I sat across from Eileen Belcher not because I wanted to, but because my study hall teacher sent me down to see her, as proscribed. I debated simply not going but I recalled Tris's words as we'd parted that morning about rules being different and not wanting to upset him. So, instead, I went — but I wasn't talking.
Eileen was smiling at me pleasantly and didn't seem put off by my silence. Since I'd sat down, besides returning her greeting, I'd not responded to any of her attempts to engage me. Had it been Brandon, he'd have exploded by now, but she seemed to be made of more patient stuff than that. I idly wondered what it would take to push her to the point that she'd explode. What would she be like when she did? Would she get loud like Brandon or would she be more like a contained explosion, never revealing the full depth of her anger?
“I imagine you have some very interesting stories about life on the streets,” she said, her tone sounding sympathetic but also, I thought, salacious. Almost as if she sensed some good gossip. It made me uneasy to think my private life was something to be tisked about, perhaps over wine and cheese with other social workers or bored co-workers.
After a pause, when she was sure I wasn't going to reply, she continued. “That Carson fellow was quite scary, I'll bet. Was he a threat you'd managed to handle previously? I mean before that awful situation in the paper?”
I looked back at her steadily, and mentally compared her to Monica Dublin, my county social worker. Monica had covered some of my life on the street, but it had been a different experience. Her questions had been to the point and she told my why she asked them — for instance, to understand what I'd been through and the best way to help me adjust. That made a lot of sense to me, just as Tris's warning that this would be about different rules than I was used to. I wished he were here to help me, but on the other hand I was loathe to consider needing protection.
This lady had said something similar about helping me adjust at school, but her manner was completely different and off putting.
Back to my original line of thought, Eileen was no Monica. Rather than engage her I reached in my bag for my current book, The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler. Philip Marlowe had just kissed a very pretty blond woman, without her permission, and I was wondering how she was going to react.
“What are you reading?”
Mentally I sighed. It's hard to focus on a book, or at least to get started, if people are talking. Eventually, you can tune them out like you might crowd noise in a busy area. But when the only other sound in the room is a single voice, it's harder.
“A detective book,” I replied and ran my finger down the page to find my spot.
“I see. Are you a fan of the hard-boiled detectives? Or should I say, do you like other detectives as well?”
I grunted. Huh, the blond didn't slap him. She wasn't pleased; instead she was the picture of controlled anger. Interesting. The words on the page tilted as that irritating woman pushed the top of the book down so that her face came into my view.
“That's very rude,” she said softly. Ah, there it was. She was angry.
“I told you I'm not talking to you.”
She leaned back and crossed her legs, some of her anger drifting off her face. Her eyes were still hard, but her anger was banked, now. “We don't have to talk about your past, if you like. I'm guessing it's been a long time since you were in a school and had to follow rules.”
I marked my page and closed my book before regarding her. “This is why I don't want to talk to you. You don't know squat and what's worse, you don't know that you don't know.” Heat flashed in her eyes again.
“Why don't you educate me, then?”
I placed my book in my bag and stood, shrugging the bag into place on my shoulder. “No matter where you are, there are rules. The rules on the street might be different, but they are still there and the penalties for breaking one can be a lot worse than detention or having to talk to you. I may not understand the rules here, but Tris will explain them to me.”
“Tris? Tristan...Malone?” she asked. I was instantly on edge with the tone of her voice, as if there were some kind of advantage to be had in knowing his name.
I pointed at her. “You leave him alone.” Not willing to risk more, I turned and left.
The locker room stank. I wasn't sure, exactly, how to classify the smell. Unpleasant, perhaps. I'd smelled worse but there was just no getting away from this low level...funk. No one else seemed to notice so I assumed it was normal and made no comment.
“Ah, you again.”
I turned to find Tim sitting down on the bench that ran between the rows of lockers. Frowning I stood to walk away.
“Hey, hang on,” he said but I ignored him. I'd have kept going, too, except that I caught sight of an adult – presumably our gym coach – and recognized him. One of my old...customers. He was outfitted as if he could burst into physical activity at any moment, but I knew him as a man who dressed in jeans and a polo shirt and who had some tolerable fetishes.
