Hearth by Chloe
One - Hearth Middle School
Hearth was the type of forgotten place that only small towns near large cities could be. I doubted anyone who didn’t live there knew that it existed.
My mother had enrolled me into Hearth Middle School a few days before I had arrived here. This was particularly disturbing, because it implied I would stay here long enough for that to be necessary.
This a time for us to catch up on everything, to start over, and you’re not going to miss out on your education for it, she’d said when I’d protested. Then she had refused to talk about it altogether.
So there I sat, on the rocking school bus with peeling paint and fraying seat belts that no one bothered to use. The bus was a noisy place - the driver was arguing with someone over the radio, and kids were shouting to each other across the aisle. The sounds juxtaposed how quiet it seemed in my head.
The bus rattled to a stop half a minute later, in front of a two-story building painted a burnt orange color. A small lawn stretched before its front steps, with a sturdy wooden sign reading Hearth Middle School. It had the school mantra scratched below - The Hearth is where the opportunity lies.
None of the brightly dressed students gave the sign a second glance as they piled up the stairs and into the building. Hearth didn’t have that many people, but this was the only school in the area, and it was a small place. All these things factored into the school looking far busier than it was.
I checked my watch. It was 8:15 - the first bell wouldn’t ring for another five minutes, so I found my way up the stairs inside the building, where I presumed my locker would wait for me. After three minutes of searching, I realized that locker number 235 did not necessarily indicate that it was on the second floor. So, with two minutes to spare, I had to fight the current of bodies back down the stairs. The bell rang just as I slammed my locker door shut. It seemed that things were already going great.
I was four minutes late to my first class, but my teacher - a tired-looking woman in a green dress - didn’t seem to notice. Neither did any of my classmates, who all sat in friend groups, chatting and laughing. I sat in the corner and kept to myself.
This became a trend throughout the day. No one spoke to me, and I didn’t bother them. It was almost like I was invisible - and I began to question if I somehow was, at least until a boy during math class leaned over and asked if he could borrow a pencil. He never returned it, but I didn’t really mind.
The remaining school day floated by. I didn’t really pay attention in class - I wouldn’t be here long enough for it to affect me, anyway. I just needed to hang in there. My mother would be back to take me home soon. She would apologize and explain everything, and I would only remember Hearth as the small town where my elderly Grandma Lia lived.
I just needed to hang on.
Two - Grandma Lia
Grandma Lia lived in a small, two-bedroom house just ten minutes from the school. I opened the front door with a set of rusty, jangling keys my mother had handed me before leaving, and stepped inside to the sound of banging pots and pans.
I locked the door and followed the noises - sure enough, she was in the kitchen - yellow apron, graying bun, wrinkled hands and all. She was exactly how I had remembered her from last Christmas’ family reunion. Grandma Lia didn’t notice me for a second, humming some show tune from the ‘80s. But then she looked up from the stove and rushed over. She gave me a tight hug and seated me down at a small table near the corner of the kitchen. I played the part of the good granddaughter through the standard first few questions - how was your day, how do you like it here in Hearth, and do you remember when you were four years old and ate all the doughnuts on Thanksgiving.
“You must be hungry after your first day,” Grandma Lia said as she set a plate of fruit in front of me.
I eyed the plate. “Not really.”
She laughed it off. “Don’t be ridiculous. Children your age are always hungry.”
It took a few minutes of urging, but I at last picked up a slice of orange and ate it. It seemed to satisfy her.
Grandma Lia patted my arm. “Tell me if you need anything in your stay here, Maria. I hope we have a great time together.”
I smiled, but didn’t say anything. She led me down a short hallway and showed me a small bedroom. It wasn’t like anything back home - Mom loved to stuff every corner with trinkets and antiques she’d found at random stores, painting the walls clashing colors and hanging so many paintings that you could barely see the floral wallpaper. Dad would always complain about how messy it was when he visited. This house was nothing like that.
