“What Doesn’t Kill You”
The halls of Claremont High flooded after fourth hour ended and braving the throngs of bodies, I pushed out into the hallway from Criminal Justice to high-tail it to my next class.
Tardiness was not an option, but…I also really had to pee.
Everyone and their mother knew Mrs. Anderson never gave out passes after the bell rang, so I needed to take care of business now. Unfortunately, Mrs. Anderson’s room was also on the opposite end of the school and I only had five minutes to run to the bathroom, race to the other side of the building, and get my ass into my assigned seat without being late.
This was going to take a miracle. Or, at the very least, careful utilization of every second.
There was no way I was sitting next to Mr. Big, Bad, Biker Asshole for a whole 53 minutes when I had to pee. It was already torture enough on its own and my mind was already conjuring images of just how much fun he was going to have watching me squirm.
Time to make a run for it.
After guzzling two cups of coffee and a Red Bull this morning, compliments of a very late night studying for a Criminal Justice test and reading The Crucible, I’d had to pee every hour on the hour since the school day started and holding it all the way until lunch just wasn’t going to fly. My bladder wouldn’t survive.
With my mind made up, I dashed into the bathroom near the Tech Ed wing, having learned long ago that the girls’ restroom in this wing was almost always empty. This was my best shot at getting to class on time and I took it. After my business was done and I gave myself a quick once-over in the mirror to readjust my cheer skirt, I whizzed out of the bathroom, only to run right smack into a lean, leathered chest.
I bounced right off the wall of hard muscle, landing flat on my ass, legs and skirt splayed out on the cold tile floor.
“Well, if this isn’t my lucky day,” a smooth, cocky voice called down to me.
I winced and then opened my eyes to see Caleb Sawyer grinning down at me like the cat that swallowed the canary.
“Nice to see you too, Caleb,” I huffed, desperate to rearrange my skirt. I just prayed to God that he hadn’t gotten an eyeful underneath my skirt. That was the last thing I needed right now…besides, if Brandon somehow got wind of it, the ensuing confrontation wouldn’t be pretty.
Caleb cocked his head to the side and my body felt like it was on fire as his eyes trailed leisurely over my bare legs. He was too good-looking for his own good with his overly-long blonde hair tucked sloppily behind an ear, his leather cut that read ‘prospect’ on the back, and that easy, crooked grin that had the ability to make any woman in this school swoon–students, teachers, secretaries, and the one female custodian at Claremont High, nobody was immune and nobody was more aware of that than him.
I knew I was no exception. My boyfriend, on the other hand, would decimate an entire floor of the building if he knew I’d spent more than a minute in Caleb Sawyer’s presence outside of American Lit class.
Suddenly, a tattooed forearm shot out to me.
“Well,” he shrugged. “I don’t really mind you sittin’ down there like that, but I guess I should make an attempt to be a gentleman, don’t ya think?”
Rolling my eyes dramatically to the ceiling, I ignored his extended hand, choosing instead to go it alone and hoist myself up with the least amount of embarrassment possible. I scrambled to my feet and then bent to snatch up my scattered books and notebooks, dismissing the fact that he folded down to pick up a few stray items I’d missed.
My eyes glanced at the clock and then they just about popped out of my head.
“Oh shit,” I gasped breathlessly, even though all I’d done was fall to the floor. “I’m gonna be late…shit, where’s my phone?”
“Oh, you mean, this little guy?” Caleb grinned back at me, dangling my cell phone just barely out of reach when I lunged for it.
“Caleb! What are you doing? Give it back!”
He glanced down at the phone in his hand and shrugged. “It’s dead, so what difference does it make anyways?”
“I forgot my charger–hey, don’t look at my stuff! Give it back!”
“Calm down, Iz,” he chuckled as he held both hands, my phone included, up in defense. “Let’s not fly off the handle here.”
My eyes narrowed dangerously. If there was one thing I hated more than just about anything else in the entire world, it was that stupid nickname. Other than the fact that he seemed to do it just to piss me off, I couldn’t really put my finger on why it bothered me so much, when from anyone else, it would be a term of endearment.
