The old register beeps when Ellen types in the cost of the milk and gum. I pull my card out and swipe it.

“You’re always studying,” I say. It’s true: every time I come here she’s alone behind the counter and is either reading from a textbook or filling out work sheets.

“I need to get into college.” She shrugs, and her brown eyes flash away from mine.

College?She’s in high school and works here this late, and this often? Even on the days when I don’t stop in, I see her working through the window.

“How old are you?” I can’t help but ask. It’s none of my business, and I’m not much older than her, but if I were her parents, I would be a little worried about my teenage daughter working alone, at night, in a store in Brooklyn.

“I turn seventeen next week,” she says with a frown, which kind of runs counter to the typical teenage girl, who beams at the idea of getting another year closer to the golden age of eighteen.

“Nice,” I tell her as she hands me the receipt to sign.

She’s still frowning when she hands me a red pen tied to a small clipboard with a dirty brown string. I sign it and give it back to her. She apologizes profusely when the printer machine jams before my copy of the receipt comes out. She pops the top off and I tell her that it’s fine.

“I’m not in a rush,” I tell her. I don’t have anywhere to be except home to study for Geology. Oh, and my date with Nora that I’m pretty damn nervous about. No big deal.

She rips the jammed paper roll out and tosses it into a trash can behind the counter.

Thinking about her, I realize that Ellen has never really seemed as carefree as a seventeen-year-old should be. Often I forget that most people in the world don’t have a mom like mine—heck, most kids I knew growing up didn’t. I didn’t have a father figure growing up, but it never bothered me much, honestly. I had my mom. Everyone reacts to things differently based on their own personal experience and how they’re built. Hardin, for example . . . his experiences had different effects on him than mine had on me, and he had to take a different path to understand them. It doesn’t matter why; what matters is that he’s taken responsibility for them and is busting his ass to understand his past and shape his future.

When I was twelve, I began to count down the years and months leading to my eighteenth birthday—even though I wouldn’t be going anywhere right away, my eighteenth birthday being right at the beginning of my senior year. Because of the enrollment cutoff, I was always older than everyone else in my grade. I hadn’t planned on leaving my mom’s house until after college, but that was before Dakota started mentioning me moving to New York with her during her senior year. After I spent months applying for a transfer, applying for FAFSA at NYU, finding an apartment for the two of us that was easily accessible to the campus using the subway, coming to peace with leaving behind my best friends, my pregnant mom, and my stepdad, Dakota’s life took a change and she forgot to tell me.

I’m still happy that I moved, happy that I’m becoming an actual man who’s socially aware, with responsibilities and plans for the future. I’m not perfect—I can barely do my own laundry, and I’m still getting the hang of paying my own bills—but I’m learning at a pace that I can keep up with and having a good time doing it. Tessa helps a lot. Tessa likes to keep things much tidier than a normal person, but we both clean and do an equal share of the chores. I’ve never left a dirty pair of socks in the living room, or forgotten to pick my damp, dirty clothes off of the bathroom floor after a shower. I’m conscious that I share an apartment with a woman who I’m not intimate with, so I never leave the toilet seat up or freak out if I see a tampon wrapper in the trash can. I make sure she’s not home when I masturbate, and I always make sure to leave no evidence behind when I do.

Though perhaps yesterday disproves that last claim. My mind keeps going back there, to the encounter with Nora.

After turning the machine off and back on and changing the roll of paper twice, Ellen prints my copy of the receipt. I decide to linger just a little longer; I have a feeling that she doesn’t get much interaction outside of the characters in her history books.

“Are you doing anything special for your birthday?” I ask her, genuinely curious.

She scoffs and her cheeks flare. Her pale skin turns red and she shakes her head. “Me? No, I have to work.”

Somehow I knew she didn’t have plans outside of sitting in a stool behind the high counter.

“Well, birthdays are overrated anyway,” I say with the biggest smile I can manage. She half smiles, her eyes lighting up with just a touch of happiness.

Her back straightens slightly and her shoulders sag a little less. “Yeah, they are.”

I tell her to have a good night and she says she will. As I close the door behind me I tell her not