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Mr. Perry announces that we’ll be presenting our projects the following week. As we pair up to continue finalizing our projects, Mario turns his desk to face mine. “How ya doing, bro?” he says, but he looks and sounds awkward. I’ve never seen him like that. “Sorry I haven’t been in touch... my uncle and aunt got hold of me, and I’ve been on lockdown ever since. Heh-heh.” His fake laugh makes me feel terrible. I know its fallout from that night at the club.

“I’m sorry man. I’m a fool. I don’t know what got into me. I’ve just been so worried about my grandma... I think I just sorta hit a low point, you know? But she’s doing better, and I think everything’s going to be alright now.” I just hope he’s forgotten about the other stuff I blurted out because I can’t even consider telling him what’s really going on.

“Good! Hey, don’t worry about me and my folks. Their lockdowns never last longer than a few days.” He pats my arm. “And... I know I already told you, but I’m sorry for your loss. I know how it feels to lose someone so close to you.”

“Thanks. I know you do, and I appreciate it.”

He gives me a glance. “We oughta get to work now, but I’ve been meaning to ask you—you said some stuff about people being after you...?”

My heart skips a beat. “People after me?” I cover as best I can. “Nah, had to’ve been those Flaming Balls talking... or maybe I thought that guy I punched out was still after me.”

He looks relieved. “Cool. For a second I thought I was gonna have to get all CIA on your ass.”

Since we’ve already finished most of our project, we decide we can wait until Wednesday after school to wrap it up.

We use the rest of the class time to catch up on the past week.

“Remember that bartender, Janie, from Ego?” Mario raves. “Dude, she is smokin’ hot. We’ve been texting since that night. She’s crazy for me... look—” He whips out his phone and starts scrolling through all the messages. “This one’s my favorite—‘I can’t wait to see you again.’ She can’t wait. Dude, I’m like a rock star.”

I laugh and shove it aside. “It’s okay! I get it! She’s crazy for you!”

At the end of class, Mr. Perry waves me over. I recognize the sympathy smile on his face. I’ve seen a lot of them in the past week.

“It’s okay. I’m fine. Really,” I say before he can even get any words out.

He chuckles. “That obvious, huh?”

I shrug.

“So,” he says, “you need anything? How’s your grandma doing?”

“I’m all right. She’s doing better. Still hurting a lot, but she’ll get through it.”

“Good. I’m glad you’re there for her.... You might not know this, but I knew Bud a little—”

“You did?”

He nods. “I met him a few years back at a photography convention. He was a good man, a really good man. And he had some killer talent.”

“I never knew that.”

“I’m very sorry. Well, the photography community’s pretty small. Especially when it comes to the number of good ones,” he grins. “In fact, that’s one of the main reasons I wanted you in my program. Sure, I saw your work, but knowing you were his grandson gave you some extra brownie points.”

“Lucky me, then. This class has been great for me.”

He gathers up his things and takes out his car keys. “Need a ride home?”

“No, I’m heading off to work, and I can take the Metro. Thanks, though.”

“Come on, I’ll give you a ride. Beats having to walk to the stop, anyway.”

He’s right. And with everything going on, I kind of feel safer with him around.

“All right. Sold.”

We walk out to the faculty parking lot and over to his black Acura A5. He opens the trunk, takes out a duffle bag, unbuttons his button-down, and tosses it in the trunk.

“Gym time,” he explains as he puts on a black ribbed tank.

Mr. P is ripped. He makes me feel like an overcooked strand of spaghetti in a bowl of meatballs.

When he starts the engine the radio blasts Christina Aguilera. He immediately lowers it.

“Is that—?” I scoff. “You’re kidding me!” And I turn the volume back up.

“Shut up.” he laughs. “Not by choice! It’s on the radio.” He switches the station as we pull onto the main road.

When we get to the museum, he puts the car in park and turns to me. “Gavin, I want to ask you something.” He looks unusually serious.

“Sure...” I respond, but I’m not sure what’s up. “Shoot.”

“Yesterday Mario told me about your guys’ night out.”

I slump down in seat “Please don’t tell my grandmother. I don’t need her worrying about me right now. It was stupid of me—”

He smiles. “I’m just busting your chops. You’ve gone through enough, and I think you’re too smart to be a repeat offender when it comes to stupid decisions. Even though it’s my duty to rat you out, I’m not. What I’m really concerned about is something else you did. Or apparently said.”

I play dumb. “What do you mean?”

“Mario said you said some people were ‘after’ you.”

I keep looking straight ahead. If I look at him, I’m afraid I’ll give too much away.

“That’s pretty serious, Gavin,” he adds. “Even if you were drunk. Where’d that come from? I need to know.”

I flip around toward him in my seat. “I was just drunk. Haven’t you ever said anything stupid when you were drunk?”

“Plenty of times. But nothing like that. Listen, I know I’m your teacher, but I meant it when I said you could always confide in me. I’m not going to run off and tell the school board... Besides, I can help you.”

I roll my eyes and mumble under my breath, “I doubt it.”

He slides his red glasses up over his slicked-back hair. “I’m going to let you in on something no one knows because I think it’ll prove that you can trust me.”

I shrug. I want to jump out of the car right now.

“Years ago,” he says, “My sister and I were separated by the state and I’ve never seen her since. Tried everything to find her, but she ran away from the foster home she was in and nobody’s ever found her. She could be dead, for all I know.”

I lower my eyes. “I’m sorry. I can’t even imagine.” Except that I can, because all my life I’ve lost everyone I loved, too.

But then he surprises me. “And all I want to tell you is, if you’re in trouble, if you need help, tell someone so they can protect you. And your family.”

I can’t say anything. I can’t tell him.

Mr. P gives me one more look, then gives up. “All right. Have it your way.”

As I grab my camera bag and jump out, he says, “Gavin, trust me on this. Please.”

I nod but don’t respond. Maybe we’re more alike than I ever even thought.

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