Her house sinks down to death,
And her course leads to the shades.
All who go to her cannot return
And find again the paths of life.
- Proverbs 2:18-19
he night of the dance was crisp and clear, one of those desert nights when the world seemed to be holding its breath. Fall was giving way to winter and there was an edge to the breeze. It kept most of us inside, which was a shame because the sky was perfectly cloudless. Coronado Prep was perched on the outskirts of town, far enough away from the city lights that anyone who looked up could have traced the dusting of the Milky Way across the inky expanse of space. Not that any of us were stargazing. It was Homecoming; there was more than enough glitter for us inside.
The gym had been transformed from the open and airy space we knew. Rich velvet curtains cascaded down the bleachers and lights ringed the dance floor, giving the whole place a funky elegance. Someone flipped on a black light and a flood of bubbles swirled into the air, glowing weirdly over the crowd. Dancers screamed in exhilaration. Strobe lights kicked on, turning everyone into silhouettes, making us anonymous in an instant. No more jocks, no more prima donnas, no more losers. In that moment, we were one. The feeling was intoxicating.
I spend a lot of time in high school trying to blend into the background. It isn’t usually hard. People look past me like my skin is some kind of social camouflage. Except for my two best friends, Royal and Cassie. They see me. Most of the time, that’s all I need.
But tonight, lost in the crowd, I felt like I was part of something bigger. The thrumming music seemed to drive away the differences between us, and all that was left was this primal, pulsing crowd. Yes, I knew everything would go back to normal soon. That doesn’t mean I wanted it to end.
We were dancing when the power cut out, plunging our insulated world into darkness. I couldn’t make out anything in the gloom, except for the pools of light cast by the emergency exit signs. The sudden absence of sound left a ringing in my ears.
Headmaster Fiedler’s voice cut through the silence. “Just a second, folks. We’ve got someone checking the breakers.”
There were a few groans, and then someone moaned out a goofy ooooooooo! A nervous titter passed through the crowd. Someone else made a loud raspberry, earning a few more snickers.
“Lovely.” Royal’s tone was dry. “I was just thinking what I really wanted tonight was to be trapped in a dark room with the cast of ‘Lowest Common Denominator: The Teenage Years.’”
Cassie and I weren’t the only ones who laughed at this, but that sense of belonging I’d had was already starting to evaporate. The power came back on, and the dance floor was once again bathed in swirling colored lights. People stood, breathing hard, aware of the sheen of sweat beading across their faces. A few of us glanced around self-consciously—it felt weird to just be standing on the dance floor. I curled my hands around my bare arms reflexively. I felt conspicuous standing in this strapless dress. Just like I’d known I would. The random growth spurt I’d hit a few years ago had left me tall and lanky and paranoid about my bony shoulders. Definitely not something I was keen to show off, no matter how pretty the satiny, pearl-gray material of this dress was. Royal and Cassie had worked hard to talk me into buying it. For the hundredth time that night, I wished I’d had the extra 40 bucks to buy the matching shrug.
“All right!” The D.J. called over his microphone, voice a little too bright. “Let’s kick it up a notch!” Another song poured out of the speakers; his attempt to electrify the crowd. Dancing erupted around us, but I wasn’t in the mood anymore. The onslaught of noise felt suddenly overwhelming.
“I think I’m going to sit this one out.”
Cassie breathed out a sigh of relief. “Seconded.”
Royal shook his head, resigned. “You can lead the ladies to the dance, but you cannot make them rock.”
“Says the one of us who hasn’t been wearing high heels for the last four hours,” I said.
Royal shrugged. “Blame the shoes if you must. And for the record, I don’t care what you think. You look dazzling.” When I opened my mouth to argue, Royal laid a finger across my lips. “Don’t speak.” I couldn’t help it; I smiled.
Cassie noticed a kid walking by with a cupcake in hand. “I’m so hungry I could pass out.”
We pushed out of the crowd and found the refreshment table. Cassie zeroed in on a chocolate cupcake, grinning like a mischievous pixie—her smile was infectious. Her long black hair, done up in spiky knots for the dance, framed her face like a punk-rock crown and her dark eyes sparkled. Cassie’s parents had moved here from China right before she was born. She had inherited her mom’s willowy figure and her dad’s artistic talent, but the genuine sweetness that made her seem almost naïve—that was 100 percent Cassie. Under the shifting lights, the material of her dress shimmered between green and purple. She called her style “fashion forward,” and she’d designed and sewn the dress herself. If I’d tried something like that, I would have been walking around in a glorified toga. Cassie was a magician with her needle and thread. Not that she got to flaunt her skills very often. We wore gray and burgundy uniforms every day at school.
