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I rushed Gavin the way Elliot had taught me and managed to steal the ball. I barely glanced up before kicking it desperately away, hoping someone on my team would be able to take it down the field. Hoping that I hadn't just inadvertently passed to Tiana or Johanna, Gavin's team's other forwards.
Elliot came to the rescue. He sprinted over from the other side of the field, green basketball shorts billowing around his skinny legs, and seized the ball that I'd sent rolling randomly across the grass. Weaving around Johanna, he dribbled to the goal and dodged every mid and defender who came to block him. When Elliot shot, I wasn't sure it would go in—the kick practically looked like a pass to the goalie, Dominic—but Dominic lunged the wrong way and Elliot scored.
I wanted to run up the field and hug him, but it would have wasted everybody's time as they waited for me to run up to the middle of the field and back. I settled for clapping and cheering with Sarah, my fellow defender, and Sam, Elliot's goalkeeping younger bother. Meanwhile, Elliot, Maddy, and George—our forwards—took their places for the face-off. "Thanks for getting the ball from my pathetic kick!" I yelled at Elliot as Gavin positioned the ball in the center of the field.
Elliot turned around and flashed a grin, shoving his sweaty blond hair out of his eyes. "No problem. It was a good rush, Cara. Now we just need to work on your aim."
Gavin cleared his throat, moving the ball around impatiently with his foot, and Elliot turned around and immediately won the face-off. He passed to Maddy, one of his fellow forwards, who took it down the field while I blushed through the flush of exercise at Elliot's compliment. Elliot thought I'd done well rushing Gavin! Could I help smiling to myself?
Just as the ball was being positioned after another goal by my team (this time scored by Maddy), the bell rang. It was an actual bell, located on a balcony on one side of Scott, the building where all of our classes were held. That bell told us where we were supposed to be at all times. Right now, Club Time B was ending, so it was 4:30 p.m., and students were expected to report to Club Time C or start studying for the night. Not, of course, that one would really be missed if one were to, say, spend Club Time C behind the soccer fields with one's friends.
My fellow members of the soccer club and I responded to the bell, as everyone did at Westham; we trudged toward the goalie net where Maddy had just scored. Behind the net were our water bottles, sweatshirts, and, in the case of a couple of the guys, their shirts.
"Hey, guys," called Gavin as a few of the underclassmen started walking toward the dorms. They stopped, and he continued, "Remember, tomorrow night is our one real game this season. We're going to go into town on a bus and, for once in our lives, we get to play against somebody outside of our own club. I want you all to get some sleep tonight and stay hydrated tomorrow. We only get one chance to show those bastards what Westham can do. And remember to meet in the parking lot tomorrow night at 6:30, right after dinner. Okay, you can go."
It was kind of pathetic that we only got to play against people outside our school once a year. Officially, though, Westham Preparatory Academy didn't even have a soccer team. Sports groups were allowed to come together as "clubs" and scrimmage during Club Time, but that was it. Once in a while, if a teacher really took an interest in a club, a game in town might be arranged, but that was rare. Westham's real focus was on academics. In that area, we actually had teams—lots of them, including a debate team, a Science Olympiad team, a Quiz Bowl team—the list went on and on. Soccer club was just for fun.
"Hey, Elliot," I said after Gavin gave us permission to leave. "You had a really good game today."
Elliot stood up, having just retied his shoe. "Thanks. You were doing really well, too. You got the ball away from Gavin."
I tried to look unaffected by the compliment despite the fireworks going off inside of me. "All the credit really goes to you, you know. You taught me everything I know about soccer." It was true. I'd joined the club during my freshman year at Westham because I wanted to make friends and get exercise, not having any background in soccer. Elliot, then a sophomore, had spent a lot of long afternoons teaching me how to defend. I was definitely a work in progress, and I'd probably never be considered a really good player, but my improvement since freshman year was obvious.
"Nah, you've worked really hard. And some of the credit definitely goes to Sam," Elliot countered. Sam, now a sophomore, had joined us last year for some of those long afternoons of training, even taking over occasionally when Elliot was away at a Science Bowl or Linguistics Bowl tournament.
