Present Day…Bass Towers High School…Second Semester
Paige Langley never thought she’d be sneaking into an empty room with an athlete. And she definitely never thought she’d be skipping class to do it.
Heart thumping in her chest, she looked on either end of the hallway, while Devon unlocked the door to journalism. A janitor entered the hall, a garbage bag on his belted waist, and headed to a trash can. He hadn’t seen the teens—yet.
Paige placed a hand on the wide receiver’s shoulder and whispered in his ear to ‘Hurry up!’
He jiggled the knob roughly, before the door swung open. Her hand pushing his back, they stepped inside, shutting the door behind them.
Paige breathed in the familiar scent: old papers and books, slightly musty and damp, still the same room 203 that she left behind before winter break.
Devon faced her. “Paige, we’re missing first period.”
“I know, but I need this.”
She observed him: his lean frame pushing up against a desk, the knot-like joints of his fingers clutching the keys in his hands, his brushy eyebrows and the deep blue eyes resting beneath them. His lips were quirked down, disapprovingly.
Paige stepped closer to him, setting her binder down on a desk. Technically, she was supposed to be on a bathroom break…at least that is what she told the teacher. Some things were more important than urinating.
“This couldn’t wait?”
She bit her lip. “Remember our deal?”
He made a noise through his nose, the same guttural-like grunt he reserved when he was especially irritated.
“New year, new approach,” she said, walking to the whiteboard. Dell computers sat in the back of the classroom, next to the wooden globe and the fish tank.
“I’ve started over.” She turned to him, watching for his reaction. “…On my story.”
Oh,” he said. “You’re still on that Linda Davis thing?” he said as if she were on a diet.
Oh, you’re still on Weight Watchers? Have you lost anything, yet?
And it was said with the same skepticism and bogus civility.
Paige ground her teeth. “Yes, I’m entering the contest. That’s why I’m here. You agreed to write for me, or do you remember that?”
Devon smirked and crossed his arms over his chest. “No, ‘hi, Devon’ no ‘how was your break, Devon’ just straight to business with you, huh? Anyway, it was just a question.” He sat on a desk. “I wasn’t sure what you were talking about is all.”
“Whatever.” She started back to her desk and flung open her binder. “Anyway I got this idea. Tell me what you think.”
Rapport was the art of building trust through mimicking another person’s actions.
“Since people always trust themselves, they’ll trust you more if you act like them,” Paige said.
Devon stared at his sneakers and then at the clock.
Rapport started when you took a person’s perceptual position in mind, mimicking mannerisms, breathing patterns and other reflective signals. This created an internal dialogue from which people built connections and friendships.
“I think I—we should use it in our entry” Paige said, grinning ear to ear.
He slid off of the desk. “Wait, what?”
“To connect with our audience—we need to write like Ms. Davis.”
She reasoned that the Linda Davis House wanted another cash cow, some other book to launch off, thus this contest. If Paige could copy Linda’s writing style and technique, she might be able to unveil exactly what the publishers were looking for: the secret formula.
“Well, she wouldn’t reject something she would write, would she?” she asked at Devon’s furrowed face.
Paige rolled her eyes. “I bet you haven’t even read any of her books!”
Devon shrugged. “I’ll read anything.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “So tell me if I’m right or wrong. If I’m wrong I’ll promise never to say another word against your idol.”
Paige closed her binder. “She’s not my idol.”
“The protagonist is always someone of influence, the daughter of a CEO or president of some company.”
“Okay…” she said. It sounded right so far.
“Somewhere in the middle of the book the family loses everything and they’re poor—for a while.”
Paige protested. “Not in every book.” But when she tried to think of an exception she drew a blank.
“Then some billionaire guy falls in love with the protagonist’s cardboard personality, and reforms his playboy ways—and he’s always a playboy. They screw, marry and then she gets his money.”
“No, not a billionaire.”
“Fine, someone well-off,” he said.
“Every story is not like that,” she said. He summed up the fourteen books she had under her bed into four sentences. The back of her neck was hot. “They’re different.”
“She’s published and you’re not.” Paige said to his smug face. “Everyone I know loves her books. I think they’re wonderful.” And that you’re full of shit.
“And I think she’s very smart,” Devon said. “If you could write the same thing over and over again, and people still bought it, why write anything else?”
Paige shook her head.
“You don’t have to write like her. Write like Paige.”
The sound of the ringing bell cut off her next words. Devon swore. They stared at each other for two beats before Paige stuffed her binder in her bag and headed for the door.
Devon looked down each end of the hall before locking the door and followed her.
“Meet me after school,” he said.
She looked at him.
“I have something to show you.”
“Next time I would like to stick to meeting after Journalism, if you don’t mind.”
“Whatever.” Paige shrugged her shoulders. The hallway was crowded, as it usually was after the final bell. Paige struggled not to get lost in the crowd as she kept up with Devon’s quick steps.
He was a foot taller and three years older. It felt good to stand next to him sometimes. She felt more like a senior and less like the fifteen year old social and physical pip-squeak she was.
A girl grabbed his shoulder. They were stopped for what must have been the fifth time. Someone else wanted his attention. Someone else needed to know how his break had been.
Paige crossed her arms over her chest and rubbed her shoulders listlessly. Maybe that was what was so addictive about high-school popularity; it would be the closest some would ever get to celebrity.
She stood at a respectable distance as Devon approached his locker. He opened it and rummaged through the contents inside.
“You’re quiet,” he said.
“It’s nothing.” Paige tugged at the sleeves of her jacket.
The squeaking sound of tennis shoes against linoleum mixed with the flowered scent of body spray and the pungent aroma of sweat. Whispers about who hooked up, who was pregnant and who almost got arrested mingled with the slamming of locker doors.
