By the time we arrived, I wondered whether I wasn’t too bloated to dance. But Eric wasn’t having it. He pulled me out on the floor and just started boogying. After a few dances, he decided go by the alias “Lothar, King of a Thousand Dances.”
“Can you do the Spinning Pickle?” he asked, spinning himself on one foot until he was so nauseated he had to stop.
“And how about the Injured Duck?” He flapped his elbows up and down, one spasmodically and the other limply, making freaky quack noises.
The charade went on like that, until we were both sweating profusely. I asked Eric if he wanted a beverage and then ambled over toward the concession area. It was there, while reaching for a cup of seltzer—that I heard the lyrical cadence of Lucas Barton’s deep, sonorous voice.
“See, I thought I was supposed to come alone, and then you would come alone, and by the very nature of our mutual aloneness, we would find each other and become de facto prom dates.”
It was the first time he’d spoken to me in I don’t know how long. Every nerve ending in my system started firing little white-hot spurts.
“That’s not the way it works,” I said, keeping my back to him. “You’re supposed to ask me. And then I say yes, or no.”
“Oh,” Luke said. “See, no one ever taught me the rules.”
I turned, slowly, to face him. “About what I said,” I started. “At the coffeehouse that night—”
“It’s okay,” he cut in. “I’m sorry, too.”
I nodded. “So, then . . .”
Luke tapped his fingertips together. “I guess I should probably leave now, since, you know, we’re not allowed to talk in public.”
I rolled my eyes, then smiled. A little. “Ha ha,” I said sarcastically.
Why did he have to look so amazing? Not to take anything away from Eric’s zoot suit, but Luke was on a different level in his black tux, with cummerbund and bow tie, the whole deal. He had morphed from grungy X-Games to comely diplomat.
“So if the restraining order’s up,” he said, “then how come we didn’t come to this thing together?”
“What?” I blurted out. What was I supposed to make of that? “Maybe because you didn’t ask me,” I said, and on cue, my muscles betrayed me, because I jerked a little and spilled some seltzer on my dress.
“Hold on,” Luke said. “Stay right there.” He grabbed a handful of napkins. “Where is it? Here?” Luke started rubbing at the wet spot right above my waistline. I sucked in my breath as my hands started to shake.
“Yeah.” My skin felt like it was melting from the heat. “But, um, it’s okay—it’s just seltzer. You know, the stuff they use to get stains out.”
He backed up, giving me a lopsided grin. “Oh. Right.”
“I don’t get it,” I said, letting out my breath. “Why can’t you just tell me what’s really going on here, with us?”
He shrugged. “Well, we’re at the prom, right? And, let’s see, you just spilled on your dress . . .”
God, he could be so infuriating, always equivocating—only giving an inch, and then taking it back the moment you felt comfortable with it. It wasn’t the way I wanted it to be. It had been a while since I’d known how I felt, but I knew now. And I wanted him to know.
“It’s too bad you can’t be serious for once,” I said. “Because I like you, Luke.”
“I like you, too,” he said.
“I don’t think you understand.” I grabbed him by the wrist. “I like you.” Luke was looking into my eyes, not saying anything. “And I think you like me.”
“Am I wrong about that?” I asked, giving him the chance to disavow before I made a complete idiot of myself.
“No,” he said. “You’re not wrong. I do like you.”
Somehow I still wasn’t sure—if he meant the words, and how he meant them. I thought about Conner and the jokes we’d made about his communications major. Luke and I talked in all these gargantuan vocabulary words, but we never seemed to actually communicate successfully.
Before I could say anything else, Principal Adams’s stentorian voice suddenly filled the auditorium. “Columbus High juniors, it’s time to reveal your prom king and queen.”
The announcement reminded me that I was actually here with a date, who I was sort of ditching at the moment. Looking over at the dance floor, I saw Eric watching me and felt a major stab of guilt.
“Look, I’ve gotta—”
“Go,” Luke said. “We can talk later.”
As I walked away from him, gliding through a sea of darkened faces and couples holding hands, I felt an odd mixture of relief and dread.
Eric smiled when I reached him, and he took my hand while we waited to hear whose names Prinicipal Adams would read.
“Your prom queen this year is . . . Nicola Abrams!”
I clapped until my hands hurt, then ran up and gave her a huge hug before she made her way to the stage. I was so psyched for her. She totally deserved it—she was the most beautiful Junior Prom Queen to ever don a tiara. And when her royal counterpart—Prom King—was announced, I’m not ashamed to admit my gratification that it was neither Jeremy Malone nor Luke Barton.
The rest of prom was pretty uneventful, and then the main after-prom party was out at Jack Russell’s lot. I couldn’t convince Eric to accompany me. He said he was too introverted and misanthropic, and he knew the party would just depress him. He gave me a kiss on the cheek, thanked me for the best night he’d had in a decade and went off to hang with his alterna friends. I’d heard many fables of debauchery from parties out at Russell’s lot, because it was remote enough that cops were less inclined to bust it.
