You met Rachel, Noah's twin sister, in my last book THE LESSON PLAN, Book 3 of the Extra Credit series. I'm currently working on a spin-off sequel about Rachel and the guy she's sorta kinda maybe curious about. Or could be if she had time and a life. She's pre-med and, yep, he's a jock. Check! She's tutoring him. Check! It takes place on a college campus. Check! But it's not your typical friends to lovers, opposites attract, or enemies to lovers story.... because I wrote those already in the first three books. You'll just have to wait and see what happens between them, but here's a sneak peek at the intro to what I'm calling THE EXPERIMENT.... (subscribe to my newsletter to keep getting more! or add it to your TBR here)
CHAPTER ONE: Rachel
By the time I was six years old I knew I wanted to be a doctor. By the time I was twelve I knew I wanted to be a surgeon. A week at home with mono, which I spent binge-watching the first four seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, convinced me that cardiothoracic surgery was my only possible future destiny. (Dr. Cristina Yang was my heroine. She’s so awesome!) Since then I’ve devoted myself wholly and fully to that goal, even when it required great sacrifices…. –“RachelBerman1stdraft”
“Don’t forget to read chapter two and answer all the questions that follow by next class. And…” The professor looks down to shuffle papers on his podium. “I want to speak to Yuri…Valichenko and Rachel Berman for a moment, please.” He looks up from his reading and pushes his glasses up his nose, scanning the lecture hall. He clicks a button and the projector screen starts to rise back up into the ceiling.
I grab my stuff and juggle books, phone, and notebook with two hands as I descend the shallow steps to the front of the room. I’m fighting the tide going the other way as row after row of students push against me to leave out the back doors. I’m not sure what Gunderson wants with me. I’ve never exchanged two words with him before. There are hundreds of students in this Biostatistics class and we only interact with the T.A.s.
“Miss Berman?” The professor studies me as I approach. He’s not completely bald. Wisps of white hair float from his scalp. His shoulders stoop so his eyes meet mine.
“Yes, professor. I’m glad to have a chance to speak to you because I’m enjoying this class so much and I….”
He cuts me off. “You got the best grade in the class on the test I returned today.”
I flush a little, pleased. “Thank you! I mean, thank you for telling me yourself. I haven’t seen the grade posted online yet. As I was saying, I’m learning so much….”
I frown a little at this new interruption. Does he talk over all his students like this or just the women?
“Yes. I’m applying soon and Johns Hopkins is my first choice.” I hesitate here, aware that Johns Hopkins is everyone’s first choice…. His unblinking stare is not encouraging me. I clear my throat. “In fact, I sent you a request for a letter of recommendation recently and I’d really appreciate it if…”
“I thought your name looked familiar. I’m still working my way through the list.”
Way to make me feel special, I think. But what do I expect? He’s got hundreds of students and they all want the same thing: the highest possible grade and the best possible letter against the worst possible odds of getting in to Johns Hopkins Medical School. Four percent acceptance rate! And I’m rounding up.
Professor Gunderson looks over my shoulder and I turn to see that there’s someone else hovering nearby, listening. Gunderson beckons him forward with one hand and the other student approaches slowly.
“You’re Yuri…?” The professor glances back at his papers.
Gunderson stuffs his papers into his briefcase. “I want you to work with him on the midterm.” He points a finger and draws an imaginary line between the two of us. We stand there facing him side by side like two tin soldiers.
What? I dart a sideways glance at my co-victim but he looks impassive. Before I can say anything else Gunderson continues.
“You got the highest grade on the test last week.” Again with the finger. “You got the lowest grade.” I flinch on the other guy’s behalf. Yuri. Isn’t Gunderson not supposed to reveal stuff like that? You know, privacy laws? Or just plain politeness? Yuri doesn’t react.
“Professor Gunderson,” I begin carefully. “I’m taking five classes and working on my med school applications. I really don’t have time to spare. As much as I’d like to help you out. And Yuri,” I add. I steal another sideways glance and now I can see the tension in Yuri’s face, which is still in profile to me as he stares straight ahead.
Gunderson pauses. “Do you want that letter, Miss Berman?”