Students wore their finest clothes, hairstyles, and tans. They showed off Christmas gifts in the form of cell phones and sneakers, or occasionally the new vehicle. It became a battle of who had received the best gifts and who had the best vacation stories to tell.
Paige stared at the sneakers she had since the year before and sighed. Students rushed toward the stairwell, the crowd in the hall shrinking to a trickle. Bag straps wearing hard on her shoulders, she took it off and walked closer to Devon’s locker. He closed the door a little.
“What are you hiding?” Paige said, teasing. A paper fell on the floor. She picked it up. “Devon?”
“Yeah?” He held his hand on the locker door, and turned to her.
“You never turned this in.” She waved the paper in front of his face, her finger on the assignment due date.
He grabbed it. “Shit, I was looking for this!”
The locker swung open and books and papers tumbled on the floor with a crash. He shut the door so fast that she couldn’t get a peek inside.
Paige stepped back as a composition book landed at her feet: English 1. Holy hell. Her eyes roved over the mess that spilled from his locker: bent novels, empty chip bags, crumpled cans of Arizona Ice Tea—a condom?
Devon’s face, neck and ears were red as he scooped up the items. He avoided her eyes. Paige picked up the books.
“Thanks,” he said, apologetically. He held out his hands, expecting her to add her pile of books to his; instead she walked around him and forced his locker door open.
She touched a broken calculator and wrinkled her nose. “You have a lot of junk in your locker,” she said.
“I didn’t ask you to—”
“You don’t clean out your locker at the end of each quarter?” she asked.
His mouth opened and shut.
Paige walked down the hall and grabbed the nearest trashcan. She came back, wheeling the barrel to find Devon stuffing his things back into the locker.
He gawked at her. “What are you doing with that?”
She pushed the bin closer. “I’ll help you organize.”
“Um, no.” He closed his locker door.
“Why not? You don’t have practice anymore, and I never have anything to do after-school.”
Devon ran a hand through his blond hair. “So you decide you want to clean out a locker?” he asked.
“Look, I won’t even look through anything,” she said. “Just hand me what you want to throw away, and I’ll put it in the bin.”
“What if I don’t want to?” he asked.
“…Or you can be afraid to open your locker for the rest of the year.” She pushed the bin in his direction, nodding to his locker.
He looked at the papers on the floor and then at her. “You should be glad you’re my friend.” Devon opened his locker door.
Devon arranged his books on the locker shelf. She chuckled next to him.
“What’s so funny?” Devon sorted through the papers.
“Is it that you never printed my articles last semester or you lost them?”
He knocked a paper out of her hand. Giggling, she threw a balled-up paper at his chest. She froze when she spotted Matthew Box turning the corner of the hallway.
He stopped by the locker. “What’s this?” he asked, looking at the trash heap under the pair. Paige imagined they appeared in the midst of some sort of operation. The trashcan was full. The locker looked as though it had been de-gutted.
White headphones dangled from Matthew’s ears. His usually wild, curly hair was pinned back with a grocery-store rubber band. Stuffing, his hands in his jacket pockets, he turned his bespectacled gaze to Paige.
“Hey Matt,” Paige said, pushing her hair behind her ear. “Did you get out of band early?”
“Nah, there wasn’t any practice today.” Matthew said. “I know you stay after-school sometimes so I was wondering if I would catch you in the library or something.”
“Well, I’m usually not here this late,” Paige said, throwing away a paper. “I’m just helping a friend with a few things. You know Devon?”
“Yeah, he was standing in the end zone when the ball fell in his hands. It’s been going around the school for a while now.”
“What?” Devon stopped. “Excuse me?”
Matthew shrugged. “You should be proud of yourself. It was a very impressive move.”
Paige felt her chest tighten. Why didn’t he keep his rants against the football team to himself? She hated apologizing for him. But she could tell by Matthew’s smirk that he thought it was hilarious.
“I’ll see you in an hour, Paige?” he asked.
She pushed her hair behind her ear. “I should be finished by then.”
Paige watched him leave. She turned around and met Devon’s gaze. She looked away, focusing on the locker.
“He seems uptight,” Devon said.
“That’s just how he is.” She was trying to think of a way to apologize for Matthew’s comment about the final game.
“That’s your boyfriend?” he asked.
Paige put a book on the locker shelf. “We went out a couple of times during break.”
There was a pregnant pause.
“You didn’t tell me that.”
“You never asked.” And it was none of his business. She didn’t ask him about Cristina.
She met his eyes. “He’s a good person. I think you would like him.”
His expression was unreadable. “So a date? What else happened during break?” he asked.
So she told him. She hadn’t gotten much in the way of Christmas gifts. Her uncle gave her a lottery ticket. She received a sweater, cards from relatives, and a framed photo.
The locker was finally clean and the papers organized into folders. When Paige insisted that they organize the assignments alphabetically or by date, Devon refused.
“It looks like we’re done,” Devon said.
“Look how much better it is!” It didn’t matter that there was only two folders and a textbook left in the locker.
He closed the door. He’d found the book he wanted to give her and handed it to her.
“Um, Devon?” She read the red title on the laminated cover. Writing Success! The title was superimposed over a cartoon of a dog reading. It looked like one of those scam books written by ‘best-selling’ authors you’ve never heard of.
“I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not like those other books.” Devon said. “It really helped me.”
An eyebrow raised she looked from the book’s cover to Devon’s eager, hopeful face.
She doubted it would be the magic bullet to her writing woes. She doubted the author of the book wrote anything other than what was in her hands. Still, smiling, she put the book in her messenger bag.
“Thanks,” she said.