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Before I finished shoving everything into my bag, Porter was standing next to my desk waiting for me to finish.
“Hey,” I said as I grabbed my calculator and notebook.
He lifted his chin. “Hey,” he said back, giving Ryan Miller, who was again blatantly staring at Porter, a steely glare as he walked out the door.
Ryan, finally cluing in that he was pissing Porter off, lowered his eyes and scooted out the door as fast as possible without actually breaking into a run.
“I don’t like that guy,” Porter said.
I stood up and swung my bag over my shoulder. “Ryan? He’s harmless.”
As Porter’s eyes zeroed in on me my stupid heart beat faster. His black eye wasn’t swollen anymore and the color had transformed from a deep yellowish-purple to pink with splotches of red. “His staring gets on my nerves.”
I nodded and pretended I wasn’t thinking at all about reaching up and touching the skin near Porter’s eye. “But I don’t think he realizes that he does it. He’s pretty clueless when it comes to social interactions.”
Porter’s face broke into a grin and we walked out the door together.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
He shook his head, still smiling. “Nothing.”
“No, tell me,” I said, and took a risk by gently nudging his arm with my elbow.
He smiled at me, directly, and the force of it sent a shiver down my spine. “It’s just funny,” he shrugged. “I recently, like this morning, had someone tell me that I have the same problem. They said I need to work on my social skills.”
I looked away, I knew exactly who had told him that—my mother. He must have seen her this morning during first hour. “I have to stop at my locker.” I changed the subject. I wasn’t ready for Porter to know who my mother was—it was early; there was time to figure out how to tell him, eventually. Plus I didn’t know how he would feel about spending time with me if he didn’t get to know me, and my mom, better. I didn’t want him to feel paranoid about what she might tell me about him.
My mother took her students’ confidentiality very seriously—but Porter probably didn’t trust her, or anyone here at Roosevelt, just yet. He definitely did not give off a trusting vibe. There was something in the way he walked down the hall, defensive, like he was waiting for an attack to launch at him from any direction and at any minute.
“Here it is.” I stopped and turned the combination while Porter leaned his back against the locker next door and crossed his arms over his chest.
“So, what did you want to talk about?” he asked as he watched the river of people stream past us.
I took everything out of my locker that I would need for the rest of day, all the books for the assignments I was going to miss in my classes. I planned on doing them at home later tonight. I closed my locker and turned to Porter. “You’re planning on dropping out, aren’t you?” I looked around, like someone was maybe listening to me reveal Porter’s plan, but no one was eavesdropping. In truth, even if they were, they probably wouldn’t care.
Porter looked around too, but then he unfolded his arms and turned to face me. “What if I am?”
“I’ll take that as a yes, then.” I took a breath. “I don’t think you really want to drop out.”
Porter smiled at this, “And what makes you think you know what I want?”
Was it my overactive imagination, or was Porter insinuating something here? Like maybe what he wanted was actually a who—and by the way his eyes were practically boring into mine, maybe that who was me? I swallowed and forced myself to concentrate. “Because if you actually wanted to drop out, you would have done it a long time ago. I mean, why wait until you’re three months away from graduation when you could have done it the second you turned eighteen.”
Porter didn’t say anything, but I could see I had his attention.
“And, why bother coming to a few classes, first thing in the morning no less, only to leave in the afternoon, when you have to get your sister, if you really don’t want to be here at all.”
“Sixteen,” Porter said.
I didn’t understand what he said, and it knocked me from my train of thought. “What?”
Porter inhaled deeply and let it out in a huge sigh. “Sixteen,” he repeated. “You only have to be sixteen to drop out.”
“Yeah,” I argued, “but your parents have to give permission for that. You have to be eighteen to do it on your own.”
“First of all,” Porter’s eyes focused on some point over my shoulder. “I’m not eighteen yet. My birthday’s not until May. And second, my dad wants me to drop out and get a job. So permission isn’t really a problem.” His eyes met mine again. “He thinks school is a huge waste of time.”
