Chapter 5 - Nate
I woke just before the sound of the bell pierced through the hard, cold air of the classroom. Blinking away sleep, I peeled my cheek off the surface of my desk and, yawning, slipped out of my chair. If I had to rank sleeping locations, the spot would be number one, obviously. Mrs. Parker’s English class would be a close number two, though. She never woke me up for the sake of the class’s entertainment. For all I knew, she didn’t even notice I was there.
Slinging my mostly-empty bag over my shoulder, I trudged past her desk, giddy with excitement. Lunchtime. Food.
“Nathan, why don’t you stay back a minute.”
I bit back a groan, drawing to a halt by her desk. The rest of the students filed past me and I turned a glare at my teacher. “It’s lunchtime,” I growled, warningly.
“I understand that, but the food can wait.” She said it sweetly, completely unphased by my very clear, very real anger.
No, it damn well couldn’t. If I missed stupid lunch I wouldn’t see another square meal for twenty four hours. Why was that so hard to understand? Honestly, sometimes it felt like everyone I knew was conspiring to starve me to death.
Still, Mrs. Parker was the least awful teacher I had. I didn’t want to piss her off.
“Fine,” I bit out, slumping into a chair at the front of the classroom. She’d see it as attitude and disrespect, but mostly I just wanted to sit before my stupid knees gave out. God, I was fucking hungry. Maybe I could lift a couple power bars from the gas station down the street on my way home. The owner had only installed one camera, and it pointed at the register, not the aisles.
Mrs. Parker didn’t say anything about my disrespectful posture. She just stared at me, cocking her head to the side and narrowing her eyes like she was studying some kind of fascinating otherworldly specimen. Study away, lady. Whatever gets me out of here faster.
“Stay here,” she said sternly, pinning me to the chair with a glance as she stood from her desk. “I’ll be back in two minutes. If you’re gone when I get back I will come find you, so don’t even think about leaving.”
She left, and, despite her words, I considered dipping out. She’d be pissed but I could probably cut the lunchline and stuff some food in my face before she found me. That sounded like a lot of work, though. That plan involved some running or, at the very least, brisk walking. Too much effort.
Mrs. Parker returned less than two minutes later with a styrofoam tray, which she set on the desk in front of me before returning to her seat.
“Lunch detention with Mr. Gideon down the hall has the meals delivered,” she explained, nodding her head toward the tray. “We’ll eat together while we talk, okay? That way we don’t have to rush.”
Suspicion crept up my spine, but the smell of the food wrapped around my head and made me stupid. It was all I could do to tear the plastic spork out of its wrapper and use that instead of digging into the meal with my bare hands like the animal she probably thought I was.
“So, Nathan,” Mrs. Parker said, pulling a paper bag from a drawer in her desk and laying her own lunch on the table. “Why do you suppose I want to talk to you, today?”
I froze, mouth full of peas and instant mashed potatoes. Buying myself time, I chewed slowly and swallowed. Maybe if I was just honest she’d be impressed with my integrity and let me keep sleeping.
“’Cuz I’ve been sleeping in class,” I said with a shrug, like it didn’t matter to me at all.
Mrs. Parker took a small bite of her sandwich and shook her head as she swallowed. “Nathan, the school year is almost over and you’ve been sleeping in my classroom since last August. If that was the problem we’d have had this discussion a long time ago. Any other theories?”
I shrugged. “Grades?”
Mrs. Parker sighed, pulling a piece of paper out of a notebook on her desk and folding it open. I scraped the last of my mashed potatoes and peas off the plate and started in on the shitty chicken tenders-- little nuggets of salty, homogenized heaven.
“Yes, let’s talk about grades,” Mrs. Parker said, running a finger down the paper and studying me at intervals over the top of her glasses as she read. “You have a D minus in Mr. Quinn’s Civics class and an F in gym, which…” she trailed off, shooting me a quizzical look. “I didn’t even know it was possible to fail gym.” The look on her face almost made me laugh, and I decided I didn’t completely hate Mrs. Parker. “You’re wrapping up the year with a D plus in Spanish, and I know for a fact Ms. Martinez will do everything in her power not to give any student less than a C.”
