Monday morning, first period, maths. Thirty-three percent. Susan turned the test paper over so she wouldn't see the number, but the red marker showed through the other side. It was the first time maths had made her chest hurt.
School had never been much fun for Susan. She had below-average looks, was overweight and didn't have the kind of bubbly personality that made people forgive you for being fat and ugly. It didn't matter, though. She had a game plan.
Nobody disliked her. Nobody ignored her or avoided her. They included her in conversations, invited her to parties. But she was very aware of her place.
When it came to boys, well, not much to report. She'd never been asked out, which was fine by her. If she really put herself out there, really tried to make the absolute best of everything she had, best case scenario she might attract the attention of her opposite number on the boy's side. The guy who always got picked last when choosing teams.
She didn't want that guy. He was probably very nice, whoever he was, but no thanks.
Hypocritical? Sure. But the way she felt about Gets-picked-last gave her a pretty clear idea of how someone like her was viewed by boys. She was doing them both a favour.
Not that she had anything against relationships. She definitely saw marriage in her future. Someone she'd meet at university or possibly a workplace romance. Maybe a divorced forty year old she'd catch on the rebound. Who knew? She was sixteen, no need to worry about that now.
Academically, Susan had always been a B+ student without trying. It figured that if she really applied herself, she'd achieve impressive results. It was school, after all. They weren't being taught anything truly difficult to understand. Most kids were just lazy or busy having a good time.
Good times held little interest for Susan. While everyone else enjoyed the sunshine of their youth, Susan charged forward in pursuit of scholastic excellence. A top university, a rewarding career, plenty of money and plastic surgery as needed—these were her goals.
The results spoke for themselves. First in French, history and geography. First by a mile in English. Top three in everything else. Until today.
Thirty-three percent was definitely not part of the plan.
She never had problems with maths before. She considered it one of her better subjects. Lately, though, things had been getting harder to grasp. A little unclearer in their workings.
And then quadratic equations.
Thirty-three percent impressed no one. The road to success was not signposted with a speed limit of thirty-three.
This needed to be rectified immediately.
Mr Chambers began the lesson by going over the solutions to the test. He rapidly wrote out the questions on the electronic board at the front of the classroom and equally quickly filled in the answers, but Susan had no idea how he had arrived at them, even though he explained as he wrote. He was a terrible teacher who only wanted to rush through the syllabus as fast as possible and go home. If Susan's game plan had any chance of being realised, she'd have to look elsewhere for help.
Around her, people chatted and compared scores.
"Hey, Cutlass got a hundred again."
"What a swot. Who the hell gets a hundred percent on a test?"
Susan's eyes wandered over to the other side of the room where Neil Cutlass sat sideways on his chair, his back against the wall, reading a book. He always came top in maths, often with a perfect score. If anyone could help her, it would be him.
After the lesson ended, Susan made her way across the room. Normally, she would never ask for a favour from anyone. She'd seen that charitable look too many times already in her short life and hated it.
"Why don't we ask Susan?"
"Hey, Susan, you can come too, if you want."
"Is there anyone else? Oh, what about Susan?"
People going out of their way to be nice made her skin crawl. Look how wonderful we are, we'll even throw a few scraps to this poor lowbie.
But Neil Cutlass' social standing ranked even lower than hers. He never spoke to anyone, didn't have any friends. Neil Cutlass made Gets-picked-last think, "At least I'm not him."
Neil dragged his gaze away from the book and looked up at her. "Hey." Then he looked around as if realising the lesson was over. He was a short, scruffy boy with long black hair covering most of his face.
"Nice to meet you. Are you new?"
"No, Neil. We've been in the same maths class for the past two years."
"And you finally got up the courage to say hello? Well done." He returned his attention to the loaf-of-bread-sized book, a picture of a dragon on the cover.
Hmm, irritating. "So I noticed you always do well on the tests, and since Chambers is a pretty awful teacher, must mean you really know your stuff. Usually I do okay, but recently—"
"If you're struggling, you should get a tutor to help you."
"I didn't say I was struggling." Hmm, presumptuous as well as irritating.
"I'd say thirty-three percent means you're struggling."
She looked down at the test paper in her hand, the top bent over, revealing her shame. "Okay, I'm having some problems. I thought, maybe if you had a few minutes, you wouldn't mind—"
"No thanks. Not really my thing."
"Honestly, it would only take half an hour or so. We're going to have another surprise test on Friday, and I won't have time to find a tutor before then."
