Chapter 20 – One Last Dance
A cool ocean breeze blew out of the west as I climbed up into the old, nearly abandoned playscape. I dropped down, letting my feet swing beneath me and wishing I'd thought to grab a jacket as I left the house. Across the lawn I could see the lights glowing bright in Todd's window and wondered if he was still awake.
He'd grown more distant since the fashion show, avoiding me in the halls and only stopping to talk if there was a group. I couldn't blame him though; he'd genuinely believed that I'd been bidding on him and was heartbroken all over again when I broke the truth to him. Still, it hurt to have a strained relationship with him and I just wanted to climb in his window and tell him I missed him.
I was so lost in my thoughts, I didn't hear him climbing the ladder until he nudged me with his foot. "Scoot over and give a guy some space huh?" Todd said, a familiar smile on his face. I scooted across the metal floor and he sat, draping his legs over the edge like I had. "Couldn't sleep and I thought I saw you sitting up here."
"I'm glad you did," I said, smiling back at him.
His smile faltered and he turned his attention to the stretch of yard between our houses. "Are you really? I've sort of bungled things up lately..."
"I really am Todd," I said, leaning my cheek against his shoulder. "Bungled or not, I've missed you."
"I'm sorry," he said. "It's hard though, being around you and...well around you now."
"Todd," I hesitated, chewing on my lower lip. "This has all just taken me by surprise ya know? It's not that I didn't think about it once or twice before but it's been years now. You had Mei-Ling and I had..."
"Erik, I know," Todd said, frowning. "I get it Ginny. I do, I really do. It sort of surprised me too honestly. But when you asked me about regrets that time, I guess it made me really think about things. I loved Mei-Ling, I have never doubted that but I loved – love – you too. You've always been there for me, even when I was an ass and didn't deserve your friendship, or anyone's friendship."
"I'll always be your friend Todd – you're the only person I shared my milk with in kindergarten after all," I said with a gentle smile.
Todd's chuckle was faint. "Our timing was just never so good and now – well will be a thousand miles apart."
"Actually I decided on Roth, sent my acceptance in this morning. We'll only be about two hundred or so miles apart," I said. "Assuming you're still going to Michigan.
"I am," Todd said, a real smile on his face for the first time. "We're practically neighbors still then."
"I'll leave the window open," I said, laughing at the thought of him driving for four hours to climb in my dorm window.
"You promise?" Todd asked, joining in with my laughter.
"Something you want to tell me?" Erik came up behind me, wrapping his arms tightly around me and whispering in my ear.
"Huh?" I sputtered. My mind flashed back to the two kisses with Todd and I'm certain my face filled with guilt. I'd been lucky both times that no one else had been around to witness them and fuel Erik's natural jealousy. I took a quick breath before twisting around to face him, "what are you talking about?"
"Next time you plan to run for Prom Queen, maybe you could give me a little warning huh?" Though mildly annoyed, he smiled at me, "I didn't figured you for the prom queen type personally but if that's your thing..."
"What?" I asked, my mouth gaping open. "I didn't run..."
"Then who put those up?" Erik took me by the shoulders and spun me around so I was face to face with myself. "It's a great picture though – from the fashion show yeah?"
"But I didn't...." The poster looked professionally made, almost like a advertisement you'd see hanging in a mall. "I don't have any idea what's going on."
"You got my vote Ginny," a passing senior said, shooting me a thumbs up as he ran off to catch up with friends. After a moment, they all turned back to look at me and smile.
"Good luck Ginny! If anyone can take down Chrissy I bet it's you," Janet Eastwind said before pushing her glasses back up on the bridge of her nose.
"Um thanks?" I glanced toward Erik helplessly. "What the hell?"
Nai'a bounded up, a huge grin on her face. "Oh you saw? It's beautiful isn't it? I've been trying to find Chrissy all morning to see her reaction!" She giggled at the thought of it.
"Nai'a, can I assume you're responsible for this then?" I asked, jabbing a finger at the poster. Nai'a tried to protest, shaking her head vigorously but when she dissolved into a fit of giggles, I knew she was caught. "Nai'a! I didn't want..."
"Oh yes you did! Maybe not THIS exactly but you have to admit Chrissy needs a take down! And who better than the reigning Homecoming Queen? I mean if you can win that on write in, I'm sure this will be a cake walk."
"Nai'a, it's not like Chrissy was the only one running! There are others who genuinely WANT to be Prom Queen – and not for psycho, selfish reasons like Chrissy." I looked back at the poster and grimaced. My extra large face smiled back at me, making me shudder.
