Whatever my mother was able to say to Porter’s dad on Thursday must have had some effect, because Friday Porter walked into calc. Maybe because I had overheard the phone conversation, I had been expecting him to show up. Or maybe I only hoped he would. Either way, right before he walked into class, my entire nervous system jumped into overdrive. If I didn’t know better, I might have suggested that I could feel that Porter was close. Absurd, but still, when he walked past my desk, my hand trembled so hard I had to stop writing.
With my eyes glued to the paper in front of me, I could only hope that the outside of my body gave zero indication what was happening on the inside of it. My heart beat so hard against my chest, I swear I could feel my rib cage expand with each rapid pulse. Stop it, Ruth, right now. You have to stop this. But it was like my body didn’t care at all what my brain was ordering it to do. Deep breaths, three big ones. I closed my eyes and sat up straight in my seat.
My mind raced obsessively. Was Porter, right now, sitting behind me and watching my every move? Did he know what was happening? Could he somehow feel this, sense it? Was my body radiating some kind of electric current that shot out in every direction, announcing my seemingly rampant attraction to Porter? Was it obvious, not just to him, but to everyone in the room?
I put my pencil down and dug my fingernails deep into each of my palms. Control. I needed to regain control, because what I had to do next would require me to have a fully functioning body, capable of both coordinated physical movement and intelligible speech.
I needed to go talk to Porter before Mr. T came in and started class.
I opened my eyes and stood up, my legs watery and unreliable, but I turned around anyway, half expecting to see Porter staring back at me with a look of complete understanding. He knew what I felt—maybe that look would tell me that he felt it too.
When my eyes landed on Porter, I instantly understood that not only was I a complete idiot, but there was no way in hell my body was sending covert energy signals anywhere. Slumped in his seat, with his giant legs sprawled out far past the desk in front of him, Porter’s chin rested on his chest as it rose and fell in a steady rhythm.
He was fast asleep.
I dared to look around the room, to check and see if maybe anyone else had detected the emotion hurricane that had just been happening over my desk.
Every single person either had their head buried in their work or was copying the equations from the white board.
I sighed quietly and walked slowly over to Porter, trying to ignore the thundering sound of my racing heart rushing in my ears. But the closer I got to him, the more I wondered if this was a mistake. Maybe I should have waited till after class started? Mr. T would probably have given us time to collaborate on our projects. Now, I would just look like a fool standing here in front of him when Mr. T would probably be walking in the door at any moment.
Only a few steps from his desk, I stopped, Porter wasn’t waking up. His arms were folded over his chest that continued to rise and fall, rise and fall. His face looked soft, relaxed, and his messy hair hung over his—
It was swollen, an ugly yellow-and-purple bruise circled his left eye and ran down the side of his cheek bone. His bottom lip had been split open. Had he been in a fight?
“Porter?” my voice caught in my throat and came out too soft to wake him up. “Porter,” I tried again, louder this time. His head jerked slightly and his good eye, his right eye, opened all the way while the left one peered through swollen, discolored skin.
He shifted his gaze to me and seemed to take a second to register where he was before he let out a deep sigh and tried to sit up a little more. “Yep. What’s up?”
“What’s up?” I snapped. I hadn’t anticipated my nervousness being replaced so quickly by annoyance. “How about our project, for one. And second, you just take off for almost an entire week with zero communication. . . . Look, I offered to do this on my own, you’re the one who—”
“Ruth.” Porter sat all the way up now, put his hands in the air like he was surrendering, and shook his head. “Things have changed.” He looked at me. “I was wrong. You are just going to have to do the project yourself.” Porter shook his head and slumped back in his chair as if he couldn’t wait to get back to sleep.
“What? Now you expect me to do all the work while you sit by and take credit—”
“No,” he sat up fast and looked around to see who was listening. In my anger, my voice had gotten loud and some of the others were taking furtive glances in our direction. He lowered his voice so they couldn’t hear. “I don’t expect to take credit for anything Ruth. It’s your project, alone.” He leaned back and let his shoulders fall. “My name won’t even be on it—happy?”
No, I wasn’t happy. Maybe last week I would have been happy with all of this. Last week I probably would have been thrilled to just work on the project all by myself and take credit for all my amazing hard work.
But last week, I had never watched Porter run his hands through his hair.
“Why?” I hissed.
“Why do you care? It’s what you wanted, and now you get it. Things have changed, that’s all.”
“So what . . . you’re just not going to do it?”
I didn’t know what to say to this. “But . . . you’ll fail the class.”
Porter actually smiled, and a short burst of laughter erupted out of him. “Probably.”
“Doesn’t that bother you?”
