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The Red Dress
I have made my decision.
There is no going back.
I am strong.
Well . . .
“Maybe I'll come back tomorrow.”
Ashley and Veronica, on either side of me, take a hold of me, one on each arm. “Yeah, no,” Verry says, propelling me through the door. This feels like a bad idea.
I wonder if there was something in those brownies Ash's mom fed us. I've always wondered about her . . .
“You promised you would,” Ashley says, using that voice that always succeeded in making me feel guilty. I know she's doing it on purpose. In all of her sixteen years she has mastered the art of manipulation, and even if once and a while she over plays it, it always works.
I think it might be the fact that she's short. There's just something about punked out pixy people.
And then I see him.
I consider bolting.
Verry's grip changes my mind.
“All you have to do,” Verry murmurs, as if the fact that he is in our line of sight gives him the ability to hear her all the way across the room, “is follow the plan. Nothing will go wrong.”
I say nothing. We are steadily approaching the boy I have had a crush on since second grade when he told me my hair was ugly. Well, maybe the crush didn't start at that moment, but it did start after my mother, once I'd finished telling her my story through my tears, told me that little boys only pick on little girls that they like.
It hasn't gone away. Probably because he has only gotten more attractive since then.
This still feels like a bad idea.
“I can't do this,” I whisper, hoping that I'm dreaming. I doesn't feel like it. “He's going to say no. He probably already has a date. And it'll be better to chicken out than to be told no.”
“You are not allowed to be pessimistic about this,” Ash growls, dropping the innocent, needy act in the face of her vehemence. “It's going to work. If it doesn't we'll blame it on your doubt.”
I gulp again.
I can't take this kind of pressure.
But it doesn't look like I'm going to have a choice in the matter.
Verry and Ash let go of me as we get closer, and I can feel their eyes boring into me as if they have to watch every step I take just to make sure I don't ditch to the bathroom and crawl out the window to escape. I suppose this is smart of them, but I still don't appreciate it.
I keep getting closer and closer to where he's sitting by the window drinking coffee. He looks like he's waiting for someone. Which he is. Me. Well, not me. Exactly. Sort of . . .
I take a deep breath and tell myself to stop thinking before I twist my brain goop into knots so tight it would take a whole team of brain surgeons to straighten it out.
And with that wonderful thought, I plop down in front of him. I can feel my heart beating in my chest.
This is a bad idea.
He blinks at me. “Desiree?”
He knows my name. I smile at him. “Hi.” Nothing else is coming out. The plan. Remember the plan.
“Hi,” he echoes.
There's a pause. “So, uh, not what you expected, huh?” The plan. The plan.
He says nothing, smiling awkwardly.
“Okay,” I say, bracing myself. “The reason I asked you to come here today, and implied that I was Darla—” his girlfriend “—is that, I wanted to ask you something, and I figured you wouldn't come if I didn't do this under pretense.”
That is so not encouraging.
“Well, anyway, my question. Uh, so, I was wondering if you wanted to go to the Valentine's Masquerade with—someone.”
I swallow and glance toward Verry and Ash. I don't know what I'm looking for, but all I get is the least encouraging pair of thumbs ups in the history of thumbs ups. “Yes.”
“Not . . . you?”
“Oh, no!” I burst that out a bit too forcefully. All I meant to do was reassure him, but I worry that I might have insulted him. He doesn't look insulted. Talk about an ego crusher. “Anyway, its with someone who doesn't want you to know who she is. She wants to go . . .”
“Yes, exactly. Anonymously.” Do I sound as nervous as I feel? I hope not. This is humiliating.
He pauses. “Why?” he asks, drawing out the y sound.
“So you can get to know each other without any bias.” I know this part. This part has been beaten into me by my wonderful friends.
“Bias,” he repeats, and I wonder if he's mocking me. I want to stick my tongue out at him.
“Bias,” I say. I'm definitely mocking him.
He smirks and my face goes beat red. Oops. Who knew he'd be perceptive.
“Alright,” he says. “You've convinced me.”
It takes a moment for me to realize what he means. “Oh. Good.” I pause, out of my depth. “The dress is red.”
“I bet all of the dresses will be red,” he says. I hadn't thought of that, but Valentine's. Duh.
“And sparkly,” I add. “She'll meet you . . . by the mascot statue.”
I nod back. There is silence. “I guess I'll be going now.”
