One week and a day after I watched the new guy get restrained and hauled out of the school by the police, he walked into the school library where I was working.
I had been sitting in the corner near the rows of dusty aging desktops, with my own laptop open. The first page of my honors thesis stared back at me, failing to inspire me to action, when movement near the double doors gave me an excuse to look up.
It was the Guy, the one from the AN class, and he was being escorted by one of the paraprofessionals I didn’t really know—Henry, I think. As they came in and made their way around and past the scatter of tables and chairs that seemed arranged more to keep people out of the library than invite them in to work, I realized he was coming over to work on one of the desktops behind me.
With my eyes glued to my screen, I pretended to not notice him, his dirty jeans, or the limp way his black T-shirt hung off his body.
I wondered as they passed behind me if he would recognize me from that day. The girl who had stood in the hall and watched the whole episode play out.
But he didn’t say a word—not that he would—and ended up settling at the computer in the farthest corner of the very last row.
Okay, so great. Now I knew he hadn’t gotten kicked out of school—not that it even mattered to me. Good for him, though, I supposed.
I focused on the words that filled half the document page in front of me. My senior honors thesis was supposed to “encapsulate the skills and tools” I had acquired during my years in high school while “focusing on a topic or research of personal interest.” In the spring, those of us in the honors program were to submit our academic papers and produce a public exposition that demonstrated our “superior scholarship and capacity for field work.” The idea was that the honors program evidenced to our prospective colleges our ability to demonstrate initiative, discipline, creativity, and resourcefulness.
Essentially, it was to prove that we were well prepared and groomed to leap through all the hoops that our future universities would place on the field for us—because look, we’ve already jumped through one that looks exactly the same.
I had been discouraged, several times, by my academic advisor from looking at this project with that particular, some might say negative, vantage point, but it’s not like it mattered. Regardless of your preferred perspective—this was an academic tap dance that prepared us to audition.
So to keep her from stressing her point that “this is an opportunity to really grow as an individual,” I picked a topic, mapped out the project, and decided to, for once in my life, keep my mouth shut.
My academic advisor was welcome to draw whatever conclusions she needed to about my personal growth that allowed her sleep soundly every night.
Meanwhile, I would keep jumping the hoops.
The topic I had chosen was Karen—or “Caged Karen,” as the media had dubbed her. Her real name was not Karen and had been kept confidential to protect her identity because ever since Karen was born, she had been raised in solitary confinement.
When she was found at the age of fourteen, she had lived almost her entire life in a single room. Deprived of practically all human interaction except when she was severely abused for making any sounds, Karen could not talk or understand language of any kind. When they found her, she still wore diapers and had difficulty walking. Researchers had estimated that, at the age of fourteen, Karen was functioning at roughly the same place as a typical one-year-old baby.
The case of Caged Karen both fascinated and horrified me. That her parents were monsters that beat her and locked her away because she was cognitively disabled was tragic—but I had no idea how I was going to turn her case into my honors thesis. Thus the mostly blank page staring back at me.
After five more minutes of staring and not writing a single word, I closed my laptop and packed up my things to go to my next class, calculus.
The Guy was still in the last row behind me, his computer screen completely hidden from view. I wondered what he was working on.
Unlike the elective classes I was forced to take with the Bellas and the Ashleys of the world, my calc class actually did have other kids in it with two thoughts to rub together.
Consequently, when I entered, everyone in this class already had work out, and they were busy glancing between the whiteboard, their open calculus books, and their furiously moving pencils.
It should be noted that no one in this class had pink hair, bragged about their weekends, or threw anything at other people.
Of course, the fact that there were only five of us in the class and that each of us occupied an entire sector of a room designed to hold forty kids might have had something to do with the diligent silence of this class. But the reality was that really none of us actually had any weekend adventures to speak of.
These people, while certainly more my speed in terms of intellectual capacity, were also not my friends. We were often thrown together in the name of a physics project, or gathered together to participate in those ever-dreaded extracurricular activities that everyone knew were important for college admission boards but no one really wanted to attend—like chess club. We were probably best described as coworkers.
The region I had staked out on the first day of class was the northeast section, front row, closest to the windows that looked out over the school parking lot. Like my coworkers who had arrived before me, I entered the class, sat down, opened my bag, took out my notebook, calculus book, sharpened pencil, and began copying the equation from the board.
The teacher wasn’t even in the room yet—but we were all well-trained hoop jumpers.
I was in the middle of the equation when I heard the door open. Since Mr. Thyen was the only person still missing, I assumed it was him—until I looked up and into the eyes of the Guy.
Inexplicably, my heart thundered in my chest and a rush of anxiety flooded through my body.
