SWEATY AND BREATHLESS, I ROUNDED THE parking lot by the school entrance and checked my watch. Seven minutes to spare before English. I grabbed my bag from the car, sprinted to class and made it a minute before the bell rang. Slick.
Ms. Leib closed the door behind me and I settled into the nearest available desk. Noah was there, looking as bored and careless and disheveled as ever. He sat at his desk without his book or notes, but that didn’t stop him from answering each of Ms. Leib’s questions correctly when she called on him. Show-off.
My mind wandered against the backdrop of the lecture. I had to do something about the dog. Help her, somehow. I’d just started to envision a dubious plan involving wire cutters, a ski mask, and mace when the bell rang. I made my way toward the door, anxious to get to my next class, but a throbbing mass of students had already assembled in front of it, crowding the exit.
When I finally escaped the confines of the classroom, I found myself staring directly into Anna’s face. Her nose wrinkled in disgust.
“Don’t you shower?”
I probably did smell ripe after this morning’s sprint, but I was in no mood for her garbage. Not today. I opened my mouth, ready to let the abuse fly.
“I vastly prefer the unshowered to the overperfumed, don’t you, Anna?”
That voice could only be Noah’s. I turned around. He stood behind me wearing an almost imperceptible smile.
Anna’s blue eyes went wide. Her face transformed from evil to innocent. Like magic, only more nefarious.
“I guess if those are your only two choices, Noah, then yes. But I’m partial to neither.”
“Could have fooled me,” Noah said.
That did not seem to be the response she’d been expecting from him. “Wh-whatever,” she stammered, refocusing her gaze in my direction and staring daggers before she walked away.
Fabulous. Now she and I were definitely going to have a Thing.
I turned to face Noah. He shot an insolent smile at me, and I bristled. “You didn’t have to do that,” I said. “I was handling it.”
“A simple thank-you would suffice.”
Rain began to spatter the roof of the walkway. “I really need to get to class,” I said, and picked up my pace. Noah matched it.
“What do you have next?” he asked lightly.
“Algebra II.” Go away. I’m smelly. And you bother me enormously.
“I’ll walk with you.”
Fail. I shifted my bag to my other shoulder, bracing myself for an uncomfortably silent walk. Out of nowhere, Noah tugged on my messenger bag, jerking me into a halt.
“Did you draw that?” he asked, indicating the graffiti on my messenger bag.
“You’re talented,” he said. I looked at his face. No sarcasm. No amusement. Was it possible?
“Thanks,” I said, disarmed.
“Now it’s your turn.”
“To compliment me.”
I ignored him.
“We can continue to walk in silence, Mara, or you can ask me a bit about myself until we reach the classroom.”
He was infuriating. “What makes you think I’m at all curious about you?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he replied. “In fact, I’m quite sure you’re not at all curious. It’s intriguing.”
“Why’s that?” My classroom was at the end of the hall. Not much longer, now.
“Because most girls I meet here ask me where I’m from when they hear my accent. And they’re usually thrilled to have the pleasure of my conversation.”
Oh, the arrogance.
“It’s English, by the way.”
“Yeah, I caught that.” Only ten feet left.
“I was born in London.”
Seven feet left. Not going to respond.
“My parents moved here from England two years ago.”
“I don’t have a favorite color, though I strongly dislike yellow. Horrid color.”
“I play the guitar, love dogs, and hate Florida.”
Noah Shaw played dirty. I smiled despite myself. And then we reached the classroom.
I darted to the back of the room and planted myself at a desk in the corner.
Noah followed me in. He wasn’t even in this class.
Noah took the seat next to me, and I pointedly ignored the fit of his clothes on his narrow frame as he slid by. Jamie walked in and sat on my other side, giving me a long look before shaking his head. I took out my graph paper and prepared to calculate. Which meant that I doodled until Mr. Walsh came around to collect last night’s homework. He stopped at the desk Noah was now occupying.
