Okay so I've been working on this story for a couple years. This is chapters 1 - 3. Please, feedback?? I've screened and double screened it for family-friendliness so it should be good for here (remember, most of my work deals with uncomfortable topics and sometimes bad language, part of the reason I don't post much in here anymore)
I picked the three kids' names on purpose. They are all Jewish names that start with Z. Zohar means brilliant one. Zavan means restless. Zillah means little shadow. The family isn't Jewish, that's just what mom and dad decided to do.
Zavan – son of distracted parents; high IQ; low motivation; few friends; socially awkward; bored; lonely
Renee – Zavan’s mother; PR rep at local law firm; loving but distant; independent; drinks at night
Corbin – Zavan’s father; overwhelmed magazine journalist; irritable but trying to be pleasant; burnt out
Zillah – Zavan’s younger sister; sweet; slightly spoiled; successful; many friends
Zohar – Zavan’s older brother; athletic; intelligent; confident; modest; friendly
Mrs. Ellis – Zavan’s history teacher; smug; disappointed; only engages a few students; leaving school
Mr. Hampton – Zavan’s English teacher; tries to be fair; knows Zavan is smart
Ms. Renault – Zavan’s math teacher; energetic; Zavan’s favorite teacher
Mr. Holloway – replacing Mrs. Ellis; soft-spoken; one hand is disfigured; sees Zavan’s potential
Mr. Fleming – Zavan’s guidance counselor; has given up on Zavan; doesn’t believe in change
Zavan – male name of Hebrew origins, meaning restless, disquiet, etc.
Zavan is sixteen. On the cusp of adulthood, he is alone. His world consists of distant parents, untouchable siblings, and condescending teachers. Zavan is a bright young man, aware of his intelligence and even more aware of his failures in academics. He has a handful of peers he counts as friends, all of them in other schools or opposing class schedules. Due to his lack of interest in pretty much anything, Zavan has developed a false reputation of being in classes too advanced for his level of cognition. His classmates ridicule him frequently, and teachers do nothing to stop it unless it interferes with their lessons.
Zavan is sixteen. He feels as though he is stuck somewhere between five years old and fifty years old. His peers know nothing of his inner passions for art and music, even though he’s never had drawing or instrument lessons outside mandatory classes in elementary school.
Zavan wants out.
English 3, pd. 5
I found the piece of homework in a trash can at Blaketon High where I worked as a janitor. I knew who Zavan was. He was the wallflower, the invisible boy. With unremarkable features and a quiet demeanor, the young man disappeared in the crowded hallways. He simply attended the school, never actually doing the work assigned. I must correct myself, as clearly he did start to, but he never turned the work in for grading. Over the years I’ve picked up most of Zavan’s story. Being an invisible custodian, I heard a lot of conversation.
He had a decent start in life. He and his two siblings looked just alike with brown, wavy hair and bright blue eyes. They were all very bright, outgoing children. Then the boy’s mother, Renee, was promoted to public relations for the law firm she worked for, and all of a sudden, the third grader was nearly without a mother. Her job consumed her time almost completely. Zavan’s father tried to fill in the gaps, but it was very difficult for him as an already overworked journalist for a demanding local magazine. Zavan quickly grew self-reliant, cooking his own meals and washing his own laundry. All the extra work exhausted the little boy, affecting his performance in school. Unfortunately, his teachers were either uncaring or unnoticing of his dropping grades, so he nearly stayed back a year. Zavan pulled himself together enough the last quarter to eke through to fourth grade and from then on barely passed from class to class.
All through middle school Zavan had a few friends to encourage him and keep him company when he came home to an empty house, but his work continued to dwindle. Oddly, his older brother and younger sister seemed unaffected by the changes in their mother’s schedules. Then again, with Zohar always at sporting events or practices and Zillah in after-school care, the middle child ended up usually alone and felt very, well, middle-childish.
At the start of eleventh grade, Zavan figured it’d be like any other school year: filled with boredom, dejection, and failure. He spent every morning trudging to the bus stop, riding in the back alone in silence, and marching as fast as he could to class, which, as always, somehow ended up as far away as possible from the front of the school.
First period was Biology with Mr. Calder, an aging Irish immigrant with red hair so evenly grayed it looked pink. He enjoyed teaching, but was being forced to retire due to budget cuts at the end of the school year despite having tenure. Zavan thought he was a pretty good teacher but a bit old fashioned. He tried to do some of the work in Mr. Calder’s class, but it was difficult to put what was in his mind onto paper, so the boy didn’t do well.
