“So, how was Saint Augustine?” Paige asked.
“Red!” Matthew said. His eyes lighted on her, as if surprised; though Paige was sure he’d noticed when she came in.
Matthew’s smile was big and pleasant. “Sit down.” He patted the chair next to him. “What’s up?”
Her hands were on her hips. Her chest heaved up and down, as if she’d run the whole way.
Paige sank down and sighed. Feeling the warm seat under her, she felt a sharp stab of disgust. Not five minutes ago someone else was sitting here. Paige stared down at the mauve carpet, the sound of chattering students banging against her ears.
When she arrived in the band room, she’d been surprised to see the members out of their seats. Her eyes roved around the room until she found Matthew. He was seated next to Melissa Green, their heads ducked together in conversation. Melissa had been rubbing his knee, her lips close to his ear.
Paige found the instructor and talked with him before she headed over to Matthew. Melissa disappeared by then, but it was too late. The image of them together had already cemented in Paige’s mind.
“What’s wrong with you?” Matthew asked.
“I’m fine. What were you talking to Melissa about before?”
Matthew’s gaze was fixed on her lap, unwilling or unable to look at her.
Paige blinked and averted her gaze. “Only two people showed up to Journalism today. Ah, I was supposed to take pictures, but I’m not sure I have to anymore. You have a free day in band?”
“Yeah,” Matthew said. “Mr. Ingram felt we deserved it, so we’re just watching a movie instead.” He looked at her. “Honestly, how are you feeling?”
“A bit tired.” She said, “I got up at five this morning to start studying for my test at Oakdale this afternoon.” She gave him a sidelong glance, deciding whether to continue or not. He was searching through his pockets. “Introduction to Physics…” she said, voice fading.
“Always another test with you.” Matthew shook his head.
Paige crossed her arms over her chest. “Matt…”
“It does if you brought it up,” she said. “You don’t like me at Oakdale?”
“Does it matter what I like?” He shrugged. “Look Paige, do what you want. You don’t need permission from me.”
“It’s just that…” Matthew tapped his fingers against his knee. “I miss you sometimes, you know? It’s like we’re not even going out. I wish I could spend more time with you, but you’re always doing something.”
“You know how my grandma is.”
“Part of me understands that. But part of me feels this is really how you want to be.”
Paige’s bit her lip. “I didn’t know. I’m sorry.” She turned and scooted closer, bridging the gap between them. “I want to spend more time with you too. Maybe we can hang out later. After my test?”
He pushed up his glasses. Cleared his throat. “Whatever.”
Annoyed by his less-than-enthusiastic response, Paige pretended to be absorbed by the movie in front the room. It wasn’t long before Matthew turned to his bandmates for conversation.
Paige crossed her arms over her chest, barely hearing the sound of the movie over the clamor of socializing students. She didn’t know what she’d been expecting. He didn’t even remember to call her for her birthday. She wasn’t sure what was going on between her and Matthew—
Or why she didn’t care as much as she thought she would. “What were you talking to Melissa about?” She asked again.
“We’ve been thinking of doing a jazz piece for prom. Thought it would be good to save money and have the band play, instead of hiring musicians.”
“They haven’t discussed that in S.A.,” Paige said. Both girls were in Student Association. The organization hadn’t even decided on a theme yet.
“I guess she wanted an early start.” Matthew said. “I know Treasury is skimping on prom this year. Most of the money will be going for the class trip.”
“And, of course, you’ll be going to prom with me.” He reached for her hand, rubbing her palm with the rough of his thumb.
“Yes,” she said, blushing. “But, you’ll be playing the whole time.”
“Not the whole time.” He dug through his pocket and sighed. “First time going to prom; I missed it last year. I guess I’m kind of nervous.”
Paige looked away from him. Her smile wavered a bit. “I guess I am too,” she lied.
The period passed without another word exchanged between them. When the bell rang Matthew led Paige by the hand to his car.
Paige struggled to stay awake during her test at Oakdale. Her eyes had begun to droop in Introduction to Physics when the professor announced the time.
The test was over.
Usually after class, Paige and a group of students stayed and talked. They discussed what movies were out, the news, and social theories. When he was not grading, the professor usually joined the conversation. Paige thought he was brilliant. He’d been published in academic journals, and had, in fact, written the textbook that the class used.
Paige was sure that talking with the group would bring her into good-spirits, but she remembered her promise to Matthew, and declined.
He was waiting outside for her, leaning against his green jeep, smoking. He spotted her, outted his cigarette on the sidewalk and walked up to her for a hug.
“Red,” he said, sealing his greeting with a kiss.
She smiled when he pulled away. His face looked pale in the parking lot lights, the tight, brown curls of his hair even more pronounced with the sweat dotting his hairline. His breath dripped of nicotine and orange Fanta. She was struck with the realization that she would rather not be there, or with him.
