Drop Out – Short Story
It’s late in the afternoon as Clark types furiously on his laptop, air conditioner blasting loudly in the background trying to battle the hot and humid Florida fall. The old house groans occasionally with its age, and the cat hits the creaky spots on every stair on his way down, but Clark’s family has lived here since he was born, and he’s long considered it home. He’s been working on the next essay for his Monday class for a few hours now, and his shoulder’s droop lower as the minutes roll by. He sits at the dining room table with his laptop open wide, cooling glass of lemonade to the left and his reading glasses folded to the right. Every few minutes Clark sits up and rolls his shoulders before stretching out his neck, then quickly refocusing on his brightly lit screen. Soft music plays throughout the house, a local radio station playing classical rock from the living room television set. With a heavy sigh Clark resigns himself to whatever grade awaits him, and submits his essay with a few swift clicks before confirming it went through and shutting the laptop tightly.
“Finally.” He breathes a sigh of relief, but is cut off by the sound of the back-gate swinging shut, creaky hinges loudly announcing Victoria’s return home. Clark stands, taking his laptop with him to the kitchen counter where he sets it to charge before returning to grab his glass of lemonade from the table. At the table he finds Atlas, the brown tabby cat that lived around this house even before Clark’s family moved in, sitting on the wooden tabletop sniffing at the lemonade. He affectionately rubs behind Atlas’s soft ears with his left hand, setting his other hand on the table resting. The sliding glass door squeaks as it slides open, leading Victoria into the living room. She turns to slide the door back into place, spotting Clark and giving him a silent nod of recognition before locking the door into place. Clark notices the white cord leading from her black jacket’s pocket and into her ears, and assumes she’s listening to music as she usually does when walking home from work. She still has on her red polo uniform under her jacket, along with a slim gray backpack slung over one shoulder.
Atlas redemands Clark’s attention by biting his pointer finger softly, making him look down and roll his eyes at the very vocal cat. Clark gives in and strokes Atlas along his spine, smiling as Atlas purrs and arches against his touch. Clark can still hear Victoria moving throughout the house, the sneakers she wore to school this morning thudding softly from the hardwood floors up to the carpeted stairs, getting quieter by the second. Her door opens, hinges creaking with age, and Clark stops tracking her movements.
Clark remembers his time in high school, working the same part-time job afterwards at the same greasy kitchen. He saved all his earnings to pay his last four years at Florida Atlantic University, and he still is paying for it. Although Clark prefers his tech research labs and internships at FAU, he does remines about not having to pay back student loan debt and having disposable income. But Victoria’s tired face at 6:00 in the morning, lips downturned into a scowl upon feeling the cold wind as she opens the front door, had long since made Clark swear off morning classes.
Atlas swipes at Clark gently before jumping off the table, thumping softly onto the hardwood floor below. His thick tail waves back and forth as he leads Clark from the open floor dining room, and into the kitchen, hopping up onto the white kitchen island before beginning to clean himself. Clark leans on the island with a small smile looking at Atlas, then turns towards the front of the house as Victoria returns down the stairs.
“Hey.” Victoria only grunts in response. Clark exhales through his nose in a silent laugh at her characteristic noises. Victoria always preferred to remain silent when she could, sarcastically pointing out, “Less is more” when asked. She begins rummaging through various cabinets, occasionally taking out a snack and squinting at it questioningly before continuing on her hunt.
“Did you make cook anything today?” she eventually asks, turning her gaze over her shoulder to look at Clark.
“There’s lasagna in the fridge.”
“Ooh, nice.” She takes the few short steps required to reach the fridge, and opens both doors widely. Clark rolls his eyes and returns his attentions to Atlas, who purrs approvingly. It doesn’t take her long to locate the correct storage container, then pulling it out and popping off the faded red top. She shuffles around the kitchen grabbing a fork and preparing the microwave, then leans against the opposite side of the island countertop as the timer beeps down.
“How was school?” Clark finally asks after letting silence reign for a few long seconds. Victoria scoffs.
“Boring, the usual.”
“How about work?”
“Also boring, but at least I get paid minimum wage for my time.” Clark lets out a sharp laugh, making Victoria turn towards him and arch a pointed brow. “I prefer work to school, so what.”
“Well maybe in the short term,” he concedes amusedly.
“What does that even mean.” She turns her focus back on the timer with a roll of her eyes.
“I mean it’s not like minimum wage will be enough forever, eventually you’ll need a degree to get a well-paying job.”
“Sure,” she huffs out mockingly, “and the whole family will show up to celebrate, right? Mom will come back from her indefinite road trip, Dad will dig himself out of the gutter, maybe Grayson can even skip his AA meeting to make it, and Wes won’t be stoned out of his mind.” Clark turns his attention from Atlas to Victoria, who shakes her head as she finishes speaking.
