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The Clock's Countdown

Madison shares her daily life in three stages: as a teenager, a young adult, and a mother

Part One

A red strip of sunlight snuck in through the window pane and splashed against the mirror I faced. Cringing away from light, I continued getting ready for school. I spent what I considered to be too much time with my makeup: covering up blemishes whose red marks still showed through the powder, picking black chunks of mascara off of my eyelashes, and giving up on the unevenness of my eyeliner with a frustrated sigh. After one last look in the mirror, I rubbed off some of that new bright red lipstick that I loved but would never have the confidence to wear.

I may not be good with a brush, but at least I was good with timing. My grumbling ignition turned off in the student parking lot precisely ten minutes before the bell for homeroom rang. This gave me time to prepare for the day: precisely enough to make me want it to be over as soon as possible. The morning was the worst. My early grogginess could not handle the rednecks’ ostentatious trucks or the morning people’s over-enthusiastic greetings.

I slid into my assigned seat in homeroom with a few minutes to spare before Mr. Carson took attendance. My faltering eyelids snapped open to catch my name coming up in roll call: “Hayley Mathews, Jacob Moyer, Maddie Norman.”

“Madison.” I corrected him irritably, but he must not have heard as he continued down the list without a glance in my direction. Sadly, the nickname I had chosen for myself at the age of six years old had stuck, despite my effort to reform it back to plain old “Madison”.

The classroom’s TV screen crackled to life to display the blurred faces of the peppiest seniors who constantly scrambled over each other to read the next announcement in a more artificial tone. I choked back a groan at their “Sunny Monday!” weather report and buried my head into my assignment book as a refuge from the series of updates on all the trifling activities our great educational institutional had to offer. I flipped through the curling, leather bound pages for the thousandth time until I found today’s temporarily empty page. Last night’s work was already crossed off with a thin ink line.

The bell signaled a mass exodus of cattle who roamed the halls to their first period classes. I mean students, but they may as well have been cattle. Some of them just looked so dead eyed, like they were not capable of the simplest human thought. But the ones who I knew were more than capable were just as bad. Maybe even worse. I thought that you could escape the stupidity by enrolling in Honors classes.

For once, I’ll admit. I was wrong.

I walked into my AP English class to witness the same dead eyed stupidity, only it was covered with flowery language and a professional attitude. Seriously, none of the work was theirs, and if it was, it sounded like some ancient dinosaur named the thesaurus-rex attacked it. AP should have stood for Advanced Plagiarism.

I barely made it to my seat before my friend, Catherine, pounced to inform me all about how the rain had ruined her plans from the night before. I actually found the rain to be soothing as I fell asleep, but pretended to sympathize with how dreary the weather had been lately. The awful thing about Catherine was that she could go on and on about the same topic unless you stopped her.

“So, what do you think about having a get together this weekend before finals? Because let’s face it, I probably won’t live through them.” I interjected before the next wave of complaints hit me.

“You’ll do fine, Maddie!” Catherine rolled her eyes and continued before I could correct her about my name, “But yeah, that sounds like a great idea. We could totally do something at my house.”

I nodded in appreciation and turned my attention to the front of the classroom just in time for the first presentation on Hamlet to begin, not that anyone cared if Hamlet was mad or not. Most of the students just spoke an online critic’s position in a voice that made it sound like they did. It was so infuriatingly obvious that the work was not their own. But the teacher didn’t care about authenticity. She liked hearing just the right words. Everyone likes hearing just the right words.

I couldn’t wait until next year when their professors in college would be able to see through their fake intelligence. They could not possibly succeed then.



Later that week, I was greeted with flashing smiles and half-assed hugs from a select group of my closest friends who eventually all settled down into a circle around the table of food in Catherine’s basement. As everyone talked about what was happening in their lives, I realized that we weren’t close at all. I didn’t know what was happening in their lives, and I didn’t particularly care while we were supposed to be at a party. Although this get-together could hardly be called a party considering it only consisted of the same people I saw at school just without the stifling academic setting and with a whole lot more food than our “nutritional” cafeteria had.

