"Pearl, would you mind riding with Cameron to school?"

My heart skipped a beat. She said it in that I'm asking you, but I'm really telling you voice that let me know she'd already made up her mind. But I was feeling stubborn and irate, that day being the first day of school and, in addition to that, a Tuesday (which was, in my opinion, the most random and infuriating day to start off on), so I decided to fight.

"Sounds alright to me," Ronnie said eagerly, though faking an offhand sort of voice. "What say you, Princess?"

Apparently nobody heard me.

"Well, this makes everything a lot easier," my mother said. "Pearl, Cameron will be driving you to school until we work something else out. His term doesn't start for another two weeks."
"And even then," Ronnie added. "My first class isn't until ten."
"I think I'll walk."
"Really, it's no trouble."
"I think. I'll walk."
"Pearl Perkowski, you are not walking to school."
"Then you drive me!"
"Don't be selfish, Pearl. I'm busy in the mornings."
"Do you even hear yourself?" I was acutely aware of the fact that I was whining in a most unpleasant manner but I couldn't seem to stop myself. "Why can't I walk?"
"It's too far and it's too dangerous. Cameron will drive you, end of story. Now finish your breakfast. Here, I'm putting an orange in your lunch."

I stepped through the wooden double doors of Mercury Books and out onto the sidewalk. The weather was pleasant enough, if a little on the warm side. Ronnie, wearing his vintage camera around his neck like some sort of medal and feeling as if he'd just trapped me in the luckiest of all coincidences, was leaning triumphantly against the side of his big, black pick-up truck. He turned his head and squinted into the autumn sun, which almost made it look like he was smiling. I think, maybe, if he really had been smiling (or, at the very least, hadn't been looking so infuriatingly smug), I would have let him drive me to school. In any case, I continued down the sidewalk.


I turned around.

"Your chariot," he said suavely, opening the car door and letting out a great, "Hah!" when it gave a rusty groan that sounded like a fart.
"I'm walking."

The bewildered look on his face made the past week worthwhile. The teasing, the Princess Pearl-ing, the strange breakfasts, the unwelcome friendliness, the general imposing and conquering of our couch – all of that disappeared when Cameron Quillen blinked as if I'd snapped my fingers in front of his nose and started sputtering like an old car.

"B-but, your mother... your mother said-"
"B-but," I mimicked cruelly. "I'll do whatever I want. I'm walking, okay?"

I don't know if he followed me or not. I never turned around to look.

Of course, I was obscenely late. It was the first day of school and I expected some slack, but Mrs. Wheat was a notorious Type-A personality. She accused me of being lazy and I tried not to be distracted by the smudge of lipstick on her left front tooth as I received a warning. Next time, she said, it would be a detention.

I had anticipated senior year being different, but nothing much had changed. I still ate lunch with my best friend, Nancy Brown-Anthony, under the big tree in the courtyard. I even kept my same English teacher, who had added on a few AP senior classes.

"Is anyone sitting here?"

Nancy had even kept her same hair colors; jet black with blue streaks. Granted, she had gotten three more piercings, but I decided that didn't count.

"Hey, blondie! He-looo?"

Out of anyone I knew, Nancy was the last person who needed more piercings. What did that bring the count up to...? Three studs and a bar per ear, two in the left side of her nose, one on her lip, carry the one... eleven? How did I manage to make friends with someone who has eleven superfluous holes in her face?

"Okay, I'm sitting here anyway."

A Hispanic-looking boy sat down in the seat next to me, smiling. He raised a hand and scratched at his head almost like a dog, accidentally pushing his black bangs into his eyes. When he blew them back with a puff of air, I caught a glimpse of what looked like faded blue writing on his forehead.

"It says I'm a great big girl."
"What, on your head?" I asked, a little wary. His chipper smile was a bit off-putting.
He pushed back his bangs and leaned closer so I could get a better look. "You'd think it would be a really crazy story where I got plastered and then woke up naked on some stranger's couch, but I'm not that cool."
"I cried at the end of Edward Scissorhands so my friends pinned me down and wrote on my face."
He stuck out his hand. "I'm Israel."
"I'm Pearl."
"Hey, our names rhyme!"
"Well. Not really."
He waved his outstretched hand in my face. "Hello?"
"I don't shake hands."
"Huh. Weird. You know what else is weird? My mother is Chicano, but my dad is French... so I got his last name. But I look so Mexican, right? And people don't believe me that my last name is Curie."
"Yeah, weird."
"Curie, like the French physicists – Marie and Pierre. They did all that stuff with radioactivity and won the Nobel thing. And then they died. Of cancer. And shit."
"Yeah! Hey, watch this..."
"What are you-"
"Chicken nuggets!"

