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Mixed Messages

Artwork by Isabelle Lu, staff artist

A notification dings in Dakota's pocket. She looks around carefully and glances at the text message. "I think I’m gonna take my lunch break now," Dakota says. Her coworkers, focused on making coffees and smiling at customers, don't respond. "I said I'm—Nevermind…"

"No worries. I heard you!" one of them—a boy her age with dirty blond hair dripping into hazel eyes—responds. Dakota doesn't remember his name, but she knows that he's just like all the other teenagers who work here—privileged, arrogant, boring, and probably a total jerk. "I'll let Sandra know,” he says.

"Thanks," Dakota says. Sandra is the manager of the small café Dakota's employed at. Suffice to say, nobody particularly enjoys confronting or talking with her at all, for that matter.

Dakota scurries into the break room at the left side of the building. She closes the door and leans against it, sighing. Finally, she thinks, 15 minutes of peace. Dakota looks into the crooked mirror on the hospital-white wall. Her pixie cut curls around her head in whorls of chestnut brown.

Despite the dress code recommendations, her makeup is striking—intense black winged eyeliner, long eyelashes, red shadow around her baby blues, pink blush, and deep brown lipstick painting her lips. She winks at herself, regaining some composure and confidence.

Dakota opens her locker, gets out her lunch, and sits down at the small, shaky table. Light from the window above spills over her head. She rips out the radio cord from her ear and throws the device aside. She opens her phone to the text message again, frowning into her PB & J. It's from her dad. How's your second week of work treating you? it reads.

Her heart plunges into her stomach. Just as she goes for another bite, Sandra, tall and imposing, comes rushing in, stomping her wedges and tossing her ponytail. She snatches a tissue to her side and dramatically blows her nose into it.

"You know, it is such a busy day out there. You need to go back out soon," she says.

"I still have," Dakota says, glancing at the clock, "thirteen minutes left. Am I—"

"Ugh. Just hurry up. And wipe that makeup off, would you? Customers don't want to see that," she responds. Sandra matter-of-factly throws her tissue into the trash and rubs her hands down with hand sanitizer. Without another word, she leaves and just about slams the door behind her.

Dakota rolls her eyes. A pad of sticky notes and a pen lay on the table beside a wilting houseplant. She moves them closer. With one hand, she feeds herself the sandwich, and with the other, she scribbles the words "I QUIT" onto a yellow note. She grins deviously as she wolfs down the rest of her lunch.

Dakota doesn't even bother to throw her trash away as she stands up on the table, throws her apron to the floor, and unlatches the window. As she hops out onto the grass, the door creaks open again. Oh, crap. Sandra's back, she thinks. She breaks into a run into the early afternoon streets of the tiny Texan town, disregarding the town folks' curious stares.

When Dakota reaches the train tracks adjacent to the town, she comes to a halt, stooping forward and breathing heavily. She's alone again. She fishes her phone from her back pocket, and it vibrates in her hand. Another text from Dad. Dakota? You okay? it reads. She types out her response: Yeah! Everything's going well! Work is great!! Just a little busy is all!!! She hits send on the message, accompanied by a string of smiling yellow emojis. She lies down beside the train tracks, taking a deep breath and soaking in the soft, warm sun.

Dakota hates lying to her dad. Especially after her parents’ divorce a year ago, he’s given up so much for her—his money, his time, his energy. Everything. Even with these texts, he’s using up their data plan just so he can check up on her and make sure she’s okay and safe. With all that he does, he has her in mind. She’s since felt the need to repay him somehow, show him that she can do her part too. Her minimum wage pay and 30% employee discount off coffees and donuts wasn’t much, but now it was nothing at all.

Dakota once thought that divorce is cowardly, that you can’t just throw something away so quickly like that. She thinks she understands it now. Along every journey, you eventually need a new direction, a drastic change, a better reason to get out of bed to just live and breathe. She holds close to the hope that her dad will be understanding, that he’ll know that quitting is never just a spontaneous, reckless thing. She rubs her temples with her fingertips, her hand becoming a webbed shield against the daylight.

