Walking On Red Lines [Valentine Series : Part 8]

Jade cringed as she walked to the library to meet Marcus. On days like today, everything seemed to make her more irritable. The normal traffic to school and the line at the café made her irritable. The crunching of the dead leaves beneath her feet and the chill of the autumn air made her irritable. Marcus made her more irritable than all these things put together.

She slid through the doors of the library like a snake, weaving through other students as they talked about their plans for papers and final projects. Some drank their third coffee of the day. Others ate noodles out of a cup. Jade walked faster, trying to avoid running into anyone she knew. She just needed to get in and out of there. One hour a day, they had agreed, was all it would take to get this project done and over with. After this class, they wouldn’t have to see each other again. Unless they somehow had another college course together. The though made her shiver and her shiver turned into a shudder as she found Marcus at a nearby table. He saw her and asked,

“You cold, Jade?” She just nodded. He rolled his eyes at her response and gestured for her to sit at the table. Not that she needed him to give her permission to sit there. She’d much rather not, of that she was certain. Marcus spoke again.

“Okay, so we have to start this stupid project. It’s supposed to take us three weeks, right?”

“Yes. We have to pick a topic, conduct campus interviews, collect all the data and translate it into charts and grafts. Then we have to do this massive presentation on it and pretend like we’re actually pitching it to someone important.”

“Yeah. Got it. So, what should our questions be? I don’t really know what Mr. Lake wants.”

“He just wants us to show some individuality and teamwork. If we’re going to have big corporate jobs someday with data and revenue and all of that, we need to be able to work well in a team setting.”

“Yeah, which is why he put us together.” His sarcasm wasn’t lost on her.

“He obviously doesn’t care about our personal preferences. He just wants to make sure everyone does the assignment.”

“I’ll give you that. But this isn’t helping us pick any questions for our very unlucky subjects for the survey. So let’s just put whatever is standing between us aside and work on this project. Then we can move on with our lives.”

Jade nodded in agreement. He was the last person she wanted to work with. He was lazy, always turned in assignments late and he could never seem to focus. Half the time he didn’t even pay attention in class. Unless he was friends with you, he wouldn’t even speak to you or look in your direction, so Jade knew it wasn’t just her that he found repulsive. If you weren’t in his circle, he didn’t want to acknowledge your presence.

“Okay, so why don’t we make a list of questions to ask the students and see which three go together. It is three questions, right?” She asked, finally looking at Marcus.

“Yes, three survey questions that are coherent, but different. I guess we should just pick questions that we’d want to answer in a survey.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Think about it, if someone comes up to you and wants to ask you a survey question, do you really want to talk about the best medical clinics in the city? Or how fast the rivers flow into the ocean, or some weird marine biology questions? Or do you want to talk about something exciting, like…well, I don’t actually know. But anyway, the point is we need to make people want to answer our questions and give us their time. We can’t do that with boring questions.”

“You’re right. Let’s just try to figure this out first.” They spent the next hour coming up with survey questions and deciding who was going to take over certain aspects of the project. Marcus said he wasn’t that interested in asking the questions, so Jade agreed that she could ask the questions while Marcus took down their answers. They both agreed they could make up the charts and graphs and Marcus said that he would organize the presentation if Jade carried them through giving most of it to the class.

Marcus was never more glad to leave a meeting than he was at the end of the hour with Jade. He didn’t understand how she could be so closed off. She never talked to anyone in class and always kept to herself. Sure, he only had one class with her-business management and structure-but she didn’t even seem to look up from her textbook. The sky could be falling and she wouldn’t even know until a piece of it either landed on her head or got in the way of her reading. He shook his head as he walked out of the library, almost as if trying to shake their meeting from his mind. He didn’t have time for someone who could barely answer his simple questions like “are you cold”. He had no idea why their professor had put them together, but he was beginning to question the credibility of all the diplomas he kept on the walls in his office.

