“It doesn’t have to be awkward.”
Chiara never anticipated herself joining the throngs of people she imagined had reasons to repeat that sort of mantra. She herself was the queen of awkward, of judging its time and place, creating it and destroying it and using it and refusing to be paralyzed by it. It was a simple law of the Downs: Use the situation; don’t let it use you. At least, by Alan Armister’s perspective. It was a good one. To freeze in the middle of a negotiation of apartment rent and odd jobs was bound to be harmful in the end. Chiara had quickly learned to own the awkward situations and guide them into exactly what she wanted it to be.
Never had she imagined it would include needing to face Brody Hilton, one of the richest individuals in New York, again and again over the course of a school day after a date gone wrong.
She wondered how many throughout the Globe grapevine already knew of the situation. Felicity Reacher was bound to have heard and squealed joyfully and made a fool of herself over the situation. The entire Collective was definitely informed by now. She hoped it did not change their opinion of her. Jay did not seem too rattled, except of course out of protectiveness for his friend. At least he did not seem repulsed. That was a relief, for some reason. It mean that someone was at least sort of on her side.
She bounced off of the locked glass doors of the Home building, backpedaling rapidly to regain her balance. Chiara shook her head sharply, glaring at the offending door, freshly marked with a smudged print of her nose. Of course it was locked. She had known that.
This was an awkward situation that she doubted even Alan could spin in his favor.
“It doesn’t have to be awkward.”
She spun on a heel to face Analisa, the girl watching with a slack jaw that made her bright green gum perfectly visible to the outside world. Chiara shrugged, gesturing back to the door.
“That was a demonstration of the spirit of Mondays. I’m sure you can relate.”
Analisa shook her head emphatically. “Not that embarrassingly!”
Chiara raised an eyebrow. “If you tell me you’ve never run into a door before, you’re lying. Besides, it’s the school’s fault for keeping the doors this clean! We should allow a little smudge every now and then!” She turned and rubbed her finger through the stain of her nose, spreading it across a larger area. She nodded in satisfaction. “There we go. The world can thank me later.” She turned back to Analisa. “So Professor Brighton talked to you about the tutoring schedule.”
Feathery pink hair flew as Analisa moaned, rolling her eyes. “Yeah, and it just makes me believe that you’re crazier than I thought at first! You’re only available at 5:30 in the morning? And free period is supposed to be…well, a free period! I’m protesting this schedule!”
Chiara smirked. “Professor Brighton said you’d say that. He also said to tell you that he has no problem telling your parents the next failing grade you get if you don’t show up. You don’t show up, everything that happens is your fault. Show up, and the fault is mine.” She spread her hands in prompt. “Which would you rather?”
“Your fault. Duh.” Analisa rolled her eyes again, snapping her gum sharply and shrugging helplessly. “I guess the bird gets the early worm, huh?”
Chiara frowned. “Um, that’s -”
“Come on, are you my tutor or my friend? Cut the chit chat.” Analisa gestured to the locked door. “You got a key?”
The Downs girl procured the cold key from her backpack and unlocked the Home door, shoving it open. The cold air seemed to halt at the door and the building accepted them with the open arms of warmth. It was a weirdly empowering feeling, Chiara noted, having a key. It was, quite literally, access to restricted areas of safety. If one had a key, one had a home, a job, or a hobby that clearly gave one power and control.
She never thought that any place in the Globe would become that for her. It was supposed to be danger and disgust and irritation, but now she had a key. Everything had changed overnight.
“Brighton gave us A10 to use every morning. My first class starts at 7:30 today so we’ve got some time to go over English and Brit Lit first.”
“But those are practically the same thing! Why not shake it up a little?”
“I want to see how you learn best. It’s a little harder to tell if you switch subjects completely. Some people learn English well using books, hands on for science, and visually with math. I want time to experiment with you.”
“Could you say that in a way that sounds less creepy?”
Chiara tilted her head in mock thought. “I don’t think so, no.”
Analisa laughed , glancing up from her phone with a quizzical expression.
“Anyone else would have tried to say that they’re not creepy! You say things different, don’t you?”
“Differently,” Chiara muttered under her breath, widening her eyes. She had a longer way to go than she had anticipated. “Yeah, I don’t really fit the mold, I guess.”
“Well, obviously! I mean, you’re from the Downs. How could you know the same stuff that we do?”
“By using my brain.” Chiara shoved open the door to A10. “Which is what we’re going to work on with you!”
Analisa cast her a baleful glance. “That wasn’t even funny.”