Next to her dress, Royal’s deep crimson jacket seemed almost subdued. He looked like he owned the place, but he would look that way in jeans and a t-shirt. Royal had grown up with a kind of bulletproof self-confidence which I envied daily. He was shorter than me by an inch or two, and rail-thin with a jaw that could have been sculpted by one of the old masters. He regarded the world through dark brown eyes that could be warm or inscrutable, depending on his mood, but they always gleamed with sharp intelligence. His brown hair somehow managed to look perfectly tousled at any time of day. Objectively, Cassie and I could see that Royal was good-looking. But we never saw him that way, even before we knew he was gay. He was Royal. He’d always been one of us.
Royal caught Cassie’s hand and twirled her around, making her laugh. They looked so vibrant. Next to them I felt bland. I was quite possibly the only student at Coronado Prep who actually preferred uniforms to street clothes. Considering that, it made sense that one of the few times a year we got to wear practically anything we wanted to school, I’d ended up in a gray dress. I hugged myself again, longing for that shrug.
Royal noticed the movement while picking up a chocolate frosted cupcake. “Cold?”
“No.” Quickly turning my attention to the table, I selected a promising cupcake with white frosting. I had to set down the delicate silver clutch Cassie had made me to peel back the cupcake’s foil wrapper. My hopes were rewarded. Red velvet. I eyed the side door. It was propped open, inviting. “Actually, I could use some fresh air.”
As we walked across the gym, Royal turned to me. “We still have to finish The Birthday Conversation. Don’t think you’re getting off that easy.”
“What’s wrong with samurai movies, pizza, and Red Vines?”
Royal glanced at Cassie. “Do you want to field this one, or shall I?”
“Braedyn. It’s your 16th birthday,” Cassie said, looking exasperated.
I felt an inward sigh but smiled. “It’s not for another month, guys.” Before Royal and Cassie had brought it up, I’d planned to spend my birthday like I’d spent the last three or four: hanging out with them at my house. But they’d gotten it into their heads that I needed something bigger this year.
Cassie reached for Royal, eager for backup. “Which gives us plenty of time to plan something spectacular. What about the Raven? If there’s ever a time for a big party, this is it.”
“You do realize that my dad is never going to let us go to a club?”
“People can surprise you,” Cassie said.
We walked through the door and into the late September night. I stopped in my tracks. Three couples were hanging out on the wide side steps of the gym, sneaking sips from metal flasks, looking bored. The glitterati of Coronado Prep. One girl had her arms twined around a guy, kissing him against the side of the building. My stomach twisted unpleasantly. Amber Jenkins. The iron-straight curtains of her perfect sun-bleached blond hair gleamed like ice in the moonlight.
Amber had turned middle school into a custom-made nightmare for me. As an awkward, gangly kid with frizzy hair and braces, I’d been an easy target for Amber and her genetically blessed posse to hone in on. Isn’t there some team-building exercise where you unite a group by focusing their energy on a common goal? Tormenting me became their pet project. Middle school was the reason I’d cultivated the ability to blend into the background. Since then my braces had come off, I’d figured out a few tricks to tame the chaos of my hair, and everyone else was catching up height-wise. But while Amber hadn’t acknowledged me since we started high school, the memories were still fresh enough that I didn’t want to draw her attention. I turned, flustered, and stumbled into Royal.
Someone snickered, and Amber’s cold eyes flicked over to us. “Enjoying the show?” I’d always thought her thin, straight nose gave her face a pinched look when she frowned, but the rest of the student body seemed to worship her. Eager to flee this scene, I turned to re-enter the gym. Cassie caught my eye, just as ready to get away from them as I was.
But before we could retreat into the gym, another student appeared in the door behind us, blocking our escape. He nodded a greeting to Amber. “Hey, Amber. Fiedler asked me to tell you they’re starting in five minutes.”
“Right,” Amber said.
The boy she’d been kissing glanced at his watch. Derek Hall was the celebrated captain of the Coronado Prep soccer team. He had dark gray eyes and short, pale blond hair that looked even paler against his soccer tan. “How much longer are we stuck here?” He leaned his forehead against Amber’s, smiling into her eyes. “I want to get to the after-party.”
Amber traced a finger down his chest and pushed him away coyly. “After the ceremony.” She glanced over her shoulder, at the other two girls in her group. “Time to turn it on, ladies.” Missy and Ally fell into step with Amber as usual, following her back to the gym door. Missy, a cute and curvy strawberry-blond, followed Amber through the door and flashed me a quick smile. I think Missy and I could have been friends in a different life. Ally, not so much. She fished a mirror out of her clutch and ran manicured nails carefully through her hair, shouldering me roughly aside as she passed.
