Chapter 1:

Hiatus Announcement

The Last Rae of Hope

The cover was whimsical and capricious, with a smiley face here, an inspirational quote there, but on the inside, the note had the panic-inducing words “see me after class” in a bold font. I was summoned to the guidance counselor’s lair to explain my recent transgressions.

“I don’t have time for this,” I sighed to myself as if I were the victim. Maybe I could get the conversation over quickly and return to the weight room before the football players took over. Above all else, I needed to avoid Nora. She’d ask questions, but I wasn’t ready to answer them. I crumpled the note in my hand and scanned up and down the corridor. Thankfully, it was empty so that I could make my way to the office with minimal shame.

I took a deep breath, tugged the long sleeves on my royal blue track jacket to their ultimate length, and opened the door before me.

“Name.” The secretary didn’t even bother to look up.

“Rachel,” I responded bluntly.

Which one?” I admit I had started it, but her attitude strongly suggested we wouldn’t have been friends even if I had been more cheerful upon entry.

“Smith.” I let two seconds pass. The secretary scowled. She and I both knew there were three other Rachel Smiths attending this school.

“E. Smith.” I clarified and waited for a few moments. Another Rachel has that same middle initial, too.

“Rachel Emily Smith.” It was about time I put it all together. Do you know how many people in this world have that same name? Seriously, look it up if you have the chance.

“Why didn’t you just say that, to begin with?” she demanded in an exasperated tone. I shrugged while trying to look a little apologetic. She pulled up my file on the computer screen and checked me in.

“You’re late. Dean is already waiting for you,” she sniffed disdainfully. Dean? Why do guidance counselors insist on first names only? I could see if his name was Tiberius or something because that is a glorious first name, but… come on, Dean?

The secretary gestured curtly to a small meeting room down the hall. I bet that it would have at least two motivational posters in it. Maybe the one with a cat on a rope with the caption ‘Hang in there!’ I walked down the hall, stepped inside, and was sorely disappointed. This must have been the demotivating room instead. It didn’t help that the vertical blinds were casting a shadow that was not unlike the bars of a prison cell. I sat in a cold metal folding chair, staring at the gray cement walls. I thought Dean was supposed to be waiting for me. Karma for annoying the secretary, I suppose.

The minutes ticked by from the square metal clock imprisoned on the wall with a steel cage. Eventually, I noticed a small, shatter-proof mirror at the end of the room positioned about six inches lower than my natural height with a caption that read, “Did you smile today?” I wandered over to it.

“I was smiling just fine until I was told to come here; thank you very much,” I told the defenseless mirror as I bent down to get a good look at myself. My coppery blonde hair was starting to grow out of its choppy bob. The ends were curling this way and that, but I could now pull off a ponytail if I needed to. I sort of liked the way it did whatever it wanted to without regret. I took off my thick, rectangular frames and blinked several times. I looked better without them, but unfortunately, contacts were simply not an option. My eyes had a bit more gold than most hazel eyes, which I attributed as the universe’s way of apologizing for such poor vision. I tried distracting myself by making several ridiculous faces, but suddenly, I was struck with the idea that maybe this room was also under surveillance like every other part of the school. I quickly sat back in my seat and waited quietly, nervous that someone saw me acting like a goofball. After an eternity or so, rounded up, a middle-aged man dressed in slacks and a dad sweater entered the room. I glanced at the clock and saw it was already half past four. There was no way I was going to get in a workout now.

“Hello, Rachel, my name’s Dean. Do you mind if I call you Rachel? Do you have a name you prefer?”

“Rachel’s fine.” Get to the point already. Of course, deep down, I knew I would be annoyed with anything that would come out of his mouth at this point. I knew I wasn’t there for a good reason.

“Rachel, you haven’t completed your post-high school plan essay. It’s required for graduation, so it’s essential.” I know, I know.

He frowned slightly, adding some additional concern to his voice. “This isn’t like you.” Really? You’re the guidance counselor for over three hundred students. How could you possibly know what I’m like?

“I just…” Just what? Ah, no, I had some sort of excuse but lost it. I began scratching nervously at my right wrist. Dean’s eyes glanced down at my hand, and I quickly pulled it inside my jacket.

“I have a feeling that something’s bothering you, Rachel.” There he goes, using my first name again. Do you think we’ll become friends if you say it enough? That’s just dollar-store psychology right there, especially if the other party knows what you’re trying to do.

He tried smiling at me. “Why don’t you tell me what you’re thinking about?” I looked away and said nothing. He waited for a while, but I made him surrender first. I knew the war of awkwardly long silences, and I can be pretty stubborn.

“Rachel, I will give you a five-day extension, okay? Please take some time to think about what you want to do. You’re a bright kid.” I think he meant you haven’t committed any known felonies, so there’s still hope for you.

“Thanks.” I’d be more thankful if you forgot the whole thing, but…

“And since I’m doing you a favor, Rachel, you’re going to do a favor for me, too.” Whoa, buddy, what? I looked at him once again, startled.

Dean still had that smile plastered on his face. “I’m going to read over your essay myself, and we’re going to look at college applications together based on what you write.” College? Weren’t applications already due? What if I don’t want to go to college? What if I can’t afford college? I felt my chest tighten suddenly, draining the strength in my arms and forcing a bead of sweat down my temple.

“Okay,” I replied numbly. What is wrong with me? Why couldn’t I tell him off?

