Mr. T was killing me—and everyone else apparently. We all let out a collective groan. Which, I suppose, was exactly what Mr. T wanted to accomplish with this brand-new hell he was imposing on us.
“Cooperative learning,” he continued, holding up his hand to ward off the well-articulated complaints he could feel rising. “Being able to work well in a group is a no-joke necessary skill you guys are going to need out there.” He pointed to the door of the class. “Beyond that door is the real world, and whatever you may think about your considerable skills, you all pretty much suck at working with other people. After graduation, some of you will be working in jobs which will require you to work as a member of a project team. Now, it may be true that some of you will be holed up in a top-secret government basement where you will only need to socially interact with a complex database because you lack even the most rudimentary of social skills necessary for most corporations.”
Was it my imagination, or did he actually look at me when he said that?
He smiled. “But a few of you may actually find yourself one day”—he held up both his hands gospel style—“and I know this is hard to swallow”—he gulped loudly—“needing other people to help you solve problems.”
He paused for dramatic effect, looking around the room at each of us. One bad thing about Mr. T not actually being a full-time high school teacher was that he often went way overboard with the theatrics. He really loved listening to himself pontificate.
“So, for the rest of the semester, one objective for this course will be to help you develop the skills necessary to work effectively as part of a team.”
We didn’t like it, but we listened. The thing about Mr. T was, one, teaching high school kids wasn’t his full time job. Out in that real world he had just pointed to, he was an aerospace engineer for Lockheed Martin. This was the only class he taught at Roosevelt High; the school had to contract someone from the outside world to meet the intellectual demands of this class. Because of this, fair or not, we respected Mr. T more than most of our other teachers.
The second thing about him—and this might have even been the real thing that made us sit up and listen—was that Mr. T didn’t bullshit you too much. If you turned in something subpar because you were tired the night before, he’d hand it back to you and say, “You’re better than this. Do it again.”
Mr. T didn’t let us slide by on our natural talent, probably because he was the grown-up version of us. He worked with people with big brains all day long, in a career field some of us—not me, but some of us—hoped to be in one day. We respected him because he actually was smarter than us, so he wasn’t afraid of us.
“So.” He clapped his hands. “Since we are so few, but now thankfully an even number at least”—he nodded to Porter who was three rows behind me—“three groups of two, pair up!”
Before I even got all the way turned around in my seat, everyone else in the class was coupled with someone else. Everyone except, of course, Porter Creed.
Even my coworkers—my “peers”—would rather not work with me unless they absolutely had to. Now, thanks to Porter, they didn’t have to. I could just imagine, from the moment Mr. T uttered the words cooperative learning, all four of the other regulars were eyeing each other behind my back, pointing fingers—You and me, right? Quickly shoring up their partner decisions before they got stuck with me or the special-ed psycho.
As everyone else began shuffling toward each other, pushing chairs and moving desks, disrupting the ordered balance of the room, I glanced at Porter. A wave of nervous dread rolled through me.
He was sitting in his seat, not moving, and from the look on his face, which appeared to be one of extreme disinterest, I wondered if he had even heard what Mr. T’s instructions had been. Like the day in the cafeteria, he didn’t look at me, didn’t make the normal sort of eye contact one would expect from a future cooperative learning partner—even though I got the feeling he knew I was looking right at him.
It made getting up out of my chair and walking toward him practically painful.
When there were only a couple steps between us left, his eyes shifted to me. I couldn’t help it. I stopped right where I was, wondering and waiting for him to say the same thing as before: What do you want?
But he didn’t.
“I hate group work,” he declared. It made me wonder if this was some sort of refusal to comply with the general instructions and a not-at-all-subtle hint that I could just turn myself around because this wasn’t going to happen. Would Mr. T push the issue if Porter flat out refused to do this? I thought of Porter that first day I had seen him, yelling, pushing against the hands holding him until he was eventually carted away by the police. Mr. T wasn’t a regular teacher, and I wasn’t sure he had been fully briefed on the special case that was Porter.