“Well, yes, I…”
“Do you want me to tell them that you volunteer your time to help other students who are less disciplined than you are, that you have mastered this material fully, and you have the exceptional drive it takes to succeed in a competitive environment like Johns Hopkins?” He peers over his eyeglasses at me.
I inhale a deep breath and shift on my feet. “Yes, of course. That would be very generous of…”
“Then work together. And I will take his midterm grade as a sign of your dedication.”
What the what? And now Gunderson’s actually walking away! I start shaking my head but I’m too speechless to say anything.
“Is that clear?” He turns to look back, his gaze sweeping over the two of us, still standing like scolded children.
I gulp and nod. He nods back and disappears out the door behind his podium. With a sigh I turn toward this guy who now holds my future in his hands. It’s four weeks into the semester, we’re in the same class, and I’ve never seen him before. But maybe he’s not a lost cause, maybe he can be taught or motivated or at least bossed around.
“I’m not undisciplined.”
My mouth falls open. “That’s what you heard him say?” I’m pretty tall but I have to look up to meet his eyes. They’re gray. Dark hair falls over his forehead and his expression is hard to read. He’s looking at me, but I can’t even tell if he sees me. He seems to be thinking hard.
When he still says nothing, I sigh and get out my phone. “Okay. Give me your number. We’ll figure out when and where to meet.”
He recites a number and I enter it swiftly with my thumbs. “I can only meet weeknights after 7,” he says in the same flat tone.
I eye him again. It’s going to be like that, is it? He doesn’t look hostile or mad or jerky though. I swing my bag over one shoulder and march back up the stairs. “I’ll be in touch then.”
There are four weeks until the midterm so with any luck this extracurricular project will all be over soon.
CHAPTER TWO: Yuri
I puzzle over it for the rest of the day. If each question was worth five points and there were twenty questions I only had to get fourteen correct to pass. So how did this happen?
I think about it through practice, as the ball beats a tattoo against the floor of the gym and my arms lift and shoot, lift and shoot in a familiar rhythm. I think about it as I sit in the dining hall, sketching in my notebook. I think about it when I finally get back to my dorm room, collapsing with weariness, and check online for the test results. A 60??
Confusion makes my head throb as I look over the scoring. I got six questions wrong which should have earned me a 70. Except two of those questions were worth ten points, not five…. I groan and smack myself in the head. How did I miss that? I sink into my desk chair and recalculate swiftly. It’s a delicate game I’m playing. I double check the syllabus to see how the tests are weighted and drag myself through the rest of my routine. Shower. Homework. Crash. Repeat tomorrow. By the time I fall into bed I’ve realized two things: I need an 80 on the midterm and my new tutor—Rachel—is in trouble.
* * *
I’m not surprised when I hear from her the next morning over breakfast. She seemed pretty stressed about that letter of recommendation. Her text is direct to the point of rudeness. Meet me at 7 at the library café. Read chap 2 and bring your test.
Absently I nod back at the people who greet me. I’m not sure of their names so it’s better not to say anything. I’m at my usual table near the back where I’m mostly out of sight.
The way I like it.
I gaze out the window while I ponder my options. The glass is slightly reflective and I’m distracted by the faint overlapping images of students moving around inside and trees reaching skyward outside.
I don’t care about my grade. To stay on the basketball team all I need is a C in this course and I can pull that off all by myself. But if I don’t meet with her she’ll be the one in trouble. It’s not her fault she got caught in my mess. I can’t think of anything I less want to do tonight than meet with some uptight pre-med and go over the test I failed, but by the time I clear my tray I’m resigned to the inevitable. Show up. Go through the motions. It’s the story of my life.
Still, I’m not exactly happy that evening when I dump my heavy backpack on the floor and drag out a chair next to her. I sink into it and stretch out my legs, wincing. My hamstrings ache and the season’s barely started. I roll my shoulders to ease the tightness across my back. It’s early enough in the semester that the library café is pretty empty and I appreciate the quiet.
I force my attention back to the girl across from me, surprised. She’s watching me closely from across the table, which is already covered by her open textbook, laptop, and notebooks. A cup of coffee is so far to one side that it might topple over any minute. Instinctively I reach out to move it closer and her eyes follow my actions. I think they’re brown behind a pair of nerdy glasses. She looks a little concerned. Or maybe just puzzled.