Maybe the answer was in the question.
I tried again to snatch the phone from his hand, but he just yanked it away, playfully holding it over my head and just out of reach. And then the bell rang. My face crumpled in horror and I lunged one more time, in vain, to get the thing back.
“I know you don’t care about being tardy, but I do,” I huffed. “Can you just give me my phone back…please?”
He rocked back on his heels, seemingly weighing his options. It wasn’t like there was much to figure out; while it was common knowledge he had no problem skipping class when he felt like it, I had never gone down that road before and I wasn’t about to start now.
“So you’re tardy. What’s the big deal? You worried you’re gonna get called to the principal’s office, Iz? Because I can tell you from experience it takes a shit-ton more than one tardy to land your ass in the office.”
“Just give me my phone, Caleb,” I growled and his eyes widened with delight.
That alone was enough to make me seriously consider taking all the books and notebooks in my hands and smacking him right across the face with them.
“Tell ya what,” he started smugly. “I’ll hang on to your phone while we walk to class and then when we get there, I’ll give it back.”
My eyes darted back to him suspiciously. “Now you’re purposefully trying to piss me off.”
He dangled the phone in front of me again as he backpedalled down the now near-empty hallway. “It wouldn’t kill you to be tardy for once, Iz. You know, let loose and live a little?”
“Why are you being such an asshole?” I glared back at him.
“Because I can,” he shrugged simply.
Knowing I was clearly fighting a losing battle, I huffed out an exasperated breath and followed him down the hall. He pivoted on his heel with a smirk to fall into step just a few feet behind me and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end when I realized where his eyes were. I reared my head back only to catch him red-handed and he just wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.
“Don’t you have a girlfriend?” I threw back at him hotly.
“Yep,” he shrugged again with a sly grin.
“Nice,” I shook my head as he fell into step next to me. “You know, if I were Ariel, I would rip you a new one for that crap.”
“Keep dreamin’, Iz,” Caleb waved my phone in front of my face just for good measure. “Ariel and I are good. My girl knows where things stand.”
I cocked an eyebrow at him as we passed the library; he was taking his sweet time in walking to Mrs. Anderson’s and I wasn’t sure how much more of this I could take. It was bad enough they were going to have to spend the next 53 minutes together…
“Sure, she does,” I mused sarcastically. “Her and all the other ones, right?”
His lips twitched in amusement. “Hey, just because chicks are piling up at my feet doesn’t mean I’m biting.”
“Glad to see you care, Iz. That’s all a guy like me can ask for.”
I just rolled my eyes. “You know I have a boyfriend, right?”
Darkness flashed across his handsome face and a tight line ticked down his jaw. “Yeah. I know. Bet pretty boy’d have a fuckin’ coronary if he saw you talkin’ to me like this.”
My eyes darted around anxiously to make sure there weren’t any teachers around to either bitch him out for swearing or ream their asses for not being in class. All of that, of course, was to keep the full weight of his words from bouncing around aimlessly in my brain.
“Yeah, well, I can’t imagine why,” I shot back pointedly.
“Let’s just say it wouldn’t exactly be a fair fight, if you know what I mean,” Caleb replied soberly. “Fucker wouldn’t know what hit him.”
“Always a pleasure, Caleb,” I muttered under my breath, earning me a playful elbow in my side.
“Aw, come on, now. You know you love havin’ this little moment with me.”
“I’d rather walk through hell covered in gasoline than spend any more time with you than necessary.”
His free hand flew over his heart and he turned to me with a playful pretense of anguish. “That hurts me, darlin’. That really hurts me–after everything we’ve been through together?”
“You really need to lighten up, you know that?”
“Shut up, Caleb.”
All that did nothing was coax a low chuckle from his throat and he just shook his head. Thankfully, we were now within arm’s reach of Mrs. Anderson’s room. I could hear our teacher rattling off some instructions and reminders about upcoming due dates and a rush of anxiety strangled my throat.
Oh God…I was missing things. Our teacher was giving information that I needed. We had a reading assignment the night before–what if I was missing a pop quiz? Mrs. Anderson didn’t let you make those up if you were unexcused.