He then proceeded to drop down below the table while everyone in the entire Intermediate Art room turned to look at me.

"Did they look?" he whispered from the floor.
"Yes! Get up from there – what are you, five? They all thought it was me!"
"Duh. That's because I was under the table."
"Yeah, I got that. Why?"
"Who knows?" he sighed, giving a half-hearted shrug. He leaned toward me, squinting at my face. "Wow, you know you look like Bob Dylan, kind of. If he was blonde."
"Gee. Thanks."
"Oh, and a girl."
"Not that this conversations isn't fascinating, but I'd appreciate it if you left me-"
"Shh!" he hissed as the monotone bell rang. "Class is starting. Man, you talk a lot."

I opened my mouth indignantly, rounding on Israel Curie like he'd just slapped me in the face and prepared myself to let loose a string of well-chosen and creative cuss words – the likes of which had once made my classmate, Gregory Nettles, cry in the third grade. But before I'd even gotten out one son of a sweaty whore or toilet seat licker, Mr. Perry walked through the door, his red motorcycle helmet under his arms and his bald head gleaming like it had just been waxed.

Mr. Perry purchased a motorcycle last year and had taken to carrying the helmet around with him wherever he went, enjoying the dirty looks it garnered from the other teachers. He was the kind of teacher who would frequently assign projects and then forget about them later, insisting stubbornly that he'd never assigned the project in the first place and wondering why people were handing him clay pots or self portraits.

"Did everyone do the summer project?" he asked, dumping his helmet, messenger bag, and coffee mug on his desk.
A few people panicked, turning to their neighbors and widening their eyes.
"Summer project?"
"I never knew there even was one!"
"Gotcha!" he yelled, cackling and doing an odd sort of dance. "No homework in art class, idiots! Who do you think I am? Ms. Wheat?"

That got a few laughs, more relieved than entertained. Israel was ripping up a piece of paper into tiny scraps and humming tunelessly to himself. Mr. Perry told us to have a free day and to not bother him; he was going to take a nap.

"What are you doing?" I finally asked as Israel started on his third piece of paper.
"Waiting for you to ask me that very question, my dear..."
"Wait, why-"

I was still picking the shreds of paper out of my hair when Ronnie caught me out in front of the school. He looked determined, and almost sort of nervous – as if he really, really wanted to say something to me but wasn't sure how to start.

"Pearl." It had a certain bite to it. It was a step up from annoyance but a step down from outright anger.
"Ronnie?" He flinched at the nickname. Good. "You've come to pick me up?"
"Um. Y-yes." He'd chickened out. "I wasn't quite sure when your day ended so I've been waiting here for a while."
"Not very long. Just since... uh... lunch. Anyway. We should get-"
"Walking," I answered shortly. "Thanks, though."

I probably shouldn't have, but I felt this sick sense of triumph as I left him standing there in front of the school. I almost wish I'd turned around... the scene must have been so cinematic – the kids flooding down the front steps, his angry, dejected face alone in the crowd. But turning around would have ruined the moment, so I forced myself to keep moving.

It became a battle of wits and wills, our morning routine. I would wake up, eat my breakfast under Ronnie's dogged glare, and then not-so-politely decline his invitation for a ride to school. I ended up getting three detentions for tardiness to first period in the first two weeks of school, but soon learned to sprint the last block, usually arriving in a frenzy, but on time nevertheless.

The days passed. I woke up, drank orange juice, and grabbed a piece of toast on the go. I arrived at school exactly one minute and twenty-seven seconds late, but Ms. Wheat was getting coffee in the teacher's lounge and hadn't noticed. I walked home, did my homework, went to sleep. I woke up, drank orange juice, forgot to sprint and got a detention. Nancy had a doctor's appointment during lunch so I ate alone, served my detention, and then walked home. I went to sleep. I woke up, walked to school, walked home, went to sleep. Woke up. Went to sleep. Woke up.

I thought it could go on like this for the entire year, safely staying just out of Ronnie's clutches. And then it rained.

"Wow, it's really coming down, isn't it?" Glee. Pure, uninhibited glee shone through his pores and made his voice almost heroic. "Look at it, Princess... Now that's what I call a storm."

Having to ask Ronnie for a ride was absolutely humiliating. The worst part was that he knew it was coming and decided to draw it out, dawdling at the breakfast table, chatting idly with some of the other tenants. He grinned at the vexed look on my face as I finally approached him in a huff.

"What's the matter?" he asked, polite as can be.
"Let's go," I said through gritted teeth. "We're going to be late."
"Oh, you mean to school?"
"Then I guess you're... asking me to drive you?"

And with that, Cameron Quillen – my Ronnie – achieved what he had been fighting toward for an entire month: a chance to talk to me alone.