We study each other for a moment. She’s pretty in a low-key sort of way. Big eyes. Wide mouth. Pale skin. Long hair in a fat braid over one shoulder. Her face reminds me of a painting I’ve seen somewhere. I wrack my brain, searching for it.
Her mouth turns down. “Really? This can’t be fun for you.”
I’m jolted out of my thoughts and shrug. “Not for you either.”
There’s another pause and I’m confused. It’s not exactly awkward but it’s not exactly normal either. Usually people fill up my silences. Usually they’re happy to.
“Okay then. Let me see your test. Here, you can look at mine.” She shoves her laptop around so it faces me. I glance at it before leaning down to get mine from my bag. She got a 95. So I only need to know one thing.
“Which question did you get wrong?”
She gives me a funny look before reaching over to scroll down the page toward the end. “That one.” The cursor blinks at me.
“Yeah, I got that one wrong too. And five others.”
Suddenly it seems kind of amusing and I smile to myself as I balance my computer on my lap and log in. A few more keystrokes and I’m on the same page. When I hand her my laptop she’s shaking her head at me.
“You don’t mind failing?”
I backpedal. “Of course I do.” Fidgeting, I watch her scroll through my test. She’s frowning again and biting her lower lip. A minute must tick by as she reads through the whole damn test. I pull out my notebook and turn to a blank page. Setting pencil to paper I wonder where this new line will take me. It arches and doubles back on itself and I follow it curiously. There’s a pillar and a vine….
“Are you pre-med too?”
I look up to find her leaning back in her chair, head tilted, studying me. I nod warily. What’s up with her?
“And you don’t care that you’re failing?”
“I didn’t say that,” I protest.
She cuts me off and snaps the lid of my laptop shut. “I don’t get you.”
What? I bite back a retort but her eyes just narrow and I feel like a specimen under her microscope. When I don’t say anything she shoves my laptop back at me and scoots her chair closer to mine. I jam my notebook under the laptop before she can see it.
“When are you taking the MCATs?”
The question seems absent-minded, like she’s just making conversation while the reading for the next class loads on her screen, but when I don’t respond she looks at me sharply.
“You are taking the MCATs, right? You are pre-med?”
“Yeah, that’s what I said. I just haven’t decided yet.”
She stares at me. “Why aren’t you stressing about this? You have to sign up for a prep course now so you can take it by March. You have to line up your letters of recommendation. You have to draft your personal statement.” She’s ticking things off on her fingers.
“Really? You’re already working on your statement?” I snicker, folding my arms over my chest. Because the best defense is a good offense. “Let me guess. Your little brother is allergic to peanuts and you owe it to him to specialize in autoimmune disorders so future generations won’t suffer as he has.”
She pushes her glasses up her nose and her cheeks flush. “How dare you? You have no idea what my brother went through before he passed away!” She hangs her head and makes a little gasping sound.
I straighten, aghast. “Oh my God, Rachel. Really? I had no idea….” I trail off as her face lifts.
“Fuck you,” I grumble, but I can’t help grinning and she laughs. She’s got a great laugh.
“You know peanut allergies are serious, Yuri.”
I sigh and lean back in my chair, studying her. “I know. That was funny/not funny. What are you going to write your statement about? See, I’m being polite and expressing normal interest here.”
“Hmm.” She doesn’t look impressed. “Grey’s Anatomy?” One eyebrow lifts.
“I bet they’ve never ever heard that before.”
“Right? I want to be the first one.”
“Go for it.”
“What about you? How are you going to stand out from the hordes?” She’s smiling again.
“I’m going to go with being the only applicant named Yuri. You know they have quotas for everything, right? I mean, it wouldn’t work for a Rachel, but I’m lucky that way.”
She nods solemnly. “Go for it.”
We both seem to realize at the same moment that we’ve gotten off track and we turn back to her computer awkwardly. We go over the next reading and I hear all about her coursework: the experiment she’s supposed to design for her Junior Honors Seminar and the T.A. in her advanced genetics course who can barely stay ahead of the class. My attention drifts and I try to pull it back.