“Can I help you, Mr. Shaw?”
“I’m auditing your class today, Mr. Walsh. I’m in desperate need of an Algebraic brush-up.”
“Uh-huh,” Mr. Walsh said dryly. “Do you have a note?”
Noah stood and left the room. He returned as Mr. Walsh reviewed last night’s homework, and, sure enough, handed the teacher a piece of paper. The teacher said nothing, and Noah sat back down next to me. What kind of school was this?
When Mr. Walsh began to speak again, I doodled furiously in my notebook again and ignored Mr. Walsh. The dog. Noah had distracted me, and I needed to figure out how to save her.
Thoughts of the dog consumed my morning. I didn’t think about Noah, even though he stared at me in Algebra with the single-minded focus of a kitten playing with a ball of yarn. I didn’t look at him once as I took notes, and didn’t notice his permanently amused expression while I fidgeted in my seat.
Or the way he ran his long fingers through his hair every five seconds.
Or how he rubbed his eyebrow whenever Mr. Walsh asked me a question.
Or the way he leaned his coarse cheek into his hand and just …
Stared at me.
When class finally ended, Anna looked primed for murder, Jamie booked it before I could say a word, and Noah waited as I gathered my things. He had no things. No notebooks. No books. No bag. It was bizarre. My confusion must have shown on my face because that delinquent grin was back.
I resolved to wear something yellow the next time I saw him. Yellow from head to toe, if I could manage it.
We walked in silence until a swinging door ahead caught my eye.
The bathroom. An ingenious idea.
When we reached it, I turned to Noah.
“I’m going to be in here for a while. You probably don’t want to wait.”
I only briefly caught the horrified expression on his face before I pushed open the door with overwhelming force. Win.
There were a few girls in the bathroom of indeterminate age, but they paid no attention to me as they left. I was glad to get away from Noah, so I stifled the part of me that wanted to know his favorite song to play on guitar. Jamie had warned me about this nonsense; Noah was toying with me, and I’d be foolish to forget it.
And none of this was important. The dog was important. During Algebra, while ignoring Noah, I’d decided to call Animal Control and file a complaint against Abuser Douche. I took out my cell phone. Surely someone would be sent to follow up on my complaint, and see that the dog was on the brink of death. Then they’d get her out of there.
I dialed information, asking for the number of the city’s Animal Control office and scribbled it down on my hand. The phone rang three times before a female voice answered.
“This is Animal Control Officer Diaz, can I help you?”
“Yes, I am calling to complain about a neglected dog.”
It was impossible to sit still during the rest of the day, knowing that after school I had to check on the dog to make sure she was safe. I fidgeted in my chair in every class, earning me extra homework in Spanish.
When school ended, I flew down the slick stairs and almost broke my neck. The rain had stopped, for now, but it had infiltrated the covered walkways, making my progress treacherous. I was halfway to the parking lot when my cell phone rang; it wasn’t a number I recognized, and I needed to concentrate on my footing anyway. I ignored it and jogged in the direction of the dog’s house. But lights flashed ahead as I rounded the corner. My stomach flip-flopped. It could be a good sign. Maybe they arrested the guy. Still, I slowed to a walk as I approached, my fingers trailing the crumbling wall on the opposite side of the chain-link fence. I listened to the voices and the tinny sound of the police radio in front of me. As I neared the house, I saw a cruiser with the lights on and an unmarked car.
And an ambulance. The hair stood up on the back of my neck.
When I reached the yard, the front door of the house was open. People stood next to the cars by the quiet ambulance. My eyes scanned the property, looking for the dog, but as they reached the lumber pile, my blood froze.
You couldn’t see his mouth at all, with the teeming mass of flies bubbling over it and the side of the pulpy mess that had been the man’s scalp. The ground under his caved-in head was completely black, and the stain blossomed red at the edges of his dingy wife-beater.
The dog’s owner was dead. Exactly as I had imagined it.