I looked down.
With my eyes staring at my paper but my brain not comprehending a single thing written there, I tried to look normal on the outside while inside my body a crazed circus erupted.
He was in the wrong class—obviously. I waited for him to realize this and leave, but a second later he was heading down the aisle behind me, and I heard the scrape of first one chair across the floor and then a second as Henry, the paraprofessional with him, took a seat as well.
Surely Henry realized they were in the wrong class?
The feel of the room had changed, like a “shift in the force,” as Eli would say. I didn’t dare turn around to look but I did glance sideways and saw that Helen Nyugen, in the northwest sector, had stopped working and was also looking at me with an expression that asked, What the hell?
I shrugged slightly and glanced back into the southwest section where Ryan Miller had also stopped working but instead of having the good grace to at least pretend like nothing was going on, had opted for the full body stare. Completely turned around in his seat, he sat gaping at the Guy. He even looked like he was maybe about to say something, but when Mr. Thyen finally walked in, he snapped his mouth shut.
Normally we all kept working whenever Mr. T entered with his extra-large vanilla latte, but today all eyes were on him—watching, waiting to see how he handled the interloper and his special-education handler.
He took one, two steps, then stopped. He looked around the room as if he were only now seeing us all for the first time this year, then smiled.
“My, my, so much attention for me today?” His hand moved to his collar and rubbed the fabric between his thumb and index finger. “It’s my new shirt, yes?” He turned sideways so we could see the back of his ultra-plain light blue oxford. “You like it? It was on sale.”
When we didn’t laugh, he smirked and proceeded to his desk. He lifted his bag and placed it and his latte on the top of his desk and looked out at us. “Not the shirt? Well maybe you’re all anxious to extend a warm Advanced Calc welcome to our newest student.” Mr. T gestured with his hand to the section of the room behind me where the Guy was sitting. This gesture gave us all the permission we needed—well, except Ryan Miller, who clearly had no issue blatantly staring—to turn and check the Guy out.
“Porter Creed, meet Advanced Calculus. Advanced Calculus, meet Porter Creed.”
“So what?” Eli asked me at lunch.
“So . . . it’s weird. Like a mistake or something. Admission clerical error, records tampering, transfer screw-up.”
We both looked at Porter Creed, sitting alone at a lunch table in the far corner of the cafeteria. He had finished every last scrap of the mostly inedible food on his tray and was now solving and unsolving a Rubik’s Cube over and over again—one-handed. Occasionally he switched hands.
“I think he’s left-handed,” Eli said.
“He solves it faster, every time, with his left hand.”
I stared at Eli with my face-melting glare—he ignored it.
“Isn’t he in special education?” he asked me.
“Affective needs,” I said, releasing him from my laser eyes.
Eli shook his head, “Not all of us have the school psychologist for a mother. What’s affective needs?”
I looked back at Porter. “Emotional problems.”
Eli snorted and took a drink from his Coke. “In that case, half the senior class should be affective needs.”
As if bored with it, Porter put the cube down on table and slouched even farther down in his chair until his head hung over the back. He let his arms hang at his side, giving the impression that he had been shot and was now waiting for CSI to show up and investigate a murder.
Henry, Porter’s adult handler, was sitting at a table nearby with two other paras. He glanced over, made sure Porter wasn’t about to freak out and kill someone, then returned to his conversation that apparently only required him to nod and smile.
I got up from my seat.
Only halfway through his lunch and not yet ready for our daily allotment of fresh air in the courtyard, Eli craned his neck up at me, “Where are you going?”
Where was I going? “I’m going to say hi to him.”
Eli made a face like I’d farted. “Why?”
I looked back at Porter. “Because when I don’t understand something, I investigate it . . . that’s why.”
Eli shook his head and took a bite from his pie-shaped, pizza-flavored cardboard. “Well if he stabs you, it’s your own fault. You’re not supposed to poke the bears through the cage, you know.”
I ignored him.
As I approached, Porter didn’t even stir, but I had the distinct impression that he absolutely knew I was coming.
When I was only a few feet from his table, he opened one eye and used it like a laser to scan and identify me, before disinterestedly closing it again. “What do you want?” he barked.
I stopped and involuntarily glanced at Henry, who was now watching us as he took bites from his sandwich. I really did feel like a small child reaching into the bear’s cage.
I took a breath. “I wanted to say hello—is that okay with you?”
At first, he didn’t say anything. He continued to lie there, like a broken hostage. Then, completely unexpectedly, a smirk played across his lips. He opened both eyes, and his foot reached out and kicked one of the chairs out a few inches—apparently his invitation for me to sit.