Nothing about Porter’s body language or facial expression gave me the impression that it was okay for me to pull up a chair and join him. Every part of me wanted to say, Look, psycho, this is my grade were talking about here. And I realize you clearly don’t give a shit about your abysmal future educational opportunities, but I have every intention of standing up on the stage at graduation in four months and being the valedictorian of these assholes. I’m not about to let you screw that up just because you “hate group work” and have a clinical noncompliance-with-authority problem.
If it were Bella Blake et al pulling this shit, that is exactly what I would have said. Except this wasn’t Bella or her friends. This was the guy I had witnessed straining under the weight of two cops holding him down, the guy with that look of naked desperation I hadn’t been able to get out of my head.
So, instead of saying any of the words running through my head, I said, “So do I. So does everyone. But I don’t think we really have a choice.”
The corner of his mouth, just barely, rose for half a second. If I hadn’t been looking closely, I might have missed it. I took this as my chance to grab a chair and sit down.
“Look,” I said, placing the chair in his vicinity but not right next to him. “This doesn’t have to be hard. Honestly, I usually do all the work in group efforts anyway. Actually, I prefer it.” I looked to see that Mr. T wasn’t within earshot; he was standing next to Ryan and Helen, who appeared to already be arguing about who would be doing what. I turned back to Porter and dared to lean slightly closer to him. “Just so we’re clear, all I need is for you to put your name on the final piece and just say that we worked fifty-fifty.”
Porter didn’t answer me right away; he didn’t even look at me right away. He sat there, reclining back in his chair with his super-long legs stretched out in front of him while his hands rested on the desk. After a moment more, his fingers started tapping out a rhythm on the fake wood surface.
I leaned back in my own chair. Was he just going to ignore me? I sighed, my breath rushing out of me as a noisy complaint.
Porter looked at me with his eyes first, those deep blue pools, then turned his head as well—his expression questioning. “What makes you think I would want to put my name on your work?” Clearly implying with his tone that my work might possibly be substandard.
I actually felt my eyes go wide while my pupils constricted into sharp laser points. Was I seriously having my academic capability questioned by a special-education kid who, until recently, had to have his every move supported and monitored by a grown-up? My heart pumped hard in my chest and I felt a sheen of sweat form on my palms. Every inch of my body begged me to verbally castrate this guy.
Then, he smiled at me. “Is this how you want to”—he raised both his hands and made air quotes—“‘help me?’”
My blood made whooshing sounds in my head. I had been such an idiot, thinking he was maybe going to blow up the school or something—not that he could possibly have known what I was thinking, but still. My hand-flapping behavior that day was still a source of enormous embarrassment to me. Not to mention the root of the rumor that had tenuously circulated, among some of the lesser assholes, that I had it bad for this guy who was now sitting in front of me, mocking me, in his dirty jeans and faded T-shirt that looked like it probably hadn’t seen the inside of a washing machine in months and—
“You look like your head is going to explode.” Porter jarred me from my private mental tirade—an impudent smirk materialized on his lips. “Have I offended you in some way?”
“No,” I blurted, clearly indicating that the exact opposite was true. Was he screwing with me? I narrowed my eyes at him. It felt like he was screwing with me.
Porter sat up straighter in his chair and looked at his hand that had now stopped drumming the desk. “You were right; you do have a bad temper.”
“You’re one to talk.”
“Yes, but I’m labeled and filed. You’re allowed to just prowl around in the general population.”
“I’ve never tried to bash someone’s brains inside out.”
He turned his head and his eyes met mine. “Maybe not physically.”
Speechless was not a state I typically found myself in. Thankfully, after seconds of painful silence, Mr. T wandered over and clapped his hands.
“So”—he looked from me, to Porter, then back to me—“we all set here?”
