The Arrangement (Chapter 8)

"Technically, you passed," Mel says to me as we walk toward our next class. She looks sleek, with her dark suit and short skirt. I'd die to have her shoes. They're so cute.

Mentally, I feel like my brain already vacated my body. I sense it happening – I'm switching to survival mode. Funny, I thought I was already in survival mode, but I wasn't. Not fully. The thick air, the unblinking eyes, the way the wind stings as it whips by my face. I remember how this feels, how my entire body seems to shut down just to make it to tomorrow. I'm not breathing. My lips are pressed into a thin line and my jaw locks. I feel Mel's hand on my shoulder, but it doesn't register beyond that. I hear her voice, but all I can think is that I'm screwed. If I lose my scholarship, I have no home – no future.

I ask the question before I think about it, "Do morals matter?"

Mel raises a perfect eyebrow and glances at me. "Are we having a philosophical discussion here, or are you asking something more specific?"

"What's their purpose? I always thought morality was there to guide us, to help us. What happens when it doesn't help? What happens when it's just in the way?" I don't wait to hear the answers. I already know what morals are for. I took that class. I know my heart and my mind. I can't sell my body. It's fundamentally wrong, but there's a tiny thought that brushes through my head when I consider it that seems to think surviving is all that matters. There's part of me that's Machiavellian and doesn't care what the cost is to get what I want, but is that so bad? I just want to live. I want the life that I had before. It wasn't much, but it was mine. Now, it's gone. I swallow hard and take off running. I run away from Mel and away from class. I run away from everyone and everything.

I need to think. I knew this was happening. For the past few weeks things have gotten harder. My life is slipping away. I can feel it shifting beneath my feet like sand. I'm sick of it. I'm sick of everything. I hear Mel's voice behind me, but she doesn't chase after me. No one does. I'm alone. In a city of millions, on a campus of thousands, in a courtyard of hundreds – I'm alone.

Breathless, I clutch my books to my chest and run to the other side of campus, away from the dorms, away from my books and classes. I stop at the base of the tunnel that runs under the highway. I hate going this way. The cement tunnel stretches under the street to keep kids from becoming road-kill, but it creeps me out. I enter the tunnel and walk down the sidewalk, listening to the sound of car engines running and horns blaring.

I turn the corner at the end of the underpass and am back out on the street. I walk a little further and head into a diner, and grab a booth. A waiter brings me a cup of coffee before I open my books and look at the test. A big fat 69 is written in red ink on the cover, a D. This grade will destroy me. It wasn't that I don't understand what I read; it was that I didn't have time to commit the material to memory.

I stare at the paper, at the numbers and the rounded sweep of the prof's handwriting. I feel like the answers are here. One class stands between me and my future. One class. One grade. One professor.

My fingers twiddle the corner of the page as I stare at it. After all this time, this is what breaks me – a fucking grade. It's not fair. Life's not fair. It's hard, too hard to manage alone. I slip the test out of the way, moving it next to me, and grab onto the coffee cup. I watch people as they walk in and out, wondering if their life is as fucked up as mine. I wonder if things turned out remotely the way they'd planned.

No matter what I choose, I have a home until the summer. Then, I can appeal when they pull my scholarship, but the university usually doesn't grant appeals. The scholarship is too valuable. They'd rather grant the money to someone who doesn't work, someone who has family to help them pay for everything else. I don't have those things.

I stare into space as I sip my coffee. Miss Black's words echo in my head, It's only one guy. And I've met him. It's a hot guy with quite kissable lips.

A familiar voice startles me. "Cutting class? Ooooh, you're gonna get in trouble." Marty Masterson, slides into the booth opposite me, still grinning. He's my lab partner this semester and is nosy beyond belief. I quickly slap my hand over my test and try to slip it off the tabletop, but Marty already saw it. He snatches it before I can say anything. His eyes flash with concern as he looks up at me. "Avery, holy crap. Are you all right? What happened?" He holds the paper in his fist and questions me like a parent would.

I snatch it back and shove it next to me in the booth. "Work happened. Life happened. Sometimes shit happens."

"But you don't get any do-overs," he looks concerned. Marty takes off his scarf and puts it next to him. He's wearing a corduroy jacket and looks like he belongs in the 70's with that mop of a haircut. But he's kind to me and always has been. I just can't stand the look on his face, like he pity's me, like I'm already dead. "Avery…"

"I'm already aware of my screwedness, so unless you have something else to talk about – " Socially oblivious is a good way to describe Marty. He seems like he's gay, but hasn't said anything about it. I haven't seen him with another guy or a girl. He touches too much, but it never feels sexual. He seems like a large old lady in some ways. Like the exaggerated way he moves his head and his hands when he talks.

"I don't, but you can't seriously think about tossing me back out in the cold without a cup of joe?" He smiles at me and flags the waiter to order a cup.

"I suppose not."

As the waiter comes over and pours black coffee into a bone white mug, Marty looks at me with pity in his eyes. "Stop it." I say.

"Stop what? Stop fretting for you? Because that's not going to happen. What are you going to do? Quit work? That's what you have to do, right?"

"I can't eat if I quit. As it is, this coffee is out of my price range." I slouch and sink back into the seat.

"I'll buy your coffee, but honey, you can't lose that scholarship. Next to nobody gets it and no one ever keeps it. The GPA requirements are insane. It looks good on paper, but holding those numbers for the entire length of your degree plan is – "

"Insane. I know, but it is what it is." My Dad used to say that. I smile weakly and look at my coffee. It's black. No sugar. No cream. 100% bitter, like my life.

"What are you going to do?"

I shrug. "No idea. I guess I'm not cut out for this." I don't mean it, but I feel like taking a pity trip, but Marty doesn't let me.

"No sir. Don't you dare start talking like that. You're nearly done. It makes no sense to give up now. Maybe you can shift your work schedule to give you later hours? You can study in the morning and – "

"And never sleep. Yeah, I tried that. It's not a good long term plan. There's nothing…" my words fall off my tongue. I stare at Marty, wondering what he would do – if he would take a job like the one I was offered if it would save him. "Marty, how far would you go if you were me? I mean, if there was a way for me to stay here, but it was…" my lips twitch as I search for the right word.

He doesn't even let me finish. "I'd tell you to do whatever it takes. Hell, sell pot to freshmen if you have to, but don't leave. Once you leave, there's no way you're coming back. If you give this up, it means you settled for a life you didn't want." He looks at me oddly, his thick hand strokes his stubbled chin. Marty has that linebacker look with thick blonde hair and buttery brown eyes. Basically, he's a teddy bear with uber good perception.

I don't look at him. I stare at the table and wish there was something else that I'd not thought of. After a moment of silence, I ask, "So, you'd understand if I did something stupid to stay here?"

He smirks, "As long as you don't get caught."

Maybe I'm asking the wrong person? I look at him for a moment before saying, "So, you'd do anything, as long as you didn't get caught?"

"Maybe." He lifts his cup to his lips, and pauses, "But not livestock."

I laugh. I can't help it. Today sucked. "You're such an ass."

"I can't help it. I've got a naturally assy thing going on." He shrugs and smiles at me. Leaning forward he says, "Cheers, baby," and clinks his cup against mine. "Here's to you finding the perfect opportunity."