“Just a shitty student, I guess,” I mumbled. This wasn’t a new conversation. I’d had it with every teacher. Every guidance counselor. Every case worker. They’d threaten to hold me back like that meant something to me. I’d roll my eyes. Round and round we go.
“See, that’s what I want to talk about, though,” Mrs. Parker said, shoving the paper back in her notebook and picking up her sandwich again. I was out of food. All that was left was the little carton of chocolate milk and I slowly pulled open the top and took a sip, savoring it. Heaven.
“Listen, Mrs. Parker,” I said, setting the milk down and shifting forward in my seat, bracing my elbows on the desk. “I’ve already got a guidance counselor. And a case worker. And a court-appointed therapist. And a parole officer. I don’t need another font of wisdom spewing inspirational bullshit at me. I’m not gonna get my ass in gear because I don’t give a shit about graduating and I don’t give a shit about my bright future. I’m just here until they let me drop out. You seem like an okay lady, so I don’t wanna be an asshole, but can you please bother someone else with your wannabe altruism?”
Mrs. Parker was a middle aged lady who was about as prim and unremarkable as they come. She had plain brown hair that she dumped so much hair spray in it didn’t seem to move at all, even though she wore it down. Her shoes were ugly, blocky monstrosities, her clothes were a never-ending series of ugly old sweaters, and she brought her supplies to school every day in a tattered old canvas tote bag.
Mrs. Parker was as vanilla as they come, so it surprised me when she didn’t balk at my tone or show any sign of hurt at my attitude. She just smiled and nodded, taking another bite of her sandwich.
“You’re missing the point, here, Nathan,” she said, pulling out her gradebook and flipping through it with one hand. When she found the page she was looking for, she traced a nail over it, speaking without looking up. “I just want you to explain to me why the kid who can’t even pass gym is ending the year with an A in my class and a B plus in Mr. Gideon’s Trig class. That’s all.”
I knew I should have failed those stupid tests.
“Dunno,” I said with a forced shrug, crumpling my empty milk carton in a fist and dropping it on the tray. “Maybe I’ve been cheating.”
“Cheating takes work,” Mrs. Parker said, shooting me a dubious look, and I caught myself almost laughing, again. “So does intentionally failing an exam. I think you just took the easiest route, here, and the easiest route was to pass.”
“I don’t see your point,” I said, trying to keep the panic from my voice. I couldn’t afford for people to be taking an actual interest in me. Mandated interest was fine, because it didn’t take much to shrug off the attention. Actual interest? That meant scrutiny. Scrutiny I couldn’t afford.
“The point is that I think you’re an intelligent young man,” Mrs Parker said, closing her grade book. “I wanted to talk to you about signing up for AP Lit class next year, and Mr. Gideon wants to recommend we shunt you into the calculus route now that your math requirement is satisfied, rather than let you use the free period for an elective.”
“No,” I shot at her, shaking my head hard before she’d even finished speaking. “That’s fucking dumb.”
“Listen, Nathan, I know you don’t want to go to college.” She held up a finger to stall my fierce argument that fuck college, I didn’t even care about graduating high school. “And I know you plan on dropping out. But the fact remains you are stuck with us until the end of next year. Since you have to come here all day for at least another year, why not get something out of it?”
“It’s just harder work,” I argued, frowning at her. “What exactly do I get out of that?”
“Well, frankly, I think you’ll enjoy my AP class,” she said. “You clearly like to read, and the books we’ll tackle will be more nuanced than the ones we read this year. Plus, I’m the teacher,” a smile quirked her lips. “So you can continue to be disrespectful and sleep in the back while I lecture, provided you also continue to do the readings and complete the essays.
“As for pre-calc, Mr. Nunez will most likely require you to stay awake. However, try, just for a second, to think about your future. Eventually you’re going to escape whatever it is that’s holding you back. I know you can’t see it now, but eventually you’re going to want to have a life and a job. This school’s pre-calculus class is a community college credit, which means one less prerequisite if you ever decide you want to pursue an associates or a technical degree. Think of it as an opportunity to get for free what you may have to pay for down the road.”
