Hate is like an out-of-control wildfire, blazing through a dry forest. It consumes anything and everything in its path. The thick smoke emanating from the flames blinds those who dare to hold such fire in their hearts. Catherine and Rubio have hated each other since the eighth grade, seated close thanks to their last names: Sanchez and Salinas.
They were like two passing ships, aware of each other's existence but floating towards such different destinations there was no need to acknowledge one another . . . until their eighth science teacher placed them in a partnership.
The two partners couldn't be any more different. Catherine was a marvelous student conditioned by her overachiever father to succeed at everything life threw her way. He always said she was destined for greatness. All, of course, if those dazzling straight A's and extracurricular activities were maintained. On the other hand, Rubio was an average student who'd been forewarned by teachers since the third grade that his behavior and attitude would ultimately lead him to nowhere.
Near the end of the period, the teacher gave each group time to discuss topics for the science fair project. Catherine wasn't all too excited about being partnered with a boy, especially one who looked like he didn't care about anything other than video games and girls.
She was willing, though, to make it work. After all the project was worth forty percent of their quarter grade. Rubio sat lazily on the chair, tapping a pencil impatiently against the desk. All the while he avoided Catherine's gaze and glanced multiple times towards the clock.
"What should we do for the science fair?" Catherine smiled.
"I dunno," Rubio replied, shaking golden-brown hair away from his big brown eyes.
Catherine grimaced a bit, "Um, well, we have a lot of options. We can do a behavioral-based project, or maybe test out something like fertilizers and plant growth, or––"
"Let's just do a volcano."
"Volcano? I'm sorry, but we're not in the sixth grade anymore."
Rubio shrugged. Catherine eyed the pencil.
"Any other ideas?" she sighed.
Tap, tap, tap, tap.
"Hey, I'm asking you something. And can you please stop with the pencil?"
Rubio set down the pencil and picked up his red book bag. "You're smart. You pick the project. I don't mind."
"But we're supposed to work on this together."
"Who says we won't?" he replied.
The bell rang and Catherine exhaled, "Fine. We'll talk more over text." She ripped a page from a notebook and jotted down her phone number.
At that moment, Rubio's buddy Ernie strolled up so they could leave school together.
He witnessed the aggressive handling of phone numbers.
"Whoa, whoa, I didn't know Kitty had a thing for you. That's my boy." Ernie laughed, smacking Rubio's shoulder.
Catherine snapped, "My name is not Kitty, and I would never have a thing for him. Goodbye." She snatched her bag.
Rubio glared at Catherine's back as she hurried out of the room. Never? After barely ten minutes of speaking for the first time?
Ernie snickered, "Oof. What did I do?"
"She's just a priss with a brain," Rubio muttered. "Let's go."
Catherine decided to work on a relatively simple project that wouldn't compromise her grade nor ask too much of Rubio's unwilling brain cells. Even with the project's simplicity, she had difficulty getting him to cooperate. He'd answer all her texts late, and at school, he'd leave so hastily she couldn't talk to him about their work. It seemed as if he'd set himself on avoiding it all together.
Two weeks had gone by, and they hadn't begun the experiment. Catherine was determined to put a stop to the lack of progress. As soon as the bell rang, she rushed towards the door and waited for him to come out. Once he did, she followed him all the way to the pickup area.
"Hey, can we talk about the project really quickly? I bought all the materials, researched, wrote the procedure, and listed the steps. What's left is writing the introduction, conclusion, and doing the experiment. I'll leave the intro and conclusion to you. Oh, and I need you to please buy the materials for the science fair presentation."
"I don't have money."
"It really isn't that much."
"Then why don't you buy it?"
"Because I already bought the experiment materials!"
Rubio stopped as people darted their eyes towards them. "Dude, you don't have to yell. I was joking."
"I'm not . . . yelling," she huffed, "But understand that it would be great if you cooperated. I'm already swamped with my other classes and after-school clubs. I really need a hand. Please."
For the first time in weeks, they stared into each other's eyes. Catherine's gaze was one of pleading. Rubio's was full of curiosity.
"Why do you take this all so seriously?" asked Rubio. "It's not like it's gonna matter if you die."
"It's forty percent of our grade," she explained. "Forty. And I'll be dead anyway if I get anything below a C on this."
"I'll do it, alright? My ride's here, bye."
Catherine internally pictured herself kicking his shin. Instead, she waved and smiled, "I'll text you so you can come over and do the thing with me!"
Everyone stared again. Rubio shook his head as he entered the van.
