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I knew starting tenth grade at Austin High would be tough. Hollis and Fletcher seem to rank pretty high in the sophomore chain of command, and the way I react now could make or break my year.
Still, I got to class fifteen minutes early to stake my claim on exactly the right desk-second row in from the window, five rows from the front. I assumed (wrongly, as it turns out) that this was the perfect place to be overlooked. If I give it up now, will it say I'm a loser who's desperate to please? Or will it say I'm a team player?
I stare down at Hollis's flip-flops as I ponder. Her toenails are polished a deep metallic blue embellished with tiny daisies. She has rings on four toes.
Finally I look up. "Take-"
"-the empty seat, Hollis," Senora interrupts. "Now."
Hollis's flip-flops turn and she drops her purse, her backpack, and another bag to the floor, each landing a little closer to my feet. Finally she settles into her seat and crosses her legs. Five little daisies bob into my sight line to remind me I'm in trouble. Fletcher's swampy eyes are still boring into me from the other side.
Obviously, indecision was the wrong decision. I should have gotten my butt out of this seat and laid a red carpet for Hollis. I'm always a beat late. It's the story of my life.
I let my hair fall forward, grateful for the cover of the mass of red curls that polite people call auburn. I wish I could go back to my old school. Mom would be glad to have me at home, but I've vowed not to return while my grandparents are there.
When they flew in from Pakistan last spring, I had no idea their visit would push my family over the edge. Mom had barely spoken to them since they'd disowned her for marrying a Scottish-American instead of what my sister and I secretly call an MOT-a Member of the Tribe. My parents' marriage may not have been solid, but it was holding together until my grandparents put down roots in my bedroom. Mom talked less and less and Dad worked more and more, until July, when Dad finally realized he wasn't wanted and moved out. I went with him, partly to make a grand statement, and partly to divide and conquer. My sister, Saliyah, is working the reunion angle at Mom's end.
At first I thought living downtown was kind of cool, and I went back to Anderson Mill a lot over the summer to visit my best friends, Shanna and Morgan. Now that I'm in school and working part-time, I won't be able to tackle the one-and-a-half-hour bus ride as often. I feel homesick and friend-sick. Too bad grand statements don't come with back doors.
Senora Mendoza turns to the board. "Let's start by reviewing some verbs you learned last year. Suggestions?"
I start conjugating in my notebook:
I hate it here.
You hate it here.
She hates it here.
He hates it here.
We hate it here.
They hate it here.
Our client Patrice has hired us to find out if her new crush is single, and whether they have anything in common.
This is a bit different from my usual Love, Inc. cases. Kali wanted to do it, but Syd and I worried that Angel would hit on her, which would ruin everything for Patrice. I'm only slightly bummed that I'm considered the safe bet. I remind myself that it's just business. We exploit Kali's natural gift for some cases and put a lid on it for others. I have my own skills. Kali bubbles over with options, so if she were in charge of mediation, no one would stay together long. She's a "grass is always greener" type; I'm a "look how green this grass is" type; and Syd's a "torch the lawn" type. The balance works for us. Through my various mediations, I've become nearly as good as Kali at drawing information out of people. I no longer stay up all night before one of these assignments, trying to hash out every angle with Oliver and Gordon, but I still wake up nervous.
Taking a deep breath, I join Angel at the free weights, introduce myself, and make my pitch: "I'm doing a story for community television on combat sports, and I wondered if we could talk about boxing."
Angel shrugs and sits down on a bench. "Sure. As long as I can do my workout at the same time."
I turn on Syd's video camera and zoom in on his impressive biceps. "That's a great tattoo. What does it symbolize?"
He slides under a set of barbells and positions his hands. "It's Chinese for 'invincible.' It inspires me to work harder."
I bluff my way through a few superficial questions about his training regimen and fight strategies before shifting to his personal life. ... I'm not sure where Patrice's interests lie, but by the time Angel is finished pumping iron, I've pumped him for enough information to give her a sense of what makes this guy tick.
Only one key piece of the puzzle is missing. "So, does your girlfriend look more like Megan or Scarlett?" I ask, tagging along to a punching bag.
"My ex had a bit of Scarlett in her, I guess," he says, holding out his hands so a gym staffer can put on boxing gloves. "But I don't go for a particular type."
Once the staffer leaves, he adds, "I like a pretty face and a hot body as much as the next guy, but I also like what's in here." He taps a big glove against my head. "And here." He taps the other glove against my chest and I know he's referring to my soul, not my bra size. "My ex was a contender."
"So why'd you break up?"
"Because Chicago's a long drive." He takes his first jab at the bag. "I didn't want to spend my last year of high school staying true to a girl I'll hardly ever see."
"Then I guess you weren't that into her in the first place."
He drills the bag with a series of quick punches. "I was crazy about her, but life's too short to spend it waiting. There are other contenders around."
"That's not very romantic." Not after what he said about loving what's inside. It doesn't say much for love's staying power.
"It's honest," he puffs. "And who knows; maybe we'll get back together later."
With the camera as a shield, I feel bold enough to ask the question that's always on my mind. "Did you cheat on her?"
He stops punching and catches the bag. Looking straight into the camera he says, "Nope. That's not respect. I told her the truth and now we're friends."
"So exes can be friends? A lot of people have trouble with that concept."
"I think it's possible as long as you fight fair."
I guess that's true. After all, I helped Sinead and Leo fight fair, and now they're friends. Using the back of a glove to brush away a strand of hair from his sweaty forehead, he says, "You're asking a lot of personal questions. Is this story about boxing or dating?"
Oops. "Boxing. But I want viewers to know the man behind all that muscle."
He smiles. "And what if I wanted to know the girl behind that camera?"