It was barely noon, and it had already been a
stressful day for Zeke. Two different teachers lectured him in front of everyone on how he needs to be doing better in class and with his homework, so it was nothing unusual, but it still hurt. He had just heard it all before, but they never had a solution to fix things, and they never even offered to help him in any way. Between his dad being on his case about literally everything and then coming to school to deal with the same thing just made him more frustrated and tired. So he fixed things the only way he knew - go hide in his hide-y hole for the next period and then go back with a clear head.
Once the coast was clear, he snuck into the room and started crawling through all of the desks to his spot in the back. His mind wandered back to when Tina and her siblings caught him here, trying to process things amongst the chalk nubs and assortment of desks. He couldn’t stop thinking about how she stood up for him to Mr. Frond, and how much she risked by taking a chance on him...
...but it was just her job, part of his brain whispered. She didn’t like him, not like that at least; she was just saving her own skin. She even told him that she liked being a hall monitor, so of course, the situation wasn’t anything special. Or maybe she just felt bad for him for some reason, which somehow made him feel worse. The thought of either scenario made him cringe.
He stopped in his tracks when he heard a quiet sniffle coming from further in the maze of desks. He paused, wondering if he hallucinated the noise until he heard it again. Who the hell was in here, in his hide-y hole? Who even knew about this place aside from him? He proceeded carefully and quietly, as he was curious but not enough to want to get caught ditching class...again. A third run-in with his teachers today was not what he needed.
He was almost to the spot when he accidentally crushed a large piece of chalk under his knee, making a loud crack noise. The sniffling stopped and there was a pause as he stayed there frozen.
“Hello? Is anyone there?” Oh god, it was Tina of all people. But why? He really hoped it wasn’t to bust him for ditching again. He didn’t think that was the case, but he couldn’t rule it out.
“Uh, it’s uh, it’s me, it’s Zeke,” he crawled out into the open area where he found her sitting curled up against the desks, head hung between her knees. She looked up at him, eyes red and puffy, and his heart dropped. “What’re ya doin’ here, Tina? You know that class already started, right?”
She wiped her eyes. “I don’t care. Well, I mean I do care, but I just, I can’t go back there right now.”
He sat down next to her, and when she turned her body to face him he did the same. She rested her chin on her knees, keeping her arms wrapped around them. He moved to rest his hand on her shoulder to try to comfort her, but her body tensed at the touch. He suddenly realized that it might have been too much too soon, and he pulled away. “What happened, T-Town? You wanna talk about it?”
She took a deep breath. “Well, I failed another math quiz and might have to go to remedial math, again. But that wasn’t even the worst part! Tammy saw my quiz score and announced to everyone how awful I am at math and everyone started laughing, even Jimmy Jr. Apparently I got the lowest grade in the class...which is good to know, I guess.”
Wait, Jimmy Jr even laughed at her? But he’s awful at math too! Maybe even worse! Why in the world would he laugh at her, knowing how she feels about him? It didn’t make any sense.
“What did you say?” Oh crap, did he say all that out loud? He blushed and scooted a bit away from her.
“Oh, I uh, I mean, lots of people are bad at math,” not his best comeback but it was something. “I mean, I certainly am! But they shouldn’t have laughed at you, and Tammy definitely shouldn’t have told everyone like that. I’m sorry that happened to ya, Tina.”
She sighed and began to fiddle with some chalk nubs. “I know Tammy is just projecting her own personal issues about how she views herself onto me because it’s the only way she knows how to deal with knowing she’s a terrible person, but it still sucks,” she whispered as she lowered her head back to her knees.
“Uhh, yeaaah,” half of what she just said went over Zeke’s head, but he wasn’t about to tell her that, especially not now. “Well, at least everyone can agree that she’s an awful person ...and her farts are the worst smelling thing to ever exist.”
That seemed to get a chuckle out of Tina, and it gave Zeke an idea. “Like it smells like if every pair of gym shorts ever worn at this school never got washed in the first place,”
“Or like Mr. Frond’s armpits after he does jazzercise,” she grinned.
“No no no! Like Ms. LaBonz’s armpits after she does jazzercise!”
“What about both of them doing jazzercise in the same room?”
“Oh god Tina, you’re right! They totally smell worse than that!”
They both burst into a fit of laughter at the thought of either Frond or LaBonz attempting to do jazzercise. As they calmed down, Zeke noticed Tina’s smile fading just a little.
“Look Tina, I’m sure ya noticed that I’m not real smart either,” Zeke looked away to avoid eye contact and started mindlessly playing with a chalk nub. “And I know that Darrel is really the only person who’s great at math in this place, but I know you, T-Town,” he felt his face grow hot but he continued. “Just because you’re not the best at math doesn’t mean you’re not smart in other ways. I mean, hell, you’ve gotten us out of so many sticky situations that I’ve lost count! Point is, who cares if you’re bad at math when you’re great in every other way imaginable.”
“Zeke, I uh, wow,” Tina suddenly felt her mind blank. He really felt that way about her? She thought he was just joking when she gave him the Wagstaff Whaler costume and he said he’d “get her one day”, but now she could feel he was sincere. The thought all but thrilled and terrified her. Jimmy Jr. had never even said anything close to what Zeke said to her just now, and she suddenly felt torn.
“Look, you don’t have to say anything,” Zeke turned away from her, praying she didn’t see how red he had gotten. “I just don’t want you to go around thinkin’ that everyone believes what Tammy says, especially about you.”
He felt a hand gently rest on his shoulder and he looked at her. Tina had a small smile on her face, but it was enough to make Zeke’s heart soar.
“Thanks, Zeke, it really means a lot,” she leaned in and gave him a quick hug before quickly rising to her feet before he could react. “And I try to never take what Tammy says to heart, but what you said really helped me get out of this funk. You’re a really great friend,” she held out her hand to him.
He tried not to just stare dumbfounded at this girl, but he couldn’t help it. He was sure his face was beet red and he probably looked like an idiot for staring at her for so long, but as long as she was smiling at him the way she was, he didn’t care. “Heh, anytime T-Bird,” he took her hand and stood up. “Anything for you, honest.”
“So, you don’t mind that I came here? To your sacred and hidden spot?” She asked as they began to crawl out from the desks.
“Are you kidding? Out of everyone in this school, you’re the only person I’d share this place with. Don’t tell Jimmy Jr,” he winked playfully at her and she stifled another laugh. “You’re welcome to come here whenever you need to get away from all the crap. Just be warned, I’m here almost every day, so as long as you don’t mind sharin’ with me,” he laughed as they came out of the clearing and to the door that led out to the hallway.
Tina reached for his hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. They looked up at each other and exchanged a small but reassuring smile.
“That actually sounds really nice Zeke. I can’t wait.”