Caleb seemed to sense my tension and good-naturedly held out my phone. “Relax, Iz. It’s only a few minutes. You didn’t miss anything.”
“Maybe,” I offered weakly as I swiped it from his hand, unsure of why I was even still standing here with him in the first place.
“You know,” he grinned down at me. “You could’ve just ignored me and gotten your phone back from me in class.”
My breath hitched in my throat at his words. Everything had just happened so fast and then I was following him down the hallway before I even really knew what I was doing. What had I been doing anyways? Making conversation, joking around with him? We’d spoken more to each other in the last five minutes than we had almost the entire school year. Why had my first inclination been to spend any time talking to him in the first place? I probably could’ve just made a mad grab for my phone and skidded away from him before he could wrangle it back from me.
“Don’t flatter yourself, Sawyer,” I muttered. “You’re not as smooth as you think you are.”
His eyebrows rose suggestively, his lips twisting into an amused smirk as he held the classroom door open for me. “Ladies first.”
We’d barely passed the threshold when Mrs. Anderson looked up from the papers she was holding and shot us an annoyed glare from underneath her glasses.
“Thank you for joining us, Mr. Sawyer and Ms. Martin. Care to explain?”
“Well, Mrs. Anderson, Iz here was having a nervous breakdown about being late,” Caleb jumped a little when I smacked him in the arm. “And I was just talkin’ her off the ledge. You know, doin’ my good deed for the day.”
“Well, isn’t that sweet of you,” Mrs. Anderson rose an eyebrow at us. “You have excellent timing because we were just about to start a pop quiz on Acts 2 and 3.”
Caleb grimaced and ran a hand over his face. “Ah, on second thought…I gotta take a piss. Can I–”
“Too bad, so sad, Mr. Sawyer,” Mrs. Anderson gestured towards his assigned seat with her head and then whipped around to que up the quiz questions on the projector.
He dropped down dejectedly into the chair beside me, like he’d actually believed he’d be able to talk his way out of this one. I immediately jumped into action to make up for some lost class time and flipped open my notebook so I could get to work on the questions. With a quick glance to my left and finding him staring back at me expectantly, I tore out a page from the notebook and passed it over to him with a sigh.
I was too lost in scribbling down some quick responses to the general plot questions when I felt Caleb nudge me and lean over to mutter: “You actually read that shit last night?”
“Shut up,” I whispered back. “You’re gonna get me in even more trouble.”
“Okay, okay,” he held his hands up before digging into one of his pockets for a pen. I was a little shocked he even had that with him today. Usually, I ended up having to borrow one of those to him too, even if he always did return it to me at the end of class.
He went to work on his answers, which I imagined would be nothing but pure bullshit, shifting his body away from me and playfully covering up his paper with one hand so I couldn’t see his responses.
Since Mrs. Anderson always had us grade each other’s quizzes in class, I was sure whatever he had in store for me this time was going to be a doozy of epic proportions. Given that he never did his homework, it seemed like he was in a constant battle to one-up himself with off-the-wall, wildly inappropriate answers. Everyone knew Mrs. Anderson only really looked at the score on the top, so I figured his responses were more for my benefit than anyone else’s.
“Alright,” Mrs. Anderson called out from the front of the room. “Take a second, finish up the last question you’re on and then pass your paper to your neighbor.”
With a deep breath to gear myself up, I glanced down at the chicken scratches I’d become accustomed to and almost burst out laughing as Mrs. Anderson starting going over potential answers.
1) What does the reader learn about the problems in the Proctors’ marriage?
Proctor was getting it on the side cuz his wife needs to put out more.
2) What does Elizabeth explain during Rev. Hale’s visit?
She sees dead people.
3) How is Hale a ‘broken minister’?
Easy. He fell.
4) What behavior of Abby’s does Proctor bring to the court’s attention?
She’s a ho.
5) Why does Elizabeth ultimately choose to lie for her husband?
Because she’s a woman.