“That’s a grad course. Why are you taking it?”
She blinks at me. “To get ahead for next year, dummy.” She winces. “Sorry.”
I’m amused. “Sorry for calling me stupid? Or sorry you’re so boring? Don’t you have anything else to talk about besides med school?”
“Okay, I’m not sorry for calling you stupid. And don’t tell me you’ve figured out how to be pre-med and have a life.” She shakes her head until some hair comes loose of her braid and floats over her cheek. She blows it away with a huff.
“I have a life!” It depends on how you define it, but sure.
Rachel doesn’t even say anything. She just gives me a skeptical look. “Then you can’t really want to go to med school. If you really wanted it, it would be your whole life. It would have to be.” She sounds a little wistful.
“I do want it. That’s always been the plan.” I can’t think of anything else to say and I should be better prepared for this. But her eyes seem so knowing, like she can see into my brain…and I’ve been talking way too much.
“Fine! Have it your way. But don’t think you’re fooling me for one minute.”
Panic floods me and I tense up, my eyes darting to hers. What the fuck?? With a sigh she seems to back down, rambling on about our study plan and how we’ll divide up our time to cover this thing and that thing by the midterm. It all goes in one ear and out the other because I’m starting to realize that this is going to be harder than I thought.
CHAPTER THREE: Rachel
My favorite course is Advanced Genetics because [?!?] I have a passion for genetic research and hope to go into biomedical engineering. It’s a field discipline where women female scientists can make a difference can stand out will could excel… Crap!—RachelBerman1stdraft.doc
“It doesn’t make sense! He doesn’t make sense!”
“Are you even listening to me?” I march up the stairs to my room, still a little out of breath from my work out.
I roll my eyes as I shift the phone from one ear to the other and dig my keys out of my waistband. I use one hip to push open the door and shift my phone back again.
“You see what I mean?” There’s a long pause. “Holly??”
I hear the rustle of motion through the phone. “Oops! Sorry! I’m going into another room now. Noah got out of the shower and…”
“Oh my God! Stop it!” I can hear my brother laughing in the background. Then a door slamming. I’m grossed out but also happy for whatever it is they have now. Noah’s had it bad for Holly since he met her and I’m glad things are finally working out for them, even if they don’t seem to know what to call it yet.
“Okay, now I’m listening, I swear! You said you’re tutoring this guy and he’s weird. I got that. If he’s perving on you you should tell someone, Rachel.”
I flop backwards onto my bed and stare at the ceiling. “No, it’s not that.” I struggle to explain what an enigma Yuri is. “It’s his test. And his attitude. They don’t match up.”
“Maybe he’s just lazy. Or he has issues with schoolwork or something. Or he had an off day. There are lots of reasons why people don’t do as well as they should on some test. Why do you even care? Just meet him and get it over with. Wait, is he hot? Are you into him, Rachel?” Her voice rises to a squeal and I can hear my brother grumbling in the background. Great.
“No! That’s not what I mean either! I can’t explain it.”
I close my eyes in frustration and I can see him. Yuri. The alarm he couldn’t hide when I said he wasn’t fooling me. His gray eyes widened and he almost flinched. Then there was his weird attitude when we went over his wrong answers. He didn’t have any questions. He just listened to my explanations and nodded. This must suck for him but he didn’t complain or resist.
Maybe Holly’s right and he has some “issue,” but what could it be? I turn over options in my head, like flipping through flashcards. But I’m on edge because it doesn’t matter if he has “issues.” I just want to know what’s up with him. Because he's so confusing. That’s all.
While I’m mulling this over I hear more scuffling over the phone, then my brother’s voice.
“Hey, Rache. What’s going on?”
I inhale. “You know.”
“So…” He doesn’t have to finish.
I exhale. “Yeah, I’m fine. Don’t worry.”
“I know, Noah!” I hate it when he worries about me, but of course I worry about him too. It goes with the territory. And I already know he just wants me to be happy.
“Another jock.” His voice is glum and I can hear Holly in the background again.
