It took me until the end of lunch break to completely pull myself together again. By the time I was getting out of my car, my midsection had a dull ache going and my eyes were a light pink that could pass off as tiredness. The marks on my arm were undetectable to the glancing eye, but I still knew that they were there. Foundation couldn’t cover up my pain.
I fell into step with all of the other students making their way to seventh hour. Only two periods left in the school day, and Niall and I thankfully didn’t have a tutoring session scheduled today - something or other about the derby right after school let out. I’d already taken the daily beating from Niall - that is, if he decided to let me be for our physics class, which happened to be next. Likeliness of that? None.
I stopped at my locker to grab my textbook, then weaved my way through the mass of students to Mrs. Dillard’s classroom. Niall was already sat down in his desk, and I had to pass him on the way back to mine. I gritted my teeth and lowered my head, then hurried past. I felt his eyes follow me like daggers in my back, but I tried to ignore the uncontrollable and mental pain he was causing me.
I sat down just as the bell rang, a few more students shuffling through the door and to their seats. Mrs. Dillard strolled into the room after shutting the door, a large glass jar in her hand. She set the jar on her desk at the front of the room, then turned to face the class with her hands on her hips.
“Good afternoon,” she said, as always. “I trust that your lunch went well?” She got no reply, per usual. She shrugged it off and grabbed a stack of notecards that had been in a pile on her desk. “When I pass these around,” she gestured to the cards, “I want you to put your names on them. Then I’ll pass around the jar so you can put them in there.”
“What is this for?” a boy in the front row asked, readjusting the glasses on the brim of his nose.
“Well, if I told you now, what fun would that be?” Mrs. Dillard giggled, sliding a notecard onto my desk as she walked by. “You’ll all see in a moment, anyway.”
I scribbled my name - Samm Carter - onto the notecard, then folded it in half like the other students had done. When Mrs. Dillard came around with the jar I dropped it in, along with everyone else. She made her way back up to her desk and placed it on top, then leaned back against the edge of the desk.
“Okay,” she chirped, clapping her hands together. Mrs. Dillard was always so cheery - I wished it rubbed off on me. “We’re a few weeks into the semester, and we’re studying transfers of energy and the laws of motion, so I think it’s time for a project.” Everyone in the class groaned, including me.
“Now, now,” the tsked, shaking her head. “You won’t be pulling this load alone. That’s why I had you put your names on these cards. We’ll be drawing for partners.”
I sighed quietly. Whenever we had a partner project I just ended up doing everything - because, like Niall said, no one wanted to even glance at me. My partner and I would meet for the times we were required to, but then I told the person I was working with that I’d take over if they wanted me to. They always said yes.
“First, though,” she continued. “I’ve got to explain the assignment.”
She made her way to the board, which had the projector’s screen over it. She quickly drew it up, revealing a step list of instructions.
“Obviously,” Mrs. Dillard said. “You’ll be getting your partners first. Second,” she gestured to the second step, “you’ll be moving to sit next to your partner, then I’ll hand out a sheet with further details. Third, you’ll be getting your assigned project - this project will be all about chain reactions and transfers of energy. This will entail an effect similar to falling dominoes, only on a more elaborate scale. Household items, wind energy, water energy. It’ll be a whole lot of fun!”
“So what’s the whole point of partners?” a boy asked lazily from the back of the room. I rested my chin on my hand while I waited to hear her answer.
“Well,” Mrs. Dillard explained. “This project will require a lot of time, more than the time we have in class. Though I’m sure you’re all capable of completing this assignment on your own, I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to improve your teamwork skills - along with learning the objective in a hands-on way. And I just want you to know that complaining about your pair will not be tolerated.”
When there were no more questions, Mrs. Dillard clapped her hands together and put on her usual cheerful expression. “So, on to partners.”
I mentally groaned. I wished that we could just do this individually - after all, I was quite the introvert. Working with others didn’t have a high place on my gifts list. Quite honestly, nothing did. Maybe I’d just do it on my own, then tell Mrs. Dillard that my partner and I had both worked on it.
“Oh, and one more thing,” she said as she pulled the glass jar into her lap. “There will be no ‘little red hens’ in this project. Since this will require time outside of class, you’ll all be given a video camera to record your construction and execution of the assignment.”
