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I stared at my honors thesis. I had failed to add anything new in days and was starting to feel more and more stressed, and doubtful, about actually being able to get the thing finished in time. I glanced at the large clock above the door of my first-period homeroom class. Was it my imagination, or was the second hand moving unusually fast? I could feel Helen Nyugen—the next best contender for valedictorian—breathing down my neck. She was, in fact, sitting two rows behind me with her own laptop propped open. The difference between us being that her fingers flew across her keyboard. Was she also working on her thesis right now? I wished I could ask her how it was coming along without giving her an open-door view into my own desperation. What was her topic? How much had she already completed? Was she feeling overwhelmed, hung up, maybe just a little stuck?
I could actually hear her typing. Helen was just as hungry to be number one as I was, and for the first time, I wondered if she might want it even more. Casually, I turned halfway around in my seat and feigned boredom as I looked back at her. Head down, she only stopped typing when she shifted her gaze to read whatever was written down in the notebook beside her. Watching her, a panicky sick sense of being behind came over me.
In my sweatshirt pocket my phone vibrated. I pulled it out and read the text being sent from a number I didn’t recognize.
Can you come with me today?
It was Porter. I knew this because whenever he sent me a text, which was rare, it was from someone else’s phone—he didn’t have one. He told me that his dad sometimes had one of those disposable phones, the ones where you had to prepay for minutes, but Porter wasn’t supposed to use it. He had snuck calls to me a few times, at night when his dad was either not around or not paying attention, but Porter had given me strict instructions: Ruth, don’t ever call me at this number. My dad will completely lose his shit.
Could I come with him today? He meant during lunch so he was free to pick up Paige on time. Doing this meant I missed fourth-hour English Lit, and fifth-hour physics. It also meant that I got to hang out with Porter alone for an hour and a half before he had to leave to get his sister. It was a choice I had been making with increasing frequency over the last month and it was becoming more and more difficult to hide the fact that Porter and I were seeing each other. From the other students, yes, but they were the least of my worries. It was the teachers, teachers that worked with my mother, that I was really worried about. Being the daughter of Ms. Carrie Ann gave me a lot of latitude around the school. It was always assumed I was either helping my mom or had someone’s permission to be doing something else when I missed class. It was never a problem because it usually didn’t happen that much and I always kept up on the work. But already this week I had used passes from my mother’s office and missed both of my afternoon classes twice. I was falling behind and now living in an academic hole that I insisted on digging deeper and deeper.
It could only be a matter of time before some teacher thought to ask my mother about my ever increasing absences and missed work—is everything okay with Ruth?
I stared at Porter’s question—I should say no. I should go to those classes today. I should catch up, focus on my thesis, work on our calculus project. I could still hear Helen typing.
My thumbs typed in my answer. Yes, I’ll grab passes for both of us during third. I hit Send and sighed—it was hard to say no to time alone with Porter. I quickly typed, But we need to work on the calc project!
A few seconds later he texted back, We can do whatever you want . . .
You always say that, but we never seem to get any work done!
Because you’re a bad influence
Jay wants his phone back, don’t send any compromising pictures of yourself
You wish :-)
So he was using Jay’s phone? Jay was in the affective needs class with Porter. He was also Roosevelt’s go-to guy if you needed to score just about any illegal substance capable of irreparably frying brain cells. I wondered if Jay was a friend of Porter’s, or maybe just an affective needs associate who happened to have a phone. Jay was kind of a scary guy who hung around with even scarier people—scarier older people who drove tricked-out cars and lived in neighborhoods nobody dared go into past dark. I would have to remember to ask Porter exactly how it was that he knew Jay well enough to use his phone.
My own phone buzzed again in my hand.
Ruth, don woree abt Port—u can send me any pics u lik! ;)
It was Jay. Great! Now I was receiving sexual innuendoes from a pre-felon—I deleted the entire thread and put my phone back in my pocket. Eli would fall all over himself laughing about this one. And I was pretty sure I knew exactly what his smart-ass response would be. That’s great! Valedictorian wannabe Ruth Robinson is in tight with the biggest dealer in school. Actually, this could really help with your social profile, you know.
I turned and glanced back at Helen, completely lost in her own mental realm of academia. She looked like she might actually be breaking a sweat over her laptop. A second later, I pulled my phone back out, scrolled through the Recents, and blocked Jay’s number.
“No more messing around,” I declared as soon as Porter and I entered the library. “We are getting this project done.”
