"Alright guys, everyone to their seats!" Mr. Brennan yelled over the raucous of my homeroom class. "Tyler, hat off. Marie, if I see that cellphone again I'm going to confiscate it."

I was already in my seat - back of the class, next to the window. The jocks and cheerleaders started to shuffle over reluctantly to the cluster of desks in the center of the room. I could hear Missy and Charlotte drone on about how awful Jessica's new cut and color looked, and Tyler was goofing off with his football buddies as usual.

Brennan starting taking roll call, and as soon as he passed my name (Carter) I turned my attention to the open window. This morning the sky was overcast with low grey clouds that looked heavy with moisture. I hoped it wouldn't rain today, but all for naught; as I stared off at the parking lot, the clouds opened up and big fat droplets cascaded down on the shiny new cars.

Great, I thought, Jamie is going to get soaked. That only reminded me that we needed to make another trip to the Laundromat this week. We were running out of clean clothes. My hand subconsciously drifted to my pocket in an effort to find some spare change, though I knew that every penny I could spare had gone into paying this months rent. I held back a sigh, and turned to look towards the front of the class just as the door opened to reveal a latecomer.

"Ah, Mr. Matthews, how nice of you to join us. I don't suppose you've got a note for me?" Mr. Brennan bantered.

"No sir, Coach Collins wanted to have a word with me before class started. You know how he gets before a game." Jared Matthews gave Mr. Brennan his signature crooked grin - the one that was somehow cocky and abashed all at once. Of course Brennan let him off the hook.

"Alright, take your seat."

Jared Matthews is probably the most popular boy in school; all the girls wanted him, and all the guys wanted to be him. Star quarterback, filthy rich, and blessed in the good looks department with sea blue eyes and thick dark hair that hung in waves to the collar of his shirt. He was well over 6 feet, with broad shoulders and from what I've seen in last semesters gym class, nicely toned muscles. Not that I've been looking, mind you. He's just one of those people that everyone seems to know all about. But of course he doesn't know I exist.

Jared sauntered over to his seat, slapping high fives and throwing smiles all around. He casually glanced in my direction. I didn't want him to think I'd been staring, so I quickly shifted my eyes away to glance at the clock, willing the hands to tick faster.

"Okay, listen up everyone!" Mr. Brennan announced. "The Winter formal is coming up, and the dance committee printed out these flyers for everyone." He held up the bright blue printouts and then tossed them on Charlotte's desk. She immediately dove for them and let out a high-pitched shriek.

"Oh my god! I've been waiting for this formal for months! Patricia is on the dance committee and she says its going to be amazing! I have to go buy a new dress! We should get our hair done together!"

"We so should! Let's go to the mall after school and look for shoes!"

The metal head who sat in front of me passed a flyer onto my desk. I briefly looked it over; the cliché winter wonderland theme was advertised, along with a formal dress code and a ten dollar ticket charge. I crumpled the flyer up in a ball and swatted it off my desk. I couldn't afford a new dress and shoes, let alone the ten bucks for the ticket.

The rest of the twenty minute period was filled with talk of the dance. I sat silently in my desk staring at the rain until I heard the bell. I slung my worn book bag over my shoulder and was the first one headed for the door.

"Wanna bet trailer trash hits up the thrift store tonight?" I heard Missy whisper not so discreetly.

"Nah, she'll just wear a garbage bag to the dance." Charlotte stage-whispered back. They knew I could hear them.

I shot them both a killer glare as I strode past them. They think they're so much better than everyone just cause they've got money. I thought of the fancy dresses and shoes they'd be buying, and I felt a twinge of jealousy. But then I thought of Jamie's face, and the oversized sweaters and too tight shoes he had no choice but to wear, and the envy went away. Jamie deserved new clothes way more than I did. I walked out the classroom with my head held high.

The hallways were, as usual, super crowded with students converging with friends and heading off to their next classes. If you're somebody like me, people ram into you as often as they can, either because they don't notice you, or they don't like you. I'm guessing in my case it was a bit of both. After getting slammed into a couple lockers and almost knocked flat on my face, I finally made it to my first period class; English. This was the only class I really enjoyed at school. Mrs. Canterbury was a super sweet old lady, and she always excused my late assignments. Plus, I just really love to read.