Well, he kinda sorta got number four right. Biting my lip to keep from laughing out loud, I quickly circled the total and slid it back to him. He took the paper from me with a cocky smirk, knowing full well that a 1 out of 5 was a gift, and then I glanced down at my paper. He’d graciously circled my 5 out of 5 score right at the top and underneath it had written: “100% for the cheerleader, way to buck the stereotype”.
I just rolled my eyes and shook my head, unable to keep the smile from crossing my face. He wasn’t so bad to be around when he actually put an effort into not being such an asshole. For a fleeting moment, I wondered what it would be like if our circumstances were different, if we weren’t trapped in our ‘stereotypes’, as he’d so aptly put it.
Maybe in another life, we could be friends.
When Mrs. Anderson turned on the movie version of the play about 10 minutes later, Caleb promptly put his head down on his side of the table and was snoring within a matter of minutes. It didn’t matter that this was actually a pretty interesting movie, not to mention play, when you factored in the history that went along with it. But school, in general, didn’t seem to interest Caleb all that much.
When the bell rang, I hit him lightly on the back of his leather cut, making him jump up at the contact.
“Oh shit,” he murmured sleepily and rubbed his eyes. “Did I miss any more T and A, Iz?”
“I hate to break it to you, Caleb, but I think that was only in the beginning of the movie.”
“Oh,” he just shrugged as he stretched his arms lazily over his head. “Then I guess I didn’t miss anything, did I?”
“Guess not,” I replied with a weak laugh. I gathered up my books and notebooks, eager to get to lunch and away from him for the rest of the day. He slid out from his chair to pad behind me towards the door and I couldn’t stop myself from shivering when I felt him lean down over my shoulder.
“You know,” he whispered into my ear. “You’re a pretty cool chick when you wanna be.”
“Thanks,” I called over my shoulder. “I guess you’re not terrible either.”
He just winked back at me as he followed me out the door. Ariel was leaning up against the wall right next to our classroom, her arms folded across her chest like a petulant, perturbed child. It wasn’t like Caleb had exactly kept her waiting that long; the bell had literally just rung. How the hell did she get over here so fast?
“Hey Ariel,” I greeted her with a small smile.
“Hi Isabelle,” Ariel forced a smile across her lips, her hands already reaching out to grasp the edges of Caleb’s leather cut. “Good luck at the pep rally today…you know, with your cheers and all.”
I was pretty proud of myself for not narrowing my eyes into tiny, bitchy slits. While Ariel and I had never really been on friendly terms, it seemed like ever since this semester started, Ariel had been more than a little hostile towards me. And while I instinctively knew it had everything to do with the fact that my assigned seat was right next to Ariel’s boyfriend, the fact that Ariel would even be remotely jealous was difficult to wrap my head around.
“Keep practicin’ those high kicks, Iz,” Caleb called over his shoulder as he swung an arm around Ariel’s shoulders.
I blew out an exasperated breath as Ariel’s laugh echoed down the hallway. I’d seen that view, the two of them walking away together like that with Caleb’s arm slung around Ariel’s shoulders, every day since January and every time I saw it, I felt more uneasy about it than the time before. There was something about the desperate way Ariel clung to him that didn’t sit well with me, even if my concern made no sense.
It wasn’t like Caleb and I were actually friends. All he was to me was an annoying, albeit sometimes entertaining, table partner in American Lit class and that was all he’d ever be.
I plopped down onto our usual lunch table in the cafeteria and perused the crowd carefully. My eyes found Ariel in the middle of one of the lines almost instantly and I grinned back when her face lit up in a bright smile. Then I took a generous bite of my apple, wishing this day would just be over already.
As soon as lunch came around, the rest of the school day just seemed to drag and today, being Friday, felt more tortuous than the day before. The club was throwing their usual Friday night party and while I knew I’d spend the majority of the evening running beers with Dom, I was grateful just to be a part of it.
All we had to do was sit tight until graduation and then we’d both be patched in. There was absolutely nothing in this world I wanted more, next to Ariel face down in between my legs for the rest of the day. Everything was slowly starting to fall into place for me now–I was close to being a full-fledged, active member of the club, I had a kickass old lady who’d made it perfectly clear she’d do just about anything I wanted, and I was breaking out of this goddamn place in less than a month.
