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You know what they say about things looking better in the light of day? It’s bullshit, Hazel thinks as she stands at the top of her stairs. Only one flight separates her from the ground level, but her stomach feels like it has fallen down ten of them. At least.

Discarded plastic cups are strewn on the floor, and from here, she can see some type of food crushed between the dark hardwood planks. A potato chip? Cheeto? Dorito? She squints. Definitely Dorito. She didn’t remember it looking this bad last night, but that must’ve been the darkness cloaking it, or the party haze.

On the tips of her toes, Hazel sneaks down the stairs, trying not to wake the few people out cold on the couch, twisted into positions that will surely leave them with cricks or knots. But, when her eyes land on the dining and living rooms, she doubts she’ll be able to keep quiet for long.

Brightly covered confetti covers the floor like it’s a heavy snowfall, you know, like if Mother Nature had thrown a rager.

A string of expletives flows from her mouth—so many and in such a colorful combination that her mom would say she sounded like a sailor before threatening Hazel with some punishment or another—getting grounded, no phone, etc. And if Hazel doesn’t hurry up, she’s sure she’ll receive a far worse punishment and in far more colorful terms than she has ever before.

Within two hours, her parents will return home and she’ll be left holding the confetti cannon for a party that wasn’t even for her. It was for her best friend, Teagen, who is passed out upstairs beneath a duvet after her surprise 18th birthday party.

Unfortunately, the party was a surprise to Hazel, too, to some extent. Hazel knows Teagen is popular and that she is popular by extension of being her friend, but still, when she saw the number of people who weren’t invited in her house and the amount of liquor and beer they were hauling in, Hazel was shocked, wondering if people would have come to her surprise party if Teagen didn’t bribe them, a thought quickly pushed out by anxiety. Within 10 minutes, she had broken every rule her parents gave her, and she had no way to stop it.

Now, in the aftermath, she has only one option: haul ass. Hazel grabs the caddy of cleaning supplies and gets to work, sweeping up remnants from the floor and scrubbing away muddy footprints. Trash is tracked through the first floor—discarded napkins, and food crushed into a chunky powder. She pulls three dustpans of crap from the floor. Sweat beads at her brow.

No one stirs, not even to lift an eyelid, and see the one-woman show playing out right before them. Hazel fights the urge to wake them and kick them out, only because she doesn’t feel like pissing them off. They won’t forgive her. She’s not Teagen. Tall, scarlet-haired, vivacious, able to hold a conversation with a wall, bubbly as a shaken-up Coke, Teagen. On a good day, Hazel, with her average height, and average mousy brown hair, feels like a flat seltzer, and she’s pretty damn sure that’s how other people see her, too—a boring afterthought.

Despite that, she drags the vacuum out of the closet and positions it at the edge of the dining room carpet where people shot off their confetti poppers to wish Teagen happy birthday once she crossed the threshold. There’s a ranking to her humiliation, and her classmates waking up to her mother yelling at her is far, far worse than them waking up from a vacuum. Besides, the device is relatively quiet, one of the expensive air tunnel ones her mom coveted, and her other mom had purchased at a Black Friday sale. Even with Hazel in the room, the two practically made out when her mom unwrapped the gift on Christmas.

Hazel presses the plug into the outlet and the machine comes to life with a soft woosh of air. Slowly, she pushes the vacuum a foot into the confetti sea to test it out, and when she draws it back, the path is clear except for a few errant pieces of shiny paper.

“Thank God,” she breathes. A functional failure is all she needs with t-minus one hour and twenty-five minutes to go. If this is her one stroke of luck, she’ll take it. She rolls the vacuum back over the carpet and listens to the erratic tick of the confetti getting sucked into the cyclone, like sleet hitting a windowpane. For a couple of minutes, it is all she hers, until the sound suddenly changes.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Click. Groan. Grrrrr.

The machine growls at her as the confetti in front of it vibrates, but doesn’t leave the ground.

“No, no, no. Please don’t do this,” Hazel whispers in a panic. She trips the power button on and off, takes a beat, and turns it on again. The groan of death returns, but this time, it’s a shrill scream—like fingers on a chalkboard, or a squealing rodent, or the internal yell exiting her body. The latter stays firmly lodged in her chest, though, shaking her entire body as she sinks into the floor, the colorful cuts of paper sticking to her palms, pajama pants, everywhere.

She thought seeing people fawn over her best friend the entire night once again as she stood on the sidelines was bad enough, but for the umpteenth time, she’s been proved wrong. Hazel doesn’t resent Teagen. She’s a good friend who treats her well. But she would admit under duress—hell, right now—that she is jealous of how bad luck can be on a collision course with Teagen, but somehow it always changes route at the last second.

For Hazel, bad luck seems to never miss.

“Are you okay?”

