Chapter 1: Rio: Friday, Sept 17th-Monday, Sept 20th
Friday, September 17th
Rio sits in the school parking lot. He takes a long, slow drag of his cigarette and glances at the dashboard—11:03. Just two more minutes and the bell will ring, and in the commotion of students spilling out of the double doors at the front of the school for off campus lunch, he’ll be able to slip in without the office secretaries spotting him after ditching all of his classes the entire morning.
Sure, there was a good chance they’d notice once he wasn’t marked absent in Woods during 5th period, that they’d drag him up to the front office and slap him with detention, but sometimes he got lucky. Sometimes they were busy or had more pressing matters to attend to, and Rio could slip through the cracks.
The bell rings and Rio pulls open his door and stomps out his cigarette before making his way into the building. He nods at a few familiar faces but avoids most of the others.
When he’s nearly across the parking lot, he gives a wide berth to a gaggle of dumb football jocks shoving each other and cracking jokes on their way to pile into one of the beds of one of their trucks, but one of the boys spots him.
“Yo!” the tall, gangly one calls. Rio recognizes him from math class, but Rio’s there so infrequently, he can’t remember his name even though he’s sold him either booze or weed at least once or twice before. “Hey, wait up!”
The guy jogs back toward Rio, who waits patiently but doesn’t bother to meet him halfway. The football player’s buddies hang back, exchanging glances like they’re still intimidated by Rio’s reputation. The gangly boy isn’t intimidated, though—which says less about his bravery than his intelligence. Rio absorbs this information.
The guy glances around, and Rio wants to roll his eyes. It’s not that it’s a bad idea to check around for the security guard or even goody-two-shoes snitches, but you also can’t broadcast what you’re up to. “There’s a party tonight. After the game. Can you hook us up?”
Rio pretends to consider, then nods curtly once. “Yeah. Whatchu need?”
The boy details what they want, Rio sets a price, and then the boy grimaces. “Really? Could you, like, cut us a deal or something?”
Rio barks out a laugh and cocks an eyebrow. “What, man, you think I take coupons?”
The boy scratches his ear. “I don’t know. Isn’t there some sort of… friends and family discount?”
“Which one you think you are?” Rio stares at him blankly, refusing to break eye contact. The guy has an inch or two on Rio, but he still withers under Rio’s gaze.
“Alright, alright,” the boy says hurriedly. “I’ll get the money to you next period, okay? I gotta go to the ATM during lunch.”
“A’ight,” Rio says, and he slaps the guy’s hand to seal the deal.
“By the way,” the guy says, walking backward away from Rio. “You missed a pop quiz in math today, so you might wanna swing by Mr. Stewart’s room.”
Rio nods, and the boy spins on the spot to jog back towards his friends. He’s wearing his football jersey, so when he turns around, Rio can see BOLAND written across the back in big, block letters.
He’ll have to remember that. The guy caved so easily to being overcharged, Rio wouldn’t mind having him as a regular customer.
When Rio rounds the corner into Mr. Stewart’s classroom, it takes him a moment to register that he’s interrupting something.
“I don’t normally do this,” Mr. Stewart says, red pen poised in his hand as he scans over a piece of paper on his desk. A blonde girl stands opposite him, shifting her weight nervously. “But if it’s that important to you—”
“It is,” the girl insists, and then adds hastily, “Thank you.”
Rio doesn’t remember her name, either, but everything else about her is unforgettable. She’s smoking hot—and he knows from the times he’s actually shown up to English and Math that she’s one of those girls that loves raising her hand all straight and prissy in the air. Loves hearing herself talk. Loves being right. Of course she’d be the type to insist on getting a quiz graded immediately after the bell had rung.
Rio spins on his heel ready to leave the room when Mr. Stewart’s head jerks up and he points at Rio with his pen. “Not so fast, Mr. Hildalgo.”
“I can come back.”
“Like I believe that,” Mr. Stewart drawls. “When’s the last time I saw you? Two, three weeks ago?”
Rio rolls his eyes. They’ve only been in school a month, and his attendance has been spotty, but it’s not that bad. “Nah—” he starts to say, but the girl interrupts.
“Not so long as that. He was here last week.”
“You payin’ attention?” Rio asks, smirking at her.
The girl blushes and she shakes her head. “You show up for quizzes and tests.”
Rio narrows his eyes at her. She’s right. Most people wouldn’t guess it, but he lives by a careful schedule. He likes to show up just enough to keep his grades up so that it keeps his parents off his back—and he can scrape by doing well on quizzes and tests with how Mr. Stewart weights his gradebook. But he wasn’t aware anyone noticed the pattern.
“Pop quiz today, though,” she says quietly, and Rio tilts his head, studying her. The blush that had just faded resurges.
“Yeah, so… can I take it?” Rio asks, tearing his eyes away from her.
Mr. Stewart grunts, but he passes over a sheet of paper. Rio plucks it from his hand and sits down at the nearest desk. Rio pats his jean pockets, but they’re empty.
“Yo, you got a pencil I can borrow?”
Mr. Stewart looks up from his corrections and sighs, but the girl hands Rio a pencil from an outer pocket of her backpack. “You can keep it.”
“Thanks, darlin’,” Rio says, flashing her a grin. She isn't his normal type—she’s got 4.0 GPA stamped all over her—but he likes how easily he can get her chest to go all red and blotchy.
“No talking,” Mr. Stewart reprimands.
The next few minutes are silent, and Rio zips through the quiz. He stands just as Mr. Stewart tsks and writes 4/10 on the top of the girl’s paper, right next to her name written in perfect cursive: Elizabeth Marks. There’s even a little heart dotting the i, which just figures.
“That was quick,” Mr. Stewart says skeptically, scanning over Rio’s paper now with the pen, but Rio isn’t listening.
He’s looking at Elizabeth out of the corner of his eye, and he sees the way her bottom lip is trembling as she studies the paper from Mr. Stewart.
“Can I retake this?” she asks, voice small.
“Miss Marks, you know my policy on pop quizzes,” he says without looking up from Rio’s paper. “The purpose is to keep you on your toes. Keep up with your homework and studying and your scores will improve.”
“I’m trying,” she protests. “All my homework is done, I just don’t get it.” She must feel Rio’s eyes on her because she shoots him a dirty look, like he’s being invasive.
And maybe he is, because he’s staring at her solution to problems 1 and 2 now over her shoulder and he says, “You’re forgettin’ to distribute the exponents first.”
“What?” she snaps, like him pointing this out to her is offensive.
Rio shrugs, unbothered. She did forget.
“Mr. Hildalgo is correct...” Mr. Stewart says, scrawling something at the top of Rio’s quiz. Rio can’t help but grin. “...which is why he earns a 10/10.”
“How?” Elizabeth demands. “He’s never even here!”
“Don’t need to be.” Mr. Stewart grumbles at this, and Rio turns to him. “What? Ain’t I acin’ all my tests?”
“I’d like to see you do a page of homework sometime, maybe even show up to class once in a while. Take some tips from Miss Marks.”
“Sounds like she should be takin’ some tips from me,” Rio says smoothly.
“Actually…” Mr. Stewart brightens. “Maybe that’s a good idea.”
“Huh?” Rio asks while Elizabeth purses her lips.
“You should tutor Miss Marks.”
Rio balks. “Why would I do that?”
“Please, no,” Elizabeth protests weakly. “I’ll just—”
But Mr. Stewart isn’t listening to her. He speaks directly to Rio. “You’re too smart to waste your talents like you do. And by the time you realize that, it might be too late.”
“I’m not followin’.”
“College, Mr. Hildalgo. Life beyond these walls.” He gestures vaguely to the classroom.
Rio scoffs. “Yeah, I ain’t goin’ to college.”
“That’s what you think now. But why take the option off the table by pulling D’s when you’re perfectly capable of A’s? I could excuse you from some homework assignments if you tutored Miss Marks. Help your grade out—make it more reflective of what you should be earning.”
Rio shakes his head. Stodgy old guys like Mr. Stewart are so oblivious, have no idea that everyone isn’t on the same path. School makes Rio so bored, he wants to crawl out of his skin. Why would he want to pay thousands of dollars for a degree that will put him in an equally dull desk job when he can keep moving up doing what he’s doing and make more bank than any of the people in this room could possibly imagine? Grades don’t matter—not for what Rio plans to do with his life.
”I don’t care about all that,” Rio says, waving his hand. “All that matters is doin’ enough to get by.”
Rio hears Elizabeth huff out an annoyed breath next to him, like she vehemently disagrees. If he had to guess, she’s already got her top three college choices mapped out with some pro/con lists.
“So school doesn’t matter?” Mr. Stewart asks.
“Nah. Not to me.”
“Because you don’t need it for where you’re going?” His eyes are narrowed, and Rio senses a trap, but he doesn’t quite know what it is.
He doesn’t care what Mr. Stewart thinks of him or his plans, though. “Nope.”
“So what’s keeping you here?”
Rio rolls his shoulders. “Gotta be, don’t I?”
“It’s the law, ain’t it?”
“Somehow I don’t think you care much about the law,” Mr. Stewart says, brow arched. Rio runs his tongue along his teeth. He’s got Rio there. “I’m guessing it’s your mother—maybe your father?”
“I ain’t scared of them,” Rio says defiantly (which is at least half-true).
“No, I don’t think that’s it. I think despite all the evidence to the contrary, you don’t want to disappoint them. I’ve called them, you know. Nice people, your folks.”
Rio feels Elizabeth look over at him and he rocks his jaw, uncomfortable with how close it hits to the truth. The D’s are bad enough—not bad enough to make him do any better, true—but bad enough that he couldn’t stand the shame of bringing home anything worse. He doesn’t care about the things his parents care about—but he at least has enough sense to know that they bust their ass for him and his sisters, and he respects that they want more for their kids than they got for themselves. He just has a different idea about what more means.
Unable to come up with anything else to say, Rio reiterates, “I told you. I do enough to get by.”
“Except there’s always the detentions.”
“What about ‘em?”
“Did you know a certain amount of detentions results in a suspension? That a certain amount of suspensions result in an expulsion?”
Rio’s mouth forms a hard line. He knew missing a detention resulted in an automatic suspension, which is the only reason he ever shows up to them—his mom would lose her goddamn mind if he was suspended again—but he didn’t know that.
“And yet…” Mr. Stewart shrugs.
“Well, I ain’t see what one has to do with the other. Tutorin’ Blondie ain’t gonna get me out of detention.”
“Hey—” she starts to interrupt, but nobody’s listening to her at this point.
Rio raises an eyebrow.
“You might not think so, Mr. Hildalgo, but I’ve got pull. I could make arrangements.”
The idea is tempting. If he’s got to be at school for detention anyway, why not spend it teaching a hot girl math in the library stacks? It was the plot of many of the tapes he and Mar had found stashed under Mar’s brother’s bed, after all. Plus, he’d be raising his grade. His mother would be happy at least—and there was always a chance he might actually be able to sweet talk Blondie into joining him in the backseat of his car or something. It’d be challenging, but that was part of the fun.
The plan wasn’t a total bust, all things considering.
“Fine,” Rio agrees. “I’ll do it.”
“Is anyone going to ask me what I think?” Elizabeth asks shrilly. Rio and Mr. Stewart both turn to look at her, and her ears are all red in frustration. “Or am I just a pawn in—in— your stupid teaching moment and your lame attempt to make your parents proud?”
Rio lets out a breathy chuckle. He’s kind of surprised by this turn of events. She’s mouthy. He hadn’t taken her for the type to call a teacher out—and it makes him only more intrigued by her.
Mr. Stewart opens his mouth to speak, but Rio beats him to it. “What, you like failin’ or somethin’?”
“No,” she huffs, pulling her books closer to her chest. “But you can’t just act like my opinion doesn’t matter.”
“A’ight,” Rio says, and he lays his full focus on her, waiting for her to say something. “What’s your opinion?”
He can tell Elizabeth wants to squirm under his gaze, but she only straightens her back and stands taller. “No.”
“No? What, you got a problem gettin’ tutored by a kid from the hood or somethin’?”
“Alright—” Mr. Stewart starts, giving the hand signal for them to simmer down.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Elizabeth snaps, but he can tell by how her blush rises up her neck to her cheeks, by how defensive she is, that he was at least a little bit right. She’s embarrassed by the idea that someone like her needs someone like him to help her.
“So what’s the problem?”
“I—” she falters for a second. “I take the bus.”
“And I got a car.”
Elizabeth’s eyebrows shoot up in surprise, but she shakes it off and quickly asks, “What does that have to do with anything?”
“I’ll drive you home.” It might increase the chances of getting her into the backseat, after all.
“No!” Elizabeth blurts.
“Miss Marks, I’m surprised by you,” Mr. Stewart says gravely, and Elizabeth actually stamps her foot in frustration over the whole thing. Rio blinks in surprise. The girl’s practically a cartoon character.
“That’s not—I’m not—” she lets out a frustrated groan. “I swear, it’s just that—”
“Mr. Hildalgo is willing to help you, and you would be helping him out as well. He’s even going above and beyond to try and make this work for you. What part of this idea are you so against?”
Elizabeth looks at her feet, defeated. “Nothing. It’s fine.”
“Nobody’s forcing you,” Mr. Stewart says, as if Elizabeth’s being perfectly absurd.
“No, I…” she looks up at Rio through her lashes, and she has the decency to at least look abashed. “I’ll do it.”
“Alright, good. You two sort out the details, and let me know. I’d like to eat my lunch now, if that’s alright,” Mr. Stewart says, shooing them out of the room.
When they spill out into the hallway, Elizabeth looks uncertainly at Rio, as if she’s not really sure what the next step is now that they’re on their own.
“So… um… I guess this means…” Elizabeth bites her lip nervously and Rio thinks it looks a little obscene, the way she looks so utterly innocent and nervous at the same time that she’s walking around in that body.
“I’m gonna teach you.”
Elizabeth swallows and nods. “Okay.”
The bell rings. And with that, Rio reaches out and slips her pencil behind her ear. Elizabeth touches it gently, surprised, before Rio disappears into the throng of people.
Monday, September 20th
“Don’t line up at the door! You know how I hate that,” Mrs. Valdez scolds, moving through the group of kids crowded at the front of the class to try and stand between them and the exit. The bell rings, though, as she’s jabbering on about it, and the final class of the day spills out into the hallway.
Rio finds his best friend Mar at their shared locker.
“Yo,” Rio says, and the boys slap hands.
