crime scene a couple months back. She joined Micah on the swingset and kicked her legs up to try to gain some speed.
“When I was a kid I used to think that if I got high enough I would fly.” Micah yelled, and Ela wondered if his swing would break. It was hard to think about Micah as a child, spending his life trapped in his home. He only started going to school when he turned fourteen, after learning God knows what from his mother. He adjusted well, though. She had ten years of experience on him and she wasn’t even half as good at acting like a real person. She would be jealous if she wasn’t so amazed by him. A golden light boy who illuminated everything around him? How could she lose that?
William Sherman High School was giant and raw and terrifying and Ela couldn’t think of any place that she hated more. Micah had made it narrowly bearable, now it was unsurvivable. She made a career of being unlikable and now she had achieved it fully, but the relief of independence never came. She ran into the girl’s bathroom and turned on the faucet, willing herself not to hyperventilate. She couldn’t stop thinking about the stories she heard about boys who ran away from home, that they come back different, if they come back at all. She thought about heads in freezers and bodies dumped on the sides of rivers and numbers on spreadsheets of statistics and she couldn’t breathe. Would cops look for him or would he just become another stack of paperwork on a desk that never got looked at? If he came back his mother would take him out of school, he’d never leave the house again unless he was allowed to go to youth group, where Ela would never be able show her face. A toilet flushed and Ela fruitlessly tried to put herself together.
“Are you okay?” The voice came from a younger girl, at least a grade below Ela. She was smart though, they shared a class together. Math, maybe. Ela nodded.
“I’m pretty sure we’re late to class.” She said and they both walked down the hall together.