I shake my head though he can’t see me. I can’t help smiling. “Nope! He’s in my bio elective and….” I pause, think, and face palm myself. Valichenko. I’m such a dope!
“Can I have Holly back?” I finish carefully. Noah makes that reluctant sound I’ve heard a zillion times. There’s next to zero chance I’ve hidden anything from him, but I’ll try anyway.
“Wow. That was a prime example of Twin Talk,” Holly says, sounding awed. She teases me and Noah about that a lot. And we take it because we both love her. Maybe it is a little hard for others to understand how Noah and I understand each other. Noah and I aren’t really alike as much as we are akin. I thank the stars above that he’s with someone who’s not threatened by that. And who makes him so, so happy. He deserves it. They deserve each other. But I’m straying from the urgent point at hand.
“Okay, okay! Just don’t tell him Yuri’s an athlete, okay?” It’s just easier.
Holly snorts. “He got that, Rachel.” Her voice is dry and I hear Noah in the background again. She can’t keep anything from him anyway. I learned that the hard way when I told her about my last hook up and got an earful from my brotherabout using protection…. Better not to share too much.
“I gotta go!” I announce, jumping up from the bed. It’s true. I have only twenty minutes to shower and get out the door to bio class, where I can collect more intel. Without waiting for Holly’s reply I end the call and start stripping off my sweaty clothes, brain racing.
The leaves are starting to turn and a cooler breeze ruffles my still damp hair. I didn’t have time to finish drying it but that’s not too noticeable in my usual braid. When I get to the lecture hall I scan the room for Yuri. It takes me three passes to find him. He’s sitting on an aisle way over to the side. No wonder I never noticed him before.
“Excuse me. Sorry. How’s it going?” I mumble to people as I push my way across the room. Finally I plop into the seat next to Yuri’s and absorb his look of surprise. Today he’s wearing a huge hoodie that hangs to his thighs, track pants, and high tops. I should have seen it earlier. I really should have. He’s long and lean too, though not NBA-tall.
“Number 16,” I say, chin up. It’s an accusation.
“Huh?” Those gray eyes have narrowed though. His dark hair is just long enough that he’s tucked it behind his ears.
“You’re on the basketball team.” When he doesn’t respond I lean over to see what he was doing and he slams a notebook shut. It’s one of those bound books with blank pages and I guess it’s another thing he doesn’t want to share.
“I saw the game against Maplewood last year. Number sixteen with six assists. Impressive.” I’m annoyed at him and I’m not even sure why. I look up to where the professor is setting up the lesson. I feel Yuri’s gaze on my profile.
“You’re a basketball fan?” His voice is low and skeptical. I press my lips together to stifle my reaction. I get that a lot.
Gunderson starts talking and I’m saved from responding because I don’t know what to say. I make a show of getting out my notebook and writing the date in big swirling letters across the top of an empty page. Yuri pulls out a different notebook and mimics my motions with his left hand. He leans back in his chair, writes for a moment, then leans forward again until I can feel him almost at my shoulder. I tense. He seems bigger now that he’s so close.
“Why are you so annoyed?” He sounds confused, concerned even, and I know I won’t be able to explain it. I blink and shake my head as I shush him into silence. He leans back in his chair again and we spend the rest of the class without exchanging another word.
When we meet up the next time I’m distracted. I hate to admit it (and I’d never admit it to my brother) but learning he plays ball changed my attitude toward him. Suddenly I’m aware of him like I wasn’t before. I just notice more. His long legs when he stretches out in his chair. The way his body tapers from shoulder to waist. He’s not built like the football players I’ve gone for recently. Basketball players are long-limbed, with big hands and lean muscles. Not that I can see much of Yuri, but I’m aware of the way he moves now. And I’ve seen him play; I’d just forgotten. He’s not flashy, but he’s fast and focused. Yes, focused is a good word for him.
“Have you always played point?” I ask, then flush immediately. We are analyzing different methods of setting up clinical trials and my mind wandered.
He frowns, tapping a pencil against the table. He always seems to be holding one. Who writes in pencil?
“You follow basketball?”
Now I frown. Why is it always so hard dragging information out of him? “Is it a state secret?”
“You’re not answering me either.”