Mar unloads a textbook into the locker and pulls out a small baggie of weed that Rio had hidden in there. “Did you already sell this or is it up for grabs?”
“Nah, it’s mine.”
“Fuck yeah. You wanna hotbox your car or you wanna chill in the shed?”
“I can’t do neither,” Rio says, snatching the bag from Mar’s hand and stuffing it into his hoodie pocket. “I’m busy.”
“Nah, I mean after detention.”
“I ain’t got detention. I’m just busy.”
“With what?” Mar asks, brows knit.
A delicate pair of hands covers Mar’s eyes from behind, and suddenly Elena, five foot nothin’ and completely hidden by Mar’s body, coos into his ear, “Guess who!”
Mar pries Elena’s hands off his eyes and turns around to kiss her. This is becoming a daily routine now, the longer the two of them date, and despite the fact that it’s cheesy as fuck, Rio finds that he likes this girlfriend of Mar’s. She’s at least better than all the other ones.
“Hi, Rio.” Elena smiles when they break the kiss. “How many classes did you actually attend today?”
“Two,” Rio says, grinning rakishly.
“So we’ll see you in the shed after detention?”
“No detention today.”
“You’re joking. How do you keep getting away with this?”
“I’m just that good,” Rio jokes, brushing invisible dirt off his shoulder. “Nah, I’m kiddin’. I made a deal with Stewart. I’m gonna tutor and in exchange I get outta detention and I get extra credit.”
“You’re gonna tutor someone?”
“F’real?” Mar asks, surprised that Rio would do this. “That’s just as bad as detention, man.”
“Nah,” Rio says, shaking his head and running his tongue along his teeth.
Elena looks at him in confusion, but Mar picks up what Rio’s laying down immediately. “Oh, man. She hot?”
“Who is it?” Elena pries, standing on her tiptoes and scanning the hallway, as if she would be able to spot someone that looked like they needed math tutoring. She eyes the people stuffing books into backpacks and slamming lockers shut and disappearing out of the double doors.
“Elizab—Beth? Beth Marks?” Elena asks, surprise etched on her face.
“Who is she?” Mar asks.
“Blonde, big blue eyes?” Rio shrugs. “Kinda nerdy. I got a couple classes with her, but I dunno much about her, ‘cept she’s fuckin’ terrible at math.”
“She’s in my home ec class. She’s the best cook out of all of us. Ooh, you should date her! Maybe she could fatten you up so you don’t have them skinny little chicken legs,” Elena teases, reaching out to pinch the soft skin on the back of Rio’s knee.
“Shut the fuck up," Rio says, laughing, jumping away to dodge her.
“I don’t have any idea who this girl is.”
“Yes, you do! She does the morning announcements,” Elena says, slapping Mar’s chest with the back of her hand. “You know the one. The one that never knows what to do with her hands?”
“Oh, fuck,” Mar says, hiding his laugh behind his hand. “ That girl?”
Rio’s jaw sets. He’s never seen the morning announcements. He misses first period more than any other period in the day, and even when he does show up, he’s tardy.
“Don’t be mean,” Elena scolds.
“It ain’t a bad thing,” Mar says, tapping Elena on the nose. “You’re a fuckin’ nerd, too. But you’re right,” Mar concedes, turning toward Rio. “She is super hot. You trying to hook up with her?”
Rio shrugs again because the idea is appealing, but he’s not sure how much effort the whole thing is worth. He senses she’ll be easy to fluster but harder to truly entice. As much as he was intrigued by her mouth, and as much fun as it might be, he’s not invested… yet.
“What happened to Dylan?” Elena asks. “I thought you guys had a thing?”
“Yeah, she’s dope,” Rio says easily. “We’re chillin’. But it ain’t serious or nothin’.”
Elena sighs. “Is it ever with you?”
“Not everyone’s tryin’ to lock it down at fifteen,” Rio throws back at them. They both scowl. “A’ight. I’m out.”
“You sure you don’t wanna smoke a joint first?”
Rio glances at the library doors, considering. “Fine. But quick.”
When Rio strolls into the library ten minutes later, Elizabeth’s stuffing her math book back into her bag and zipping it up.
“You leavin’ already?”
She startles, her big Bambi eyes wide. “I thought you weren’t coming.”
“Why?” Rio slides into the chair next to her.
“Well,” she says, tucking her hair behind her ear, “we said after school…”
“Ain’t it after school right now?”
“I mean, I thought it was right after school.”
“Damn, chill. It’s been like five minutes.”
“Almost fifteen,” she promptly corrects. “And you weren’t in Math or English, so I really had no evidence to believe that you would actually show up.”
Rio stares at her, fascinated. “Do you ever relax?”
Elizabeth straightens her back, and Rio can see the tension in her shoulders. “Not all of us can afford to be so, as you say, chill. ”
The slang sounds absolutely foreign on her lips, and Rio can’t help it—she pulls a genuine laugh out of him. Once he’s done, he shakes his head, then fixes her with his full attention. She blushes underneath it. “Well, you know…”
“What?” she asks, flustered.
“I can help with that.”
Rio sees her eyebrows twitch as she tries to decipher what he means. “With what?”
“Helpin’ you relax.”
Elizabeth matches his stare, but her eyes dart back and forth rapidly, like she’s trying to figure out if he’s saying what she thinks he is. She seems to be considering whether she should scold him or whether he would be able to weasel out of it, pretending to have been talking about something else. Her eyes narrow. And then, like she thinks she’s got him, like she thinks asking him straightforwardly might embarrass him, she demands, “What, exactly, are you suggesting?”
God, Rio thinks. Does she always sound like a forty-year-old mother?
“Oh, there’s lots of ways we could do it, darlin’. Some more fun than others.”
Her entire face pales, and her jaw drops just slightly. He can see that she’s imagining it—them together—and he smirks as a blush creeps up her neck and into her cheeks.
Just then they hear the library doors slam open, and they both turn to see the gangly football player—Benson, no, Boland— come hurtling into the room. He scans the tables and sees the few people posting up in the library before he lands on the two of them, and then, to Rio’s surprise, he comes ambling over toward them.
“Bethie?” he asks, and Rio furrows his brow. This guy doesn’t seem like he should even know Elizabeth’s name, let alone be in her social circle.
"Dean?" she asks, like she's surprised to see him.
“Misty said you were going to get tutored by this guy, but I thought she was just messing with me.” He gives a knowing look and a goofy smile to Rio, like somehow Elizabeth’s the butt of a joke that Rio doesn’t get.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Rio asks, before Elizabeth can say anything.
“Beth’s too proud to ever ask for help,” Dean says, rolling his eyes. “I’ve offered, like, ten times.”
Pathetic, Rio thinks. This guy can’t seem to take the hint.
“You’ve offered once,” Elizabeth mumbles. Rio watches her reach for a bracelet on her wrist and start tugging on it anxiously. It’s one of those cheap ones, with fake jewels lined on a dinky elastic string—the kind Rio’s little sister wears when she’s playing dress-up. “And I said no thank you because you’re repeating this class.”
Dean waves his hand as if her logic doesn’t make perfect sense. “Yeah, so I know it better than anyone. Definitely better than this guy—he’s never even there.”
Dean smiles like it’s a joke, but before Rio can respond, Elizabeth snaps, “He’s actually very good at math.”
Rio sucks his lower lip into his mouth to keep from grinning.
Dean chuckles and turns towards Rio. “I guess you’d have to be, doing what you do, huh?” Rio sees Elizabeth’s eyebrows pinch in confusion, but before she can ask what he means, Dean puts his attention back on her. “Well, do you think you can skip today, make it up tomorrow? Courtney’s parents went to Barbados for the week and her house is empty. We’re thinking... hot tub party?”
He says it suggestively, and Rio runs his tongue along his bottom lip. He sort of can’t wait to see this guy crash and burn.
“Dean, I can’t.”
“Why not?” Dean pouts, pulling a chair out beside Elizabeth and crowding into her space. He nips at her ear and whispers something to her, which makes Elizabeth glow red.
Rio stares at them, dumbfounded. This guy ain’t trying to get with her. He already is. Although he doesn’t know her well, Dean Boland is just about the last person on the list of all the people Rio could ever imagine someone like Elizabeth Marks to be with. The guy even ranks lower than himself.
Well, Rio thinks. This makes things slightly more interestin’.
“Come on, Bethie. Everyone’s gonna be there—Kyle, Jeremy, Eric—“
She snaps her bracelet against her wrist. “They don’t even like me.”
Dean rolls his eyes again. “You just need to learn to take a joke. They’re just giving me a hard time. They think it’s funny I’m dating a sophomore. Plus, the girls are going to be there. Stacy, Natalie, even Misty—”
Elizabeth bites her lip. “Misty’s going?”
Rio can hear the jealousy in her voice, but Dean remains oblivious. “Yeah! So, what do you say?”
There’s a long pause as Elizabeth seems to consider it. She glances at Rio, though, and then says, “I can’t. He’s here to tutor me. I can’t just leave. It’s rude.”
“Aw, come on. He doesn’t care. Do you care, man?” Dean asks, trying to get Rio to side with him.
“Elizabeth can do whatever she wants,” Rio says neutrally—mostly because he wants to see how this plays out.
Elizabeth looks up at Rio quickly, eyebrows raised at how he called her Elizabeth —or maybe just at the way that he seemed content to let her decide for herself. Then she looks at her lap, twisting the bracelet back and forth. Quietly she says, “Dean, I really need the tutoring. Maybe another time.”
Dean sighs. “Fine. Kiss goodbye, at least?”
Elizabeth blushes furiously, but quickly kisses him chastely on the lips. Dean tries to go for another, but Elizabeth pushes him away. “Come on, Bethie—“
“We’re in the library,” she hisses.
Dean sighs, exasperated. “You’re no fun.” But then he quickly shoots up out of the chair and exits the room, leaving the two of them alone.
They sit in silence for a moment, the air tense.
“So…” she starts, clearing her throat.
“So… that guy, huh?”
Pink dusts Elizabeth’s cheeks, but she straightens herself, as if she refuses to let Rio embarrass her. “Yes. We’ve been together four months.” She says it almost like it’s an accomplishment, and Rio figures it sort of is, putting up with that guy for so long.
“No. Why would you say that?”
“Mostly ‘cause that dude can’t read you for shit.”
“What does that mean?”
“Does he know you're mad jealous over this Misty girl?”
“I am not!” she protests, frowning.
“Well, only because she flirts with him right in front of me like I don’t even exist,” Elizabeth says quickly, the words spilling out of her mouth.
“Mmm. You tell him that?” Elizabeth glares at him, like expressing her feelings is a preposterous suggestion. “You tell him you hate his friends?”
“I don’t hate them.”
“Yeah. You do. It’s a’ight, though. I hate ‘em, too.”
“Do you even know them?”
“I know they dumb as shit—and annoying, too. Think the world owes them everythin’. Think they don’t have to work for nothin’.”
Elizabeth’s mouth twitches, but she doesn’t say anything.
“What?” she asks.
“You ever tell him you can’t fuckin’ stand bein’ called Bethie?”
Elizabeth looks taken aback for a moment, and then she resets her face to neutral. “It’s just a nickname,” she defends. “So my name fits it with all the other girls. Courtney. Natalie. Stacy. Bethie. ”
"Misty." Rio tilts his head and squints his eyes, looking at her. He likes the way that she always straightens up when he studies her, the way she fronts that he doesn't make her nervous when he clearly does. “Why you shrinkin’ yourself to fit in with people you don’t even like?”
“You don’t know me,” Elizabeth snaps, but she instantly starts playing with her bracelet again. She’s upset, he realizes, because she’s freaked out that he does. That he sees right through her.
Rio shrugs, as if admitting defeat. “Whatever you say… Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth looks at him curiously. “Why are you calling me that? Everybody calls me Beth.”
“Yeah, but I know you think of yourself as Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth stares at him. “How could you possibly know that?”
“‘Cause,” Rio says simply. “It’s what you write on your papers. With a li’l heart over the i and everythin’.”
Elizabeth opens her mouth to say something, but seems to find herself speechless.
Rio leans over into her space, face coming dangerously close to hers. He can smell her shampoo—something peachy and sweet. He expects her to jerk away, but she doesn’t. She just sucks in a breath, still as can be, eyes darting back and forth wildly.
He could count her eyelashes if he wanted. He could brush his lips against her neck.
Then, just as suddenly, he straightens back up, throwing her math book that he’s dug out of her backpack onto the table.
“Ready?” he asks her.
Elizabeth exhales and shakes herself off. She swallows, pushing her hair back behind her ear again.
“Mhm,” she says, like she’s fine.
Like neither of them know that he has her.
Chapter 2: Beth: Monday, Sept 20th-Friday, Sept 24th
Beth & Rio finish their first tutoring session and he drives her home. Later that week, Beth tries to help save Rio from getting in trouble.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Monday, September 20th
Beth had been sure he was about to kiss her. He’d leaned across her, put his face right up next to hers, looked up at her, and grinned. She’d frozen, terrified, absolutely uncertain what to do and then—
Then he had thrown her textbook on the table and asked if she was ready to begin.
It had been a relief.
But there had been a moment—just a moment—where she had wondered how soft his lips might be.
She catches herself thinking it again, staring at his mouth as he nibbles on her pencil, frustrated that he can’t seem to figure out where she went wrong on one of the math problem.
“What the fuck,” he whispers, mostly to himself, and that snaps Beth out of her reverie.
What is she thinking? She has a boyfriend. She shouldn’t be thinking about kissing other boys—especially boys like—like—him.
God, it’s embarrassing, Beth thinks. He’s tutoring her and she doesn’t even know his first name.
Regardless, this boy was not Beth’s type. She didn’t know much about him—since he was always absent—but she had enough sense to know that he was up to no good. She’d heard the rumors.
Her mother would call him a delinquent. She would tell Beth to stay away from him, warn that he was a bad influence.
Or she would have, back then. Before Beth’s dad left. Before she stopped looking for new jobs. Before she stopped getting out of bed at all. Just… before.
Now she didn’t do much of anything, and it was up to Beth to make her own decisions, so here she was, being tutored by this boy that showed up with no book and no pencil, who had glassy eyes and laughed too easily.
He clearly didn’t care about school or extracurriculars, and he also didn’t seem to care what people thought about him—he cussed every other sentence and it seemed like he was purposefully trying to agitate her. The funny thing though, was that he seemed sort of amused when she snapped at him. Dean was always so sensitive when Beth got irritated with him, always whining and wondering whether she was on her period. It drove her crazy.
