“That said, don’t waltz in here thinking you’ll be rewarded with an A for reading off the monitor. This is an oral presentation and your classmates are the audience.” Mr. Klein finished with a wave of his hand as he dismissed the class.
I had no idea how I was going to do this. My last presentation completely flopped. If I could barely speak to someone I just met one on one, how could I speak to a class of twenty-four about American literature and how it’s impacted my life?
“Mr. Klein, may I speak with you about the paper?”
Mr. Klein, the best teacher of all of Riverside. When I pushed through the double doors as a freshman, he was one of the few staff members waiting to greet the new class. Back then he helped me find my classes and over the years he’s helped me find my way through many tough situations. I felt lucky to have been under his guidance for so long, and even luckier to have taken not just one but two classes with him.
“Of course,” he answered, promptly scanning a sheet of paper with his glasses pushed down to the end of his nose.
“Do you, uh, think I can present it during a free period?” I asked, kicking the leg of the desk in front of me.
“Is everything alright?”
“Yeah, it’s just the crowds. I’m scared I’ll buckle again.”
He set down the paper, giving me a weary look. “Sienna —”
“Klein, please. I can even skip my lunch to do it. Who needs food, right?”
“You’re not skipping lunch. Listen, I could let you present during a free period.”
A flicker of hope ignited in my chest at his words.
“But what about your other teachers? If I let you off now, you’ll expect them to do the same, and I don’t think they’ll be as cool as I am.”
And the little hope I had quickly flickered out as I slumped back into my desk.
“Klein, please,” I groaned.
“Believe it or not, I was just as terrified of public speaking as you are now.”
At that, I straightened up in my seat. “But you’re a teacher.”
“Ironic isn’t it?” He left his own desk and made his way over to me. “The more practice you have with getting up in front of a crowd, the more natural it’ll become for you.”
“I’ve tried so many times, but I always choke and freeze up.”
“You know, I’d always sink into my chair, praying I wouldn’t get called on. I had to go up some time though.”
Which is exactly what I’d do when it was time to present.
“Ultimately, it was a mistake because that gave me enough time for my nerves to quadruple.”
“What happened when you were finally called up?” I asked.
“Long story short, it was about 12 years ago. I was in my sophomore year of high school and I got through exactly six words before I threw up all over the podium.” He brought a hand to his face and scratched the shadow of stubble along his chin. “In front of the woman who is now my wife, might I add.”
My eyes almost bugged out of my head. “Amelia was there?? You never told me that.”
“Yeah, well it isn’t exactly a regular school-day conversation.”
“True... and I’ve never asked you about public speaking until now. But I mean, if she thought you were the one even when you sprayed the class with vomit, then that is a prime example of true love.”
Klein’s cheeks slowly tinted a certain shade of pink before he rerouted the conversation.
"Luckily! My teacher had given me another shot. That weekend I went home and gave my presentation to my mom and dad about a hundred times.”
“Did you get through it then?”
“Yeah,” he said with a sure nod. “It was a lot less intimidating. When I felt better about what I had, I asked my brother and sister to join in and give me their feedback as well.”
I raised a hand, giving Klein the ‘ok’ symbol. “Smart move.”
“For sure. Personally, a lot of my anxiety was rooted in a fear of rejection. I thought the class would hate what I had to say. What I needed was confidence and I knew that my family would be able to help give me that boost.”
I didn’t ever think about going to my family, but I knew I wouldn’t have enough time to talk to my dad because of his work schedule. And my mom- yeah, that was not happening.
“I became a lot more fluid and instead of staring at the floor while I talked, I was staring at my family. The following Monday I went in there, imagining I was talking to my parents and I kicked ass,” he finished with a smug smile.
“...well maybe not kicked ass but I got through it and earned a C. Clearly, I still had work to do on my fear, but eventually I got over it and voila! Here I am.”
“I’m really glad you got over your fear. If you hadn’t become a teacher, I’d be lost...” I said, dramatically clutching my heart. “A basket case.” I wiped away an imaginary tear as Klein laughed to himself, shaking his head.
“I’m more than sure you would have found your way without me,” he assured with a smile.
“Thank you,” I said, returning the smile. “I know what I have to do.” I stood up from my desk with a newfound determination.
“Get to it, Martinez. I’ll see you on Friday.”
“One more thing before I go.” I paused at the door, faux pondering.
“Were you imagining me as your mom or your dad just now?”
Klein’s eyes crinkled in humor. “My dad.”
I stuffed my English notebooks into my locker, trying to figure out where I could find Alex. She could be my audience.
I started down the hall on the hunt for her, but I didn’t get too far before I collided into a wall and was knocked off my feet. Of course.
The rest of my things scattered to the floor. I raced to gather them, hoping not too many people noticed, when a hand reached down to me.
Huh. So it wasn’t a wall I crashed into.