I took a second to digest all of this. That Porter’s father would actually want him to drop out. I remembered the phone call my mother had with Porter’s dad. She was frustrated and angry, and then Porter’s dad hung up on her. “Well, see?” My voice was gentle. “You’ve just made my point for me.” A heartbeat passed, a moment when I gave a half thought to the bridge I was about to cross. Then, I reached forward, slowly, and touched Porter’s hand before I wrapped my fingers around only his index finger. He didn’t pull away and our hands settled into the space halfway between us.
Porter looked at our hands, “You should want to stay away from me, Ruth,” he said.
“And what makes you think you know what I want?”
He slipped his finger from my grasp, but only so he could take hold of my whole hand. “I know you must be pretty desperate for my help in calculus if you’re willing to get messed up with someone as screwed up as I am.”
If I’d known him as well as I knew Eli, I would have punched his arm—hard. “You should know”—I smiled—“that the implication that I am incapable of any academic task—those are fighting words in my book.”
Porter smiled, then he pulled my hand and brought me a step closer to him. He leaned forward until his lips were near my ear, “And you should know, starting fights is one of my biggest problems.”
A shiver ran from my neck all the way down my back and my heart hammered so hard I was worried he would be able to hear it. When he leaned back, he looked into my eyes and my stomach dropped away—was he going to kiss me? Was I going to let him? I was only somewhat conscious of the hordes of gossiping eyewitnesses all around us, but I didn’t care at all what they were going to say.
I wanted Porter to kiss me.
“What’s your plan, Robinson?” he whispered.
We stopped by my mother’s office again and I filled out two more passes. Hunched over her desk, a sick guilty feeling rose up and made me worry about not only getting caught, but betraying her trust like this. I handed Porter his pass and promised myself that this was the last time.
I would have to think of some other way to keep Porter out of trouble.
We followed the same escape route as the other day, and before I knew it, we were both in Vader and pulling out of the school parking lot. It was early February and the weather had been freezing and snowy for weeks, but today the sun was shining and it felt like the first time in forever. The roads were wet with rivers of melting snow. In the unexpected heat, the mini mountains that had been snowplowed to the sides of the streets dissolved in a rush. Porter rolled down his window and put his hand out into the fresh cool air streaming past the car.
“That smells good,” he said.
“What does?” I asked.
He stuck his head out the window and I glanced over to see his shaggy hair blowing back from his face. His eyes were closed and his lips parted slightly as his lungs inhaled deep. When he came back inside he smiled at me, “Like spring.”
I wrinkled my forehead at him and gave him my best you’re-insane look, but I couldn’t help pulling a deep breath through my nose. It did smell like spring. Wet and warm, like the Earth was finally waking up from a frozen death.
“I hate winter,” Porter said. “One day I’m going to live where it never snows. Arizona . . . maybe Florida.”
“With all the old people,” I laughed.
“With all the wise people,” he countered. “They probably spent a lifetime shoveling this frozen shit and finally clued in that hot, sand, and ocean is the way to go. He shrugged. “I trust they know what they’re doing and I’ll follow their lead; I don’t need to spend my lifetime reinventing the wheel.”
“So I assume your college choices are all about their proximity to the equator?” I smiled and flipped on my indicator to turn left.
Porter looked out his window and put his hand back into the fresh air. He ignored my comment about college. “So where are we going?” he asked.
“Somewhere we can work,” I said, and turned Vader’s wheel hard and to the left as I pulled into my neighborhood.
With his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his jeans and his shoulders up around his ears, Porter looked really uncomfortable standing in my kitchen. I leaned into the fridge, pushing aside leftover takeout containers and orange juice with less than a swallow left. “God, we need to go shopping. Sorry,” I said as I grabbed two peach-flavored yogurts from the back of the fridge and handed one to Porter. “This is about it.” Mom always bought the industrial-size box of yogurts, half strawberry, half peach, and all the strawberry flavored ones disappeared first.
