The Dark Divine Page 15

I walked the few blocks to school in the cold and donated my breakfast to a stray cat I met along the way.


The clock in the art room ticked its way to 7:25 a.m. and I cursed myself for giving Daniel only a five-minute window for lateness. I closed my eyes and prayed silently that Daniel would come, just so I could prove Barlow wrong about him. But with every tick of the clock I started to think I was the one who was going to be disappointed.

"Worried I wasn't going to show?" Daniel flopped into the chair next to mine just in time. He wore the light blue woven shirt and khakis I'd left for him, but his clothes were crumpled like he'd had them wadded up in his pack until only a few minutes before.

"I don't really care what you do." I fell tiny pricks of red-heat forming on my neck. "It's your future, not mine."

Daniel snorted.

Mr. Barlow came out of his office and sat at his desk. "I see Mr. Kalbi decided to join us after all."

"It's just Daniel. No Kalbi." Daniel pronounced his last name like a cuss word. Barlow raised an eyebrow. "Well, Mr. Kalbi, when you become a famous musician or the Pope you can drop your last name. But in my class you will go by the name your parents gave you." Barlow looked Daniel over like a critic appraising a new work in a gallery. Daniel leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms.

Mr. Barlow clasped his fingers together on top of his desk. "You are well aware that your scholarship is contingent on your behavior. You will act and dress appropriately for a Christian school. Today was a nice try, but you might want to invest in an iron. And I highly doubt that is your natural hair color. I will give you until Monday to do something about it.

"As for my class," Barlow went on, "you will be here every day, on time, and in your seat when the bell rings. Every AP student is required to compile a portfolio of twenty-three works on a specific theme and ten more projects to show their breadth. You are coming into this class late, but I expect you to do the same." Mr. Barlow leaned forward and stared into Daniel's eyes like he was challenging him to a game of chicken--daring him to glance away first. Daniel didn't blink. "No problem."

"Daniel is quite proficient," I said.

Barlow stroked his mustache, and I knew he was about to deliver the catch. "Your portfolio will consist only of work done in this class. I will monitor each of your assignments at the beginning, middle, and end of their progression. You will not turn in anything you have done previous to now."

"That's impossible," I said. "It's almost December and I'm not even a third of the way through my portfolio."

"That is why Mr. Kalbi will be joining us every lunch period and will report directly to my classroom for one hour after school, each and every day."

Daniel almost lost the staring contest but regained his composure. "Nice try, but I have a job in the city after school."

"I've been informed that the school has given you a stipend for your living expenses. You are obviously in one board member's good graces, but don't expect any special treatment from me. You will be in this class every day after school, or you will not be here at all." Daniel grabbed the edge of the desk and leaned forward. "You can't do this. I need the money." He finally looked away. "I have other obligations."

I sensed a twinge of desperation in his voice. The word obligations made my mouth go dry,

"Those are my stipulations," Barlow said. "It is your choice." He gathered up some papers and went into his office.

Daniel threw his chair aside and tore out of the room with the fury of a threatened bear. I followed him into the hall.

Daniel swore and smashed his fist into a locker door. The metal crunched behind his knuckles.

"He can't do this." He punched the locker again and didn't even flinch with pain. "I have obligations."

There was that word again. I couldn't help wondering what it meant.

"He wants me to be his trained little circus pup. I even wore this stupid shirt." Daniel clawed at the hut-tons and tore it off, uncovering his whitish tee and long sinewy muscles in his arms that I hadn't noticed before. He slammed his dress shirt against the locker. "This is total bullsh--"

"Hey!" I grabbed his hand as he pulled it back for another swing. "Yeah, those lockers really tick me off, too, sometimes," I said, and stared down a couple of gawking freshmen until they hurried along. "Damn it, Daniel!" I reeled on him. "Don't swear at school. You'll get kicked out." Daniel licked his lips and almost smiled. He unclenched the fist I still held, dropping his blue shirt. I tried to inspect his hand, expecting his knuckles to be purple, considering the deep dent in the locker door. He pulled out of my grasp and shoved his hand in his pocket.

"This completely sucks," Daniel said, and leaned against the abused locker. "That Barlow guy doesn't get it."

"Well, maybe you can reason with him. Or maybe if you tell me about your obligations, I can explain it to him for you. ..."

Yeah, could I be any more obvious?

Daniel looked at me for a long moment. His eyes seemed to reflect the fluorescent lights in the dimly lit hall. "You want to get out of here?" he finally asked. "You and me." He held out his uninjured hand. "Let's blow these jerks off and do something fun." I was an honors student, daughter of a pastor, citizen-of-the-month winner, and a member of the One for Jesus Club, but for the briefest nanosecond I forgot all of those things. I ached to take his hand. But that aching scared me--made me hate him.

"No," I said before I could change my mind. "I can't miss class, and neither can you. You skip one more day, and you'll lose your scholarship. You still want to get into Trenton, don't you?" Daniel balled his hand into a fist. He took a deep breath, and his face shifted into a cool, unruffled facade. He pulled a crumpled slip of paper from his pocket. "So, precious, how do I get to geometry?"

I studied the list, relieved that AP art was the only class we would have together. "Room 103 is down the hall and to the left. Past the cafeteria. You can't miss it. And don't be late. Mrs. Croswell loves to give detention."

"Welcome back," Daniel mumbled. "I forgot how much I hate this sh--crap." He smirked at me and laughed to himself.

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