“This will be your room,” Grandma Lia said, and turned on the lights to reveal a bed pushed to the wall, a painted desk, and a brown bookshelf. My suitcase had already been brought in, and lay next to the bed. There was a thin veil of dust on everything; I fought back the urge to cough.
“I’ll give you some time to get settled,” Grandma Lia said to me. She twisted the sleeves of her apron, and smiled. “Call me if you need anything.”
“Thank you for everything,” I said, as my mother had instructed me to.
“Anytime.” Her face softened and she hugged me. “I know your family’s going through a hard time, but I’m always here for you.”
I pulled out of the hug quickly and looked away. “I guess, uh, I’ll just get started unpacking, then.”
“Of course. I’ll be in the kitchen.” Grandma Lia took one more look around the room, readjusted her smile, and backed out of the hallway.
I watched her go, then shut the door. I didn’t unpack my suitcase; Mom’s call for me to come home would be coming any minute.
Three - Lucy
My mom’s call didn’t come.
In English class the following day, a blonde girl that I’d recognized from the day before introduced herself as Lucy. She had a very tight ponytail and whimsical glasses.
“I’m Maria.” I said when she asked.
Lucy smiled politely and opened her notebook. We’d been paired together for a project because she had an odd amount of friends. Lucy wasn’t very talkative, I was both relieved and disappointed to discover.
“You’re the new girl, right?” she asked after a few minutes.
“Where are you from?”
She pushed her glasses up her nose and inspected her worksheet. “Maria, was it?”
“Yeah,” I said.
Lucy smiled again, and we spent the rest of the period with minimal interaction.
Four - Saturday
The weekend came faster than I had imagined. The first few days were filled with new information and new surroundings, but once things settled down, the week flew by in monotony. I had been forced to unpack my suitcase the morning of the second day, when I realized I could not even brush my teeth without doing so. Life in Hearth was relatively the same each day: I woke up, went to school, sometimes spoke with Lucy, came home to do homework, ate dinner with Grandma Lia, and the whole cycle repeated. Saturday, at least, brought something new. Grandma Lia and I spent the morning together in the dining area of the kitchen, eating a lazy breakfast. Then, she pulled out a newspaper and I opened a book, and we both read to the sound of birds outside.
At around ten O’clock, the landline rang. I was shocked the battered thing worked, and jumped at the sound. Grandma Lia set down her paper with a sigh, and picked it up.
“Hello?” she said into the phone. There was a pause as someone else on the other side replied - it was too quiet for me to pick out the voice or the words of the speaker - and then Grandma Lia’s expression lit up.
“Maria!” she exclaimed, pushing the phone to me. “It’s your mother!”
I snapped to attention immediately, discarding my book onto the table. I took the phone and pressed it to my ear, watching Grandma Lia return to her paper out of the corner of my eye. “Mom?” I asked eagerly. “Is that you?”
“It’s me,” my mother’s familiar voice came, and I sagged in relief. Finally; a week in this town had been quite enough, I couldn’t wait to be home.
“Thank goodness,” I said. “When are you coming to bring me back?”
There was a pause, and each second made my smile fade a little more. I pressed the phone tighter to my ear. “Mom?” I asked hesitantly.
“Maria, what are you talking about?”
I frowned. “When are you coming over?”
She paused. “I think we have a misunderstanding here. I’m calling to check in on you, darling. You’re not coming home quite so soon.”
“You’re not bringing me back?” My grip tightened on the phone. “I don’t understand.”
“Maria, I sent you over so we could get back on our feet. That’s not happening in a week.”
I could imagine my mother standing miles and miles away on the other side of the country, in her blue work uniform with a weary sigh and fresh make-up that couldn’t hide the lines on her face or the shadows under her eyes. She was working so hard, and she was so stressed, I knew. I shouldn’t add to her burden. But shouldn’t I factor into this all somehow? “Mom, if we need money, you could always sell some of the antiques, or ask Dad or someone. I don’t see how keeping me here helps with anything!”