Royal steadied me with a hand. “Do not let those jockubines into your head,” he said.
“Dude. That’s my girlfriend you’re insulting.” I saw a flicker of interest penetrate Derek’s boredom.
Royal shrugged. “Shouldn’t you boys be polishing your tiaras for the big entrance?”
The other two guys pushed away from the wall and moved to flank Derek. The dark-haired, olive-skinned boy was named Rick. He was in a few of my classes, but we’d never spoken to each other that I could remember.
The other was Parker Webb, co-captain of the soccer team. Cassie was standing so close to me I could feel her breath catch. Even in the moonlight, I could spot the rosy blush spreading across her cheeks. She’d been nursing a crush on Parker since we were all in middle school together. Okay, with his pale blue eyes and jet-black hair, he wasn’t exactly hard on the eyes. But there was a coldness in Parker that had always set my teeth on edge.
Derek took a step toward us. “This is a private party. Are you going to go back inside, or do I have to move you?”
Royal’s stare was icy. “If you want to dance, Derek, you just have to ask.”
A dangerous smile bloomed on Derek’s face. “You want to repeat that?”
“We just wanted to take a walk,” Cassie said.
“So pay the toll.” Derek plucked the cupcake out of her hands. Cassie stood, eyes downcast, while Derek wolfed her cupcake down in three big bites. “Saved some for you.” Derek wiped a finger full of frosting across Cassie’s lips. She recoiled while the boys laughed. “Oops. You’ve got a little something on your face there.”
Without pausing for thought, I shoved my cupcake at Derek. He caught my wrist and hoisted it up over my head, crushing the cupcake in one smooth motion. Bits of cake and frosting cascaded down, leaving creamy splotches across the light gray satin of my dress. I wrenched my hand out of his grip, gasping.
Royal planted a hand on Derek’s chest and shoved him back. “Keep your hands off her.”
“It’s okay, Royal,” I mumbled. My heart beat wildly. All I wanted was to turn and run.
There was an unmistakable glint in Derek’s eyes. He was brewing for a fight. “You know,” he said, taking a step closer to Royal, “since you mentioned it, I do feel like dancing.” Parker’s eyes flicked from Derek to Royal as he took another sip from his flask. Rick just shook his head, grinning.
“Let’s go,” I said, catching Royal’s hand. Reading my growing panic, Cassie helped draw Royal back toward the building.
“Whatever.” Derek turned back to his friends. Parker pointed at a drop of frosting on Derek’s tux. Derek frowned, glancing at me once more before we pulled the gym door closed behind us.
Safe inside the dance, it took a minute before I could settle my nerves. I was only vaguely aware of Royal and Cassie venting about Derek and the soccer jocks. Their tirade washed over me as I focused on calming down.
With a fresh jolt of adrenaline, I realized I'd left my clutch on the refreshment table. Cassie had given it to me on my birthday last year. It was pearl-gray and covered in tiny glass beads that she’d sewn on by hand. The lipstick and the 20 bucks inside were nothing compared to its sentimental value.
“I’ll be right back,” I told Royal and Cassie.
Halfway to the refreshment table I saw Derek. He was standing at the table, scrubbing his tux with a napkin. My clutch glittered on the edge of the table behind a row of glasses. I edged closer to the wall, preferring to lurk in the shadows until he left rather than risk another confrontation. Derek reached for a glass of clear soda, turning toward me. I held still, willing myself to blend into the darkness. Something caught Derek’s eye. He straightened, staring across the gym with an odd expression on his face. I followed his gaze. That was the first time I saw her.
She moved through the crowd with a sensual, hypnotic confidence. Definitely not a high school student. Long, honey-blond hair hung in loose curls halfway down her back. Her dress flowed around her like mercury, swirling daringly around her thighs with every step. In her wake, dancers stopped and stared. Guys craned their necks to watch her pass, as though she was the only light in a world of darkness. One boy held a drink half-tipped toward his mouth, unaware of the soda dribbling down the front of his shirt. His date jerked the cup out of his hands, startling him out of his trance. Only then did he notice his shirt was sopping wet. It looked like he was waking up from a dream.
Headmaster Fiedler moved to intercept her with a distinctly “students only” look in his eyes. She saw him coming and shook her head slightly, a little knowing smile playing over her face. The headmaster’s steps slowed, then stopped. The honey-blond turned away from him and glided to a stop in front of Derek. Derek’s eyes bulged. She ran her fingers lightly over his tux.
