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Jesse had wanted her to skip school and ride the subways all day. He called her up late last night on her cell to ask. He knew she wouldn’t be online because of homework and he was too well-mannered to call her house at 11:30. Even still she said no.
“But come on Kay, you never do anything fun. It would only be just this once. Live a little, who knows, you might actually like it,” he teased, laughing lightly, inviting her to join in.
“Shut up. I do live.” Kay tucked a strand of light blond hair behind her ear. “But Jesse you know I can’t, I have too much work to do.”
“Which is exactly why you skip. You don’t have to do your work and you can come hang out with me.” She imagined Jesse flashing that smile he gave every girl who looked at him. Even if he wasn’t exactly genuine, he did have a cute smile.
“Look, I’m really sorry, you know I’d love to. But I can’t. It’s just not a good idea for me right now. Maybe next time, okay?” Kay tried to sound upbeat and encouraging, but not too enthusiastic. Her voice went up higher than she wanted and she cringed at sounding like an idiot.
“Alright, but you’re gonna be missing out... I bet you’ll have a great day at school tomorrow... sucker. Let me know if you ever wanna come.” He laughed and hung up. Kay held the phone up to her ear for a few minutes and stared at the shelf of jumbled academic trophies above her desk. She sighed and thought of all the other girls he’d probably called before her and the ones he was going to call now. While she attempted to study, she chewed on the end of her pencil until the eraser fell off.
Kay never intended to cheat on her Spanish test. But she had stayed up so late working on a history paper and Señor Medina had only told them about the test two days ago and she really just didn’t have the time to study. Some things just come at the wrong time and when that happens you have to do stuff you never would normally do. And if she didn’t get good grades, she would lose her scholarship. At least that’s what Kay told herself as she frantically copied down vocabulary words and important grammar on a sheet of paper in the library. The librarians at school absolutely loved Kay. She was one of their “dedicated scholarship kids,” always in the library during her lunch periods studying quietly and one of the few students who checked out books to actually read, not just to use as sources for papers. Mrs. Pearson was working the desk today. When Kay passed she smiled with her little wrinkled prune eyes and asked, “Did you get all your work done honey?”
“Yeah thanks,” Kay mumbled as she hustled out of the doors and up the stairs towards her Spanish classroom. Her feet echoed in the empty stairwell as she took the steps two at a time.
Señor Medina was already passing out the tests. The only sound in the room was the rustling of papers as students tried to cram for thirty more seconds. Kay creaked open the old, heavy wooden door and slid into her seat by the bookshelves as Señor said, “Alright chicos, turn over your papers. You have until the end of the period.” Chewing on the bottom of her pen Kay watched as her teacher strode over to his desk to grade the tests from the previous class. His thinning hair didn’t cover the bald spot that she trained her eyes on as she slipped her hand into the beat up maroon backpack that her mom had gotten on sale at K-mart two years ago and pulled out the tiny cheat sheet. She slid it under her test, flinching at the sound of the crinkling paper. Her chest seemed like it would explode from her heart’s growth and desire to escape her body. Kay rubbed her glasses with her shirt, attempting to get rid of the fog on the lenses. She stared down at the foreign jumble of letters. Was that even a word? She really wouldn’t mind if she died right there, head resting on top of her test and her mouth hanging slack with the cheat sheet fallen, unnoticed, onto the floor amidst the chaos. The paper Señor used was unusually white. Kay squinted to read the exam and shielded her eyes against the light of the overhead lamp that seemed to bounce off the paper. She reached her right index finger out and slid the looseleaf across her desk, making sure no one noticed as she compared the vocabulary on it with the words on the test.