This boy drives her crazy, too, but it doesn’t feel the same, and there’s something about that which terrifies her.
She doesn’t even like him, so why is she still imagining what it might be like to bite his lip?
“Here it is,” the boy says, pointing on the page to Beth’s mistake. Daydream shattered, Beth jerks back, as if startled by him speaking to her. He looks over at her, one eyebrow raised in surprise. “You a’ight?”
“Yes,” she says, crossing her arms tightly. “I’m fine.”
He looks at her like he knows exactly what she was thinking about, and it sends a jolt of electricity down her spine.
How does he do that?
This is his fault, she decides. He was the one that planted the idea in her earlier, saying that dumb thing about helping her relax, about how some ways were more fun than others.
“Stop looking at me like that,” she demands.
“Like what?” the boy asks, mock innocence.
“Nah. I don’t. Why don’t you explain it to me?” He leans against the table and crosses his arms, looking over at her, but one hand twiddles her pencil and pushes the eraser into his plump bottom lip. He catches Beth staring at his mouth and smirks. “Stop lookin’ at me like that,” he says, parroting her. “You’re gonna give me the wrong idea, darlin’.”
Beth huffs, flustered. “Don’t call me that. I have a boyfriend.”
“I remember,” he says, almost lazily. “It don’t mean nothin’.” He lets the suggestion hang between them, but just before Beth gets truly offended he adds, “Just a nickname. I thought you didn't care what people called you?”
Beth opens her mouth to argue, but suddenly a shadow looms over them. They both look up to see Ms. Colte the librarian arching a brow at them. “Did you two notice I turned off the lights? Library’s closed.”
“Oh,” Beth says, glancing up at the ceiling. Sunlight still spills into the room through the windows, so she hadn't even registered it—though maybe she should have. Looking around, she sees the library is now completely deserted besides the two of them. “I’m sorry.”
Beth hastily packs up her math book and Rio slides her pencil behind his ear. Beth doesn’t ask for it back. She figures he should just keep it, considering his teeth have made soft indents all over the wood at this point. They walk out of the library together, and Rio goes to turn left towards the parking lot while Beth goes to turn right towards the path that would lead her—very slowly—back to her apartment.
“Where you goin’?”
“Thought I was givin’ you a ride.”
“I’m fine walking. It’s not that far,” Beth lies.
“Can’t be that close if you ride the bus.”
Beth hesitates, shifting her weight. It’s just that… she doesn’t want him to see where she lives. Besides Ruby, she’s never let anyone see where she lives. Not even Dean. He saw her old house, where she lived when her dad was still around, but once she moved, she made sure that they always go to Dean’s house. Whenever he picks her up, she walks ten blocks down to a café by her old place, pretends she was there doing homework to escape the chaos of Annie.
“What, you afraid to be in an enclosed space with me?” the boy teases.
Beth hadn’t even thought of that, and she flushes at the idea. ”Are you even old enough to have a passenger in the car?”
Rio rolls his eyes. “I’m sixteen. I got my license. The other rules are bullshit.”
“I don’t want to get you in trouble. You don’t have to do this.”
“Yeah, I’m aware of that,” the boy says, squinting at her.“You goin’ for your Girl Scout badge in makin’ everythin’ ten times harder than it’s gotta be or somethin’? C’mon.”
He strides away from her, and after a moment more of waffling, Beth scurries to catch up.
When they get outside, the boy’s car—some old brown Cadillac—is the only one left in the student parking lot.
“Wow,” Beth says. “That’s… quite the car.”
“I can sense that you’re fuckin’ with me,” the boy says. “And I gotta tell you right now: I won’t tolerate that sorta disrespect for Minnie.”
He unlocks the passenger door for her, and Beth slides onto the tanned leather bench seat.
“Minnie?” she asks, when the boy gets in on the driver’s side. “I’m going to guess that’s not for Minnie Mouse.”
“Nope.” He turns the key in the ignition and the car rumbles to life.
“Well, what’s it for, then?” she presses. He can be so difficult to talk to.
“It’s short for Minerva.”
“Like the goddess of war?”
As he reverses out of the parking spot, the boy looks over at her, impressed. “Exactly.”
“Cool,” Beth says softly. She decides, then, that this is as good of a time as any to ask. “Um, speaking of…”
“Speaking of the Roman goddess of wisdom and warfare? Didn’t know you had so much to say on the topic.” He pulls out up to the exit of the parking lot. “Left or right?”
“Shut up,” Beth snaps, laughing, pointing for him to take a right, and the boy laughs, too. “No, speaking of names… I, um, don’t know yours.”
“You know the exact dates I show up to school, but you ain’t know my name? Damn, Elizabeth.”
Beth feels a warmth spread across her ribcage when she hears him call her Elizabeth again. He was right—it was what she wanted to be called. Beth felt too boring, too plain. She wanted to be more than that.
“I don’t know the exact dates you show up to school,” she denies. “I just notice patterns.”
“Right,” he says, glancing at her. “You ain’t payin’ attention to me. Just patterns.”
She wishes he would stop making comments like that. The make her feel like they’re flirting. And they are not flirting.
“Exactly,” Beth says, pointing again to direct him towards her neighborhood.
The boy laughs again. “You a trip, you know that?”
Beth doesn’t say anything, just lets the comment wash over her. It doesn’t sound like an insult.
“Yeah. That’s my name.”
“I’ve never heard that name before.”
“Well, now you have.”
Rio, she thinks. And then she thinks, I like it.
And then, because she’s been thinking about it since Dean made the joke about him being good at math, she blurts, “Do you sell drugs?”
“I’ve heard rumors.”
Rio cocks an eyebrow at her. She gestures again for him to take a left. “You hear rumors about me, but you don’t know my name?”
“To be honest, I’m not sure anybody really knows your name.”
“Jesus Christ,” Rio says, barking out a laugh. “You cold, Elizabeth.”
Beth shrugs shyly. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“You didn’t answer mine.”
Beth’s brows knit in confusion. “Which question?”
“How you think I’m lookin’ at you?”
Beth quickly looks away and ignores him, cheeks burning brightly. She reaches for the radio knob. “What kind of music do you listen to?”
Rio whistles. “Wow. You have just about the worst methods of diversion I’ve ever seen.”
Beth turns up the volume, drowning him out, but finds herself looking over at him, shocked. “Is this… jazz?”
“What’s wrong with jazz?” he asks crossly.
“Are you ninety years old?”
Rio rolls his shoulders. “I like it.”
“Oh my god. You’re ninety years old.” Beth shakes her head, giggling. “You are so not what I expected.”
“That a good thing?” Rio asks, stealing a glance at her.
Beth bites her lip, because she thinks the answer is no, but not for the reasons he might think. “Yeah. That’s a good thing.”
“Cool,” he says, staring straight ahead, a smirk playing at his lips. He says it so softly Beth’s not sure if she was supposed to hear it.
“Take a left on Lincoln,” she tells him, pretending that she didn’t.
They drive, not speaking, just listening to the sounds of saxophones and trumpets and trombones. Beth wills herself to look out her window, but even though he sits across the seat, she feels like they’re too close. Like she’s hyper-aware of how near he is.
“Turn here,” she says finally.
It’s not her street, but it’s close enough, and there’s this big, two-story white house with blue shutters that she loves. There’s a tire swing out front and a garden full of oleander and peonies. It’s the house she wishes she lived in.
“This is me,” she says when Rio’s car is nearly at the dream house.
Rio runs his tongue along his teeth and nods, like this is exactly what he expected her house to look like and like he’s somehow annoyed by it.
“So, um. Thanks,” she says, reaching for the door handle, but pausing before she opens it.
They stare at each other for a moment, Beth too afraid to ask when he might want to tutor her again, Rio thinking god knows what.
Then he says, “I do sell drugs.”
Beth blinks, taken aback. “Oh. Okay.”
“Yeah. Figured you’d find out anyway, considerin’ I’ve sold ‘em to your boyfriend.”
Beth fiddles with the hem of her dress. “Alright.”
“That change things?”
She doesn’t know whether he means with her and Dean, or with her and Rio. She surprises herself, though, when she decides it must be the second one and firmly says, “No. It doesn't.”
Rio hums, and then says, "I could say the same thing for you, you know." He stares at her like she’s the only thing in the world. It makes Beth want to squirm. It makes her want to look away.
“What do you mean?” she asks thickly.
“You ain’t what I expected.”
She almost dares to ask him whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but she chickens out at the last second, clearing her throat instead.
Rio laughs softly, making her feel, once again, that he sees right through her.
“Tomorrow?” he asks.
“Tomorrow,” she agrees, and she suddenly realizes she’s smiling.
He leans over toward her again, and she freezes. Rio pulls the pencil out from behind his ear and slides it behind her own before reaching over her to open the door for her.
Beth nods aimlessly, and then she gets out of his car.
She waits until he turns the corner off the street, then another two minutes, before she makes the trek four more blocks and across the train tracks to her run-down apartment, fiddling with the pencil between her fingers the entire time.
Friday, September 24th
Beth plops down in the seat next to Ruby on the bus.
“Morning,” Beth says, but then her stomach grumbles loudly, and she blushes, embarrassed.
“Here,” Ruby says, digging in her backpack and pulling out a PB&J. “Eat it.”
“B, shut up and take it.”
Beth hesitates, but she caves. She really is hungry. “Thanks.”
Beth starts unwrapping the sandwich from the clear plastic wrap, and then Ruby says, “What do you have left in your cupboards?”
Beth takes a small bite, forcing herself not to devour the thing whole. “Five packets of ramen. A can of refried beans.” Beth concentrates, trying to remember. She snaps her bracelet against her wrist. “And I think we have a can of pears and a can of peaches.”
“And that’s supposed to last you until when?”
“The first, when my mom gets her unemployment check. I think we only get a few more though, and then I don’t know what happens…”
“Beth, are you sure you don’t want to talk to the school counselor? I mean, at the very least you can get on free lunch. Stop starving yourself for the last week of the month.”
“No,” Beth says quickly, looking around to make sure that nobody has overheard their conversation. “I don’t want them getting worried and like, prying into our business. My mom’s going to get better, and then this whole thing will be behind us.”
“Are you sure? I thought part of the reason your dad left was because—”
“I’m sure,” Beth says definitively. She takes another bite of the sandwich, so she doesn’t have to say anything more.
Ruby nods, looking out the window. Beth can tell that Ruby wants to believe her, but Beth knows she doesn’t. This isn’t the first time they’ve had the conversation—and Ruby’s right. Deborah Marks hadn’t just been inclined to spend her whole day in bed hidden from the world once her husband left. It had been part of the reason he left, part of the reason he’d gone and found a new girlfriend, a new family. First, he’d started spending more time away on weekends, making up excuses about work and deadlines. Then, he’d started getting home later and later every weeknight. Finally, he stopped coming home at all. Debbie lost her last job, then their house, and if anyone found out, Beth was sure that next, she would lose them—Beth and Annie.
“Stop,” Ruby says gently, laying a hand over Beth’s own, which is snapping her bracelet against her wrist over and over.
“Sorry,” Beth mumbles.
“Don’t apologize. Just stop hurting yourself.”
“Oh, no, that's not what I'm doing,” Beth fibs. “The bracelet is just not really that comfortable. My arm hair’s always getting caught in it.” This part, at least, is true.
“Have you considered… not wearing it?”
“It was a present from Dean,” Beth counters.
“So? Maybe Dean should buy you nicer presents.”
“Ruby,” Beth scolds.
“What? That thing cost, like, three dollars. Maybe.”
They go back and forth about it, until Ruby finally wins once they’re off the bus and at their locker, loading up their books for the first few periods. Beth reluctantly deposits the bracelet in her locker, convinced it might actually be nice to go one day without it ripping out all the hair on her wrist.
When Beth walks into Mr. Stewart’s room, Rio is there, turned away from her, slouching languidly in his chair. That means there’s a quiz.
Beth’s breath hitches. She straightens her back, presses her binder close to her chest, and avoids looking at him as she goes directly to her seat. She can see him out of the corner of her eye, two rows to her left, one seat up from her. But she pretends he doesn’t exist.
It’s not that she wants to be rude, it’s just… she doesn’t know how to act around him now, around other people. He’s tutored her every day this week, and she’s gotten almost… comfortable with him.
The first fifteen minutes are always the same: he likes to talk about anything in the world other than math. In particular, he seems to like to find areas where they disagree and fight about them, whether that’s their opinion on teachers, rules, trends, movies—even current events. Sometimes he likes to ask her personal questions about herself that Beth likes to avoid answering—until Beth gets irritated and snaps that unlike him, she actually has responsibilities she needs to get to, and then he settles down and tutors her.
He’s not a good teacher, exactly, but he’s getting better. He has trouble realizing that he needs to slow down and explain things; he always assumes that because it makes sense to his own brain, it must make perfect sense to hers.
Still, he keeps showing up… even though she hasn’t seen him in any of his other periods all week.
Rio turns around and looks at her, but Beth looks quickly away in the opposite direction, pretending it’s a coincidence. She chats idly to the girl next to her, waiting for the bell to ring, waiting to stop feeling his eyes on her. She doesn’t. When she glances back at him, he’s still watching her. He grins, mischievous, and Beth’s mouth tugs into a small smile, and then she looks down at her hands, as if they’re deeply interesting to her.
The bell rings, and a minute later Dean comes crashing into the room with some long-winded explanation about why he’s late and why Mr. Stewart shouldn’t mark him tardy.
She sees Rio shake his head over the whole thing, and Beth cringes.
“We’re starting with a quiz today,” Mr. Stewart announces, holding a stack of papers. “Get your pencils out…”
Everybody crowds at the door in the last minute of class, and Rio’s right behind Beth. She stands rigid, willing herself not to turn around.
Dean's just in front of her chatting with a boy on his football team about how brutal practice was last night, and Beth’s supposed to be part of the conversation, but all she can focus on is the feel of Rio’s breath on her neck.
She feels a finger poke into her waist just below her backpack, and she twists away from it.
“How’d it go?” Rio whispers, almost like he knows she doesn’t want other people to know that they know each other.
“Good… I think,” she murmurs. She hadn't been fully confident in herself—but she'd definitely felt better about her performance than her last several quizzes.
“That’s good.” Out of the corner of her eye, she can see him nod once, then look away from her.
Beth doesn’t know why, but her cheeks burn.
The bell rings, and she loses Rio to the crowd immediately.
She wonders who his friends are, what he does for lunch.