"Hey," a familiar voice says from a few yards away. "You forgot these."

Dakota immediately springs up, stumbling to her feet and patting her clothes down. She looks to her right, then her left, then straight ahead, and there he is once more—her coworker, the boy who heard her speak today, the boy who is likely the same as the rest of them, but nonetheless the boy who actually responded to her. She figured she would do the same for him.

"Sorry, what did I forget?" Dakota laughs nervously at the boy with his hands behind his back. He still has his apron on. She squints at the name tag. Jackson, it reads.

"Oh, right. You forgot your, uh, rad shoes," he says, holding out her pair of holographic platform Doc Martens. A wave of realization washes over her. The boots in question are the ones she had to forgo for her shift as they were considered to be "too much," similar to the makeup. She takes them from him, chucks off her plain work sneakers, and tugs on the new shoes.

"Wait—Did you really just call them rad?" she asks, kneeling down to lace and tie them in haste.

"I have a pair in black," Jackson says, shrugging his shoulders. "Never wore them to work, though. I learned my lesson after trying to wear eyeliner one day. She completely freaked out on me." He scoffs. "Good thing we don't have to worry about that anymore, right?"

Dakota takes a moment to digest what she just learned about Jackson. He wears eyeliner. He wears Docs. He's actually kind of chill and friendly and cool. How weird. "What do you mean? Did you…"

"Yeah, I quit too after I walked into the break room to witness your grand escape, so I must thank you for the motivation." He takes off his apron and holds it out as a bundled ball in his hand. "I just kept this so I could burn it later, you feel?" He smiles sheepishly.

"Good idea," Dakota says. She holds her right upper arm with her left hand. "So, uh, Jackson, what are you planning on doing now that you're finally free?"

"First of all, Dakota, you can call me Jack. And, yeah, well, I've actually been wanting to quit for a while now." He steps closer to Dakota and plops to the ground beside her. She joins him, criss-cross applesauce with her head resting on her hand in curiosity. "I'm thinking about taking up music again. Maybe even start a band, but I don't know. I don't—"

"Wait, really? Me too. What do you play?"

"Guitar, and sometimes I sing. You?"

"I'm drums all the way."

From that point on, all they seem to do is talk, laugh, and take turns playing each other’s playlists by the train tracks. Between their steady beats of back-and-forth, they exchange numbers and learn about one another’s stories, gripped by the excitement of discovery.

She imagines what it would be like to start a band with him and maybe a couple friends in a garage, like something out of a movie. A world without Sandra’s big fat head poking into every room she walks into. A world where she can profit off of something she loves to do with someone she loves to be around, someone who makes her cheeks hurt from smiling and her eyes wide enough to forget how little she slept last night, someone named Jack, short for Jackson.

Dakota doesn't realize how much time has passed until the sun starts to set through the trees in the distance. Her phone dings again.

"Sorry, sorry," she says to Jack, who runs his hand through his hair, blushes, and mumbles in response. Dakota unlocks her phone and checks the message. From Dad. Your boss called me and told me you quit.

Her heart skips a beat. She takes a deep breath as Jack scrolls through his phone for a new track. She sees the three dots appear on the screen. He's typing.

You were right. That woman is a TOTAL maniac. I'm proud of you, Dakota.

Relief colored with hope flows into her heart as punk music flows into her ears, pulling the corners of her lips into an endless smile.


Molly A. Green is a sophomore at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland, Pennsylvania. She is a lover of words, metaphors, and small details. Her work has been recognized by the Lake Effect National High School Poetry Competition. She has been published in the literary magazines The Raven Review, The WEIGHT Journal, and Crêpe and Penn. Her interests include yoga, running, scrapbooking, portrait drawing, piano, crystal collecting, and all things magical.

Isabelle Lu is a 16-year-old creative from Long Island, New York. She is a winner of the New York Times Student Editorial Contest and the Scribe Writing Contest in poetry. She likes collecting strange earrings, which when worn may hinder activities like playing the cello and putting on sweaters. In her daily life, she can be found doodling and enthusing about books to unsuspecting innocents. Her art career began with magical girls.

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