The trouble was not about finding acceptance.
Acceptance was available in the depths of the mind
And among like people. The trouble was the look into the canyon
Which had come a long time earlier
And spent many years being forgotten.
The fine garments and rows of strong shoes,
The pantry stocked with good grains and butter—
Everything could be earned by producing right answers.
Answers were important, the canyon said,
But the answers were not the solution.
From: Adolescence by Adrienne Su
The sun had barely risen when Mel rose and began to pace. It was Friday. Her English exam was hours away. And the leavers party was tomorrow. She’d seen Anne once since she’d asked her to be her date, which had helped to relieve some of her worries. Between complaining about exams and pondering the identity of the mystery microbe she’d left with a graduate student in Newcastle, Anne had mentioned that she’d been practicing her dance moves for the party. She’d even given her a sly little wink. It made Mel’s heart race just to think of it.
Jackie, on the other hand, was still giving her the silent treatment.
The floorboards creaked irritably under Mel’s feet. Her sister Lisa sat bolt upright in bed, fixed her with an evil squint, and then fell back beneath the sheets. They hadn’t seen much of each other lately, what with Mel’s busy schedule and Lisa’s new boyfriend, who she was trying to keep a secret from the rest of the house. But even distance, sometimes, didn’t make the heart grow fonder. Mel took the hint and quietly gathered her things to go.
Downstairs, Mam was half-asleep on the couch, a picture book open on her lap and a sleeping George in the crook of her arm. Her eyelids fluttered open at the sound of Mel on the steps.
“You’re up early.”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“Neither could he. Nightmares. He finally fell asleep again just now.”
Mel sat down on the couch beside her Mam. There was something in the early morning light, the shared sleeplessness of the house that made her feel at peace. Mam pulled a brochure out from between the pages of the picture book.
“I found this under Georgie’s bed. He must have gotten into your room when I thought he was playing. These wee ones, you can’t look away for an instant.”
It was a brochure for the marine biology department at Bangor.
“Oh,” said Mel. “That’s funny. He is such a mischievous boy.”
Mam nodded, tired eyes crinkling with mirth. “Aye, and more mischievous every day. You did put Newcastle as your first choice on your exams, though, right? Not Bangor.”
What was it about early morning sunlight that demanded honesty? As the dust particles danced in the pale glow that filtered through the windows, Mel felt compelled to tell the truth. “No,” she said. “I didn’t want you to be disappointed. But I’ll never be happy if I stay here and become a doctor. I’m going to Bangor to study marine biology. I’ll come back, I promise.”
In a moment, the peace of the morning was shattered. George’s eyes flashed open at his mother’s sharp tone, but he pretended to fall asleep again.
“It’s true, Mam. And I’m sorry that I hid the truth from you.”
“You lied to me, Mel,” Mam hissed. “You lied to all of us for months.”
“I’m sorry, Mam. I didn’t see any other way. You weren’t willing to listen.”
“Your dad and I listened, and we came to the right conclusion. This marine biology business will never get you anywhere. And moving away to a whole new city by yourself? You’re only eighteen! Do you know how many people are waiting to corrupt a young girl like you?”
“I’m not a young girl!”
“And do you have any idea the cost of rent, and tuition on top of that–”
“I’ve talked to a loan officer–”
“And you think we’ll take out a loan for you? You know your father won’t stand to be indebted to anyone–”
“Mam!” Mel shouted, loud enough for George to drop the pretense of slumber. “I’m taking out a loan myself. Under my own name, not yours. I’m going to Bangor and I’m studying marine biology, whether you approve or not. I don’t want your help. And I don’t need it, either.”
Red-faced, Mel picked up her backpack and fled the house.
About the author: Ella Shively is a writer and wildlife technician in northern Florida. You can find her online at https://www.instagram.com/shivelywrites/.
About this chapter's featured poet: Raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Adrienne Su earned a BA from Radcliffe College of Harvard University and an MFA from the University of Virginia. She is the author of the poetry collections Peach State (2021), Living Quarters (2015), Having None of It (2009), Sanctuary (2006), and Middle Kingdom (1997). Her awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and residencies at the Fine Arts Works Center and The Frost Place.