“It’s not like it would be the first time. Look Ruth, you don’t need to worry about this. Just do the project yourself; you’re more than capable. I’m not even going to be around long enough to worry about failing . . . again.”
“What does that—”
The door to the class opened and Mr. T walked in. “Ladies, gentlemen, good afternoon.” I turned just in time to see Mr. T’s gaze land on me standing over Porter’s desk. “If we could all take our seats,”—he nodded at me as he placed his coffee on his desk—“we will get this circus started.”
“Did you give him his jacket back?” Eli asked me at lunch.
“I didn’t have a chance to. When class was over he was out the door before I even had my stuff in my bag.” We were both ignoring the overcooked raviolis swimming in their watery tomato sauce in front of us while Porter inhaled his a few tables away.
Eli picked up an apple wedge and toyed with the idea of actually eating it. “Well, so go get it and give it back to him.” He shrugged. “Then you’re done, right? You get to do your project, your way. Which is always your preference anyway.”
I nodded absently. All afternoon I had been thinking about what Porter had said, about not being around long enough to worry about failing. I needed to know if he actually meant what I was worried he meant. And if so, should I go tell my mother?
“Well, go get it.” Eli shoved me gently.
Porter was getting up from his table and dumping his trash in the large cans near the entrance.
“Look,” Eli said. “He’s probably going to take off again, and who knows when he’ll be back . . . if he’ll be back.”
I was only half listening, but I shook my head, “I can’t . . . not today anyway.”
Eli stirred his soggy raviolis, made a face, and pushed the whole tray away, “Why not? Look, and there he goes again.”
Porter pushed the double doors and headed out into the courtyard. We both knew he wouldn’t be coming back.
I turned back to Eli as if I couldn’t care less what Porter Creed or his jacket where doing for the rest of the day. “I’m leaving early today. Appointment.” I stood up and grabbed my bag. “I’m visiting Caged Karen today up at Harmony House.”
“Right now? They’re letting you leave school to go up there?”
“Research trip.” I grinned.
“You never said . . . I would have—”
“Hey,” I shrugged and smirked at him. “I offered. You could have totally come with me as my assistant but, as I recall, you seemed to object to traveling in my . . . what did you call Vader, ‘bucket of bolts’?”
Eli made a face that told me to go screw myself. “I believe it was ‘death trap.’”
“Yes, that’s it! Death trap!” I leaned forward and kissed Eli on his forehead. “I’ll see you later, dear.”
“Hmm, if you survive the trip. Call me later.”
“Of course, my love.”
“And next time, if you’re missing school . . . I may be willing to risk it. Remember that!”
I waved at him from over my shoulder and headed, quickly, for the front doors of the school. If I hurried, I could probably time it just right, but I didn’t want Eli to know.
In the parking lot, I opened Vader’s door, tossed my bag onto the passenger seat next to me, and slid onto the driver’s seat. The worn and split leather was ice cold beneath me and a thin dusting of snow had settled onto the windshield. “Crap,” I said, and watched the steam from my breath float up in front of me. I really wished I had found a good way to get Porter’s jacket back to him—or at least had thought to bring it with me now.
He must be freezing.
Out of gear, I turned the ignition and pumped the gas a few times while Vader made choking noises before finally turning all the way over. I pushed the clutch, switched on the wipers to clear the windshield, shifted into first, and hoped I wasn’t too late to still catch sight of Porter.
He was halfway to the library before I saw him.
Leaning into the wind, in a short-sleeved black T-shirt, his hands shoved down into the pockets of his jeans while his shoulders rose up high against the cold. Light flakes of snow landed in his hair and on his shoulders.
A wave of guilt rolled over me.
I had half a thought to drive back to the school, get his jacket, and drive it back to the library. Didn’t he have anything else—a sweatshirt at least? When I got close to him, just outside the public library, I pulled over on the side of the street like I was parking but turned on my blinker so I could flip around to get his coat, but when he reached the steps to the library’s entrance, instead of turning left and rushing the steps two at a time like he had the day I was with him, he kept walking on past.
Where was he going? If I turned back now, I would have no idea where to find him anyway—jacket or no jacket. At the next corner, Porter took a left and disappeared behind the Walgreens.
I pulled my phone from my pocket and checked the time. I hadn’t lied to Eli; I really did have an appointment to observe Caged Karen up at Harmony House this afternoon. If I spent much more time stalking Porter—because let’s face it, this was legit, full-on stalking I was engaged in here—I would be late.
I pushed the clutch and shifted Vader into first gear—just a few more minutes.