“Bethie?” Dean asks. She looks up, startled to see him so close to her, confusion etched on his face as he watches her stare across the hallway, seemingly at nothing.
“Sorry,” she says, refocusing herself. “I’m out of it today.”
“Where’s your bracelet?” Dean asks, reaching for her wrist. “Did you lose it?”
“No, I, um, just took it off for the day.”
“Why?” His voice sounds small and fragile, like he can’t understand why Beth would ever take it off. “I thought you liked it…”
“I do,” Beth insists. “I love it. It just… didn’t match my outfit,” she finishes lamely. She can’t tell him it’s uncomfortable.
“Oh,” he says, doubtful.
“Let’s stop by my locker. I’ll put it back on,” Beth promises, and he instantly brightens.
“Alright. Wanna do Dickie’s for lunch?”
Beth nods. She has nothing to eat, and no money to buy anything, but she can get away with that. None of Dean’s girl friends eat half the time, either, claiming to be on “diets.” On one hand, it helps her blend in. On the other, it means Dean usually doesn’t share, thinking offering to do so would be insensitive to her supposed goal of losing weight.
“Can you refill this for me?” Marianne, one of the front office secretaries, asks Beth, holding out her empty coffee mug.
“Of course,” Beth says, popping up from her desk. In her second-to-last period of the day, she helps the office ladies out as a TA. She puts flyers in the teacher mailboxes, delivers notes to kids in their classes, picks up print jobs from the copy room, basically whatever they need.
It’s a boring job, mostly, but she gets a credit for it, and there are lots of days where she can just sit there doing her homework. That’s nice, since it means that she can focus on Annie when she gets home.
When Beth comes back out from the teacher’s lounge, she sees Ruby’s crush standing in front of her desk, scratching his ear and looking embarrassed.
“Hey,” she says sweetly. “What’s up?”
“Beth, right? Morning announcements?”
Stan smiles, but cocks his head, confused at how she knows him. “Yeah.”
“Ruby talks about you a lot,” Beth explains, and she sees Stan try to tamp down a smile. Ruby keeps insisting Stan just sees her as a friend, but from all the stories Ruby tells about the way he flirts with her in band class? Beth knows better. “She says you’re really good at piano.”
“Me? Have you heard her on clarinet? That girl could bust out a solo that could knock your socks right off.”
Beth laughs because, yes, she has heard Ruby practicing her clarinet—and she also knows that that is absolutely not true.
“Can I help you with something?” Beth asks.
“Oh, yeah. Jami said you had the file with all the locker combos in your desk. I… forgot mine,” he says sheepishly.
“Again,” Jami adds from across the room.
“Again,” Stan admits. He shrugs. “I don’t use it very much.”
Beth nods and opens the file cabinet drawer. “What’s your last name?”
“Alright,” Beth says, and she flies to the H’s, skipping past Hanson, Jessica; Happala, Patti; Heller, Katy; Henderson, Gary; Hildalgo, Christopher—she stops, because that’s Rio’s last name. Is his first name really Christopher? She ignores the tightening she feels in her belly and pulls out Hill, Stanley. “Okay, here you go.”
Stan writes down the three-digit code on a loose slip of paper and waves goodbye, handing the combination back to Beth. Jami calls out after him, “Keep that paper this time, huh!”
The secretaries laugh and roll their eyes. They often have these little moments where they make fun of other kids in front of Beth—acting like she’s in on the joke because she’s so mature, because, as they say, she isn’t like her classmates.
“Some kids would forget their own head if it wasn’t screwed on, I swear,” Marianne says, sipping on her coffee. “Oh, look who it is.” She nods through the glass window that opens to the foyer at none other than Rio. “Looks like the Golden Boy skipped the first half of the day, showed up for one period, then took a nice, long lunch, and is now deigning to come back for his last periods. Hmph.”
“Can you believe the strings Stewart pulled to get him out of detention? I can’t.”
Seemingly frozen to her spot with Stan’s slip of paper still in her hand, Beth watches as Rio strides right towards the office.
“Me either,” Marianne grumbles. “That kid needs more consequences, not less. He’s never going to learn otherwise.”
“Try telling that to Mr. New-Age-Alternative-Methods,” Jami says, shaking her head. “I just can’t believe Ipson bought it. That boy is in his office every other week. We all know he’s going to drop out, just like every other kid that gets wrapped up in the same crap. Excuse my language,” she says, peeking over at Beth.
“Oh, uh, no problem,” Beth squeaks out. “Can I get you a refill on your coffee?” She wants to disappear before Rio reaches the office. She would be mortified if Marianne and Jami learned that she’s the reason Rio’s gotten out of detention.
“I’m fine, dear, but thanks.”
Beth quickly reseats herself in the chair, hoping that Rio might not notice her behind the desk if her head is down—but no such luck.
The door opens and Rio pops in. “‘Ey,” he says, nodding at Beth. She just stares at him wide-eyed, unable to speak.
Instead of reading much into it, Marianne pounces on him. “Aiming to make it to three out of eight periods today, Mr. Hildalgo?”
“Yep,” Rio says, hands in his pockets, completely unbothered.
Jami sniffs derisively at him, frowning. “So that tutoring program doesn’t seem to be helping, hm?”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Rio says, and Beth wills him, with all her might, not to say anything. “Girl felt pretty good about her quiz today. That’s somethin’.”
“I meant with your attendance,” Jami explains.
Rio shrugs, then puts his hand to his heart, mock-sincere. “You know, I feel better just knowin’ I’m makin’ a difference.”
Fed up with him, Marianne hastily fills out a late slip. “There’s still ten minutes left of fifth period. Don’t think just because you’re this late, I’m just sending you off to sixth. Check in with your teacher about what you missed.”
Rio nods, but his smirk tells Beth he definitely will not do that. He tips his head at her before he exits the office, and Beth feels like she can breathe again.
“Well, we know what he was up to between lunch and now,” Jami says. “Did you smell it on him, too?”
“How could I not?” Marianne says, pinching her nose. “Plus, his eyes were all red.”
“Locker sweep?” Jami suggests.
“If we found something, it would mean an automatic suspension. Might teach him a thing or two…”
Beth has heard them suggest this for other kids that showed up to school reeking of pot, too, so she panics, knowing that they’ll do it. She remembers watching Richie Mack get dragged up to Ipson’s office, then escorted off the premises by his mother.
That can’t happen to Rio. She needs him as her tutor.
Plus, a small voice thinks in her head. Mr. Stewart seemed to know he didn’t want to disappoint his parents.
Beth looks at Stan’s locker combo still in her hands. She pretends not to pay attention as Jami pages the resource officer to come to the front office, and slips Stan’s combo back into the file, sneakily pulling out Rio’s combo at the same time. She slams the cabinet shut, turns the key to the locked position, and then clears her throat.
“I’m going to use the ladies’ room,” she announces.
Once she’s outside of the office, she studies the paper in her hands. Locker 357. Combination: 21-83-36. It’s only about twenty lockers away from her own, but she’s never noticed. She quickly memorizes the information, then beelines straight for E Hall.
She’s never done anything like this before. Never really broken a rule, never tried to help someone else break a rule.
The hallways are empty, and she reaches Rio’s locker quickly. She swallows, then stands on her tiptoes and turns the dial to 21, refusing to look around to see if anyone’s watching, refusing to look at all suspicious.
Rio’s locker opens with a pop, and at first, she doesn’t see anything. Just a psychology textbook, a collection of folded up notes, and a beanie.
Beth peeks under the book, then pulls it out to scour through its pages. Nothing.
She knows she should reach for the beanie next but she hesitates, noticing a pink lipstick kiss decorating one of the notes. She doesn’t know why, but her palms feel sweaty and her heart seems to lodge itself in her throat. Before Beth even knows what she’s doing, she looks around the locker door to make sure no one is coming and then hastily tears the note open.
She exhales a breath she didn’t know she was holding when she sees in bubbly script: To Mar, Love Elena with a dozen hearts at the top of the page.
It must be a note for Rio’s locker-mate.
Beth carefully folds the note back up and replaces it, and then, before she can stop herself, she starts rummaging through the rest of the notes, checking to see if they’re all for Mar.
She finds that most of them are. Except one.
It’s folded in that fancy way with the pull tab, and the handwriting is different. RIO is written in big, block letters, but there’s no signature that suggests who it’s from.
The block letters aren’t really clear that it’s a girl, Beth rationalizes. Then she shakes her head, because that’s not what she’s concerned about, not really. It could be some incriminating evidence about a deal, and if that’s the case…
Beth pulls the tab so that the note unfolds and reads it, eyes scanning quickly over the words:
how was math class? I’m hella bored, just sitting here thinking about u =] =] my parents aren’t gonna be home tonite if u wanted to chill?? w/b this time! haha
Beth blushes, swiftly refolds it as best she can—though she’s never known how to do it with the pull tabs, that’s more Ruby’s thing—and then she throws it back into Rio’s locker.
Beth’s mind races.
Is the note old, or does Rio have a girlfriend? If he does, why is he flirting with her so much? Or, no, not flirting. More like… teasing. Then again, he knows she has a boyfriend—and that doesn’t seem to be stopping him from trying to rile her up.
But then… judging by the note, Rio’s relationship seemed to be more serious than hers and Dean’s. The girl was trying to make arrangements to hang out when her parents weren’t home.
Beth cringes, thinking of the times Dean has tried to do the same, the way that she had gotten an instant stomach ache just thinking about it.
She wonders if Rio went. If he even wrote back. It didn’t look like it—the note was still folded perfectly, and she couldn’t really imagine someone like Rio knowing how to fold notes like that. Maybe that meant…?
She shakes her head. She’s being ridiculous. Whether or not Rio has a girlfriend is irrelevant. They aren’t even really friends. She can barely stand him. Beth’s curiosity just got the better of her because she doesn’t understand why he keeps making all those suggestive comments to her, when it would be clear to anyone with eyes that he can’t really mean them. Beth’s got to be just about as far away from his “type” as he is hers…
Just then, Beth hears the squeak of rubber on the tile floor, and realizes that someone is coming. She’s run out of time—and if it’s anyone she knows, they’ll know she’s not in her own locker.
“Shit,” she mutters to herself, and she digs her hand into the beanie.
She can feel it—a small plastic baggie, some wadded up papers of some kind—and she goes to yank her hand back out so that she can fling the locker shut and quickly stride away—only her bracelet gets caught on the interior lining of the hat.
“Shit, shit, shit,” she hisses, at the same time that she thinks, Rio is a bad influence.
Trying to pry the hat apart from the snag on her bracelet, Beth tugs hard on the beanie with her other hand until some sort of string is pulled taut and breaks.
She glances to her right just beyond the door of the locker. She can see somebody’s shoe peeking around the corner.
She has a split second to make a decision: slam the locker shut without taking anything, or try and swiftly stuff the contraband in her pocket and hope that whoever it is doesn’t see it happen.
I said I was going to post this tomorrow, but then medievalraven was amazing and beta'ed it for me and I got impatient (like usual).
Chapter 3: Rio: Friday, Sept 24th
Rio finds out about the locker sweep; Rio pries during tutoring; Rio and his sister have a disagreement; Rio hangs out with Mar and Elena on a Friday night
CW: Underage drinking, drug references; abortion reference; references to underage sexual activity
Friday, September 24th
Rio’s falling asleep listening to Mr. Neal drone on about dead white guys when Dylan pokes him in between two of his ribs.
“What the f—“ he starts to whisper, lifting his head off his arms, agitated.
“They’re doing a locker sweep,” she murmurs, staring straight ahead. “You good?”
No, Rio is not good. Not only does he have a wad of cash from selling shit for this weekend in his locker, but he also has a baggie of weed that he needs to deliver to Isaiah Aceves last period.
Rio massages his jaw. “How you know that?”
“Christa just went to the bathroom and saw the cops coming in with the dogs,” Dylan whispers, pushing a note across their shared table to him.
He quickly scans over Christa’s frankly terrible handwriting detailing the situation. “Fuck.”
“Do you guys have something you’d like to announce to the class?” Mr. Neal asks, tugging on the lapels of his tweed blazer and turning his focus over to them.
“Yeah,” Rio says loudly. “I need to go to the bathroom.”
If he was lucky, they were starting in one of the other halls. If he was unlucky, well… he doesn’t want to imagine that. It wouldn’t just be the suspension—he’d be hit with a MIP, and he’s pretty sure that might give his mother an aneurysm.
“With how little you show up, I really think it’s to your benefit that you remain in class,” Mr. Neal snarks, pleased with himself. The comment earns a few snickers from Rio’s classmates, including Misty Rogers, and he rolls his eyes. It’s wild to him that Elizabeth thinks she needs to be jealous of her. The gir's retaking 10th grade history as a senior. “Now, who can tell me anything about the Columbian Exchange?”
Rio grinds his teeth, considering whether he should just get up and walk out of class. He’ll still end up dragged to Ipson’s office, but at least it won’t be escorted by the cops.
“Ask if you can go to the bathroom,” Rio hisses to Dylan. He tears off the corner of Christa’s note and scribbles his locker combo down and pushes it towards her.
“What makes you think he’s gonna let me go after he just told you no?”
“Say you need to change your tampon or somethin’. That always freaks out teachers.”
“And most boys generally,” Dylan mutters. “You guys are such fucking babies.”
At another time, Rio might remind Dylan that she already knows he’s not freaked out by periods or squicked out by blood in pretty much any context—but instead, he just rolls his eyes and asks, “Is this the time?”
Dylan snatches the paper, stuffs it in the pocket of her jeans, and then walks up to Mr. Neal, interrupting him in the middle of his lecture. She puts on a pout and dials up her dramatic side, pretending to be really embarrassed and insisting on whispering in Mr. Neal’s ear, who instantly goes red and nods, gesturing for her to leave the classroom quickly. As soon as he turns around, Dylan sticks her tongue out at Rio and then flounces out the door, her Afro bouncing.
Rio’s jaw is clenched the entire time that Dylan’s gone. He stares at the clock, watching the second hand circle around and around. After five minutes go by, Rio starts to get more agitated. Mr. Neal’s voice is dull gibberish in the background as a knot seems to pull tighter and tighter in his stomach.
Maybe she was too late. Maybe they’d already swept the locker and they were asking her questions.
Or maybe she got caught moving the drugs. Maybe they’d already sent her to the principal, and any minute now one of the office secretaries would page for Rio over the intercom.
Rio’s leg starts bouncing underneath his table.
Fuck, he thinks. If he gets Dylan suspended... if he gets her a fucking MIP...