If I were to engage a customer outside, oral was the limit. Some had tried to press the issue and I made sure to avoid them afterward. It had been tense many times and thus the reason that sort of work was a last resort for me. If I were to engage a customer inside I had to gauge them very carefully, first. Some were nervous and I tended to relax a bit in that case. They didn't want to get caught. The ones who looked seedier – unshaven, dirty or unkempt clothes or something else that set off alarms for me, I would simply turn down.
There was more than one time I'd had to run to enforce my rejection of them. I'd had very few really bad experiences, but getting fucked was something I'd only resorted to a couple of times. The man in front of me had been easy money. He had an odd fascination with toes and giving oral. While he was hardly my type, he'd paid well and hidden us away in a motel room on the few occasions we'd traded. With my hair, there was little chance he'd not recognize me and I wasn't sure what that might mean for me.
He was going on about expectations, fitness and the like when his gaze happened on me. Oh, the fear in his eyes wasn't a good thing. However, given this anniversary gift thing, perhaps I could make use of him. He stumbled for just a moment and then moved on to taking attendance and then bringing the class outside for the remainder of the period. Once outside, Tim renewed his efforts.
“Hey, Ehren, give me a minute will you?” he asked as he stepped to my side. I glanced at the coach and decided approaching him during class would be a bad idea, so I decided on the lesser of two evils and looked unhappily at Tim.
“A minute,” I said.
He nodded sharply and cleared his throat. “How's Tristan?”
I frowned slightly. “Compared to what?”
He lifted an eyebrow. “I mean...how is he doing? Is he okay? Happy?”
I considered him for a moment. “I don't think Tristan is any of your business.”
He nodded slowly. “Yeah. I get that. Um, listen,” he said and coughed. “I'm not looking to start a problem. I'm not sure what you've heard and I'm not here to challenge anything. I figure he's doing better if he's back in the dating game and I'm so, so glad to hear that.”
Confusion raced through my thoughts. “Why?”
He tilted his head to one side. “I care about him. Not, you know, like I used to but...I just wanted to know if he was okay.”
I frowned and was about to ask why again when the coach blew his whistle and called us in close to him. He began speaking about more rules, some he'd apparently forgotten to bring up in the locker room. I suppose I'd distracted him, what with my sudden appearance at his place of business. Shortly he directed us back inside, but I kept wondering about Tim and just why he claimed to care about Tris?
My final class brought me back together with Allie. She smiled brightly when she saw me and took the seat next to me. Before she could do more than say hello, the teacher called the class to order and went over the course, expectations and rules. He was an older man who seemed to find the idea of speaking to us somewhat amusing. He went on to explain that every person in the school had to pass his class in order to graduate and so if we disliked him or his methods we should work diligently and pass his class on the first try. He told us all he would assume he was our favorite teacher should we fail and come back to his classroom for a second try, on the basis that we must wish to spend more time with him.
I found his honesty refreshing and I liked him immediately.
Once he was finished and told us we could speak quietly among ourselves I reached for my bag and my book. That idea, however, was undone by Allie.
“Ehren, I just wanted to apologize,” she said, leaning toward me.
Inwardly I sighed and then flashed a smile at her. “Don't worry about it. How could you know?”
“I just...oh, well, thank you,” she said, her voice slowing and her body language relaxing. “Just to be clear, my friend Tara really did think you were hot. Not that I didn't agree,” she said hurriedly as I drew my brows together. “I just wanted to, you know, say I wasn't lying or anything. Oh, this is awkward!”
Her hand fluttered to her forehead and I felt what could be termed a wave of affectionate pity for her. “Well, thank you. It's always nice to hear other people find me attractive.”
In all honesty, I didn't care very much. For most of my life attraction meant men willing to pay for my time and body so, really, it meant little to me that she and her friend liked what they saw when looking at me. They weren't paying and I wasn't selling. There was, however, something to be said for being kind. Their attraction wasn't based on the same reasoning as I was used to, ergo it required a different response. Additionally, kindness cost me nothing and may pay handsomely.
