Even running, I didn’t have a chance in hell of catching up with him. I was a sprinting mouse trying to run down a slow, loping giraffe. He had physical advantages I couldn’t compete with. And the fact that I never, ever, engaged in any kind of physical activity was not much of a help.
I promised myself that if this stupidly impulsive adventure didn’t leave me mortally wounded from an exploded chest cavity, I would start using the dusty treadmill in our basement. Even smart girls should be able to run a few blocks without causing internal bleeding.
Once we were out of view of the school, it seemed like Porter slowed his pace a bit, and after another block, he stopped altogether near a small park with dead winter grass. I actually started to gain on him a bit.
The realization that I might actually catch him sent a nervous rush through my body. What exactly was I planning on doing? Hauling him back to school? Interrogating him on the street? How crazed did I actually look, running him down to . . . what?
What the hell was I thinking?
What would Porter think?
I stopped, suddenly hyper self-conscious in a way I never, ever was. Since when did I care what some guy from school thought? Next to me, I caught sight of my reflection in a large tinted plate-glass window. My hair was wild and my face looked desperate in a physically injured way. If I had been able to see any color in that reflection, I knew my whole head would be flushed a deep, deep crimson from running.
I stepped away, worried that maybe there was someone on the other side of the dark tint watching me disapprove of myself and getting a huge laugh at my expense. I should turn around and head straight back to school before anyone even realized I had left. It probably wasn’t too late. Just stroll across the parking lot, back to the yard, and rejoin everyone else waiting for the fourth-hour bell to ring.
That’s what I would do.
Except, just then, Porter Creed turned his head and saw me standing there, and he started to walk back up the street toward me.
I froze to the spot, right next to the large windows that undoubtedly hid the audience amused by my shame.
This was such a stupid idea.
Wait, this was not a stupid idea at all—that was giving myself way too much credit, because none of this had been an idea in the first place. No, this hot mess of embarrassing idiocy was a headlong, impulsive, rush toward God knows what.
And the what was actually a who and the who was an angry-looking Porter Creed, who was now standing right in front of me.
“Are you following me?” he asked.
I was so obviously following him I couldn’t think of a single reasonable thing to say. So instead I said, “You’re not supposed to leave school grounds.”
Porter looked over my head and all around us, like maybe I had a secret camera crew in tow and we were busting him for News @ Nine. “What are you, some kind of vigilante hall monitor?”
“No, but I am your calc partner and we are supposed to meet after school today to get started.” This, I felt, at least made some sort of rational sense.
Porter lifted his wrist and looked at his watch, “Am I missing something? It’s not after school yet.”
“But you won’t come back.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you never do!” Which was totally true, but I totally wished I could take the statement back, because now Porter Creed knew—
“What, you track my comings and goings?”
“No, but . . .” But what? “But you never do and it’s not like I didn’t offer to do all the work but you’re the one who has the problem with that so if you want to work on this as a team . . . then I need to know you’re going to actually be there!”
Porter, who towered over me by probably an entire foot, just stared at me with those deep, deep eyes. I expected him to maybe yell back, but instead, he let out a shaky sigh and ran his hand through his hair in a way that made it stick up on the side.
Right then, standing there, watching his eyes shift to the street while he tried to think of something to say, a startling realization pushed all my annoyance into an insignificant ball and shoved it to a corner of my racing brain. My heart still hammered like mad. It had started first because of the running. It had continued when I got mad. But now, now I realized—it was hammering simply because Porter Creed was standing in front of me. Shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans, looking not at all like a crazed psycho. He looked completely vulnerable.
When he returned his eyes to mine, my heart pumped so hard it sent a shivery wave of discovery that started in my chest and rode on a current through every nerve ending until it reached the tips of my fingers and the ends of my toes. The feeling was so intense, I had to look away from him. My eyes found a spot of dirty black gum to stare at on the concrete instead.
“You’re right,” he said. “I wasn’t going to come back.”
I just nodded and kept my eyes low, suddenly afraid that if I dared to look up, he would be able to read what was happening inside of me written all over my traitorous face. I should say something. Acknowledge his acknowledgment—somehow. Except, just then, just when I really, really needed it, my normally oceanic-size vocabulary seemed to have dried up to the point of extinction. All that was left flopping on the dry sand of my cognitive resources was, “Yeah, well . . . okay.”
My God! Did physical attraction to another human being reduce me to this? “Well?” I managed to ask. “Are you going to come back with me now?”
Porter looked at his watch again. “No.” He shrugged. “And I don’t think you’ll want to either. Fourth-hour already started.”
“What?” I reached for my phone in my back pocket and saw two things. First, the time, which absolutely confirmed that Porter was right. I had missed the start of my fourth-hour class—I was officially truant. Second, there were about a million text messages from Eli, each one more alarmed, distressed, and CAPITALIZED than the last.
“Shit,” I whispered, and looked up at Porter who actually, amazingly, looked somewhat sympathetic. “What am I supposed to do now?”
Porter shrugged. “I go to the library a lot.”
“You ditch school so you can go to the library?”