Poor Mrs. Parker didn’t even know the strongest case she could’ve made for her argument. It had dawned on me as she spoke, rising like a chorus in the back of my mind so that I didn’t really hear a word she said. I knew for a fact Alex was signed up for both of those classes next semester. I’d be guaranteed at least two blocks with her. I wouldn’t be able to talk to her because of our deal, but I could still be with her. In real life.
Best of all, maybe being classmates could lead to something more. Maybe if she saw me in a class doing something other than sleep and fail to answer questions she’d give me more than a disappointed passing glance. Maybe she’d let us bring our clandestine friendship onto the light.
“Fine,” I grumbled, trying to hide my sudden enthusiasm for this stupid, stupid plan.
Mrs. Parker’s face brightened as she balled up her empty sandwich bag and tossed it into the bin beside her desk. “Excellent! I’ll talk to your guidance counselor this afternoon.”
“Can I go, now?” I asked, fighting to keep my own face from showing her just how much she’d just improved my day.
“In a minute,” she said, pulling out her tote bag and unloading a stack of books onto the desk. “Take those with you.”
“I thought we were done reading for the semester,” I frowned at the books.
“We are. Those are for the summer.”
“Try not to be so defensive, Nathan. They’re just books. You can throw them all away if you like, although I recommend you don’t. I think you’ll enjoy them.”
Good thing my backpack was empty, or I wouldn’t have had room. I crammed the mini library in and zipped the bag up, slinging it over a shoulder.
“Thanks for lunch,” I grumbled. “Can I leave now?”
“Of course,” she said at my already-retreating back. “Have a nice day, Nathan!”
I didn’t answer her. Partly because I’m a rude piece of shit, but mostly because I didn’t want her to hear the shit-eating grin that broke out on my stupid face the second I turned away.
* * *
As always, Alex beat me to the spot. When I pushed into the clearing she was sitting on the rock, drumming her heels and chewing her lip, deep in thought. She nodded at me absently as I leapt over the creek to the island, then again to the cave beneath the oak. The cooler was filled with food. A couple sandwiches, a small bag of chips, and a roll of Oreos. My girl treated me pretty good when she wasn’t pissed off.
“What’s on your mind?” I asked around a mouthful of ham-and-cheese delicacy, hopping up on the rock beside her.
Alex shrugged listlessly and I slung a friendly arm around her shoulder, pulling her against my side and rocking sideways until she bit out a laugh and pushed me away. Her hands struck old bruises and I damn near choked on my sandwich as I let her go.
“Okay, okay,” I said, shoving her gently away. “Seriously, though, what’s wrong?”
“Just home stuff,” she said, shrugging and lying back. I finished chewing on my sandwich and brushed crumbs off my hands, spinning myself around on the rock so that I sat facing her.
“What home stuff?” I prodded. Alex always put up a fight and she always buckled with a little insistence. She carried the weight of her family’s problems around with her all day, and it wore her down. I hated to see it, and nothing made me feel stronger than the quiet moments out here in the woods when she’d crack and confide in me.
“Just my mom…” she trailed off, shaking her head as she stared at the stars. “And Tommy.”
“What’s going on with Tom?” I asked, suddenly worried. As far as I was concerned, her parents could go fuck themselves. They sounded like shity people to me and I only cared about their stupid problems insofar as they affected Alex. Tom, though, was a good dude. He got to me the same way Trish did. He laughed when he was happy and cried when he was sad and didn’t understand the bad shit in the world.
For some reason, people like Tom and Trish seemed to bring out the predator in people. Their good was like gasoline to the flame of evil in stupid assholes like Tim and that little twat Freddy Whitehouse.
I saw by the hard set of Alex’s jaw that my mental tangent was right on point. “It’s that jerk, Freddy,” she said through her teeth, her fists clenching at her sides. That made me a little conflicted. I hated to think of Tom being bullied, but pissed off Alex had me shifting uncomfortably on the rock, praying my dumbass dick would settle down before it made things awkward.
“Have you tried talking to a teacher or something?” I asked, already plotting my own revenge.
