Updated: Nov 6
After class, Kiri went home to her little rustic, green-painted house at the corner of the town in the warm, breezy nostalgia of a Goldtown suburban afternoon. She was still in her sweaty chicken farm uniform and dreading that she’d worn it the one day life appeared to be notably changing for her.
At home, she made a beeline for her bedroom. Rummaged through several layers of clothes in her creaky closet while the dust rose in plumes, glowing in the golden afternoon sunlight.
Thankfully, she didn’t need to make any tough choices. Well, she didn’t have many choices beyond faded jeans and plain tee-shirts. She soon found herself standing in front of the crooked mirror, checking herself wearing some five-year-old “party” clothes—a long, forest green sweater covering a nearly-white mint green collared shirt tucked into light blue culottes. The outfit was more suited to the parties for the elderly hosted by the ladies at the chicken farm than a college party. At least they suited her pale, brassy-toned skin. They smelled like dry mold and tiny portions had become dinner to the closet moths. She considered for a second that maybe she should’ve accepted one of the dresses from her old lady coworkers, but she immediately shooed that thought away. They would take that as a sign to keep hoisting off more of their daughters’ and granddaughters’ hand-me-downs and she would never see the end of it. It was just a shame these clothes had to be so old. But what could she expect? She hadn’t bought new clothes since she was 14, and it was the one record she intended to keep breaking. It wasn’t like anyone would notice. And it wasn’t like she would even let anyone notice, because this was a stupid idea anyway. No way in hell was she going.
Of all the things in the world, she accepted an invitation to a sweaty college party from Gabe Hartman, one of the most popular boys in town. It didn’t really matter that it was Gabe who invited her. Anyone with a reputation would’ve ignited this crippling anxiety she felt.
“Why am I even doing this?” she grumbled.
She threw herself on her squeaky rolling chair next to a pile of the past two days’ clothes that she had shoved between her chipped wooden desk and semi-made creme-colored bed. She turned on her computer and it buzzed in protest. Nevertheless, the familiar, comfortable blue light on the desktop flickered on. It welcomed her with a background photo of an adventurer in travel clothes on a journey against the backdrop of a sunset resting softly over some mountain tops. It welcomed her to her familiar, neatly arranged set of applications and files lining the sides of the screen.
She clicked on one of the applications and opened a video game—an online multiplayer that she could afford for the next several hours of her evening playing since she was liberated from today’s college tasks. There was no reason to go to this party when she was perfectly content to drift into the lull of the game. Or so she thought.
Her eyes glazed over as she stared at the in-game “lobby,” which were lists offering her various choices of which character she’d like to play or which virtual world she would like to play on. She wasn’t sure how much time she sat there staring at the screen in that mindless state. She was startled back into reality when a knock sounded on her bedroom door.
“Kiri?” a deep, gentle, down-to-earth voice called just barely audible behind the door.
“Oh! Uncle Jim!” Kiri’s voice squeaked out much more surprised than she’d meant it. “Uh, come in.”
The door creaked open. A narrow face appeared, wizened in a friendly way from the way the wrinkles complemented his slightly, chronically smiling blue eyes. “Hey there, Kiri. You snuck by. Didn’t notice you come home.”
“Oh… right, sorry. I was just uh—well I remembered I needed to finish something in game that’s time-sensitive, so—” She stopped herself, realizing that that excuse held no water considering she was still wearing the clothes from her failed bout of party-going anticipation. She knew her uncle had noticed them, but he held back from mentioning it.
He scanned her briefly, curiosity flashing across his expression, before asking a different question than she had expected. “So, how was your day?” The same question he asked her every day.
“Usual,” came Kiri’s usual answer.
Uncle Jim smiled pensively. Waited for several heartbeats, which Kiri knew he was hoping she’d cave and speak. All she could think about was whether she should cave. Usually, he’d find another question to see if he could eventually tease a more intricate answer out of her, but to her surprise, today he seemed resigned. “I see,” he said. “Well, I’m thinking for dinner tonight—”
Kiri caved. “Um, actually—”
Uncle Jim stopped speaking immediately like he’d been waiting for this. Raised his eyebrows as he waited for her to elaborate.
Her stomach began to coil. “Well, uh. So, Gabe invited me to this party…”
Uncle Jim looked more elated than Kiri would’ve liked and she looked embarrassed. Uncle Jim said, “Well, that explains the nicer clothes. Are you talking about that Gabe from all of your schools?”
Kiri forced out a laugh and mumbled, “Yeeeah, well… you don’t need to say it quite like that…” Nothing like a good old reminder about just how shut in a bubble she was.
“So, will you go? It has been a while since you’ve hung out with your friends, after all.”
She hesitated. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. I’ve been hanging out with my game buddies plenty.” She waved emphatically at her computer screen as if that could possibly convince her internet-inept uncle.
Uncle Jim chuckled. “Well, I think that you should go. You know what I always say about the importance of being in person.”
“I know… It’s just—” Kiri stopped herself, wondering if it was worth getting into a whole different conversation on her friend life—or lack thereof, to be more accurate.
Uncle Jim waited in case she wanted to finish that thought. When she shook her head, he said, “Well, I am glad you have your online friends at least. I just figured you might try again with the folks in your college—since Kayla and Maeve moved for university and all.”
“Right…” She turned her disheartened expression down to the floor, then mumbled, “I left the ball on their side of the court a long time ago.”
“You know what I’m going to say—you shouldn’t give up so easily. People do change, after all,” Uncle Jim reassured with his kind, wizened smile. A silence lingered between them while Kiri began to fidget with her hair.
He promptly changed the subject. “But also, I was hoping you’d stop by the festival to get me some of those portal donuts.”