This time, I almost groaned out loud. A video camera. I’d have to put up with someone hating me throughout the whole assignment. I couldn’t believe it. This whole project was set up for my distaste.
“First pair,” Mrs. Dillard said, cheerful tone still prominent. “Carson and Millie.” She set their notecards aside, then reached her hand into the jar again. “Second pair; Michael and Ryan.” The two boys - obviously friends - slapped high-fives. “Third pair; Camry and Jo. Fourth pair; Fay and Evan.” By this point, I was tapping my pencil’s eraser against the desk, just waiting for my name to be called. “Fifth pair; Parker and Mariah. Sixth pair; Samm and Niall.”
My heart stopped.
Immediately I sat up straighter, trying to figure out if I’d heard right. Samm and Niall. Though I’d heard it, it didn’t seem right. I couldn’t be paired with Niall - spending more time with him than I already had to… I didn’t know if I’d survive it.
But Niall’s hateful glare confirmed my fears.
I couldn’t focus, not with Niall’s gaze, not with my rattling brain. There was no way I could be paired with him. There would be no ‘teamwork’, only abuse and hateful words. And we’d have to film the whole thing.
“Okay, kiddos!” Mrs. Dillard piped, apparently finished with partnering. “Let’s get organized!”
She went about pointing to tables, having each partnership sitting at a different one. Niall and I sat at a table in the back of the room, and I gulped as I placed my things on the table next to his.
“Let me just make very clear,” Niall hissed, quiet enough to that only I could hear. “There will be no teamwork. There is no way that I will stoop to your level. We will never be a ‘team’; we will never be equal. What I say, goes.”
All I could do was nod slightly. If I disobeyed him, I’d get hurt - both emotionally and physically. Throughout the duration of this project, I’d probably do just about anything to stay safe from him. As long as I didn’t have to suffer Niall’s beatings.
“So,” Mrs. Dillard said as she came around to each table. “I’m passing out a paper for your partnership. The assignment is explained on here. I suggest that you read it over together, then make plans for working outside of school hours. We’ll be continuing on in our unit while you complete this project, and you’ll have until the end of the semester to do it. Procrastination will kill you in this project, so I suggest that you get right on it.”
She slid a paper onto mine and Niall’s table. I reached out for it, but Niall snatched it away before I could get to it. He shot me another glare before shifting his shoulders away from me, so I couldn’t see the paper. I huffed quietly, leaning my elbows on the table and setting my chin in my hands.
“Suitable workplaces,” Mrs. Dillard continued, “are places indoors, such as your house. Your projects must be constructed in a controlled environment, where weather and other outside forces are not a factor. In the filming of your project, you must include a step-by-step explanation of how your model works, and what energy transfers will be made. There must also be an end goal, such as clicking a mouse or remote to turn on a TV - or anything else that you’d like.” She clapped her hands together again. “I’ll let you all get to work, now. Make sure to have fun with this as well.”
The room then erupted into conversation, each partnership starting on either project ideas or gossip of the day - except Niall and I. I didn’t know how to start a conversation - let alone a project - with Niall without becoming the target. I was so afraid of getting hurt that I didn’t even know how to talk to him. Getting hurt was such a part of the normal in being around him, that I was used to the plunging of my stomach when his gaze fell on me.
“Normally, I’d tell you to stay the hell away from me,” he said, eyes shooting daggers. “But since that’s not an option here, we’re going to do things my way.” He shoved the project sheet at me. “You’re going to do what I say, when I say. And since I have no interest in seeing the inside of your house - which is sure to be horrid - we’ll be at my house. If there’s a problem, get over it.”
I swallowed, tapping my finger on the table nervously. Niall scribbled something down on a piece of paper, then slid it over to me. It was his address. My stomach dropped even further. If he was horrible to me at school, what would he be like when we were completely alone? I nearly shuddered at the thought.
“Here,” he said, tone still harsh. “We’re skipping tutoring today because of the derby game. Be at my house at five, right after the game ends. I already know what we’re going to do, you just have to get your pathetic ears to listen.”
He stood up as the bell rang, leaving me holding the slip of paper. He walked a few feet and I stood, gathering my things. I was about to turn when his voice stopped me.
“And I see you’ve covered up. Good girl.”
And with that, Niall strode out of the physics lab, leaving me out of breath and staring blankly at the faint nail marks on my forearm.