The Force of Gravity(8)

By: Kelly Stevenson

Oh, I’m in trouble all right. She seems to have bought it, though. I mean, technically, that is what we were talking about, so it’s not a complete lie.

“You’re not going, are you?” she says as she cracks open her soda. “It’s on a Friday night!”

“I’m thinking about it,” I admit.

Tommy breaks his silence. “Don’t you have an A in that class?”

I feel the heat on my face betray me. “Um, yeah, but it’s still a hard class. In fact, I just got an eighty-one on my last test. And besides, he said I would be a big help.”

“So, wait,” says Emily. “Are you going because you want help? Or are you going because you want to help out?” She winks at me, and I silently curse my face as I feel it blush.

“I dunno—I mean . . . both, I guess.”

“Well, you can tell him that I’d love to be his big help,” gushes Emily dramatically.

Derek turns to her. “What the hell, babe?”

Emily laughs and throws her tater tot at him. “What? You jealous?”

“Please. What do you want an old man for when you’ve got this?” He flexes his arm and grabs her around the waist. She giggles and they fall into a kiss.

Someone behind me shouts, “Get a room!”

Tommy leans forward. “I thought we were going to the movies on Friday night.”

“Oh, right,” I say, hoping he doesn’t sense my disappointment.

Emily breaks away from Derek. “Thank God, Kay! If you were going to ditch us and Ryan Gosling for a study session on a Friday night, I’d have to disown you.”

I try to smile, then turn to my lunch. I don’t know what I was thinking. Whenever the boys have a game-free Friday night, the four of us have automatic plans. A study session with Mr. Slate—and his forearms—will probably never happen. Why does that bother me so much? I shove my uneaten food back into my lunch sack.

“I have to go to the library,” I say to Tommy. “See you after school?”

“Yeah, I’ll see you then,” he says, his eyes guarded.

I give him a light peck on the cheek and stand up. As I leave the table, I throw out my untouched food and catch Tommy’s concerned eyes lingering on the trash can as I walk away.

BY THE TIME my parents get home, I’m deep into my homework and have forgotten all about the family meeting. When they call me downstairs, dread washes over me. Are they finally going to address their fighting? Or worse—what if they’re getting a divorce? No, not my parents. I push the unbidden thought out of my head.

They’re sitting in the formal living room when I make my way down the stairs. My mom looks worried, my dad tense. No words pass between us as I take my seat on the leather couch.

“Just spit it out,” I say quietly. Whatever terrible news they’re about to give me, I’d rather they rip it off like a Band-Aid than drag it out. I slide my hands in between my knees as suspense suffocates the room.

My dad leans forward in the chair across from me and takes a deep breath. “We need to talk to you about college.”

“College?” I say, dumbfounded.

“We’re so proud of you for getting into USC, Kay. You should be really proud of yourself.” Something in his tone sets off my inner alarms.

“I am,” I say.

He hesitates like he’s struggling to find the right words. After a period of thick, awkward silence, my mom shifts in her seat on the other end of the couch and speaks for him.

“Kaley,” she says softly. “We can’t afford it, sweetie.”

A sudden coldness hits me at my core. “What?”

I don’t understand. With my mom working as a hairdresser and my dad managing a small hardware store, I know we aren’t exactly rich. But we definitely aren’t poor.

“Kaley,” my dad finally speaks up, “the University of Southern California is over sixty grand a year.”

The University of Southern California? What, is he avoiding the abbreviation for dramatic affect?

“Yeah, I know that.” I try to choose my words carefully. “But tuition hasn’t exactly changed in the last few months. You knew the cost when I applied.” I look back and forth between them. “I don’t understand. You’ve always wanted me to go to college.”

“And we still do,” my dad replies. “ASU is a good school, Kay.”

“ASU? Why do I have to go to ASU?” I try to stay composed, but my voice rises. “You’ve never put limits on what college I could go to!”

“We never really talked about it,” my mom says gently.

“I can’t believe this,” I say, gaping at them. They’ve been pushing college on me my entire life—silly me for assuming they were prepared for it. A thread of ire weaves through me. “So tell me something. Why have I been busting my butt in school? Why have I been wasting my time with student council and community service? What was it all for? Why did you even let me apply?” I exclaim.

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