She inhaled the smell of fresh cut grass, filling her lungs with air, excited voices buzzing around her. This was it, her final year, her final stepping stone on the way to her dreams, and she was ready. SATs completed, AP exams taken, she was prepared, ready to make the year count, focused on achieving her ambitions. She was also prepared to make the last year with Jackson count, coming to terms with the inevitability of their separation.
Summer had been long and difficult again, him being away at a summer basketball programme or busy going to showcases. He had his heart set on this path, she could see it, and when he had explained it to her it had made perfect sense. It was the only ting that was truly his, that had nothing to do with his family name or legacy, the path he could go down with no expectations or pressure other than his own. It made perfect sense, and she had accepted it. There was nothing for him where she was going and nothing for her where he was going, and though it was a sadness she carried with her everyday, she was not heartbroken, not yet. They still had one final year together, and though summer had been difficult there was a certainty between them now that drowned her insecurities and anchored her to him.
She giggled softly as familiar, warm arms snaked their way around her waist, stubble rasping against her neck, hot breath on her skin. It was the beginning of September and the end of her missing him. September was warmer than usual, forcing her to pile her hair up on top of her head, her skirt clinging to her sweaty body. He kissed her hungrily, fingers splayed on her back, leaning into her, her feet threatening to slip away from under her.
"Stop it," she chided him, pushing him back. "Someone will see us."
He'd caught up with her as she waited outside Mr Canlas' office, eyeing her bare legs and her tight skirt, cornering her before she'd had a chance to gather her wits. He still had this effect on her, making her forget the world around her with a flash of those piercing eyes, small smirk on his lips.
"You're really spending far too much time with Mr Canlas and far too little with me," he pouted, teasing her, faint tension in his face.
"Well, maybe I would spend more time with you if you were as helpful as Mr Canlas," she bit back, uselessly trying to fight him off as he leant into her again.
"Because right now..." She gasped as he grazed his teeth over her neck.
"You're not being very...helpful."
She groaned softly as he shut her up by moving his mouth over hers, his hands twisting into her hair, unravelling her top knot.
They broke apart abruptly as heavy footsteps alerted them to the presence of Mr Canlas, awkwardly backing away from each other as he approached.
"Hey Mr C," Jackson muttered, before scuttering away, leaving April to gather up her hair and restore her bun.
"Don't forget our session tomorrow, big man," Mr Canlas shouted after his retreating form, before ushering April into his office.
"Sorry Mr Canlas," she apologised, bracing herself for a reprimand. Hartwell had a pretty strict policy on PDA, the last thing she needed was to set off any alarm bells within the administration.
"You guys know you have to keep a lid on that stuff," he shrugged, removing his blazer and gesturing for her to take a seat. "But let's keep it between us this time."
April smiled, thankful that it had been him that had caught them, relieved that Mr C was a little more relaxed than his colleagues. He was such a cool teacher, always making her laugh and he talked to her like she was a human being rather than an annoying child. Their sessions had been invaluable to her, really helping her to focus on her applications.
"So, let's talk about recommendation letters," Mr Canlas started, rolling up his sleeves to reveal a tattooed arm, before leaning back in his chair and folding his hands behind his head.
She found herself distracted by his tattoo, thick black lines covering his skin, disappearing under his shirt. She could make out a few letters but couldn't piece together their meaning or recognise the image under a blur of black hairs.
"Do you like it?"
His question snapped her out of her thoughts, faint blush forming under her skin as she realised he'd caught her looking.
"Yeah," she swallowed, thinking any other answer rude.
"You like guys with tattoos?"
"Um, sure?" she shrugged, confused by his question.
He laughed a heartfelt, boyish laugh, obliterating her brief discomfort, before returning to the subject of recommendation letters.
The following Sunday Hannah was in her room, flicking through college brochures with her, helping her kill time while Jackson was away visiting one of the more persistent colleges in Austin. They were bored, hot and too lazy to do anything remotely useful. Hannah rolled over on her back, examining her chipped nailpolish carefully, humming quietly and badly to the radio.
"Who do you think is the hottest teacher here?" Hannah asked, still investigating her nails.
"We don't have any hot teachers" she said distractedly, nose deep into her Harvard brochure.
"Mr Lane is quite hot," Hannah continued, undeterred, weighing the matter in her head.
"In an old man, silver fox kind of way."
"Eww, you're disgusting," she grimaced, trying to shake the image of a foxy Mr Lane out of her head.
"Oh, I know!" Hannah thrilled, inspiration gripping her. "Mr Canlas! He's hot."