Art came after Biology, taught by Mrs. Argyle. She was strict, and didn’t understand there were more art styles than the ones she preferred, so the wiry, thirty-something brunette graded more harshly than she should have. Zavan had picked the elective because he thought it might be fun, and it probably would have been, had he had a better-rounded teacher.
Third period was math, Zavan’s favorite class. Ms. Renault was an energetic woman in her twenties with blonde hair and a passion for teaching. She had a way of making math simpler to understand. Zavan did better in her class than he’d done in years. It was the only A he made in his first quarter and the first A since fourth grade music class. He would continue to excel for the rest of the year in her class, proving he was paying attention in school and weakening the popular rumor labeling him as mentally inferior to the rest of the class.
After lunch, Zavan tended to be in a pretty decent mood from replenishing his calorie count as well as enjoying math class. Attending Phys Ed with Coach Perch wasn’t bad either. The coach was also the track coach for the school, so he liked to make his students run a lot. The Indian man was in his late thirties, but looked older due to thinning hair. Zavan was quite fast, but distracted and solitary so he didn’t do well in team sports, so he tended to even out at a C throughout the year.
English with Mr. Hampton began an inevitable downward slope as the end of the day approached. While the middle aged black man was kind and fair to his students, he graded on a flat scale, so it was difficult for Zavan to do well in class. The boy's refusal to do homework marked his downfall as he aced test after test to no avail. Mr. Hampton saw something in Zavan and tried to pull more from the quiet young man who doodled in the back of the room.
Zavan's last class was History. Mrs. Ellis had discouraged him from the start, having listened to the whisperings that the boy who did nothing was simply unable to keep up, but not slow enough to be put into remedial classes. When the woman told the class she'd be leaving, the young man assumed she'd be replaced with yet another apathetic teacher who would ignore him and let him fail. Mr. Holloway got his attention, though. The student couldn't decide if it was the deformed hand or just something about the man that drew him in and made him want to listen.
The bus ride home seemed a relief to a tired and bored Zavan. The other kids ignored him for the most part, having learned long ago they couldn't incite a reaction from him. He stared out the window, watching clouds and making shapes in his head. Once at his stop, the boy stepped off the bus and sat down to wait twenty minutes for his sister in middle school.
"You know, Zav," she called to him as she approached, "You don't have to wait for me everyday. I know the way home by now." Zillah wore a pink shirt with cats on it over a pair of tight, dark blue jeans with rhinestone paisleys up the legs. Her light blue windbreaker matched her twinkling eyes.
"Mom would kill both of us if I didn't, Zilly," Zavan replied flatly. "Sandwiches or hot food for dinner tonight?" They turned the corner onto their street as Zillah thought for a moment.
"What do we have? Mom's payday is tomorrow, so we're like, short on everything right?" Zavan cringed inwardly at her abuse of like, but said nothing.
"We have spaghetti fixings and some stir fry mix left. I could make something with that. I'll need to make a shopping list for Dad before he gets home tonight so he'll know what we're out of. You need anything girly, or are you good?" Zillah groaned, mortified at her big brother's question. "Oh, get over it, Zillah, you know damn well Mom's too busy to make sure, and you also know I don't like to have to ask." It was a rare outburst from Zavan, usually so monotonous his sister mimicked him until he smiled to make her stop. The girl sighed.
"I'm fine," she answered. "Sorry. You could sneak an extra bag of gummies onto the list, though, to make up for it." Zillah's teasing tone told Zavan she had recovered from her adolescent behavior and was back to normal. He couldn't help but smile a little at her sweet tooth.
"You and those gummies..." he retorted. “You're gonna rot your teeth right out of your skull if you're not careful, Zilly. How much homework do you have?" The duo walked up the driveway and into their house, enjoying the sudden coolness of the air conditioner.
"Forty problems in math," Zillah answered, digging out her agenda from a stuffed backpack, "two pages in language arts, and some worksheet in science. Oh, and for history, we're supposed to write half a page about World War I and how it started. You?" Zavan shrugged, not bothering to look.
"Thirty math problems, three page essay for English in MLA format, and draw some sets of gene probability squares for science." He dropped his bag from his shoulder and walked to the kitchen to figure out dinner.
"Are you going to do any of it?" Zillah asked sarcastically.
"Math," Zavan called back. "Maybe I'll do science too, since it's just regurgitation and not thinking." He pulled out a large pot and began filling it with water. "Let me know if you need math help. You know that's all I'll be good at helping you figure out." The girl pulled a box of pasta and a large can of sauce from the cupboard and carried it to her brother.