Porter pulled one hand from his pocket and held the yogurt in front of him like it might be a bomb about to explode. “What if someone comes home?” he asked.
I pulled open the utensil drawer and saw that while there were plenty of clean butter-knives, all the spoons were gone. “Like who?” I said as I opened the dishwasher and hoped that I had remembered to turn it on last night—I had!
“Like your parents?” Porter said, taking the spoon I handed him.
“Not a chance. My mother works like a maniac, and my father, the self-absorbed prick, no longer owns a key to this establishment.”
Porter pulled the foil top from his yogurt and stood holding it until I took it away from him and threw it in the trash. “No brothers . . . sisters?” He shoveled a huge glob of orange colored yogurt into his mouth.
“Not one,” I said, and started heading for the stairs. “It’s just me—” But then I remembered. “Well it has mostly been just me.” I started up the stairs for my room. “I was recently informed that I am soon to become the proud older sister of a bouncing baby something. The self-absorbed prick has hooked up with a young, hippie breeder. Apparently he’s determined to screw up another kid’s life.”
“So you and dad are close?”
It was very, very, very weird being in my room with Porter. I felt it, he felt it, and both of us awkwardly tried to pretend it wasn’t. My bed had never looked so huge and it suddenly seemed like it was beckoning to me suggestively from the center of my room. I had done homework on my bed with Eli thousands of times over the years—I hadn’t really considered how different it would be having Porter here instead.
Too late, I realized we should have stayed in the kitchen and worked at the table.
So instead of climbing into the middle of my bed like I usually did, I dropped my bag on the floor and folded my legs beneath me until I was sitting with my back pressed against the side of my bed. Porter followed my lead, except he kept his giant long legs sprawled out in front of him across my floor.
As we both pulled books and papers from our bags, it occurred to me that it would be just as easy for us to roll around on my floor as it would the bed.
“What are you thinking?” Porter asked.
Caught, my face blushed hot. “I . . .” What was I supposed to say? I was thinking about lying on the floor with you, the feel of your lips, the color of your eyes, your big hands on the side of my face.
Porter looked up from his bag as he pulled out his grandfather’s old flight manual. He wasn’t asking me about my private fantasy of making out with him; he was asking what was I thinking about a plan. What was my plan and why had I brought him here?
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes!” I exclaimed, like it was stupid of him to ask.
“Well, your face looks red.”
“I’m just hot.” I waved my hand as if I could dismiss the whole thing.
“You should take off your sweatshirt,” he said absently. “So what were you thinking? We need to get started because I have to pick up Paige at one.”
I pulled my sweatshirt over my head and felt my hair turn into a static halo radiating in every direction. “About that . . . why are you the one that has to take care of her?”
Porter stared at the pile of books and pages in front of him. I waited for him to answer while he considered the mess like he was looking for the answer.
He ran his hand through his hair. “I don’t have to,” he finally said. “I choose to.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Okay, so why do you choose to? Why doesn’t your dad figure it out?”
Porter turned his head and looked at me. “You said your dad was a self-absorbed prick?”
I nodded, “And he is.”
“Well . . . let’s just say that I wish my dad was that great.”
Again, I thought about my mom talking to Porter’s dad that day on the phone, about what Porter said about his dad wanting him to drop out. My eyes focused on his eye, the one with the fading bruise, and this time I did reach out. I moved slow, not sure if Porter would want me touching it or if it maybe still hurt.
He didn’t move at all. The tips of my fingers connected with the soft skin around his eye. “How did you get this?” I whispered.
Porter kept his eyes on mine. “I told you. I was in a fight.” He voice was gentle, like he was afraid of scaring me away.
I nodded and a sick understanding settled into my stomach. I knew exactly how Porter had gotten the black eye. I started to pull away but Porter reached up and held my arm, like he was asking me to please keep it there.