Mr Chambers had a set routine. Monday to Wednesday he taught, Wednesday he also handed out homework. There was no maths class on Thursday. Friday there'd be a surprise test that surprised nobody. It was supposed to help gauge how well people understood the week's lessons, but mostly it allowed Chambers to mark the homework during class rather than on his own time. On Monday they got the results.
The most recent test had been the first week of quadratic equations. The basic stuff. This week they would cover the more advanced stuff. It would only get worse.
"I get what you're saying, Susan, but I'm still not interested. I'm not the sort of person who enjoys helping people. Sorry."
He closed his book and put it in his bag.
"What would make it worth your while? I could pay you. Or buy you lunch or something. "
He zipped his bag up. "Hmm. Well, I would give you one hour of my time to make sure you completely understood the world of quadratic equations if, for that hour, you were topless."
Susan smiled, but her fists were clenched. "Is that supposed to be a joke?"
"You asked me a very specific question and I gave you an equally specific answer. If you said okay, let's do it, right now we'd be arranging a time and place."
The limiter holding Susan's emotions in check cracked wide open. "What kind of a horrible, disgusting pervert are you? Why would you even say something like that?"
But she knew why he'd said it. She was bothering him. He'd already said he wanted to be left alone, and normally she would have taken the hint, but the thirty-three percent had really shaken her. So he'd taken a look at her and thought, What would really offend this girl? What is she really insecure about? What would send her running away?
He'd pretty much nailed it.
No way was he going to get away with that. She'd been too pushy, she knew that, but still, no way.
"This is maybe the first time we've ever spoken, and you say something like that to me? Don't you think that's a bit out of order?"
"Well, perhaps topless would be a bit extreme. All right, you can keep your bra on, but not some armour-plated body warmer. Something soft and pretty."
"I'm not going to degrade myself for your amusement. It's not going to happen. Ever. You disgusting perv."
"Okay then. I'm glad we've got that cleared up."
He stood up. He was the same height as her, maybe a little shorter. He took a crappy-looking phone out of his blazer pocket, glanced at it and then put it away. "You better get a move on, you're going to be late for your next class." He slung his bag over his shoulder and walked away.
Susan stomped her way to the next class, muttering to herself. No matter how annoyed she was, she had more pressing problems to deal with, like figuring out how to avoid failing miserably on Friday's test. She also had to make sure her other subjects didn't suffer because of a minor hiccup with her game plan. There was more to life than maths.
When she got home later that afternoon, she went straight up to her bedroom and turned on her laptop. She had French and Geography homework, but she decided to give herself an hour to come up with a solution to her quadratic quandary.
She did a search for Youtube videos, but they all sucked. She brainstormed ideas in her notebook, writing down names of students and teachers who might help her, but nobody stood out. She even tried going over the textbook to see if it made more sense to her now. It didn't.
And if that wasn't bad enough, under it all, there was still a small knot of anger she couldn't budge. A stupid joke at her expense, so what? She had tried to sweep the whole ordeal aside, but she couldn't.
It hadn't been a joke. He had meant it. He would have agreed to tutor her if she had said yes. That's what made her so angry.
She got up from the chair and took off her school clothes. The blazer, the tie, the white blouse. She stopped and looked at herself in the full-length mirror on her wardrobe door.
She had big boobs. They stood firm and had a good shape to them. Boys liked boobs. Was that all this was about? He didn't care about the rest of her, he was just attracted to her chest. It made a kind of sense.
Was it really such a big deal? A bra was no more revealing than a bikini top. Although that would probably be more convincing if Susan had ever had the courage to wear a bikini in public. Still, what would she be losing? Her dignity? What was that worth?
She didn't have an answer and tried to forget about it. No point getting worked up over something so stupid. She did her homework, but whenever she took a break, the irritation welled back up and she would shake herself to get rid of it.
In the end the deciding factor was Mr Chambers. The next day's maths lesson was such an unmitigated disaster, Susan felt she had no choice.
She had decided to really concentrate, apply her complete focus to the ins and outs of quadratic equations. Mr Chambers had other ideas. He stormed through the lesson like he'd mainlined three cans of Red Bull, trying to get through six hours' worth of work in forty-five minutes. Teachers had deadlines to meet, and Mr Chambers apparently wanted to meet them early and then go down the boozer.