While I had to admit I enjoyed the opportunity to socialize with my friends without getting reamed out by my mom for doing it on the shop’s dime, the actual school part really sucked. Next to my shop classes, it was all just one boring parade of useless information and all my teachers knew I was just in it for the diploma. So I figured I might as well make the most of my time and have as much fun as humanly possible while trapped inside Claremont High.
My eyes settled on the flash of white and blue on the other side of the cafeteria and a slow smile tugged up my lips. She really could work that cheerleading skirt like a pro. The best part about it was that Isabelle didn’t even seem to realize how all the guys at this school drooled into a puddle at her feet when she walked by.
I knew I was no exception, even though I figured I did a slightly better job of masking it. By playing off how obviously attractive she was as a way get under her skin, my victory was two-fold: I got to watch Isabelle fume and I got to look at her without earning the wrath of Ariel. If I was just making fun of her, no harm, no foul.
Besides, I enjoyed our back and forth banter during fourth hour just as much as I knew she secretly did. Other than shop, it was easily my favorite class of the day. It had taken me a little while to get a handle on her and I’d been thrown by how smart she actually was. Although I’d been messing with her by writing that stereotype comment on her paper today, it really wasn’t all that far from the truth. Isabelle really wasn’t like anyone I’d ever met before, let alone had to spend any real sort of time with. As soon as I’d pinned down what made her squirm, I’d exploited it with growing delight every day since the beginning of the semester.
Ariel sat down next to me and thankfully ripped me from that particular reverie. She wound her free hand over my thigh and glanced over at me with sexy, hooded dark eyes. Shit, I knew what she was going to ask me before she even said it…we’d had this conversation earlier this morning and I’d held my ground.
“Please, Caleb?” she asked sweetly.
“Nope,” I shook my head furiously before taking a big bite from my burger. “Not doin’ it. You can’t make me.”
“It wouldn’t kill you to go to one pep rally, you know,” Ariel shot back with mild annoyance. “It’s the last one of the year and since you’ve never been to any before, you might as well just suck it up and go.”
“Come on,” she pouted. “I’ll make it worth your while…”
My eyebrows rose at the suggestion and I leaned over to whisper into her ear: “You mean it?”
She nodded quickly as she licked her lips, signaling to me that she was, indeed, serious.
“Why do you wanna go so bad anyways? You’ve never been into all that u-rah-rah shit.”
“Senior year’s almost over,” Ariel shrugged. “I guess I’m just feeling a little sentimental.”
“Well,” I considered my words here carefully. “If it really means that much to you and you’re gonna make it up to me, I don’t see why not, darlin’.”
She wrapped an arm around my neck to bring herself close enough to kiss my cheek. “Thanks, baby.”
“Anything for you, darlin’.”
But by the time I was sitting at the top of the bleachers as the rest of the student body piled into the gym, I was seriously starting to regret this decision. I’d never been a big fan of crowds, at least not this kind of a crowd, and I was starting to feel a little claustrophobic as I pressed up against the cold cement wall behind me. The band was playing some stupid song I barely recognized and all the teachers were aimlessly directing everyone else where to go.
On a normal day, Dom and me would just bail and head back to the shop. Classes were always a little bit shorter whenever there was a pep rally, so getting out early and getting the hell out of there had always been the more appealing option. But no, because I’d let my dick do my thinking for me, I was sitting next to Ariel on the bleachers. And as I cast Dom a weary glance next to me, I knew my best friend was in the exact same boat.
“See, this isn’t so bad, right?” Ariel practically had to yell in my ear over the music.
I figured it was probably better to just nod my head like a good boy, but I refused to clap. There was no way I was clapping along to this shit.
And then my eyes scanned the gym floor only to land directly on Isabelle Martin. In her cheerleading skirt. Doing high kicks. Christ, if I looked hard enough, I could see the bottoms of her undershorts and then my elbows were on my knees as I leaned forward intently, straining to get a better view of her.
Suddenly, the side of my skull exploded from the force of Ariel’s bitter, angry punch.