Rubio's mother drove him to Catherine's house, but they lost their way in the fancy-looking neighborhood. He was already fifteen minutes late, though it wasn't his fault that every house was eerily similar.
The beige 2007 van finally rolled to a stop in front of what was clearly Catherine's home. She was waiting in the driveway, her arms crossed and tapping her foot against the concrete. Her stern face quickly changed to a relieved one when Rubio jumped out of the van. Mrs. Salinas forced down the window and gestured for Catherine to come over, making Rubio unhappy.
"Hi! I am Gloria," she said in a thick Spanish accent. "I so happy my son is doing work with you. He never do work."
"Ma, ya vete," Rubio growled for her to leave.
Catherine replied in fluent Spanish, "Don't worry, we'll get an A on this project!"
"You speak Spanish?" Gloria sighed dreamily. "What a lovely girl. How do you learn?"
Rubio glanced at Catherine. He had thought she might be Hispanic by her last name and light olive skin tone. She also had dark brown hair, and her eyes were the color of honey. He was Hispanic himself, but his skin was tanner than hers from playing so much in the sun.
"My dad is Mexican," Catherine smiled politely. "He taught me."
"Oh, just like me! Beautiful, beautiful. Well, you two, do good job! Te recojo más tarde, mijo. Pórtate bien."
Rubio stared at his shoes with embarrassment as he followed Catherine inside. It was a stark difference from his apartment, which had two small rooms and a tiny bathroom. Everything inside of Catherine's home seemed like it'd jumped out of one of those interiors magazines. She had it easy.
"Alright, let's do the experiment. Take notes so you can write the conclusion, okay?"
Rubio referred to the meticulously laid pennies on the kitchen counter. Behind them was a wide range of liquids.
"We're testing which liquids are better cleaners for dirty old pennies. Pretty simple."
"And you didn't want to make a volcano?"
Catherine rolled her eyes then proceeded to go over the experiment process. Rubio only watched as she poured the liquids onto different pennies. She had fixed her eyes on every change and took pictures to document the process. Rubio wondered why she was so set on being a perfectionist. Life is too unpredictable; death could come at any moment.
Catherine glanced at him. "Hey! Write the notes. Look, vinegar is definitely cleaning the penny way better than the other substances. See?"
He walked over, his arm nearly touching hers. He noticed her hair smelled like strawberries. Standing so close to her was strange. She wasn't the type of girl he hung out with – they were usually tough and not as delicate as Catherine appeared.
Rubio did as she said. He tried to neatly write the notes, as if her perfectionism was rubbing off on him, but the nervousness of being so close to her made his hand shake. Halfway through finishing, Catherine's parents arrived home.
Her mother smiled kindly at both of them as she glided past the kitchen, holding bags with expensive clothing store logos. To Rubio's surprise, she was white.
"Don't mind me," she said, "keep on working. I'll come down to order some food for you both later."
A man came into view after her. He stood perfectly straight, and every strand of his black hair was gelled back. He'd groomed his beard to perfection, and his fresh clothes were without a wrinkle. Rubio could tell he was the athletic type by his muscular, tan figure. His very presence gave off an air of pure achievement. He was the sort of man who got what he wanted when he wanted, no questions asked.
He looked Rubio in the eyes as he stretched out a firm hand, "Ernesto Sanchez, Catherine's father."
"Rubio," he replied in a low tone. Mr. Sanchez was nothing like Rubio's father. No, his father gave up too quickly.
"I understand you are doing an important project with my daughter. Heard she had a tough time getting you on board."
"Dad," Catherine pleaded in a shy tone.
Rubio's cheeks darkened to red. "I...I,"
Mr. Sanchez shook Rubio's hand tighter. "I'm glad you've changed your mind. My daughter here is an excellent student. She deserves the best grades. I'm hoping you can help her achieve that."
What could Rubio do? There was no room for excuses, no room for imperfections. All Rubio could think of was how much Mr. Sanchez cared for his daughter's gleaming future, more than Rubio's father ever did.
A foreign seed of anger and disappointment was planted into Rubio's chest, a seed that sprouted when he saw Catherine smiling as her father kissed her cheek.
"Hi, baby girl."
"We'll get a good grade, Mr. Sanchez, I'll make sure of that," Rubio said, matching Mr. Sanchez's previous tone with him.
Mr. Sanchez glanced back at him with a surprised expression. "I'm glad of it. I expect nothing less."
Still, Rubio wondered why these people cared so much in a world that cared little for anyone at all.