Susan had no idea what she'd just witnessed. She may even have lost some maths ability. Nobody seemed to care. They all wandered off at the end of the lesson, laughing and chatting. And why not? They had other options, after all.
"I want you to help me with maths," Susan said to Neil in the empty classroom.
Neil looked up from his book. "I know. But I don't—"
"I agree to your terms."
That shut him up.
What was there to be afraid of? A teenage boy with zero experience of girls? Nerves would get the better of him. Other than some aggressive leering, she didn't see much to be worried about. Of course, it would be a little awkward for her, but the red glare of embarrassment presented no more of a challenge to Susan than mild sunburn. He couldn't take her dignity if she didn't let him.
Susan looked him in the eye and tilted her head a fraction. "What's the matter? Backing out?"
Neil's usual ambivalent expression replaced the momentary look of confusion. "I'm game if you are. Little surprised though. Sure about this?"
Susan folded her arms across her chest. "Women have always had to do unpleasant things to get what they want. I'll do what I must to succeed in this pitiful, pitiful world."
A broad smile broke out on Neil's face, his lips pressed together, his shoulders shook.
"Are you laughing at me?"
Neil swallowed before speaking. "What? No, of course not. I just want you to know that I will not rest until your conquest of quadratic equations is absolute. Your sacrifice will not be in vain." He thumped a fist against his chest and bowed his head. His shoulders shook again.
Susan bit down on the corner of her lip to stop a smile of her own forming. Perhaps she had gone a little overboard. "You really are a pompous ass, you know that?"
Laughter burst out of his mouth. "Sorry. So, where do you want to do this?"
"Before we get to that, I want to say something."
"Shut up. I have three conditions. Non-negotiable."
"Okay," said Neil. "Go ahead."
She held up a fist and flicked out one finger. "First, you can't tell anyone."
He nodded. "Shouldn't be a problem. No one to tell."
Another finger flicked out. "Second, no touching."
"Had no plans to, but let's make it official." He raised his hands and wiggled his fingers at her. "Hands off."
"And last—" this time a thumb popped out "—no comments on my physical appearance. Good or bad, keep your opinions to yourself."
"Fine by me. I'd like to add one thing, though. Any time you want to end it, no matter what the reason, just say so and I'll leave."
"Thanks. That's very noble of you." She spoke with heavy sarcasm, but in truth it pleased her that he'd said it.
Wednesday, last period, double maths. They left the classroom together. No eyelids were batted. They took the bus to Susan's house. No words were exchanged.
"This is Neil," said Susan. "Neil, this is my mother. Neil's going to help me with maths. He's not hungry or thirsty, and he can't stay long, so no interrupting."
"Oh," said Susan's mother, "how nice. Delighted to meet you, Neil. She's never brought a boy home before."
You wouldn't sound so delighted if you knew what he's got planned for your daughter, thought Susan. She grabbed Neil's sleeve and pulled him away before her mother got into her stride.
Susan dumped her bag on the bedroom floor and left Neil standing there, looking around like he'd landed on the moon. She came back a few seconds later, wheeling a chair in front of her.
"This is my sister's, she's at uni. Don't change the height or anything, she gets pissy if I borrow her stuff."
Door closed, Susan took out a large, white t-shirt from a drawer. "If the door starts to open, get over there and stall her so I can put this on." She placed the t-shirt flat on the bed so it'd be easy to grab and whip over her head.
She took off her blazer and tie, unbuttoned her blouse, took a deep breath, and yanked it off. She tossed it in the laundry hamper at the foot of her bed.
Choosing a bra had taken her a good half hour that morning. Nothing too fancy, no frills or lace. She didn't want him to think she'd tried to impress him. Soft and pretty, he'd said. The bra was cream coloured and silky. Fairly plain, with only small embroidered flowers on the cup, which kept her nipples well hidden. The material at the sides was sheer, but she didn't mind him seeing that part.
She sat down in her chair, turned on her laptop and pulled her maths books out of her bag. Then, for the first time since she'd entered the room, she looked him in the face. She was met by a weird, sloppy grin.
"Nothing. I'm just really happy."
"Ugh. Can we get on with it?"
They started with the basics. Neil went over all the stuff from the previous week. He wrote out a question, and then put the answer next to it and had her work backwards to see how it all fit together.
Next, he gave her partial answers and made her talk out her thought process, nudging her forward when she was on the right track, pulling her back when she veered off.
"Okay, let's take a break," said Neil.
"I'm not tired," said Susan. "Can't we keep going? The sooner we get this over with the better."