Chiara grinned, gesturing to a table with two seats. “I was being pretty serious! Come on, let’s get started! You’ve got an essay due in two weeks and we’re going to make it the best paper you’ve ever done.”
Analisa rolled her eyes and slid into her seat, flicking her thumb across her phone again. Chiara swiped it from her hand and Analisa’s jaw dropped as Chiara dropped it into her own backpack.
“Are you kidding me? You can’t do that!”
“Can’t I?” Chiara swung her backpack under the table and leaned her palms against the table, facing Analisa’s incredulous gaze evenly. “You clearly don’t care about what your parents think.”
She flinched visibly, her mouth snapping shut as her eyes widened. “What?”
Chiara shrugged helplessly. “You couldn’t care less what your parents think about your grades or the school or anything. Pink hair, sloppy appearance, band buttons, constant social media presence. I looked you up. Nothing but concerts, college frat parties, drinking, makeup, shopping, and posting it all over your online personalities. You’ve got quite a following, too. Nobody you know telling you how exciting your life is, how pretty you are, how much they admire you and want to be you and love you. You don’t have time to study, do you? You don’t have time to care about school or anything your parents would care about, do you?” Chiara raised her eyebrows. Analisa swallowed, her jaw tense and the muscles of her neck tight. “Because your parents don’t have time for you, do they?”
“Stop,” Analisa hissed, blinking rapidly. A tear formed at the corner of her eye. Chiara watched it for a long second.
She had not had a good weekend. Wondering if she was wrong about Brody, staying up all night to help provide for a stubborn family that barely made ends meet, preparing a lesson plan for a privileged girl whose priorities were exactly what Chiara needed them not to be. The library with its ancient computers and limited access to the internet had been enlightening, though, revealing one of the many problems with the world of the Ups that Chiara had once again overlooked. No wonder Analisa was failing. No wonder she was the way she was. Any little bit of acting out to get her parents’ attention was welcome to her. That was all she wanted. That was what she had never had. It was textbook stuff, really.
Chiara smiled gently, lowering herself to her seat. “Ana,” she breathed. “I’m from the Downs and you’re from the Ups. Very different ways of life, pretty different cultures…and expectations. I can’t say I understand. But I can tell you something that you probably haven’t heard before.”
Analisa scoffed, swiping the back of her hand across her eyes. A perfectly shaped wing of eyeliner streaked across her temple, disappearing into the bob of pink hair framing her thin face.
“Yeah? Like I haven’t looked for help? Friends, people who said they were friends, boyfriends…people who said they were boyfriends…”
“You’re really special. And beautiful. And smart and unique and so incredibly worth it.”
Analisa’s eyes flicked up to her. Chiara inclined her head in emphasis to her backpack under the table.
“And your phone? With its access to all the junk you’ve been filling your life with? It’s not helping.”
Analisa laughed shortly, shrugging. Somehow, the movement made her seem small and timid.
“Couldn’t hurt, though, could it?”
“Yeah. It could. Not the phone itself, I guess, but, Ana, everything you put out there for the world to see is dangerous! People who couldn’t care less whether you were successful in life or a respectable person or…” Chiara splayed her hands helplessly. “Got an A on this next English essay.”
“My parents don’t care, either.” Analisa lowered her eyes to her hands, clenched in the lap of her uniform skirt. “Why should I?”
Once again, Chiara felt the sharp pang of realization. The Downs were bad. Families and individuals all fought for survival every day of their lives. If they were poor, they were at the mercy of the better off. If they were better off, they lived in fear of the poor. In the Ups, every individual lived in fear of themselves. Of becoming the “wrong” thing, of failing the expectations of the generations before them. The destruction was not initially of the physical nature, but started with the mind, in the self-esteem of impressionable young people. The worm of doubt was planted before they were able to comprehend it and it grew with them as the pressure mounted and, in Analisa’s case, as the attention and love of the most influential people in a young person’s life lessened.
Chiara imagined the lives of the Collective were not so different.
Slowly, she drew in a slow breath.
“Ana, show me your wrists.”
Her eyes snapped up as she yanked her hands close to her little body. “No! Why?”
Chiara smiled sadly. “And that told me everything I need to know. You’re not changing anything now by showing me.”
Analisa swallowed hard, her face tight as another parade of tears trickled down her cheeks. Chiara imagined she swallowed her gum. That was unfortunate. She nodded encouragingly. Timidly, Analisa unfolded her arms, slowly stretching them out across the table. Chiara gently pushed the sleeve of her left arm up just a bit. She bit her lip. A cross-hatched pattern of white scars decorated the pale skin of her wrists and an angry red displayed the areas irritated by anxiously scratching fingernails. A story of tears and anger and confusion.
