Rita tapped the camera's button. The screen on the back documented her two oldest daughters dressed up for the first day of the new school year. Lori was smiling with the fancy new blue dress her mom had bought her just last week; she looked forward to wearing the best clothes in her first grade class photo. Standing to her left was Leni, one of her four little sisters. Unlike Lori, she was wearing a turquoise hand-me-down dress. Although it had been cleaned and pressed, Lori was still disgusted by how gross that thing looked on herself, preferring to passed it on her little sister. But their differences didn't stop at clothing. Leni was looking away from the camera, her eyes wandered aimlessly, and her mouth lacked any form of tangible expression.
"No! No! No!" Lori exclaimed, grabbing Leni's head and jerking it towards the lens, "Leni! How many times do I have to tell you that you have to look into the c-can-camera! You make me look bad! You ruin the whole picture!"
"Lori, that's not nice!" Rita said, frowning at her oldest child, "Now tell Leni you're sorry."
"But she always does this!" Lori said, pointing to her sister "Every time we take-"
Realizing it was a losing battle, Lori sighed.
"I'm sorry," she stated, clearly annoyed. Leni darted her eyes before resting on her big sister; her mouth hung slightly open. She raised her fingers to her chin and hunched herself forward, but nothing came out.
"Leni," Rita said gently, "what do you say?"
The younger sister stood there for a moment, her mouth frozen in place. Lori was tensing up with every second that the silence went on.
"It...I-it's okay Lori," she eventually said. She then awkwardly raised her arms and walked towards her big sister. Lori played along and hugged her sister, smiling in the process.
O"Smile," Rita said, raising the camera and snapping it, capturing the pleasant moment. Even Leni, enjoying the warmth of Lori's hug, found her lips slipping into a cheery grin. Rita loved it when that happened.
"Alright," Rita said, putting the camera away, "Now, let's get you two to school."
She went into the kitchen and gave each of them a lunch bag, which seemed more like a miniature backpack than those old-fashioned metal boxes. She then handed the girls their backpacks. Lori, who had a year of experience with the object, slipped on the pack with ease. She then turned to see Leni, who had been staring intently at her.
"If only you did that a minute ago."
Leni got the pack on fairly easily despite a little struggle at the start. The three then said goodbye to Daddy, who was tending to the three youngest girls. They then headed into Vanzilla and drove off.
Lori twiddled her thumbs, excited to impress her classmates. But in the corner of her eye, she saw Leni fixated on her. She hoped her little would stop, but those eyes never broke their gaze.
"Mom! Leni's staring at me!" Lori whined.
Rita looked into the central mirror and saw the familiar scene playing out.
"Lori," she said as she reached a red light, "why don't you tell Leni what kindergarten is gonna be like? I'm sure Leni would really like that."
Lori turned to her sister, brows furrowed. Leni wasn't smiling or copying her expression; she was just sitting there, looking right through her. Lori breathed in and opened her mouth.
"There will be a lot of new kids and games and stuff," she said, her voice gradually getting lighter and less rigid, "you will like it. You will get to talk more and play more. And you will be less weird."
She sighed, "You will make more friends. Other than me."
Rather than easing off, Leni continued to stare at Lori. The latter wasn't sure if the former was even paying attention to what she was saying. Whenever that happened, it creeped Lori out.
"Doesn't that sound fun, Leni?" Rita asked, noticing the elementary school inching closer. For a moment, the only sound she could hear was the car's tires pressing themselves against the road.
"Yes..." Leni said, breaking away from Lori to look out the window on the other side of the car, "...fun..."
The car then turned into the parking lot. Rita found a nice empty spot pretty close to the main entrance of Royal Woods Elementary.
"Okie dokie," Rita said, turning off the car and getting out, "Let's head on in."
Lori started walking towards the school, holding Leni's hand. Meanwhile, Rita was walking alongside them.
"Mom!" Lori said, stopping. Leni clumsily halted her own feet, coming just short of bumping into her sister, "I can walk in all by myself! Why are you walking with me?"
"It's Leni's first day, honey," Rita said,smiling and placing a hand on Lori's shoulder, "I have to talk to Mrs. Egan. Don't you remember your first day of kindergarten when I talked to her?"
It was blurry. Lori fished around, hoping to find that memory lingering around. But she recalled no such happening. She had thought she had just gone in on the first day, only to have the wonderful games and new friends outshine any of the more trivial facts.
"If Mom said she did, I guess she did."
"Okay," Lori said. She then marched on, pulling Leni's arm, "Let's go in!"
Rita followed behind as they entered the school. The lobby was decorated with banners, crayon drawings, and construction paper stars decorating the walls. Lori smiled upon seeing how lively and clean the space was on that day.
Rita escorted both of them to Mrs. Turner's room, which was a considerable walk away from the kindergarten wing. The three of them entered the room, where some of Lori's classmates were already seated.
"Bye Mom!" Lori said, hugging her.
"Bye honey," Rita replied, hugging her back, "And what do you say to Leni?"
Lori broke from her Mom and turned to her sister.
"Goodbye Leni," she said, wrapping her arms around her sister. Leni's eyes shot open, astonished at the sudden gesture. But then, she smiled and hugged Lori intensely. With every second of squeezing, Leni's smile grew.
"Too...tight..." Lori said, fighting for air, "...Leni...stop"
Leni jerked her arms away, allowing Lori to cringe forward. Lori gasped, trying to regain her composure.
"I'm sorry," Leni said, offering to hug again.
"N-No don't," she said, puffing. By then, Lori had her breath again. She stood straight up, embarrassed at what she just said, "I-it's okay. Just don't hug so tight. Okay?"