“Absolutely.” Yet somehow the look on his face left me feeling like he probably wasn’t as committed to the work as I felt we needed to be.
I stopped, grabbed his hand, and gave him my most serious glare. “I mean it.”
Porter looked into my eyes for half a second then bent low until his mouth was right next to my ear. “I know you do,” he whispered. “I promise.” Then his lips brushed mine right before he stood up straight and started walking toward the staircase. With my hand still in his, I trailed behind him and cursed my stupid, traitorous, hot-blooded body that now was completely thinking about forgetting all my grand proclamations about work. His touch—it was electric fire on my skin. Now all I could imagine was taking Porter in my arms and kissing him again the second we reached the privacy of our regular table at the back of the second floor.
How easy it was to knock me off track these days. Easy for Porter anyway. Most days it didn’t take much more than a direct look into those deep blue eyes that pierced right through me. One look and I was curled up with Porter in the backseat of my car, blowing off my honors thesis, our calculus project, and pretty much every other thing I should be doing.
I needed some balance. Some way to be around Porter and resist simply falling into his arms. I needed to still function. When we reached our table, instead of sitting right next to Porter like I usually did, I chose the seat on the opposite side of the table from him. What we needed was some solid, physical furniture between us.
He obviously knew exactly what I was up to because the moment I staked out my territory, he let out a laugh. “It that supposed to help?”
“Yes,” I said. “As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do.”
Porter shook his head and shrugged before dropping his frayed and dying backpack into the center of the table. “Let’s get to work, then.”
I gave him a single nod. Yes, things were going to change starting today. The problem was, while Porter would obediently follow my positive lead, if I didn’t take the reins he would gladly roll all over the library floor if I suggested. I had to be the strong one. The one to resist. And it didn’t seem fair because, in fact, I would rather be lying under this table with his body pressed against mine than counting on the solid wood to keep us separate.
It would be easier if he would sometimes care about getting our work done.
And actually . . . “Why don’t you ever seem to care if we get this project done?”
Porter pulled wrinkled papers and books with crushed covers from his bag. “Because I don’t. It doesn’t mean anything to me.”
“How can you say that?”
Finished with his bag and all the trash-looking items he’d emptied onto the table, he flipped open his calculus book, sat in his chair, and leveled his eyes at me. “I don’t know what you want me to say.” He looked at all the notes and work he’d already finished spread out in front of us. “But actually, I guess that’s not exactly true. If I really didn’t care, I wouldn’t be here at all. Its means something to me but only because it means something to you. I know doing well on this is important to you, and that’s the only reason I bother.”
I stared at him, caught somewhere between flattered, irritated, and confused. “Why don’t you care about it for you?”
He lowered his eyes. It was a fraction of a second, but I knew there was something he wasn’t telling me. I took a guess. “You’re dropping out,” I blurted, and fell into my seat.
Porter swallowed and shook his head. “I’m not dropping out,” his voice was low.
“Well, what, then? I can tell something is wrong.”
He took a breath and then his words came out in a rush. “I met with my counselor on Monday.”
I waited for him to finish, but when he didn’t go on, my eyes grew wide with impatience until it felt like they might burst right out of my head. “AND?”
“And . . . she was helping me plan my schedule for next year.”
I stared at him. Confused, I searched his face for some clue. Wait, he wasn’t a senior? Of course he was. I shook my head, “What are you talking about?”
“I’m short,” he shrugged like he didn’t care, but, as always, Porter’s eyes gave him away. Whatever the problem was, it was really bothering him.
“Credits.” He sighed. “I don’t have enough credits to graduate this spring.”
Porter picked up a pencil and pulled a random sheet of paper in front of him. “Or next fall. She said I was so far behind, it would take another year for me to finish. And that’s only if I take a max load both semesters.”
My phone buzzed loudly on the table between us, and Eli’s picture opened up on the screen. I touched the Decline button and tried to wrap my brain around what Porter was telling me. He wasn’t going to graduate this year. No chance. No extra credit, extra projects, extra effort was going to dig him out of a year’s worth of missing credits. Suddenly, I felt sick for him. The idea of not graduating, of having to stay in high school for a whole other year, I couldn’t even—“How could you let this happen?”
The space between his eyes folded into an angry crouch. “I didn’t let it happen, Ruth,” his voice was loud enough to attract the attention of an old guy browsing the stacks to our right. He raised his eyebrows at us, a warning to keep it down.