“Maria, I know you miss home, but I thought I had made it clear that this visit would be a little longer than a few days,” my mother said. “There’s really no reason for you to be upset. Grandma Lia is so kind and caring, and Hearth is a great school.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” I pointed out, feeling the confusion and annoyance tucked inside me swell by the second.
“I don’t understand why you’re upset, honey.” She sounded so calm and logical. “I’ll call you every Saturday.”
“Every Saturday?” I was practically shouting. “How many have you planned?”
She ignored me. “I think you just need to have a more open mind. I hope the next time you call, you’ll tell me about how you made use of this opportunity instead of whining about it.”
“I don’t want to have a more open mind. I want to go home.”
“Maria-” Mom started, then there was a shout and a clatter behind her. There were voices and rustling from the other end of the call, and then my mom was back in a few seconds. “Look, I’m busy right now. I’ll call you next time, alright?”
It was not alright, and I was about to tell her when she hung up. I glared at the phone as if the sudden silence was somehow its fault.
Five - Sinking
“Are you alright?” Grandma Lia asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Your face is very red.”
“Are you feeling hungry?” she peered at me.
“No.” I crossed my arms.
“Are you sure you’re alright?”
“Okay, then.” I didn’t reply.
“I’ll give you some time alone.” She picked up her paper and stood.
“Okay.” I said, but I wasn’t okay. I was a ship sinking into the waves, and seconds later, I would be swallowed by them. But I forced my lips together and I didn’t make a sound.
Six - Lucy II
“Maria, you there?” Lucy waved her hand in front of my face.
I blinked twice and looked at her. “Yeah.”
She frowned. “You’ve been staring at the same page for the past half hour, Maria. We’re supposed to finish this by the end of the period.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said, hurriedly flipping through the small printed article.
“Are you alright?” Lucy peered over at me.
I briefly scanned over the page I was on. “Of course.”
She leaned over and readjusted the printout in my hands. “You were holding it upside down,” Lucy said, pushing her glasses up her nose.
Seven - Before
On Wednesday, I fell into a sort of trance on the bus ride home. When I got off, I found myself in a thankfully familiar street half an hour’s walk from Grandma Lia’s house. It was a sunny day - blazing overhead sun that didn’t warm the autumn chill and crystal clear skies. The color was so bright that I was afraid if I stood too tall, I would be burned.
The walk was long and my mind wandered. If I closed my eyes to the sound of the birds, I could almost imagine that I was somewhere else. I stared up at the sky and blocked all the other scenery out, and so I was transported to the streets of LA, on this exact day - October 13th - two years past.
I was eleven years old then, and my mother had decided that we would explore - roam the streets aimlessly and shop in random stores we came upon. We’d already purchased a dusty bronze-colored clock from an antique store, and a bottle of lychee juice that I held in my hands. I laughed when the wind swept my hat off of my head, and my mom had to chase it down.
She was in a good mood; my father had left from a visit just two weeks before that day, and Mom was always more cheerful right after Dad left. He visited twice a year, and those were the times I usually avoided the house.
“You’re going to lose your hat,” my mom said, once she had finally captured the escapee and plopped it back onto my head.
“I won’t,” I said, sipping the lychee juice. It was slightly tangy, and left a sharp taste in my mouth that I didn’t like. “You’ll catch it for me.”
She laughed and shook her head. “I guess I will.”
We walked on, but the sound of birds and insects was soon disturbed by the sound of a ringing phone. Mom muttered something under her breath and dug a hand into her purse, signaling for me to wait.
“Carolina Garcia, who is this?” I heard her say.
I crouched down as my legs got tired waiting and watched Mom nod and frown. The call lasted a few minutes, and she pasted a smile back on her face as she shoved the phone back. We started walking again, but now my mother’s footsteps were quick and hurried.
“Who was that?” I asked.
She shook her head. “My boss - we need to head home now.”