“I’ll see you again on Tuesday at the same time. Oh, and I’ll also talk to your mother about this.” What the heck? Why on earth would you drag her into this? For a moment, I almost pitied him. However, he made several assumptions about me and would have to learn the hard way. I’m pretty sure that somewhere in my file, there was an alert to never, ever contact my mother unless it truly was the apocalypse, but he must have ignored it. Well, rest in peace, Dean.

“Yes, sir,” I responded in a sullen tone.

“Call me Dean, Rachel.” Oh, that is not happening. I slunk out of the office and closed the door behind me. How long was I in there? Who was the president now?

“Huhuhuhuhu…” A creeping, evil laughter filled the air as Nora’s petite frame, crowned with long, curly hair, rounded the corner. Once she had locked eyes with me, she slammed a nearby locker door shut, emphasizing her displeasure. Fortunately, the owner had just finished putting his books in it, so he escaped unscathed, though startled.

She pointed dramatically at me with a crooked index finger. “You've been avoiding me since the last bell! We need to talk now!” She might have been able to pull off the look if she didn’t have such a mischievously mousey face.

“Whatever do you mean?” I tried acting innocent as I made my way to my locker. My softball bat was waiting for me, like always, and I found the weight of it comforting. Together with my athletic ensemble, even most teachers thought I was part of the team, but I was pretending well enough not to get kicked out of the intramural sport. My walk home was long, and I didn’t want to go it alone. On school turf, though, I had to make sure not to carry it in a menacing way, so I shoved the business end into my sporty backpack.

Nora chased after me. “The latest chapter posted! What are your thoughts? I have so many questions! What did you think about–”

“No spoilers.” I held up my hands piously as I turned to interrupt her.

“What? Seriously!?” She stamped her tiny feet in frustration. “Chapter fifty-six has been up for over two hours already! You’re never gonna be in the top ten comments at this rate! BitterDarkTroll53 is already ranking at number three, you know.”

“I stopped reading just after the hiatus announcement.”

Nora wrinkled her nose. “Not cool! I need Rae’s opinion on Rae now!” It’s not a coincidence that my nickname is the same as the main character’s in the story she wanted to discuss. Nora assigned it to me the day we met, and I can’t really get her to stop. Everyone else calls me Rachel.

“It’s the hiatus that’s not cool!” I grumbled. “That means it probably ends on yet another cliffhanger, and there’s no real guarantee the author’s coming back soon, or ever. I’m not strong enough to go through this again…” I theatrically slammed my back into a set of lockers to make as much noise as possible as she pulled out her phone.

“Tomorrow, my house, three o’clock,” Nora commanded. “You will be caught up through chapter fifty-six, and we will discuss this like the sophisticated adults we will someday actually be. You may bring visual aids if necessary, as long as you don’t forget the snacks. We’ll need to work on an action plan.” What? It’s so bad we need an action plan?

“I don’t know if that will be possible,” I admitted.

She glowered at me with violet eyes. “Why?”

“Dean’s going to call my mother.”

“Who the f- is Dean?” I wasn’t censoring her. She actually said the letter f.

“The guidance counselor. I still didn’t finish that essay.”

“You failed to turn in an assignment on time?”

“Maybe I’m finally rebelling?” I suggested.

“Doubtful. Try again.”

“It’s a stupid assignment.” I slid down the lockers to sit on the floor.

“Well, yes, but that’s not why you didn’t do it either.”

“I just don’t want to talk about it,” I gave up. “Let’s talk about something else.”

“Okay, read the chapter now, and we’ll discuss it.” She gestured towards my backpack.

I folded my arms in response. We always returned to the story when we had nothing else to chat about. Couldn’t we find another mutually agreeable topic? What if we have nothing else in common? What if…

Nora sat down next to me. “You’re afraid to check on Schrodinger's cat, aren’t you?”

“It could be still alive in there, but it’s starting to reek like decaying flesh.” I sighed. A climactic chapter post and a hiatus comment simultaneously are the telltale signs of literary abandonment. Despite my fears, I was still curious about what the chapter had to say. “Rae won, right? I mean, she always does so...” I paused. “Wait, no, no spoilers! It’s just, you know, she’s so overpowered. Of course, she has reason to be, but nothing can really happen to her. She’s the hero!”

I ignored Nora’s baleful stare and continued. “Relias is okay, too, right? I mean, he’s always by Rae’s side and always seems to know what to say and do to fix the situation. He wouldn’t let anything bad happen to her.”

Nora’s face was unreadable, mostly because she had hidden it behind her backpack. “You said no spoilers… the audacity of asking me what happened… you…” I might have short-circuited her brain.

“Wait. No. What happened? Something went wrong. No, don't tell me!”

“No. Noooo. I absolutely cannot talk to you about this right now.” Nora stood up and stormed off, leaving the hallway in eerie silence. However, A few moments later, my phone vibrated, and messages started popping up quickly.

Nora: Don’t talk to me again until you catch up on your assigned reading!

Nora: 3 pm tomorrow unless you’re grounded.

Nora: Bring three boxes of strawberry chocolate pretzel sticks.

Nora: Wait. One box should be green tea.

Nora: After we discuss and plan, I’ll help you with your essay.

Nora: This doesn’t count as talking!

Nora: Text back so I know you understand.

Nora: Text back!

I literally texted her the word “back” and put my phone away. Time to go home and talk to… mother.

Post Chapter Omake:

All-Father: "Good things come to those who wait."

Rae: "You're forgetting the part where you have to do something, too."

All-Father: "Are you implying I'm not? When you do things right..."

Rae: "No sci-fi references! This is a fantasy story!"

All-Father: "The greatest illusion in this world is the illusion of separation."

Rae: "Are you really in charge of everything? So irresponsible."