“Ms. Sinclair, stay a minute after class. I need a word with you.” Mr. Keats’ stone-like voice makes me nervous.
Out of all my teachers, Mr. Keats is the one that scares me the most. We never seem to get along and every time I’m in his class I feel guilty of some untold crime.
I nod my head and curse internally at my luck. I’ve never had the good kind. It’s like they say, if I didn’t have bad luck, then I wouldn’t have any luck at all.
Shuffling my books into my bag and grabbing my jacket, I watch the rest of my class leave me at his mercy.
I don’t know what it is with this man but he always makes me feel like the worst kid. Like nothing I do is right.
My perfect grades hit a downward spiral in this man’s hands.
“Miss Sinclair, would you like for me to just go ahead and give you a failing grade and it’s over with? It’s like you’re not even trying.”
He sighs while leaning back on his metal desk, crossing his ankles and locking his fingers together, placing them down at his belt buckle.
Snapping my eyes back to him, I scramble for the right thing to say.
“N-no sir, I truly am trying my hardest. I’m working on my grade in your class, sir. I hope this next assignment will show you that effort.”
I nod again, watching his cold brown eyes wash over me.
Like he’s trying to tell if I’m lying, or maybe he is just not a fan of my fashion sense.
“I highly doubt you will be able to pass this class on your own, Miss Sinclair. Have you thought about getting a tutor?”
His whole presence makes me squirm.
I feel scrutinized and dismissed at every level with him.
“Mr. Keats, while that is an excellent idea, I couldn’t afford it. I’m not sure what I’m messing up. If you could please give me a little more time, I’m sure I will bring my grade up.”
I fiddle with my nails, clipping them together while I tip back on my heels to relieve some of this anxiety he causes.
“I don’t believe in optimism, Miss Sinclair. In fact, I think it’s an ill choice for you at this time.”
His tone makes it feel so final, like he has already made up his mind and that I can’t possibly pass his class, so why try.
“Sir, please. I’ll do whatever assignment for extra credit to bring my grade up. I can’t fail this class; I need every credit to pass. If I fail this class, I can’t graduate next year. Sir, please reconsider.”
I plead with him with my whole heart; I need this class to pass. I can’t fail. I have to graduate, so I can get to college.
I need college to make a living and I need the money to help support my family. It’s just Erik and me. He has worked his butt off to even get us this far.
He works two jobs; I barely see him as is and if I fail, then all his work is for nothing. If I fail this class, then I fail Erik and that can’t happen. I owe him more than that.
After Mom died, he took the world on his shoulders for me. Dad left a long time ago. I don’t even remember him. It’s us against the world now.
I have to pull my own weight. I asked to get a job but Erik nixed that idea and told me to focus on school.
Mr. Keats unlocks his hands, bringing his middle finger to his cheek and running it along his five o’clock shadow.
His gray suit bunches at the shoulders and pulls back at the side to show more of his white dress shirt that’s tucked into his matching gray slacks.
“Hmm, if you’re interested, I might have a way for you to secure your grade. Come to this address at five tonight and I’ll help you with your work. I won’t offer again, so take it or leave it.”
He turns from me, pulling a yellow Post-it note from his top desk. Using a black ink pen, he scribbles out an address and holds it out for me to take.
Slowly, I take hold of it and grip it for dear life. “Thank you, Mr. Keats. I promise I will be there. Thank you for this opportunity.” I flash a smile, my chest filling with gratitude.
Mr. Keats nods as he dismisses me officially. I practically skip out of the room and down the hall to my locker.
Finally, some good luck.
Yeah, it’s gonna be hard to work directly with Mr. Keats, but as long as I pass, then it will be worth the struggle.
I know how much is riding on my dedication to school.
My brother is only four years older than me. He can’t take care of the both of us forever. He didn’t even get to grieve over Mom before he had to go back to work.
He was just eighteen when she died, relinquishing me, his fifteen-year-old kid sister, completely into his care.