Luckily I didn't have any of the cheerleader pack in my class, so I got to enjoy the period without any derogatory remarks about my wardrobe choices.

After English, I went back out into the hall and braced myself for another onslaught of bruises, when I spied Jared Matthews and his football buds walking coolly down the hall. See, when they walk, it's like they're all Moses parting the red sea; everyone just moves for them. I quickly dodged a band geek carrying a tuba and fell into step behind them. I didn't get pushed or shoved once. Matthews was in my period two biology class, so I got to follow him all the way to the lab. As he paused outside the door to yell goodbye to Tyler Kutch, I went to skirt around him and walk into the doorway, when he suddenly started moving again. Somehow his elbow collided with my stomach. Needless to say, I wound up flat on my ass and gasping for breath.

"Ouch," I wheezed. So much for trying to avoid the abuse in the hallways.

"Oh god! I am so sorry, I didn't even see you there! Here, let me help you up!" I made sure nothing had fallen out of my bag, and looked up to find Jared's face mere inches away from mine. I couldn't help but stare into his gorgeous blue eyes, his eyebrows furrowed in concern, and I found that I couldn't speak.

"Uh," was my genius response.

"Wow I must have hit you pretty hard! I'm so sorry!" He grabbed one of my hands and pull me up to my feet. I finally pulled my gaze away from his eyes and looked down at the floor.

"Thanks," I mumbled. He stood back from the doorway so I could walk in first, and I started to head to my seat in the back.

"Hey, you've got some dirt on your shirt!" Jared called to me. I craned my neck over my shoulder to look down at the back of my cable-knit sweater, to find that he was right. "Here, I've got it." He brushed his hand over the dirt a few times, maybe not realizing that that part of the sweater was covering my butt. But I noticed. And so did the rest of the class who had already entered the room and was now staring in disbelief at our exchange. I blushed profusely and swatted his hand away.

"I can get it myself thanks." I said a little too loudly, before scuttling over to my desk. I let my tangled hair fall forward to cover most of my face, hoping no one had seen me blush. Mr. Schulte chose that moment to begin class.

I tried my hardest to pay attention to the lesson, because I knew if I didn't, I would pay for it later. Schulte had a notorious habit for springing pop quizzes. But I couldn't get the image of Jared's eyes out of my head, how they had looked at me. It was the first time I had ever seen anybody show any sort of emotion towards me besides contempt. Plus, he was all sorts of sexy. Stop it, I chastised myself, he just felt bad for knocking you over. He doesn't even know who you are. Get over yourself.

I forced myself to pay attention to the lecture, and hastily wrote down all the notes on the board. Mr. Schulte finished the lesson and gave us our homework assignment. Everyone started cramming their books into their bags.

"Now hold on a moment please." Schulte interrupted. "Midterms are coming up. I've decided that instead of an exam, I'm going to assign a project you will work on for the next month, outside of school hours." There was an audible groan throughout the room.

I panicked a little bit. Crap. I mentally ran through hours and numbers; I got up at five every morning just to make sure Jamie got to school on time. After I picked him up, we rushed straight to work, and most weekdays I didn't get home until midnight. Weekends were even later sometimes. I was already only getting five hours of sleep a night… but I suppose cutting an hour every couple days wouldn't hurt too much. And I'm sure Jamie wouldn't mind spending a couple of Sundays in the library instead of the park… I began to feel relief that perhaps I could get in the assignment in on time. But my relief was short-lived; as I was ruminating over my time schedule, I almost missed what Schulte said next:

"Oh, I almost forgot, you'll be doing this one in partners that I've already assigned for you." What? No. No that's not going to work.

Mr. Schulte began writing down the pairings on the chalkboard. I fidgeted in my seat impatiently until he scribbled down my name. Maybe I'll get one of the stoner kids; then I can do the project myself and just write their name on it. But of course luck never happens my way. Schulte scrawled 'Jared Matthews' right next to my name. Damnit!