“You don’t seem disgusted,” Analisa observed tightly. Chiara raised her eyes to meet her gaze again, keeping a hand on her wrist.
“I’ve seen a lot of things. You’re textbook, Ana.”
She scoffed again. “You told me I was special and unique a second ago.”
“I did, but that doesn’t mean you’re alone.” Chiara leaned forward, slipping her hand down Analisa’s wrist to cover her hand. The Up’s eyes dropped to it, her brow creasing in deep confusion. “I don’t know what friends you’ve trusted, but you’re looking for love in all the wrong places.” She nodded to her backpack under the table. “It’s not coming from your phone. It’s not coming from the Ups.”
“Not from my parents.”
Chiara smiled sadly. “I can’t speak for them. But love only grows, Ana. I like to think of it as a wave. All waves start with a little ripple, somewhere in the world.” She shrugged. “Why not start that ripple yourself?”
Analisa stared at her for a long second. Chiara mentally kicked herself for having missed the vacant gaze of someone who saw nothing much to live for. She had seen it before. She had tried to help before. She had succeeded before. She had failed before. She hated failing in any way.
“It can’t be that easy.”
Chiara shook her head. “I imagine it won’t. Like anything good, it’ll take work and practice. But you’re smart and capable and have so much potential.” She winked. “I know you can do it.”
Softly, Analisa giggled under her breath. Chiara smiled quizzically.
“You’re right. You told me something I haven’t heard before. A lot of things.” Analisa shrugged. “I’m smart. I’m capable. I’m not alone. And,” She squeezed her eyes shut, as if trying to filter her thoughts, trying to discern reality from fantasy, real from not real. “You think I can do it?”
Chiara grinned. “What kind of tutor would I be if I didn’t have faith in you?”
“A regular one.”
“Oh. Well, I’m special, I guess. And I do have faith in you, Ana. You can do this. And I’m here to help you.” She reached into her backpack and pulled out their English textbook, thumping it on the table. “Care to get started?”
Chiara had enjoyed the feeling of being handed the key to the Home building of the Globe, a place she had despised from her first exposure to its glittering majesty, all a farce that disguised the filth hidden in the walls. This was a way that she could change it from the inside. Change was gradual, but she saw Analisa take the key for herself, watching the wheels turning in her head as she considered possibilities she had never been offered. Slowly, Analisa drew in a trembling breath.
“I probably won’t get an A the first time.”
Chiara smiled a little. “That’s okay. We’ll shoot for it anyway.”
“What’s the saying? Shoot for the moon…”
“Even if you miss, you’ll land in the stars.” Chiara nodded, feeling her smile become one of the most genuine ones she could remember. “Norman Peale. Yeah.”
~ ~ ~
The door of the Collective Club was unlocked. Chiara did not bother knocking, gently pushing it open. Jay looked up from the couch, a pen in his mouth and a protractor set against a notebook already filled with equations and measurements that Chiara barely recognized from their first class that morning. He frowned, spitting his pen into his hand.
“What are you doing here?”
She did not answer, marching forward and dropping to sit beside him and huddling under his arm, her head on his shoulder. He froze, every muscle tightening. She imagined he was confused but she could hardly care at the moment.
“Chi…Chiara…what are you doing?”
“You came…all the way down here to hug me?”
“No, dummy, you were in the way.”
“Shut up and hug me back.”
He did not move. Chiara sighed, closing her eyes.
Slowly, his arm sank to rest over her shoulders, curling around her. She felt the exhaustion of a mere half day at school flood out of her. Just that morning, she had done more thinking and feeling than she had wanted to. Anticipating meeting Brody face to face had been bad enough. Becoming what she needed to be for Analisa had added to it. Suddenly, all she wanted was to see Brody, apologize, undo past regrets, regain her energy and be everything she needed to be for everyone. Two tutoring sessions with Analisa were already over for the day, resulting in a kind of relief, almost a beautiful exhaustion. The time to see Brody would come, but as for now, Jay was exactly what she needed.
“Are you okay?”
She smiled a little. There was very little humor in the situation, but she had long since learned to smile before the tears came. Sometimes, it helped.
“I’m better now.”
“I don’t know what you need from me.”
“Five more minutes.”
“Um…okay.” There was a short pause. “Do you…want me to talk or anything? Cause I suck at comforting people, I think.”
“No. In fact, it’s better if you don’t talk. Just keep hugging me.”
“Okay. I can do that.”