"Yeah, fine," I replied. "But it's thanks to you I didn't drop out after week one." We were already in front of Allen, the boys' dorm—campus was small—but Elliot made no move to go inside, so I asked, "Ready for tomorrow?"
"Once I get past that Calc test, I will be. I swear, Mr. Brooks is trying to murder us."
"I know! I am not going to remember to factor and cancel to find the limits of removable discontinuities." The schools I'd attended before Westham had offered more advancement options than Elliot's schools, so I'd taken Algebra as a seventh grader, enabling me to now be in Calculus as a junior—the same level, class, and hour as Elliot.
"Yeah. I should probably go study. But—hey, do you want to grab a corner in Scott after dinner and quiz each other?"
"Yes!" I cleared my throat. "Yeah, that would be good. See you then?"
"Yeah, see you."
It was a quick walk to Barnes, the girls' dormitory. There was just one girls' dormitory (and one boys' dormitory) at Thomas A. Westham Preparatory Academy, because there were only about 60 girls in the entire school. Excuse me, academy. Westham was a very small, exclusive boarding school in the middle of nowhere, New Hampshire, designed mainly to give smart American students who excelled particularly in languages an environment to propel them to greater success and promote even more language learning. You had to be studying at least two foreign languages (and, of course, be fluent in English) to even apply to Westham.
Boarding schools are really an East Coast phenomenon, so it was weird for a Midwestern girl like me to be in attendance. I'd found out about Westham from my roommate, Liv. Olivia Svenson and I had known each other back when we both lived in Minneapolis and were involved with the American Swedish Institute there. We both had some Swedish blood in us somewhere, and our families had enrolled us in Swedish classes at the Institute when we were little. About ten years of language classes and immersion summer camps later, we were both proficient and Liv, a year older than myself, was going into her freshman year of high school.
Liv had been homeschooled as a child, but her mother wanted her to "branch out" now that she was 14. If possible, however, this branching out was to take place without setting foot in the Minneapolis Public School system. Some online searching revealed it was Westham to the rescue.
A year later, my parents and I weren't thrilled with the schools around me, either, and Westham it was.
Liv and I roomed together from the beginning of my freshman year. She was the strawberry soda to my reusable metal bottle of water. While she was fun, bubbly, over-sugared, and obsessed with all things pink, I was serious, rather more likely to be described as a "lifesaver" than be accused of being fun. We had in common our Minnesota origins, our ability to speak Swedish, and, occasionally, our taste in boys. My freshman year, we had both liked a young wiz kid named Jung-Hwa Kim, who was her stand partner in orchestra and my captain in Science Olympiad and math team. This year, that story—in all of its messiness—was replaying itself with Elliot, who I claimed as a teammate and she claimed as a fellow senior. Besides each other, he was our best friend, and we didn't know how he felt about either of us.
"Hej!" I said, walking into the dorm Liv and I shared. Hej meant hi in Swedish.
"Remind me not to practice that sonata in the dorm," Liv muttered, crouching on the floor to secure her bow in its place in her violin case. "Noelle was just in here yelling at me. I'd forgotten how forte it is."
"Isn't the rule no instruments in the dorms?"
"Technically . . . " She closed her violin case and stood.
I rolled my eyes. Liv liked to think rules didn't apply to her, which got annoying when she wanted to practice violin at three a.m. No matter how many times we went over it, she didn't see what was wrong with waking other people up if she couldn't sleep. "Hey, guess what. Elliot asked me to study for Calc with him after dinner."
"Lucky!" Studying with Elliot was the best—he made nearly every subject so funny and interesting that it was nearly impossible to avoid acing the following test. Liv and Elliot, as seniors, shared English, government, and second-year physics, but Liv was behind in math and took Pre-Calculus, and her third language was Japanese. Elliot and I shared Calc and Spanish.
Liv ran her hand through her waist-length hair, her face slowly lighting up. "Hey, Caroline, guess what?" Everyone but Elliot and Sam called me by my entire first name.
"What?" I replied, smiling in spite of myself.
"Last night, Elliot and I were talking about how much we hate college apps, and he said he's applying to NYU, Cornell, and St. Olaf." Liv grinned.
