Chapter 2

Approaching girls like Madison was hardly productive. It would only cause her confidence to swell and he was, after all, trying to deflate it. No, flattery, the chase, all of that didn't apply to girls like Madison. No, he had to ignore her. He had to try his best to forget her existence. But the problem was that, unless he was in close proximity to her, she would never even notice. Getting close was the key. He needed to get close to get noticed.

"What's your name?" he said and sat next to Madison's friend, the one he had seen with her the day before. The brunette was in his calculus class. She was trying to do something of momentous importance with her calculator, at least her concentration on it suggested something like that. She kept erasing and writing and then erasing again. He grinned as he watched her work. For a school like Columbia to have classes as easy as Calculus was hillarious to him. Math always came easy, although he'd always pretended it didn't among his friends. It was the only subject, besides gym, that he ever got an A on in high school. Watching the poor girl struggling with a simple integral was comical.

He took the pencil from her hand and before she had time to say anything began writing on the page. When he arrived at the solution, she looked down and then up again, and he noticed the alarming intensity in her eyes.

"What's your name?" he asked again.

"Jenn, Heather, Martin. What does it matter to you?"

"Well, JennHeatherMartin, I'm Luke."

"Well, Luke, thank you very much for solving the problem."

"You're wel-"

"Of course it's useless to me."

"Wow, if you were any more charming-"

"Would you like my foot up your ass?"

"Both, if you don't mind."

"What do you want?"

"Hmm-money, fame, a pool of maple syrup-especially a pool of maple syrup."

"From me."

"Hell, from anyone."

"I mean, what do you want from me?"

"Well, your name for starters."

She paused and pursed her lips for a moment, looking away. Then her eyes met his and she exhaled.

"You should know. We only went to the same high school."

She quickly put her notebook into a bag and hung it over her shoulder. The clock struck twelve and she hurried out. He followed.

"Where are you going?"

"To work."

She worked in a cafe on campus. It was a coffee bar and she wiped the counter in a silly uniform. A hat, an apron, and a completely unflattering black dress. The place was empty except for a couple in the corner, a man intent on studying and a woman staring at something on her laptop. Luke approached the counter.

"What would you like?" she said in a 'chippy' voice, "our brand new icy latte?"

"You got any specials?"

"You can't go wrong with the rat poison surprise."

"What's the surprise?"

"You'd have to try it to find out."

"You don't have much experience with guys, do you?"

Her eyes sprang up.

"Well," Luke leaned on the counter, moving his face closer to her, "what if I was trying to-say-come onto you?"

"Are we playing the what if game now?" she moved her face away. "What if god was one of us?"

"There'd be trouble. Spread the news, grouchy, bitter antisocial bitch is hardly appealing."

She picked up tongs and began rearranging cookies in the glass display. He leaned to her face level and stared at her through the glass.

"So that's why the boys don't call!" she smiled.

"You know, I'm starting to think you are a lesbian."

She grunted. "At least you're starting to think."

"See, why be so rude to someone just trying to talk to you?"

"To-" she paused for effect, "get them to stop?"

"Now, sarcastic hag is something I can masturbate to."

She raised an eyebrow, "Okay, I will need a cold shower to get that image out of my mind."

"And to cool down, I bet. Wring your panties, smoky, I'm not hitting on you."

She was back to her original height again and waved the tongs in the air. Her voice was affected. "Why must you say things that hurt me so?"

She replaced the tongs and opened the gate of the counter, walking to the table the couple he had earlier seen deserted. She threw the plastic cups into the nearby garbage can and wiped the surface.

"So, you went to my high school," he continued, "Let me guess. You were our own little Carrie."

"Something like that."

"Who did you hang out with?"

"Nobody in particular."

"Why am I not surprised?"

"Telepathy?" she shrugged.

"What's your name?"

"Vaughn."

His eyes widened.

"As in Victoria Vaughn?"

"As in."

"Didn't you get kicked off the school newspaper for printing the story about the guidance counselor and the vice principal?"

She stood straight and stared at him.

"And a lovely three-week suspension, to boot."

His voice was genuinely puzzled. "Why?"

"The world needed to know. It was just something that fell into my lap. My calling."

"Wow. You didn't walk at graduation, did you? Didn't go to prom."

"For someone who didn't seem to know my name, you sure know a whole lot of other things."

"They talked about it a lot. I don't know why I hadn't ever actually seen you. Were you in the yearbook?"

She scoffed. "Beats me." She walked back to the counter and grabbed a bottle of cleaning fluid.

"Was it worth it?"