Porter continued, looking very cold, up the street for several more blocks before turning right. I wove Vader in and out of parking spaces, careful to let Porter stay ahead of me but not so far ahead that I lost sight of him. After a few more blocks on the main street, Porter turned into a residential neighborhood—was this where he lived?
A minute after he turned, I inched Vader onto the same street. There were cars parked on the street outside the small, square, one-story brick houses evenly spaced up and down the street, but mine was the only car actually moving. All Porter would need to do is glance over his shoulder to see me—I didn’t think I could come up with a believable excuse to be driving two miles an hour on the exact street he was walking down in the middle of the school day.
I pulled over and planned to let Porter get really far out in front of me—but then he stopped walking.
The snow was falling faster. Landing in heavy wet flakes on my windshield, I had to leave the wipers on to clear away the white screen that kept obscuring my view of Porter. He wasn’t moving, just standing on the corner, arms folded over his chest against the cold. If one of these houses was his, why didn’t he go inside?
Between my breath and Vader’s struggling heater, the windows kept fogging up. Leaning forward in my seat, I rubbed some of the condensation off the windshield, peered through the hole I’d created, and waited for Porter to make a move.
He just stood there, in the cold, in the snow—he was probably getting wet.
What the hell was he doing?
Squinting, I leaned forward again. The corner he was standing on was not the edge of someone’s yard. Past Porter I could see the outline of a building much larger than the rest of the houses in this neighborhood. At the peak of the building’s entrance, an electric sign with red letters scrolled through a series of announcements:
No School February 16—President’s Day
PTA Meeting—Tonight 6PM
Spring Photos—February 12
I leaned back in my seat and considered what I was seeing. Porter, standing on a corner—no, loitering on a corner, outside an elementary school.
An uneasy dread crawled up my legs, through my stomach, and up my spine.
I thought of Porter’s giant mental health file sitting on my mother’s bed.
I thought of Porter spending part of his days in the affective needs classroom.
I thought of Porter kicking and bucking while two armed police officers restrained him in the middle of the school hallway.
I thought, honestly, about all the problems Porter Creed for sure had and all the ones he could possibly have. My hand tightened on the gear shift next to me.
Was Porter Creed a predator?
My palm was starting to sweat. I ran it down the leg of my jeans before reaching into my bag for my phone: 1:12. If Porter Creed was standing outside this school, in the snow, with no jacket, waiting for kids to get off school so he could try and groom them like the villain in an after-school special, he was going to have to stand there waiting for almost two more hours.
The front doors to the school building opened just below the electric sign reminding everyone about the Bake Sale—February 5 after school. Through the crack in the door, a little girl, maybe seven years old, with long brown hair came running out. A small blue backpack bounced with her every step. I watched her cross the parking lot, squeeze between two parked cars, and continue running across the snowy grass before she hit the sidewalk bordering the school’s edge.
Porter uncrossed his arms.
And the girl came running into them.
He lifted her up into a big hug before placing her feet back on the sidewalk. With his hand holding hers, they started walking up the street.
Straight for me.
My heart thumped, thick and heavy, urging my body to do something by sending a hot shot of adrenaline to the tips of my fingers and feet. In less than half a block, Porter would be walking right past my parked car—a casual glance to his right is all it would take for him to see me skulking, like the crazy stalker I clearly was, behind the wheel of my car.
“Crap,” I said. I pulled my feet up on my seat and turned so I could crawl into the back and hide like a lunatic. For my seventeenth birthday, I had asked my mom for darker tinting on Vader’s windows—and that’s exactly what she gave me. The next week is when my brakes went out driving Eli home from his church youth group, “Asking for the tinting was the wise choice I think,” Eli had snarked.
But right now, I was relieved to have it. I pulled my knees to my chest and watched while Porter and . . . his sister? . . . walked past me. The windows weren’t completely black, but it must have been enough, because Porter didn’t even peek in my direction.
Once they had passed, I let out a sigh and my shoulders dropped—Idiot, Ruth. I crawled back into my front seat, shaking my head at myself. Maybe I should totally let go of the whole neuroscientist thing and focus on private investigation—it was clearly such an untapped gift of mine.
Shifting into reverse, I slowly backed out of my hiding spot and continued up the street in the opposite direction Porter and the little girl had gone and thought about what I’d just seen.
He had a sister?
Who also left school two hours before she should? It seemed impossible that someone who couldn’t be older than first grade would be ditching without some kind of fire alarm going off. Why was she allowed to leave so early? And why was Porter the one to pick her up?
I didn’t know, but by the time I had reached the highway heading north to Harmony House, I had decided that I was absolutely going to find out.
Thank you for reading chapter nine 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!