"Five minutes. And drink this." He took a can of 7Up out of his bag and put it on the desk.
"I don't drink that. I've got my own downstairs. I'll go—"
"Yeah, that diet crap won't work. Your brain uses up a lot of sugar, you can't replace it with the fake stuff. If you don't refuel, you'll get cranky and lose focus. Drink some of this and then you can redo the test from last week." He took out folded papers from his pocket, a clean copy of the test.
Susan popped the tab on the can. "The whole test? That'll take ages." They'd had forty minutes to do the test on Friday, and she had needed every second to fail miserably.
"It took me fifteen minutes," said Neil, "and now you know what you're doing, shouldn't take you much longer."
"Alright. And what about you?"
"I'm going to watch you. Very closely."
"Jesus." She took a swig from the can, spilling a little which ran down her neck into her cleavage. She wiped it away with a finger.
"What was that for?" Susan asked him.
"According to your rules, I can't tell you. But it's going to be a good night tonight."
"Why, what are you doing?"
"Fapping myself into oblivion."
"Ew. You're so disgusting. Why did you have to tell me that?"
"I'm a sixteen year old boy. What did you think I was going to do after seeing you like this? Write a poem?"
Susan drank a little more of the sickly sweet 7Up, and then resat the test. It took a little over twenty minutes. She got all but one question correct, and as soon as Neil pointed out the one she got wrong, she saw her mistake.
She thought they would stop after that, but Neil moved on to the stuff from the last couple of days, and even some stuff Chambers hadn't managed to get to. By the time they were finished, he'd been there nearly two hours.
"That just leaves the homework," said Neil. "You should be able to do that on your own, right?"
"Yep," said Susan, confident she could. "So we done?"
Neil nodded. "We done."
"Great." She grabbed the t-shirt from her bed and put it on. "Then please fuck off."
Neil got up, put on his blazer and picked up his bag. "You owe me a can of pop. And none of that diet shit." He turned around and left the room. She heard him go down the stairs, exchange a few words with her mother, her mother laugh, and then the front door.
On Friday, Susan walked into class in buoyant mood. She took a circuitous route to her seat. As she passed by Neil, deeply involved with his orcs and dwarves and flying monkeys, a can of 7Up landed in front of him.
She sat down at her desk, took out her pencil case and waited for Mr Chambers to pass out the test papers. There were eight questions. She finished with ten minutes to spare and went over her answers, not to check for mistakes, but because it pleased her to see how good it all looked.
By comparison, the rest of the day felt a little flat, but the absence of dread made it much easier to concentrate in her other classes. And when her concentration slipped a little, she took a sip from the small bottle of 7Up she kept in her bag.
Susan spent the weekend doing homework and reading ahead, hoping to experience the same surge of confidence with her other subjects that she had with maths. It turned out not to be quite so easy on her own, with only her sister's empty chair for company. She had meant to return it to her sister's room, but hadn't gotten round to it yet.
Monday morning, first period, maths. Susan sat at her desk, waiting for Mr Chambers to hand out the test results. Without a doubt she would beat her previous mark. No way could she have scored less than thirty-three. No way.
When the paper hit her desk, the number on the top cover did not match her expectations.
Susan had never scored ninety-six percent in anything. It didn't look real. But it was hard to misread something written that large in red felt-tip.
"Very impressive, Susan," said Mr Chambers. "Can't say I recall anyone making that kind of improvement in a week. You weren't cheating, were you?"
"What? No, of course not."
Mr Chambers held up waving hands. "Oh, I'm not accusing you of anything. Just wondering what your secret is."
"I got a tutor. He helped me see things a little more clearly."
"Ah, I see. Well, give him a pat on the back for me. Good job."
Susan picked up the test paper and rubbed the smooth, glossy pages with her thumbs. Her finger traced the outline of her score. People were probably wondering why she was grinning like a loon; she didn't care. She doubted maths had ever made someone this happy.
Her joy lasted until Mr Chambers told them to open their textbooks. A new chapter, introducing a new nemesis: trigonometry.
Sine. Cosine. Tangent. Susan recognised them from last year. Sin. Cos. Tan. Nothing too hard. Right angle triangles, angles and sides. Plus, you got to use a calculator.
This was a different beast.
What. The. Fuck.
Mr Chambers scribbled on the board. Look at this weird shape I've drawn. Cut it in half and you've got two triangles. Blah, blah, blah. But now the opposite to this angle is blah, blah, blah.