We eye each other and break into smiles at the same moment. “You’re a Russian spy,” I gasp.
He leans forward and mutters something in a foreign language. It’s kind of sexy.
I’m delighted. “You really speak Russian? What did you say?”
He smirks, one side of his mouth twisting adorably. “If I tell you I’d have to kill you.”
“No, really.” I’m giggling now but I can’t help myself.
“Really. I said if I tell you I’d have to kill you.” We both laugh and I realize I enjoy this time with him, despite the pressure hanging over me.
“Where are you from? How do you know Russian?”
His expression stills again.
“Oh come on, Yuri! Give me something— Don’t be a total cliché."
He heaves an exaggerated sigh. “My parents are from the Ukraine. We speak Russian at home.”
“Wow.” I’m impressed. “Was it your first language? Your English is perfect. I wish I were bilingual! Four years of Spanish and I can’t even follow Sabado Gigande.”
“Hey, I grew up in Brooklyn -- I’ve got English.” He looks annoyed so I put up both hands in surrender.
“Okay, okay! I’m sorry. It just seems glamorous to me since my life is so boring.” I sign quotation marks around the words and his expression eases.
“No more stalling,” he says sternly, arms crossed over his chest again. “Answer my question.”
“Okay. I follow basketball.” I raise my eyebrows in challenge and then he raises his. He makes a hand gesture for me to continue but the stare off continues for a few moments. Until I get a little flustered and break it.
“I have friends who play.”
“Here?” He looks surprised.
I shake my head.
I feel my face heat further. “What is this? Twenty questions?”
“Seriously, Rachel? What’s the matter? You were totally annoyed this morning when you found out I played.” He shakes his head and starts collecting his books. We’re almost done anyway, but I realize I’m offending him.
“Syracuse,” I bite out. “UConn.”
His eyes widen and it’s kind of cute.
I nod and he asks the question I’ve been dreading.
I study my fingernails. “Deirdre Ballister was my best friend in high school.”
The eyebrows skyrocket and I can see the pieces click into place. That’s the thing. Yuri is way too smart to be failing bio!
“You went to Castleton.” I nod and he looks wary. “So you’re friends with Ty Riley too.” It’s another statement.
I shrug. My high school has a national rep now.
“Rachel…” His voice holds a warning tone I’m starting to recognize. “Why the secrecy? I know he’s a big deal, but what’s that got to do with you?”
“Nothing.” I sound sullen and bitter because I am. Yuri still looks confused but his gaze hasn’t left my face.
“Is he entering the draft this year like they say?”
“How would I know?” I dig for a tissue at the bottom of my bag and take off my glasses to clean the lenses, looking down at my lap. This will feel more manageable when Yuri is a big blurry blob.
His hand grips my chin and turns me to face him, looming near enough that I can see he’s studying me closely and looking deep into my now unguarded eyes. “Because you just said you’re friends with him?”
I take a deep breath, feeling a little shaky. “I didn’t say we’re friends. You did. I’m friends with Dede. Or I was.” That stings too. I plow forward because Yuri’s right. What’s the big deal? Just because I don’t like to talk about it doesn’t mean it’s a secret. “Ty is my ex.”
Yuri blinks and his hand drops away from my chin. I’m not surprised. “You’re kidding.”
“Why? Because he’s a big bad basketball star and I’m a boring pre-med? Because he’s going to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated and I’m not in the swimsuit issue? Because he’s black and I’m white?” I challenge.
I remember this is why I don’t like to talk about Ty. Yuri is shaking his head slowly.
“Noooo,” he starts. Then stops.
“Then what?” I tip my chin up and cross my arms over my chest as I’ve seen him do. He doesn’t answer so I grab my backpack and start shoving things into it haphazardly.
“Look at the time! I’ve got to go.” I pause to glare at him. “But next time answer those questions before we meet. Don’t half-ass this and waste my time.”
He pushes his hair back off his forehead and slumps backward. “I don’t get it. Why are you angry with me? Is it him? Ty? I’ve met him. He seems like a good guy.”
I look at Yuri, startled. “He is. He’s a great guy.”