Yet school was still mainly what everyone talked about: the classes that everyone learned nothing in for a whole semester because we had to memorize everything the night before the tests, the SAT scores we received despite the probability that no one was honest about them, and the colleges that we considered attending despite the low chance of our admittance and high chance of being indebted for the next 15 years of our lives. But somehow this whole large and scary process as a high school senior who was moving on was still exhilarating to me because at least it was some sort of change. Before the biggest change in the past four years of my life was cutting off all 12 inches of my hair and dying it a dark auburn because that brilliant red that I really wanted was just too out there.

Soon I headed home and got stopped at the most unnecessary long stoplight where I was forced to watch no one drive by as my foot itched towards the gas pedal. The red stoplight captured my gaze by standing out from the bleak dark sky ahead of me. The blinking red clock on my dashboard told me that I probably should have been home about 20 minutes ago. And as soon as the light turned green, I had to wait for a man to dash across the crosswalk before I finally crossed through the intersection towards the vivid moon.

Part Two

Five Years Later

My alarm perched precariously close to the end of my nightstand and waited to fill my tiny apartment with a shrill wake up call. Before it rattled its way onto the floor, my arm instinctually threw itself out of the bed sheets to silence it. The world was still dark, but I could tell that the morning was in its last few minutes of peaceful silence before the rest of humanity awoke. Temporarily, I rejoiced in the fact that the birds lightly chirping outside my apartment building were my only company.

With a hefty sigh, I wrestled with my sheets until they were ruffled lumps at the end of my bed, which was much too large for one lonely person. Per usual, the shower pelted the feeling of grogginess away with warm sprinkles. My grumpy mood, however, would take until 11:00 to wear away. After struggling with the stubborn closet doors, I searched for a white button down shirt that wasn’t wrinkled beyond repair. I managed to match it with black pants and scuffed shoes all while watching the clock with extreme awareness.

Then I was out the door, but not before having to open it back up again since I almost forgot to lock up my apartment. Instead of waiting for the crummy elevator to stop at every goddamn floor in the building, I decided to jog down a few flights of steep stairs. This routine sadly planted a seed of reminder that I should actually go to the gym for once even though I broke that New Year’s Resolution long ago.

Once outside, the sky was losing its pink tinge, and I raced across the street to meet the bus that just arrived at its stop, not hesitating to climb aboard and sit in the nearest open seat to the driver. Having nothing else to do for the couple minute trip downtown, I got the blasted “Wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round” song stuck in my head for some unforsaken reason considering I was probably seven the last time I heard it. Once the bus halted, I jumped out of my seat and flicked a nice tip at the driver who simply nodded his head in appreciation. I swung my briefcase as I crossed the street to my white collared graduate job in the painfully plain office building.

Arriving in my seat two minutes early, I sighed at the white stacks of busy work in front of me. At least they offered some contrast to the varying shades of grey walls, desks, and carpet. Since the work of entering numbers into my high-end company’s database was not exactly intellectually stimulating, my mind drifted as it does most days to wondering why my bachelor’s degree led to this. In no more than five minutes, I decided that I was going to quit because I was overqualified and deserved to live. But then it took me another ten minutes to convince myself that being unemployed would be worse, and that I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for the business major.

The morning drudged on as always with a few bored greetings from not-so-close coworkers and interruptions from annoyed customers on the phone whose problems were passed down to me because God knows no one else wanted to deal with them. And after asking my boss one too many questions, my stomach finally chimed in with the series of complaints to demand my lunch break. What a relief.

I got on the bus again, jealous of all my coworkers’ shiny cars, and rode a few miles downtown to a coffee shop where I was forced to wait in the longest line just for a cup of overpriced caffeine and a bagel without enough cream cheese spread. After a bit of internal contemplation, I decided that there was not enough time to sit down and eat, so I walked back outside. Of course, this could not be done without swinging the wide glass door open and almost smacking into a woman with her children and spilling some scolding hot black coffee down my hand. I scowled as they scuttled away without a word of apology.

