About the Author
Katja Millay grew up in Florida and graduated with a degree in film & television production from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She has worked as a television producer, and a film studies and screenwriting teacher. Currently she resides in Florida with her family. The Sea of Tranquility is her first book.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Sea of Tranquility Chapter 1
Dying really isn’t so bad after you’ve done it once.
And I have.
I’m not afraid of death anymore.
I’m afraid of everything else.
August in Florida means three things: heat, oppressive humidity, and school. School. I haven’t been to school in over two years. Not unless you count sitting at the kitchen table being homeschooled by your mom, and I don’t. It’s Friday. My senior year starts on Monday, but I haven’t registered. If I don’t go in today, I won’t have a schedule on Monday morning, and I’ll have to wait at the office for one. I think I’d rather skip the bad 1980s movie scene where I walk in late on the first day and everybody has to stop what they’re doing to stare at me, because while that wouldn’t be the worst thing that would ever happen to me, it would still suck.
My aunt pulls into the parking lot of Mill Creek Community High School with me in tow. It’s a cookie cutter high school. Except for the putrid color of the walls and the name on the sign, it’s an exact replica of the last one I attended. Margot—she made me drop the aunt part because it makes her feel old—turns down the radio she’s been blaring the entire way here. Thankfully it’s a short ride, because loud sounds make me edgy. It’s not the sound itself that bothers me; it’s just the fact that it’s loud. The loud sounds make it impossible to hear the soft ones, and the soft sounds are the ones you have to be afraid of. I can handle it now because we’re in a car, and I usually feel safe in cars. Outside is a different story. I never feel safe outside.
“Your mother expects a phone call when we’re done here,” Margot tells me. My mother expects a lot of things she’s never going to get. In the scheme of things, a phone call is not much to ask, but that doesn’t mean she’ll get one. “You could at least text her. Four words. Registered. All is well. If you’re feeling really generous, you could even throw one of those little happy faces on the end.”
I look sideways at her from the passenger seat. Margot is my mother’s younger sister by a good ten years. She is the opposite of my mother in almost every way. She doesn’t even look like her, which means that she doesn’t look like me either, because I am a carbon copy of my mother. Margot is dirty blond with blue eyes and a perpetual tan that she easily maintains by working nights and napping by the pool during the day, even though she’s a nurse and she should know better. I have pale white skin, dark brown eyes, and long, wavy, just-this-side-of-black hair. She looks like she belongs in a Coppertone ad. I look like I belong in a coffin. People would have to be stupid to believe we’re related, even if it is one of the only things about me that’s true.
She’s still got that cocky smile on her face, knowing that even if she hasn’t convinced me to placate my mother, then at least she’s planted a little guilt. It’s impossible to dislike Margot, even when you really, really try, which makes me hate her a little, because I’ll never be one of those people. She took me in, not because I don’t have anywhere else to go, but because I don’t have anywhere else I can stand to be. Luckily for her, she really only has to see me in passing, because once school starts, we’ll rarely ever be home at the same time.
Even so, I doubt taking in a sullen, bitter, teenage girl is at the center of the vision board for a single woman in her early thirties. I wouldn’t do it, but then I’m not a very good person. Maybe that’s why I ran like hell from the people who love me the most. If I could be alone, I would. Gratefully. I’d rather be alone than have to pretend I’m okay. But they won’t give me that option. So I’ll settle for being with someone who at least doesn’t love me as much. I’m thankful for Margot. Not that I tell her this. Not that I tell her anything. I don’t.
When I walk in, the main office is a mass of commotion. Phones ringing, copiers running, voices everywhere. There are three lines leading up to the front counter. I don’t know which one to get into, so I pick the one closest to the door and hope for the best. Margot sweeps in behind me and immediately pulls me around the side, past all of the lines, and up to the receptionist. She’s lucky I saw her coming, or the second her hand was on my arm, she would have found herself facedown on the ground with my knee in her back.
“We have an appointment with Mr. Armour, the principal,” she says authoritatively. Margot, the responsible adult. She’s playing my mom’s part today. This is a side of her I don’t usually see. She prefers the cool aunt role. She doesn’t have any kids of her own, so this is a little out of her depth. I didn’t even realize we had an appointment, but I see the sense in it now. The receptionist, a fiftyish, unpleasant-looking woman, motions us to a couple of chairs next to a closed, dark wood door.