"You're delusional," she chided, shaking her head. "There is clearly something very wrong with you."
"He is!" Hannah insisted, now tearing off strips of stale pink nail polish and depositing them on her floor. "He looks like that werewolf in that show."
"No, he doesn't," she laughed, immediately shutting Hannah down. Maybe he did, a little. In a non-hot, teacher kind of way.
"Do you know he has a big tattoo on his arm?"
April said after a little while, eyes still firmly fixed on the brochure in front of her, teeth pushing down her bottom lip.
"Really?" Hannah sat up, eyes widening. "See, I told you. Hot."
Hannah scanned her room, finally finding what she had been looking for, retrieving a bottle of nail polish remover from a shelf.
"You know who else is hot?" Hannah carried on, carefully removing the scraps of nailpolish from her fingers. "That guy who works in the dining hall sometimes, the tall one with the shaved head."
April laughed it off, teeth still digging in to her lips, bruising them.
She was back in Mr Canlas' office the following week, going over the list of people she was going to ask for a letter of recommendation. Their conversation was easy, lighthearted, comfortable, she felt like she was talking to a boy in her class rather than the man who taught it. She suddenly realised she'd been there for an hour, and was readiying herself to get up and leave when the conversation turned.
"So, Jackson seems pretty set on Austin?" he asked, dark eyes inquisitive.
"I think so," she exhaled, eyes flickering down towards her hands. "He can't stop talking about it."
"Are you ok with that?" He shifted slightly in his chair, leather creaking under his weight.
She hesitated, carefully weighing her words.
"It's an amazing opportunity for him."
Mr Canlas nodded silently, quiet understanding in his eyes.
"Leaving school can be bittersweet," he said, tone understanding.
"Sometimes there are far better things ahead of you than those you leave behind."
She stared at him blankly, not wanting to leave anything behind, not wanting better ahead when she already had the best. His dark eyes lingered on her, his lips parting slightly, and suddenly she felt a brief discomfort again. She got up, his eyes weighing her down, making her move slowly. He got up and opened the door for her.
"See you on Friday," he said, dropping his voice, filling it with an intimacy she didn't recognise.
As she left she felt his hand stroke her back, making her ears tingle with heat, her back stiffen. His hand travelled down, further than it should for a friend, much further than it should for a teacher. Ed was waiting for his appointment outside Mr Canlas' office, eyes registering hands, stiff back and red ears.
She tried to brush it off, the uncomfortable feeling she now carried with her everywhere she went, like a lump of cold ice in her stomach. She tried not to apply any logic to the situation, afraid of what she might discover if she did. She must have read too much into it, it was probably just an innocent gesture. She must have exaggerated, he was probably just comforting her. She must have encouraged him, he was probably just being friendly. She was punishing herself with 'must haves' and absolving him with probabilities.
Jackson paused to look at her in the middle of telling her about how great the Austin coach was. She smiled and nodded, swallowing her lunch without chewing.
"You know this is an amazing opportunity for me, right?"
He searched her eyes for confirmation, voice pleading.
"It is an amazing opportunity," she agreed. "You will be amazing in Austin, or Indianapolis or wherever you go."
"And you'll be amazing in Harvard, or Brown or wherever you go."
He reached across the table, rubbing circles with his thumb on her hand.
"We'll both be amazing, in different places," she said not sadly, but conclusively.
She dreaded her next meeting with Mr Canlas, though she refused to admit to herself that she did. She was as bright and peppy as she had ever been throughout their session, gushing over the letter of recommendation Mr Hall had written for her. He seemed unfazed, chatting away as normal, asking for updates on her other letters. She pulled out a another email from her colour coded folder, passing it to him, but instead of taking the paper he walked around the desk, hovering over her to read it. Her stomach tightened as he rested a hand on her back, the other on the desk next to her, his blazer brushing against her face.
"This is good," he encouraged, not looking at her. "We can work with this."
As she put the piece of paper back in her folder, he turned towards her, carefully brushing her thigh with his hand. She immediately stiffened, shrinking away from him.
“It’s okay,” he said quietly, dark eyes burning into her. “Don’t worry.”
He didn't move the hand he held on her back, made no gesture to back away from her. The lump of ice in her stomach had now frozen her entire body, paralysing her, cutting off her circulation.
“You have such a nice, athletic body,” he said, stroking her thigh once again.
"Don't," she repeated, squirming in her seat, willing her body to get up and walk away.
Before she could he leant in and kissed her on the cheek, stale, hot breath stinging her, tearing her nose.
"No." She didn't recognise her own voice, small and tight in her throat, not loud and angry as it sounded in her head.