"Remind me again why you don't do your homework even though you know all this stuff?" Zillah's question brought a sigh from her brother.
"What's it matter?" Zavan asked. "I'm not getting a job doing what I want, and I'm not getting any kind of scholarship like you and Zohar, so college is out." He measured out helpings of pasta and put them in a large bowl to wait as the water came to a boil. "You, however, need to do your homework if you want to get anywhere in life. This family only has room for one deadbeat and I already called it. Get, and don't come back to the kitchen unless you need help." Zillah left for her bedroom after retrieving her backpack and agenda.
Zavan went through the cupboards and noted all the groceries they needed on a checklist. He checked the fridge and made sure to put milk down twice so his father, Corbin, wouldn't forget like last time. Writing in gummies for Zillah, the boy tacked the list to the calendar directly over his father's schedule so it couldn't be missed. He prepared a glass of milk and brought it to Zillah's room along with a small plate of sandwich cookies.
"Thanks," Zillah beamed, and he snatched one from the plate and popped it into his mouth. "Hey," she protested comically.
"Tax cookie," he managed, muffled. "You're welcome, kiddo." Zavan returned to the kitchen, grabbing his bag from the other room, and opened up his math homework. The numbers, which previously spun before his eyes, fell into place. He breezed through the work, checking his math every few problems, and placed the finished page in his notebook. Turning to biology, the boy read the instructions to make sure it really was just filling in answers before doing the assignment.
Feeling particularly productive, he put the pasta into the now boiling water and covered it before looking at the English assignment on the off chance he'd be able to express himself. Define the grievances of the civil rights movements. Zavan groaned and returned the paper to his folder, a little disappointed that he wouldn't be able to do it. He decided to try to talk to Mr. Hampton to see if he could do the work orally. The boy knew the answers, but felt overwhelmed when told to put them on paper. He could cite websites and newspaper clippings from memory, so an oral exemption would be ideal, he mused.
As Zavan put his books and folders back into his bag, the front door opened. His father called out to alert the children to his presence. Zillah bounded out to give the man a quick hug before returning to her homework.
"Hello, Zillah," he greeted weakly, stumbling back at her embrace. "Zavan, has Zohar called? He was supposed to be here for dinner. What is for dinner, anyway?" The middle child checked the phone for messages or missed calls; there were none.
"There aren't any calls. Maybe he's just late. Stir-fry shoelaces tonight, Dad," he answered as the older, dark-haired man trudged through on his way to the living room. "We're really short on food. You'll need to go shopping tomorrow. Or give me money and I'll do it, and Zilly can walk herself the three blocks home. Your choice." The teenager grabbed the bag of vegetables from the freezer and dumped them into the pot with the spaghetti. His father kicked his shoes off and put his bag down by the couch before collapsing into the cushions.
"I'll ask your mom if she wants her walking alone," he called. "I'm not going to have time to shop until late tomorrow night, with work the way it is. Is this you not wanting to walk her home, or her not wanting a babysitter anymore, or is it you really wanting to help?" Zavan shook his head and walked over to his father after returning the sauce to the cabinet, since he wasn't going to use it.
"I don't mind walking Zillah," he explained calmly. "She mentioned today she feels old enough and mature enough to walk three blocks from the bus stop, but she knows you guys prefer I keep her company. I do want to help. It isn't like I'm swamped with homework, so I have time to buy food. Mom is busy even when she isn't working, and I know you're overworked. It's up to you guys. Just know I'm available if you need me." He strolled back into the kitchen to tend the spaghetti.
"I'm here," came a voice from the front door. It was Zohar. "Phone died, so I couldn't call you, sorry, Dad!" The tall, athletic college student bounded into the kitchen. "Hey, Zav, what's cookin'?" He slapped Zavan's shoulder amicably before heading to Zillah's room to greet her.
"Hey, Zo. Stir-fry shoela… And he's gone." Zavan muttered to himself. His mind wandered as he stirred the pot full of food. The boy grabbed some plates from the cupboard and made sure the food was ready before dishing out portions of the colorful concoction. "Dinner, guys! Dad, when's Mom supposed to be home?" He called out as he set the plates on the dining room table.
"She should be home in a few minutes," the head of the house answered as he took his seat at the end of the table. "Thank you for making dinner, Zav. It looks good." Zavan smiled a little at the praise. His brother and sister sat at their places, eyeing the food hungrily.