“This should be it right here,” I said.
“Where?” Nikki said. “All I see is trees.”
“I’m not sure exactly, but we just passed Youth Camp back there, so the driveway should be right here on our . . .”
Nikki jammed on the breaks so hard I thought the air bags were going to balloon out and smack her and Dennis in the face. “That’s it, right?” she said.
Off to our left was an empty black hole in the trees and what appeared to be a gravel driveway. Still no cars in sight. We pulled into the driveway and followed it through a dark, tree-lined passage.
“This is total serial killer territory,” Nikki said. “Maybe we should turn around.”
“Just drive a little farther,” Dennis said.
Soon enough, we saw traces of civilization. A few cars were parked off to the side of the road. We parked next to them and walked toward a luminescent orange light and the sound of music. As we grew closer, the light revealed itself as a gigantic, crackling conflagration.
“Yo whassup, ladies!” someone yelled at us from the porch of an archaic log cabin. It was Jack Russell, a senior who, before this year, was either unaware of or indifferent to my existence. “Welcome. Help yourself to whatever you want.”
No other girls had arrived yet, so a congregation of guys encircled us, even with Dennis there. Some dude named Dave, whom I’d seen in the halls but never met, decided that we were fast friends and kept offering to re-fill my soda cup.
“You wanna go check out the lake?” Dave finally asked in a suspiciously ardent tone.
“Oh come on. It’s really beautiful. Check out the full moon.”
I looked up and saw a big luminous circle looking down at us. “Yeah. It is pretty.”
“Let’s go check it out,” Dave cajoled.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Come on, Francesca.” It was Nikki. “Let’s go check out the bonfire.”
“Thanks for the rescue,” I said as we walked away.
“No problem. The next guy who asks you to go check out the lake with him, give me the rescue signal. Just go like this.” Nikki touched her finger to her nose. It was so nice to have her back on my team.
“Got it,” I said. “Thanks.”
Before we could get to the fire, Nikki saw one of her dance friends. “Congratulations, Queen!” They ran toward each other and started hugging and talking. I sat on a log by the fire and stared into it, sipping my soda. I sat there, focusing on one particular ember and the way the heat seemed to pulsate through it in almost imperceptible wavelike motions. Fires were mesmerizing, more so than people. I’d discovered I wasn’t the party type way back in eighth grade. Whenever I went to one, I tended to recoil into my own little world like this.
“Fire’s cool,” a voice said, following it up with a Beavis-and-Butthead cackle. “Fire, fire, fire!”
I looked up. Luke was standing over me, smiling.
“Hey,” I said, totally flummoxed by his sudden presence above me.
“You mind if I sit down?” he asked.
“Not at all.”
Luke sat beside me. “Looks like you’re having a pretty rockin’ time.”
“Oh, shut up,” I said and punched him in the shoulder. “Go get me another soda.”
“Ginger ale?” he asked, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
He came back with a ginger ale for me, and a beer for him. “Cheers,” he said.
“Cheers.” We went to clink cups, but they just kind of smushed into each other.
“This is going to be my one and only beer tonight, because I’m driving,” Luke said.
“Such a mature boy.”
He smirked. “Yeah, too bad they can’t all be like me. Francesca, I wanted to say that I’m sorry about, you know, the way the whole Jeremy thing ended up.”
“It’s all right. We were gonna break up eventually anyway. Things happen for a reason, I guess.”
“Yeah, but I mean the way it happened. That was pretty lame of him.”
My brow furrowed. “What do you mean?” I asked. “What do you know about it?”
Luke looked trapped. His eyes darted around deviously for a second and then he buried his face in his cup.
“No, really,” I said. “Enlighten me.”
“No I mean . . . you know . . . I just heard.”
“What did you hear?”
“Luke. I wanna know what you heard. Tell me.”
“You really do?”
“Okay . . .” Luke exhaled. “I heard that you went to a hotel.”
“And . . . you had sex.”
I felt breath force its way out my nostrils. “And?”
“And it was your first time.”
“Is that it?”
“And then he broke up with you.”
“You asked what I heard. That’s what I heard.”
“Who’d you hear it from?” I asked. “A reliable source?”
“A couple of Jeremy’s friends on the team. They said he told them.”
There were no thoughts, just a surge of unmitigated fury. My body puffed up as if I’d been infused with extra pints of blood. I must have kicked the cup as I stood up because my foot felt wet. It squeaked as I charged off. I walked up to the first stooge in sight.
“Where’s Jeremy?” I asked. Judging from the way he warily stepped back, I must have looked psychotic.