I know he tries so hard and he keeps most of it out of my way but taking care of me made him lose a lot.
He quit college and picked up another job. He even lost his longtime girlfriend, Dana, because he didn’t have any time for her. He gave up his scholarships and put his future on hold.
His list of friends dwindled to just Ross and Ben, who he doesn’t get to hang out with as much because he’s always working.
Erik is my personal superman. I can’t let him down.
I just can’t.
If he can handle the world, all the stress, the debt Mom left us, the bills, halting his life to taking full responsibility for me, the least I can do is deal with Mr. Keats.
Or whoever stands in my way.
If Erik can be tough, so can I.
I make sure I have everything before leaving school, then walk home. It’s only a few blocks, so it doesn’t take me long before I’m hurrying to finish my chores.
Erik won’t be home until midnight tonight, so I make sure he has dinner ready, clean clothes, and to I clean up the mess I make.
Leaving my house with forty-five minutes to spare, I take a bus across town and get off at the right bus stop. Rechecking the Post-it note at least ten times, I find the address in time.
It’s three minutes to five when I knock.
When Mr. Keats opens the door, I’m taken aback. His normal attire at school is always suits and ties, so seeing him at his home is strange to say the least.
His plain white shirt fits him well. In contrast, his lounger light gray sweatpants seem to be a bad fit, but I don’t say anything.
“You’re late, Miss Sinclair.” His cold eyes bore into me, making me self-conscious. I look at my watch to see I’m actually on time.
“I’m sorry about that, Mr. Keats. I thought you said five o’clock.”
I look down, staring at his black and white sliders. Mr. Keats dresses like one of the kids at my school in his spare time. He isn’t much older—maybe mid-thirties at the latest—but still.
“You heard right. If you’re not early, then you’re late. I won’t accept tardiness from you.
“In case you have forgotten, Miss Sinclair, I’m doing you a favor and won’t be taken advantage of,” he says, so sternly that I flinch at his words.
“Y-yes, sir, I understand completely. I am sorry about that. It won’t happen again. I promise.”
I keep my gaze down, not having the courage to look him in the eye. It’s like I’ll be sucked into his evil vortex if I even spare a single look. Like he is Medusa and I’ll turn to stone or something.
“Hm, this way.” He walks away, waving a hand to usher me in after him.
Not wasting a second, I follow in behind him, shutting the door softly so I can give him my full attention. Unstrapping my bag from my shoulder, I wait for further instructions.
Mr. Keats seems preoccupied with some work he is putting away.
His home is nice. It’s very much a man’s home. I can tell he lives alone; his bachelor pad smells of a man’s cologne and the lack of decoration reeks of a single man.
I’m sure my house would look the same if it was just Erik. Mom wasn’t much into interior design.
Not that she could have been. We didn’t have the money, and anything extra went on her habit and was snorted up her nose.
Mom was a cocaine addict. I don’t think she was for long; I can remember when she started to change. When she overdosed, it didn’t seem like something possible until we cleaned out her room.
I found a small bag of it under her mattress, a tiny bag in her dresser drawer, and dust of it smeared on her bedside table.
When we got her purse back, it looked like it had been hit with a powder puff from one of those gag reels.
My mom overdosed on New Year’s two years ago. She didn’t come home for two days but I thought she was with her boyfriend Scotty.
When that third day came and our electricity got shut off, I didn’t know what else to do but go look for Erik.
When I told him about Mom and the power getting cut, he didn’t seem concerned. To be fair, he was at a frat party and was more upset with me showing up there than what was actually going on.
When I realized he was drunk, I looked elsewhere for help. Ben happened to arrive just as I was losing hope, so I told him what was up.
Ben pulled Erik out of the party and took us to his off-campus apartment. He was roommates with Ross and another guy, Stevie.
We sat there for hours until Erik sobered up and understood what was wrong.
