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The Dean’s List

By:Kelly Collins

Chapter One

I’M TOLD SEX SELLS. Tell that to the cheap bastards who came to The Grind and gawked at the bikini baristas only to leave their drool on the counter and a quarter in the tip jar. While I frothed their coffees, they fantasized. While I heated their cinnamon buns, they stared. My value had been reduced to the change in their pockets.

I dumped the jar that contained way more quarters than dollars on the table. The change clattered across the worn Formica and plopped onto the pleather bench of my favorite booth. It was here that I tallied my tip totals while the afternoon sunlight slanted in the window.

Today was a bear market day. Forty dollars would hardly pay my weekly transportation costs. How was I supposed to make my rent and eat? When I opened the cupboard this morning the shelves were bare except for the box of microwave popcorn and the remnants of Cornflakes strewn across the soiled contact paper. Hunger gripped my stomach. Food had become a luxury item I simply couldn’t afford. How long could I endure?

Pride had kept me from asking for help, but I was going to have to call Jade. From the little I’d seen of her lately, she’d appeared to be weathering the economic downslope better than I. She’d have a plan, she always did. I dropped my head to the table with a thunk, closed my eyes, and silently asked the universe for a solution.

“River, are you trying to knock yourself out?” Jade’s appearance startled me. I’d been asking for a solution and here she was, standing in the center of the dead coffee shop with the smell of stale coffee and burned toast filling the air.

Without effort, she slid in beside me and dragged me into her thirty-eight double Ds. The way she stayed upright defied everything I’d learned in physics.

“Oh, Jade, I’m so glad you’re here.” Catlike eyes the color of moss peeked from behind the curtain of her raw, honey-colored hair. “I’m running out of options. I need a real job, and I need it now. I need one that pays a shitload of cash and lets me off when I have to study. Classes start next week. I need a miracle.” Desperation accented every syllable. I wasn’t one to exaggerate and Jade knew it. For me to say things were bad, they had to be beyond dismal.

“Girl, there aren’t any miracles, only solutions. How bad is it?”

“This month I have to decide if I want to eat or ride the bus. It’s a conundrum because if I walk I get hungry, if I ride the bus I get hungry. I’m just so tired of being hungry.” I hardly recognized my voice. The whine sounded more like a sulky teen than the independent woman I was. “My student loan is due. My phone is close to being silenced. How in the hell do you survive?”

Jade leaned back, gaining distance. Her expression was guarded. Her eyes skimmed my body. Today was career day at The Grind, and I’d dressed up as a naughty nurse. My stethoscope hung from my neck all the way to my bare belly. My white bra was embellished with two red crosses, one on each breast. My panties had a matching cross that covered my crotch. We pushed the line when it came to city code but a girl had to eat.

Jade eyed the girl behind the counter who was busy studying her recent manicure. On the counter sat her empty tip jar. “You look better than anyone who works here and you’re obviously making more money.”

“This outfit used to make me bank, but with the stupid stock market falling, gourmet coffee isn’t a must-have for a lot of brokers. I’m hoping tomorrow will be better. It’s pasty day.” Maybe if I wore the tassels and gave demos on how they spun, I could make enough to buy a used textbook for my International Business class as well as a bus pass. Big dreamer. At this point, I couldn’t afford the lead in my mechanical pencil.

It hadn’t always been this bad. I’d lost the Sunday shift from last semester, and with fewer tips, which had previously been an added bonus, my situation had become dire.

She gave me a warm, sisterly look—the kind that said, I could take care of this. And I was desperate enough to want to climb inside Jade’s world and take shelter. She had it together. Somehow.

“What if I could help you get a job where you wore more clothes, most of the time, and made more money in a week than you do in a month?” Jade spoke in one long sentence, her pitch rising to the finish. When she reached the end, she held her breath and waited.

“I’d tell you to sign me up. It would have to be a step up from working here. The average customer at The Grind is middle-aged, white collar, and horny. Nice enough, but they don’t come for the coffee.” Yep, the brew was just a bonus.

Jade looked out the window seemingly absorbed by the rush of Wall Street traders racing back from lunch. She let out her breath, and then inhaled until I thought her lungs might burst. She was sucking in more than oxygen. Courage?