Susan tried her best to follow the ideas and concepts. She went home and pored over the textbook, rereading each line many times. She looked up tutorials on YouTube.
The most basic examples sort of made sense. The ever so slightly more complicated examples made her want to file down the edges of her ruler and slit her wrists.
By Wednesday afternoon, hope had died. Shut it down, go home, never dare to dream again. It was worse than that time she had gone shopping for skinny jeans.
Every time Mr Chambers said, "Right, any questions?" she wanted to raise her hand and ask about a million. But no one else looked like they needed help. No one else put their hand up.
Neil glanced up from his book. "Oh, hey. Problems with trig?"
Class had ended and everyone else had left for home. Susan twisted the ends of her sleeves between her fingers. "I was thinking maybe you'd help me again."
"Sure," said Neil. "No bra this time."
"Oh come on!" She had steeled herself to accept the same deal as last time, but of course that would have been too easy. He was a horrible, disgusting pervert and she was mad to even for a moment think about doing this again.
"You can always say no, Susan. If you don't think it's a fair exchange, just say no."
She clenched her fists and looked at the floor. "Won't you please just help me this once?"
"No. Are you willing to do what I want?"
"No." She turned and walked away.
Susan went home and didn't even bother to look at the maths homework. There'd be a test on Friday and her failure promised to be epic. Thirty-three percent would be a miracle. She took her homework diary out of her bag and slid out the folded piece of paper stuck inside the front cover. She unfolded it and lay on the bed staring at the big, red ninety-six.
They didn't have maths on Thursdays and she didn't share any other lessons with Neil, so it took her most of lunchtime to track him down. He sat alone in an empty classroom, reading.
"Can you come to my house after school today?"
"You remember the address."
"Okay." She turned and left.
Half an hour after Susan got home, the front doorbell rang. As she came downstairs she heard Neil chatting with her mother. She had assumed he'd go home first, but he was still in his school uniform. She had changed into jogging bottoms and a zip-up hooded top.
He followed her upstairs into her bedroom. She shut the door behind him and made sure it was properly closed. Her books and notepad lay on the desk, open at the relevant pages.
Neil dropped his bag and sat down on her sister's chair.
"You really have to make sure my mother doesn't come barging in."
"I'll do my best."
Susan took a deep breath and unzipped the top, letting it slide off her onto the bed.
Neil looked confused at first. Then angry. He spoke in a cold, quiet whisper. "What are those supposed to be?"
"You said no bra. I'm not wearing one," Susan whispered back.
Susan had used the pasties her mother kept in her dressing table drawer to cover her nipples. They were large, flesh coloured discs her mother kept for one particular low cut dress that she hardly ever wore.
Neil stood and picked up his bag.
"It's not like you can't still see everything. Can't you at least let me hang onto one tiny shred of self-respect?"
"How much respect you have for yourself isn't my responsibility. If you didn't want to do this you shouldn't have agreed to it. I don't like being deceived, Susan." His whispering rose in intensity as he spoke. "I don't like it when people think they can trick me and break their promises. I don't like being taken advantage of."
"Look at me, Neil." Her whisper threatened to turn into full blown shouting. "Which one of us looks more like they're being taken advantage of?"
"Then you should have said no." He didn't look angry anymore, just disappointed.
"Fine, I'll take them off." She ripped the pasties off, which hurt quite a lot more than she'd expected. "Happy now?"
The door clicked shut. Neil had already gone. She heard his footsteps going down the stairs. He said something to her mother, probably some excuse about having to go home, and then the front door opened and closed.
Susan sat on her bed, her nipples slightly stinging. She had done nothing wrong. It wasn't like she had refused to keep her end of the deal. It wasn't lying, technically.
But under her indignation, a small nugget of guilt smouldered. She had recognised the look on his face. His disappointment wasn't aimed at her, he was disappointed in himself for getting his hopes up. She knew that feeling well. She spent most of her life trying to avoid it. He probably did, too.
Susan crushed her face into a pillow. Arghhh! It wasn't fair. He hadn't just claimed the moral high ground, he had built a castle on it, raised a flag and composed a national anthem. She was the victim here, she deserved the sympathy, not the disgusting pervert.
Tomorrow there'd be a test, for which she had done zero preparation. She also had to hand in her maths homework, which sat untouched at the bottom of her bag. None of it seemed to matter very much. She didn't get much sleep that night.