I frowned. “But why? We never go out like this anymore.”
“I’m needed, honey. I don’t have much choice.” I had to start jogging to catch up with her longer strides.
“I think you should quit your cafe job, Mom,” I said. “They’re always making you work extra, and you’ve still got your two other jobs!”
She shook her head and sighed. “Maria, we need the cafe. Don’t you think we’re lucky to have such a nice house? It’s helping us keep that.”
“I still don’t get it,” I crossed my arms.
Mom pulled me along to match her pace. “You don’t need to. Just hurry.”
Eight - Lucy III
Lucy had her group of friends, like everyone else in the school except for me. She and her friends usually sat at the table nearest to the doors during lunch, but today, Lucy seemed to have gotten into an argument.
She was frowning at a tall girl who wore a pink sweatshirt. I watched their exchange from my seat - the tall girl said something, and Lucy’s frown deepened. This repeated until finally Lucy pressed her lips together and stomped away with her tray of food. I realized a little too late she was heading towards me.
“Hello Maria,” Lucy said tightly as she settled down in the seat across from me. “Mind if I sit here today?”
I looked between her, and her tall friend, who was watching the two of us.
“No problem,” I said slowly.
We managed to strike up an awkward conversation as we ate. The tall girl kept on turning around to look at me, and I felt like there was a spotlight on me when that happened. I tried to shrink into my seat, and listened to Lucy to try to distract myself. Not so invisible anymore, I thought.
Nine - Carolina
I knew my mother’s name, of course, but I don’t remember any time where I actually used the word. Eight letters long - it had been Grandma Lia herself who named her. Carolina. It felt strange to say it, like I wasn’t allowed to.
I woke from a nightmare of being swallowed by waves on Friday morning. A glimpse at the alarm clock told me it was still six o’clock, but I tossed and turned and couldn’t fall asleep. Thinking I’d get a glass of water, I headed towards the kitchen, but paused when I heard the sound of voices behind the closed doors. I recognized the voices - there were two. One belonged to Grandma Lia, the other, muffled slightly by the bad sound quality of the old landline, belonged to my mother.
“Carolina, you need to talk to Maria again,” Grandma Lia said. “It’s not right to just leave her here.”
I tried pressing my ear to the wood of the kitchen door, but I couldn’t make out my mother’s words.
“Yes, but that’s not enough,” Grandma Lia said. “I found a piece of paper she was using to tally the days here, for goodness’ sake.”
There was another pause, where Mom must have replied.
“I think this was a mistake, Carolina. You had good intentions trying to keep her out of it, but I’m not sure if it’s better for her here.”
A short silence followed, then Grandma Lia sighed. “Think it over, please. I don’t want to meddle, but I’m looking at a recipe for disaster here.”
I pressed my ear harder against the door, heart pounding so loud I missed part of the conversation. I leaned into the wood so far that it let out a loud creak. I drew back with a gasp. It felt too much like an omen, a sign reminding me I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to. Silently, I withdrew from the scene and returned to the bedroom, shut the door, and attempted to sleep.
Ten - Saturday
“Hello, Maria,” my mother said when I picked up the phone on Saturday.
“Hi Mom,” I said.
There was an air of discomfort that I felt acutely. We skirted around the topic of our last conversation, and I did not mention what I’d overheard.
“I hope you’re doing well,” Mom said. “How’s the food?”
“It’s good. How’s your job?”
“It’s good. Uh, Maria, look.” she paused uncomfortably. “I’ve re-thought my decision of sending you over, and I want to apologize. I realize what I did was a little extreme.”
“Oh,” I said.
“So yeah. I’m sorry about that. I really hope you’ll enjoy your time there in Hearth. It’s where I grew up, you know.”
I didn’t know. Mom had never really discussed her childhood. Somehow that made me angry, angry that she thought a single apology was enough for everything, angry that I had some sort of allotted time every Saturday. And maybe if I’d stated my case clearly that day and asked her again to bring me back she would’ve given out. But my irritation acted like a net around me, and it controlled my actions.
