Relief washes over you as you turn the key in the lock, finally standing in front of a door that you’re actually eager to walk through after the day you’ve had.

A hyper, endearingly-obnoxious cat greets you as soon as you push it open, purring at your feet.

“Hey, sweetheart,” you murmur, stroking his shiny, pitch-black coat when he paws at your leg repeatedly.

You step inside your apartment, closing the door behind you. The lights are on. Michaela, your roommate, cousin, and mother of the feline adamantly demanding your attention must have forgotten to switch them off before she left for work. She’ll probably be out all night, as usual.

You shuffle ahead, spent, but with far too much still on your mind. For the millionth time, you ponder what you’re going to do after graduation, and you both hate and can’t believe that you still don’t know when it’s only a few months away.

Your parents want you to go back to Kansas but, as far as you’re concerned, hell will freeze over first.

At the same time, you’re not a hundred percent sure you can see yourself building a life in California.

You don’t know.

Being here has been a conflicting experience, to say the least.

At first, you were absolutely elated with everything Oakland had to offer, including the generally progressive mindset of the West coast compared to the Midwest. But, more than anything, you were just happy to be away from your parents and finally enjoy the freedom that came with that. You might have been just as excited to relocate to Alaska if it meant not being subjected to their “protection” anymore.

But, like anything else, the novelty of new beginnings in a new environment started to wear off. Eventually, you began to see that the city—much like most of The Golden State—isn’t all glitter and gold. Matter of fact, it can be a pretty shit place for a lot of people. Michaela would know.

Your fathers share not only biology, but fundamental, core mindsets; born and bred in the same small, closed-off, narrow-minded slice of Kansas. They’re practically the same person.

Michaela and you, however, couldn’t be more different.

She had far less tolerance for your family dynamic, upbringing, and way of life in Salina than you did. So much so that, at the burgeoning age of fifteen, she ran away from home. You have no idea where she got the money or how she was able to leave Kansas and be on her own as a minor, but she did. You envy her courage to this day, knowing that you could never have done what she managed to, even though you hated your life in Salina every bit as much as she did hers. Probably more.

She’s only a year older than you but a world away in maturity, street smarts, and life experience despite what others say about her.

She’s definitely one of the most misunderstood people you know. She’s also one of the most resilient.

She moved up here soon after she left home and never looked back, doing whatever she felt she had to to survive. Including taking her clothes off in front of strangers.

It’s easy for a lot of folks—including your parents…no, especially your parents—who don’t really know Michaela or what she’s been through to judge. To haughtily point their fingers and throw insults.

And being one of the top dancers at the most popular strip club in the city doesn’t help.

Unfortunately, stuff like that always comes with a stigma, even with non-religious types.

You’re not sure exactly when or how he found out, but her father promptly disowned her without so much as a second thought the moment he did. They’ve been totally estranged ever since, not having seen or even spoken with each other in almost a decade.

“The life of a stripper,” she loves to joke.

For most of yours, your dad claimed she was a bad influence, utterly lost and in need of saving. He has absolutely no idea you’re in touch, let alone living together. Sure, Michaela hasn’t always made the best decisions, even by her own admission. And, yes, she does have a habit of partying excessively by pretty much anyone’s standards and seems to be with a different man each week.

         

But he’s dead wrong about the type of person she is. If there’s one word to ultimately describe Michaela, it’s honest. Doesn’t get more Christian than that, if you ask you.

Sure, she dances naked for a living, but she doesn’t make any excuses for her lifestyle, circumstance or choices. Never once has. She doesn’t get uncomfortable or embarrassed at being called a ‘stripper’ like a lot of girls in her position are. She doesn’t play around with semantics, mince her words or offer vague answers whenever people ask about her profession. The girl is simply unapologetic for who she is; the one quality you truly, wholeheartedly love about her and wish you had.

Plus, hell, you certainly can’t complain. Her job is the only reason you can even afford to stay in a comfortable two-bedroom apartment in the heart of the city. There’s no way you could pay for it with the pittance you make as a part-time waitress.

So, in spite of your parents’ self-righteous damnations, you know just how lucky you are to have her.

You snail your way into your bedroom, shrugging off your blazer and dress pants in exchange for Adventure Time pajamas. Gathering your hair into a messy bun, you realize you still haven’t talked about your living situation after you graduate. You have nothing but your own uncertainty and indecisiveness to thank for that.

You sigh, truly tired of thinking about the future for one day. All you want to do now is drink something comforting and read a book. So, you do.

You prepare a mug of piping hot, ginger-lime tea—and a

bowl of milk for Nyxon, your “presidential-residential” black cat—before grabbing your e-reader; one of the few things you splurged on as soon as you were able to save up. You grew up reading physical books—mainly the Bible and other Christian literature that got your parents’ rare and limited seal of approval—but you don’t own a single one any more…well, save for the dictionary you plan on recycling soon. You’ve organized and participated in enough anti-deforestation rallies to know cutting down trees for paper isn’t sustainable or smart. It’s certainly not necessary. Electronics definitely have their own problems with radiation and battery waste, but, for now, it’s the lesser of the two evils. At least, for an insatiable reading habit. Like yours.

You snuggle under your covers and swipe at the screen, happily escaping into another reality so that you no longer have to think about yours.

***

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