Not only was Jade stuck to herself, she always needed to have structure to everything. If there was even one change to the schedule, she’d flip out. Once, when Mr. Lake was sick, she went into the class chat room to make sure everyone was clear on the chapter readings and the next assignments that were due. He hadn’t even needed to cancel class that day-Jade was the perfect substitute teacher. Her rigid, no fun approach to life had him annoyed. Every time he saw her on campus, she had her nose stuck in a book. She didn’t even seem to notice anything or anyone around her. Marcus could never understand how she could be so oblivious to everything, how she could shut out the world like she did. That was what irritated him most about her.

Over the next few days, Jade and Marcus met up every day at 4pm. Jade noticed that as the days went by, he grew less irritating. Slightly less irritating. He didn’t seem to be as scatterbrained and nonchalant as she had originally thought. He actually cared about the questions they were asking the students and seemed generally interested in their answers. Over the next two weeks, he’d asked a few times if he could ask the survey questions and she could take down their answers. While she had initially agreed to see if he would flounder, she found that she liked seeing him take charge. He didn’t seem to give her as much attitude as he usually did when they met up for their hour a day. He actually seemed to tolerate her-and she found she could tolerate him, too.

When they ended their session at the end of the hour, Marcus found himself wishing he had more time with Jade. He wanted to figure out why she was so stressed out all the time and, surprisingly, he wanted to do whatever he could to alleviate that stress. Over the past few weeks, he’d seen what a hardworking, genuine person she was. And he realized she wasn’t really ignorant of what was going on around her, she was just as observant as he was. She just knew what to block out and what to focus on, something he needed to learn from her. Most of the time his attention was divided and it was hard for him to focus. He knew that if he was doing the project with anyone else, it would take them two hours to get done what he and Jade could do in one hour.

Another week passed and as they got closer to the due date of their project, he and Jade both became more stressed. He wasn’t usually stressed about anything, but when Jade was stressed, it found it’s way to Marcus as well. They were both more irritable and short with each other, and Marcus thought that all the progress they’d made had suddenly gone down the drain. He needed to remember that once the project was over, so were the meetings. And the conversations. And her laughter. He’d actually made her laugh and it was the best feeling. But it was almost the end of the semester, so this would just be another project down and she would soon be another classmate that he probably wouldn’t remember in five years.

Jade knew her stress was affecting Marcus, and she hated that. He was the one who didn’t have a care in the world and she felt guilty for projecting her stress onto him. Sometimes after their hour was up, he’d walk her to her car and they’d chat. It was only a five minute walk and she’d told him it really wasn’t necessary, but for whatever reason he insisted. Sometimes, she even delayed getting in her car so that they could talk for a few minutes longer. He was really funny. And he always had a different way of looking at things, so if Jade was ever stressed or complaining about a certain problem, he gave her a different perspective. She’d miss the conversations they had and she’d miss seeing him every day.

One night, with only two days left to finish everything up for the presentation, they stayed an extra hour to work on things. Marcus didn’t think they needed to, but Jade insisted until she won out. It was dark and raining when they were finished.

“I’ll walk you to your car.”

“No need. My mom borrowed my car today since hers is in the shop, so I’ll just take the bus home.”

“What? No, just let me drive you.”

“That’s okay, it’s fine. It’s only a fifteen minute ride to my house.”

“Jade, it’s cold and rainy. You’re going to get soaked waiting for the bus. And anyway, there’s been some creeps on the bus that follow girls to their apartments. No way, you’re letting me drive you home.” He stood up with sharpness and fixed her with a gaze that told her she shouldn’t argue with him.

“Okay, thanks. My house is only a ten minute drive from here.”

“No problem. I do have to make a quick stop on the way.”

“You’re doing me a favor, Marcus. Do whatever you need to do, no worries.” That was a new phrase for her, ‘no worries’. She certainly had many worries, but they didn’t seem so big when Marcus was around.

Jade had forgotten her umbrella, so on the walk to his car, he shared his with her. Once they made it to his car, he opened the passenger door for her. When he got in the car, she noticed his hair and sweatshirt were soaked. Her clothes and hair were completely dry. She tried to say something, anything, but she felt like she had swallowed a cotton ball. Her gaze kept drifting to his curly black hair and his strong jaw line. His eyes were focused straight ahead, but she could see the softness they held. They pulled up to a small gray house and he finally spoke,

“Do you want to come inside?”