Rio scratches down his face.
He likes Dylan, he does. She’s fun to hang with and joke around with, and god, she’s really fun to fool around with, but... she’s not really all that fun to talk to. When he asks her opinion on things, she usually shrugs. Sometimes she says, “Who cares?” If he pushes her, she’ll just ask him what he thinks and then agree with whatever he says.
It drives Rio fucking crazy.
He tried explaining that to Mar once, who looked at Rio like he was straight stupid. But before Elena, Mar had dated a lot of girls that he’d barely tolerated, so he doesn’t really get it.
Rio doesn’t lie to Dylan. He’s clear on what they are and what he wants, but as much as Dylan insists that she’s fine with them just chilling, Rio senses that she wants more.
His stomach twists. He can’t get her in trouble. He isn’t ride-or-die for her, so she can’t go down for him. It escalates things, complicates their arrangement—it just wouldn’t be fair.
Rio shoves back from the table, about to stand up and stride out of the room to find her when Dylan appears at the door, face scrunched and shrugging at him. He watches her walk back to their table, where she plops down and says quietly, “Your locker was clean.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean there was, like, nothing in there except for a psych book and a beanie—and that note I dropped in your locker that you never responded to. ”
“Did you look in the beanie?” he says through gritted teeth. God, did she really want to fight about notes now?
“Yes,” she hisses. “The locker’s fucking empty. I don’t know what you want me to tell you.”
“I was just checkin’—”
“Well, maybe you should just check your fucking notes.”
“What are you talkin’ about? I didn’t even know it was there.”
“Don’t lie,” Dylan snaps. “It was opened. And it’s not like this is the first time. You never write back.”
Rio groans, running his hand over his cropped hair.
Mr. Neal clears his throat. “Do I need to separate you two?”
Rio rolls his eyes and shakes his head, surrendering. At this point, he’s banking on Mar having heard about the sweep and saving them both.
Rio’s first out of the room as soon as the bell rings. He beelines to his locker, where he finds Mar unloading a math book.
“Yo, did you hear about the sweep?” Mar asks under his breath, making sure nobody can hear them.
“Yeah. Did you clear out the stuff?”
“No? Shit, I just heard from Diego, like, a minute ago.”
“What the fuck? Where’d it go, then?” Rio asks, pushing Mar out of the way so he can go through the locker’s contents himself.
“There’s nothin’ in there, man. I thought you got it.”
“Just—shut the fuck up for a minute, okay?”
Mar shrugs and steps to the side, watching as Rio lifts up the psych book to check underneath, then as he rifles through the book like maybe his drugs and money were somehow accidentally trapped between the pages. Last, Rio reaches into his beanie and even though he already knows it’s empty, he pats around.
“Find it?” Mar asks stupidly.
A wild thought crosses Rio’s mind that maybe Dylan stole it and was just pretending that it was never there. He would be somewhat surprised, but it wasn’t impossible.
But just as he starts wrapping his mind about this idea, he feels something very small and hard inside of his hat.
Carefully, he pulls it out to inspect it.
“What’s that?” Mar asks, leaning close to peer at the object.
Between his thumb and index finger, Rio holds a red plastic jewel. The exact kind of jewel that might be on a cheap, dinky bracelet. The exact kind of bracelet a certain blonde he knows loves to pull at and twist on whenever she’s feeling nervous.
Rio’s grimace turns into a grin.
“I don’t get it,” Mar says, brow pinched. “What’s it mean?”
Mar is not following. “Elizabeth…?”
“Elizabeth fuckin’ saved me,” Rio says.
He never could have imagined it. She would be last on the list, every time, if someone asked him who would do something like this for him.
Rio deposits the jewel into his pocket, then reaches for the topmost note in the pile. It’s from Dylan… and clearly opened. “You didn’t open this, right?”
“Yeah, that was me,” Mar says sarcastically. “I like to take your dumb notes from your fake girlfriend and read them in my spare time.” He adopts a high-pitched, breathy tone, imitating Dylan. “‘‘Ooh, Rio, I love your—’”
Rio scoffs and shoves Mar away from him, who laughs as he stumbles backward. Rio scans over the note that Elizabeth snooped through, shaking his head.
Damn, this girl was somethin’ else.
But he can’t help but feel victorious.
She was jealous.
After school, Mar forgets, for the fifth day in a row, that Rio’s staying after school to tutor Elizabeth.
“You gotta do it every day, man? That’s fuckin’ way worse than detention. You got a shitty deal.”
Rio doesn’t say anything. Stewart has never said how often Rio needed to tutor Elizabeth. It was just that at the end of every session when he was dropping her off in front of her Barbie Dream House, Rio somehow ended up suggesting the very next day as their next meeting.
It was dumb as fuck, because the idea was that Rio wasn’t supposed to be putting that much effort into getting into her pants, but there was something about riling her up that was just fun. And as annoyed as Elizabeth got with him, she never reached a breaking point. Sometimes he could even get her to laugh, and fuck, he really had to work for it—but that kinda made it more entertaining.
“It ain’t that bad,” Rio says casually.
“Yeah? You get to first base yet?”
“Don’t be gross,” Elena says, appearing at Mar’s shoulder.
“I’m just sayin’,” Mar grumbles. “I thought we were all gonna kick it tonight.”
“We are,” Rio says. “Just after I’m done.”
“Why don’t you bring her?” Elena suggests.
Rio juts out his bottom lip. “Nah.”
He doesn’t know why he’s against it, exactly—besides the fact that he’s pretty sure Elizabeth would never accept the invitation anyway.
“Why not?” Elena demands. “Are you embarrassed of us?”
“A li’l, yeah,” Rio teases, pulling his beanie on over his head.
“Why?” Elena pouts.
“Because you’re embarrassin’.”
“Oh, you wish you were us,” Mar says, and then he plants a kiss on Elena’s scowl.
“You must really like her,” Elena says the moments her lips are free. “To get embarrassed by us.”
Elena was always on the hunt for a girlfriend for Rio. She wanted them to do dumb stuff like go on double dates to the movies or mini-golf. She wanted another girl around for when the boys were being, as she put it, “pigs.”
But that wasn’t what this was.
He wasn’t denying that Elizabeth was hot, or that he had fun with her, or that he’d thought about her alone in his room late at night. But his interest in her was surface-level, temporary—like it was with Dylan, like it had been with Kelsey, Maria, Alice.
She wasn’t special.
Sure, he felt giddy with anticipation at the thought of seeing her right now, of hearing her tell him about how she pulled this off—not only discovering that the sweep was happening in time, but piecing together that he’d need her help, getting her hands on his locker combo and breaking in—but that didn’t mean anything.
If he never saw Elizabeth again, he’d forget about her in three days.
Rio waves off Mar and Elena and then walks away towards the library.
When he opens the door, he sees Elizabeth sitting at the same table they always study at. It’s the third time he’s seen her that day, but still, he finds it hard to look away from her. Her hair’s curled, she’s got on some shiny lip gloss that he couldn’t stop thinking about all through math class, and her pale legs are visible under a jean skirt he'd like to get his hands under.
“Yo,” he says to her, tossing his backpack onto the table. He’s got a grin a mile wide.
Elizabeth looks up at him, impassive. “Hi.”
Rio waits for her to say something, waits for her to pull his drugs and his money out of her pocket and present it to him like a present.
“Crazy day, huh?” he tries prodding.
Elizabeth looks at him blankly. “Why? What happened?”
Rio cocks his head at her, surprised. He sort of expected her to want to spill the whole story immediately, to rub it in his face that she had to save his ass.
“The locker sweep,” he says slowly.
“Oh. Yeah. I don’t really have to worry about those,” Elizabeth says, shrugging. She avoids looking at him. “You’re not dumb enough to bring your—” she drops her voice to a whisper, looks up at him, judging, “— drugs onto school property, are you?”
Rio scoffs. “‘Scuse me?”
“Sorry,” she says, doing a good job of pretending to be sheepish. “I just thought you’d be smarter than that.”
Rio stares hard at her, mouth agape.
“Are you going to sit down?” Elizabeth asks politely.
She’s really gonna pretend she didn’t have anythin’ to do with this? Rio thinks to himself, incredulous. What the fuck?
Rio sinks into the chair as Elizabeth opens her math book and starts writing her name at the top of her homework sheet. She writes really slowly, focused on making the curls and loops just right. Apparently she can feel his eyes boring into her, though, because she looks up and says, “What?”
He’s finding it hard to wrap his head around this. Elizabeth doesn’t smoke, so it didn’t make sense for her to steal his weed. Why is she acting like she didn’t take his drugs and his—?
Did Elizabeth steal his money?
Rio blinks at her. Why would Elizabeth Marks, the princess who lives in the Barbie Dream House, steal money from him? Was Daddy’s credit card allowance not enough?
“Are you okay?” Elizabeth asks, voice thick as honey.
Realizing his jaw was hanging open, Rio closes his mouth.
Rio considers calling her out. He considers ripping open her backpack right there. He considers demanding to see her bracelet, and then pulling the jewel out of his pocket and presenting it to her silently, waiting for her to break and confess—but he doesn’t need to. It’s right in front of him, and he can see the missing piece, and he knows that she did it—and she’s sitting there, poised and proper, acting like nothing has happened.
She's straight nuts, and Rio finds himself caught between being intrigued, impressed, pissed off, and excited.
He runs his tongue along his teeth, tamping down a smirk.
If she wants to play that game, he’ll play that game.
At first, he lets the silence stretch between them, the only sounds the murmurs of the one other pair still in the library a few tables away and the scratching of Elizabeth’s pencil on the page as she copies down the first math problem. It takes her awhile, as she keeps glancing over at Rio.
He knows she’s wondering why he isn’t distracting her like usual, asking her questions and fighting with her about her opinion on Jurassic Park or the merits of grunge rock, so he just taps his fingers on the desk, saying nothing, watching her try not to squirm.
When she can’t stand the quiet any longer, she says, “So. Um. Can you help me with the difference of squares formula?”
“Doin’ anythin’ fun tonight?” he asks her instead, aimlessly running his fingers along the pages of her math book. He’ll start slow, he figures, and ramp-up to get her to break. Elizabeth eyes him suspiciously, like she can’t tell if he’s about to invite her to something or if he’s just trying to fuck with her. She hesitates so long that Rio says in a monotone, “It ain’t a trick question, darlin’.”
“I know,” she says defensively.
“So. Are you?”
“I don’t know. No. It’s just a regular Friday night, I guess.” Elizabeth doesn’t look at him, and she starts doodling a yin yang symbol in the margin of her paper.
“And what’s that mean? Makin’ out with your boyfriend on the couch?”
Elizabeth’s cheeks burn red. “No.”
“Somewhere else, then? His car?” He pauses. “Your bed?”
“Dean has a football game,” Elizabeth explains quickly, her face steadily getting brighter. “I won’t even see him tonight.”
Rio raises a brow. “He don’t come over afterward, all sweaty and worked up?”
He wonders how far Elizabeth has gone. He’s pretty sure it isn’t very far at all—but then again, she’s been good at surprising him.
Elizabeth’s face scrunches. “Ew.”
Rio chuckles. “That’s a funny reaction to imaginin’ gettin’ hot and bothered with your boyfriend. You sure you like him?”
Elizabeth glowers at him. “Don’t be stupid. Of course I do.”
Beth stutters over her words, at a loss for what to say. “Wh—what do you even mean? We’re dating. Obviously I like him.”
Rio shrugs, then says noncommittally, “A’ight.”
Elizabeth narrows her eyes at him, defensive. “Why are you so interested in me and Dean, anyway?”
“Who says I am?”
“You’re always asking me questions about him,” Elizabeth counters, frustration edging into her voice. She snaps her bracelet against her wrist. “What we talk about, what we do when we hang out. Like you can’t believe we’re together or something.”
It’s true. Rio had asked her those questions over the last couple days, mostly because he was stumped about her interest in Dean. In class, he was dumb as a brick. He had an excuse for everything and never owned up to anything. His one interest seemed to be football, and Rio had sussed out pretty early that Elizabeth knew jack shit about the sport.
Rio doesn’t look at her, just keeps flipping back and forth through the pages of her textbook. “Maybe I can’t.”
Elizabeth flinches, like she wasn’t expecting him to be so honest. “Well, we are. So.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Rio sees her twisting the bracelet back and forth. Good, he thinks. He’s riling her up now.
“Why you together?”
“That’s a stupid question.”
“Is it?” Rio challenges. “Should be easy to answer, then.”
“He’s funny. He’s nice.” She emphasizes this last word as if to make a point.
Rio’s mouth twists into a sarcastic pout. “You sayin’ I’m not nice?”
Elizabeth recrosses her legs, irritated. “You could be nicer.”
“What, like compliment you and shit? Tell you you look good in that skirt?” Rio lets his eyes drag up and down her body, and he sees the blush on her face spread down, down, down.
Elizabeth twists the bracelet faster, and she purses her lips, like she’s caught between feeling frustrated and flattered. She doesn’t say anything.
“He get you this?” Rio asks, reaching over, lightly grabbing her wrist, and running his thumb along the bracelet. “That one of the nice things he do for you?”
Elizabeth swallows and nods silently. Her wrist feels small and delicate in his hand, and her skin is warm and soft in his grip.
“Looks cheap.” He taps his nail against the prongs that used to hold the jewel which is currently sitting in his pocket. “How long it last before it broke?”
Elizabeth’s eyes dart down to the bracelet like this is the first time that she’s noticed it’s broken, and she yanks her hand back from his. She looks over at him, brow furrowed, like she’s trying to figure out if he knows something.
Rio just stares at her. His face is smooth, unbothered, but he doesn’t look away. Instead of squirming, Elizabeth does that thing she sometimes does and doubles down, pushing her shoulders back and sitting up taller.
“The difference of squares formula,” she says, clearing her throat and pushing her notebook over to him. “Will you show me?”
Rio tsks. “Rude. And you think I’m not nice?”
“What? What did I do?” Elizabeth asks, flustered. He can read her like a book. He can tell she’s worried he knows about the locker. That he might confront her about it. But there’s no fun in it that way.
“I asked you what you doin’ tonight.”
“So, the polite thing to do would be to ask me what I’m doin’.”
“Oh,” Elizabeth says, exhaling a sigh of relief. “What are you doing tonight?”
“I might chill with someone,” Rio says vaguely, purposefully using the exact same word that was in Dylan’s note.
Elizabeth’s eyes widen just briefly, and he knows she knows what he’s doing. She tries very hard to sound nonchalant when she picks up her pencil to start doodling on her paper again and says, “Oh. Nice.”