“That’s great,” I said. “But I’m a little busy right now. Do you mind if we talk next Saturday?” I made sure to keep my voice calm, but Mom caught on to the sarcasm.
“Maria,” she said. “There’s no need to be angry. I’m just trying-”
“I’m afraid I’m busy,” I said again, feeling a lump in my throat. “See you next week.” Before I could think it all over, I hung up and tried to ignore that odd feeling of guilt.
Eleven - The Passing of Time
Saturdays came and went, and now the calls never lasted for longer than ten minutes. I stayed in Hearth, started helping Grandma Lia with her groceries, and threw away my tally of the days. A month, two, passed.
I sat with Lucy everyday at lunch, and started calling that little all-but-forgotten town mine. It was another one of those forgettable days when I realized that this could go on forever. I could be here forever. Maybe I should’ve seen it from the start.
“Grandma Lia,” I said on one rainy morning. “What would happen if I stayed here for the rest of my life?”
I’d started asking her about these things when she had finally needled the questions out of me. I still wasn’t quite sure how she had managed to do it.
Grandma Lia considered this. “You would simply stay. Like I did.”
“But what would happen to me?”
She looked at me, like this was a strange question and I didn’t realize it. “Nothing.”
I opened my mouth, then closed it. I began to see what she said. It wasn’t actually that horrible here in Hearth, once I had let myself see the beauty of the place. I began to appreciate the quiet streets and clear sky, the calm afternoons and content school days. Would it really kill me if the rest of my life was like this?
I stood up and walked to the nearest window. From the living room, I could see the small lawn with its neat yellow flowers, the setting orange sun, and a few elderly couples walking outside. There was nothing wrong with this, I realized. I knew how things were, here. It was better than anything I’d ever had before.
I looked back at Grandma Lia, who smiled up at me. I had her, and a good friend at school and a good house with good food. “Thank you,” I said quietly.
Grandma Lia’s smile melted into something else. “You’re always welcome,” she said.
Twelve – Home
I woke to the sound of the doorbell. Groaning, I rolled over on my bed and glanced at the clock. Who could it possibly be at seven in the morning? And on a Saturday, at that?
“Get the door, Maria!” I heard Grandma Lia yell.
I buried my head under the covers, feigning sleep.
“Maria?” Grandma Lia called. “I know you’re awake.
Sighing, I stood up slowly. “It’s so early!”
She opened my bedroom door and appeared, wearing a long nightgown and her hair in a bun. “Come on, you old lady,” she laughed.
I groggily put on my slippers and stumbled out of the room. “Why can’t you just get it?”
She smiled suspiciously. “I think you want to see who it is.”
I frowned at her, but I unlocked the front door and twisted the fading knob. There was a woman who stood outside, in a coat that blocked the chilly morning air from entering the house. I almost didn’t recognize her at first. She was thinner, tired-looking, and her shoulders were slumped. But then I saw the hair, the eyes, and the face.
“Mom?” I asked, staring at her.
She smiled tiredly. “Hello, Maria.”
Grandma Lia beamed at me. She led my mother and I into the kitchen and served us tea. Both of them were smiling so brightly, and there was so much hugging and laughter I felt stunned by it all. It seemed that both of them wanted to talk, but their lips moved and moved yet nothing came out.
There was finally a moment of silence after the pleasantries where my mother asked me how I’d been.
I could only stare at her. She was a changed woman, so much thinner and more gray in her hair, but there was such an odd smile on her face I could never have imagined on her face four months ago.
“I’m doing great,” I said.
“That’s great,” she said. Then, as if it were a sort of secret, she whispered - “I’ve fixed everything, darling. We can head home this afternoon.”
“What?” She gave me the air of someone who had drank entirely too much coffee. Maybe it was too early in the morning, but this felt like a dream. It was everything I’d wanted, for Mom to turn up one day to rescue me from Hearth. But that had been before.
