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life is a tightrope (and you’re burning, burning, burning both ends)

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“All right, sweetheart.” Charlie, the front-desk attendant, slides Annie’s keys across the counter, along with the packet of resources given to every person who completes the program. “You’re all set.”

Annie smiles, trying to ignore the way tears bite at the corners of her eyes, and takes one last look around the common room. Confetti from her going-away party still litters the floor. “Thanks. For everything. I’ll, um, I’ll keep in touch.”

Charlie raises her eyebrows, and Annie understands what she’s not saying loud and clear. Don’t you want to put this chapter of your life behind you, kid?

With an awkward nod, Annie tucks the packet into her laptop bag and then grabs the handle of her rolling luggage.

The sliding doors part just a second too slow as usual, and she nearly knocks her head against the glass one last time. When they glide closed behind her with a soft whoosh, Annie feels her stomach drop.

It’s a beautiful day outside. The buttery, early-morning sunshine makes all the petunias in the flowerbeds look extra bright and bold, and a string of birdcalls floats across the parking lot.

Annie’s never felt more alone in her life.

Still holding back the swell of tears, she tilts her chin up and marches for her car. Shiny and peacock blue, it sticks out among the staff’s vehicles, and the memory of her 16th birthday runs through Annie’s mind. The car had technically been her gift, but her mom wouldn’t let her have the keys until they got the results of her PSATs back and knew they were satisfactory.

She frowns as she unlocks the car on the passenger side and then slides her luggage in the backseat behind the driver’s side, propping her laptop bag against it. All those nights prepping for that test could be counted as a waste now. It isn’t like she can afford any of the colleges that accepted her now.

It isn’t like any of those colleges would want her anyway—not after this.

With a sigh, Annie crawls into the backseat and shuts the door behind her. Her throat is aching with the effort it’s taking not to break down completely, but she won’t give in.

There’s too much work to do.

First, Annie finds her checkbook and calculates how much money’s still in her account: not much.

With grim determination, she retrieves a notebook from her laptop bag and turns to a clean page so she can start a to-do list.

Money is gonna be the biggest obstacle in her search for an apartment and a school. Of course she’ll start applying for summer jobs today, but she needs some cash immediately, too. After a beat, Annie writes down the first item on the list.

1) Trade in car

She taps her pen against the spiral binding and thinks.

2) Sell old laptop; buy used

After a pause she adds: OR sell some jewelry

It’s nowhere near a complete list of everything that needs to be done, but having a start makes her feel a touch better. She sets aside the notebook and gets out her laptop. Though the signal’s weak, she can connect to the rehab center’s Wi-Fi.

Once she’s copied down a second list of cheap apartments to visit and car dealerships in the area, Annie puts everything away and closes her eyes.

No more than a second later, she relaxes her grip on the sobs trapped in her chest, and just like that she loses herself in dejection.

###

“Rent’s two-sixty a month,” the landlord, Roger, says as Annie walks the perimeter of the room. The walls are so caked with muck that she’s not sure what the original color was supposed to be, there are rat traps placed in every corner, and she’ll have to keep her pepper spray on hand at all times, but she can afford it. And that’s really her only stipulation at this point.

“That seems a little steep for this neighborhood,” she comments as she checks to make sure all the burners on the stove work.

(They don’t.)

Roger takes a step closer and gives her an oily smile. “You could always work some off.”

Annie gulps but fixes a stern look on her face. She’s not sure if he means she can take shifts at Dildopolis or something else, but she’s also not keen on asking.

“That’s okay. I’ll take it.”

She cuts him a check big enough to cover the safety deposit and her first two months of rent—trading her nearly-new car for a junky hatchback had been a great idea—and then he leaves.

Annie takes another look around the place and, now that it’s hers, she feels a rush of fondness. With a little work, it could even be a quaint place to live.

She goes to her car and starts unloading what little she has.

###

Thankfully, the rehab facility’s discharge packet contains a list of local establishments that specifically hire recovering teens to “make their reintegration as smooth as possible.” Annie easily gets a job at a call center.

The manager’s almost never around and none of her coworkers really want to talk to her, but she likes chatting with the random people on her list. Plus, she’s usually only scheduled for 15 to 20 hours a week, which gives her plenty of free time to plan her next steps.

It’s eleven o’clock on the fourth of July—Annie’s not sure if it’s fireworks or gunshots that are keeping her awake—when she stumbles onto the Greendale Community College website.

It’s horribly disorganized and overrun with ads, but she notices that they take late admissions until the beginning of August and are running a special offer: pay a whopping sixteen dollars for every credit hour your first semester.

That’s well within Annie’s budget.

With her first paycheck, she registers at Greendale, buys a couple cans of pastel purple paint for the apartment, and pays to have her Most Likely to Succeed certificate from rehab framed.

###

Annie’s nerves have her too jittery to sleep the first night before classes. She can hear her mom’s voice going on and on about the importance of a good night’s rest before a big day in the back of her head, so she sets her tea kettle on one of the working burners before standing in front of her closet.

She wants to give the right first impression on first day: that she’s serious, but approachable; fun, but there to learn.

In the end, she puts together an outfit that she feels equal parts comfortable and confident in: a flowing, floral skirt that hits her just above the knees, a cami that’s not too low-cut but has a snug fit, and her favorite pink cardigan.

As her tea steeps on the counter, she packs up her book bag and sets it by the door.

Once it becomes evident that she can’t possibly do anything more to prepare, Annie curls up on her bed, steaming mug on her nightstand, and pages through the novel she’ll have to read for her English class.

As she pencils some notes into the margins, she lets her nerves give way to something else, something she hasn’t felt much of since checking herself into rehab.

With a smile, Annie realizes she’s hopeful.