“They don’t listen,” Alex said. “His dad’s on the school board. Everyone thinks he’s perfect and Tom’s not exactly a reliable witness.”
“So what’s your plan?” I asked, trying to hide a grin. I favored quick, bloody justice. Alex was more of a dish-served-cold kinda girl.
“I’m gonna follow Tom around between classes,” she said, sitting up with fire in her eyes. “I’m gonna catch Freddy in the act and film it. That way I have proof. I think I might even pull Gemma into it and have her film while I confront him. That way if he hits me we’ll have him bullying a disabled kid and punching a girl.”
Freddy Whitehouse would punch my girl over my cold, dead body. Even the thought had my skin prickling with adrenaline and I hopped off the rock, suddenly desperate to blow off some steam.
“Hide and seek?” I asked, nodding at the woods. “The light is good for it.”
Is hide and seek kind of a juvenile game for two half-grown young adults to be playing? Sure. Is it fun as hell when your playground is the forest at night and your opponent can climb trees and burrow herself into nature’s little caves and cubbyholes? Fuck yes, it is.
“Sure,” Alex said, slipping off the rock. “I’ll hide.”
“Since you’re having a bad day you get an extra head start,” I said, smirking arrogantly at her. “I’ll count to 100. You gotta stay in the boundaries, though. Don’t go wandering off like last time. That’s cheating.”
“Are you gonna start counting or what?” She was bouncing on the balls of her feet, excitement bright on her face in the dim light of the waning moon. I grinned and hopped onto the rock, closing my eyes.
“100...99...98…” I heard a splash as she hopped the stream and the sound of rustling leaves as she scampered into the forest. “97...96...95…” I didn’t bother memorizing the direction she’d run. She’d find a way to double back and wind up on the complete opposite side of our preset hide-and-seek arena. “94...93...92…” now what in the hell was I gonna do about that stupid fucking asshole Freddy?
* * *
Alex squealed as she raced through the woods with me hot on her heels. I’d found her hiding place within 10 minutes, but our rule was that if she managed to slip away and make it back to the rock without me tagging her, she’d still win.
“You’re too slow!” I yelled between puffs of air, leaping over a fallen log in my pursuit.
Alex didn’t answer. She just huffed out a breathless giggle and lowered her head and pumped her arms, bounding gracefully down the gently sloping hill toward the creak.
She wasn’t too slow. She was definitely gonna win. I was built for throwing punches, not sprinting through the woods. My girl, on the other hand, was like a fucking gazelle-- all long, slim legs and graceful power.
She tripped and went sprawling just before she reached the creek, and my heart jammed itself up into my throat.
I needn’t have worried. She tucked herself into a ball as she fell, rolled a couple times, and sprang back to her feet. She cleared the creek in one flying leap. By the time I reached the island, she was picking leaves out of her hair, grinning like a maniac.
“You’re… a fucking… cheater…” I gasped, bending over and bracing my hands on my knees as I fought to catch my breath.
“How am I a cheater?” she said, glaring at me in mock indignation.
“You started running before I spotted you,” I said, stepping closer and brushing a clump of dirt off her shoulder.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did.”
“We made eye contact!”
“You gotta wait ’till I say I see you.”
“That’s not the rule.”
It wasn’t. She was right, I was wrong, and I knew it. I just loved the string of steel that wove its way into her voice when she was pissed off. I loved the little spark of anger in her eye. I loved her, plain and simple.
“Whatever. Are you okay? That was a helluva fall.” I stepped back, scanning her for signs of injury. I didn’t see much except a small scrape on her right knee and the liberal coat of dirt that covered her right arm. Pretty standard for Alex.
She grimaced, pulling her foot up onto the rock and peering at the scrape on her knee. “I’m okay,” she said, lowering her leg and stretching back out on the rock. “I think your poor bruised ego probably hurts more than me knee. Y’know… because you lost.”
I made a vague noise of disagreement and hopped over to the buried cooler, pulling out the roll of Oreos and bringing them back to the island.