“It’s your life,” he said. He sat up a little straighter, folded his hands across his stomach, and continued to watch me, to wait for me to do or say something.
Seconds ticked. I sat down.
“Hello?” he finally said, as if he suddenly realized he was speaking to an idiot.
“You’re in my Advanced Calc class,” I blurted.
“Your ability to observe the obvious is quite stunning.”
“Yes, much like your capacity for being a dick, I see.” It popped out. Think it, say it. My insult hung in the air between us and I wondered if I had gone from poking the bear to punching it in the face.
Porter sat all the way up and leaned forward across the table. “What did you call me?”
My eyes flicked to Henry, who looked about ready to get up. I imagined my mother being called on her radio, at any moment now, to come and rein Porter in again—but neither of them would be able to get to me before Porter did.
This was a mistake.
“Nothing,” I said, dropping my eyes to the table. “I’m sorry. I have a short temper.”
His laughter surprised me. “You have a short temper?” When I looked up, Porter had leaned back in his chair and was nodding his head. “Right.” He closed his eyes. “I’ll remember that.”
I watched him breathe in then out—calming himself. Then he opened his eyes. “Don’t apologize, I am a total dick. Ask anyone who knows me.”
He was trying to be cool, but I could tell it was a show.
“So”—he forced his tone to change—“what do you want? Help with calc?”
“Ha!” I blurted. “Not likely.”
He raised his eyebrows in a silent, Well, what then?
What did I want? I wanted to know why: Why was Porter in my advanced calc class and in special education? Why was he here, suddenly, at my school halfway through our senior year? And, mostly, what had set him off last week? Why was he in such a rage that two police officers had to restrain and cuff him, but today, he was sitting alone in the cafeteria like nothing had ever happened, solving a Rubik’s Cube with one hand?
Of course I had no idea how to ask him any of this because, really, it was none of my business.
“You’re new here,” I said in another one of my pathetically obvious observations. “I’m Ruth.”
Porter sighed and looked at his wrist. He was wearing a watch. Who the hell wore a watch anymore? He stood up, “Look,” he said as he glanced around the room. “It’s been real nice chatting with you.” He looked over at Henry and gave him a huge fake smile, then turned back to me with a straight face. “But I have to go.”
I stood up next to him. He was tall, probably six feet at least, so I had to lean back a bit to look at his face. It occurred to me that it was actually fairly amazing that my mom had been able to keep Porter from bolting for as long as she did the other day. Given that she was hardly any bigger than me, and I was only five foot five, he could have totally tossed her out of his way at any time—the woman had some serious skills of persuasion.
He stooped over and grabbed his backpack from the floor and slung it over his shoulder. “See you around.” He smirked, and his tone suggested he didn’t actually expect to see me at all.
“Oh, well . . .” I muttered. His sudden departure rattled me. Like he was uninviting me from his space.
He walked away from me.
Shut down midsentence, I stood gaping and speechless. My eyes shot over to Eli, who was staring at me from under his questioning eyebrows. He waved his hand for me to come back. Honestly, I didn’t know what I was doing, so I ignored him.
If Porter was only heading out into the yard for the rest of the lunch period, why did I have the feeling his good-bye was more substantial? Like he was actually leaving school. He was halfway to the doors when I did something I never, ever do.
I acted on an impulse.
“Porter!” I shouted, causing several people at a nearby table, including Bella Blake, to turn and see what all the commotion was about. Well, that’s great; what wonderfully ludicrous gossip would this scene set in motion? Their sudden attention was almost enough to make me follow Eli’s wishes and just go sit back down.
But when Porter stopped and looked back at me, I ignored all of them and jogged to catch up with him anyway. “Wait a second,” I said. “I’ll come with you.” As I got closer, Porter narrowed his insanely blue eyes. His expression was not a happy one.
“What are you doing?” he hissed, looking over my shoulder at all the eyes, including Henry’s, that kept trying to pretend they weren’t staring.
Between his question and the eyes, I felt like an idiot, exposed. “What?” I said, defensiveness coming to my ego’s rescue. “Can’t a person be nice?” Which was a totally ridiculous thing for me to say because, had he been so inclined to ask, not a single person in this room would have ever used the word nice to describe me. Not even Eli.
Porter looked at me like I was insane, then shook his head. “Come on,” he said and started toward the door again. “Now that the entire room is a witness . . .”
I wondered what he was talking about as we pushed against the two double glass doors and exited into the yard. “Witness to what?” I asked, and couldn’t help the six or seven really horrendous thoughts that rolled through my brain with absolutely no effort at all. Roosevelt High showed the same school violence prevention safety videos every year: How to Identify a Predator followed by “Reporting” is not “Telling.” Was Porter that dangerous? Was he a shooter? Or a nut-job bomber? Was I, right now, walking into a situation with a psycho that would be broadcast all over the nine-o’clock news?
