Home > What Happens After Midnight

What Happens After Midnight
Author: K. L. Walther



Fears are meant to be faced. I just didn’t expect to be facing one of mine this early in the morning. Perhaps later in the day, but before 8:00 a.m.? I could barely keep my eyes open as I yawned my way down the stairs and found my mom in the kitchen. She was eyeing the far corner cautiously, as if in a standoff with the espresso machine that sat on the soapstone countertop. “It’s time.” She glanced at me. Her mouth was almost a straight line, but one corner had tugged up with optimism. “We have to try.”

“No, we don’t,” I quickly said. “We don’t have to try anything.”

My mom turned and held up the Tupperware of biscotti Mrs. DeLuca had gifted us yesterday. Our neighbor was the one who’d passed down the espresso machine in the first place; she’d bought a bigger one but hadn’t wanted to get rid of the original. It was still in perfect working condition—supposedly. We’d never used it. “Lily, we must,” she said. “Mrs. DeLuca specifically said that the biscotti is best when dipped in a cappuccino.”

I considered the golden-brown almond biscuits. Truthfully, they did look magnifico…and I was hungry. “Ah, okay,” I conceded. “Let’s give it a go.”

Grinning, my mom hugged the Tupperware and pointed to our stainless-steel Starbucks situation. “I think the directions are somewhere in the lower cabinet.”

That was my cue. My mom’s strengths included storing leftovers inside the refrigerator, using the microwave, and switching on the teakettle. We’d both agreed it was best if she stuck with those. This was my kitchen, so naturally the cappuccinos were to be my area of expertise.

I found the car manual-sized instructions and the unopened bag of coffee beans before moving to the machinery. A cappuccino is two-thirds milk, I reminded myself, examining the steam wand. A shot of espresso and then steamed milk with a frothy finish.

Barely coffee!

Because the thing was, my mom and I didn’t like coffee. We didn’t like it at all.

My mom had disappeared upstairs to change out of her pajamas but was back by the time I had finished grinding the beans. The kitchen had been engulfed by the smell of espresso, and I gestured at her outfit through the pungent smog. “It’ll never be fair that you get to wear that.”

While I was stuck in a sundress and my school blazer, she sported purple camo leggings and a breezy lilac shirt. The perfect model for Lululemon, especially when she dramatically jutted out her hip. “Well, you know I’m hopping on my Peloton after first period,” she teased and gave her long hair a nice fluff. I absentmindedly did the same to mine, only it was wavy and shockingly red instead of curly blond. You could spot me from a mile away. My guess was I’d gotten it from my father, but I’d never asked. He had no idea I existed, which was fine by me. He wasn’t missing from my life; he just wasn’t a part of it. And I didn’t imagine I would ever need him to be. I had my mom.

“Nice nail polish,” I added dryly. My mom’s flip-flops showed off ten periwinkle-painted toes. Why students had a firm dress code but faculty did not was something I would never understand. “Where’d you get it?”

“Oh, from my favorite little boutique,” she replied with a wink and a smile. “It’s not very far from here. Just upstairs, actually…”

I rolled my eyes but maintained my barista bravado. The espresso brewed without incident, and after grabbing the milk from the fridge, I successfully steamed it into a puffy white cloud.

“Do we dunk first?” she asked after I’d poured the cappuccinos into two mugs. “Or sip?”

We decided to sip.

“Pinkies up,” my mom said, and on an unspoken count of three, we raised the mugs to our lips.

“Coffee…” I soon rasped with a burnt tongue. “It’s still coffee!”

Nose wrinkled, my mom dumped her cappuccino in the sink and waved me over to do the same. “Tea,” she finally said. “We’ll make tea tonight and soak the biscotti in that?”

“Deal.” I nodded. “Now how about an actual breakfast?” I crossed the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, where two mason jars sat front and center. “I made overnight oats for us last night,” I said. “I think my maple syrup-peanut butter-banana slice ratio is really coming along, and I added chia seeds this time too.”

My mother considered. “I’m more in the mood for a short stack today,” she admitted. “May I take those for a snack later?”

I sighed and shook my head as I handed her a jar but smirked when I raced upstairs to grab my backpack. If she wanted pancakes, we had to hurry.

Half a minute later, we hustled out the door, both weighed down by schoolwork. The sound of the sea said good morning, and I couldn’t help but close my eyes and inhale the briny scent. Our house—a white clapboard cottage with dark-green shutters—might’ve been on the very edge of the faculty neighborhood, but it had its perks. My backyard being a beach was one of them. I had been falling asleep to the Atlantic Ocean’s rolling waves for sixteen years now, ever since I was two. I’d practically lived my whole life on the Rhode Island coast. Or more specifically, I had always lived here, at the Ames School.

“Hello, Hopper ladies!” someone called as we speed walked through the neighborhood, my mom’s flip-flops slapping against the pavement and my ballet flats warning me my day would end with blisters. “Beautiful morning, isn’t it?”

“Gorgeous!” my mom called back to Penny Bickford, who was walking toward the main campus in one of her chic power suits. I caught her assessing my mother’s athleisure wear, but Ames’s head of school said nothing. She never did because my mom was the most beloved teacher in the English department—maybe even the whole school since the yearbook’s superlatives did not lie. Favorite teacher? That title wasn’t up for grabs. Ames’s Almanacs hadn’t come out yet, but with only twelve days left before graduation, they would soon and everyone knew Leda Hopper was a lock.

And as her daughter, I was fortunate to be a student here. If tuition wasn’t free for faculty members’ children—or “fac brats” as most people called us—we never could’ve afforded a prep school like Ames.

“Congratulations again, Lily,” my headmaster said with a proud smile. She’d known me so long that she treated me like a granddaughter. “I’m sure your speech will be marvelous.”

“Thank you.” I smiled back but felt my cheeks warm. Last week at our all-school meeting, I had been announced as this year’s salutatorian. It was an honor, but I was also dreading it. Because while the valedictorian had the main stage at graduation, the salutatorian spoke at the senior class dinner the night before and was supposed to give a humorous address instead of a serious speech. The goal was to make your fellow alumni-to-be laugh.

I wasn’t exactly known for my stand-up comedy routines.

“Okay, be cool, be cool,” my mom stage-whispered once we’d crossed the covered bridge that led to campus. We slowed our pace to a casual walk. Beautiful brick, clapboard, and cedar-shingled academic buildings and dormitories rose in front of us, and students were everywhere. Some were on their morning runs while others had clearly just rolled out of bed to drag themselves over to the dining hall for breakfast. I overheard a group of girls giggling about their upcoming freshman formal.

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