He didn’t answer me, just waited for me to decide what I was going to do. Was I going to go back to school, face security, face the attendance clerk, and face an afternoon of detention—or was I going to walk another three blocks with Porter to the city library and worry about all the rest of it later?
“We could actually start working on that calc project,” he suggested.
We were ditching school to work on school work—it wasn’t exciting, it was unlikely I would end up drunk in a basement and tattooed with pink hair, but it made me feel better. Sort of like we weren’t really ditching at all, just working remotely. “Okay,” I nodded. “Let’s do that then,” my tone was super grave, like I just found out I had some incurable disease.
Porter stared at me like he was observing some undiscovered freak of nature. “Have you seriously never ditched school?”
We started walking. The wind had picked up, and I was starting to feel cold because I had rushed out of the cafeteria in January without my sweatshirt—or anything else, I realized. I had left my bag and all its contents right there at the table next to Eli. “I don’t even stay home when I’m sick.”
Porter laughed, and without even asking, slipped first one arm and then the next out of his severely beaten leather bomber jacket and handed it to me.
Not understanding what he was doing, I looked first at it and then at him while we walked and he continued to hold the jacket between us.
“You look cold,” he explained.
“Oh!” I took it from him and hesitated—the rough looking leather was actually super soft in my hands—before putting my arms through the sleeves that hung way past the tips of my fingers. The inside of the jacket had a quilted liner that was still warm from Porter’s body. “Thanks,” I said. I watched him nod, shove his hands in his jean’s pockets, and raise his shoulders against the cold.
No boy, not even Eli, had ever offered me their coat before. As much as I hated to admit it, as we walked that last block, side by side, it felt really good to be wearing it—and somewhere inside me I realized, it wasn’t just because it was warm.
When we reached the stone steps to the library, Porter leaped up them two at a time ahead of me, pulled open the door, then stood holding it for me until I caught up.
“Thanks,” I said.
The library had a double set of doors, so I reached for the second set but Porter moved fast around me and took the door handle from me. Because I wasn’t expecting it, the whole exchange was sort of awkward, me reaching, him reaching, me moving out of the way, me saying, “Thank you,” again, even though I just said it.
Both of us not looking the other one in the eye.
God, maybe I should have gone back to school and taken the detention.
“There are some tables on the second floor that I usually use. No one else really knows they’re there.”
I nodded. We were here to work on our project, even though I didn’t have anything with me. How exactly was I planning on getting anything done, I wondered. Porter’s coat sleeves slipped over my hands again, and the thought occurred to me that I should probably give it back to him now that we were inside.
But I didn’t.
I followed him to the back of the first floor toward the staircase. “I don’t have any of my things,” I whispered.
Porter turned around and inspected me, then shrugged. “We’ll plan it out for now,” he explained, and then looked at his watch again before heading up the marble stairs. He didn’t race up these, maybe because we were inside the library instead of outside. As his feet climbed each step in front of me I noticed the bottom of his left shoe had a flap of the rubber sole that was peeling away. Actually, now that I was looking closely, both of his shoes were so tattered and worn, they looked like they might completely fall off his feet at any moment.
And the collar of his T-shirt, I noticed, the ribbed collar was separating from the rest of the shirt at the base of his neck. A thin sliver of his skin showed through the hole. I looked away quickly, like I had seen something I wasn’t supposed to. When we reached the top of the stairs I slid off his coat and handed it back to him. “Thanks again,” I said. “Sorry if you were cold.”
He shrugged and held the coat like is was a stray animal in one hand.
What was I doing here?
When we reached the table, Porter let his backpack slide off his shoulder and I took my phone from my back pocket. There were five more text messages from Eli, who was now in full-blown emergency mode and threatening to go and get my mother if I didn’t—!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!TEXT ME BACK RIGHT NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
“Crap,” I said, and started typing.
“Yes—no. I don’t know.” A nervous dread filled me as I finally responded to Eli and told him I was fine and that I would meet up with him after school and tell him everything. Also, did he happen to pick up my stuff from the cafeteria?
YES! AND THANK YOU FOR LETTING ME KNOW YOU’RE NOT DEAD. I’M GOING TO KILL YOU!
Sorry! I texted back
“My friend is just worried,” I explained.
Porter raised his eyebrows but didn’t say anything. He pulled out his calculus book and a single sheet of crumpled notebook paper that looked like it had been living at the bottom of his bag for weeks. He dug around in his bag some more, pulled out the strange small binder filled with thousands of pages I had seen him with at lunch, a torn manila folder, a broken eraser, and finally stopped when he produced a tiny nub of a pencil that had been sharpened down to about two inches. “Sorry, this is all I have,” he held it up. “Wait!” He got up and left the table. I had no idea where he was going, and he was gone before I thought to ask.
This entire afternoon had me confused and lost—completely adrift from my normal routine. It felt like being inside a strange movie about someone else’s life. I had no idea what might happen next.
I stared at Porter’s giant paper-filled binder and wondered why in the world he would lug such an enormous thing around. It must weigh a ton.
When Porter came back, he was holding a small golf pencil like it was a victory torch. Ah, now I understood. They kept these next to the catalog computers so people could write down the call number for the book they were looking for. “Thanks,” I said. When I took the tiny pencil from him and our fingers brushed against each other, I tried to ignore the electric sensation this insignificant physical contact created in my nervous system.