“Can’t you get them yourself?”
“I have a call with my cousin I need to take care of. There have been some property issues on that side of the family that I got dragged into. Besides, go share some with Gabe and give him and his parents my regards for me.”
Kiri laughed awkwardly and said, “Sounds like you should be the one to go to the party since you’re so close with Gabe…” Was it just her imagination, or had her uncle given Gabe a nudge to invite her to this party? No way in hell. Even her uncle, as encouraging as he was, would never try to meddle in affairs between her and her peers.
Uncle Jim glanced at his simple brown watch and looked about ready to take his leave, but he mouthed an “ah” of realization and said, “Right, I have been meaning to ask… Have you heard back from that last university you applied to?”
Kiri sighed. The dreaded question. She averted her eyes down to the old green and beige rug riddled with loose threads and pale dried stains. She shrugged apathetically. “You don’t even need to ask, you already know the answer.”
Uncle Jim frowned. It was that same disappointment that he tried to hide every time, but she knew it was there. He was a wary man, though. He watched her thoughtfully, then said with care in each word, “Hey, it’s okay, Kiri. You still have plenty of time, and there are thousands of other universities out there. There will be one that accepts you. And when it does, we can get a loan if we absolutely have to.”
“Yeah. I know,” Kiri said, her voice a deflated balloon. “It’s just—”
“What is it?”
Much to Kiri’s dismay, Uncle Jim didn’t drop the subject. “Is this about moving? You know that I can’t afford to move both of us to a city right now.”
“I know that. I wasn’t saying—”
“I suggested university because I thought it was the best way for you to get to see the bigger world.”
“Yeah, I understand that, but still…”
Uncle Jim raised his eyebrow. When she let the sentence trail off for several heartbeats, he asked, “Do you really not want to go to university? You know that it’s okay if you don’t want to.”
Kiri shrugged exaggeratedly, bordering on a frantic surrender. An icky feeling began to gather in her stomach. It felt a little bit like heartburn. A little bit like worms. She tensed her shoulders and said, “Look, I honestly don’t know! I don’t know what I want or what I want to be, okay?” She stood and began to pick up her dirty clothes off the floor as an excuse to mask her trembling hands. “I’m applying to universities only if they give scholarships that cover at least half, or else there’s no point. And then, of course, the ones with those scholarships never accept me. And it just turns into an endless cycle for no reason other than to leave home for once in my life!”
Uncle Jim was beginning to sound desperate. “Kiri, I said it would be okay if you wanted to get a loan! I’m happy to help you pay it off over time, too.”
Kiri tossed the clothes into a hamper in the corner of her room. Some of them spilled to the floor and she let out an exasperated sigh as she went to scoop them up again. “Why would I ever make you cut into your retirement like that? Not to mention, since your health insurance no longer covers—ugh, never mind. If I do that, I would want to pay off the loans myself. But I don’t want to spend the rest of my life paying them off, so I’m fine staying in this stupid town and working here. It’s fine! I’ll take another job, grow out my hair, and wear pigtails so I can save more money or whatever!” Her voice bordered on yelling. She immediately reeled herself back. Took a deep breath and said softer this time, “I’m sorry. I’m gonna go.”
She stuffed her remaining clothes into the hamper and sulked on her way out of her bedroom. Uncle Jim’s hand landed on her shoulder as she passed him. “Kiri, wait.”
She stopped. Didn’t dare look up at him.
“Kiri, you know—” He paused. Shook his head and smiled sadly. “No. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring it up. Just know that I support you in whatever choice you make.” His voice was patient and comforting, and it made Kiri feel even worse. He coaxed her to look at him and she finally did, her green eyes watering but the tears didn’t fall.
She gulped away lumps of anxiety that had formed in her throat. Eye contact with her uncle didn’t last very long and her gaze fell to the floor. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to get worked up…” she managed to choke out. “I just—I just genuinely don’t know if I want to go to university. I don’t even have a clue what career I want. I only ever wanted to move to a better place with you, that’s all…”
Uncle Jim’s sad smile turned distant as he turned his eyes toward Kiri’s bedroom window with a view of the old maple tree—a tree he had planted for her on the day he adopted her during her infancy. He often showed this smile unknowingly while dwelling on his past regrets, something he didn’t talk about much, although Kiri often knew what it was about in these contexts. “I know,” he said. “I’m sure if your parents were still—” He paused, suddenly. Shook his head as he backed off the subject.
Kiri shrugged. “Sure, maybe you’re right,” she responded to his remaining unspoken thought. “But you shouldn’t worry about that. I don’t want to try and imagine something I haven’t had since birth. You know that. I’d rather not—I’d rather just deal with stuff now.”
He looked back at Kiri and patted her shoulder reassuringly. “You’re right. Sorry, I know. There I go with my old habits again.” He laughed airily. He wasn’t a man who wanted to be unintentionally discouraging. “Well, if it’s any comfort, I really believe things will turn out okay. But for right now, no need to dwell on the future, okay?”
Kiri nodded, attempting to smile under her tired eyes. “Yeah. Of course.”
The sound of the old grandfather clock began to chime downstairs, prompting Uncle Jim to glance at his watch again. He looked a little surprised and said, “Ah, I really do need to go now. Say, if you end up going to that party, I hope that you enjoy it. And if not, at least enjoy the portal festival for me, alright? Don’t forget the donuts, of course.”
Never had Kiri wanted to become a space-traveling dragon more than now. A wanderer with no need for a destination. Someone who didn’t need to worry about finding a fate or a future. She forced her smile a bit more. “Yeah. I’ll try.”
“And,” her uncle added. “If it ever gets too much, running away is always an option. I’ll always be here for you to run to.”
Some concept art from this chapter.