He was lying. Everyone went to school. There were laws. He was lying to get a rise out of me.
“You think I’m lying,” he said around a smile.
“You’ve never been to school, ever? If that’s true—and you’re right, I don’t think it is—what made you decide to come this year?”
The impulse to feel scared pounded through me, but I told myself that was exactly what Patch wanted.
Standing my ground, I tried to act annoyed instead. Still, it took me a moment to find my voice. “That’s not a real answer.”
He must have taken a step closer, because suddenly our bodies were separated by nothing more than a shallow margin of air. “Your eyes, Nora. Those cold, pale gray eyes are surprisingly irresistible.” He tipped his head sideways, as if to study me from a new angle. “And that killer curvy mouth.”
Startled not so much by his comment, but that part of me responded positively to it, I stepped back.
“That’s it. I’m out of here.”
But as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew they weren’t true. I felt the urge to say something more. Picking through the thoughts tangled in my head, I tried to find what it was I felt I had to say. Why was he so derisive, and why did he act like I’d done something to deserve it?
“You seem to know a lot about me,” I said, making the understatement of the year. “More than you should. You seem to know exactly what to say to make me uncomfortable.”
“You make it easy.”
A spark of anger fired through me. “You admit you’re doing this on purpose?”
“Say ‘provoking’ again. Your mouth looks provocative when you do.”
“We’re done. Finish your pool game.” I grabbed his pool stick off the table and pushed it at him. He didn’t take it.
“I don’t like sitting beside you,” I said. “I don’t like being your partner. I don’t like your condescending smile.” My jaw twitched— something that typically happened only when I lied. I wondered if I was lying now. If I was, I wanted to kick myself. “I don’t like you,” I said as convincingly as I could, and thrust the stick against his chest.
“I’m glad Coach put us together,” he said. I detected the slightest irony on the word “Coach,” but I couldn’t figure out any hidden meaning. This time he took the pool stick.
“I’m working to change that,” I countered.
Patch thought this was so funny, his teeth showed through his smile. He reached for me, and before I could move away, he untangled something from my hair.
“Piece of paper,” he explained, flicking it to the ground. As he reached out, I noticed a marking on the inside of his wrist. At first I assumed it was a tattoo, but a second look revealed a ruddy brown, slightly raised birthmark. It was the shape of a splattered paint drop.
“That’s an unfortunate place for a birthmark,” I said, more than a little unnerved that it was so similarly positioned to my own scar.
Patch casually but noticeably slid his sleeve down over his wrist. “You’d prefer it someplace more private?”
“I wouldn’t prefer it anywhere.” I wasn’t sure how this sounded and tried again. “I wouldn’t care if you didn’t have it at all.” I tried a third time. “I don’t care about your birthmark, period.”
“Any more questions?” he asked. “Comments?”
“Then I’ll see you in bio.”
I thought about telling him he’d never see me again. But I wasn’t going to eat my words twice in one day.
Later that night a crack! pulled me out of sleep. With my face mashed into my pillow, I held still, all my senses on high alert. My mom was out of town at least once a month for work, so I was used to sleeping alone, and it had been months since I’d imagined the sound of footsteps creeping down the hall toward my bedroom. The truth was, I never felt completely alone. Right after my dad was shot to death in Portland while buying my mom’s birthday gift, a strange presence entered my life. Like someone was orbiting my world, watching from a distance. At first the phantom presence had creeped me out, but when nothing bad came of it, my anxiety lost its edge. I started wondering if there was a cosmic purpose for the way I was feeling. Maybe my dad’s spirit was close by. The thought was usually comforting, but tonight was different. The presence felt like ice on the skin.
Turning my head a fraction, I saw a shadowy form stretching across my floor. I flipped around to face the window, the gauzy shaft of moonlight the only light in the room capable of casting a shadow. But nothing was there. I squeezed my pillow against me and told myself it was a cloud passing over the moon. Or a piece of trash blowing in the wind. Still, I spent the next several minutes waiting for my pulse to calm down.
By the time I found the courage to get out of bed, the yard below my window was silent and still. The only noise came from tree branches scraping against the house, and my own heart thrumming under my skin.
COACH MCCONAUGHY STOOD AT THE CHALKBOARD droning on and on about something, but my mind was far from the complexities of science.
I was busy formulating reasons why Patch and I should no longer be partners, making a list of them on the back of an old quiz. As soon as class was over, I would present my argument to Coach.
Uncooperative on assignments, I wrote. Shows little interest in teamwork.