“Looks like you’ve been up to no good,” she said. “My favorite pastime.” Her voice was rich, taunting. If I’d been any farther away, the music would have drowned her out. But separated from them by a few yards at best, I heard her clearly. Satiny red lips quirked up at the corners. Derek licked his lips, unable to gather his thoughts well enough to form any words. She tilted her head to look into his eyes. “I couldn’t help noticing that little fight you had with your girlfriend.”
“Fight?” Derek shook his head slightly. “Who—You mean Braedyn? She wishes.” His laugh wavered, sounding a little strangled.
“Then this should make her crazy jealous.” The honey-blond snaked her fingers up into Derek’s hair and drew his face down toward hers. He melted into the kiss. His hands reached for her waist, but she caught them with a light laugh.
Derek breathed out, stunned.
The newcomer played at straightening his collar. “Can you spare a minute? I need your help with something. Something private.” Her eyes slid over his shoulder, locking with mine. My heart gave a sickening lurch and I turned away, mortified. It was like she’d known I was staring, eavesdropping on their conversation. I started to walk back to Cassie and Royal, then stopped when I remembered my purse still on the table behind me.
When I turned back, both Derek and the newcomer were gone. I edged closer to the table, scanning the area, but couldn’t spot even a glimmer of that silver dress. I scooped the clutch up, grabbed a fistful of napkins, and retreated back to Cassie and Royal.
“She returns,” Royal said, eying my haul. “With enough napkins for an army.”
“Thanks for trying to cream Derek for me,” Cassie said. “Sorry about your dress. I’ll make it up to you.”
“You want to make it up to me?” I asked. “Grab a napkin. I prefer red velvet in my mouth, not in my hair.” Royal and Cassie grabbed some napkins and started cleaning bits of frosting and cupcake out of my hair.
Royal turned his attention to a clump of frosting on my shoulder and grinned. “Standing up to the soccer jocks. Who knew you had it in you?”
“What are the odds he’ll forget about it and leave me alone on Monday?”
“About the same as a bull not charging for the flapping red cape,” Royal answered. “Olé, my little matador.”
“This is not comforting,” I said.
The music faded. We turned back to the dance floor as people began clearing a space for Headmaster Fiedler. Time for the annual ritual of announcing the Homecoming Court.
“Amber is finally getting the crown to match her attitude.” Royal’s tone was sour. “Don’t ever let them tell you it doesn’t pay to be evil.”
On stage, Fiedler held his hands up for silence. “Coronado Prep, it gives me great pleasure to announce your Homecoming Court! Ally Krect and Parker Webb!”
A spotlight flooded the double-entrance to the gym as Ally and Parker emerged. Ally beamed in the spotlight. She was oblivious to Parker who was squinting in irritation at the glare. They arrived at the stage and Fiedler placed a tiara on Ally’s head. She adjusted it quickly, then her hand shot up in victory. The gym roared with approval.
Fiedler gestured back to the gym entrance. “Missy Jefferson and Dan Buchannan!” More wild cheers as Missy and her date emerged. Missy looked pleased and a little embarrassed by the screaming. She hustled Dan through the crowd and accepted the tiara from Fiedler with a quick smile and wave. Fiedler gestured and the music changed. Everyone turned as a spotlight snapped onto the far gym doors, sparkling with the half-ton of glitter the Dance Committee had covered them in. “And now for your Homecoming Queen and King!”
Royal sighed with distaste. “I hope he trips and breaks his neck.”
“It’s a little early, but I do have a birthday wish coming,” I said.
Royal pretended to consider this idea for a moment before dismissing it. “Mm... Save it for something important.”
The screaming built as Fiedler threw his arm toward the waiting doors. “Amber Jenkins and Derek Hall!”
The glittering doors opened. Amber emerged into the spotlight. Alone.
“Huh. He missed his big entrance.” Cassie wasn’t the only one craning her head for a better look at Amber. Amber forced a smile and headed toward the stage. You could practically feel the fury radiating off of her as she passed.
Royal shrugged. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and Amber will skin Derek alive.”
I found myself glancing back at the refreshment table. Something tugged at my conscience, but I brushed it off. I told myself Derek was Derek, and he’d clearly made his choice. Why should I care if it landed him in hot water?
Looking back, I think some part of me sensed things were about to go terribly, terribly wrong.
END OF EXCERPT
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Jennifer Quintenz is an award winning film and television writer, author, and graphic novelist. She has written for Twentieth Television, Intrepid Pictures, and Archaia Studios Press. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son.
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