For the rest of the afternoon, I waited for the artificial energy to make my day feel productive and worthwhile. But I had the feeling that such a day would not come for quite a few more years after I spent my time in limbo struggling with the “real world”, which I learned was only comprised of overqualified intellectuals like myself whose ambitions were floating too far away to see anymore through all the fog of day to day living.

At the end of the day, I scratched out the date on the calendar hanging above my desk with a thick red sharpie. One day down. Problem was, I didn’t know what I was counting down to.

Part Three

Eleven Years Later

A pang of fear tore through my chest as fast as the speeding red SUV on the main road where my children were much too close to the edge. I tugged on my young son’s hand to steer him away from the traffic as my three children and I made our way down the uprooted sidewalk, dodging other pedestrians left and right. James was constantly pulling away to point “Look, Momma!” and “I want this!” I kept pulling him back with a grumble about how we all want things we cannot have as I secretly wished for a futuristic time when he would be sad about leaving my side. Meanwhile I almost tripped on my younger daughter who insisted that she must attach herself to my leg as if I would magically disappear otherwise. So I also wished for a time when she will be independent enough to let go of me.

I made my way through my mental to do list: the bank to the dry cleaners to the grocery store. By the time I was in the last dairy isle my head was spinning and irritated by all the other customers, who needed to learn how to steer their damn carts; and by my children, who were constantly pulling on my shirt hem. I hurriedly left before I made a scene in the middle of the store. By the time I reached home, I realized that I forgot crackers and cheese, but at that point I could not care less. The clock that read 6:00 glared at me from above the doorway to inform me that I was late and that, of course, there was no time to relax.

As a single parent of several years, I had mastered the trade of cooking dinner while keeping another eye on the kids. The water began boiling as Rachel dribbled her soccer ball around the chairs in the dining room. Knots of concentration grew across her face, but they were lit up by a passionate intensity in her eyes. When she realized I watched her from over my shoulder, she smiled proudly. Meanwhile, my older son Michael was teaching James something that he learned in science class. I couldn’t see him from the other room, but I heard his voice as it grew with a crescendo whenever he got really excited. I almost let out a giggle at the sight of my little man in a suit and tie teaching in front of a classroom. However, only his age made this scene seem unrealistic. Michael the professor and Rachel the pro-soccer star.

Serving dinner was when it hit me. The next day, my kids would learn and teach and improve on their soccer skills. And I would go to work in the same building that miraculously became plainer since I began working there years ago. The white paycheck that I received would reflect the emptiness that I felt. As I chewed my food, I wondered where this feeling was derived. I had three beautiful children and was making just enough to support them without my intolerable slob of an ex-husband. My children should have been enough to make me happy. Every mother’s wish was to have successful children, right? I just had to be noble and sacrifice my paychecks to their wellbeing. But why did nobility mean emptiness?

I scrubbed the dirty plates clean and chewed on my bottom lip until it was as raw as the glistening dishes. Watching my kids now tossed me to the edge of waterworks. Every time Rachel determinedly kicked that ball and whenever James shouted “Oh!” in understanding at Michael’s explanation, I rolled further down the side of an emotional cliff. Each spike took its turn to plunge through me, so by the time I hit the water, the wild waves of salty tears felt like heaven as they crashed down my cheeks.



The next morning I was in a rush to drive the kids to school. This was mostly because I had to battle them to get out of their pajamas, even though I had to battle them to get into their pajamas the night before. As I drove through the early morning traffic to the school, I couldn’t help but wish for the blissful time in the morning before everyone woke up like when the sky was fluctuating between shades of pink and purple and when the streets weren’t full of aggressive and rushing drivers. God, they were loud, but they were all so small.

Thankfully I soon arrived back in my cluttered home. Before I had to leave for work, I rejoiced knowing that I had this time to myself. That was all I needed: some time to myself.

I cleaned. The kids’ toys were placed neatly into their toy box. The rugged carpet was vacuumed. Family photos hanging on the walls were wiped down. Bookshelves were dusted. The overflowing sink was emptied. The house felt empty with its neutral colored walls and clear halls. But this emptiness was not startling; it was refreshing.

After appreciating my work, I stole a glance at the clock. I would be a bit late to work. But for once, it did not really bother me.

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