"Well then I wish them luck. Besides it wasn't even my idea," Nai'a said as she grabbed my arm. "Now Erik, if you'll excuse me, I need to borrow your girlfriend."
"Where are we going?" I reached out to shut my locker door as she continued to drag me away. "Help!" I mouthed to Erik. He just shrugged and chuckled his way to math class. "Nai'a, come on, stop dragging me around like a rag doll." When we'd reached the gym she finally let up and then motioned me inside. "You know I have class right?"
"Oh right," Nai'a fished around in her pocket and extracted a note and pressed it into my hand. "You're excused." She pushed the double doors open and everyone inside looked up at us expectantly. "Sorry we're late, had to find her."
Todd, Tisha, Chrissy, Will and couple other familiar seniors were sitting near the bleachers while Gene and Erika were busy setting up an elaborate photography system. "Oh no...noooo, I am not dressed for whatever THIS is," I muttered, waving toward my ripped jeans and dirty tennis shoes.
"You look great," Nai'a said, gently shoving me toward the rest of the 'royal court.' Todd and Tisha gave me warm, reassuring smiles. Chrissy glared before turning her attention to Will and ignoring me. The others had already resumed their conversation by the time I took the empty seat in front of Todd.
A few minutes later, Principal Watts came in and smiled warmly at everyone. "Well well, our potential Prom Kings and Queens. Congratulations to you all! Remember, it's an honor just to be chosen."
Chrissy scoffed, "hardly, clearly anyone can just throw up a poster..." she said, glancing my way as if to accent her point.
"Chrissy," Mr. Watts warned, leveling his gaze at her. She turned her attention to him and smiled sweetly. "As I was saying, congratulations. As you all should know, today your pictures will be taken for the newspaper and the final draft of the year book. Erika," at the mention of her name, Erika glanced up and waved before returning to a tangle of cords, "would also like to ask you all a few questions for an article in the paper. So everyone give these people your attention for the rest of the period."
I groaned, rubbing my head. I'd taken less than a minute picking out this outfit this morning and would now be immortalized as the Prom Queen wanna-be in torn jeans and an old t-shirt. "Thanks a lot Nai'a," I muttered under my breath. Todd put his hand on my shoulder and gave it a light squeeze.
Veronica twisted and tugged at my hair, forcing it up into an up-do that may just give me brain damage. "Geeze V, rip a few hairs out why don't you?"
"It's not my fault your hair won't cooperate Gin," Veronica cursed as she pulled even tighter and then jabbed the pin into place, scrapping my scalp in the process. "Sorry...okay so explain to me again how you ended up in the Prom court?"
"Nai'a," I grumbled. "Good intentions I s'pose but this week has been so annoying. I've spent at least an hour every day with Chrissy and resisting the urge to slap her every time she tried to butter Todd up or flirt with him."
"Please tell me he hasn't fallen for her tricks!"
"Nope. After I explained the whole auction thing to him, he's mostly tried to dodge her whenever possible," I said.
"So actually...Nai'a did us a favor by nominating you for the court. At least this way you were there to keep the wolf at bay," Veronica said. Another jab, another pin. "Sorry." Twenty minutes later, V smiled triumphantly. "Done!"
"Wow, senior prom...doesn't seem that long ago we were getting ready for the eighth grade dance and high school was still months off."
"No, not good. You will completely ruin that make up job if you start getting all nostalgic now," Veronica said, thrusting a tissue in my face.
Downstairs, the doorbell rang and V and I scrambled to pull our shoes on. From the upstairs balcony I saw my dad greeting Todd and Erik at the door. After one final check in the mirror, we descended and joined everyone in the living room. By then, Dad was ushering Nai'a and Tim inside as well to complete our little entourage. "What time is the limo supposed to arrive?"
Todd checked the clock on the mantle, "in five to ten minutes I guess."
"Well then let's get some pictures, Susan will never forgive me if I don't," Dad said, pulling out his camera and motioning us all toward the fireplace. "Now gentlemen in the back and ladies in the front. No silly faces Todd," Dad warned with a light smile. Todd was notorious for bombing family and group pictures with goofy expressions. He swore they were unintentional and he was just a bad picture taker but I'm sure he walked away laughing about his success.
We'd just finished the group pictures when the limo arrived so Dad rushed us through the couple pictures and then followed us out to the limo, making us line up again for another couple of shots by the car. Finally, after we all began to wilt, he released us.