Then all of a sudden she noticed. She couldn’t read her handwriting. It was too f**king small. “You have got to be kidding me,” Kay breathed and turned her eyes towards the clock. The minute hand stared boldly back at her from the half-hour mark. Only fifteen minutes left to finish the last two-thirds of the test and she couldn’t read her handwriting. She folded her hands and let her neck flop down, pressing her head against the cool wood of the desk. Kay supposed if she wanted she could fall asleep until the end of the test, since she was going to fail it anyway. Sleep would be nice, after all, she never got enough of it because of work and school. Every day after school Kay had to change quickly in the bathroom of the Hess gas station so she could go work the register at McDonalds. Changing at school would be easier and it would probably save her an extra ten minutes so she wouldn’t have to rush to her job and worry the whole way she ran there about getting fired for being late again. But like she would ever let anyone at school know she worked at a McDonalds. Eddie, the manager, had already spoken to her twice about her commitment to the team, but during both speeches all Kay did was nod blankly and apologize as she stared at Eddie’s zitty neck and bushy unibrow and think about how stupid it was that he called the people who worked under him “the team.” She bet he silently referred to himself as “team captain” when no one was around.
The back of Kay’s neck prickled. She lifted her head to find Señor Medina staring down at her and the partially exposed cheat sheet lying flat against the desk like a prisoner.
“¿Que es esto?”
Kay shook her head, dazed. If she could understand, she wouldn’t be cheating on her Spanish test. Señor Medina delicately placed his index finger and thumb on either side of her notes and slipped the sheet out from under her test. Her heart stopped. He studied it for what seemed like a long time, his eyes behind his glasses narrowing and scanning individual words. Por, para, the differences between preterito and imperfecto. Kay stared directly ahead, unable to breathe. She had never noticed just how white the wall in front of her was. She could count all the pockmarks and faint pencil scratches that had been made there over the years. Tiny black and gray marks against the cold, white, unforgiving backdrop.
Señor glanced down at Kay with his upper lip curled in distaste. The rest of the class was pretending to take their tests but every so often she caught a glimpse of their eyes flickering towards her seat. Her legs hurt from sitting in one place for too long, but in order to shift would mean that she would have to move. She watched Señor Medina out of the corner of her eye as he picked up the exam and weaved in between the desks towards the small black garbage can beside the door. Kay heard a slow ripping sound followed by a soft thud. She sat numb. It wasn’t fair that she would be caught cheating the only time she’d ever done it. It wasn’t fair that she’d had to work late and then had a history paper due the next day. It wasn’t fair that she was going to lose her scholarship now. It wasn’t fair that she’d practically been forced into this.
“Kay, please take your books and go see the principal. And by the way, you’re getting a zero for this test. Okay chicos, ten minutes left, diez minutos.”
Kay heard the door close behind her as she found herself out in the hallway. The bell wouldn’t ring for another ten minutes and the second floor was silent. The only things in the hallway were a few scattered papers littered across the linoleum floors. She walked down the hallway and her Converse sneakers echoed in the silence. Kay’s heart was still pounding. She shook her head for being such an idiot. Tons of kids cheat, why did she get so worked up? And why was she dumb enough to get caught? Her scholarship was going to be taken away. Her mother would cry. She should have skipped... but if they’d found out she could be in even bigger trouble. Kay wondered what train Jesse was on now, who he was with. If she couldn’t afford to go to her school anymore she wouldn’t be able to talk to Jesse. No one likes a screwup, especially not colleges. Oh God. She wasn’t going to be able to go to college. Kay’s heart wasn’t beating rapidly anymore. She felt sick and her chest was hollow.
Kay was three doors away from the office. She stopped in front of one of the decorated bulletin boards. It was covered in blue felt and A+ papers from a freshman English class. Kay attempted to read the one in the left-hand corner but couldn’t even make it through the introduction. Were her essays this boring? She turned to her right and noticed the door to the principal’s office staring at her from down the hallway. She didn’t like the letters on the sign, how the font was arranged, how his name was laid out. It was too imposing. The bell would ring in two minutes. In two minutes Kay’s scholarship would be taken away and her life would be over. The hallway was still empty. The principal’s nameplate glared at her. Kay looked back. She walked the other way and pushed open the glass front doors. She stood there for a moment, squinting in the sunlight. No one had stopped her. No one had even seen her. A car alarm blared from two blocks away as a gust of wind twisted her hair. She turned around to stare at the building for a moment. Sunlight glinted off the glass doors, causing Kay to squint and shield her eyes. Then she turned around, smiling as she felt the free late-fall air whip wildly around her face, and walked down the sidewalk towards the subway station.