I could feel my eyebrows cinch together. "What? Are you serious? But—but—he hates big cities! And he thought St. Olaf was snobby! And Cornell? He told me he wasn't looking at any Ivies—though heaven knows he's got a better chance than any of the rest of us at getting in."
Liv raised one eyebrow, something she did often around me because it was a skill I'd never been able to master. "'A better chance than any of us'? Caroline, darling, you're selling yourself short. But, about Elliot—think about it. Why would be applying to schools in New York and Minnesota?"
I sucked in a breath. "Oh my gosh. You don't think—"
Liv twirled one of her impossibly long strands of hair around a finger and grinned. "Yeah, I do."
"Did he say so?"
"No, but you know Elliot. Would he say so?"
I bit the inside of my cheek. "He might not."
"I wish he'd ask me to Fall Formal."
"I could bug him for you if you like. He is shy. Well, not shy, but you know. Maybe if I could convince him you'd accept . . ." The words were out of my mouth before I could even think about them. Help set up Liv and Elliot? What had I just volunteered for?
"Oh my God, would you?" Liv asked breathlessly. "Just, you know, don't make me seem to desperate or anything."
"Of course," I said on autopilot, cursing myself.
At dinner, Liv, Elliot, and I often sat together, but today I gave up a seat with them and sat with Elizabeth, Maria, and Celeste, a trio of impossibly smart, impossibly beautiful senior girls. They firmly believed that they were too cool for Westham boys, but they were nice enough to any girl who they thought had any sense, and I was on good enough terms with them.
Yet, for all that, I barely survived the meal, so full was it of references to hipster bands, professional choirs and orchestras, college acceptances, and the plans for Elizabeth and Maria's next coffee shop duet performance in town (for which Celeste, of course, was designing the posters). These were occasionally interrupted by things like, "Oh, and Caroline, I'd like to switch from Chemistry Lab to Experimental Design, if that's all right," from Maria, who was on the Science Olympiad team with me, or, "Caroline, you take Spanish. What was the homework again?" from Celeste.
I was relieved when we all brought our dishes back to Westham's kitchen to be washed and I could head over to the corner of the room where Elliot and I always met when we studied together. Elliot and I reached the spot at exactly the same time; he gave me one of his perfect smiles. "Ladies first."
I rolled my eyes but couldn't keep from smiling back. Elliot was just so . . . so Elliot, so loveable, so perfect, all the time. So why did he want to go to school near Liv?
Elliot lowered himself down beside me so that our legs touched. This was how we always sat—close enough that it made sense that some people thought we were dating. Liv and I were Elliot's best friends and by now he was completely used to the fact that we tended to sit as near to him as possible. He'd never complained about it to either of us, which was part of what made his feelings such a mystery.
"So, the test is on limits, right?" Elliot said, zipping open his backpack. "It had better be, 'cause otherwise my notes are all useless and I've been focusing on the wrong thing."
I laughed. "Yeah, it's on limits. I think I've got a pretty good handle on them, but—"
"Of course you do! You're the smartest person I know. Well, except maybe my dad. Or Mr. Brooks. But—you're smart, Cara."
There was nothing I could do to keep from blushing, but I tried to pretend I hadn't heard him. "—But it would be great if you could do your Elliot-magic and make everything funny so I'll actually remember it all."
"Hmm. Calculus funny. I don't . . . Oh! Write the equation for and draw the graph of Felix's mood, if Erica equals five, and then find the limit of Felix's mood as Felix approaches Erica."
I burst out laughing. Erica and her roommate, Noelle, lived in the room next to the one I shared with Liv. Erica and Felix were pretty much the poster couple for how not to behave at Westham. They were nice people, but they had no sense of propriety whatsoever, and the chances of catching them making out any time you stepped into a hallway or stairwell were about one in four.
So what would Felix's mood approach as Felix approached Erica?
I wrote my equation and sketched a quick graph. "Cara," Elliot said, looking over my shoulder, "plug that into your graphing calculator for a second."
I did. Y = X/(5-X). I hit the GRAPH button. "See?" I held my calculator in Elliot's face, feeling much younger than sixteen and needing to prove myself right. "It's a vertical asymptote!"