Ben stayed with me while Erik went to Mom’s work and asked around. He learned Mom had lost her job two months before that.
Her friend Cindy said she hadn’t seen Mom in weeks and the last she’d heard about her was Mom was getting into some trouble with a guy they called the Gas Man.
Two weeks went by without a word.
We checked hospitals and jails and we asked around. The police didn’t seem interested and brushed us off.
Since it was Christmas break, I didn’t have school and couldn’t go home with no heat in the house.
Ben looked after me, while Erik went out, looking for Mom every day, and kept coming back with nothing.
When the police came to Ben’s apartment to notify the next of kin, it was almost a relief.
I had been the one to answer the door. Ben was out getting dinner, Erik was out looking for Mom, and Stevie and Ross were at work.
By sunset, the chill in the air felt like winter time and I was watching reruns of Drake and Josh on some bootleg site Stevie had hooked up for us.
I still remember it like it wasn’t two years ago.
I remember the officers that came: Detective Fordmen and Officer Harris.
They asked if I was alone and if my brother could come back. I told them he was out and was on his way, but if it was about my momma, then they could just tell me.
I could feel the bad news rolling off them; I knew whatever they had to say wasn’t good.
When Detective Fordmen said they had found a woman matching my mother’s description and needed her body identified, I just said okay and that my brother and I go to the morgue.
I showed them out, then waited, alone, with the bitter taste of the truth. Ben came back with arms full of takeout bags. He took one look at me and knew something was up.
“Mari?” he said. Mari, pronounced mar-ee, is short for Marcella. “What’s up?” He dropped the bags on the countertop and was at my side in one stride.
His strong, toned arms tensed at his side. His hands clenched open and closed repeatedly. His pale blue eyes made me feel warm, like I was under the summer sky.
“My mom’s dead, and Erik and I have to identify her body. The police were just here,” I said with no feeling.
The sweeping hand of death fell over me and made me feel numb.
Ben’s face fell for a second before he regained his iron composure. I saw his jaw click and the contemplation cloud his eyes.
Ben has always been massive. When I was a little kid, I would swear he was a bear. The dark brown hair made me think about a brown grizzly.
He has always been so much taller than all of us, and once he started working out, he was massive for different reasons.
“Maybe they got the wrong person and she’s still out there. Maybe she’s not dead.” His voice was the softest I’d ever heard it.
Ben has always been like a stone wall. He is Erik’s best friend and the same age but I always felt close to him too.
I shook my head no. I knew the moment the officers knocked. My mom was truly dead. I knew it in my heart.
When Ben slid his hand inside mine and intertwined our fingers, I could feel the wall give way and the sadness flood me. Before that first tear stung my eyes, Ben had me in his arms.
Holding me tight to his chest as I sobbed and dampened his shirt, I couldn’t breathe. I cried so hard; no one had ever held me like that. It was as if he needed me as much as I needed him.
I cried till my heart ran out of tears and I just felt empty. Ben never let go of me. He never told me to stop or calm down. He just held on to me and played with my hair.
When Erik got back, Ben was the one that told him while I washed my face. My brother and I went down and looked at Mom’s corpse. The next few days were nothing but a blur.
The only thing I really remembered was Ben. The way he took care of me and made sure I was okay. A grizzly bear who never left my side.
When I asked Erik to let the state take guardianship of me so he could go on about his life, the whole group flipped on me.
Ben, Erik, Ross, and Stevie—all who became like brothers to me after Mom’s death, not just Erik—gave me an earful for even asking.
I stand by that choice.
It would have been easier on him.
“Mr. Keats, would you like to start in here?” I ask while he clears the stacked paperwork and clears off his dark red leather couch.
He doesn’t say anything; he doesn’t acknowledge my presence at all. I stand behind him, quietly waiting for our tutoring lesson to start.
It feels like eons before he finishes and motions for me to drop my bag and follow him out of the room.
Here we go.
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