I leaned across the table and lowered my voice, “Of course you did. It’s not like someone else didn’t get those credits.” My exasperation was a runaway train. “Porter, you are so fucking smart.” I wanted to shake him.
He slumped in his seat and stared across the table at me, his face completely unreadable.
“I mean, you can’t expect me to believe that the work was too hard.”
Porter shook his head.
“Don’t do that, not to me.”
“Shut me out like that. I’m trying to understand.”
“What’s to understand, Ruth. I’m a fuck-up. Always have been. Always will be. Not everyone gets Princeton beating down their door.”
There were so many loaded statements falling from his lips I didn’t know which one to attack first. Now it was my turn to shrug. “But they should be.”
Later, I waited in the car while Porter stood on the corner outside Paige’s elementary school. There was no point arguing with Porter about all the bad decisions he’d made before I even knew him. It’s not like he could go back in time and fix his credits. After a few minutes of calculus work, we had mutually and silently let the subject drop between us.
This was my first time meeting Paige, and my hands, wet with sweat, felt slimy against Vader’s steering wheel. I clenched them for a second then wiped them across my jeans.
She was seven—why was I so nervous? I didn’t really have any experience with little kids; I had never even babysat. Eli had a younger sister, Natasha, who would always hang around and bother us when we were younger. But Eli would complain to his mother and she would come collect her so we could be alone. How old was Natasha now? Fifth grade? Middle school? I supposed old enough that she had her own friends and life now. I almost never saw her when I was at their house because she was either in her room, on the phone, or at a friend’s house.
If they were the same age, Natasha would definitely have been friends with Bella Blake and her crew. Come to think of it, Natasha was so popular and beautiful, she probably was the Bella of her class.
The front door to the school opened and Paige shot out in a sprint toward Porter, her backpack bouncing high off her shoulders. This time, I could see a woman standing at the door. She waved to Porter, who raised a hand back. She turned and let the door close as soon as Paige reached her brother.
On the corner, Paige stopped in front of Porter and held up something to show him. He took it from her, turned it over a few times, smiled, and said something as he took her hand and led her toward my car.
The bottom had dropped out of my stomach. Why? Why on earth was this quickly approaching seven-year-old girl causing me so much stress? Porter stooped low and pointed to my car. Was it my imagination, or did Paige suddenly narrow her eyes and look suspicious as she followed the sight line of her brother’s finger? I took a deep breath and let it out in a wooosssshhh.
Porter’s little sister was making me feel like I was walking into a job interview. When they were right outside the car, Paige’s eyes pierced the front windshield and connected with mine. I forced a smile and raised my hand.
Her serious expression didn’t budge.
Porter opened Vader’s back door and tossed Paige’s pink bag onto the seat before stepping out of the way so Paige could climb in herself. “Paige,” Porter said as he reached across his sister and buckled her seatbelt, “this is my friend, Ruth. Ruth, meet Paige.” Before either of us could say anything, Porter closed the back door, opened the passenger door, and slid onto the front seat next to me.
Swiveled around so I could see her, I smiled big. “It’s nice to meet you, Paige.”
She didn’t say anything. She sat there and stared at me.
“Paige,” Porter said. “What do you say?”
Seconds ticked. Paige continued to stare at me, then her brother, then me. I could tell Porter was getting irritated because Paige wasn’t doing whatever it was that she was supposed to be doing—which was what, exactly? Say hello?
“Paige,” his voice warned.
I couldn’t stand the pressure anymore. I shrugged and kept smiling, completely ready to give up and let Paige win. But before I could turn around and get Vader started, Paige decided to speak.
“Are you Porter’s girlfriend?”
I opened my mouth, but no sound came out. I had no idea how to answer that question. Yes? No? Almost? This, I realized, was why seven-year-olds were so dangerous.
“Ruth,” Porter suddenly piped up.
I turned my confused gaze to him. Maybe he had a plan for reclaiming control of the situation.
“Look what Paige made in school this week,” he held up a lopsided, half-painted pot. The kind made from clay rolled into long worms and then spiraled around and around on itself.
“That’s really pretty,” I said, and when I looked back at Paige, I could see her expression had softened a bit. “I bet you had to work really hard to make it look that good.”
“No,” she said, very matter-of-fact. “I’m really good at art. I’m going to be an artist when I grow up.”
This gave me an idea. “Do you guys have to go home right away?”
Porter shrugged and Paige shook her head.
Have you ever been to the Grounds for Sculpture?”
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