She turned her face to him. "You mean-exclusion from lovely high school activities? It was all right, I guess. I wouldn't go to prom anyway. And graduation would just depress me."

"Why? You'd actually miss high school?"

"Are you kidding? I couldn't wait to get out of that shithole."

"I still don't understand. Why was it so necessary?"

"Let's see-the two people who are supposed to give us moral guidance are found screwing against a copy machine. I'm sorry, but next time they'll think twice before giving out detentions for tardiness."

"You ruined Mr. Johnson's marriage."

Her intense eyes shot at him.

"Mr. Johnson ruined his own marriage."

He laughed and leaned on the counter. She stopped working for a moment and stared at her, biting her underlip, twisting her mouth.

"Wow-" he inhaled, "You're a bitch."

"And you're one to talk. You ruined Shelly Mackerie's life."

The homecoming queen who lost her virginity in the back of Luke's convertible. The one he dumped within a week.

"She was needy," he dismissed it.

"And you're a saint. By the way, what is it exactly that you are doing in Columbia, Lucas?"

"Excuse me?"

"I mean, how's senator Sinclair doing? I hear we're getting a new lecture hall in the fall."

"Hey, I have no problem with lecture halls. Do you?"

"I have a problem with the fact that I had to work my ass off in high school trying to get into this school, and now I have to work my ass off to afford to stay in it. You were playing beer pong and snagging tramp and I suspect that since then not much has changed," her voice lowered, "Life is so unfair."

"Wow, Vee-vee, I feel so bad for you," he said sarcastically.

"Don't. You don't want to strain that one shred of feeling you possess too much. There's always the Superbowl. Now, I've been meaning to ask, since you're not hitting on me or anything, what exactly is it that you want?"

He paused and sighed, "I need you to help me get Madison."

Her smile faded for a moment and she was silent. It was only a moment, and then her face was alive again and she diverted her eyes.

"Yeah, uh-huh, sure." She turned away and began wiping the back counter. Her hands were more frantic, though. She pushed harder than before.

"What's wrong?"

Her voice seemed restrained, "Like I would help a complete jackass with one of the few friends I have."

"The only friend you have, and I don't just want one thing, so stop trying to console yourself over my rejection."

"Yeah, I'll believe you. But only if you help me catch my flying pig pet."

"Chill out, genius, I'm not asking for a favor. I'll pay you."

She stopped wiping.

"Some services even you can't buy," she said, but there was curiosity in her voice.

"Did you say 'how much?' I thought I heard you say that. Five hundred bucks."

Her hand folded and her elbow stuck out at him. She leaned herself a little.

"Buy a whore."

"I don't think you heard me, I'm not interested."

She turned to him.

"Good going, insulting while asking for help. I underestimated your people skills, Mr. Sinclair."

"I'm not worried. Five hundred dollars speaks for itself, especially to someone who cleans counters for a living. Those books are expensive. I'm sure the second semester alone set you back a pretty penny."

She did not answer for a moment. She contemplated.

"How much does this job pay? What's the minimum wage in the state of New York? Seven-"

"Shut up," she said forcefully. "I want to be paid up front."

"No, you'll be paid when you succeed."

"Up front." Her voice was firm.

He shrugged and reached into his wallet in a non-chalant way. She watched, her eyes eager and ashamed as he pulled out crisp bills and threw them on the counter.

"Half now. Half later," he said. He nodded at her and then walked out of the shop.

She stood still for a moment, looking at the pile of money in disgust, in fear. She shuderred and suddenly really did want a shower. Maybe she could run out, catch up to him, throw the meaningless papers in his face and slap him. She could have, and she should have. That was real honesty, real integrity. That was what a real journalist would do. But to be a real journalist, she had to learn to be a journalist, and a silly con of a capitalist society was that education was not free. But what was the human spirit in a society? People had to know better; throughout history they had to give up certain things in the name of dignity. But what about the people who gave up their dignity for certain things? Those people didn't live in history, did they? Or if they did, she didn't respect them at all. But washing floors hurt her back and she wasn't eating well because she couldn't afford it. And then she needed new shoes. Her old ones had been ruined quickly because she always walked. And, for that matter, she needed train fare. Or maybe she'd just blow it all on a new camera. Or donate it to charity.

It hurt her a little, but she told herself, why not? Madison and Luke would make the perfect couple. Two self-obsessed, good looking, annoying people. And, really, her relationship with Madison had always been a mutual usage ritual. And what did it matter, anyway? Maybe he liked her. Maybe he really liked her.

She reached out her hand and in a sweeping gesture pocketed the money.