With her face flushed, a shade which was actually becoming for her, she smiled and thanked me for understanding. “I hope it's not too nosy to ask, but didn't you just start today?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Then, how do you know Tristan? I...well, what I mean is, I heard that...he had a hard time, you know? Did you guys, like, meet in therapy?” She twisted her fingers about as she asked and, while I sort of understood her curiosity, I also felt it was none of her damn business. The question, though, was where do I draw the line on kindness with this girl?
“Why do you ask?” I leaned back in my chair and observed her. She smiled demurely and cast her eyes downward before bringing her gaze up to meet mine.
“I'm nosy. Everyone says so, from my mother to my best friend, Tara.” Her lips compressed and she pushed them off to one side of her face. “I'm not entirely sure why I said that last part, about therapy. I...” she trailed off and her eyes looked past me, perhaps through me, as she thought about her words. I liked that she was trying to choose them instead of continuing to simply vomit and see what happened.
Refocusing she said, “I felt bad when Tim and Tris broke up. It wasn't one of those nasty things. Like, you know,” she flipped her hand out for emphasis, “No fighting in the halls or anything dramatic. It was just sad, I think. Tim pulled back and Tristan...for some reason a few people got it into their heads that he was gay.” She paused and frowned. “I mean, like, they woke up and it was like they had never known and that, now, it mattered.”
I turned that over in my mind. It made little sense, but I tried to sift a meaning from it. “Could it be that some sort of protection went away with their break up?” I asked, more to myself than to her.
She replied, however, as if it were a direct response. “I kind of wondered about that, actually. It doesn't make much sense, though. I mean, Tristan, Steve and Mark were all jocks and on winning teams. Around here that's as close as you get to being a god, you know? But after he and Tim broke up, Steve and Mark just shut him out like he never existed.
“Sometimes I think kids in school act more like a mob than anything else. We all try to be unique by wearing the same clothes and listening to the same music. The ones that actually do dress differently and listen to other music look down their noses because the others scorn them somehow. I wonder if that's all it was? People saw someone getting stomped on and they thought 'yeah, why not? Better than it happening to me' and so they piled onto Tris. Poor guy.”
I glanced up at the ceiling and spoke softly, “Humanity thrown together in the equivalent of a Petri dish under a microscope bred malignant organisms as often as benign.”
I shrugged and left my gaze on the acoustic tiles. “It's a quote from a book I read; it doesn't matter. If you think about it, though, all these people pushed together — the school is like a Petri dish, and all these people change. Mutate if you want to keep with the theme. Sometimes, though, a large part mutates together. Maybe over music or fashion, like you mentioned. Maybe just to gang up on one common 'other'.”
“Oh,” she said softly. “I think I see what you mean.”
I shook my head and glanced at her. “People are disgusting.” I reached for my book, but she interrupted that task once more.
“So, how long have you been dating Tristan? Have you given him anniversary gifts?”
I was prepared to tell her my relationship with Tris was none of her business, but the second question gave me pause. The implication was that anniversary gifts were common, perhaps expected. But, on what measurement? Months? Years? Days? I tapped the cover of my book as I looked thoughtfully at her.
“I'd say about a month, officially. We got to know each other over the summer months. Why?”
“Oh! Well, you know! One week anniversaries, one month—those are big things. Do you have something special in mind for your one month anniversary?” Her excitement was palpable, though I can't imagine why she'd be excited about someone else's celebration.
“Oh. Well...is there something, sort of, traditional?”
“For a one month? That depends on how far you've gotten,” she said and then leaned in conspiratorially. I copied her, hoping she'd be clearer about what she'd just said as it made no sense to me. “Have you, you know, gotten into his pants?”
I leaned back quickly and my face flushed. She smiled knowingly and nodded her head slowly.
“Then it has to be something really nice. A necklace, maybe? A ring might be too much,” she said absently, tapping a finger on her chin.
I turned away from her and stared at the clean blackboard. I had to buy Tristan something expensive simply because I'd seen his penis? Could she possibly be right? It seemed completely nonsensical!She continued to speak next to me, but it was as if it came from a great distance. All I could think of was the one time we'd been somewhat intimate in the shower and trying to figure out how that tied into an expensive gift. No wonder grown men sought me out on the street; dating seemed to be far too complicated! I had a passing thought the coach could be worth a few bucks for something nice for Tris, but he'd probably get mad at me so I dismissed the thought.
