Quint Erickson is late.
I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m not surprised. I’d be more surprised if he was actually on time for once. But really? Today? Of all the days?
I’m simmering in my seat, my fingers drumming against the presentation board that’s folded up on our lab table. My attention is divided between watching the clock over the classroom door and silently repeating the words I’ve been memorizing all week.
Our beaches and coastal waters are home to some remarkable species. Fish and mammals and sea turtles and—
“Sharks,” says Maya Livingstone from the front of the room, “have been severely mistreated by Hollywood over the decades. They are not the monsters that humans have made them out to be!”
“Plus,” adds her lab partner, Ezra Kent, “who’s eating who here? I mean, did you guys know people actually eat shark?”
Maya glances at him, frowning. “Mostly just their fins. To be clear.”
“Right! They make soup out of them,” says Ezra. “Shark fin soup is, like, a super delicacy, because they’re, like, chewy and crunchy at the same time. Wrap your head around that! But I mean, I would totally try it.”
Some of our peers pretend to gag in disgust, even though it’s obvious Ezra is trying to get this exact reaction. Most people call him EZ, which I used to think might be a reference to numerous sexual escapades, but now I think it’s just because he has a reputation for being a jokester. Teachers at our school have learned not to seat him and Quint together.
“Anyway,” says Maya, trying to bring their talk back on point. She goes on about the horrible methods by which hunters catch the sharks and cut off their fins, then release them back to the water. Without their fins, they sink to the bottom of the ocean and either suffocate or get eaten alive by other predators.
The whole class grimaces.
“And then they turn them into soup!” Ezra adds, just in case anyone missed that part before.
Another minute goes by. I bite down on the inside of my cheek, trying to calm the nerves twisting inside of me. The same frustrated rant begins to repeat in my head, for the eight millionth time this year.
Quint. Erickson. Is. The. Worst.
I even reminded him yesterday. Remember, Quint, big presentation tomorrow. You’re bringing the report. You’re supposed to help me with the introduction. So, please, for the love of all things good and righteous in this world, this one time, don’t be late.
I’m a busy guy, Prudence. But I’ll do my best.
Right. Because he has so much to do before 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday.
I know I can handle the introduction on my own. I’ve been rehearsing without him, after all. But he’s supposed to bring our papers. The papers that the rest of the class can then stare at while we talk. The papers that will keep their bored, disinterested eyes off me.
The class starts to applaud half-heartedly and I snap back to attention. I bring my hands together for one, two claps, before dropping them to the table. Maya and Ezra gather up their presentation board. I glance at Jude, in the first row, and though I can only see the back of his head, I know his gaze hasn’t left Maya since she stood up, and won’t leave her until she’s sitting back down and he has no choice but to either look away or risk drawing attention to the staring. I love my brother dearly, but his crush on Maya Livingstone has been well-documented since the fifth grade, and—if I’m being honest—has started to seem a little bit hopeless.
He has my sympathy. He really does. She is Maya Livingstone, after all. Pretty much the whole sophomore class has a crush on her. But I also know my brother. He will never have the guts to actually ask her out.
But, back to poor me. Maya and Ezra are dropping into their seats and there’s still no sign of Quint. No sign of the papers that he was supposed to bring with him.
In an act of desperation, I fish my red lipstick from my bag and quickly apply a new layer, just in case it’s started to wear off since I put it on before class. I don’t like to wear a lot of makeup, but a bold lipstick is an instant boost to my confidence. It’s my armor. My weapon.
You can do this, I tell myself. You don’t need Quint.
My heart has started to warble inside my chest. My breaths are quickening. I tuck the tube back into my bag and snatch up my index cards. I don’t think I’ll need them. I’ve practiced so many times, I talk about habitats and environmentalism in my sleep. But having them with me will help calm my jittery nerves.
At least, I think they will. I hope they will.
Until I have the sudden fear that my sweating palms might make the ink bleed, rendering it unreadable, and my nerves kick up into high gear again.
