The first time he put his lunch down across from her Helena froze. Everything in her seemed to bristle. People usually left her well enough alone and she was perfectly fine with that. If he tried to talk to her she knew her practiced response and had it ready: death glare, on ice. Every nerve was on high alert, ready to put it into play.
But then, without a word, he pulled out a book and sank into it, absently taking bites of his food between turning pages. He seemed to barely notice she was there.
Helena was relieved. He was new, so he probably didn’t know that people didn’t talk to her. He would soon enough. But for now, maybe he’d just seen a mostly empty table, in the sea of human noise that was their cafeteria.
The next day, she was sure, he’d have heard all about who she was and why he shouldn’t sit with her at lunch and he’d join the rest of the busy, loud room in ignoring her. It was fine. She opened up her own book and shook off the nerves still jolting in her veins and went on with her lunch.
But the next day he was back. And the next. She was bold enough to glance at him once or twice. She thought maybe he was slow. Otherwise what was he still doing, sitting directly across from her so calmly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world? There had to be something wrong with him. Nothing else made sense.
It took until the fourth day to realize he was in her English class. She had the grace to sit tucked into the row against the wall in English. She answered questions if called upon, but she rarely was. Mrs. Callaghan seemed to empathize with her misanthropic ways, and mostly left her alone, or gave her quietly enthusiastic shoulder-squeezes as she handed back her papers.
Suddenly someone was answering a question about Lady Macbeth and her sleepwalking self-incrimination. And the answer was intelligent and thoughtful, and coming from the mouth of the boy who had made a habit of sitting across from her at lunch.
And that’s how she learned that his name was Travis.
And how, as he caught her staring at him after he’d given his answer, she first saw him smile.
At lunch the next day he when the bell rang he closed his book—he was at the end, she’d seen, from her furtive glances at him—and slid it a few inches across the table, then picked up his tray and started to walk away.
“You forgot this,” she said, speaking to him for the first time.
Her heart sputtered in her chest when he just grinned at her. “No I didn’t. I think you might like it.”
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, a book about memorization tricks and anecdotes. She did like it.
She was determined to return the favor and do it well. He had set the bar pretty high. She didn’t want to counter with another nonfiction, so what she slid in his direction the next day was high fantasy. He lifted an eyebrow at her, and let the book he had brought with him drop back into his bag.
The second time he slid a book over to her, it had a scrap of paper in it with his phone number and “Hi. :)”
You have to have heard how no one at school likes me by now, she texted him after she’d finally found the courage to send him a hi of her own.
I like you, what do I care what they think? he sent back. Do you care?
And it was so much harder to, knowing that he didn’t.
He asked her to go see a movie on a weekend in November, and he offered her his coat, but she didn’t need it, because Helena was the type of girl who dressed appropriately for the weather.
It took them both a little bit of time to get their words out, but walking the aisles in the bookstore or library seemed to help. They both had a lot of opinions on books.
People still called her freak sometimes, and even huffed at them when they walked down the halls. But then his hand would find hers, and graduation was in May. Austin wasn’t far, but it was a far sight better than here.
All they could afford was community college, but it was something. And she’d heard they had the biggest indie bookstore in the world. Helena thought it sounded just about perfect.