I start thinking about this dreaded project, but it becomes less of an issue when I realize it’s getting harder to breathe. A loud ringing overtakes my ears while my brain and heart disagree over how fast it should beat. I have no idea what this means. Maybe it’s a natural disaster? I’ve never predicted anything that big before. Do they even have earthquakes in North Carolina? Tsunamis? Stampedes? I look outside and see blue skies. Is there about to be an airplane crash? Train crash? A code blue? I should’ve paid better attention in geography or that CPR class.
My heart’s beating faster and faster, and I wipe my palms against my jeans. I don’t know if I should hide under my desk or try to find a bathroom. I look around; everyone else is passing in their homework as if the new kid isn’t getting ready to keel over and die.
Oh, my God. It’s the apocalypse. That’s gotta be it. The world is going to end, and I’m the only one who knows it. And here I thought it was going to be a good day. Now I wish I would have gone all the way with Brittney. To die a virgin when the opportunity had once presented itself seems like such a waste. I start counting my heartbeats and try to calm the fuck down so I can figure out how to tell everyone else that Jesus or zombies are on the way.
Then the classroom door opens, and I stop breathing.
A girl with long, blond hair walks in and hands a late slip to Mrs. Mason. “Welcome back, Rachel. How was Cozumel?”
“It was great! We got back late last night. My favorite part was the Chichen Itza tour. Who knew a bunch of old stuff could be so cool? Just don’t let Mr. Allen know I said that. He’ll probably make me write a report on it.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it, and your secret’s safe with me. Turn in your holiday homework and take your seat. It’s time to get married.”
I watch Rachel dig in her backpack and will my incapacitated diaphragm to remember its sole purpose in life. When she walks toward me, I take a moment to admire her long legs. She smiles, and then her lips are moving. Oh God. I’ve never hated my lungs so much in my life. I cough and manage to inhale. I swear I smell vanilla mixed with… sunshine? I don’t know how to explain it. It’s an odd combination, but on her it works. She sits in a desk next to me and stares like she’s waiting for me to do something. Her eyes remind me of chocolate. She’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.
“I’m sorry, what?” Thank you, vocal cords. Thank you for working and not making me look like an even bigger jackass.
“Hi, what’s your name?” she repeats, drawing out each word.
Shit. I wipe my hands on my jeans again. What’s that word people use to get my attention? That thing inside my head needs more oxygen to work properly. I take a deep breath.
“James.” I manage to smile, but it probably looks like the same face I made that time Gran mixed up the salt with the sugar in her apple pie. Rachel looks confused. The teacher starts speaking again and I’m grateful for the distraction.
“All right, class. Let’s get into our project. As I mentioned before the break, the senior Economics project is based on real life. You will each be assigned a partner and the two of you will become a couple. You’ll spend the next five months dealing with budgets, jobs, bills, pretend families, and so on. I will place you in different socio-economic classes and you’ll see how that affects the jobs you can find, the houses you can afford and the opportunities you have in life. I’ll throw in some twists here and there too. Now, let’s partner up and get hitched.”
She counts off pairs around the classroom and ends up on my row of desks. “Alicia and Scott. Cori and Mike. Rachel and James.”
Holy shit. I love this class. I love this desk. I love this assignment.
“Stand up and slide your desks back to make space in the middle of the room.” Mrs. Mason grabs a basket off her desk and passes a Ring Pop to each guy in the room. “Gentlemen, please unwrap your rings, stand before your brides and repeat after me:
“I, state your name, take thee, state your bride’s name, in pretend matrimony. I promise to be true to our grade for better or worse, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall graduate.”
I slide the Ring Pop on Rachel’s finger and make an effort to not jerk my hand back. Sparks didn’t actually fly, but I wasn’t expecting her skin to feel so soft. So good. I’ve never been pretend married before, but I already know I can never give another girl a ring again. I’m a senior in high school and I’m ruined for life. I want to get married for real and have her babies. I mean, make her have my babies. Shit, who am I kidding? I’d have her babies if she asked me to.
“Okay, let’s get the desks back in order and I’ll hand out your packets with all of your information. We’ll review them together and you can start looking for houses.”
I slide my desk back up, bringing it slightly closer to Rachel’s. She puts her hair in a ponytail but a few shorter tendrils fall around her face. Fuck, did I just say tendrils? This is not good. I’ve made it seventeen years without having a girlfriend, and now I have a pretend wife and I’m using sissy words. What’s next? I clear my throat and take a deep breath.
“Let’s try this again. Hi, I’m James. It’s nice to meet you.”