"Zavan, this looks delicious!" Zillah gushed, rubbing her hands together and tucking her napkin into her lap.
"Agreed, bro, looks great," Zohar confirmed with a nod. Zavan sat at his seat quietly, still mulling over his new teacher.
The family ate, his father asking about school and friends, his siblings doing most of the talking. The solitary teenager was content to listen to them go on about their lives.
"Zavan, I hear you got a new teacher this week," Corbin's voice broke through the shroud Zavan had thrown over himself. "What's he like?" The student finished chewing, picking his words.
"He's interesting," he started. "He's soft-spoken, but everyone pays attention, even though he's really new. He seems to be more interested in the students than Mrs. Ellis was." He took another bite.
"I heard he's got a gimpy hand," Zohar jumped in. "Like it's all stunted and missing a finger." He contorted his hand and reached creepily toward Zillah, who immediately protested.
"Zohar, cut it out," their father groaned. "So what if he's got a unique physical feature? If he can teach, nobody cares." Zohar shrugged.
"It's true, it is a bit disconcerting at first," Zavan admitted," and hard not to stare sometimes, but once he's been there a while, I think you're right Dad, it'll be a normalcy." He remembered a science teacher from middle school who had a similarly distracting hand. “Zillah, does Mrs. Kefauver still teach at your school? She had three fingers missing, but nobody seemed to mind. Anyway, I’m tentatively hopeful about Mr. Holloway.” Corbin nodded in acknowledgement as he chewed.
“Does that mean you’ll do his assignments?” Zohar asked, recalling his brother’s work ethic. Zavan just shrugged, electing to let his actions speak when he decided.
Dinner ended without incident, and Zavan took the dishes to the kitchen. As he washed, his father came in and picked up the faded yellow dish towel on the counter to help.
“You left some for Mom, I hope?” Zavan just nodded. “Zav, you know we appreciate you helping and cooking and everything, but your mom and I are worried. We know we haven’t really been supporting you much over the last several years—“
“Eight years,” the man continued, mildly irritated, “But we haven’t been blind. You’re coasting. You’ve been coasting. And I think we’ve taken unfair advantage of your independence. You deserve better than the childhood you’ve been dealt, and for that I’m sorry. From now on I want you to have more fun, go hang out with your friends. You don’t need to cook and clean and be a maid. Zillah can do dishes and Zohar can vacuum and I can certainly cook for the family. I—“
“Stop, Dad,” Zavan interrupted again, holding a wet hand up. “First of all, I don’t have any friends. Everyone at school thinks I’m either weird or retarded. They don’t really pick on me as much anymore but only because I don’t react so it’s no fun anymore. Second, I don’t care about helping around the house. Someone has to do it and with your schedules and Zohar always at practice and Zillah until recently being a little young to start cooking, it just fell to me. I don’t resent it. It kinda sucks not having you around…at all…but without you guys working so much we wouldn’t have this house in this neighborhood with enough food except when you forget to shop.
“Maybe if we’d had this conversation a few years ago,” he went on, “it might mean something, but I’m about to graduate high school, provided I can manage to excel these last two years and get my GPA to passing. The whole ‘stop working so hard and go play’ window has closed. Right now I’m more in the ‘life is gonna suck without a miracle job falling into my lap right out of high school’ window. Got any advice for that?” The rare display caught Corbin by surprise.
“Deserved or not, that was a bit rude, but moving on,” he stated gently, recognizing the need for a real answer rather than a lecture, “what do you want to do? If money didn’t matter and grades didn’t matter and you could jump in right away making however much money you wanted, what is your dream?” The older man put his plate down and turned toward his son. Zavan sighed and put the bowl down, drying his hands with the damp towel.
“I have no idea. Maybe music or art or something. I have all the time I want to think about things and daydream since school hasn’t really clicked with me, but I still have no goals or dreams. Nothing draws me in, nothing fascinates me. A better observation would be everything fascinates me, but nothing outshines anything else. That’s what it means to have a goal, right? To want something more than other possibilities? I don’t want to do anything in particular. I just want to be left alone in my books and doodles and thoughts until I find something new and worth the effort.” He looked down, feeling chastised. “I’m sorry I snapped at you. I wasn’t trying to be rude. Okay, I was, but I was trying not to be noticed in it. But I could have said it differently.” Corbin listened carefully and waited to speak.