“No, that’s okay, I’ll just wait here.”

“You should come in. Mrs. Inez will be upset if I don’t bring you in and introduce you.”

“I don’t know.”

“She’ll get mad if I leave you her by yourself. She has a bad habit of hitting me with a rolled up newspaper when she’s mad at me. Please come inside. She has a really heavy hand with that newspaper.” She smiled and was about to accept his offer when he held out his hand to help her out of the car. For a moment she was frozen. It seemed like such a big step, to accept his outstretched hand, because so much more would be said if she placed her hand in his. But she found that she wanted to say more. She accepted his outstretched hand and went up the stairs to the covered porch. He grabbed a big cardboard box from his backseat and knocked on the door. Mrs. Inez, an elderly woman with short hair and a wonderful smile, ushered them inside.

After introducing Jade to the older woman, Marcus looked around the kitchen, which was right by the back door where they had been let in. He looked up at the ceiling and frowned.

“I’ll come by tomorrow and fix up that roof for you, Mrs. Inez. I thought the patch I put up there would do it, but I guess I need to be more thorough. I’m sorry.” She waved her hand in dismissal.

“Don’t worry about it, Marcus. I sleep in the back bedroom and don’t even hear the water dripping. That big old pot underneath it holds all the water that drips in at night.”

“Are you warm enough?”

“Yes, I’m fine. I have plenty of blankets from your last visit and the furnace still works fine. And before you ask, yes, there’s enough wood for me to get through till tomorrow evening.” He smiled at the sweet woman and Jade thought she might melt into a puddle like the one in the pot. Marcus went through what he had bought for her and after declining her offer of money, they said their goodbyes and left.

They spent the rest of the car ride in silence, after Jade had mentioned how nice Mrs. Inez was. Something was different. Jade wasn’t as rigid as she normally was, and Marcus wasn’t so closed off. That made them both uncomfortable. Marcus barely had time to breath “good night” before she shut the door and made her way into her house.

Jade and Marcus had decided to not meet up the day before the presentation and to just communicate via text. Things had become too awkward and Jade didn’t know how to talk to him anymore. On the day of the presentation, they didn’t even speak to each other aside from the “hello” they exchanged at the start of class. All other communication was done through the way they looked at each other. As promised, Jade gave most of the presentation with Marcus flipping through the projector slides and making the occasional comment. They didn’t look at each other as the other groups gave their presentations.

Out of habit, Jade went to the library at 4pm, even though everything was over. She tried to sit and study in the quietest corner of the library, but she couldn’t concentrate. She kept thinking about Marcus. They way he laughed, the softness in his eyes, the way he could make a joke out of anything. How devoted and kind he was to Mrs. Inez. The way he looked at her. She got up from her chair and walked like someone going to a fire. She made her way to the same table they always sat at, and there he was. When he saw her, he smiled like he had been waiting for her to show up. She held up her hand to silence him before he could speak.

“I don’t know what happened, but I can’t get you out of my head. I used to hate you, but now…you’re kind and caring and you’re really smart. You give another perspective to my problems and you help me see that they’re not as big as they appear. You make me laugh and I feel so free and just…like me. I’ve never felt like this around anyone else. And I…I love you Marcus. And I just had to tell you that.”

Embarrassed, she turned to go, but he stood up and grabbed her hand. She froze.

“I love you too, Jade. You’re amazing. You’re incredibly smart and focused. You made me realize the potential I have and you make me a better person. You put other people before yourself and you’re just…you’re incredible. I love you.”

They spent the next few hours talking and getting to know each other better. When they got up to leave, Jade looked out of the corner of her eye and saw Mr. Lake. He caught her gaze and smiled. Oh yes, Mr. Lake knew exactly what he was doing when he made them project partners. He really did live up to those credentials on his office walls. 

By Mattea Wise culled from blog.reedsy.com

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