We only have to wait a few minutes, and no one notices or acknowledges me at all. The anonymity is nice. I wonder how long it will last. I look down at myself. I didn’t get decked out for the visit today. I expected to come in, fill out some paperwork, hand over some immunization records, and be done with it. I wasn’t expecting the swarms of students crowding the office. I’m wearing jeans and a black V-neck T-shirt, both a little—okay, a lot—tighter than they need to be, but otherwise completely nondescript. The shoes are where I made the effort. Black stilettos. Four-and-a-half inches of insanity. I’m not using them so much for the height, even though I seriously need it, as for the effect. I wouldn’t have bothered with them today, except I needed the practice. My balance on them has gotten better, but I figured a dress rehearsal wouldn’t hurt. I’d prefer to avoid eating ass on my first day of school.
I look at the clock on the wall. The second hand is bouncing back and forth inside my head, even though I know I can’t possibly hear the ticking over everything else going on. I wish I could tune out the noise in this room. It’s disconcerting. There are too many sounds at once and my brain is trying to separate them, to sort them out into neat little piles, but it’s almost impossible with all of the machines and voices melting together. I open and close my hand in my lap and hope we get called in soon.
A few minutes that seem like an hour later, the heavy wooden door opens, and we’re ushered inside by a fortysomething man in an ill-fitting shirt and tie. He smiles warmly before sliding back behind his desk into an oversized leather chair. The desk is imposing. Too big for this office. Obviously the furniture is meant to intimidate, because the man does not. Even before he’s said much, I peg him as soft. I hope I’m right. I’m going to need him on this.
I settle back into one of two matching burgundy leather chairs opposite Mr. Armour’s desk. Margot sinks into the chair next to me and launches into her spiel. I listen for a few minutes as she explains my “unique situation” to him. Unique situation, indeed. As she goes into detail, I see him glance over at me. His eyes widen just slightly as he looks closer, and I catch the glimmer of recognition in them. Yes, that’s me. He remembers me. If I had gotten farther away, this might not even be necessary. The name wouldn’t mean much of anything. The face would mean even less. But I’m only two hours from ground zero, and if even one person puts it together, I’ll be right back where I was there. I can’t take the chance, so here we sit, in Mr. Armour’s office, three days before the start of my senior year. Nothing like last minute. Though this, at least, is not my fault. My parents fought the move until the end, but they finally relented. I may have Margot to thank for some of that. Though I think the fact that I broke my father’s heart helped the cause a little, too. And, probably, they were all just tired.
I’m completely zoned out on the conversation now and I’m busy checking out Armour’s office. There’s not much to distract; a couple of houseplants that look like they need to be watered, along with a few family pictures. The diploma on the wall is from the University of Michigan. His first name is Alvis. Huh. What kind of crap name is Alvis? I don’t even think it means anything, but I’ll definitely check later. I’m running through possible origins in my head when I see Margot pulling out a file and handing it to him.
Doctor’s notes. Lots of them.
As he looks over the paperwork, my eyes are drawn to the old-school metal hand-crank pencil sharpener on his desk. It strikes me as odd. The desk is a rich, fancy cherry number, nothing like the crap industrial ones teachers get. Why anyone would mount such an ancient pencil sharpener on it is beyond me. It’s a complete contradiction. I wish I could ask about it. Instead, I focus on the ring of adjustable pencil holes and wonder idly if my pinky finger would fit into any of them. I’m contemplating how much it would hurt to sharpen it, and how much blood there might be, when I hear Mr. Armour’s tone shift.
“Not at all?” He sounds nervous.
“Not at all,” Margot confirms. She’s got her put-on, no-nonsense demeanor in full swing.
“I see. Well, we’ll do what we can. I’ll make sure her teachers are informed before Monday. Has she filled in a class request form?” And like clockwork, we’ve gotten to the part where he’s started to talk about me like I’m not in the room. Margot hands him the form and he peruses it quickly. “I’ll get this to the guidance department so they can have a schedule drawn up by Monday morning. I can’t promise she’ll get these electives. Most classes are already full at this point.”
“We understand. I’m sure you’ll do whatever possible. We appreciate your cooperation and, of course, your discretion,” Margot adds. It’s a warning. Go, Margot. I think it’s kind of wasted on him, though. I do get the feeling he genuinely wants to help. Plus, I think I make him uncomfortable, which means he probably hopes to see as little of me as possible.
Mr. Armour walks us to the door, shaking Margot’s hand and nodding almost imperceptibly at me with a strained smile that I think might be pity, or possibly, disdain. Then, just as quickly, he looks away. He follows us back into the chaos of the front office and asks us to wait a moment while he heads down a hallway to the guidance office with my paperwork.