“So, what’s your plan then? Stay in high school forever?” He straightens his back and crosses his arms in front of his chest.
“Of course not. I’m dropping out.” The microwave beeps, loudly announcing the timer has ended.
“What?” Clark blinks in shock.
“I’m going to drop out after this year.” Victoria calmly opens the microwaves and takes out the container, stirring the contents and testing the temperature before putting it back inside and restarting the time.
“And when was this decided?” He asks after a moment.
“Last month, when I failed my final exam.” She turns and leans both arms on the island, facing Clark and looking him directly in the eyes. They stare at each other for a few long moments, long enough that the microwave begins beeping again, causing Victoria to break eye contact.
“Because of that? That’s not even a big deal. I wish you would have told me about it, but we can work past it.” Clark tries to assure.
“No, school is a waste of time. I’m dropping out.” Victoria gathers the container, then shuts the microwave door. She walks back the way she came, across the open dining room and past the front door towards the steps. Clark doesn’t respond, but his brow scrunches as his mind begins whirling.
Dropping out? She’d never been the best student, but it wasn’t that bad. Clark shakes his head determinedly, there was no way he would let her throw away her future like that. As the oldest, it fell to him to keep her on the right path. Even he was still in school, chasing a job with health insurance and a livable wage like everyone else. Dropping out would be career suicide, it would ruin any opportunity for the start of a legitimate career. She was probably going through a phase, nothing to worry about, and soon enough she will be willing to listen to reason. Clark let out a heavy sigh and rubs his eyes, he still has work tonight.
It’s past midnight, and the house is quiet save for the occasional groaning. Victoria lays on the living room couch, eyes facing the playing television but not paying any attention. The only light in the room emanates from the screen, barely lighting up the room. The TV murmurs softly, only a touch louder than the sound of Atlas purring from his spot curled up on top of the large brown couch.
The sound of keys unlocking the front door fills the first floor, and Victoria sits up confused. Clark had already returned home from work and long since went to sleep, but the only people with keys don’t make a habit of coming over if they don’t have to. The door creaks open slightly, and a tall male figure slides inside before locking the door behind him. Victoria sighs as she recognizes Wes in his worn black hoodie, hood up as he shakes his shoes off at the front door. He begins walking towards the staircase, but jumps as he catches sight of Victoria.
“Holy sh-” Wes cuts off his exclamation before continuing quietly, “You scared the balls off me.” Victoria can’t help but laugh at him, making his face erupt into a warm smile.
“Mind if I join you?” She gestures for him to join her on the couch, and he begins walking over front jacket pocket bulging and items clacking against each other. Victoria pulls her feet up and Wes sits, leaning back against the cushions and placing his feet on the table. She turns back to the tv. They sit in silence for a few moments before Wes begins shifting around, and Victoria can see him pulling things out of his pockets in the corner of her eye. She hears a lighter click after a while, and pungent smoke pours out of his mouth. Victoria turns back towards him and watches him cough a few times into his fist, before she finally motions to the water she’d had left on the coffee table.
“Just drink it.” Wes smiles through his coughs, sitting up and grabbing the plastic water bottle then taking a few deep drinks. He finishes and clears his throat before letting out a chuckle.
“Sorry, bad hit,” is all he says. Victoria turns back towards the tv, now playing a rerun of an old Wheel of Fortune episode. The lighter clicks again. She can’t help but wrinkle her nose at the smell, Clark would definitely notice in the morning. “So, what’s new? What’s my baby sister been getting up to?”
“I’m dropping out.” Wes laughs at that, more smoke pouring out of his mouth.
“Hell yeah, fuck the system.” Victoria turns towards him. “You know, school doesn’t do anything for you anyway, it’s just a waste of time.
“I prefer working,” she says simply.
“To tell you the truth, it doesn’t really matter what you do, y’know?” Victoria arches an eyebrow questioningly, catching Wes’s eye. “Cause it’s all the same.”
“Life.” The lighter starts again, Wes taking another deep pull and coughing as the smoke leaves his throat. “It’s all a waste of time.” Victoria turns back towards the tv set, resting her head against the armrest as Wes settles into the cushions.
The audience cheers as prerecorded sound effects go off, bright lights spinning on the screen. The minutes tick by passively, and Victoria begins to feel sleep pulling at her eyelids.
“It’s all a grind.” Wes’s voice startles her awake, and she turns her head to face him tiredly. “A gritty, never ending grind.” His eyelids are low over his red eyes, but for once he shows no sign of a smile. “No matter what you do, what job or school.” Victoria’s eyes slip closed. “We’re all just grinding.”