Clearing her throat, Elizabeth says coolly, “Awesome. Well. Have fun.”
“Oh, I plan to,” Rio says, voice light.
Elizabeth’s pressure on her pencil gets a little firmer and she just nods, seemingly unable to come up with anything to say.
Rio may not have gotten a confession out of her, but it doesn’t matter. He knows he’s won anyway.
When Rio flings open the front door to his house an hour later, nobody seems to be home at first. As he walks deeper into the house, he finds his older sister Vanessa in the kitchen making quesadillas, rice, and beans. She’s already halfway dressed in her McDonald’s uniform, stained black slacks and a black undershirt, so that as soon as one of their parents walks through the door, she can just grab her shirt and nametag and go.
“Where have you been?” Vanessa asks. She’s not much older than Rio, only 18, but she graduated in June, and between that and her role as the primary babysitter of his little sisters, she bosses him around like she’s his mother, too. “I saw Martín and Elena chillin’ on his front porch when I got home from work, but they said you were ‘busy.’”
“I was tutoring,” Rio says, squeezing by Vanessa to open the fridge and pull out a can of off-brand Coke.
“You? Tutoring?” she asks skeptically, looking over her shoulder at him as she flips the tortilla in the pan.
“You need to come up with better mentiras, tonto,” Vanessa says, rolling her eyes. “Amá will never buy that.”
“Well, it’s the truth.” Rio snaps open the soda and takes a long drink. “I been tutoring a girl every day after school this week for, like, an hour. She’s real bad at math.”
“She’s real bad at pickin’ tutors, too,” Vanessa says. “I’m surprised you even show up. School left a message on the machine again to say that you’ve missed more than half your classes this week.”
There’s a pregnant pause and then Rio asks quietly, “You erase the message?”
Vanessa sighs, pulling down an old plate from the cupboard. “Yeah, I did.”
“You’re not welcome.” Vanessa tosses the quesadilla on the plate and then sets it on the table, where Rio sits down. “That’s not for you. You can make your own food.”
“I ain’t touchin’ it.” Rio puts his hands up in surrender.
“Look, I can’t keep covering for you,” Vanessa says, running her hands over her temples and through her hair. She pauses, like the next part is harder for her to say. “I appreciate what you did for me—more than I could ever say. But... I didn’t think you’d get so wrapped up in all this that you’d start throwin’ your whole life away.” She looks up at him and she looks lost, anxious.
Rio looks away from her and clicks his tongue against his teeth.
Last winter, Vanessa had gotten knocked up. The father had split immediately, denying ever even knowing her at all. Even if they’d been able to afford it, Rio’s parents—devout Catholics—would’ve never understood. They would have never let her. If they’d known, she would have had two choices: out on the street or raising up another baby in this house that was too small and too cramped and too loud.
Rio had gotten her the money quickly by getting himself wrapped up with Carlos and his gang. Carlos was twenty-something and lived a few doors down, in some rundown house with his girlfriend and a couple of his boys. Rio didn’t like him, but he had bought weed off him enough to know that Carlos knew how to get cash fast. Carlos hooked Rio up with the product, and Rio became the mediator between Carlos and all the rich white kids from school that wanted to party every weekend.
Paying for the abortion had been easy, just a couple of weeks' work. Rio had sat in the Planned Parenthood office with his sister as she disappeared behind some doors, pale from head to toe. When she came back out, she looked relieved. She looked like herself again. And she thought they could just move on, go back to normal.
But Rio had already been bored in school. Bored of the assignments, bored of the teachers, bored of the kids. And doing things for Carlos wasn’t boring, even if Rio mostly hated the guy. Carlos had even hinted that if Rio kept doing what he was doing, he could get cut into the bigger stuff when he was older, harder, more experienced.
“What you’re doin’ now is nothin,’” Carlos had said as Rio weighed dime bags one evening, his eyes golden with promise. Carlos laughed, smoke hazy and thick around his face. “You think this money is good? Oh, no tienes nunca idea.”
But Rio wasn’t the only one with no idea—Vanessa had no clue what she was talking about.
“It ain’t ruinin’ my life,” Rio says roughly. It was the opposite. Running with Carlos was opening his life up. It was making it so someday he could help Vanessa pay for beauty school, so one day his mom could stop working on her hands and knees scrubbing white people’s floors, so his dad could get his own auto shop and stop working for jackasses. And so Rio could escape a life he never wanted in the first place. “It’s gonna make everything better, you’ll see.”
“Chris, you’re not that naive,” Vanessa says softly, back turned to him as she puts the second quesadilla in the pan. “You’re blinded, and your priorities are all out of whack, and—“
Rio shakes his head. “Just fuckin’ stop, V. You don’t know nothin’ about my ‘priorities.’”
“Well, I know you don’t give a shit about the people that care about you!” In her anger, Vanessa whacks the tortilla with her spatula.
Rio glowers at the back of her head. “That’s what you think?”
Vanessa sighs, then begrudgingly admits to the wall, “No. it’s just—I need to know you’re gonna be okay.”
Rio eyes her suspiciously. “Why? You goin’ somewhere?”
“No, but every time you do I sit at here anxious and worried that something bad is gonna to happen to you. That you’re gonna get caught and arrested—god, or something worse!” Her voice cracks on the last words. “And it’s gonna be my fault, because I got you into this mess and I keep coverin’ your ass.”
Rio runs his tongue out over his lip. Today had been a close call with the MIP, and he doesn’t want her to see that on his face.
“I can take care of myself.” He says it earnestly, like he wants her to believe him.
Vanessa shakes her head. “Amá y Apá lost their minds last semester when your grades plummeted. You know this semester is gonna be worse, right?” She glances at him, then stirs the beans.
“It’s gonna be fine. I’m passin’ all my classes, ‘cept Physics, but all I gotta do is make up the test and I’m good.”
“Yeah, sure. You're gonna be fine. And they’re gonna beat themselves up about being out of the house before you wake up and comin’ home late worn out and exhausted, thinkin’ they could be doin’ more to help you when you’re just off doing whatever you want, whenever you want.” Vanessa looks over her shoulder at him, and her eyes are tired.
Rio has nothing to say to that, nothing he can deny, nothing he can promise to make either of them feel better.
Rio clicks his tongue against his teeth. His agitation suddenly gets the better of him and he finds himself surging upward and out of the chair, unable to sit still for one second longer. Between this conversation and the locker sweep and arguing with Dylan about notes and getting robbed by some pretty-in-pink princess, Rio just wants to get drunk with Mar and forget about this fucking day.
“¿Adonde vas?” Vanessa asks sharply.
“Out,” Rio says shortly. Vanessa looks at him like he’s slapped her, and he softens instantly, regretful. “I’m just goin’ next door. I’ll be there the whole night. You ain’t gotta worry.”
She looks at him like that’s not true. He squeezes her arm just before he turns on his heel, knowing there’s nothing he can do about that, either.
The booze has hit him and Rio’s feeling good, stretched out on a dumpy old couch in Mar’s basement. Mar sits on the floor, his head leaned back in Elena’s lap as she’s curled up in the recliner, running her nails through Mar’s long hair.
They’re not doing much, just bullshitting and talking smack about their classmates, when Rio brings up Dean again.
“Boland’s such a dumbass. You know he failed Algebra II and he’s retakin’ it as a senior?”
“So you’ve mentioned,” Elena hums.
“I’m still in Geometry,” Mar grumbles. “If I’m lucky I’ll be taking Algebra II for the first time as a senior.”
“‘S different,” Rio promises him, waving off Mar’s concern with a flick of his wrist. Elena makes a noise in her throat and Rio lifts his head up to look at her. “What?”
“Oh, nothing. Nothing at all.”
“What?” Rio asks again, more insistent.
“I’m not doing this,” Elena says, rolling her eyes. “If you want to pretend to be an idiot—“
“I’m not pretendin’ anythin’,” Rio argues louder than he intends. Elena’s eyebrows shoot up and he says, more quietly, “I just mean I have no idea what you’re talkin’ about.”
“You’re ridiculous,” Elena says under her breath.
“Mar, what’s she goin’ on about?”
Mar jerks his head up. “Huh? I wasn’t listening.”
“Jesus Christ.” Rio laughs too easily. “Make Elena tell me what the fuck she’s goin’ on about.”
“Tell him,” Mar prods, reaching behind him to poke her. “You know he won’t drop it. He never drops anything.”
Elena groans, knowing Mar is right. “Well, okay, one— ” she says, counting off on her fingers, “—you’re pretending you’ve forgotten his first name, when you’ve already mentioned him twice. Two, since when do you care how dumb people are when you’re overcharging them for product? Three, it’s so obvious what this is really about but—“
“What’s it really about?” Rio demands, propping himself up on his elbows.
Before Elena can get in another word, Mar’s brother Guillermo appears at the top of the basement stairs with his hand over the mouthpiece of the cordless phone. “Rio, man, she’s callin’ again. My mom’s gettin’ pissed.” Guillermo takes the steps down into the basement two at a time and hands the phone over to Rio, who takes it with a sigh.
Guillermo shakes his head, bemused, before disappearing back up the stairs. Mar and Elena watch Rio with interest.
“Where have you been? ” Dylan demands. This is the third time she’s called Mar’s house, so he can only imagine the number of times she’s called his own. He grimaces, thinking about his mother trying to pry about her later.
“I dunno. Out,” Rio lies, playing with a loose string on his hoodie sleeve as he flops back down onto the couch so that he’s staring up at the ceiling. He’s actually been in the basement the whole time, but just hasn’t been feeling like talking to her. He finds that he’s inexplicably annoyed with her, although she hasn’t done anything that she hasn’t done before.
Dylan makes a strangled noise of frustration. “I thought you were gonna come over tonight. You know... Since my parents aren’t home…”
Rio hums, like he’s considering it. As tempting as it is, he can’t be bothered.
“I’m not really good to drive,” he says finally.
Dylan sucks in a breath. “Well, is Elena there?”
“Can she drive you? I thought you said she never drinks with you guys.”
“She doesn’t,” Rio says, glancing at Elena, who’s peering at him curiously. “Usually, I mean. She had a li’l tonight.”
Elena furrows her brow and Rio slashes his finger across his throat, warning her to keep quiet.
Dylan’s voice becomes softer, more timid, like she’s realizing something. “Oh.”
“Yeah…” Rio feels a pinch of guilt eating at him, and he finds himself saying in a rush, “But maybe we could kick it tomorrow or somethin’.”
“Yeah?” Dylan brightens.
“Yeah, I mean, I gotta see. I gotta work some, but we could probably chill.” He wants to mean it.
“Okay,” Dylan says. “You’ll call me?”
Rio agrees and then hangs up the phone, tossing it to the end of the couch near his feet. He groans and runs his hands over his close-cropped hair.
“Well. Point proven,” Elena says.
“You. Skipping out on hooking up with a girl.”
“That don’t mean nothin’. I’m just havin’ fun here.”
Mar snickers. “Yeah, ‘cause this is more fun than getting into Dylan’s pants.”
Rio bristles. “I didn’t say that.”
“Then why don’t you wanna go?”
“I dunno. Just don’t.” He figures it must be because of the MIP scare—because thinking he’d gotten her in trouble had escalated things, had made him wary of their arrangement.
“Oh, come on!” Elena huffs exasperatedly. “You like Beth Marks. Just admit it already. ”
“Do you not remember the part where she fuckin’ robbed me earlier today?” Rio demands, face souring. “And then she lied about it to my face?”
“I remember the part where you told that story for, like, twenty minutes—obsessing over every little detail of it.”
“Yeah, I remember that too,” Mar chimes in earnestly, like it didn’t just happen an hour ago. Elena laughs and leans over to press a kiss to his hair. “‘She just fuckin’ sat there, like she had no idea what I was talkin’ about!’” Mar quotes Rio, laughing. “You said that like ten times, man.” He leans his head back to look up at Elena. “He’s a goner, huh?”
“Totally,” Elena agrees.
“Shut up. She ain’t nothin’ to me.”
“Well, I support it completely,” Elena says, ignoring Rio entirely. “You finally like a smart girl.”
“You always go for these airheads, and you’re bored of them in like a month. If she can rob you? I like her for you already.”
But he stares at the ceiling and can’t help feeling like Monday is very far away.
Chapter 4: Beth: Saturday, Sept 25th-Monday, Sept 27th
Beth and Ruby go shopping; Rio has to cancel tutoring; Dean makes a declaration.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Saturday, September 25th
Peeking into Annie's room, Beth confirms that the six-year-old is down for her nap. It's easy to tell when she's asleep: her entire body flops out over the mattress, arms and legs flailing about in a wild mess of limbs. Even in sleep, Annie is anything but peaceful. She's definitely out cold, though. Beth can hear her tiny, even breaths.
Beth shuts Annie's door with a soft click and then turns to her right to open the door to the master bedroom, where she can hear the much noisier, much less soothing sound of her mother snoring. She's maybe drunk, or hungover, or both—Beth isn't really sure. She didn't even see her mother come out of her room yesterday after Rio dropped her off, but that doesn't mean she didn't sneak out in the middle of the night and walk the half-block to the liquor store. It wouldn't be the first time she's used some of the dwindling supply of money to buy a bottle of gin instead of a bag of groceries.
Tiptoeing into the room, Beth is careful to avoid stepping on the spot under the carpet that she knows creaks. Debbie's purse lies half-spilled next to her mattress, which sits on the floor since she sold her bed frame as a scrambled last-ditch effort to try and cover the mortgage in the old house. She finally gave up, but not before she'd sold most of their nicer furniture and destroyed their credit.
Beth rifles through the contents of the purse until she finds the car keys, and then she sneaks out of the room, exhaling in relief.
Beth's not actually sure how Debbie would react to her stealing the car—whether she wouldn't bat an eyelash or whether she would yell and scream in a belligerent rage. So far, Beth hasn't been caught, and Debbie hasn't asked any questions about how cans of food appear in the cupboards beside the meager supply she bothers to stock when she gets her welfare check.
Beth slips the keys into her own purse, and then pads into her room and opens her jewelry box. It's maybe the nicest thing she owns anymore—a present from her father she can't seem to part with, despite the fact that every time she looks at it, her heart lodges itself in her throat.
Her room is otherwise relatively barren: a plain pink comforter lies perfectly made on her bed, three pairs of refurbished shoes are neatly lined up by the door, a shabby desk sits tucked in the corner with two library books stacked on top, and there are some magazine cutouts tacked to her wall with her celebrity crushes (Mario Lopez from Saved by the Bell and Will Friedle from Boy Meets World, to name a few).