What the hell was wrong with me?
I was sitting in the single chair at the end of the table, so Porter pulled out and sat in the chair immediately to my right. He pushed his bag away and pulled the crumbled paper and his calculus book closer. “All right,” he said as his hands pressed and smoothed what was essentially a piece of garbage flat. “I think we should start by figuring out who will tackle what.”
Why was he using this scrap when he had a whole binder overflowing with paper? “What’s that?” I pointed.
Porter glanced to his right and laid his hand on top of the binder. “What? This?”
“Yes, the thing that appears to be filled with perfect paper while you’re suggesting we get started working on less-than-perfect paper.”
Porter smirked; maybe he kind of liked that I was such a smart ass. He pulled the binder over and flipped open the cover. “Because this perfect paper is already being used.” He turned the binder toward me so I could read the cover page: United Flight Operations Manual.
I gave him a confused look and flipped through some of the pages that were separated by tiny plastic tabs. “What . . . like, for pilots?”
The manual looked totally legit. “Where’d you get this?”
He hesitated for only a moment while I pulled the manual closer and opened to a section titled: Boeing 747 Preflight Safety Checks. “It was my grandfather’s.”
“And he just let you have it?”
Porter shrugged. “Not exactly. I can guarantee it was supposed to be given back to the airline when he died, but I took it instead. That, and his favorite jacket.”
I looked up into Porter’s eyes, “I’m sorry he died . . . were you close?”
Porter shook his head, “I never even met him. The first time I ever saw him he was lying in his casket.”
I looked back at the manual in front of me and tried to figure out what to say next. I guess I could understand the jacket, but I wanted to ask him why he would take something as strange as a pilot’s flight manual from a man that he never even knew—not to mention carrying it around everywhere he went.
But before I could gather the nerve, Porter reached for the binder, closed it, and slid it to the side.
“We should get to work,” he said, and returned his attentions to straightening out the wrinkled paper that would be our project plan.
I stared at his hands. They were big. Big wide hands with long fingers that ended in nails that were clean and recently clipped. They looked like hands that could do things. Build things. Porter’s hands looked like they did work. They were attractive. Porter had attractive—
My eyes yanked away from his attractive hands and fell directly into his eyes. His eyes that were staring right through me. “I’m listening.”
He furrowed his brow like he didn’t believe me, then returned to what he was saying. “I’ll handle the . . .”
It was like my body was operating completely independent from the rational, thinking side of my brain. I rubbed my hands down my thighs, drying the sweat on my jeans. Sitting this close to him was almost painful. My God—I should get up and go home right now.
I felt nervous, flushed, excited, scared—all at the same time. I wanted to touch his hand, but didn’t dare do something so stupid. It was a ridiculous thought, but what would it feel like to hold that big hand, the one with the tiny pencil, the hand capable of scribbling out that amazingly complex equation?
“That’s wrong,” I blurted, and pointed to his calculation mistake with my own finger.
Startled, Porter sat back and frowned at where I was pointing. “No it’s not.”
I nodded emphatically, “Um, yes. Yes, it is.” I could feel that my eyes had opened super wide and my face had that are you seriously questioning my ability? look.
Porter shook his head, flipped the paper over, and began writing something else. “Look,” he said.
Annoyed that my mathematical authority was being challenged, I sat back in my chair and waited for him to be wrong again.
I leaned forward, narrowed my eyes at his work. For several minutes, numbers piled on top of numbers. Porter, seemingly lost in his mathematical creation, worked quickly. Completely focused, he turned the page sideways when he ran out of space and began carrying equations down the side of the paper.
When he had finished, he sat back and stared at the rush of thinking he had produced. “See?”
I stared. I did see. “Yes,” I said, suddenly realizing that, without noticing it, Porter and I had moved very close together while he had worked so hard to prove me wrong. Under the table, my knee was pressed against his leg.
We were touching.
I continued to stare at his complicated equation, pretending to still be considering it even though I knew within a minute what he had done. The place on my knee that pressed against his leg felt like it was the epicenter of a brilliant flame. I wanted to move my leg away.
I also didn’t want to move my leg away.
Porter was staring at the paper too, and I realized he was now also aware that our legs were touching under the table.
Why, why, why didn’t I stay at the cafeteria table with Eli?
“Impressive,” I finally managed to say, taking the opportunity to sit back and shift my body away from his. Breaking the contact between us was a relief—but also a little disappointing.
I took a breath, “So, you’re clearly a genius.” It was almost painful for me to admit. “How do you want to break the project up?”
For the next hour, we planned and sketched and divided assignments, always careful to not touch again, it seemed. Just when I thought we were really getting started, Porter looked at his watch, then jumped up so fast his chair tipped over behind him with loud crash. “Crap,” he said and started grabbing everything on the table and shoving it back into his bag. He didn’t even zip it up before he threw the strap over his shoulder. “I gotta go,” was all he said, and then walked away.
Stunned, I sat there and watched him go. Realizing only after it was too late to stop him that he’d forgotten his jacket.
Thank you for reading chapter six 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!