This doesn’t seem to appease Yuri though, who clenches his jaw and throws his hands in the air. “Then what the fuck’s your problem?”
Anger rises in me and I know it’s irrational. “He’s an ex. Don’t you have exes who stir you up? It has nothing to do with you!”
His head goes back as if I’ve slapped him and he rises to his feet, so close that he towers over me. He’s not as tall as Ty but he’s got five inches on me and he’s glaring.
“Nope. Not biting.” In one swift motion he grabs his things and pivots away from me. My heart is pounding and I’m still not sure why I’m so agitated. But like I said, this stirs me up. And does this mean he has exes, or not? A girlfriend, or not? I chew my lip and watch him go, wondering what just happened.
CHAPTER FOUR: Yuri
What the hell just happened? Rachel’s mad and I don’t know why. I’m mad and I don’t know why. I’m so wound up that I head to the gym to shoot for a while. It’s calming. Over the next few days she sends me snarky texts reminding me to study for the practice midterm. I don’t bother to reply. I can handle this and I don’t need her help. I was cooperating with this bullshit because I didn’t want to jeopardize her recommendation letter. But fuck that. I’ve got enough to worry about without taking on her problems too.
As if on cue, my cell rings as soon as I get back to my room. I groan when I see my mom’s name but I can’t avoid her forever.
“Da?” I slip into Russian.
“Yuri, when are you coming home?”
“Thanksgiving, Ma. I told you. We have games….”
“They take too much of your time, those games. I saw Katya and she said Dima is already applying. He has a list of schools and a transcript and letters.”
Fucking Dmitri! This is just what I need tonight. I pull out my notebook and flip to an open page. I’m still sweaty and stressed out but drawing will help. I listen to my mom and make all the right noises until she runs out of steam.
“You know your father and I only want what’s best for you, Yuri. You know what it means to us.”
“You can do so many things! You have so much freedom and opportunity! And you will be such a wonderful doctor.”
I make another vague noise as I feel my whole life slipping away from me. Yeah. Freedom…. Opportunity. “I’ll be home for Thanksgiving, Ma. We’ll talk and sort this out. I promise.” I’ll steel myself this time.
“You’re such a good son! I’m so proud of you!” She sniffs a little and just like that I weaken again as I get off the phone.
How can I take her dreams away from her? It’s just work, right? If I spend forty hours a week at it (unlikely for a doctor, but whatever) I’d still have 128 left for myself…. I fight the urge to laugh hysterically because I don’t know what else to do. I bear down on the pencil until it almost snaps and stare at the drawing I made. It’s a grid with cross-hatched lines of various thicknesses. But right now it just looks like the window of a prison cell.
“What the fuck, Yuri? A 72?”
Rachel enters the cafe like a whirling storm, her eyes snapping at me and her hair coming loose from a ponytail. She wears it in a braid so much that I hadn’t realized how long it was. Her cheeks are flushed and she balls her fists as she stands over me, glaring.
I take a sip of my tea and resolve not to get baited this time. I’m usually pretty calm, pretty quiet but Rachel gets me talking too much. I close my notebook carefully.
“It’s better than the 60 I got last time.” In fact, it’s exactly the score I was aiming for so I’m pleased. Even though it’s just for practice.
Rachel deflates, sinking into a chair across from me. She chews on her lip, studying me. It makes me nervous when she does that. I shift my legs and shove my hands in my pockets, hoping to wait her out. And for a while it works.
“Why?” Her voice when it comes is quiet.
I look away and inhale. “What do you mean?”
She sighs and when I look back her fingers are laced together on the table. With the glasses and her hair pulled back she could be an earnest schoolgirl. I’m kind of amazed at the transformation. A minute ago she was a warrior maiden on a rampage. Honestly, it was kind of hot and that makes me uneasy. Now she’s appealing in a totally different way and that makes me even uneasier.
“Why aren’t you trying?”
I hesitate. If I lie she’ll see through me, and besides it’s not like I want her to think I can’t do this. Though why I care about her good opinion I do not know. So I hedge. “I am.”
“No. You’re not. You’re way smarter than this and we talked through those questions and you know the answers. So you’re throwing this game and I don’t know why.”
