There were 57 books in the room.
45 were stacked neatly on the shelves, separated by color and size. 9 were piled together on the coffee table near the front. 5 were lying haphazardly on the desk and a single book was lying on the couch opened to a random page that had probably been read several times.
Mark sighed and moved on to counting the number of tiles on the floor. All the while he could feel the man sitting in the chair opposite him, follow his every move. When intimidating him hadn't worked, he had taken up staring at him instead, hoping he would get tired and start talking. But Mark was just as stubborn as his Principal. He had looked him in the eye, silently accepting the challenge, and it had been one hell of a match. Now, both continued to sit motionless in their own seats, waiting. Fortunately in that moment the door opened and his mother walked in.
She was in her work clothes, and from her labored breathing, Mark could tell that she had walked all the way from work. Ever since they had started this 'new life' together, she had insisted on saving every penny they came across, and he had given up trying to change her mind about taking up the bus once in a while.
Now she stood in the Principal's office in her work uniform, beads of sweat rolling down the side of her face, and suddenly Mark felt a little guilty. But he quickly pushed that aside, deciding that she would have her chance to shout at him at home, or if they could call it that.
Mr. Ruffman got up from his chair and shook her hand. Mark could feel his mother looking at him, but the picture on the opposite wall suddenly seemed more arresting to him than it had a few minutes ago. He listened to them talk and rolled his eyes as Mr. Ruffman narrated the story to his mother. For that was what it was to him, a story.
"I hope you can understand the seriousness of the situation. I know that Mark is a brilliant student but he cannot just punch a student in the face, start a fight in the hallway and expect to get away with it. He should be lucky that the other boy's parents did not take any action against him. Otherwise it would have been a lot more serious than just detention for a month."
His mother looked at him and he looked away, trying to tune out the rest of the conversation. He didn't want her to apologize on his behalf, she hadn't done anything. And neither had he.
He released a breath as it was finally time for them to leave. He waited outside while they finished up in there, mentally preparing himself for the lecture he was about to receive. As his mother joined him outside the office, he decided he had nothing.
"It wasn't my fault," he said.
She looked at him and said, "I know."
He stood there motionless, while she continued down the hallway.
"Wait-what?" he asked catching up to her. She raised an eye brow.
"That's it?" he asked.
"You said it wasn't your fault, and I believe you. As simple as that." she said, but then added after a moment, "Why? Do I have a reason not to?"
He shook his head dumbly. It all went beyond him. Maybe she was really tired in her new job. Yes, that had to be it.
They exited the school building, and he watched while she checked her little diary where she had her entire routine written down.
"Well, I took the day off, thanks to you." The sun reflected on her hair, adding a reddish hue to her chocolate locks. "I feel like having an ice-cream all of a sudden! Do you want an ice-cream?"
He was about to suggest that she should stop kidding him and lay down his sentence right then and there, but the look in her eyes made him realize. She was serious. So he nodded dumbly again.
She smiled and headed off to the bus stand. This time he asked, "Mom! What are you doing?"
She looked at him confused. "Getting on the bus. You do want that ice-cream, don't you?"
"Yeah," he sad, "But there's an ice cream parlor right at the end of this block."
She shook her head. "It isn't good enough. Trust me on this."
She was smiling, and he hadn't seen her smile like that for a long time. So he went along, and followed that smile.
It wasn't a long ride, and as he watched the buildings change through his window, he made a mental list of all that could be wrong with her. Maybe she had lost her job or maybe his grandparents had kicked them out, although the latter was mostly wishful thinking on his part. It wasn't that he hated them, they just could be a little too much to handle sometimes. Of course, almost any place was better than the home they had shared with his father the past 15 years.
The bus pulled to a stop, and his mother got up. He looked outside the window, and realized that he recognized this street. His mother led him up to this small ice cream parlor in a remote corner. She bought these fancy ice-creams for them he wasn't really sure they could afford, but he didn't say anything. He brought the ice-cream up to his lips, but she stopped him.
"No, no, no, not here." He looked at her confused. "There's this little lake just two minutes away. We will have it there."
He raised an eyebrow. "You do realize this won't remain an ice cream till then, right? It will be puddle."
"Shush, don't spoil my fun."
So they went to this lake, and sat down on a bench. To his surprise, their ice-creams were still standing and he almost smiled at the big grin on her face. It suddenly reminded him how young she was.
"So what's the catch?" he asked.
"I get in trouble at school and you feed me ice cream and bring me out to a lake. You going to drown me? Is that the plan?"
She rolled her eyes and pretended she didn't hear him.
After a while she said, "You know when you were just a few years old, I would bring you out here in the afternoons. Just to get away for a while, I guess. You were so small, and you fussed all the way in the bus. But the moment we would come out here, you would get this peaceful look on your face. You would watch the children playing, watch them laughing and smiling, and you would start giggling and clap your hands like this." She clapped her hands and he smiled. "Those were some of my favorite moments from your childhood. I realize there weren't nearly enough of them later on and for that I am so , so sorry."
"Mom-" She held up a hand.
"Come with me," she said suddenly. They got up and he followed her, confused. They stopped at a small neighborhood just beside the lake and she pointed at the house behind him.
"So that's why I figured if we were going to start new, we might as well do it somewhere we can both see ourselves to be happy."
"What is this?" he asked confused, eyeing the two story house as if it was some foreign object.
"This is our new home."
She nodded. He was baffled. There were so many thoughts racing through his mind, so he concentrated on the only one that counted in that moment.
"Do we have the money?"
"We have enough."
They stood there for a long time, listening to the birds chirp and the children playing near the lake. It was surreal. It looked so simple, just an ordinary house you might pass while walking down a lonely street. But this was not just another house. This house was going to be their home.
And as he watched the sun sink behind their new home and the street lights flickered on illuminating the street with their glow, he asked,
"You really don't want to know what happened at school today?"
"Not unless you want to tell me."
He didn't say anything, and she smiled. "Then it doesn't matter. It's time we both we get a fresh start. We deserve it."
He smiled this time and for the first time in a long time he actually meant it.
"And you know what the crazy part is?" she asked after a while and he looked up at her. "You can still hear the laughter from here." She whispered so that they could listen.
Soon their own laughter mixed in with all the other noise, and it became a perfect sunset to him, in every sense of the word.