The bell rang and I made my way down to the front of the school. I walked to Piper's car and found May leaning against it, eyes locked to her phone. I decided what I needed right then was to get information from someone I knew rather than accept that Allie was telling me the straight truth. Trust but verify; someone famous said that.
“Hi, May,” I greeted her as I let my bag fall from my shoulder and rest by my feet.
“Hi, Ehr,” she said. She tapped out a few extra keystrokes and put her phone down, flashing me a big smile. “How was your first day?”
“Interesting,” I replied. “Hey, I wonder if you could...clarify something for me.”
“Sure, if I can. What's up?” she replied and focused her attention on me.
“Tris and I have been dating, officially, for about a month—”
“Oh! Are you getting him something nice for your one month anniversary?” she asked, voice tinged with excitement.
Seeing her response, I felt a weight settle on my chest. Why had he never mentioned this tradition if it was so important and widely accepted? I was feeling a bit put out and suddenly under pressure; I'd been sure May would have dispelled the silly anniversary notion, but now I was trapped. I was saved for the moment by arms snaking around my waist and Tris's head coming to rest on my shoulder.
“I heard you got in trouble today,” he said in a teasing tone and kissed my cheek. I turned in his embrace and hugged him back.
“School sucks,” I said. He chuckled.
“That didn't take long.” His hand rubbed up and down my back and I felt comforted. For just a second I could let go of the stupid school, the dumber staff and the absolute idiocy of anniversary gifts.
“I missed you,” he said softly. “Summer was so much better. I could spend the entire day with you instead of all this school getting in the way.”
“I could live like that,” I agreed.
“So word is Mrs. Perkins might not be your favorite teacher?” he asked as he leaned back to look at me. He seemed vaguely amused and that beat being upset with me. I'll take it.
“I had to use the bathroom. She told me to go on my own time, not hers. Like she owns me.”
He sighed. “I hate that. She's actually gotten into trouble for that before. Some kid wet his pants last year or something,” he replied.
“I don't like all the rules,” I told him.
“I know. If that was the worst thing that happened, though, I'd say the day was a success. Did you get any homework?”
“Some,” I said sullenly. “Isn't it enough to be stuck in that building all day, going from designated place to designated place? Why do I have to take it home with me as well?”
“There are actually some studies,” May said, interjecting. “They say that homework has a negative, stressful effect. I'm all in favor, even if I didn't read the study or know why they reached their conclusions!”
“I'm here! I'm here! Now, let's get out of here!” Piper said as she walked quickly to the car. “Heard you and Mrs. Perkins are besties, Ehr.”
I frowned at her and she laughed. Tris tousled my hair affectionately and climbed in the back seat with me for the ride home.
The structure that came with daily life was hard to get used to. On the one hand it was good to know what was coming and when but on the other hand it also lent itself to dreading knowing something was coming. Like meeting with the school social worker as a for instance. The unexpected, though, were all the more jarring for their breaking up that structure and routine. Things like this anniversary gift. Tris had yet to bring it up but I was sure the question of what was to be given and when was lurking somewhere just beneath the surface. Was he waiting for me to make the first move?
That was patently stupid and one thing Tris was not was that. My musing came to an end with Beth entering my room.
“How did you do?”
I glanced at her and at the screen of the laptop she'd lent me. While I had to catch up on a great many things, math was the worst of them. I could spell and punctuate with no problem, given my reading, but I'd had very little exposure to math and it showed. Beth had me working on some math help websites that she'd found and wanted me to practice for a set amount of time each night. Instead of doing that I'd let my mind wander.
“Uh, I kind of got to thinking about other things.”
“Oh? Penny for your thoughts?” she said with a smile and leaned against the small desk.
“Not sure they're worth that much,” I said ruefully. “It's daunting, though. The world you live in, I mean.”
“Really?” she asked with her eyebrows climbing her forehead. “I'd think the safety and stability would be very appealing, especially since you have something to compare it to.”
“Well, it's all bullshit, though,” I replied matter-of-factly. “Your stability relies on income and if that were lost then home and security are gone as well. I had little income and my home could be wherever I needed it to be.”
“Are you seriously comparing my apartment to that abandoned building you called home?” she asked and reached to poke me in the ribs.