And why? Because I had an impulse to chase this obvious head case outside? Was I going to die because I didn’t like a special education kid sitting behind me in advanced calculus?
Outside, Porter scanned the yard then cut a sharp left down the side of the building. Did he have a bag of guns stashed over here? I looked around for an adult but didn’t see one—of course. A panic fluttered in my chest but I kept following him. What would my mother do?
“Look, Porter, I don’t know what you’re doing, but can we talk about it for a minute?”
Now at the corner of the building, Porter stopped and turned around. His entire expression was crinkled annoyance. “What are you talking about?”
I swallowed. “I just . . . I want to help.” I shrugged. “If I can, you know.”
“No,” he said. “I don’t know, Ruth.” He turned away and kept walking.
Paralyzed, I watched as his long legs easily climbed the low hill that led to the parking lot. I thought about following him, but some invisible school boundary kept me rooted to the outer edge of the yard. Would he stop at a car? Was someone meeting him here? Should I go find my mother?
Porter didn’t stop anywhere, and no one came to meet him. On the other side of the parking lot, on the corner of Stanley and Elm, he looked both ways, waited for a mud-encrusted Jeep to pass in front of him, then casually jogged across the road to the other side before taking a right and heading up the street.
My heart hammered stupidly against my chest. As I turned away from his escape, my cheeks burned red hot from my own idiotic, impulsive imaginings. Porter wasn’t worried about people witnessing his shooting—he didn’t want them to see him ditching!
I was about to have a heart attack over ditching?
Call the police! Pull the fire alarm!
Thank God I hadn’t said anything more stupid than I did. Eli pushed through the doors, scanned the yard then saw me.
“Ruth!” He nodded at me then headed my way. “What was that all about?”
“Nothing.” I shrugged. “What?”
“Don’t give me that,” he shook his head, totally unwilling to accept my there’s nothing wrong with me it’s you act. “I can tell by the look on your face something happened. Did he hurt you?” he asked, looking around the yard, getting all defensive like his beta self was going to transform into a butch beast and go kick Porter’s ass if I happened to answer yes.
“No, and please. Like you could hurt a flea.”
His eyes cut to me and he pulled his head back like I’d insulted his male pride. “Oh, I can kick ass.”
Lunch was almost over. I walked past him and headed for the doors, “Mm-hmm. Come on, killer, or we’ll be late for class.”
He bounced up next to me, dancing on his toes like a boxer and weaving his head back and forth. “You don’t believe me. Well, maybe I’ll just have to kick your ass to show you.”
“HA! I’d love to see you try. But you better not try here because it would be so embarrassing for you when I make you cry in front of all these assholes.”
We pushed through the doors and Eli stopped bouncing. “Speaking of that.”
I felt it before I saw it. The eyes, furtive, questioning, dying to indulge in gossip. Then, like a wave rolling through the room it happened, bodies leaned in, mouths whispered. I heard the laughter. Laughter directed at me.
I ignored them—or tried to, anyway. I kept walking with my eyes straight ahead and made a beeline for the hallway, thanking God for every step Eli took beside me. Once we were out of eyesight I turned to him.
“What the hell was that all about?”
“Well, honestly, if you had seen the way you chased after Porter Creed—a known sociopath, I might add—you’d probably be pretty tempted to talk about it too.”
“I hardly chased him down!” I turned on him.
Eli cocked his head and raised his hands in defense. “Okay, okay. I’m just saying, there was more than a hint of desperation on your face.” He made sappy doe-eyes at me.
“I swear to all that is holy, I am going to punch you in your face if you don’t knock it off.”
Eli started backing up with boxing moves and head weaving, “All right, now that’s what I was talking about! We’re going to get this ass kicking on!” He smiled.
If I didn’t love him as much as I did—I would seriously kill him. Instead, I sighed and rolled my eyes. I detested gossip of any kind, even when it wasn’t about me.
“Oh come on,” he said giving up the act. He put his arm around me and pulled me to his side. “Nothing will come of it. Bella and Darren will get caught screwing in the girls’ locker room again and everyone will forget that Ruth Robinson actually does have a beating heart and that they could swear they saw it beat out loud for a mental case.”
I shrugged him off me and walked away, “Get to class, Eli,” I said, and headed for my fifth-hour English Lit, more than a little mad at myself for stupid impulses and, even worse, for indulging in them.
Who the hell cared if Porter Creed was some kind of special education genius anyway?
Thank you for reading chapter three 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!