Chapter 1- Zoe
“Hey, can I borrow a pencil?”
The voice comes from behind me in a low, hushed tone. I don’t want to turn around, because the person sitting behind me is not someone I am very fond of.
A tap on my shoulder. I briefly glance up at my pre-calc teacher to see if he is paying attention. When he turns back to the Smart Board, I whirl around.
Caleb Summers is a troublemaker. And like the rest of the troublemakers at this school, he stays in a separate classroom. But theirs is being replaced, since the trailer it was in basically collapsed while they were inside. Now he’s been sitting behind me for the past week.
“I gave you one yesterday,” I hiss under my breath. His hair is light brown and curly, and his tanned complexion is the only thing I envy about him. I burn even when I’m in the shade.
Caleb gives me a shrug, his hand held out expectantly. I look from his hand to his eyes, then back to the woman behind him. She isn’t paying attention, instead writing something on a sheet of paper.
“I don’t have any more spares,” I say when my eyes flick back to him.
That is a lie. I always keep extra pencils in my pouch, but it’s not so that I can lend them out.
The look in his eyes tells me he doesn’t believe me. When he makes a hand it over gesture, I sigh and give him one. Caleb only grins at my expression.
“Zoe Watson.” Mr. Carson’s voice makes me jump. When I turn around in my seat, all eyes are on me.
I feel like shrinking into my rib cage as heat climbs up my neck. I don’t dare speak, afraid my voice will crack with fear.
But Mr. Carson doesn’t say anything else when his eyes flicker to the person behind me. He must assume it’s Caleb’s fault I hadn’t been paying attention. I let out a sigh of relief, but annoyance flares in me when Caleb speaks up again from behind me.
“If it weren’t for me sitting here, you’d be busted,” he snickers.
I want to growl out my next words, but Mr. Carson is looking over here again. I fish out a piece of graph paper from my binder and scribble stop talking on it. When Mr. Carson turns away again, I slip it behind me.
“Oh, so now we’re passing notes,” comes the snarky reply.
My lips curl, but when I hear a pen smack on his head, I smirk. His chaperone has caught on to his talkativeness.
I continue to jot notes down when he nudges my arm with the folded piece of paper. I take it but don’t read it. It’s not like I’m in a hurry. After all, he is in my next class, too: English.
Thankfully, Caleb’s quiet for the rest of the period. I manage to exit the room without having to talk to anyone. My heart is still pounding from when everyone in class was staring at me.
I exhale forcefully when I reach my locker to exchange binders. English class is when we finally get more details on the project that’s due at the end of the year. I don’t know why the due date is so far away. It’s only early September.
Hopefully it’s not a partner project or—Heaven forbid—a group one. If we have to work outside of class, I hope there’s no one else I’ll have to work with.
By the time I get to English class and take a seat, Mrs. Griffin is giving me a sympathetic look. I swallow away the thickness that’s lodged in my throat.
The girl sitting next to me—though we aren’t friends, we talk to each other in class—leans over to me.
“Notice Mrs. Griffin giving you a strange look?” she whispers.
I nod without looking at her, keeping my eyes on the Smart Board where our writing warm up is written.
Hayley hums her acknowledgement. “I hope we don’t have to work with anyone else on this project.”
“Me too,” I say while writing.
While it won’t be the end of the world if I work with Hayley, I barely know her. I’ve only known her for a few weeks. And the only reasons we talk to each other are because we sit next to each other and we both like reading.
“All right, class,” Mrs. Griffin starts when the bell rings again. “Today we’re going to start discussing the class project due on May 20th.”
I finish up the warm up while Mrs. Griffin continues. “This is going to be a partner project—”
I internally panic, begging the Lord we’ll get to choose our own partners.
“—but I will be choosing them.”
I bury my head in my hands, screaming in my brain.
When I look up, Mrs. Griffin is looking at me. I swallow.
“But first, I want to explain what this project will be about.”
While she explains the project, I scan the room, wondering who my partner will be. Surely it can’t be one of the rednecks? I glance over at the group sitting in the corner on the opposite side of the room. The boys are talking while Mrs. Griffin is. My eyes wander to the popular girls sitting on the same side as me. The ones in class with me are nice, but I don’t know them all that well. Come to think of it, I don’t know anyone in this class that well.
I catch sight of Caleb’s chaperone. When she catches me looking at her, she averts her eyes. Oh, great.
The project is a ten thousand word story. Though I would be relieved, the fact that I’m going to have to work with someone else gives me anxiety. Mrs. Griffin is giving us a selection of writing prompts we can use if we can’t come up with anything. But my mind is already running with story ideas.
I absentmindedly write some down on a sheet of paper while Mrs. Griffin goes over prompts and rules for the rest of class. By the time the bell rings, I have two whole pages of ideas.
English is my last class. I exhale a breath in relief that the day is over, but my leftover anxiety from Mrs. Griffin’s secret looks spikes when I realize that she hadn’t told us who our partners are. My nerves only grow when Mrs. Griffin stops me from leaving the classroom.
“Zoe, I need to talk to you,” she says.
I freeze at the doorway. There are only a few other students in the room. To my disbelief, she waits until they leave to talk to me. Hayley gives me a sympathetic look on her way out the door.
Mrs. Griffin closes the door, muffling the voices and footsteps outside. My eyes widen when she pinches the bridge of her nose and lets out an audible exhale.
“You’re not in trouble,” she starts. “But I did just want to let you know who your partner will be in private. Quite frankly, I was going to let everyone choose, but then I got a special request and . . .” Mrs. Griffin trails off, her eyes rolling to the ceiling.
“Ms. Nicholson is Caleb Summers’ chaperone. As you know, the kids in the ‘New Life for Troubled Teens’ program don’t have a classroom anymore. Ms. Nicholson asked me who I thought was the most focused and hardworking student who would be able to help Caleb be successful in class. I told her I thought you were.”
Heat floods my cheeks, but she continues, sighing her words.
“If I’d known why she was asking, I would have recommended someone else. I know how quiet you are.” Mrs. Griffin gives me a sympathetic look that makes me sick with nerves. “I’m sorry, but I’ll have to pair you with him.”
I want to protest, but the words die on my lips. Not only do I want to please Mrs. Griffin, but I don’t know the whole situation. For all I know, Ms. Nicholson could be on a higher rung of the hierarchy than Mrs. Griffin. Our school is all about helping those less fortunate. Even if I took my complaints to the higher-ups, it won’t help.
“Okay,” is all I can manage to say. I don’t want to disappoint my English teacher, and I certainly don’t want to seem like a brat. I can only pray Caleb won’t mess this up.