“He’s right over there.” He pointed.
The gap between us closed quickly. How dare you start such a disparaging rumor about me, you duplicitous sack of dung. Thought you’d avenge your bruised ego, huh? You think you got me, but you don’t even see me right now. You have no idea. My first contact was with the cup raised to his treacherous lips. I smacked it with the palm of my hand and beer splashed everywhere.
“Hey!” someone yelled. “Cool out!”
The second contact was a decisive knee to the groin. Jeremy was too busy processing the first blow to prepare for the second one. I doubt he saw much of anything, as he lay there crumpled up on the ground, moaning. “What the hell’s wrong with you?” he cried out.
“Nothing,” I said. “Feeling much better now.”
“What did you do that for?”
“It’s what you get for lying.”
“What?” Jeremy squeaked.
“Attention, everyone!” I yelled out. “Let the record show that I never had sex with this guy!” I pointed at Jeremy.
“Oooohhh . . .”
I started to walk away, wiping the beer off on my jeans, which I’d changed into after the prom. I could feel that everyone was watching me.
“Lying? Lying! LYING!”
I turned around. Jeremy was on his feet, rushing toward me.
“You’re talking to me about lying when you’ve been hooking up with—” He pointed at Luke, who was standing just a few feet away. “— him—the whole time we were going out together.”
“You’re crazy,” I said. “That never happened.”
“Oh, please! You’re so full of it, both of you. You planned this whole thing to make me look like the bad guy. But I know the truth! Everyone knows the truth!”
Red blotches appeared on Jeremy’s cheeks, and he ran right up to Luke and got in his face. “You think you’re cute? You always got a line for everything. Got one lined up for when I pop you in the nose, chief?”
“Come on, Jeremy,” I said. “Relax.”
“No! I’ve been relaxed for too damn long. That’s what got us into this mess. I should have clocked this guy three months ago. Then we wouldn’t be having this problem.”
“We’d have different problems,” Luke said, maintaining his unflinching gaze.
“Well, you’ve got a problem now.” Jeremy rocked back and forth, his nostrils flared.
“Don’t do this, Jeremy,” I begged.
He didn’t even hear me. He stepped back and put up his fists. “Come on,” he said to Luke. “Let’s go. Let’s see if you throw down as well as you ride your little board.”
Luke just stood there, hands at his side.
“Come on! Let’s go! You scared, man?”
“No,” Luke said.
“Then come on!”
“I’m not going to fight,” Luke said.
“That may not be up to you,” Jeremy said.
“Yeah!” someone yelled. “Fight him, Luke!”
“I don’t fight,” Luke said.
“You will once I hit you,” Jeremy said.
“No, actually, I won’t. Your fist will collide with my face, and it will probably jerk back. Blood may even spurt. Then you’ll yell ‘Come on!’ a few more times, until you realize I wasn’t kidding, that I really don’t fight. Then you’ll walk off high five-ing your boys like a hero.”
“Whatever,” Jeremy said. “That’s the long way of saying, ‘I’m a wuss.’”
Jeremy suddenly pulled back and swung at Luke. He stopped right before he reached his face. Luke squinted and flinched. Jeremy tapped him twice on the shoulder with his fist. “Two for flinching,” Jeremy said. Then he turned to me. “Good luck with your new man. Hope you don’t ever need him to protect you . . .” He walked off.
“Come on, Luke!” someone yelled. “Go after him!”
People laughed, but the crowd started to disperse when they realized there wasn’t going to be any action. I rushed right up to Luke. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “Are you okay?”
“Of course I’m okay,” he said, obviously peeved. “He didn’t even touch me.”
“Sorry you had to deal with that,” I said.
“Yeah, so am I. You actually dated that jerk? What were you thinking?”
I pulled back, stung. Jeremy had made a huge idiot of himself, no question, and I was still furious at the stupid rumor he’d spread about us. But the thing was—Jeremy wasn’t so off base to be suspicious about me and Luke. And I knew I hadn’t always treated him the greatest. I’d stayed with him way past when I first had doubts about our relationship, which wasn’t totally fair.
But regardless of all that, it was the same old Luke to judge me like that. Since when did I need to justify myself to him?
“I think the real question,” I said, hardening my voice, “is why you get to say anything about whom I date.”
I held his gaze, daring him to answer, to finally come out and say it if he really cared about me the way I cared about him.
And for a second, I thought he was going to do it—to grab me and kiss me and get all of this ridiculous will-we-or-won’t-we over with once and for all.
Then his eyes glazed over, and he looked down at the ground. “Whatever,” he said.
I stood there, blinking rapidly to keep from crying. My mouth filled with an acid taste, which somehow stayed after I swallowed. I looked around and saw, of all people, Agatha Renshaw alone a few feet away.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Agatha,” I said. “Will you take me home?”