But it was the things not listed that bothered me most. I found the location of Patch’s birthmark eerie, and I was spooked by the incident at my window last night. I didn’t outright suspect Patch of spying on me, but I couldn’t ignore the coincidence that I was almost positive I’d seen someone looking in my window just hours after I’d met him.
At the thought of Patch spying on me, I reached inside the front compartment of my backpack and shook two iron pills from a bottle, swallowing them whole. They caught in my throat a moment, then found their way down.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Patch’s raised eyebrows.
I considered explaining that I was anemic and had to take iron a few times a day, especially when I was under stress, but I thought better. The anemia wasn’t life threatening … as long as I took regular doses of iron. I wasn’t paranoid to the point that I thought Patch meant me harm, but somehow, my medical condition was a vulnerability that felt better kept secret.
Coach stood at the front of the room, his hand outstretched in a gesture that showed he was waiting for one thing—my answer. A slow burn made its way up my cheeks.
“Could you repeat the question?” I asked.
The class snickered.
Coach said, with slight irritation, “What qualities are you attracted to in a potential mate?”
“Come on now, we haven’t got all afternoon.”
I could hear Vee laughing behind me.
My throat seemed to constrict. “You want me to list characteristics of a … ?”
“Potential mate, yes, that would be helpful.”
Without meaning to, I looked sideways at Patch. He was eased back in his seat, one notch above a slouch, studying me with satisfaction. He flashed his pirate smile and mouthed, We’re waiting.
I stacked my hands on the table, hoping I looked more composed than I felt. “I’ve never thought about it before.”
“Well, think fast.”
“Could you call on someone else first?”
Coach gestured impatiently to my left. “You’re up, Patch.”
Unlike me, Patch spoke with confidence. He had himself positioned so his body was angled slightly toward mine, our knees mere inches apart.
“Intelligent. Attractive. Vulnerable.”
Coach was busy listing the adjectives on the board. “Vulnerable?” he asked. “How so?”
Vee spoke up. “Does this have anything to do with the unit we’re studying? Because I can’t find anything about desired characteristics of a mate anywhere in our text.”
Coach stopped writing long enough to look over his shoulder. “Every animal on the planet attracts mates with the goal of reproduction. Frogs swell their bodies. Male gorillas beat their chests. Have you ever watched a male lobster rise up on the tips of his legs and snap his claws, demanding female attention? Attraction is the first element of all animal reproduction, humans included. Why don’t you give us your list, Miss Sky?”
Vee held up five fingers. “Gorgeous, wealthy, indulgent, fiercely protective, and just a little bit dangerous.” A finger went down with each description.
Patch laughed under his breath. “The problem with human attraction is not knowing if it will be returned.”
“Excellent point,” Coach said.
“Humans are vulnerable,” Patch continued, “because they’re capable of being hurt.” At this, Patch’s knee knocked against mine. I scooted away, not daring to let myself wonder what he meant by the gesture.
Coach nodded. “The complexity of human attraction—and reproduction—is one of the features that set us apart from other species.”
I thought I heard Patch snort at this, but it was a very soft sound, and I couldn’t be sure.
Coach continued, “Since the dawn of time, women have been attracted to mates with strong survival skills—like intelligence and physical prowess—because men with these qualities are more likely to bring home dinner at the end of the day.” He stuck his thumbs in the air and grinned. “Dinner equals survival, team.”
No one laughed.
“Likewise,” he continued, “men are attracted to beauty because it indicates health and youth—no point mating with a sickly woman who won’t be around to raise the children.” Coach pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and chuckled.
“That is so sexist,” Vee protested. “Tell me something that relates to a woman in the twentyfirst century.”
“If you approach reproduction with an eye to science, Miss Sky, you’ll see that children are the key to the survival of our species. And the more children you have, the greater your contribution to the gene pool.”
I practically heard Vee’s eyes rolling. “I think we’re finally getting close to today’s topic. Sex.”
“Almost,” said Coach, holding up a finger. “Before sex comes attraction, but after attraction comes body language. You have to communicate ‘I’m interested’ to a potential mate, only not in so many words.”
Coach pointed beside me. “All right, Patch. Let’s say you’re at a party. The room is full of girls of all different shapes and sizes. You see blonds, brunettes, redheads, a few girls with black hair. Some are talkative, while others appear shy. You’ve found one girl who fits your profile—attractive, intelligent, and vulnerable. How do you let her know you’re interested?”
“Single her out. Talk to her.”
“Good. Now for the big question—how do you know if she’s game or if she wants you to move on?”