Though the dance was being held at the same hotel from last year, we were in a different ballroom with a much larger space dedicated to the dance floor. Behind the stage, a huge screen was cycling through a slide show of pictures from the last four years. I couldn't help but giggle any time a freshman picture popped up on the screen.
"I'm glad I'm not playing this party," Erik said, with an appreciative glance toward the stage.
"And why's that?" I asked, raising an eyebrow. I'd honestly expected him to be the first in line to volunteer before Tim had told us they'd hired a band from the college.
"Because now I can spend the whole time dancing with my girlfriend," he smiled and extended his hand. "May I have this dance?" I felt a faint blush creeping up my cheeks and nodded as I placed my hand in his. Following our lead, Nai'a and Tim soon joined us on the dance floor and Veronica dragged Todd out as well. "You look beautiful tonight Gin," Erik said as he twirled me around the floor.
"Thank you, you're looking quite handsome as well." As a slow song began, I laid my cheek against his shoulder and allowed him to glide me around the floor to the rhythm of the music. On the outer edge of the crowd I could make out a few familiar faces amongst the chaperones, including Ms. Moore. I caught her eye and gave her a small smile and wave. Erik followed my gaze and then nodded, apparently approving of my gesture. "She's not so bad really," I said.
"Nah, as teachers go anyway," he replied with a grin. Three songs later, I was feeling parched so Erik and I picked our way to the edge of the crowd. The refreshment table was swarmed with students and I groaned. "Why don't I grab a couple drinks?" Erik offered. "I'll be back in a moment. I hope," he added with another look toward the table.
While he braved the throng, I mingled with others who were hanging near the edge of the dance floor. "Good luck tonight Tisha," I said, giving the head cheerleader a quick hug. During my very brief career as a fake cheerleader, I'd really come to like most of the girls and I genuinely hoped it would be Tisha who toppled Chrissy's reign tonight.
I was still chatting with her and her date when the music came to an end and Mr. Watts stepped up to the microphone. "Last call for prom court votes everyone. If you haven't had a chance to vote this week, please come over to the table to the right and cast your vote in the next ten minutes." As soon as he was gone, the band started up again and the dancing resumed. I saw a handful of people trickle from the crowd over toward the table.
I turned my attention back toward Tisha and found her staring, mouth agape, at the projector screen at the front of the room. And she wasn't the only one. As I looked around the room, a disturbing silence had overtaken most of the senior class. Finally I directed my gaze to the screen and let out a loud shriek.
There, a dozen feet tall and on view for the entire senior class, was a covertly snapped picture of Todd kissing me backstage at the fashion show.
The hairs on the back of my neck seemed to stand on edge as if I was in the center of a maelstrom. A few eyes had peeled away from the screen and I could feel them staring in my direction, no doubt responding to the shriek to find the source. Todd came out of nowhere, grabbed me by the arm and started to pull me away from the dance. "Stop it!" I hissed, yanking my arm from his grasp.
"Ginny...do you really want to stay here while they're all staring?" Todd whispered.
Behind him I saw Erik turn away from the refreshment table, two cups in hand. He was still smiling; he must not have seen it. I glanced toward the screen and cursed at the frozen image. Why was it still there? I shoved Todd aside just as Erik glanced up, taking in the stares and whispers of our classmates and then the picture itself.
The smile disappeared. The cups trembled in his hand, red punch splattering to the floor. I felt frozen, standing between him and Todd. I tried to will myself forward, aching to explain what he could plainly see but my feet had taken root and refused to move forward or backward. After a long minute, he turned his head toward me and our eyes locked. As he stared at me, I wondered what he saw in my face. Did he see guilt and assume it meant I'd been a willing partner to the kiss? Did he see the innocence?
He deposited the cups on a nearby table and crossed the room, closing the distance between us in a few long strides. "Erik I..." but he didn't stop in front of me.
He continued beyond me and I spun around to see him in Todd's face. "You kissed my girlfriend?" Before Todd could manage a response, Erik had swung. The first punch landed easily as Todd had been caught by surprise but soon they were in an all out brawl.
Veronica came to my side, hooking her arm with mine. "Well this is familiar. Four years and we've managed to come full circle."
"Not really helping," I muttered. I inched forward, not actually sure what I meant to do, but Veronica pulled me back. "This can't go on V!"
"This," she swept her arm out to encompass the fighting pair, "is four years in the making Ginny...it was bound to happen eventually."
By now, Principal Watts and another chaperone were stepping in, trying to pull them apart. "What the heck is going on?" Watts bellowed, making more than one bystander back away. "Both of you, out in the hall, now!"
