The Boss Vol. 6By: Cari Quinn & Taryn Elliott
“Refuse is a bit strong.”
“You know what’s strong? My willpower, or else I’d probably grab the lapels of your fancy shirt and demand some damn answers.” She slapped her hand down on the counter beside the laptop and it jumped, displacing my hand.
“Did it ever occur to you that I might not just be trying to hide things from you? That I could have genuine reasons for not elaborating? Ones that have nothing to do with keeping you in the dark, and everything to do with—”
Just keeping you, period.
She stared at me, not speaking. Her eyes were bluer than I’d ever seen them, her hair somehow wild in its delicacy.
For an instant, I saw Annabelle in her face. Their features were more different than alike, their coloring closer to opposite than the same, but that knowing, shrewd expression was all her grandmother’s.
“I first met your grandmother as a teenager. After I met you, actually.”
“Met me? What are you talking about? You never met me back then.”
I moved my fingers over the trackpad, hoping that Annabelle would have more evidence to the contrary. More pictures had been taken that day at the Beacon school, and I hoped she’d kept them. But as I scrolled through the list of photos on the thumb drive, my eagerness dimmed.
Until I clicked on the third from the last one and saw a thirteen-year-old Grace holding up a shard of glass refracting a prism of light. The students sat in front of her, many of them not paying attention since she wasn’t the real teacher, so she couldn’t get them in trouble. But one boy was riveted. Fourth row, fourth seat back. Shaggy dark hair hiding most of his face, and his oversized glasses obscuring some of the rest.
“Take a look.” I pushed away from the counter and paced across the kitchen. I didn’t want to see her expression as she realized I’d been in her purview back then and she’d never so much as given me a second glance.
On the other hand, I’d built an entire fantasy life around her. And when Annabelle had reminded me of my proper place—far away from her granddaughter—I’d stuffed her memory and my thoughts of her into a box.
“It’s my class at the Beacon school,” Grace began slowly, taking my seat. “I used to help the teacher with art classes in the summer.”
“I know, Grace. I was in that class. Just like I’m in that picture.”
Definitely not my best day, and I couldn’t deny the spurt of embarrassment at her seeing me that way. But of course, she already had back then. She simply hadn’t been aware of me.
At the time, I’d been bitter about that too. I’d figured she had rich boyfriends lined up around the block, so naturally she wouldn’t notice the awkward, angry, borderline nerd who clung to the corners.
After a while, I realized Grace wasn’t interested in boys. She cared about her art, and only her art. So I nurtured my obsession like a lover, waiting for the day that would change.
“What?” Pulling her bottom lip between her teeth, she grabbed the edges of the laptop screen and dragged it closer. “Where? I don’t see anyone who resembles—” Then she broke off, torturing that small bit of flesh even more. “No. That can’t be you.”
In the picture outside with her grandmother, I’d tamed my hair and I wore no glasses. I’d also managed a tight smile in spite of the fury that burned in my gaze. But in the classroom shot, I was in full geek mode—hair wild from my hands, huge, thick lenses, white shirt with the collar shot up as if that made me cool.
Yeah, not my finest moment for sure.
“Compare it to the other one you just saw with your grandmother. I’m afraid you’ll see it’s very much me.”
Her head came up, her eyes narrowing. She knew it was. I was fairly certain her shock came more from seeing me in the same room as herself rather than true surprise. The boy photographed with her grandmother just happened to be the edgier, street-wise version of the nerd who lived inside me still.
“How?” she whispered. “How could this be you? How long did you know who I was?”
My first instinct was to cover my tracks. I’d been doing it for so long that I scarcely knew how to be truthful anymore. But this woman deserved more than easy lies from me. She deserved everything.
“I was sixteen the first summer I took one of the glass classes you assisted with. I took my final one when I was eighteen and you were fifteen.”
“You took them for three years?”
Nodding was easier than replying when my throat had tightened to the point of pain. Even thinking of those days of lack and want brought forth a physical response.
“Three summers you sat in my classroom. Never spoke to me. Never identified yourself.” She returned her gaze to the screen. “How did you go from this to…” She gestured wildly at me and I had to laugh, because sometimes I still wondered that myself.