The halls are full of noise. Football players shoving each other and landing in lockers, couples talking slightly louder than normal people ever talked (what, did they think they were on reality TV or something? There’s no hidden cameras,) and most of all, the noise that stomped its way through his brain the harder he tried not to think about the crumpled essay at the bottom of his bag.
not good enough not good enough not good enough not good enough not
and it’s almost midterms and last time he tried to take a test his mind had frozen up, his hands had sweat through the page like they never did before a swim meet, did teachers mark down for sweat marks on the paper, did they notice his lips moving as he read the questions to himself over and over
Paxton Hall-Yoshida needs a fucking miracle, which was why he’s forcing himself to move, down the racket of the hallway, (and really, did high schoolers need to be this loud?), wondering if there was any good way to tell a girl you were mad at that she was your only hope if you didn’t want to retake sophomore history a third time.
“Hey,” he says when he reaches her. His voice is so quiet that he doesn’t know if she can hear him over the din.
But Devi, of course, looks up. She smiles hesitantly. “Hey! I’m so glad you’re talking to me. I thought you were mad at me. For lying. About us, having—”
Paxton really, really does want to go over this all again. “I’ve thought of a way you can make it up to me.”
He’s not trying to take advantage. He knows she has a crush on him, but he also knows that she’s brave, the kind of whirlpool of a girl who can proposition a boy for sex or talk to a coyote like it’s her dad. And he knows she’s loyal, and loves the people in her life, but most of all, what Paxton knows about Devi Vishwakumar is that when they turned in that project a few weeks ago, he and Trent had gotten by with B minuses and a suspicious glance from Mr. Shapiro. Devi had gotten an A and a little note from their teacher saying they knew she’d done most of the work.
(He hadn’t meant to peek. He just couldn’t imagine Devi Vishwakumar getting a B minus.)
“I need your help studying for our history midterm.”
A favor that would have made any of his other friends laugh in his face, and here she is, beaming at him like he just brought her a dozen fucking roses, and he knows she idolizes him, but he really needs to pass this class.
“I’ll meet you at your house after school,” she promises. “We won’t stop studying until you’re perfect to go. A+. I promise.”
Paxton tries to smile, but the pounding in his head is getting worse. “I’ll give you a ride,” he offers. “I’m skipping practice to study. We can go right after school.”
The words in this textbook are too tiny and the section on Japanese internment uses misleading language to imply that it was voluntary. It wasn’t. Paxton might not be great at school, but he always listens when his grandpa talks to him, so he knows about his time in Manzanar, which the textbook misspells as Mazanar.
“So, if you write down three important things from every page, it’ll help your brain anchor itself so you can remember more of what’s on here. Sort of like a mind map. Detail one and detail two will help you remember what connects them. That way you don’t have to write down every single thing.”
Paxton nods, only half listening. The D- in his backpack is still weighing on him, and he doesn’t see how writing down three details from each page will do him any good when he wrote down every detail for the last test and still only scraped by with a C.
“Are you listening?”
“Not really, sorry, I just hate this stuff.” He tries to pass it off with a shrug, but he’s not sure it looks casual. Makes sense. He’s not feeling very casual right now.
Paxton sighs. “I don’t know. I freeze up, and then I read the questions wrong, and I can hear everyone else writing while I’m still trying to understand what the hell I’m looking at.”
Devi’s nose scrunches up like it does when she’s confused. “Do you want to be good at school?”
“Why wouldn’t I? You know, my mom has a PHD in philosophy and my dad writes these crazy, like, sci-fi stories that I don’t understand at all.”
“But you don’t have to be smart. You’re hot and popular.”
He groans. “Devi, don’t do that.”
“What? What am I doing?”
“That thing where you refuse to notice that I’m a person because I have qualities that you specifically are interested in.”
“Everyone’s interested in being hot and popular.”
“Is that why you told the whole school you were having sex with me?”
