“You want me to eat with you?” I had already planned to spend my first lunch in the bathroom crying.
He narrowed his eyes. “No. I just tell people where I eat lunch.” Sarcastic. Cute. “Of course you’re eating with us. Don’t ever bring the cafeteria’s meatloaf to the table—it makes Hailey itch and it will probably give you diarrhea. And”—he reached up toward my ponytail and pulled out the band holding it up—“since your hair is so long that, if you wear it down, it brings less attention to your watermelons. See you at lunch.”
“Okay. See you then.”
“Oh, and Ashlyn?” Ryan smiled bright. “Keep wearing the dresses until you don’t want to anymore, okay?”
With that, he disappeared down the hallway off to his next class. I stared at Daniel, who was sitting at his desk, pretending that he hadn’t been eavesdropping on my conversation with Ryan.
The last student disappeared from the class. I put on my backpack and lifted my books into my arms. Standing in front of his desk, I gave him a pathetic chuckle. “So I guess this means we’re off for tomorrow night?”
Every curve of his facial features seemed to express a fine, harsh intensity. For a moment, I couldn’t tell if he was pissed off at me or our situation. Maybe a little of both.
He conversed with a colorless fluency. “That’s not funny, Ashlyn.”
No. It wasn’t.
“You said you were nineteen,” he spoke so softly I almost didn’t hear him.
“I am! I am!” I said it twice, raising my voice an octave. I didn’t know if it was to remind him or myself of the sincerity of the fact. I hunched my shoulders. “I was sick…” I paused. “My mom held me back a year.” I felt as if I were apologizing for being me. For being born the year I was born. For going to school the year I went to school. No students were wandering into his classroom, so I figured it must have been his free period. “How old are you, anyway?”
“Old enough to know better,” he muttered, rubbing his fingers against the back of his neck.
My throat dried out and I coughed lightly. “But young enough not to care?”
A deep-rooted growl left his lips. “No.” He formed a fist and slammed it against his desk in irritation. “Just old enough to know better.” He paused, his brows frowning. “I’m twenty-two.”
It wasn’t right, but hearing his age didn’t scare me. Not in the least. If the situation and timing were different, we could have given this thing between us a real go. Three years wouldn’t be a deal breaker for many relationships. It wasn’t the age that was stopping us—it was the occupation.
The tears were on the surface, but I refused to release them. I lowered my voice to a whisper. “Don’t you think we should talk…about this?”
His eyes softened a bit and his head gestured toward the door. “If you want me to talk to those guys bothering you, I can.”
Tilting my head toward him, I huffed, annoyed with his offer. If I couldn’t cry in front of him, I would get mad in front of him. “You’ll talk to them?” My head filled with a cloud of anger. “Ohhh! You’ll talk to them. Please, Mr. Daniels. Please talk to them. That’s exactly what I need to make my life one hundred percent better.” I slammed my books on his desk and stared into his eyes. “Because my sister is dead. My mother doesn’t want me. My father is my assistant principal with his own family. I’m already an outcast in school. The guys are already mocking my body. And the cherry on top? My AP English teacher made out with me a few days ago and can’t even look my way now. So yes! Talk to them. That will make everything perfect.”
I saw his face strain and he rubbed the back of his neck. “Ashlyn…” he whispered, care in his tone. Then he looked up with worry. “Wait, Henry is your dad?”
My heart broke at his biggest concern of the moment. “Out of everything I said…that’s what you chose to take in?”
He frowned. “You should get to your next class.”
I didn’t move right away, even though the silence was intolerably irksome. Shifting my weight around, I nervously ran my fingers through my locks of hair. I stared at him for a moment longer before I turned to walk away.
He wasn’t the handsome man who’d awakened my spirits a few nights ago with his romantic vocals. He wasn’t the man who’d made me laugh and allowed me to cry into him. He wasn’t the man who’d reminded me that I was still alive when his lips had triumphantly found mine.
No, he wasn’t Daniel anymore.
He was Mr. Daniels.
And I was his naïve student who he’d frostily dismissed.
And I’ll ask you a question,
You can tell me the truth.
Are you thinking of me when I’m fighting for you?
~ Romeo’s Quest
Two more hours passed of hiding out in the bathroom crying, stressing myself out with the idea that Daniel was my teacher.
I also cried due to the bullies attacking me, because what could be more fun than being mean to the assistant principal’s daughter?
I cried because I was lonely and sad and I missed my mom so much even though she probably didn’t miss me.
I cried because Gabby was dead.
And then I cried because that’s all I seemed to know how to do anymore.
I cried so hard I was surprised I still had tears to cry. After blowing my nose for the twentieth time, I wiped my eyes and headed to the cafeteria.
There was a silver lining in the day—I wasn’t forced to eat lunch by myself. Hailey was sitting at the back table near the tennis trophies. She smiled my way and waved me over.