He took her to Chad’s. The building resembled an antique house with its white gables and a pointed, triangle top. Painted white, wood picketed the patio. Chairs were gathered in circles on the patio floor, as if men had just retreated inside from a game of cards.
He sure loves seafood.
Greasy and spiced, the smell of frying fish tingled her nose they moment they entered. A painting of a boat capsizing into a frothy, white ocean hung just over the foyer. The warmth from the kitchen mingled with the toxic scents of disinfectant, ale and sweaty men. In the corner, lobsters tapped their claws against the glass of an aquarium.
A witness cleared a table for them in the back corner. Paige took off her jacket. They ate shrimp and biscuits while commenting on the news playing on the television. Light rain tap-tapped on the roof above their heads. As spring approached, the showers would only grow more frequent. White mushrooms would pop up on lawns. Multitudes of slugs would crawl over sidewalks. Frogs—big and small—would murmur and cry as they entered into their mating season.
“So how was your birthday,” Matthew asked, suddenly.
Paige broke off a piece of her biscuit. “I’d thought you’d forgotten.”
His brown eyes twinkled. “Well, you were wrong. What happened to you this weekend, while I was away?”
She buttered the bread and glared at him. She thought of telling him that she had spent time with her ‘friend from Journalism’, but decided against it.
“I had fun.”
He waited for her to say more. Not looking at him, she wiped her mouth with a napkin and dropped it on her plate.
Matthew twisted the watch on his wrist. “I didn’t forget about you in St. Augustine.”
Paige put down her butter knife. “Matthew…” she sighed. “I really wasn’t thinking that at all.” She wiped her hands on the napkin, and pushed her hair behind her ear. She didn’t feel like getting into another argument. “I’m sorry if I seem distracted.”
Matthew dug into his pocket. “I got you something.” He drew up his hand, his fingers wrapped around an object in a fist. Paige extended her palm. He dropped the gift in it.
It was a white box. “Oh,” she said.
She met his eyes. What’s this? He leaned forward and kissed her forehead. “Open it,” he insisted.
Paige pushed her plate aside and rested the box down on the table. Her cheeks warmed. She fingered the necklace inside. The sterling silver gleamed in the restaurant’s overhead lights. She took out the jewelry and examined the chain. A silver heart with her initials was at its center. On the other side of the heart was a small birthstone.
She was speechless.
“Put it on,” Matthew said.
She tied up her hair into a bun, and put on the necklace. It fell into place over her collarbone. She touched the silver heart again.
“Matthew, it’s lovely,” she said. “And it’s so pretty.” Still, there was a question in her eyes as she looked at him. She was uncertain about something.
Paige pushed her thoughts away. She smiled. “Thank-you.”
His parents weren’t home.
Matthew led Paige to his room for a “birthday celebration”. They bought cake on the drive there. He took wine from the cellar and two wine glasses from the china cabinet. They ordered pizza and watched a movie. She rested her head on his lap, while he played in her hair.
Paige knew she should have been studying for tomorrow, but she didn’t care. For once, her life didn’t revolve around academics. For once, she could just stop.
They drank and talked, the stress falling off her shoulders as she started to unwind. She laughed a little too hard at his jokes. Faking happiness with Matthew was easy. Too easy. She almost believed herself. Maybe with a little practice she could convince herself whatever she had with a certain blue-eyed journalist was immature and stupid and bound to be short-lived anyway.
They made out during most of the first movie. She kissed his neck and tugged at his pants.
During the second movie, he started peeling away at her clothes, until she was naked and exposed under him, her pale skin a sharp contrast against the coffee-colored couch underneath her.
He picked her up and carried her the short distance to the bed, both of them giggling and drunk by the time they hit the sheets.
Paige spent the night in bed with him.
She found his comforter warm and soft, and his arms just as inviting. Matthew was different from Landon. He was more affectionate, less hurried, and it seemed, much more superficial. He liked to talk after. She didn’t speak back. He whispered sweet-nothings in her ear. Words she didn’t care about and wouldn’t remember the next day. Words were just words.
It was past her curfew, but both ignorant of the time restraint, did not rise again until after two.
There was a window next to his bed. Paige lay on her side and stared at the moon. Rain streaked across the window. She suddenly had the desire to take a walk. She needed to breathe.
He was half asleep, half-awake next to her, in a fit of exhaustion. She felt his hand touch her waist. He rubbed his hand there, up and down, down her thigh and back up. He played in her hair.
She did not move.
He lifted his head. “Paige…”
Gray matter surrendered them, the darkness of his room. She observed that his eyes were red.
“I’m in love with you.” His voice was hoarse, either from the wine or sex, or both.
She blinked. “Yes,” she said, not thinking about it.
Matthew laughed, his eyes shutting like blinds being drawn down. He rolled over on his side. Out like a snuffed candle.