Janine so owes me.
The coughing is starting to get obnoxious. The sun is streaming in through the window, and I've been clinging to sleep for the last few hours. It's probably way past noon. I should get up.
I don't particularly want to.
Someone coughs in my ear. I don't growl. I . . . make a sound of distress. That's how it's phrased in books.
“What was that?” Ash asks, sounding perky. I hate that voice. “Have you become a werewolf since last night?” she asks. She is obsessed with Twilight. She keeps trying to make me read the books, but . . .
I'm not a reader. I have seen all the movies, but she says it just isn't the same.
“No,” I grumble in response to her question.
“Too bad,” she says, as if she really wants me to be a werewolf. Then she changes the subject. Sometimes she is just too hard to follow. “Anyway, you need to be up, like, yesterday.” She pokes me with her toe. “Shower time,” she says in a sing song voice, and then goes back to her normal one. “The masquerade is in four hours, Emma. We have to get you ready!”
Wait. What? “I'm not going the the masquerade.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I'm not.”
“Yes, you are.”
Knowing Ash could go on like that for quite some time, I shut up and glare at her. She glares back.
“Why am I going to the dance?” I ask, trying to be as patient as I possibly can.
“Because Janinie is sick.”
I glance over at the bed where Janine is laying. She begins to make sounds that can only be attributed to coughing up a lung. Or to the overly done fake coughing of a would be actor. Janine gives me the smile of a martyr.
I narrow my eyes at her. She gives another hack. “She wasn't sick last night,” I accuse.
“Emma,” Veronica says patiently, “you've been sleeping for almost thirteen hours. People can get sick in that time.”
I protest. They argue. They win.
This is the normal turn of events.
I go to the dance, even though I know exactly what it means. That they've caught on. Or that they've known all along. I am in love with Stephen Bentley. They planned this. They are going to make me be his anonymous date. And he's going to know.
I want to strangle my friends.
I try to cheer myself up. How would he know it was me? Ash dyed my hair a much darker brown than it used to be. She pinned it up off my face, something I never do, and my mask covers everything but my lips. The dress is much different from my usual style—what my mom calls subdued elegance and I call easy—and is topless and bright red, with a cinched waist and flowing skirt that falls to mid-thigh. It sparkles.
Yeah. He won't realize its me.
Verry, Ash, and I walk into the school lobby, surrounded by people in dress wear. I shiver. I am the least social person I have ever met.
I don't want to be at a dance.
I would love to be in a secluded corner with Stephen though.
Verry and Ash smile at me, and then ditch me almost immediately. I am left standing by the tacky statue of a rearing horse. Stallion, excuse me.
I wait a little more.
Hands poke into my sides.
Stephen laughs from behind me.
“That was mean,” I accuse, turning around to look at him.
We're really close.
He grins down at me. “I thought you said you weren't my date.”
I stare at him. He knows. “They told you.”
“Of course not.” He makes a show of being offended. “You're just easy to read.”
I blink at him. He laughs and leans closer. He's going to kiss me. I can't wait. He's so close, so close, but then I realize: it's the beginning of the night.
I dart away and smile at him.
I take his hand and lead him into the gym to dance. And I can feel how warm his hand is and how very willing he is to dance with me. I am so excited, I could probably die right this second and not regret it. Well, except for the kiss part.
He jumps up and down with me for the fast songs, and makes me laugh when he does the Macarena, and holds me close for the slow songs. When I get tired, I lean against him. “I need a break.”
He pulls me into the lobby, and when he doesn't see any chaperons, we dart around the corner.
He looks at me.
I look back.
He puts his hand on my neck.
I hold my breath.
And then he kisses me.
Time stops. I let him keep going, before I pull away.
I know it's rude. I know I shouldn't do it.
He's gorgeous. He's athletic. He's a clown.
He can't kiss.
His breath smells like garlic.
His spit got all over me.
I find myself not liking him anymore. Love dies, I think, and laugh a little harder.
Stephen makes a face at me. “I don't think this is working,” he says. I pat him on the chest, holding back more laughter, and nod sagely.
“That's okay. I don't want to hold you back.” I feel like a bad cliche.
He nods. “Good. I'm glad.” He sounds like a bad cliche.
We part on good terms.
I appreciate him in the halls now. I don't write hearts around his name in my notebook.
Janine is mad that she gave up such a good chance at him for herself.