“That brings us to our last presentation of the year,” says Mr. Chavez, giving me a look that’s almost sympathetic. “Sorry, Prudence. We’ve delayed as long as we can. Maybe Quint will join us before you’ve finished.”
I force a smile. “It’s fine. I planned on doing most of the talking anyway.”
It is so not fine. But nothing can be done about it now.
I stand up slowly, tuck the notes into my pocket, and pick up the presentation board and the tote bag I brought full of bonus materials. My hands are shaking. I pause just long enough to fully exhale, to squeeze my eyes tight, to repeat the refrain that I always tell myself when I have to speak or perform in front of people.
It’s just ten minutes of your life, Prudence, and then it will be over and you can move on. Just ten minutes. You can do this.
Opening my eyes, I square my shoulders and make my way to the front of the class.
It’s not that I’m terrible at public speaking. I actually think I’m quite good at it, once I get started. I know how to project my voice so everyone can hear me. I always practice ad nauseum beforehand so I don’t trip over my words, and I work hard to be lively and entertaining.
It’s just the moments before I begin that are dreadful. I’m always convinced that something will go wrong. My mind will go blank and I’ll forget everything. I’ll start to sweat. I’ll turn bright red. I’ll pass out.
But once I get started I’m usually okay. I just have to start … and then, before I know it, the whole thing is over. And I’ll hear what I always hear: Wow, Prudence. You seem so natural up there. You’re such a great presenter. Nicely done.
Words to soothe my frantic soul.
At least, my teachers usually say stuff like that. The rest of my fellow students rarely bother to pay much attention.
Which is perfectly fine with me.
It takes me a few seconds to get set up, balancing the presentation board on the whiteboard tray and tucking my surprise bag of goodies off to the side. Then I pull over the small rolling table with the model I brought in before class started, still draped with a blue sheet.
With my index cards in one hand, I grab the stick that Mr. Chavez uses to point out details on his PowerPoint slides with the other.
I smile at my peers.
I try to catch Jude’s eye, but he’s doodling in his sketchbook and not open to incoming messages.
Gee whiz, Bro. Thanks for the support.
The rest of the class stares back at me, practically comatose with boredom.
My stomach twists.
It’s only ten minutes.
You’re going to be okay.
I take in a breath.
“I was going to have supplementary materials for you guys to look at,” I start. My voice pitches high and I pause to clear my throat before continuing, “So you could follow along with the presentation. But Quint was supposed to bring them and … he’s not here.” My teeth grind. I want to call out the unfairness of this. Everyone else’s partner showed up! But mine simply couldn’t be bothered.
“Oh well,” I continue, swiping the stick dramatically through the air. “Here we go anyway.”
I pace in front of the presentation board and exhale a clipped breath.
Beaming, I launch into my prepared introduction.
“One thing we’ve learned in regard to marine biology, thanks to the exceptional tutelage of Mr. Chavez”—I pause to point enthusiastically at our teacher. He points back at me, with markedly less emotion—“is that we are so lucky here in Fortuna Beach to have access to such thriving marine life. Our beaches and coastal waters are home to many remarkable species. Fish and mammals and sea turtles and sharks—”
“Sharks are fish,” Maya says.
I tense and shoot her a glare. Nothing can throw off a well-rehearsed presentation like an unnecessary interruption.
Interruptions are the enemy.
I reaffix my smile. I’m tempted to start over, but I force myself to get back on track. Fish and mammals and sea turtles and sharks … “Straight down to the rich ecosystems of plankton and plant life found in Orange Bay. These resources are a gift, and it is our responsibility not only to enjoy them, but to protect them. Which is why, for our semester project, Quint and I decided to focus our efforts on”—I pause for dramatic effect—“marine conservation by way of ecotourism!”
With a flourish, I take hold of the blue fabric and whisk it off the display, revealing my handcrafted model of Main Street, Fortuna Beach’s tourism hot spot that runs parallel to the beach and boardwalk.
I can’t resist glancing around to see my classmates’ reactions. A few in the front rows are craning their heads to see the model, but a fair number are staring blankly out the sun-streaming windows or trying to discreetly text with their phones hidden beneath the lab tables.
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