My gaze zoned in on the back of Jared's head. I could tell he was scanning the board, and the moment he read his partners name, he turned in his seat to catch me staring at him. He shot me his crooked grin and went to lift his hand in a sort of greeting, but instead of returning it, I looked down in embarrassment. This arrangement was definitely not going to work.

The bell decided to ring a moment later, and I booked it to the front of the room.

"Um, Mr. Schulte? I have a problem with the partner assignment."

Mr. Schulte turned around to look at me. "What is it Alyson? It can't be a problem with your partner, you've been given one of the smartest boys in the class." Well, that was news to me. Leave it to the privileged to have looks and brains.

"Um, no sir. I just… I have a very busy schedule and I don't think I'll have time to get together with a partner to do the project. I would prefer to work alone."

"Well I'm sorry Miss Carter, but the project is strategically set up for pairs, and it's an awful lot of work for only one person. I'm sure you can manage to set aside time together. It won't be a problem for you Mr. Matthews will it?" Oh crap. I didn't even notice he came up behind me.

"No sir, not at all. I have a very flexible schedule. Especially since the last game is on Friday."

"Well then I don't see a problem here. Off you go Miss Carter."

I sighed in frustration. Why couldn't they just understand! I stalked past Jared, making sure to avoid contact with his eyes so as to prevent my legs from turning to jell-o. I walk out the door and turned in the direction of my locker. I heard footsteps behind me, and somehow I just knew they were Jared's. I whirled around to face him.

"Hey -"

"This is how it's going to work," I interrupted. I could tell I surprised both of us with my bluntness. "I will do the entire project by myself, and I'll slap your name on the top of it so you'll get half the credit. Schulte will never have to know. Sound fair?" My eyes were in a battle not to meet his, to look anywhere else but at his eyes; not quite blue, but not quite green either. I cannot claim a victory here.

He looked at me strangely. "Actually no, because the project is based on family genes; no offense, but you don't know anything about my family."

"Oh." I frowned. I hadn't even bothered to look at the project description on the handout that had been circulating the room. My cheeks flushed with color. This was embarrassing. Here I was trying to do the whole thing, and I didn't even have a clue what to do! "I could just get your number then, and phone you for any answers I need?"

"Well I could certainly give you my number!" he sounded amused. "But I'd rather do my fair share of the work." My mortification helped me keep my gaze glued to the floor. I'm sure my face was as red as a tomato by now. And I'm sure he was totally laughing at my expense. I hadn't meant to sound like I just wanted his phone number! I tried to correct his misassumption, but my words came out in a halting speech.

"I didn't mean… that - that is to say… I don't want your phone number! I mean, I do… no, I don't! I just -" Why am I stuttering!?

"Relax Alyson. I'm just teasing you. But really, I want to work on the project too. When is the best time for you to get together?" He put a finger under my chin and gently lifted my face up so that I would look at him. I think my stomach just turned to mush. Ugh! Get a grip on yourself! He just wants to make sure you don't screw up his grade.

I shook my head and took a step back, breaking contact with him.

"There really isn't one, unless you're willing to meet at midnight."

Jared cocked an eyebrow. "Midnight? That's pretty late."

"Yeah well, that's when I usually get off work…"

"On a school night? Seriously? Your job must be brutal! Where do you work? Doesn't your boss realize you're in still in school?"

I tossed my hair back impatiently. I could feel bubbles of anger working their way up my throat. Nobody gets to criticize my choices, especially when they're all that's keeping Jamie alive and healthy. Leon knew my situation, and although he had been reluctant to hire me on initially, he sure didn't regret it now. Besides, he knew I desperately needed the money. I work my ass off, but it's worth it for Jamie. I didn't need to explain myself to someone who didn't even know me. Even if that someone resembled a Greek god and had the ability to make my knees buckle.

"Look, my job and my boss are none of your business. If you want to work on the project together, that's the only time I can spare. Take it or leave it." I turned around and resumed my jaunt to my locker, mentally applauding myself for being so brazen. For once I didn't sound like a stuttering fool.

"Okay okay, alright, that's fine." Jared called hurriedly from behind me. I didn't stop.

All of a sudden I felt my body being whirled around. I was so surprised I think I might have collapsed to the floor had his hands not been gripping my arms.