“Yep,” Porter announced for us both and grinned. “We just love group work.”
I could tell from Mr. T’s amused expression that he didn’t believe this for a second, but he smiled big anyway and said, “Perfect!” He pulled a chair up between us, turned it around, and then straddled it with his arms resting across the back. “Here’s what I want you to do.”
“What if he freaks out and stabs you?” Eli asked me at lunch.
I pulled my eyes away from Porter, who I just realized I had been staring at, and gave Eli a dirty look. “That’s just perfect. Thanks for planting that seed in my head.”
“I’m serious.” He glanced at Porter, who had again devoured his entirely inedible school lunch and was now leaned back in his chair flipping through a thick binder that looked like it held a thousand pieces of paper. “Does Mr. T seriously expect you to work one-on-one with a sociopath?”
Just then, I noticed Bella Blake and her friends noticing Eli and me looking at Porter. When we made eye contact, they looked away. But it was too late; the damage had been done. “Stop staring at him,” I hissed at Eli. “The whole fricking school thinks I’m in love with the guy.”
“Fricking?” Eli asked.
“Since when do you say ‘fricking’?”
“I’m trying not to cuss so much.”
“Since right now, asshole.”
Eli smiled at me and nodded, as if all were right with the world just so long as there was evidence to refute my ability to ever stop being crass. “Okay, no cussing for you. Got it. And you are in love with him. You might as well just stop trying to fight it,” he teased. “Let the whole world know how you truly feel . . . go ahead and stare at the man you love,” he finished with a flourish.
I reached over and pinched his waist, hard, under the table.
“Ow!” he shouted, and jumped away. “That hurt.”
“Good. Quit trying to be a comedian.”
Eli rubbed his side. “You’re mean.”
Just then, Porter stood up and waved to Henry. “What is he doing?” I asked.
“Looks like lover is getting ready to bail again.”
I shook my head, incredulous. “We’re supposed to meet after school today to start our stupid project.”
“Maybe he’ll come back.”
“He never comes back,” I said, getting up as well.
“Where are you going?” Eli asked.
“To make sure I don’t get screwed over.” Porter didn’t want to just let me handle the work—fine. But I wasn’t going to be sitting around for hours in the library waiting for him to show up either. As I rushed toward the doors to catch up with him, I caught Bella’s table all giving me furtive looks and smirking.
“My God, get a life,” I said as I passed them.
Darren flipped me off, but I ignored him. I didn’t have time right now to comment on his stunning capacity for communication.
By the time I reached the courtyard, Porter was already halfway across the parking lot. His long legs meant he moved fast, especially considering he didn’t want to get caught. I picked up the pace, hoping to at least get up the hill before he disappeared onto the street. By the time I made it to the top of the grassy hill, my heart was pounding and I was out of breath. It occurred to me that I was so totally out of shape. I bent over to catch my breath and watched Porter get even farther away.
“Hey!” I tried to shout, but he either didn’t hear me or was completely ignoring me. I looked over my shoulder to see if anyone was watching or listening to me make a complete ass of myself—thankfully, only a few people had come outside yet and they were busy listening to their music on the far side of the yard.
When I turned back, Porter was already dodging traffic and crossing the street.
Damn. I stood at the curb lining the grass, the concrete demarcation between “technically still on school grounds” and “clearly leaving school grounds” and watched Porter take three running strides toward the opposite sidewalk to avoid getting hit by a speeding Prius.
Every second I hesitated, he got farther away.
Impulsive decisions: I didn’t make them. But I took a step anyway. Then I took another, and another, and before I realized I was actually leaving school, and breaking school rules, I was running across the parking lot, into the street, and onto the sidewalk that, if I didn’t die of a heart attack first, would hopefully lead me to Porter.
Thank you for reading chapter five of Affective Needs. A new chapter is posted every Wednesday. If you don't feel like waiting for updates, here is the link to my book page and all the vendors that carry my books. Happy reading!