"Yeah, going straight up and straight down, depending on which way Felix is approaching."
I hit CLEAR. "Oh."
"You know how to fix that."
"Absolute value," I muttered, hating him for noticing my mistake.
"This is why we're studying. I don't think you know everything. And it's okay if you don't, because the test isn't until tomorrow."
"That's pretty darn close."
"And I will Skype you from my dorm all night if that's what it takes for you to understand this. I promise. But that won't be necessary, because you're a fast learner."
"We'd need sleep."
"And we'll get it, as soon as you feel comfortable with this stuff." Elliot started writing some problems down, probably making them up off the top of his head. Then he shoved his notebook to me. "Do these and then I'll give you another fun one. I promise."
The next "fun problem" was about the limit of Maria's patience as Maria approached Gavin if Gavin equaled one. The stipulation was that Maria could only approach Gavin from the right. I got that one right on the first try: Y=ln(x).
The evening was a mix of regular limits and Elliot's special "fun problems;" we kept going until Scott was almost completely empty and we were both yawning uncontrollably, at which point I finally conceded that I did indeed understand limits as well as I ever would.
Liv was already back in Allen when Elliot and I finished studying, so it was I and I alone who got walked back to the dorm and hugged good-night by Elliot. I wanted to kiss him, as I always wanted to do when he walked me back alone, but I let myself into the building and sighed, reliving the evening.
I knew I would ace the Calc test.
The next day was a blur until third hour, the beginning of which was announced by the real bell on the balcony one floor up from our classrooms, of course, as all the hours were. During third hour, Elliot and I had Mr. Brooks for Calculus. We slid into our seats—across from each other at a table that also included Celeste and Elliot's roommate, who was a junior named Walker—and exchanged conspiratorial glances. When Mr. Brooks handed out the folders to keep us from peering at each other’s papers, I grinned at Elliot and whispered, "No cheating!"
He widened his eyes in response. "On the test or on your heart?"
The test was easy—Elliot's "fun problems" the night before, unlike these, had actually forced me to think—and I handed it in with a few minutes left in class. Elliot had finished first, as always—how did he ace everything when he did it all so quickly?—but Walker and Celeste were still working. Elliot set his hand on the table and made a thumbs-up sign at me, raising his eyebrows. I nodded, smiling, and pointed at him, tilting my head in curiosity. Elliot grinned back and nodded. I beamed. The test had gone well.
The day blurred again until dinner. The whole soccer team ate together, squished elbow-to elbow at two tables pushed together that did not even come close to fitting the 18 people sitting there. I was, luckily, squished between Elliot and Tiana. Mostly, I talked to Elliot and Sam, who was on Elliot's other side, but every time I caught Tiana's eye she gave me this look, wiggling her eyebrows, that could only mean one thing: The flirting was beyond obvious.
I just hoped the flirting was two-way. Elliot was, after all, offering me his food. Like I didn't steal it anyway. Like he didn't steal mine even more.
We trundled out to the parking lot around 6:20, all eighteen of us, plus Ms. Bell, our advisor, plus anyone who wanted to come watch—the whole school, basically. Buses came—first one for the team and Ms. Bell and then three more for the rest of the school and the teachers. The entire populace of Thomas A. Westham Preparatory Academy fit into four school buses.
When I was in elementary school, I had longed to have a bus seat to myself for an entire bus ride. Now, however, I took the seat next to Elliot despite all of the open seats around me.
Sam sat in front of us and immediately turned around, raised his eyebrows all the way up until they were hidden by his too-short bangs, and said, "I'll leave you two lovebirds alone. Be good, okay? We don't want to have to clean any spit off the seat when you're done." For such a usually innocent person, Sam had been saying some fairly suggestive things lately. Which drove me crazy, because he always implied that Elliot and I were a couple despite Elliot's utter lack of clarity on the matter.
When Sam had turned back around, I turned to Elliot and, very quietly, asked, "So, are you going to the Fall Formal next weekend?"
Elliot shrugged. "I don't know."
"Is there someone you want to go with?"