Her eyes hold mine and they’re super intense now. It’s like I can see her brain whirling away and maybe she can see mine. I swallow and say nothing. Because sometimes that works for me.
“You don’t want to go to med school. You don’t want to be a doctor, do you?”
Fucking hell! How does she do that? She must read something else on my face now because she goes all soft.
“Oh Yuri, don’t do this to yourself. Just admit it.” She sounds sad and it bothers me. I need to toughen up.
“You sound like a child now, you know that, right?” There’s a glimmer of a smile on her face, which is heartening even if it’s a sad, resigned smile.
“Yeah,” I smile a little too and our eyes hold. Then she sighs again.
“I really need that letter -- and Gunderson has tied it to your grade. Can’t you just work for the midterm then tank the tests after that? I’m sure you can fail the final, can’t you?” Her lips lift a little more as we both appreciate the absurdity of this conversation.
“I can’t actually fail the class or I’ll get kicked off the basketball team.” She may as well understand the whole picture. I’ve never talked to anyone about my ridiculous juggling act and it’s kind of a relief.
She laughs and her face lights up. “Wow. You’re good! So you’ve managed a steady C in all your pre-med classes? Enough to stay on the team but not good enough to get into med school? I’m impressed.”
Warmth fills my chest and I feel better already. “It’s not that hard,” I protest.
But it is and we both know it and smile at each other again. It’s like we’re sharing a hilarious joke, though both of our futures are at stake.
As if she realizes that too her expression shifts again. “Please, Yuri? Just the midterm and we’ll be done with this. You won’t have to deal with me any more.”
That doesn’t sound so great actually. I shake my head, not trusting myself to speak. My fingers itch and my hands feel empty but I can’t watch her and draw at the same time.
She bites her lip again, and again I can see her thinking, mulling over her options. It’s like they’re written on her creamy skin, just visible through the faint flush. I flash back to the memory of the moment she took off her glasses and I saw her eyes close up. They’re the warmest softest brown, like chocolate, with the longest darkest lashes….
“Why should you do this for me, after all? If you don’t care about the grade then there’s nothing in it for you.” She mutters to herself. “So what could you get out of it? What do guys want?” She still seems to be talking to herself and I’m starting to feel like an asshole. I open my mouth to stop her because I can just do this to help her out when she opens hers too.
“A blow job.”
My jaw drops and Rachel turns beet red. I wait for the words to mean something else but they hang there still meaning what I think they mean.
“What?” I manage finally, like I’m choking on something.
Rachel twists her hands together. “Umm.” She can’t even look at me and that’s probably a good thing because this is awkward as hell. So I take pity on her.
“Ha ha. Very funny.”
Her chin goes up in a way I’m starting to recognize. It means don’t fuck with me and it makes me want to fuck with her. Like now. When I shouldn’t be thinking about fucking at all.
“Would it work?” she demands, her eyes raised in challenge.
And I have no idea what to say. What’s the right answer here? This whole game has depended on me knowing the right and wrong answers but now I have no clue. I gape at her and her eyebrows rise.
“Of course it would,” she says smugly. It’s enough to get my brain working again. And my eyes dropping to her lips, which are pink and look soft. I clear my throat.
“We are not sitting here talking about exchanging grades for sexual favors, Rachel. That’s so wrong. Let’s be clear on that.” I try to sound as stern as possible.
“No, we’re not. I don’t grade the tests! This is just to…incentivize you.”
I grimace. “I think I’ve been insulted."
She frowns and tucks a curl behind one ear. I wonder what her hair would look like loose.
“Why?” She drums her fingers on the table and continues before I can explain why it’s insulting that she thinks I can be so easily manipulated. “It shouldn’t be too easy for you though. Let’s say you get an A on the midterm and I’ll give you a blow job. Deal?”
“You sure you give A-level blow jobs?” I smirk, hoping to cover my discomfort and keep from squirming in my chair.
“Yes,” she says, looking me straight in the eye. The tip of her tongue darts out, maybe involuntarily. And holy shit, that’s hot! While I’m still reeling she flips open her laptop. “Now,” she says calmly. “Let’s get to work.”
Maybe I can be manipulated pretty easily after all.