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"Layken, can I see you in the hallway please?"

Principal Bass was a pleasant man. Plump in the belly, plump in the hands, plump in places you didn't know could be plump. It was an unusually cold spring day in Texas, but you wouldn't know it from the rings of sweat underneath his arms. He was the type of principal that hung out in his office rather than the halls. He never went looking for trouble, just waited for it to come to him. So why was he here?

I had a sinking feeling deep in the pit of my stomach as I stood up and walked as slow as I could to the classroom door. He wouldn't make eye contact with me. I remember I looked right at him and his eyes darted to the floor. He felt sorry for me. But why?

When I walked out into the hallway my mother was standing there, mascara streaked down her cheeks. The look in her eyes told me why she was there. Why she was there, and my father wasn't.

"How?" I remember crying. She threw her arms around me and started to collapse to the floor. Rather than hold her up, I simply melted with her. That day we experienced our first stage of grief in the hallway floor of my High School: Denial.

***

Gavin is preparing to perform his poetry. He's standing in front of the class, his paper shaking between his fingers as he clears his throat to read from it.

I wonder, as I ignore Gavin's presence and focus on Will, do the five stages of grief only apply to the death of a loved one? Could it not also apply to the death of an aspect of your life? If it does, then I'm definitely smack dab in the center of stage two: Anger.

"What's it called, Gavin?" Will asks. He's sitting at his desk, writing notes into his pad as students perform. It pisses me off-the way he's being so attentive, focused on everything except me. His ability to make me feel like this huge invisible void pisses me off. The way he pauses to chew on the tip of his pen pisses me off. Just last night, those same lips that are wrapped around the tip of his ugly red pen were making their way up my neck.

I push the thought of his kiss out of my mind as quickly as it crept in. I don't know how long it will take, but I'm determined to break from this hold he has on me.

"Um, I didn't really give it a title," Gavin responds. He's standing at the front of the classroom, second to last person to perform. "I guess you can call it Pre-Proposal?"

"Pre-Proposal, go ahead then," Will states in a teacher-ish voice that also pisses me off.

"Eh-hem," Gavin clears his throat. His hands start trembling more as he begins to read.

One million, fifty one thousand and two hundred minutes.

That's approximately how many minutes I've loved you,

It's how many minutes I've thought about you,

How many minutes I've worried about you,

How many minutes I've thanked God for you,

How many minutes I've thanked every deity in the Universe for you.

One million

Fifty one thousand

And

Two

Hundred

Minutes…

One million, fifty one thousand and two hundred times.

It's how many times you've made me smile,

How many times you’ve made me dream,

How many times you’ve made me believe,

How many times you’ve made me discover,

How many times you’ve made me adore,

How many times you’ve made me cherish,

My life.

(Gavin walks toward the back of the room where Eddie is sitting. He bends down on one knee in front of her as he reads the last line of his poem.)

And exactly one million, fifty one thousand and two hundred minutes from now, I'm going to propose to you, and ask that you share all the rest of the minutes of your life with me.

Eddie is beaming as she leans down and hugs him. The classroom is divided as the boys groan and the girls swoon. I simply squirm in my seat, anticipating the last poet of the day: Me.

“Thanks Gavin, you can take your seat. Good job.” Will doesn't look up from his notes as he calls me to read my poem. His voice is soft, full of trepidation as he says my name. "Layken, it’s your turn."

I'm ready. I feel good about my piece. It's short but to the point. I already have it memorized so I leave the poem on my desk as I walk to the front of the classroom.

"I have a question." My heart is racing as I realize this is the first time I've spoken out loud to Will in his classroom since I entered it a month ago. He hesitates as though he can't decide if he should acknowledge that I even have a question. He gives me a slight nod.

"What if it doesn’t rhyme?” I say.

I’m not sure what he thought I was about to ask, but he looks relieved that this was my question.

“That’s fine. Remember, there are no rules.” His voice cracks slightly as he replies. I can see on his face that what happened between us last night is fresh on his mind. All the better.

"Good. Okay then," I stammer. "My poem is called mean." I face the front of the classroom and proudly recite my poem from heart.

According to the thesaurus…

and according to me…

there are over thirty different meanings and substitutions for the word

mean.

(I quickly yell the following words; the entire class flinches-including Will)

Jackass, jerk, cruel, dickhead, unkind, harsh, wicked, hateful, heartless, vicious, virulent, unrelenting, tyrannical, malevolent, atrocious, bastard, barbarous, bitter, brutal, callous, degenerate, brutish, depraved, evil, fierce, hard, implacable, rancorous, pernicious, inhumane, monstrous, merciless, inexorable.

And my personal favorite—asshole.

I glance at Will as I return to my seat and his face is red, his teeth clenched. Eddie is the first to clap, followed by the rest of the girls in the class. I fold my arms across my chest and focus my eyes solely on my desk.

"Man," Javi says. “Who pissed you off?”

