Toast was too loud, and cereal even louder, and Julie was too hungry to stay asleep. She wanted to be out of the house by the time her father got up anyway. So she ghosted her way through the kitchen and out to the garage.
There was a jar of peanuts on the worktable, next to the radio and some empty bottles. She poured a handful of peanuts into an old plastic grocery bag, looped the bag over the handlebars of her bike and hopped on.
Her house was at the bottom of a steep hill, and she pedaled in tight circles to build up speed before she flung herself up the slope. Soon she was standing up on the pedals, pulling back on the handles. But she wasn’t going to make it today, not with no dinner last night and no breakfast yet this morning. She scowled as she got off and walked the bike the rest of the way.
At least it was too early for anybody to see her. More than once Joe Farley and his friends had blown past her as she struggled up a hill. “Don’t feel bad, everybody knows girls suck at riding bikes,” he’d called back over his shoulder a few weeks ago. So Julie made a point of taking on any hill she could. And one day soon, maybe by summer, she’d be stronger than any of those boys. Stronger than anyone.
At the top, she looped through the quiet streets for what felt like a long time, until she guessed it had stopped being too early to head over to Amy’s house. She didn’t want to miss breakfast. Last week she’d arrived too late and had to wait for Amy in the kitchen with the smell of waffles lingering in the air.
She headed up a few blocks so she could glide down the big hill on Aspen Street. As the bike picked up speed, she lifted her hands up and spread them wide, feeling the wind slipping through her fingers, going faster and faster. She could always beat the boys, all the boys, at this. She might not be as fast going uphill, but nobody was faster going down.
At the bottom she hooked a left onto Cedar, and sat down on the curb in front of Amy’s house, choosing a spot in line with the kitchen window. She had just finished her peanuts when Amy’s mother opened the door, still tying the sash of her bathrobe.
“Julie, hi,” she said, a little wearily. “Would you like to join us for breakfast? I’m making pancakes.”
“Sure, thanks, Mrs. Morgan,” Julie said, leaving her bike on the lawn as she headed inside. She ran through a brief mental checklist, all the things she’d heard Mrs. Morgan tell Amy. Stand up straight. Pull your stomach in. Look adults in the eye when you talk to them. Directives that could all be translated as, Act like you belong here. Even though Julie didn’t.
A week ago, when Julie was sleeping over, she’d been walking down the hall to the bathroom, moving silently out of pure habit, and overheard Amy’s mom on the phone.
“It’d be nice if Amy could make some friends who could return the favor. Where she could sleep over there and play at their house sometimes.”
Now Julie stepped into the house, taking a deep breath. The air smelled of coffee and clean cotton, very different from the kitchen at her house.
“Amy’s still asleep, but you can go in and get her,” Mrs. Morgan said.
“Could I… give you a hand? Set the table, maybe?”
Julie had wanted to offer help before, but had been too afraid she’d mess up. She’d figured out which plates Mrs. Morgan liked to use for breakfast, which glasses and coffee cups, which cabinet each set came from, and rehearsed the process in her mind over and over. Even after she’d been sure she had it down, she’d worried that it seemed presumptuous. But Mrs. Morgan looked so tired today.
Mrs. Morgan stopped, her face softening. “No, that’s okay,” she said. “Just go get the sleepyhead.”
That’s pity, not affection, Julie told herself sternly as she headed down the hall. But she couldn’t help but hold that flash of tenderness close to herself, threadbare though it might be.
Julie knocked on the door of Amy’s room and went in without waiting for an answer. Amy was awake, stretching and yawning under her pink polka-dot bedspread. Amy wanted her mom to repaint her room and get her a new comforter, she said. She hated the pink. It was like her mom thought she was a little kid still. Julie had nodded along in commiseration. As if she had the same kind of troubles. That was one of the things Julie liked about her friend, actually. Amy never tread carefully, never stopped in the middle of sentence, looking at Julie, saying, “Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean…” and then trailing off.
The girls headed toward the kitchen. Amy’s brother appeared, and shuffled through the doorway, tousle-haired.
“Pancakes? We must have guests,” he said. “Who could it possibly be? Oh, wow, Julie! What a surprise! It’s been so long since we’ve seen you. Hours, even.”
“Ben,” Mrs. Morgan said in half-hearted warning, as she flipped a pancake.
Amy’s dad walked in, smiling as he headed for the coffee maker.
“Morning, kids. Looks great, honey.”
Julie felt her eyes get hot, and had to look down quickly at her lap, where her jeans still had a stain from the tomato sauce in the cafeteria lunch on Thursday. It was just that she was so hungry. And she imagined slathering on butter and syrup, so much that Amy’s parents would politely try to hide their distaste. But that was okay. Because what Julie knew, and Amy’s family had maybe never had to learn, was that sometimes you just had to take what you could get.
Deirdre Coles lives in Seattle and reads too much, and yes, that is a real and serious problem. Her stories have appeared in Every Day Fiction, Free Flash Fiction, MicroHorror, Infective Ink, 365 tomorrows and Kazka Press Fantasy Flash Fiction.