“Ow!” I shouted, grabbing at the side of my head. “Jesus Christ, what was that for?”
“You know what that was for,” Ariel glowered at me. “I thought your eyes just about fell out of their sockets. I’m sitting right here, you know.”
My eyes widened as I realized I’d been caught red-handed and heard Dom chuckling next to me.
I rubbed the back of my head, still eyeing Ariel warily. “It’s not my fault she’s flashing the entire school. Everyone else was lookin’ too.”
“I don’t give a shit about everyone else,” Ariel shot back hotly.
Ariel had a jealous streak that I’d yet to completely pin down. I wasn’t entirely sure it was just hot or hot with a little bit of annoying mixed in. So, in an effort to get everything I’d been promised tonight, I did my best to keep my eyes focused anywhere but in Isabelle Martin’s direction.
That was definitely easier said than done. Even from way up in the bleachers, her tanned, smooth legs looked impossibly long and I had to imagine every guy in this place was discreetly adjusting his pants right now. Every high kick, every jump, every twirl and I was finding it more and more difficult to keep my attention elsewhere. Shit…if I’d known every pep rally was like this, I would’ve made a point to attend more often. With flexibility like that, I couldn’t stop my mind from wondering if she was really the good girl she made herself out to be.
Brandon Davis was a lucky bastard if he’d gotten into her skirt already. How did she not realize that she drove everyone up the wall like this? She was just happily clapping away with the music and enjoying herself…I wished I could say the same for myself but biology had other plans. Instead, I spent the next 30 minutes doing everything in my power to keep myself from losing my shit in the middle of the gym.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d worked so hard for anything, especially given the fact that my old lady was currently watching me like a hawk. Thankfully, I somehow survived with all body parts intact and was shuffling down the bleachers like a good little sheep. I let Ariel lead me over to her locker, where she grabbed her backpack and some notebooks–which I had no intention of letting her even think about opening this weekend.
When we were making our way through the hall again to push towards the exit, I caught another flash of white and blue out of the corner of my eye. Isabelle was walking towards us, arm in arm with her douchebag football player boyfriend, who was leaning over to whisper something in her ear. I watched, almost mesmerized, as she threw her head back and laughed, her blonde hair dangling easily off her shoulders and her blue eyes sparkling with amusement.
I was barely aware of the fact that Ariel squeezed herself even more tightly underneath my arm as Isabelle and Davis approached. I’d often found myself wondering why Isabelle bothered with a dumb jock with a size complex in the first place, but it was none of my business. We weren’t friends and I figured that Isabelle probably wouldn’t even give me the time of day if it weren’t for American Lit class.
Our worlds were just so far out of each other’s orbit it wasn’t funny. And in month, we would graduate from high school and probably never see each other again. She’d go off to some big, expensive Ivy League school and I would stay here in town with Ariel, waiting for my chance to fulfill my legacy.
So, as we passed each other in the hallway, I couldn’t figure out why Isabelle’s eyes darted over to me for just a split second. It was one of those blink and you missed it moments and I almost wondered if I’d been imagining it. But then she did it again and there was no way I could mistake it for something else.
My mouth curved into one side of my face and I could’ve sworn I saw her bite her lip.
And then, just like that, Isabelle was already behind me and I couldn’t afford to look over my shoulder. Ariel wouldn’t spare me any mercy if she caught me yet again and I didn’t want to risk the promise of what the night had in store for me.
But that feeling was difficult to shake, even as I swung my leg over the side of my bike and felt Ariel wrap her arms around my waist. It was the same feeling that settled deep within the pit of my stomach every time I approached our table in Mrs. Anderson’s class and it was the same feeling I’d felt when we’d passed each other in the hallway.
I had everything I wanted right in front of me, I mused as I sped off through the school’s parking lot with Ariel clinging to me. I was free from school for the weekend, free to have some beers at the clubhouse tonight, free to spend some quality time with my girl. I had my bike; I had air in my lungs and the wind in my hair. Hell, I’d even gotten a 1 out of 5 on my pop quiz today, which was a new record for me.
So, in spite of all that, why was I sitting here thinking about Isabelle Martin?