Alex pulled a cookie out of the package when I held it out to her, pulling it apart and biting into the creme-covered side while she handed me the plain one. I shoved it in my mouth, chewing thoughtfully.
“So,” I said once my mouth was no longer full of cookie. “I talked to Mrs. Parker, today.”
“The English teacher?” Alex asked, reaching into the package for another cookie.
“Yeah,” I said, accepting the creme-covered half she handed to me. I didn’t eat it, though. I’d wait another round and put two good ones together to make a double-stuffed. “She wanted to talk about my schedule next year.”
“Do you have to retake her class or something?”
It was a reasonable question. I knew Alex didn’t think I was stupid, but she had every reason to believe I was failing every class I took. Even so, it stung a little and I took unreasonable pride in being able, just this once, to defy her expectations.
“Nope,” I said, accepting the shitty half of the Oreo and downing it quickly. “She wants to put me in AP Lit next year. And Mr. Gideon is recommending pre-calc.”
“What?” Alex shot upright, turning to look down at me with excitement and confusion in her eyes. “I thought… how… what?”
“You’re in those classes, right?” I asked, sitting up beside her and shaking the Oreo package at her. She pulled one out and absently split it, handing me the good half. She didn’t eat hers, though. She just held it in her hand and stared at me.
“So we’ll have at least two classes together.”
“Are you gonna stay awake?” she asked suspiciously, narrowing her eyes at me.
“Probably not,” I said honestly, smushing my two cookie halves together and taking a bite, trying not to roll my eyes in pleasure. “I’m gonna do the homework, though. Maybe put a little effort into it.”
“That’s great!” Alex cried, reaching out and shoving my shoulder. Not exactly the celebratory gesture I’d prefer, but she did seem genuinely happy. Not disappointed in me, for once, and that felt really fucking good.
“So, I was thinking,” I said carefully, leaning back on a hand and studying her face, searching for the real answer because I knew Alex was too nice to let me down too hard on purpose. “Since we’re gonna be in the same classes, and since I don’t really know how to try in school, maybe…” I swallowed hard, trying to work moisture into my suddenly-dry mouth. “Maybe we could study together?”
I saw the answer in the shutters that dropped over her eyes before they tore away from mine and focused intently on her hands. “We’re just so different,” she whispered, breaking her half of the cookie in half again and staring at the pieces. “I don’t think you’d like me much in real life.”
“Is that really what you’re afraid of?” I asked, trying to keep the hurt from my voice. “How could you possibly think that, Al? You’re my best friend.”
“And you’re mine!” she said, glaring up at me. “But… here. You’re my best friend here and I’m not this person at school. I’m boring. I follow the rules. I wear skirts, Nate. Skirts.”
She said the word with so much disgusted incredulity, I laughed. “Yeah, I noticed that,” I said. “I think they look… nice.”
Nice? Really asshole? Nice?
Al seemed as amused by my lack of verbal finesse as I was horrified by it.
“Gee, thanks,” she said, but she offered me a weak grin and tossed a piece of Oreo into her mouth, chewing thoughtfully. “I’m serious, though. You know I wanna be friends with you in real life…”
No, I don’t.
“... I just… I guess I don’t want you to decide you don’t like who I am during the day. Cuz then you won’t like the night version, either.”
“That’s dumb.” The words just spilled out of my mouth on their own, rude and unwieldy. Alex glared at me, and I guess I deserved it. I shrugged, trying to soften my tone. “It is, though, Al. You’re the coolest person I know. I love hanging out with you. And you’re not two separate people. You just show different parts of yourself, depending on who you’re with. I’ve always known you toe the line during the day. That doesn’t make me like you less, it just makes me love it that much more that I get to be the person who sees you cut loose.”
Shut the hell up, moron. I was getting dangerously close to an uncomfortable degree of honesty so I clapped my mouth shut and watched her face as she puzzled over my words, praying she wouldn’t read too far or accurately between the lines.
“Can I think about it?” she asked, and I wanted to say no. Alex was the queen of introspection. She’d go way too deep into her own head and wind up coming up with some theory that was as self deprecating as it was outlandish.
“Sure,” I said reluctantly. “Get back to me.”