The bell rings and the students begin to file out. Will never utters a word. I begin to pack my things into my bag when Eddie runs up to me as most of the class has filed out.

"Have you talked to your mom yet?" she asks.

"My mom? About what?"

I have no clue what she's referring to.

"The date. Nick asked you out yesterday? You said you'd have to ask your mom?"

"Oh, that," I respond.

That was yesterday? It seems like a lifetime ago. I shoot a quick glance in Will's direction and see that he’s watching me, waiting for my response to Eddie. His expression is stone cold. I wish at this moment he was easier to read. I assume his internal expression is jealousy, so I go with it.

"Yeah, sure. Tell Nick I'd love to," I lie as I keep my eyes locked on Will. He grabs his pen and paper and opens one of the desk drawers and drops them in, slamming it shut. The action startles Eddie and she jumps, spinning around to look at him. He’s aware of the attention he brought upon himself so he stands up and acts oblivious to us as he starts erasing chalk off the board. Eddie turns back toward me.

"Great! Oh, and we decided on Thursday so after Getty’s we can go to the slam. We've only got a few weeks, might as well get it out of the way. You want us to pick you up?"

"Uh, sure."

Eddie claps excitedly as she bounces out of the room. Will continues to erase away nothing as I start toward the exit.

"Layken," Will says with a hardness to his voice.

I pause at the door but don’t turn toward him.

"Your mom works Thursday nights. I always get a sitter for Thursday's since I have to go to the slams. Just send Kel over before you leave. You know, before your date."

I don't respond. I simply walk out.

Lunch is awkward. Eddie has already informed Nick that I've agreed to go out with them, so everyone is extremely chatty about our new plans. Everyone except me. Other than the occasional nod and mutters of agreement, I don't speak. I have no appetite, so Nick eats the majority of my food. I stir the rice pudding around on my tray with my spoon, dribbling in traces of ketchup here and there. It reminds me of the remnants of the murdered snowman in my driveway. For days, every time I would back out, my tire would glide over his ice-hard body. I wonder if that's how quiet my jeep would be if I were to run over Will? Just accidentally back up over him, then put my car in drive and continue on.

"Layken, are you just going to ignore him?" Eddie says.

I look up to see Will standing behind Nick, staring down at the mess I've made of my tray.

“What?" I say to Eddie.

"Mr. Cooper needs to see you," she says, nudging her head in Will's direction.

"I bet you're in trouble for saying asshole," Nick says.

I put my hand against my throat, afraid it's about to explode. What is he doing? Why is he asking me to go with him in front of everyone? Has he lost his mind?

I slide my chair back and leave my tray on the table as I eye him cautiously. He walks out of the cafeteria toward his classroom, and I follow him. It's a long walk. A long, awkward, tension filled, quiet walk.

"We need to talk," he says as he shuts his door behind us. "Now."

I don't know if he's being 'Will' right now. I don't understand the angle he's coming at me from. I don't know whether or not to obey him, or punch him. I don't walk very far into his room. I fold my arms across my chest and attempt to look annoyed.

“Then talk!" I snap.

"Dammit, Lake! I'm not your enemy. Stop hating me."

He's being Will.

I rush toward him and throw my hands up in the air in frustration. "Stop hating you? Make up your freaking mind Will! Last night, you told me to stop loving you, now you're telling me to stop hating you? You tell me you don't want me to wait on you, yet you act like an immature little boy when I agree to go out with Nick! You want me to act like I don't know you, but then you pull me out of the lunchroom in front of everyone! We've got this whole façade between us, like we're different people all the time and it's exhausting! I never know when you're Will or Mr. Cooper and I really don't know when I'm supposed to be Layken or Lake."

I'm tired of playing his head games. I'm so tired.

I throw myself into the desk I occupy during his class. He is hard to read as he stands there, expressionless. His hands are in his pockets and he's leaning against the chalkboard.

He slowly walks around me and takes a seat in the desk behind me. I continue to face forward as I feel him lean forward in the desk, close enough to whisper. My body tenses and my chest tightens when he speaks.

"I didn't think it would be this hard," he says quietly.

I don't want to give him the gratification of seeing the tears that are making their way down my cheeks.

"I'm sorry I said that to you earlier, about Thursday," he says. "I was being sincere-for the most part. I know you'll need someone to watch Kel and I did make the slam a required assignment. But I shouldn't have reacted like that. That's why I asked you to come here, I just needed to apologize. It won't happen again, I swear."

The door to the classroom swings open and Will hops up out of the seat as Eddie eyes us curiously from the doorway. She's holding the backpack that I left in the cafeteria. I can't conceal the tears that are still flowing from my eyes so I turn away from her. There's nothing Will nor I could do at this point to mask the tension between us.

Eddie holds her palms up and gently lays my backpack on the desk closest to the door. She backs out of the room as she whispers, "My bad…continue." She closes the door behind her.

***

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