I look around and see that several of the same people I saw earlier are still waiting in line. I thank whatever god still believes in me for appointments. I’d rather clean the inside of a Port-O-Let with my tongue than spend another minute in this cacophony. We stand against the wall as far out of the way as we can get. There are no empty chairs now.
I glance to the front of the line where a dirty-blond Ken doll is tossing his most panty-dropping smile in the direction of Ms. Unpleasant on the other side of the counter. Ms. Unpleasant is now positively glowing in the aura of this boy’s flirtations. I don’t blame her. He’s the kind of good-looking that transforms once self-respecting females into useless puddles of dumbass. I struggle to separate out their conversation. Something about an office aide position. Aahh, lazy bastard. He cocks his head to the side and says something that makes Ms. Unpleasant laugh and shake her head in resignation. He’s won whatever it is he came here for. I watch the slight shift in his eyes. He knows it too. I’m almost impressed.
While he’s waiting, the door opens again and a psychotically cute girl walks in and scans the room until her eyes land on him.
“Drew!” she yells over the commotion and everyone turns. She seems oblivious to the attention. “I’m not going to sit in the car all day! Come on!” I check her out while she glowers at him. She’s blond, like him, though not exactly; her hair is lighter, like she spent the whole summer in the sun. She’s attractive in the most obvious way possible, wearing a pink, well-filled-out halter top and carrying an obsessively color-coordinated, pink Coach purse. He seems mildly amused by her displeasure. Must be his girlfriend. A matching set, I think. Panty-Combusting Ken comes complete with Piqued Princess Barbie: unachievable measurements, designer purse, and annoyed scowl included!
He holds up a finger to her to convey that he’ll just be a minute. If I were him, I’d choose a different finger. I smirk at the thought and glance up to see him smirking right back at me, his eyes alight with mischief.
Behind him, Ms. Unpleasant quickly scrawls something on his form and signs the bottom. She passes it back to him, but he’s still looking at me. I point to her and raise my eyebrows at him. Aren’t you going to get what you came for? He turns and takes the form from her hands, thanks her, and winks. He winks at the menopausal office lady. He’s so blatantly obvious, it’s almost inspired. Almost. She shakes her head again and shoos him toward the door. Well played, Ken, well played.
While I’ve been amusing myself with the office drama, Margot’s been whispering with a woman who I assume is the guidance counselor. Drew, who I desperately want to keep calling Ken, is still standing near the door, talking to a couple other guys who are waiting at the back of the line. I wonder if he’s purposely trying to piss off Barbie. It seems easily done.
“Let’s go.” Margot reemerges, ushering me toward the front doors.
“Excuse me!” a woman’s raised voice shrills, before we make it to the exit. Everyone in line turns in unison, watching the woman hold up a file folder in my direction. “How do you pronounce this name?”
“NAH-stee-ya,” Margot enunciates, and I inwardly cringe, acutely aware of the audience around us. “Nastya Kashnikov. It’s Russian.” She tosses the last two words off over her shoulder, obviously pleased with herself for some reason, before we head out the door with everyone’s eyes on our backs.
When we reach the car, she lets out a sigh and her demeanor noticeably shifts back to the Margot I know. “Well, that hurdle’s cleared. For now,” she adds. Then she smiles her dazzling, all-American-girl smile. “Ice cream?” she asks, sounding like she might need it more than me. I smile back, because even at ten thirty in the morning, there’s only one answer to that question.|The Sea of Tranquility Chapter 2
Monday, 7:02 AM. Pointless. That’s what today is going to be, along with the 179 school days that come after it. I’d contemplate the waste of it all now if I had the time, but I don’t. I’m gonna be late as it is. I head to the laundry room and yank some clothes out of the still-running dryer. I forgot to turn it on last night, but I don’t have time to wait; so now I’m stuck pulling on a pair of damp jeans while I walk and trying not to trip over myself. Whatever. It’s not like I’m surprised.
I grab a coffee mug out of the cabinet and attempt to fill it without spilling it all over the counter and burning myself in the process. I put it on the kitchen table, next to a shoe box full of prescription bottles, in time to see my grandfather coming out of his room. His white hair is so disheveled that he momentarily reminds me of a mad scientist. He walks alarmingly slow, but I know better than to offer to help him. He hates that. He used to be so badass and now he’s not, and he feels every bit of that loss.
“Coffee’s on the table,” I say, grabbing my keys and heading for the door. “I laid out your pills and logged them already. Bill’s coming in an hour. You sure you’ll be ok...
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