Hesitating, I stared at the hand before I looked up to see the handsome stranger who was talking with Alex this morning. He was bent down in front of my face and looked even better up close which frightened me.
His eyes were hazel and flecked with blue, and his eyebrows were knitted slightly. I scrambled to grab onto his extended hand which lifted me with ease.
He greeted me with an alto voice that flowed like velvet. I was surprised those were his first words considering the circumstances.
“I-uh- hi,” I said, straightening my ruffled top.
“I didn’t mean to run up on you. Are you hurt?” he asked, searching for any signs of injury.
I shook my head. “I uh- no, but I could have been.”
He raised a questioning brow.
“I thought your chest was a freakin wall! You should put a caution sign on that thing.”
The look of confusion on his face faltered as a smile began to form. He laughed and the sound was like a pile of stones being tossed around. A low rumble.
“I can’t say anyone has said that to me before,” he said, crossing his arms.
I looked around hoping Alex was someplace close, but to my luck, she was nowhere in sight.
“Well, there’s a first time for everything.”
“Oh.” I was about to extend my hand for him to shake, but immediately thought against it. He wasn’t the mayor. “I’m Sienna.”
“I sorta knew that already, but it’s nice to meet you officially.”
“What do you mean officially?” I asked, quirking a brow.
“Well, I’m in your English class. I sat in the way back.”
I hummed, shifting my backpack on my shoulders.
“I hung back to talk to the teacher, but you had already gotten to him,” he said, jabbing his thumb toward the open door of Klein’s classroom.
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Nah, it’s fine. I was hoping he’d know where my next class was. I have calc.”
“So you are new.”
“Guess my cluelessness tells you right away, huh?”
“Well, yes, that and the fact that this is the first time I’ve ever seen you. I’ve gotten familiar with the people around here, and you my friend, stick out like a sore thumb.” I flexed my left thumb for emphasis.
“This is my fourth school. I’m kinda used to being the sore thumb,” he said flatly.
I wanted to ask why he had switched schools so often, but I dismissed the thought as quickly as it came. I’d just met him and I didn’t want to invade his privacy.
“Thankfully a friend of mine goes here, so I wasn’t technically alone coming in. I’ve known her since we were kids,” he continued.
“Now would that friend happen to be named Alex Johnson?” I asked.
“You know Lex?”
“Yeah, she’s my best friend,”
And only friend.
“I saw you guys on the quad earlier.”
“What are the odds, right?”
Since he and Alex were close, it made me wonder if I’d be seeing him more often. The thought made my insides twist up into a tight knot, and I didn’t know if it was because of contentment or nervousness. But I didn’t have much time to think about it because the bell rang. We had to get to our next classes.
“Would you, uh, like me to show you where calculus is?”
He smiled and handed me his schedule. “That’d be cool, thanks.”
“Oh, you have Mullins. He’s over in room 2080, not too far from here,” I said, returning the paper.
He gestured for me to walk ahead and less than two minutes later, we arrived at Mr. Mullins’ class. So far Joseph and I shared two things in common: a best friend and faster than average walking speeds.
“He really isn’t too far,” Joseph commented thoughtfully.
“Not at all. We were just in the English hallway and here starts the math department,” I said, motioning between the two intersected hallways.
“You’re lucky Mr. Mullins’ class is the first one on the way or else you’d be walking halfway across the school.”
“Well, thanks for the door to door service. Since you helped me today...”
I watched him bounce back from the heel to the toes of his feet.
“I’d like to return the favor.”
“You really don’t owe me anything,” I told him.
“Well, I couldn’t help but overhear about your English predicament.”
I groaned, palming my face. “It’s so stupid.”
“It isn’t though. Everyone’s a little scared,” he said, taking a small step toward me.
I cautiously took a step back.
“Everyone’s got something that makes their breathing become shallow. That one thing that gets their skin prickly with nerves. That one thing... that gets their heart racing.”
And boy was my heart racing, damn near running a marathon. He took another step toward me and I tugged hard on the tightening strap of my backpack, hoping it would eject me into another dimension. It didn’t.
Joseph’s voice was soft and whispered. “Tell me, is that what I do to you?”
“Oh... yes,” I whispered back.
“So you’ll accept my offer?”
It was then that I was suddenly transported back to the present.
Way to go, Sienna.
“I asked- am I getting through to you? You sorta spaced on me for a second.”
“Oh! Yeah, I- yeah. I was- I just got lost in thought. Sorry.”
I must have sounded like a two-year-old with all of the babbling I was doing.
“It’s fine,” he reassured me. “Although, I really would like to help you out.”
“Are you asking me or telling me?” he questioned with a grin on his lips.
“T-telling you,” I said, trying to project my voice.
“Alright then. I’ll see you later... and Sienna?”
With that, he disappeared behind the wooden door of Mr. Mullins’ classroom. Air flooded my lungs as I was able to breathe again.
After school let out, I finally found Alex sitting on the steps in front of the building. Her face lit up with an easy smile when she caught sight of me.