There's usually nothing special in the jewelry box besides some cheap plastic trinkets she lets Annie use to play dress-up. Her mother had pawned the ring she'd inherited from her Nana at her bat mitzvah ages ago—it had been one of the first things to go, despite the tears Beth had cried over it—but she keeps the bracelet Dean got for her in there when he's not around to wonder why she's not wearing it.
It's sitting there now, one bead missing, but it's not the most important thing in there for once. Tucked underneath the removable tray is the money Beth stole from Rio—nearly a hundred and fifty dollars.
Beth hadn't even known what she had taken until she'd snuck into the bathroom during seventh period, unfurling the wad of papers she'd hastily stuffed in her back pocket as soon as Dean's friend Kyle had rounded the corner. Luckily, he was sort of an idiot, and even though he'd been by Beth's locker on more than one occasion, he hadn't even seemed to notice that she was nowhere near hers.
Beth had been planning to hand everything over to Rio at the end of the day; she'd even been sort of excited by the idea. She was sure she would surprise him, that maybe he'd even be a little impressed with her. She'd blushed just thinking about it as she'd finished patching a hole in one of Annie's pairs of jeans on the sewing machine in Home Ec.
But then when she'd counted up the money, Beth had faltered. She was frozen to the spot, just staring at the cash. She'd never had that much money in her life. The feel of it in her hands was intoxicating as her mind reeled, thinking of everything she could buy with it.
This is enough for groceries, she'd thought. Good groceries. Like stuff not-in-a-can.
She sat in the bathroom stall daydreaming about all the meals she could make. Potato pancakes. Enchiladas. Chicken and dumplings.
She thought about how maybe she could get Annie a warm coat at the secondhand store, and maybe even a pair of shoes. She thought about how she could make sure that Annie went to school every day on a full stomach. How, if she were scrupulous, Beth could eat lunch every day for the next month, too.
As much as she wanted to shock Rio—and god, as much as she didn't want to steal from him—she just couldn't imagine giving up that money when it was already in her pocket.
It was too easy. All she had to do was nothing.
The hard part was over.
Well. That's what she had thought, at least.
She'd suspected that Rio might be on to her at tutoring, what with the way he'd asked her about the locker sweep. But she'd been sure there was no way for him to piece it together, no way for him to realize that she had done anything.
But then, after asking her a hundred questions about Dean—which she's still trying to wrap her brain around—Rio had grabbed her wrist. He'd started touching her bracelet, his fingers accidentally gliding over her skin at the same time.
Her heartbeat had thundered in her chest. She'd been sure that he was going to say something when he'd rubbed his thumb over the missing jewel and pointed it out.
She hadn't even noticed that it had broken, and it was possible that it could've happened before (or after) the theft. Still, she had instantly thought of the way her bracelet had snagged in the hat, and she felt like she was caught red-handed.
But Rio hadn't said anything. He'd just... dropped it.
Then he told her about his plans for the evening (which was just further proof that whatever daydreams she'd had about kissing him were just absurd. Not only was he a bona fide drug dealer, but she was also absolutely intimidated by his experience with girls).
But the topic change proved that Rio didn't think she had anything to do with his missing drugs and money. Beth feels confident that she knows Rio well enough to know that he wasn't one to shy away from conflict.
He would confront her, if he knew, she rationalized. So if he didn't, that means he doesn't suspect her.
She had wondered, though, if Rio was trying to make her jealous, talking about his plans with that other, nameless girl.
Not that it mattered, she thinks now, grabbing her bracelet and slipping it on. She has Dean. And despite all the ways that Rio was trying to make her doubt her relationship, she is happy. Perfectly happy.
"You really think you'd be better at this by now," Ruby says when Beth careens into Ruby's garbage cans outside of her house. "Get out."
Beth nods, stops grinding her teeth, and rubs her jaw as she steps out of the driver's side to let Ruby take over. "Thanks for coming with me."
"I'm just happy to hear you get to buy some groceries. Where'd your mom get the money?" Ruby clicks the seatbelt in and reverses the car smoothly.
"Um," Beth says, chewing on her cheek. "My Nana loaned her some."
As if, Beth thinks to herself.
Her Nana hated Debbie and always had. Most likely, she supported Beth's dad deserting her—though Beth was uncertain how she might feel about him also abandoning his own kids.
Then again, it was likely her father had spun his own tale to his mother. When Nana called once a month from Kalamazoo like clockwork, she always asked icily when was the last time Beth had gotten to spend some time with her father. It was like she thought Debbie was harboring the kids away from him or something. Beth thought about telling her Nana what was really going on, but had found it too hard to say the words.
"Well, good," Ruby says definitively. "Family is supposed to look out for each other. I'm surprised it took her this long."
Beth bites her lip. As much as Ruby tries to, she just really doesn't get it. Beth's spent a lot of time wishing that she had Ruby's family—her mom and dad and her brothers are all so close. They were the kind of family that sat down to eat every meal together, the kind of family that all crowded into the gymnasium to watch Ruby's terrible band performances together, the kind of family that loved each other through thick and thin—always.
The type of family Beth had never had, even when things were better.
"Yeah, well. You know that isn't exactly a Marks strong suit," Beth mumbles, thinking of how long it's been since she's even heard from her father. She's probably heard from her Nana more recently.
"Except for you," Ruby says, glancing over at Beth. "You're always looking out for Annie."
"Yeah, but that doesn't count," Beth counters. "If I didn't, nobody would."
"Yet somehow, your parents don't seem to think about that for you…"
Beth grimaces. Ruby's right, but the comment stings. "I can take care of myself."
"But you shouldn't have to," Ruby pushes. "B, I really think it's time to tell someone what's going on. If your Nana didn't loan you this money, how many days were you going to go without breakfast? Without lunch? At the very least, we should tell my mom—"
"You know, Stan came into my office during TA yesterday. He said your clarinet solo would knock a man's socks right off," Beth interrupts. "And he smiled like, this big when I said you talk about him a lot."
Ruby whips her head over to Beth, jaw dropped. "You told him what?!"
"Stop sign!" Beth squeaks, pointing at the corner of the road.
Ruby slams on the breaks, swinging her arm out to stop Beth from jerking forward. "Girl, you are lucky I love you. I should have just let you fly through that windshield."
"But then who would tell you about how Stan loves your terrible clarinet playing skills?"
"Hate you," Ruby mutters darkly.
"Hate your face," Beth responds.
Ruby smiles, and then she's quiet for a minute. Finally, trying and failing to bite back a grin, she asks softly, "Did he really say all that?"
"Yes! I told you he liked you."
"Or… he could just really like wind instruments?"
"Ruby," Beth scolds.
"That is the dumbest thing you've ever said out loud. And I have heard you say that Eric Matthews isn't cute."
"Girl, that skinny white boy with the floppy hair? Please."
Ruby laughs, and then they're cracking up until Ruby's favorite Salt-N-Pepa song comes on. Then they embarrass themselves (well, Beth more than Ruby) rapping along the entire rest of the drive to the grocery store.
Beth crosses flour off her grocery list and adds up its cost to her tally: she's at $103.89. That means she should be able to get the coat.
The cart is full, and Ruby gazes at the bags of chocolate chips on the other side of the aisle.
"You know, Stan told me he doesn't like cookies," Ruby says.
"Like chocolate chip cookies?"
"No, like… any cookies. He said he loves cake and brownies and pies, but cookies are 'meh.'"
Beth scrunches her eyebrows up. "I don't think you can like him anymore."
"I should make him some. Convert him," Beth suggests, crossing the aisle and running her hand over the bag of chocolate chips. "Because I just can't give my approval if he's anti-cookie. That's where I draw the line."
"Really? That's your line?" Ruby says, voice flat with disbelief. There's a tone shift, and Beth drops the bag, looking quizzically over her shoulder at Ruby. "I'm just saying—if I got to draw the line for you, it would be 'flirts openly with Misty Rogers in front of you.'"
Beth feels flames lick at her face, a fiery combination of mortification and anger warring in her belly. It was bad enough that Dean had been so blatant about it that her friends were catching on, but it felt worse to have Ruby throwing it in her face. It feels like a slap against her cheek.
"That was mean," Beth says quietly.
Ruby looks abashed and drops her head to study her toes. "I'm sorry."
"I'm tired of everyone always, like, insulting my boyfriend." Beth picks the bag of chocolate chips up, just to have something to do with her hands. She pretends to read the nutritional facts.
"Everyone? Who is everyone?"
"You know. Just people.” There’s a pause and Beth can tell Ruby is waiting for elaboration. “You. Rio—"
"That drughead that's tutoring you?" Ruby interrupts, confusion etched on her face. "He's insulting Dean? Why?"
"He's not a 'drughead,'" Beth says defensively. Sure, Rio sells drugs, and she's not naive—she knows he probably does them, too—but still. "That's, like, so reductive."
Ruby stares at Beth in a way that makes Beth fidget.
"But what does he have to say about Dean?" Ruby asks again. "How does he even know him? He's never even here."
"I don't know. He just, like… is all weird about him. Like, he asks what me and Dean do together or what we talk about. Like he thinks it's weird we're together or something."
Ruby won't look away, and Beth can feel her cheeks turning red again.
"Does Rio like you?"
"No," Beth says quickly. "He just likes to drive me crazy."
"Right," Ruby says slowly. "Because that's never been a sign that a boy likes you—when he teases you and insults the guy you're dating."
"Rio does not like me," Beth insists. She picks up another bag of chocolate chips, as if to compare them.
"Why do you say that like that?"
"I don't know. Like it's crazy that anybody besides Dean would ever like you."
Beth scrunches her eyes shut briefly. "I didn't mean it like that," Beth says, but she can feel her stomach twisting. "I just meant, you know, I'm not his type. Or whatever. I'm like a goodie-two-shoes nerd and he's…"
“A drughead?” Ruby suggests.
“No. I don't know. He’s… him.”
Ruby doesn't say anything for a minute, and Beth chances to look at her. Ruby's looking at Beth thoughtfully. "Do you… want to be his type?"
"I'm not judging," Ruby says immediately. "It's okay if you like someone else, you know. That happens. It's normal, even. People don't stay with their first boyfriends forever."
"I do not like Rio. Even if Dean were out of the picture, I would not like Rio."
Ruby sighs in relief. "Good. Because that guy is trouble. And that's where I draw my line."
Beth nods, silent.
"So…" Ruby says awkwardly. She gestures toward the cart. "All done?"
"Yeah," Beth says, turning back to face Ruby with a smile plastered on her face. She tosses one of the bags of chocolate chips in the basket, returning the other to the shelf. "But I'm gonna make the cookies. It'll give you an excuse to talk to Stan."
Monday, September 27th
Beth is careful to avoid letting Ruby peek into her backpack as she digs out the ziplock baggie with the batch of cookies she made for Stan. She doesn't want Ruby to see the second bag, the one she made for Rio.
She hadn't been planning it, and she's even second-guessing herself right now as she sits on the bus, thinking Rio might think it's strange for her to do that for him, it's just—she'd spent all of yesterday feeling so guilty.
Beth had decided to take Annie to the park for a picnic, savoring one of the last warm days left of the year. It had been fine—fun, even—until a little boy came up to Beth, interrupting her from reading her English homework. He was teary-eyed and accusatory, reporting that Annie had stolen one of his Hot Wheels. Annie denied it vehemently, face red and blotchy with indignation, and Beth had been tempted to believe her. But the boy had been so distraught, Beth would have felt remiss if she didn't do her due diligence.
"Let's just check your pockets," she had said soothingly to Annie. "Maybe you took it by accident?"
But then Annie had gotten fussy and defensive, refusing to let Beth near her, and Beth had known that Annie's earlier ire had all been a ruse. She'd practically had to wrestle Annie to the ground to get her to give up the toy car, and Annie had screamed, "Stranger danger! Stranger danger!" the whole time. Concerned eyes had darted to them, and the whole thing had been absolutely mortifying.
Blushing furiously and feeling like the biggest hypocrite in the world, Beth lectured Annie the entire walk home about how bad it was to steal from others and lie.
Her words had haunted her in the middle of the night until she'd finally just gotten up and baked another batch to relieve her stress. Then, in her 3 am remorseful haze, she'd decided she would gift them to Rio as a sort of secret apology.
For some reason, Beth looks for Rio in English class, although he's never there, and she's disappointed but not surprised to find his seat empty for the duration of the period.
She's startled to find him in math, however, since there can't be a quiz—they just had one on Friday.
Beth stares at the back of his head from the doorway. She thinks of going over to him, of giving him the cookies, but she hesitates. She's nervous, and not just because of all these people around—what if he really does think it's weird that she baked for him? It's not like she can just say, "I only did it because I'm sorry I robbed you."
Paralyzed by indecision, Beth stands rooted to her spot—until Dean barrels into her from the hallway, swiping her hair aside to kiss her on the neck.
"You know the rules on PDA, Mr. Boland," Mr. Stewart reprimands from the front of the room, barely glancing up at them.
Hearing these words, however, Rio turns around to look. He likely catches the tail end of Dean's lips on her skin before Beth jumps away, but she has no idea how he reacts. She quickly averts her eyes and keeps her head down as she hurries to her seat.
Dean laughs and slinks to his desk.
Beth chances a glance over in Rio's direction just before the bell rings, but he's turning away from her at the same moment. It's almost like—almost like he had been looking at her but then realized she was about to look at him.
When the bell rings, Mr. Stewart taps a stack of papers on top of the overhead projector, straightening them to perfection. "Alright, let's start with the quiz you all took last Friday. It was a tough one for most of you." He peers at them over his glasses, perched at the end of his nose. "The class average was 65%."
A small squeak escapes from Beth's mouth. She had tried really hard—had felt good, even. But now she feels the familiar dread spreading through her body. If she doesn't turn her math grade around soon...
Mr. Stewart starts going down the aisles returning papers to students. Most groan at their grades; a few silently pump their fists in celebration. Christa Maak, who sits right in front of Beth, protests her score, insisting, "But that was a 7, Mr. Stewart!"
Beth waits anxiously for Stewart to set her own test on her desk, but he pauses to look over Christa's shoulder, squinting at her handwriting.
Impatient, Beth leans forward, trying to see the score written in red pen at the top of the next paper, but it's useless. She can't see anything.
Stewart shrugs, turning away from Christa to say, "I'm sorry, Ms. Maak. Write neater, and we won't have this problem."