"I didn't mean to offend you. Could we get together tomorrow? After midnight?" Suddenly I realized how close he was to me; I had to tilt my head way back in order to see the half hopeful, half apologetic expression on his face. A flood of tingly heat rolled through my body. I opened my mouth to reply, only to find that once again, I was incapable of speech. I slowly nodded instead.

"Great! Here's my number -" Which he proceeded to write on the back of my hand, "Call me later and we'll figure out where to meet up." God his eyes were mesmerizing.

"Uh- yeah, sure." I hoped the affect he has on me wears off really soon.

"Okay cool. See you later then Alyson." He smiled his crooked grin, and all I could think was, he has a dimple in his left cheek!

I waved lamely as a goodbye. Jared gave me a mock salute in return and turned to walk down the hall in the opposite direction. It took me several seconds before I could tear my eyes from his retreating back and be off on my way. It was another few minutes before I wondered how he even knew my name.

It was lunch block now, so I had an hour to catch up on the homework I wouldn't get a chance to do tonight. I didn't have to waste time eating lunch, since I hadn't brought any food to eat and I certainly didn't have the money to buy anything from the cafeteria. Since money is so tight, I usually forgo my share of the food so Jamie has enough to eat. I've learned to ignore the perpetual growling of my stomach. I stopped by my locker briefly to drop off my English books and shove the ones for my afternoon classes in my bag.

Usually I choose to settle down on one of the squishy armchairs in the reading section of the library to do my homework. Its quiet and peaceful here, since hardly any of the other students ever venture through the doors. If I could, I would spend all my time here. As I've said, I love to read. I just never have the time for it unless Jamie needs a goodnight story.

I finished my work with ten minutes to spare until my next class. I packed up my stuff and went to use the washroom. As I was lathering my hands, I suddenly remembered Jared's number. I lifted my hand to my face to study it closer. He had really nice writing, for a guy anyways.

Actually Jared had a lot of really nice everything. It wasn't fair that one person could have so many assets. Or make your knees go weak with just once glance. I doubt I could ever have that affect on someone, tattered rags aside, let alone have that affect on Jared. We were too different. Someone like him would never think twice about someone like me. I mean, look at me.

I was. I was still standing in the washroom looking at my haggard appearance in the mirror. And I wasn't seeing anything that would be considered worthy of someone like Jared. I saw my grey eyes staring back at me. My boring grey eyes. Why couldn't they be blue, or green, or even brown? Any color was better than some ghostly shade.

I ran my fingers through my hair - the one vanity I let myself have, even though shampoo and conditioner cost a small fortune. It was a very light silvery blonde that hung in silky fine strands to the waistband of my jeans. I thought it was pretty. But I couldn't curl it or put it up with fancy clips the way some girls do. I didn't have bangs or layers. So I guess my hair was boring too.

I looked down at the black wool sweater that hung several sizes too big on my petite frame. I looked shapeless, and the color made my complexion look pale and sickly. My jeans were too baggy; Even the worn leather belt I'd punched extra holes in did nothing to help the fit. The knees were ripped open, and the hems trailed on the ground so often they were fraying. You don't want to see the shape my bra and underwear are in.

I know I don't look like the other girls at school, what with my lack of makeup, hair accessories and designer clothes. Trust me, I hear the snide remarks made behind my back, and sometimes to my face. I try to brush it off, but it still stings.

And then as always, an image of Jamie springs to mind; how must Jamie feel at school when the other kids tease him about his old clothes and his broken toys? He's too young to understand how poor we are, how much of a struggle it is to make ends meet. Sometimes, when we go to the park on Sundays, we see kids his age playing with kites and remote control cars. He asks if he can get one too, and it breaks my heart to tell him no.

If I had more money, I would spend every dime buying that little boy everything he wanted. But I don't. So I just need to work harder. And Jared Matthews is just going to prevent me from doing that. I can't entertain silly ideas of him; he's too far beyond my reach. We'll do the project together as little as possible, and after that, I'll avoid him like the plague.

I took a deep breath to give myself resolve, grabbed my bags, and headed to my next class.