“Hey, what’s with the face?” she asked.
“Eh, I have to work on a presentation for Klein,” I said, plopping down next to her. The steps were comfortably warmed from the sun.
“Is it the American Lit thing?” she asked.
“The one,” I confirmed.
“Oof, can’t relate. I was excused from half my classes today.”
“I was showing a friend of mine around the school. His name is Joseph, he —”
“We’ve met,” I interjected.
She dropped her phone in her lap and turned to face me.
“We have English together and he, uh, offered to help me with my presentation.”
“Oh? I’m guessing he’s made a good impression on you?” she asked, waggling her eyebrows.
I shrugged. “I mean, yeah. He seems interesting.”
I don’t know what she was expecting me to say, but I wasn’t going to tell her anything that might set her off. Like me colliding into him or the ogling that followed. When it came to interacting with guys, she was always ready for the opportunity to give me away. But she couldn’t possibly think that of her two best friends.
“Well, I’m glad you think so. He’s a good guy. He’s got a few layers, too,” she said, thoughtfully. “Wait- how is he gonna help you? I hope you weren’t planning on inviting him over, ’cause he won’t make it past your front door.”
She was right. My mother had a thing against teenage boys. Hell, she barely liked my father when they first met; didn’t give him the time of day. Thankfully he was and still is a very persistent man or else there is a strong chance I wouldn’t be here today.
“So what’re you gonna do?” Alex asked, snapping me out of my thoughts.
“I don’t know...”
Alex and I turned our heads at the voice and saw Joseph walking toward us. Great.
“We were just talking about you,” Alex said a little too enthusiastically.
He curiously tilted his head. “Were you now?”
“Sienna was telling me about how you’ll be spending some time together later.”
“Oh, is that right?”
Joseph’s words were directed at Alex, but his eyes were on me. He arched a brow as if daring me to confirm. I don’t know what my so-called best friend was trying to do, but I was not playing any part in it. I took my elbow and drove it into her side.
“Ah! What the hell, Sienna!”
“Don’t listen to this dunce,” I retorted, with a flick to her forehead for good measure.
“I just told her you offered to help me prepare for class, but... I should actually talk to you about that.”
I stood up and approached Joseph, who looked at me expectantly.
“You can’t exactly come to my house. My —”
“I don’t mind dead bodies,” he blurted out.
All I could do was blink.
“I’m assuming that’s the reason you don’t want me over. It’s ’cause there’re corpses scattered everywhere that you haven’t properly disposed of yet.”
Either this guy had a very morbid sense of humor, or he had done a few scary things in his life.
“No...” I chuckled nervously. “I-uh, it’s just that if my mom saw you entering the house, you’d become a body I’d have to dispose of.”
“Dark, really dark, Sienna,” he said with a sardonic smile.
“My mom is just conservative. She doesn’t like the thought of me being alone with boys, specifically ones I’ve just met,” I said, tipping my chin in his direction.
“Well, we can go to my house. Lex can always tag along with us if that’d give your mom peace of mind,” he suggested.
I turned to Alex. “What do you think?”
“I don’t mind, it should be fun,” she said before going back to her phone.
“Well, I should call first to make sure I’m even allowed to,” I told Joseph.
“Yeah, of course.”
She picked up on the first ring.
“Hi. Why aren’t you home yet, is there a club running late today?”
“Ah, no, I was talking to Alex for a bit, but I called to ask if I can go with her to a friend’s house.”
There was a beat of silence on the end of the line. “Who’s this friend, do I know her?”
I cringed. “I don’t believe you’ve ever met him.”
“Mom, we’re just going to be doing homework. His parents will be right downstairs.” I wasn’t too sure of that, but I could only hope.
“Hm. Send me a photo of this boy.”
I choked on the air. “What?? Mom, no, that’s weird!”
“Give me something, a parent number, home address, license plate.”
“He’s not a criminal. You don’t need to go running background checks on a teenage boy.”
My mind flew back to the dead bodies comment. I wasn’t too sure of that either.
“Mom, Alex wouldn’t have let me near him if he were a bad person.”
Silence. I was about to admit defeat when she finally spoke up. “I expect a message from you when you arrive, okay?”
“And you are to be home before dinner, not a second later.”
“Yes, thank you, mom. I should go now. I love you.”
“I love you too. Bye.”
I pocketed my cell and walked back over to Joseph and Alex, who had started a conversation of their own.
“Hey, we’re good to go.”
“Really, did you slip something into mom’s coffee this morning?” Alex asked.
“Trust me, she didn’t say yes without giving me the first degree.”
“That bad?” Joseph chimed in.
“That bad. But, let’s not talk about my mom anymore.”
“Gotcha. I didn’t bring Lucy today, so we’ll walk, but I don’t live too far from here.”
Alex hummed and I nudged her side.
“Who’s Lucy?” I whispered.