“Technically I just told them when we were going to have sex and didn’t tell them it didn’t happen. Anyway, you said that this would be a way I could make it up to you.”
Paxton looks at her levelly. “But is that why you told them?”
Devi hesitates. “Because you’re hot and popular?”
“That’s what I thought.”
She looks down for a moment, and this isn’t what he wanted, he wasn’t trying to dampen her spark, he’s just sick of everybody needing him for all the wrong things. All he wants to do is get into a pool and swim until his calves burn. Swimming makes sense. Taking care of his friends makes sense. Being popular makes enough sense, because there are rules to follow.
But none of the rules should involve making someone as vibrant as Devi Vishwakumar look this sad.
“Maybe this was a bad idea.”
Devi shakes her head. “No. I’m just thinking about—something my dad taught me. He said he wasn’t good at tests either, so he taught me all these tricks—maybe that’s what you need.”
“What kind of tricks?”
She stretches out her legs, shoving the textbooks off to the side. “Have you ever read through a test and realized that one question has the answer for another one in it?”
“Well, it happens. And Mr. Shapiro is the kind of teacher who does that a lot, so you could start by reading through the whole test at the beginning and see what clues he gives you. And my dad had this whole thing about gum—he said if you chew gum while you study and chew the same gum while you take the test, it’ll help you do better.”
“I don’t think Mr. Shapiro will let me have gum in class.”
“He has to if you have a learning disability. Do you think you might be dyslexic? It’d be easy to find out and that might be why you have trouble reading quickly.”
Paxton nods. “Okay,” he said. “Tell me more of these tricks. Maybe this’ll actually help.”
He listens as well as he can, but his mind keeps drifting to Devi’s smile. He’s never heard her talk about her dad, except after the coyote attack. Her eyes grow soft, even as she’s explaining to him about how to phrase an answer to hide the parts you don’t know. She talks for a good forty-five minutes, and he doesn’t interrupt. Maybe he’ll get through a test for once, and maybe he won’t, but either way, he’ll be glad he got to see her like this.
“Do you think that’ll help?” she asks finally.
Paxton shakes himself back to reality. “Honestly? I don’t know. But if it works for Devi Vishwakumar, I’ll give it a try.”
“So do you forgive me for telling everyone—you know?” Her fingers twitch nervously in her lap.
“I do. Honestly, I might even owe you one at this point.”
“I take Venmo and Cashapp.”
Paxton laughes, and then, for the first time he can remember, Paxton Hall-Yoshida does something that isn’t in the rulebook.
“How about this?” he says, and leans in.
The kiss burns through him, the way Devi’s energy burns through everything. Paxton’s stomach drops like he’s thirteen fucking years old and being kissed for the first time. Only Devi’s lips are much softer, even as she moves in closer to bite his lower lip, and Devi’s hands are firmer, fingers gliding into his hair and holding him in place. He forgets to breath, but his hands have moved to her waist, and now he’s the one pulling her closer.
And then, it’s over. And it’s just a moment. He could walk it back, like he’s done before with girls at parties who want more than he can give.
“There,” he says. “Now you can tell the whole school you’ve kissed Paxton Hall-Yoshida, and you won’t be lying.”
Devi’s mouth sharpens. “I’m not going to do that.”
“Because,” she says, and there’s that fierceness of hers, that same energy she’d had when she propositioned him that first time he noticed her, the same energy she won battles with in the classroom. “You were right. I need to treat you like a person. Especially if I want this to happen again.”
Paxton’s face feels warm. “Do you want it to happen again?”
“If you do. If you can—I don’t know, trust me or whatever.”
He nods. “I’ll, um, let you know.”
Devi kisses him on the cheek, then gathers her textbook and notes into her backpack. “Knock ‘em dead tomorrow.”
“Right. Yeah, of course.” Paxton stands to get the door for her. “Thanks again.”
It sounds like she means it.
The next week, Paxton’s test comes back with a C plus.
He couldn’t be happier about it.