She drew her knees to her chest and thought feverishly about calling Robyn. Gran was bound to call Robyn in Paige’s absence, if Gran hadn’t already. Paige reached for her phone on the dresser, started to find the contact and then stopped, throwing the phone violently on the floor. She was so damn sick of pretending. Whatever consequences she would face at home, she would take them.
Shivering, she reached around the bed for her shirt, a shirt, hell anything.
Paige found Matthew’s white tee discarded on the carpet. She picked it up and put it on. Sitting crisscross on the bed and braiding her hair, she stared at the ceiling and tried to stop thinking about Devon.
Paige’s head was on her desk. How many all-nighters could one pull off before a burn out? She drifted in and out of sleep while the teacher lectured. The cool wood on her cheek and her stiff back reminded her that she was in a classroom and not in comforters.
First period. The hour hand of the clock was at eight, and the second hand barely passed the third numeral. GREAT GASBY QUIZ was written on the white board. Had she even read it? And there was HOMEWORK DUE as well.
After coming home from Matthew’s house and being screamed at by her grandmother, Paige spent the rest of the four hours before school studying for her Pre-Calculus exam.
She shut her eyes tighter. Why was it always so noisy? Couldn’t anything be quiet, for once? Her body strained with exhaustion, but her heart beat loud and hard in her chest. She shook, her body wanting to go to into REM sleep, but unable to.
Paige vaguely remembered Mr. Eugene announcing an upcoming A&P test. Her Journalism articles were still unedited somewhere in a folder. Devon still hadn’t shown up to class yet, so she had to do them. Midterms were coming up, weren’t they?
Paige sat up. She searched through her belongings. Maybe she’d done her homework and forgotten about it. Unlikely, still, she unzipped her book bag.
The fire alarm sounded.
She jolted forward in her seat. Red lights on the alarms circled around the room.
Around her, Paige could see her classmates were just as startled. After a moment of stupefied silence cheers went around the classroom. No Quiz!
The teacher stood and shut off the posterior lights.
She clapped her hands. “File out! Quickly. Quickly.” The students stood like zombies woken up from their sleep. A girl reached for her bag.
“Leave everything behind,” the teacher ordered. She saw a boy pick up his book and gave him the same instructions.
One student followed behind the other in the limited vision the dark hall afforded. The spinning red lights highlighted faces, some lit with excitement and curiosity, and others filled with dread. Students emptied out of classrooms, adding to the lines going out the doors, and through exits.
Paige supposed it was wrong to rejoice when the school might be burning down. It saved her a period of work. Besides, it was probably just a simple fire drill.
The school’s front doors were swung open. Debris from outside swept into the building. Dried trigs crunched under her shoes in the hall. The chill hand of winter was still in the breeze, though the air smelled of Spring showers.
The students were pooled at the front door. Looking at something. Murmuring.
“Keep going!” Teachers shouted. More and more students added to the pile up. The exodus out of the building came to a crawl. Teachers maneuvered pupils through other exits. A steady stream filed out the backdoors.
Paige moved forward through the front doors. She strained to see over the tops of heads. What had they been looking at before?
Bass Towers students trekked to the school lawn, heads turned in curiosity to the parking lot. The staff barked for them to move ahead, to the end of the lawn. Keep going!
Police cars swamped the parking lot. There were sheriff SUVs, and other law enforcement vehicles. Scattered over the parking lot, cops talked on radios. Leathered strapped guns hung at their waists and the sunlight gleamed over their avatar shades.
There were more at the school’s woods. Masked men went into the woods and returned with bags.
Paige walked through the crowd of students, feeling light-headed. She tapped one girl on the shoulder.
“What’s going on?” she asked. Her throat locked. “Is class canceled for the rest of the day?”
“I don’t know,” the girl said. Her eyes betrayed her fear. Tension permeated through the crowd. Students gathered in circles in their cliques. One need not strain to hear it. The whisperings. Rumors were being born.
Paige glanced back at the school. She did a double take. The dam of students was broken into. Uniformed men and their dogs descended on the school. The building sparkled white in the sunlight. Scholastic banners hung over windows announcing Read to Learn and Achieve Your Dreams. She could see the window Anatomy and Physiology decorated for Mr. Eugene’s birthday.
The schools front doors opened like a mouth to greet law enforcement. The cops filtered inside, disappearing into the dark.
Paige stumbled blindly through the crowd. The crowd had become all too familiar to her, it was discomforting.
She saw brown hair and recognized a hoodie.
She ran toward Matthew.
Friends surrounded him. His hands were stuffed in his pockets, and his gaze fixed on the grass. He kicked cigarette butts in the grass with the tips of his converse.
“Matthew!” Paige called.
He looked up at her and waved. She approached the group, timid at first, but growing more at ease when they parted for her.
She stood at his side. “Matthew…what’s going on?” she asked. She caught her breath. Paige chaffed at Melissa’s presence, but didn’t comment.
Matthew’s eyes were animated behind his glasses, elated. “It’s finally happening.”