Elliot developed a sudden need to retie his shoes, which was not only unhelpful in terms of answering my question, but also involved his bony knee sticking into my face as he tied his right shoelace. Only my ability to draw back my head quickly prevented his knee from colliding forcefully with my nose.
"Hey, watch it. Your shoes are fine anyway. And answer my question."
"No, your shoes aren't fine; or no, there isn't somebody; or no, you won't answer my question?"
"No, I won't answer your question." He was working on the left shoe now, so at least his knee was aimed toward the window instead of toward me.
"Why not? Come on, you have to. It's no fun if you don't."
"Is it Liv?" I hated myself for saying it. I wanted it to be me. Was it that much of a stretch? He was practically my best friend, we'd spent so much time together over the past three years playing soccer and studying for math and Spanish and just hanging out—was it so inconceivable that he might like me? But he didn't. I mean, why else would he want to go to school near Liv?
I felt a surge of frustration—it was her, I knew it, and I wanted to hate him for it but I couldn't because hatred didn't fit anywhere into my emotions for him. I took a deep breath and went ahead and said what I wanted to say. "Is it me?"
"No comment." It was a different tone this time, though. Better? Worse? Screw it, it was her.
"Sam seems to think it's me," I pushed, even though I knew I shouldn't. Gosh, I was just the junior girl who would never play soccer well, the third wheel when he and Liv—no. It could still be me. Sam knew things, after all. Elliot confided in Sam, and Sam thought Elliot liked me. I needed to stop getting myself down.
"Elliot, you've got to tell me."
I couldn't tell him I liked him. Or that Liv did. Why didn't Elliot know how hot he was? How nice? How funny? How absolutely perfect? I sighed. "Elliot, any girl at Westham—well, not Celeste or Elizabeth or Maria 'cause they don't like high school guys and not Erica 'cause she's taken, but most girls—would be thrilled to go to Fall Formal with you."
"Why? I'm not special."
I wanted to punch the seat in front of me but resisted because the last thing I needed was for Sam to turn around and tease us. Instead, I allowed myself to reach up and play with one of his impossibly silky locks of hair. "Of course you're special. Take a second and feel your hair. Just feel it. Do normal people grow hair that soft? I don't think so."
I involuntarily inhaled as Elliot took a piece of my hair between his fingers. "Yours is soft too."
"Not like yours," I protested. "But that wasn't actually the point. The point was—look, you've got everything going for you. You're the only one at Westham who's a member of every academic team we have, but you're not just a nerd. You're athletic—one of the best soccer players in the school, in case you haven't noticed, and a way better goalie than Dominic or Sam will ever be even though we need you as forward. You're smart—you're practically the reason I'm passing Calc, and you're definitely the reason I got through math last year. You make everything interesting and funny and so much easier to learn and I love studying with you. But I also love hanging out with you because you're just fun to be around and you say the most interesting things and I just don't know where people get minds like yours, but more people should definitely go to the brain store that you went to because they obviously sell the smartest, funniest brains ever. And then you also happen to be incredibly hot and I wish it were warmer so that you'd take off your shirt during practice like you always do in September—oh, gosh, I did not just say that out loud—and your hair is the softest thing I've ever felt and you look good in everything and then to top it all off you're so funny and I love it when you photobomb because your smile is the best thing in the world even though you're obnoxious and you can get me laughing like no one else. And then after all of that you have to be nice, too, and you're one of the best listeners I've ever met and so sympathetic and I'm really impressed that you let people see you cry because so many boys don't ever admit they have feelings and you actually do and—Elliot, you are perfect." For the first time in over a minute, I breathed.
A burning blush was my only response.
"Cara. I'm not perfect."
Then I got control of my tongue. "I tell you all that and that's your only response?"
"What am I supposed to say? That was absolute nonsense and less than half of it was true and I can't believe someone as smart and impressive as you could ever find anywhere near that much to appreciate in me."
I stared at my lap. "But I do."
"Okay, great. You're pretty awesome too, by the way. You're the best captain of any of the teams—I should know since I'm on all of them—and you're way better at math than you think or else you wouldn't constantly beat me on math team, and you're a way better soccer player than you give yourself credit for, and you are actually the best listener in the universe. And your Spanish is so much better than mine that I can't even measure the difference, and don't start in on how fast I learn the vocabulary because I can't speak the way you can, not with the accent or the fluency or the incredible grammar. And it's not like you aren't pretty or anything. Give yourself some credit, Cara."