“You know you’ve said more to me tonight than in a year?” He pointed out. “You’re not in trouble for snapping. If anything, I’m relieved you have the spirit to do so. Since you don’t know what you want out of life, I want you to try everything you can get your hands on. You say everything fascinates you. So dive in. Don’t waste your energy staying here all the time. Go learn who you are. Will you promise me you’ll do that?” The man begged his son. The boy turned back to the dishes, a thoughtful look on his face.
“Don’t you need my help, though?” Zavan asked softly. “You and Mom are so busy, the house would fall apart in a week. Short of getting a maid, which we don’t need and can’t really afford, nobody else is going to keep up here.” Corbin sighed and turned his son’s face toward him.
“We can afford one if we need to,” he insisted, “but I’ve already told you we can pick up some slack. Stop being an adult, Zav. That’s my job, and right now, your job is to explore. Do you need me to kick you out of the kitchen
to get my point across?” A half smile crossed his face.
“Alright, Dad,” Zavan conceded. “I’ll try to pick out my favorites. When is Mom supposed to be home?” A long pause broke the conversational flow as a defeated look crossed his father’s visage.
“She’s working late again. I don’t know if you’ll be awake when she gets home,” Corbin added. The observant sixteen-year-old picked up on dishonesty.
“You’re not telling me something,” he stated bluntly. The man stood up and patted him on the shoulder reassuringly.
“It’s not something you need to know, kiddo,” Corbin informed him. “Don’t worry about it. Worry instead about your English homework. Feel free to ask your old man for help. Remember, I kind of write for a living.” With that, he strolled into the den and picked up his laptop to start writing.
Zavan finished the dishes deep in thought. He was grateful for the reprieve from housework, but wasn’t sure how to “explore” as his father had put it. His mind was also ablaze with possible scenarios to make the man give an incomplete answer about his mother, Renee. He wondered whether asking the busy journalist for writing tips would be worth it, since the last time he’d asked, he’d gotten a gruff “ask your mother” from the man. That was a few years before, though, he reasoned. Maybe he’d help now.
After the dishes were cleaned and put away, the boy retired to his room, bringing his backpack with him to see about his English homework again. He glowered at the paper as he sat at his desk. Zavan knew the answers. He knew the majority of the complaints revolved around inequality and terrible living conditions and segregation laws. Thinking about the idea of segregation, the boy balked at the concept of such ridiculous laws so recently in his history. Then again, he argued, he knew of at least one racist teacher in his school. The old lady hid it fairly well, but Zavan could tell from the way she stumbled over ethnic names with a small amount of disdain, the way she stood up straight to loom over black kids when she spoke to them. She never outright insulted them but definitely graded more severely and called on them for difficult questions in class to showcase any weakness in their education.
Zavan recognized his wandering mind and put the homework away. A knock at the door startled him.
“Oh, sorry, Zav,” Renee said sheepishly, walking into his room. “I just wanted to say hi before you were asleep. Are you doing homework?” Her son smiled.
“Hi, Mom,” Zavan greeted. “I’m trying.” His mother’s long, blonde hair brushed his shoulder while she glanced over his planner.
“Well, I hope you’re able to. Ask us for help if you need it.” Renee kissed his forehead and left.
Zavan looked around his room, looking for something to play with. His aimless gaze fell on an old puzzle cube. He picked it up. Pacing around the somewhat messy room, the boy continued his pursuit of stimulation as he habitually twisted the cube, tossing it on his unmade bed when he’d solved it for the umpteenth time. An old art magazine caught his eye and he began flipping through it. The old bed creaked loudly as he leaped onto it, landing on a section of damaged springs. An undefined agitation began rippling through him, forcing him to put the magazine back on his nightstand, along with the puzzle cube.
He sat back down at his desk and pulled a piece of paper out, wanting to get the itchy energy out of his system. A pencil rested on his fingers as he tried to write out what he was thinking. Eventually, Zavan’s hand started moving at a steady pace as he babbled on about energy, then homework, then the conversation he had with his father, then every situation he could come up with that would have the man so perturbed. After a while, he put the pencil down, rubbing his sore wrist, and looked at the paper.
Zavan knew his handwriting was atrocious. It was part of the reason he refused to do much in school. He stared at his rambling prose and felt a little insecure about his desire to do well in class. After years of doing next to nothing, his penmanship wasn’t much better than a third grader’s. He wanted to make a decent impression on his new teacher, but how were his familiar teachers supposed to pick out anything from such chicken scratch, let alone a stranger to it? With a frustrated sigh, the boy placed the page in his desk drawer with two years’ worth of old attempted homework.