Crestfallen, Hazel looks up, first seeing a pair of grey canvas sneakers in the doorway. Then a pair of jeans, heathered red Henley, black North Face, and finally, the face of Noah Greene. Chestnut locks that graze his cheekbones, a smattering of freckles across the bumped bridge of his nose, eyes as green as a tree in summer. He’s mid-level cool but unlike Hazel, his didn’t come with the help of friends, which makes him high-level in her book—that and his whip-snap wit.

Hence why her mouth goes dry although her eyes cannot. She ducks her head to swipe at them and turn her focus back to the vacuum

“Oh yeah, all good,” she says. Noah was one of the few people she had invited, and last time she saw him, he was curled up on her sectional, asleep—the only state where she didn’t feel like she was acting completely awkward around him.

“Doesn’t look like it,” he says, and Hazel sees his feet shuffle closer. “Hey, I’m sorry we left your house looking like shit.”

She chuckles as she tilts the vacuum onto its back and begins to fiddle with the gears on its bottom. No clog, meaning it must be in the inner bowels. “This is actually an improvement.”

“Damn. Then I’m really sorry.” He squats down on the ground and rakes his hand through the carpet, coming up sparkly. “Can I help you?”

“What?” She lifts her gaze to meet his, and he doesn’t only sound guilty. He looks it.

“Can I help you clean up? I can work on this,” he says, laying his hand on the yellow plastic of the vacuum beside hers.

“I can do it,” she says, and sighs in exasperation. “Not that there’s a point. I’m pretty sure it’s broken.”

“Well, I wouldn’t be so sure. It could be salvageable.” Noah tips it back up to standing and pops the dust cylinder off it without any fumbling. What does it say about Hazel that she finds that one move incredibly attractive? She doesn’t know, but she’ll psychoanalyze it later. “Looks like a disco ball crash landed in here,” he says. “I’ll empty this. Sometimes that can be the issue.”

“Sometimes? You’ve seen this multiple times?” Hazel collects clumps from the floor and throws them into the container with Noah’s own.

“My mom does repair jobs for a lot of household stuff, vacuums mostly, and I’ve watched her a lot.” He pushes onto the haunches of his feet, and crosses into the kitchen, dumping the container’s contents in the garbage Hazel had waiting. The simmer disappears beneath a gray pile of dust and hair.

“That’s a handy skill.” Hazel tilts her head over the inner workings of the machine. A few inches down the nozzle pipe, she spies some kind of blockage. “Wait, there’s something in here.” Reaching inside, her fingers hit it. It’s not hard exactly, but definitely compact. “I may be able to pull it out.”

“Hold up.” He jogs over to the wall and yanks the power cord from it. “Don’t want you to electrocute yourself.”

“Not like anyone here would care if I did.” The words slip easier than a child on a patch of ice, and embarrassment hits her just as hard. “Sorry, I’m tired and the self-pity train is in the station,” she murmurs.

“Hey, I get it. The shadow is a cold place to be.” Hazel quirks an eyebrow at Noah. Is it that noticeable? And why does he understand? “Older brother. The Mary Poppins of siblings—’simply perfect in every way.’” He crawls over to her, cutting a path through the carpet to reveal the slate cray fabric beneath the rainbow. “For the record, I’d care, and not just because I’d witness it. Although that could help your story. I’d definitely tell people about it and about you.”

“Thanks,” she says. She didn’t mean to fish for a compliment, but she doesn’t mind the outcome.

She drags a duster out of her caddy and raises it for him to see. “Will this keep me safe?”

He laughs and tucks a swoop of bang behind his ear. “Yeah, you should be safe. Not the tools I’d recommend but it will work.”

“Here we go then.” Hazel jams it inside the machine, and works it back and forth. At first, she feels like she’s getting nowhere but to cause more wear and tear on the vacuum… until the pile gives and the butt of the duster slips further into the pipe. “Yes!” she exclaims, no longer caring about waking anyone else up.

“Nice work!” he says, and together, they flip the vacuum so they can prop it on its handle, and shake it, watching the confetti flutter down to where it was minutes earlier.

Once the dust container is back in place, Noah spins the machine so it’s right-side up and stretches to plug the vacuum back in. “The final test. Do you want to do the honors?”

“Sure.” Hazel hits the switch, and the groan is a low drone. Success. “You’re awesome, you know that?” Hazel says, and lifts her hand for a high five.

“Thanks, but you were figuring it out. I just watched,” he says, but slaps it anyway. With the other, he throws a handful of confetti into the air over here. “Congrats on your first repair.”

It sends her into a fit of giggles, spurring one of his own, both high on a lack of sleep, and, at least in her case, happiness, and the rare feeling of not wanting to be anyone other than herself.

The time will come to return to the mayhem of the morning—back to the rush of cleaning and praying that her parents don’t come home early—but in this second, Hazel is holding tight to it, squeezing every second out while she can.

Sarah Razner

Sarah Razner is a reporter of real-life Wisconsin by day, and a writer of fictional lives throughout the world by night.

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