Now I was dying to know. "So, um, Fall Formal?"
What? "After all that, you have to tell me who you're asking. I mean, I'm just so awesome that I merit knowing, right?"
"Who said I was asking anyone?"
"You wouldn't be hiding it if you weren't asking anyone. You'd be making a huge scene about how you're so worried that Sam will turn you down and the world will end if he doesn't say yes because he is your one true love, and I'd be sitting here rolling my eyes thinking that no one would ever refuse you."
"People might refuse me."
"Never know until you try, I suppose. But seriously. I mean, unless you're planning on asking Maria or somebody . . ."
"No, not Maria."
"Cara, you do not get to go through all of the girls at Westham asking me about them!"
"You have to tell me."
"No I don't!"
"You're so uncooperative!"
Elliot just grinned.
"You're, like, actually the worst. You know that? You could not be more infuriating."
"Why do you even care?"
"Well, for one thing, I'm still waiting for an answer about whether or not it's me."
"What, you think I'd let Sam get away with saying the stuff he says before I asked you? No, I had to lead him down the wrong path. Sorry if that confused you. No, it's not you. I mean, really. You're my best friend, you know? Best friend, study buddy forever, teammate, soccer student, Spanish genius, Calc partner, Science Olympiad captain, fellow nerd . . . nah, I could never date someone so much like myself. I love you, of course. But not like that."
His tone was light, casual, like he didn't know he was crushing me and stomping the pieces into the ground. I suppose he didn't know, then. There were no pretenses with Elliot. He could be unclear, but he always meant what he said, some way or another.
So that was that. Elliot Newport and I would have no happily ever after.
There was definitely a part of me that wanted to die.
"So is it Liv?" I managed to ask.
"Elliot, you just—look. You have to tell me."
"No, really, you have to. If I'm your best friend, I definitely have a right to know this."
"Fine. I'll tell you after the game."
I was out of energy for bargaining, so I shrugged. "Okay."
It was silent for a while, and then Elliot looked over me, questioning. "Are you okay?"
I just looked at him, giving no answer.
"Cara, what's wrong?"
"I . . . never mind."
"I said something, didn't I." It wasn't really a question. He knew me too well to need to ask.
"Drop it, okay, Elliot?"
"Cara . . ."
Elliot hugged me, which was awkward in a bus seat and accomplished nothing but reminding me of all I could no longer hope for. When he released me, he whispered, "I'm sorry."
The bus shuddered to a stop just then. Sam turned around, as he had when we'd boarded the bus, and wiggled his eyebrows. "Did you have fun?" He held up a pair of iPod headphones. "I wasn't listening."
I know you weren't, Sam, or you wouldn't say something so stupid, I thought. I was planning on just glaring at him, but beside me Elliot gave an easy smile and said, "'Course. I always have fun with Cara," and I forced myself to smile and nod.
Sam wiggled his eyebrows some more and then turned around and got off the bus. Elliot and I followed in silence.
The stands of the town's high school soccer field were nearly empty. Nobody cared about Westham, except sometimes its own residents. Ms. Bell led us onto the field, and I realized for the first time in a year that we didn't have jerseys. We looked pathetic.
All 100 other Westham students and about 15 faculty trundled off the other three buses and into the stands, obviously trying to spread out in order to look big and imposing. The effort failed, but it wasn't really their fault.
Gavin looked over the team. "Elliot, Erica, Maddy—forward. Felix, you and I are mids. Walker, Johanna, and . . . Tiana—defense. Sam, get in the goal. Everybody else, we'll be needing subs. Lots of them. You will play. And we'll be great. I'm counting on you guys. We have to show these town bastards they can't win. Right? Okay, Westham on three."
We counted together—"One. Two. Three. WESTHAM!"—and then those of us who weren't starting trudged off of the field. I could hear Gavin continuing his pep talk with the starters—"Sam. You're an awesome goalie. You save everything. You're invincible. Okay? Tonight, you are INVINCIBLE!" I hadn't even known that invincible was in Gavin's vocabulary.