I shook my head as I smiled awkwardly. “Not really. It's just all these new rules and boundaries are overwhelming, sometimes,” I admitted.
“Yeah, I think I get that. I heard your first day had a few bumps.”
I frowned. “That's another thing. Everyone is spying on me.”
“I think spying is going a little far.”
I snorted. “What else would you call it? Some teacher today thought she could make me hold a full bladder just because she said so. That social worker, Eileen Belcher, tries to manipulate me as if I'm too stupid to know what she's doing.”
“Hm. Well, let's go with that first one. If you were the teacher, how would you have handled it?”
“I would have realized that someone my age knows when they have to pee.”
“Okay,” she said nodding slowly and standing. Then, as she turned from me she made a show of turning back and raising a finger. “Just one other question.”
I rolled my eyes. “Okay, Columbo, what's your question?”
She grinned. She and I had spent a day watching old TV specials recently and a full day had been devoted to 'Columbo', a disheveled and underrated detective. Underrated by his quarry, at the least.
“As a teacher, what if you had to use the bathroom?”
“I think I'd be old enough to know I needed to go as well,” I said while raising an eyebrow and trying not to sound too condescending.
“Right, right,” she said as if in a fog of thought. I narrowed my eyes and tried to figure her line of thinking. “What about the class?”
“What about the class?” I echoed. “Well they'd have to wait. Oh.” I mentally kicked myself for walking into that. My peers in that jail couldn't handle walking through hallways much less being left unattended in a group.
“Yeah. So I guess she's got to time her trips to relive herself, huh?” She tapped her chin thoughtfully and I physically slumped.
“What? What else am I missing?”
She smiled and straightened up. “Look, Ehren. You and I both know you're a good kid but these teachers don't know you at all. So they'll treat you all the same until they have more data. If it were me, I think I'd follow the same rule my uncle told me got used in boot camp.” She paused and grinned. “It's easier to start out hard and then ease up than it is to be easy and try to toughen up. Being tough now sets the bar so that people know where you stand. Trying to get them to take you seriously later is much, much harder.”
I scowled. “I don't like your answer.”
“Yeah. Don't you hate it when logic bites you?” she asked and pushed me playfully. “Now, this spying thing. What's that all about?”
I frowned. “Everyone is talking about me behind my back. Teachers, principals and that social worker – even you.”
The corner of her mouth pulled into a slight grimace. “I can see why you'd think that. But, again, try to put yourself in my shoes. How would you handle transitioning someone you care about to a completely new way of doing things?”
I crossed my arms. “I'd realize this person had taken care of themselves just fine for a long time and was smart enough to figure it out.”
She nodded in that slow way, as if she were in a fog and thinking her way through it again. She raised a finger and, despite myself, I smiled. She said, “I think your missing a component, here. Something you're not used to and it affects how you...consider options.”
I liked to think I had an analytical mind, but even so I couldn't consider every possible angle because some would be unknown to me. I could extrapolate to a degree but, I hated to admit, there was just too much I didn't know. I nodded to her to continue.
“Now, I could just let you sink or swim, that's true. There is no question you're intelligent and will draw conclusions,” she continued, nodding to me. “But my line of thinking is that you're being tossed into what is, essentially, an alien environment. I also think there is a limited amount of time for you to make massive adjustments in your life.”
I frowned. “I'll be in school another four years.”
“If you pass,” she nodded in concession. I hadn't considered failure. “And should you fail, you'd fall behind Tristan.”
My frown deepened. “How does the spying help with any of this?”
“The school has a file on every student — records of an educational and physical health variety. Traditionally anything in those files may be communicated to a parent to help with their child and to keep them in the know about their child's progress. In this instance, I'm filling the parental role.”
I slumped. “So you're saying these magpies talk about every kid in that school, not just me?”
“Yep,” she said and lightly punched my shoulder. “You're special but, well, not that special.”
“What about the social worker?”
She stood. “The school, and we, are concerned about getting you help to transition effectively into the school system. You'll need an education to keep up with Tris so they are there to support you.”
“Now, this math work? I'll give you another ten minutes.”
I looked at the screen with distaste. “Fine.”Next Chapter Previous Chapter