"I was just leaving," Erik said, spitting out a small clot of blood. He shoved himself away from Mr. Watts and the crowd parted as he moved toward the double doors across the ball room.
"Erik!" I shouted. He didn't pause or turn at my voice, only continued until the doors slammed behind him. I looked helplessly back toward Todd, who was being ushered out the other doors by the chaperones. I pulled my arm from Veronica's and ran for the doors, following after Erik. The students had already reformed their barrier, eager to gossip about the action and didn't part for me like they had for him. "Excuse me!" I shouted, shoving through groups and couples until I reached the doors.
I slammed my hand into the elevator button and looked up and down the hall twice for any sign of Erik but he'd vanished with his small head start. "Come on!" I shouted, as if my frustration would summon the elevator faster.
The doors dinged open finally and I pounded the ground floor button repeatedly. There were a few lingering students in the lobby but no Erik. I ran up to the first group, causing their conversation to sputter to a stop. "Have you seen Erik? Erik Langston?"
Three of the four shook their heads but one pointed toward the door, "I just saw him leave in some truck a few minutes ago. He looked pissed."
"Yeah I got that part," I muttered, running for the doors. A fleet of limos and town cars were packed into the parking lot like sardines and no cars were coming from either direction along the road. Every limo looked like the next so picking our own out of them would be nearly impossible but I still ran up to the front most ones and tapped on the windows to look in on the drivers. "Sorry," I muttered as the third one rolled up the window again.
"Where is he?" Veronica asked, finally catching up to me. Like me she looked up and down the street hopeful but frowned. "Did he take the limo?"
"Someone said he got into a truck, I guess he hitched. I don't even know if could have found our limo in all this mess...I know I can't."
"Oh brother," Veronica went over to the nearest limo and tapped on the glass once more. I tried to stop her but she waved me off and turned her full attention to the driver. "Hi, I'll give you a hundred dollars to take my friend wherever she needs. Shouldn't be more than a half hour and you'll be back long before the dance is over..." Veronica fished the money out of a small purse dangling from her wrist and held it up. "Deal?"
"Yeah sure," the driver grabbed the money from Veronica and tossed the book he'd been reading aside. I didn't wait for him to get out before hopping in and directing him toward Erik's house. Veronica stepped back and waited until the limo had pulled away before returning to the hotel. Ten minutes later, we pulled up alongside Erik's trailer park and the driver looked out the window with a frown. "I can't just leave you here lady..."
"I'll be fine, my boyfriend lives here," I said, opening the door and climbing out. I shoved my phone back into my small purse and turned toward the trailers.
I was several feet away when the driver summoned me back. "I'm gonna stay here for now, just in case. You can wave me away if you want once you see your boy but I don't wanna be seeing some news story about a Prom Queen going missing and it bein' all my fault."
"Fine," I shook my head and made a run for the door, my heals sinking into the muddy path that stretched between the homes. Once I made it to Erik's door, I looked back to see my limo driver still watching and waiting, as promised. I pounded on the door for a solid minute before it swung open.
Standing on the other side of the screen, Hank Langston looked my over and smirked. "He ain't here anymore."
"What? Where is he?"
Hank just shrugged and scratched at his face lazily. "Came and went about ten minutes ago. Threw some crap in a bag and left without so much as a so long."
"He packed a bag? Was he okay?" I asked, thinking of the blood that had been trickling from his nose when he'd left the dance.
Hank shrugged again. "Don't know, 'spose not."
"What the hell kind of father are you?!" I shouted, kicking at the screen door that separated us. "Your son comes home bloody and clearly upset and you can't be bothered to even find out what happened? Or stop him?!" Hank was unmoved by my outburst and just let the door swing shut as he took another long swig from his beer. "No wonder he hates you!" I shouted at the closed door. "Gah Erik! Where the hell are you?"
I pulled out my phone and dialed his cell number for the fourth time. A faint ring erupted nearby, bringing back a small spark of hope. The ring was broken and cackling but grew slightly louder as I drew nearer to the truck so I peaked into the window, praying and hoping he was just hiding out. It was empty.
On the fourth ring it cackled one last time and then died as the call went to voice mail. I saw the screen flare to life from the bed of the truck once before it faded to darkness again. I leaned over the edge and plucked the abandoned phone from a small puddle of water in the bed. With a growl of frustration, I threw it across the driveway and watched as it smashed against a tree trunk.
My shoes and dress were caked in mud and grime as I returned to the waiting limo. "Can you just take me home?" Tears pooled in my eyes as I gave him my address. I didn't try to stop them or hold them back – no one would see my ruined make up now.