I played terribly for the couple of minutes that Gavin put me in, but mostly I sat and watched as my teammates demolished the town kids. The thing I loved about town games was that all of us got to be on the same team for once. Westham only really had enough good players for one team, so splitting us into two teams inevitably put some of the weaker players on the field as starters. There were no flaws, however, in our starting offense, and the defense was pretty great, too. The defense barely mattered, though, since Sam could save anything. Before coming to Westham, I'd never found sports terribly interesting, but this game was beautiful. Felix and Gavin were best friends, a telepathic midfielding duo that was all over the field, stealing from the town's offenders, scoring, and running back again. This was hardly necessary, though; Elliot, Erica, and Maddy could have won the game on their own.
I was glad when it was time to board the buses again. The team was in high spirits, high-fiving, fist bumping, and laughing, and I could almost let my mood hitch itself to that of my teammates and feel similarly exuberant. Almost. Elliot and I took the same seat we'd had on the ride to town, and the familiarity of sitting there with him was all it took for his rejection to rush back at me in full force. I took a deep breath, inhaling his sweat and finding myself pathetic for loving the scent. Then I said, "It's after the game. You have to tell me who you're asking to Fall Formal."
He sighed and ran a hand through his sweat-soaked hair. "Really, Cara? Not even a congratulations first?"
I rolled my eyes. "You know you did well."
"Yeah, like I know no girl would reject me, right?"
"The point is, I don't know."
"Fine. Be that way."
"Cara . . ."
"Just tell me who you're asking, okay?"
"Well, I haven't decided if I'm going to ask her yet. I don't want to risk her friendship. She's an awesome friend and I'd hate to lose her just because it gets awkward after I admit to liking her."
"That wouldn't happen. Not with you. But who is it? You said you'd tell me."
Elliot took a deep breath, opened his mouth, sighed, and repeated the process. After a few failed attempts to speak, he managed to whisper, "Liv."
The process was so adorably desperate that I had to smile, despite my disappointment and jealousy. In fact, I was almost happy for them. Elliot was going to get the girl he wanted. That almost made everything okay, except that it didn't.
"You're . . . smiling?" Elliot frowned at me, seeming confused.
"Liv will be thrilled."
Elliot's eyes widened. "Really?"
I grinned at him, so cute was his hopeful expression. "Really. She'd love it. She was over the moon when she heard that you were applying to St. Olaf and NYU and Cornell. You did that to be closer to her, right?"
Elliot gave a tiny nod, seeming unable to hide his smile. "Yeah."
"That's so sweet. Don't worry. She was really hoping you'd ask her to the dance."
Elliot frowned. "But how do you know? What if she changed her mind? What if I have bad breath when I ask her and she turns me down? What if she was just trying to lead you down the wrong path, like I did with Sam?"
"Elliot. She's been pretty darn crazy about you since school started this year. She's not going to change her mind between now and Fall Formal. Don't worry. You'll go with her and she'll love it."
"Are you sure?"
"Elliot, she's the one I was talking about when I said no one would reject you."
Elliot sighed and used the hem of his shirt to wipe off some of the sweat that remained on his face. "Fine. Okay. I'll ask her. You're sure she'll say yes?"
I rolled my eyes. "Yes. Liv is going to Fall Formal with you." I tilted my head. "How long have you liked her, anyway?"
Elliot shrugged. "This year, I guess. She just . . . she's smart, and pretty, and talented, and totally has a mind of her own, and she seems so fashionable, which is something I'll never in a million years be able to understand, and she's so into music the way I'm into speech and it's so different but the same sort of passion, and I think it's really cool how neither of her languages is widely spoken in the United States, you know?" Oh, of course, she had to be different enough from him. Unlike me. Curse Liv. "And it would be totally amazing if she got into Julliard, but obviously St. Olaf has a really good music program too."
"And you'd go there for her?"
Elliot sighed, his eyes drifting off. "Of course."
"Even though you think the kids are snotty?"
He shrugged. "Liv's not snotty."