Mom beamed. “We’re going home. I think I’ve sorted out everything, saved up some money, and even cleaned out the house.”
“Mom, did you think to ask me before coming?”
“Why would I do that?” Her smile slipped a little. “Maria, don’t you want to go home?”
I looked around me. “Mom, but that’s not my home. I haven’t been there for months - it could just be another dot on the map now.”
It was her turn to stare. “What do you mean?”
“You couldn’t have expected me not to change, could you?” I suddenly needed something to focus my eyes on - I searched the room until it landed on Grandma Lia, who was twisting the side of her dress. “You flew over based on everything you knew before I came here.”
“Maria, are you feeling alright?” Mom looked so shocked that I felt bad. Maybe it wasn’t her fault she had assumed I’d always stay the same for her, always wanting the things she did.
“I’m perfectly fine. I’m just saying, I’m not going to go with you later. You shouldn’t have come.” I felt something in my eye, though there was no reason a tear should be there, so I left the room as quickly as I could.
Thirteen - the end
I could hear voices in the kitchen still. I didn’t like that I knew Mom and Grandma Lia were talking about me, but I just sat there on my bed. I managed to fall asleep after a while, and when I woke up it was time for lunch, which was odd for me. I never overslept.
I found Grandma Lia and Mom in the kitchen where I’d left them. We ate lunch together - though I guess it could also be counted as my breakfast. We ate in silence. I was the first to finish, and I made to return to my room, but Grandma Lia stopped me.
“I think you and your mom should talk,” she said quietly. “The flight is in a couple of hours.”
I crossed my arms and didn’t look at her. “Fine.”
My mom stayed silent for so long I glanced at her, just to make sure she was even still there. She played with the ends of her hair and sighed.
“It was divorce, Maria,” Carolina said. “I didn’t want you to see it.”
“Why would that happen?” I frowned.
“You know he’s always on his business trips, Maria.” She sounded tired.
“Yeah, but that didn’t change anything before.”
“He’s a drain on us. His business trips are doing horribly, but he still keeps at it. It became a parasite, so I had to do something!”
“I get that,” I said. “But why couldn’t you just tell me.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“You should’ve told me.” I found a shake in my own voice as well.
“I know, I should’ve,” she said. “It’s just so messy, and I couldn’t bear it myself - how could I make you watch it?”
“You could have asked me if I wanted to see it.”
“I should have. I should have listened to you, Maria.” She breathed out deeply - I heard it clearly. “I was so, so wrong. I just thought you wouldn’t mind - but when you said you couldn’t go with me - it was everything I worked for. And then you didn’t want it.”
“Take it easy on her,” Grandma Lia said softly, hugging me.
“I swear this is the last time I’m asking you,” Carolina said. “But please, Maria. I did so much wrong, but I just hope you’ll give me another chance. We could go back to LA and start over. I could bring you back if you can’t take it.”
Grandma Lia squeezed me tight. “You make the choice for yourself,” she said in my ear.
I hugged her back, and felt that lump in my throat. I felt like there were two different parts of me - the spiteful half who wanted to be angry and lash out at my mom, and the tired half who just wanted to go home, even if I didn’t know where that was.
“Alright,” I said, and I felt a tear in my eye. Then there were multiple, and Grandma Lia squeezed me tighter.
“You’ll go with me?” Carolina’s voice brightened.
I thought about Lucy, about this house, about Grandma Lia. I couldn’t give it all up. But I also couldn’t give up on my mother, my real home, everything else I had. “I will,” I said. “But I’m not just going to forget about Hearth.”
“Of course not,” Grandma Lia said, laughing. “I’ll call you every single day, Maria. You’re not going to be able to forget about anything, because I’ll remind you.”
She squeezed me again, so tightly I thought that I would explode.
Chloe is a student in middle school who loves to read, write, and build robots. She lives in New York and is going into 8th grade.