My fingers rested against his cheek and his thumb ran across the underside of my forearm. He closed his eyes and turned his head until his lips, dry and warm, were against the palm of my hand. As I watched, he inhaled deep through his nose, like he was savoring this, savoring me. When he opened his eyes again, he looked right at me with a desire I could feel. It reached out from his very being. My breath caught in my chest.
His hand traveled from my forearm up past my elbow while his other hand reached for my knee. “I told you to stay away from me,” he said as he leaned in and pulled me closer.
“Maybe you’re the one who should stay away from me,” I whispered. My blood was already rushing, and the closer we got, the quicker everything around me pulsed.
Porter smiled. His hand on my knee slid over my jeans until it came to rest on my hip. “I tried,” he looked down. “But I’m not a machine.” His eyes moved up to the ceiling over us. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to keep trying to ignore a smart and beautiful girl who insists on getting in your face?”
Beautiful? Does he really think I’m beautiful?
I didn’t care. He said it and he was pulling me closer and I was pretty sure he was going to kiss me, right here, right on the uncomfortable floor in my very own bedroom. And I wanted him to.
“When beautiful girls get in my face,” I said. “It’s usually because I’ve pissed them off.”
He was so close now, and I was on the very brink of that cliff, sliding over the edge. Porter’s hand moved from my hip to my waist, his lips were centimeters away. “That’s because they’re afraid of you.” He leaned in.
This was it: what little footing I had left fell away and I was sailing out into the oblivion of whatever came next.
“Last chance,” he whispered.
“It’s already too late.” My breath left me, and I pressed my lips to his.
He was gentle, slow. His kisses soft, almost questioning. I got the feeling that Porter was still giving me the chance to change my mind, to decide that I must be insane to open myself to him in this way.
But all that kindness only made me want him more.
He brushed my hair from my shoulder, and his lips kissed the space just below my ear. My body melted, like an electric rush had turned my insides into a molten river. I had never felt so out of control. It was thrilling—and terrifying.
I thought of the industrial sized box of condoms under the sink in my bathroom and my brain seized up. I wasn’t ready for that.
“We should stop,” I said.
Porter nodded. “Okay.” His lips moved to mine and he kissed me once, twice, and then pulled away. His eyes closed and he looked unsteady, like he was drunk. He nodded again like he was trying to convince himself of the logic behind stopping even though our bodies were practically screaming out for us to let this wave of want sweep us into a questionable decision.
He sat back and ran a shaky hand through his hair. “We should get to work,” he said.
I bit my lip and nodded even though I had no idea how I was supposed to think about complex calculus equations when my body was running at three hundred miles per hour and begging me to please run my fingers through his messy hair, pull him back, start kissing him again.
Porter turned to face me. Obviously he was thinking the same thing. “What just happened, Robinson?”
There was the obvious answer—we kissed—but that wasn’t what Porter was asking.
“Did we start something?” he asked me, and I could see from the look on his face that the idea of starting something made him both worried and happy.
I leaned forward, grabbed my notebook and opened to the page where I had left off with my notes on our project. “I don’t know,” I said. “But let’s focus on this right now.”
Porter laughed. “Okay.” He shook his head. “I’ll do my best.” He started to gather up his own books and pencil. “But you should know . . . you don’t make it easy for a guy.”
Never, not once in my entire life had a guy ever insinuated that I possessed—what? Some sort of physical prowess. The power to distract them, because they thought I was beautiful, because they wanted me . . . like that.
That was it. I couldn’t help myself, I reasoned. I leaned forward until I was on my hands and knees, reached up for Porter’s surprised face, and started kissing him again.
Porter pushed his books to the side and pulled me onto his lap. “And now, you’re definitely not making this easier,” he said.
“I’m sorry.” I smiled and kissed him again.
I couldn’t remember ever feeling so happy.
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