Leni stood there, stone-faced. The coarsing rapids of joy that fueled her hug were completely dried out, leaving no traces behind.
With that, Lori walked into the door. Leni stared into the room, watching the older kids playing and talking.
"That's where Lori will be this year," Rita said, kneeling down to Leni's level, "Next year, that's where you will be."
She then stood up and grabbed Leni's hand.
"Now let's go see Mrs. Egan."
The two of them started walking. Leni turned her head back, keeping her eyes on the door to Mrs. Turner's room.
"Okay," Leni said. She gave one last look at the receding door and then turned back to the direction she and Rita were headed.
The walls of the kindergarten wing were lined with even more decorations than the lobby. Streamers, posters, drawings, paintings, and other spectacles that were meant to excite its students. But Leni's blank face never was unaffected. Rita kept looking back at her second daughter, noticing that her eyes were fixated in one direction.
Eventually they reached Mrs. Egan's door at the end of the hall. Behind that door was everything that could have been expected from a kindergarten classroom: a cubby board for backpacks and lunch bags, circular tables, toys, books, sleeping mats, and a decent amount of open space.
"Good morning," a woman said cheerfully as the two entered. Her smile was white and glowing. Her short brown hair had narrow bangs on the end that gently touched the collar of her white sweater.
"It's a pleasure to see you again Mrs. Loud." She then kneeled down to the little girl's level.
"Hi," she said with an even bigger smile, "You must be Leni. My name is Mrs. Egan and I am going to be your teacher and friend."
Leni stood still, if awkwardly. Her head was up, but her eyes were not focused on the new face.
"Not much of a talker, huh?" Mrs. Egan said, chuckling a little, "Well there's a lot of kids in here that want to be your friend. This year will be a lot of fun!"
Rita smiled at the interaction.
"Mrs. Egan," the mother said, "Can I talk to you for a few minutes about Leni?"
"Yes," Mrs. Egan said. She then looked down, "Leni, why don't you go meet some of the other kids?" She said, turning to them; they were mostly on the ground playing with toys.
At first, Leni was frozen. She was nervous and she tugged at her Mom's leg.
"It's okay Leni. Go play," Rita said, giving her daughter a reassuring smile.
With that little push, Leni slowly walked over to the others; her arms and hands are bent inward to her chest. The first one she wandered to was a girl with auburn hair in a ponytail. She had a Barbie doll, brushing it's lush blonde hair. Noticing Leni approaching caused her to look up.
"Hi!" she said, "my name is Liliana. What's your name?"
The two stared at each other. The silence was suffocating.
"...Uh...Leni," she finally said, "Leni...Loud."
"Well..." Liliana said, "do you wanna play with me?"
Leni turned to the toy shelves and saw the different things that could be used. Without warning, she stumbled her way over to the shelf and pulled out a white plush dog. Hugging the dog, she made her way back to Liliana.
Liliana continued to brush the doll's hair, occasionally looking back up at her new acquaintance. Leni's eyes were closed, she was smiling, and her entire focus was on embracing the stuffed animal.
"So, do you have any Barbie dolls?" Liliana asked, grinning.
Nothing. Leni seemed to be in a bubble.
"Um...Leni?" she said patiently. But it was like talking to the open air, "Well I have eight of them in my room. But this isn't one of them," she said, pointing to the doll she was currently using, "this one I got from the s-shelf."
Leni started rocking the plush dog, as if it were a newborn. Seeing this, Liliana changed course.
"You like stuffed animals," Liliana said, "I do too. In my room I have all k-kinds of them," she then took out her clenched palm and flipped her fingers, "I have a pony, a cat, a monkey, a bunny, and I have a dog. It looks like the one you have, but it's black."
Liliana smiled, hoping to gain Leni's attention, but the two were worlds away at this point.
As if by magic, Leni's eyes snapped open and she stood up, continuing to hug the dog. Rita walked over to the two girls.
"And who is this?" she asked, looking down at Liliana. The two then exchanged their introductions, "Look at that, Leni. You already have a new friend."
Leni stood there for a moment, staring at the dog.
"Yes..." she said softly, never letting her gaze break from the animal.
"That's good," Rita said, kneeling down to Leni, "Now listen, I have to go now. I want you to be a big girl and do what Mrs. Egan tells you. Okay?"
Leni started petting the dog, stroking its yarn fur.
"Leni, did you hear what I said?"
"Yeah," she replied, not looking up.
"At the end of the day, I will come back to take you and Lori home," Rita said. She then placed a hand on Leni's shoulder, prompting the girl to look up.
"Today is a special day, Leni," she said, "you will have a lot of new things to do and kids to talk to. I want you to have a good time," her eyes brightened as pride flushed across the mother's face, "I love you so much."
Rita then tucked Leni into a deep hug, one much more overwhelming than she imagined. For the first time in a while, Leni chuckled as an empowering wave of happiness overtook her. The embrace lasted almost a minute.
When they finally separated, both of them were smiling.
"I will be here to pick you two up at 2 o'clock," Rita said, giving Leni a kiss on the cheek, "Have a wonderful day, sweetie! I love you so much."
She then turned to Liliana.
"It was really nice meeting you, Liliana," she said to the little girl, who smiled back at her.
And with that, Rita left, leaving the two girls to themselves. For the next ten minutes, they sat there as if nothing had happened. Liliana went back to brushing the Barbie doll. Leni, however, focused all her attention on the plushie dog, petting it and hugging it.
"You...will be," Leni said slowly, "...Blacky..."