Stewart sets the quiz face-down on Beth's desk. She swallows, afraid to flip it over.
"What'd you get?" Dean calls loudly from across the room.
Beth looks over at him, but out of the corner of her eye, she catches Rio watching her. They briefly make eye contact, and he tilts his head at her, gesturing for her to turn the test over and check her score.
When she does, a bright red 69% stares up at her, and normally Beth would cringe at earning a D but—it's better than when she was getting 40%.
"I did better," Beth calls back to Dean, who embarrasses her by whooping too loudly and earning a glare from Stewart.
Rio hears it, too, though, and he nods once, a smile playing at his lips, proud. Of himself, or her, Beth's not sure—but when he turns back around to slouch in his seat, she wonders: is this why he came to math class today?
Rio makes a big production out of sharpening his pencil in the last minute of class, so he's not lined up by the door, but hanging back, zipping up his backpack when the bell rings.
Beth hastily taps Dean and says, "I'm going to talk to Stewart about my test score."
"Okay. Meet me at my locker? Dickie's for lunch?"
Beth smiles and squeezes his arm, agreeing, and then steps out of the crowd, letting the other kids go around her.
When everyone's cleared out except Rio and Stewart, Beth swings her backpack around on her body so that she can unzip it and pull out the cookies.
"Here," she says, shoving them into Rio's hands.
He looks blankly at her. "What's this?"
"Cookies. I, um, made them." Beth tucks her bangs behind her ear.
"For me?" Rio looks positively smug about it.
"Yes, well. To say thank you."
Why was he making this so difficult? Beth huffs, rolling her eyes. "For tutoring me? My score went up, and I'm grateful, okay?"
"Uh-huh," Rio says, bemused.
"What?" Beth demands.
"Just seems weird you made ‘em to say thanks when you didn’t seem so sure about your score earlier. I’d say you even seemed a li’l nervous."
Rio steps closer to Beth, and she is suddenly warm all over. She feels like a total idiot.
"What'd you get?" Rio asks, using their proximity to lean over and look at the test that’s pressed tightly to her chest. The tip of his finger presses down on the paper so that, upside down, he can read her score. “That’s a good number.” Rio grins mischievously, and Beth rolls her eyes. “On the real, though. You did good.”
"I mean, it's still not great, but—"
"Better than the class average, yeah? And better than before, yeah?" There's an edge and a seriousness to Rio's voice now.
"So why you sellin’ yourself short?”
Beth isn’t sure what to say, but Rio’s looking at her like it’s not a rhetorical question. “I don’t know.”
The way Rio stares at her makes Beth feel like he’s trying to peel back her layers and see what’s underneath, like he’s trying to solve her like he solves equations. She looks down, and then, just for something to say, asks, “So… um… meet in the library after school?”
Rio licks his lips. “Actually, today’s no good for me.”
“Oh.” Beth is suddenly, strangely embarrassed. Of course he can’t do it every day—he’s got a life, things to do. She wants to ask him why, but it feels too invasive, not her place. She steps away from him and says in a rush, “Alright. No worries. See you later, then.”
She has no idea when she’ll see him next. Maybe their daily schedule was a fluke, or he thought it was no longer needed now that her score improved? Beth silently reprimands herself for getting used to their routine so quickly, for allowing it to mean something to her so that now it felt almost like some sort of loss. God, and worse—now she's gone and gave herself away with the cookies. She goes to turn around, to leave before Rio can read any of this on her face.
Rio reaches out for Beth’s arm. She freezes. “I could still give you a ride home, though?”
Beth glances down at Rio’s fingers on her elbow. His hands are large but delicate—something she wouldn’t have guessed. She remembers how warm they felt on her wrist.
“Oh, no, that’s alright,” Beth says. It feels like pity, him offering to drive her home. Plus, it’s not like she’s disappointed that this will be the entirety of their interaction today. It’s not like she was looking forward to tutoring, or seeing him again after the blank expanse of the weekend. She’s fine. She doesn’t need to spend any more time with him.
“Do you wanna go to lunch?” Rio asks suddenly. Beth looks up at him and blinks. “You know, to celebrate your quiz or whatever.”
Rio takes his hand off her arm and scratches behind his ear. If she didn’t know any better, she might think the tips of Rio’s ears were burning red.
Beth feels mad with curiosity. She can’t imagine what it would be like to do something so normal with Rio. She wants to say yes but—
“I have lunch plans with Dean,” Beth explains in a quiet voice. “He’s waiting for me at his locker.”
Rio nods, jaw tight. “Yeah. Makes sense. A’ight.” He heaves his backpack up onto his shoulder.
Before she knows what she’s saying, Beth suggests, “But… we could tomorrow?”
Rio’s mouth just barely curves upward before he shifts his features into a mask of indifference. “Yeah, okay. Cool. Tomorrow.” Rio taps her shoulder and then lets his hand fall to squeeze her arm before he walks past her to leave the room.
Beth feels some mixture of stunned and exhilarated and anxious. She’s going to lunch—with Rio. Somehow it feels altogether different than the hour they spend in the library hunched over a math book. Even though Rio spends much of that time asking her invasive questions and teasing her, she wonders what it will be like to spend time with him like—like friends.
“I take it tutoring is going well?”
Nearly jumping out of her skin, Beth turns to see Mr. Stewart staring at her from his desk in the back of the classroom. She’d completely forgotten he was still in the room.
“Oh—uh—yeah. It’s good.”
“You were averse to the idea at first, but it seems like you two are becoming good friends now.”
“Oh. I guess so. Yeah.” Beth shifts her weight from one foot to the other.
Her initial unwillingness seems so far away now—with such a large part of it being an attempt to draw less attention to her situation and having nothing to do with Rio in particular at all (well, mostly—he came off as intimidating as well as cocky and annoying). But in a little over a week, Rio has become some strange regular fixture in her life: simultaneously reliable and constantly surprising.
“I’ve seen you in the library every day together.”
Beth blushes. “I didn’t realize you’d been in there.”
“Sure. Making copies and whatnot." Mr. Stewart lets this statement linger and Beth processes it, how little she's been aware of her surroundings while she's with Rio. "I have to say, it was quite a surprise to see how consistently Mr. Hildalgo was showing up. Even on the days he doesn’t come to class.”
“Um,” Beth says awkwardly, not knowing how to respond. “Yeah. I guess he really wants that extra credit?”
Mr. Stewart barks out a laugh, then composes himself, readjusting his glasses, seemingly embarrassed by his lapse in professionalism. “Ah, yes, I’m sure that’s it.” There’s a pause where Mr. Stewart just stares at her, gaze loaded with meaning Beth can’t parse. Then he says, “You did well on your quiz. You two really seem to have a positive influence on each other.”
“Um. Thanks.” Beth snaps her bracelet. She doesn’t really know why Stewart is saying any of this or what he seems to be trying to imply.
“That can be rare. Two people as different as you two are, coming together and making each other better.”
Beth nods and swallows thickly. “Anything else?” She points over her shoulder with her thumb, asking to be excused.
Just then, Dean pokes his head into the room. He snaps at Beth, hurrying her along. “Jesus, what’s taking so long? Are you coming to lunch or what?”
Beth scurries to Dean’s side, and she begins to apologize to him when Mr. Stewart interrupts her. Beth and Dean look back at him.
“I’m glad you finally have that, Ms. Marks.”
Dean looks at Beth with some confusion, and Beth just stares blankly, taking in Mr. Stewart’s words.
“Thanks,” she manages, somewhat dumbfounded, but Mr. Stewart only tilts his chin at her before he begins shuffling some papers around on his desk.
“What’s he glad you finally have?” Dean asks when they step into the hallway. Dean links his fingers with Beth’s and rubs his thumb along hers soothingly.
“Oh, uh,” Beth says, stalling. She can’t exactly tell Dean that their teacher just insinuated he doesn’t bring out the best in her. “He’s just glad I finally have a tutor.”
“Yeah, but you don’t need one anymore, right?”
“What do you mean?”
They push through the double doors and spill out into the parking lot. Dean’s friends have already left—not surprising—so Dean leads Beth to his own car. Beth feels touched that Dean chose to wait for her even though it meant his friends left him behind.
“I mean, you said you did better on your quiz.”
Dean opens the passenger door for Beth and closes it behind her when she slides in.
This is the part of Dean other people don’t always see. When it’s just the two of them, he can be thoughtful and sweet. But nobody else seems to recognize that.
When Dean gets in on the driver’s side, Beth says, “So?”
“So, doesn’t that mean you can stop being tutored by that druggie?”
Beth opens her mouth to tell Dean that his name is Rio, but she stops herself. “I did better—not great. I only got a D.”
Dean shrugs. “That’s passing, isn’t it? That’s all that matters.”
“Not to me.”
Dean sighs. “Bethie. You’re too hard on yourself.”
“Why? Because I want more than below average?” Beth asks defensively.
It was funny—Rio had said basically the same thing, that Beth was being too critical of herself, but it had felt totally different.
“Jeez, calm down,” Dean says, glancing over at her. “I’m just saying, you can relax a little, you know?”
“I need to get straight A’s,” Beth iterates. “If I want to earn a scholarship—“
“Yeah, yeah, I know the spiel,” Dean says exasperatedly. He waves his hand as if he can’t be bothered to hear Beth explain it one more time. “But if we get married and I get the dealership, then who cares about college? I mean, even with a scholarship, college is expensive. And why would you want all that debt for nothing?”
Beth’s jaw drops because what?
“Yeah.” Dean looks over at her, bashful. “I mean, we love each other, don’t we?”
Beth’s head is spinning. They’ve never—they’ve never talked to each other like this.
“You love me?” she squeaks out.
“Yeah, of course I do. You’re, like, amazing.” Beth feels her cheeks growing hot. She didn’t know that Dean loved her. Dean has had lots of girlfriends before her, and she’s pretty sure he had never told any of them he loved them. It makes Beth feel special. “Don’t you love me?”
“Yes,” Beth promises, feeling like it’s true but also like she’s conflicted. “I do. But… marriage? I’m fifteen, and you’re only—“
“Yeah, so? My parents got married right out of high school. And I can’t see anything ever breaking us up—so like. Why not talk about the future? Especially if it’s going to help you, like, calm down?”
“But if I don’t go to college, what am I going to be doing?”
“Well, I would take care of you.” Dean holds his hand out for Beth to hold. She takes it, lacing her fingers with his. “And you would take care of me.”
“Like… a housewife?” Beth asks skeptically, parsing apart Dean’s words.
“I mean, it’s not like you wouldn’t work at all—if you wanted to. You could help out at the dealership like my mom does. But yeah, like a housewife, I guess. I mean, you’re always talking about how you like cooking and you’re also, like, a total neat freak. I mean, you already tidy up my room when you come over—“
Because it’s disgusting, Beth thinks.
“—and you’re always taking care of Annie, and like… this would allow you to keep doing that, if you wanted. And eventually, you know, we would have our own kids…”
“Of course we would. Two boys and maybe a girl.”
Beth shakes her head, amused. “I don’t think you get to pick, Dean.”
Dean looks at her in mock consternation. “Are you sure? Because the way I heard it—“
Beth laughs and Dean laughs with her, and then at the next stoplight he leans over to kiss her softly.
“I just want you to stop putting so much pressure on yourself. I want to take care of you, okay?”
Beth bites her lip and nods.
It’s been a long time since she felt like anyone wanted to take care of her.
That night, Dean calls at the usual time, nine o’clock, and talks to Beth for a half an hour until his mother insists that he get off the phone and take a shower and get ready for bed. It’s all very routine—Dean tells Beth about football practice and what he thought of the new episode of Beavis and Butthead or Rocko’s Modern Life, and Beth tells Dean about Annie’s latest batch of chaos (today it was that she bit one of her classmates).
At the end of the call, though, Dean says, “I love you.”
Beth feels her heart flutter. “I love you, too.”
She can practically hear Dean smiling through the phone when he says, “Goodnight, Bethie.”
Clicking END and tossing the phone down to the foot of the bed, Beth links her fingers over her stomach and stares at her ceiling, thinking.
Although she’s excited about it, she’s nervous to tell Ruby about the new stage in hers and Dean’s relationship. Ruby had never quite warmed to Dean, and her feelings towards him were exacerbated by the one time that she had seen Dean checking out Misty Rogers’ butt as she walked away.
But that had been so long ago—last school year—and Dean had really proven himself to be a great boyfriend, Beth thinks. Ruby just hadn’t given Dean a chance.
Beth starts making a mental list in her head, so she can convince Ruby to rethink her position. Ruby was Beth’s best friend. If Beth and Dean were going to get married after high school, Beth needed Ruby to come around.
First on the list, Beth decides, is that Dean is dependable. He was always calling her at the exact same time, and he had never once forgotten.
Secondly, he was thoughtful—he was always opening the car door for Beth, giving her his sweater when she was cold, and even though she wished he would offer her some of his food at lunch, it actually was very polite of him not to since he really did believe that she was on a diet.
Thirdly, he was sensitive. He didn’t feel a need to pretend to be macho—he cared a lot about Beth wearing her bracelet, for example, and it was kind of sweet, in a way, that it meant that much to him.
Fourthly, he was funny. His jokes were dumb, sure, but he had made water come out of Beth’s nose on more than one occasion. He reminded her that she was still a teenager and she was allowed to have fun and relax from time to time.
And lastly, and maybe more importantly? Dean was totally normal. His parents were married, and he was loved, and he wanted that for his future, too. What Beth had gone through was inconceivable to Dean, which meant that it was unlikely that he would ever become like her father and leave his family behind. For all of his flaws, Dean was sturdy and reliable and safe.
Still…, she thinks.
Beth rolls over and stares at her desk, where she’s got tomorrow’s outfit carefully folded on her chair.
She feels her stomach tighten into a bunch of knots.
She was going out to lunch with Rio.
She had told Dean on the phone that she was going with Ruby.
And she had picked out the skirt she was wearing when Rio had told her she looked good.
But it doesn’t mean anything, Beth tells herself. She and Rio were just friends. And she had only lied to Dean because she didn't want him to get jealous over nothing. And she had only picked the skirt because she felt good wearing it, and that had nothing to do with Rio.
Plus, it was probably one of the last days of the year she could get away with wearing it.
So, really, Beth thinks, she had nothing to feel guilty about.
But that doesn’t stop her from having trouble falling asleep.
Sorry there's so little Rio in this chapter! But I'm very excited for their lunch not-date next chapter :)