And so collapsed my faith in the supposedly reasonable nature of Elliot Newport. He'd liked Liv for all of two months and already he was willing to change his list of wants and need for the next four years to include her and exclude anything that might keep him from her. Brilliant.
It was a long, quiet rest of the bus ride. Elliot eventually engaged Sam in a conversation about the speech team, of which I was not a member, and I mostly looked out the window. Dusk had already fallen and there was nothing to see, but it was somewhere to put my gaze.
"How do I look?" Liv struck a pose, her sequined dress gleaming.
Personally, I didn't think she was thin enough for the dress, but I had enough experience with my own spite to know better than to trust my judgment in such a situation. The glint off of all of Liv's sequins shone like her success, hitting my eyes as harshly as Elliot's rejection.
"You look great."
Liv tossed her waist-length hair, waved, and opened the door, blowing a kiss over her shoulder. Then the door was shut and I could hear the sound of high heels clattering down the corridor.
I was alone.
I paced, picked up a book, put it down, continued pacing, flipped open my laptop, shut it, and settled on Pride and Prejudice. I found the spot where Elizabeth rejects Mr. Darcy and flopped back on my bed to read.
My door opened slowly and a familiar head, cloaked in luscious dark hair, peered around the door. "Caroline?"
I sighed. "Come in."
Noelle, gorgeous as always in a modest, loose-fitting light blue dress, stepped into my room. "Get dressed. We're going to the dance."
I flipped over in bed and put my face in my pillow. "No."
"Look, I know it's hard getting rejected, but you love dances. You can't let Elliot and Liv keep you from Fall Formal."
I groaned into my pillow.
"CAROLINE! You're coming."
I continued groaning.
I head footsteps and a door opening from the direction of my closet. Then there was the screech of metal hangers sliding across the metal bars on which they hung, and next thing I knew something long and silky was landing on my back. I rolled over and picked up the thing Noelle had thrown at me. It was my favorite dress, dark blue and tight but not too immodest. I glared at Noelle. "I am not going to watch Elliot and Liv dance. Not happening."
Noelle sat next to me on the bed, slipping off her strappy silver sandals. "Well, I ditched Gavin, and I need someone to go with."
I beamed and threw my arms around her, completely forgetting my traitorous roommate. "Oh my gosh, you ditched Gavin? Noelle! That's awesome!"
Gavin wasn't a bad guy. Really. But he had trouble taking no for an answer when he wanted something, and he wanted Noelle. He'd been chasing her since freshman year, and she was so nice and so malleable that she always accepted his invitations to dances, movie nights, and the like. It was an open secret that Noelle didn't want to date Gavin but had never found a way to say so. Gavin probably knew, even, but he didn't seem to care.
Noelle grimaced. "Yeah, it's great, and now he's at the dance with Alison."
"What?" I thought for a moment. "He's probably just trying to make you jealous."
"Right, so I don't want to sit in Allen like I just got dumped. I dumped him. So I'm going to the dance, and you're coming with me."
I sighed and went to my closet to find shoes. "Five minutes." I wanted to refuse, but someone needed to keep Noelle's spirits up as long as possible before she freaked out about "being mean" for rejecting Gavin. And Erica, Noelle's roommate and best friend, would of course be with Felix and blind to the rest of the world. Liv, to whom Noelle would turn next, was with Elliot, and that left me. To the Fall Formal it was.
Five minutes later, I met Noelle in the hall, dressed and ready for the dance. Since I didn't believe in makeup, all I'd done was changed clothes, slipped on flats, and brushed my hair. Even so, Noelle told me I looked nice, and we walked together to Scott.
When we walked into the cafeteria, the lights were down and the music was blaring. The one rule about music at Westham dances was that it couldn't be in English, and it wasn't. Noelle immediately grimaced.
"What?" I asked, seeing her expression.
"We analyzed the text to this rap in French," she explained. "It's . . . and especially with Ms. Lee's take on the lyrics in my head . . . anyway." Noelle grabbed my hands. "We're not going to think. We're not going to look around. We're just going to dance, as long as we're here, and nothing else." She started jerking one of my arms forward and out, and then the other, repeating the motion until I started swaying back and forth with her, feet flying, arms splayed. I remembered dancing like this with my younger cousins at my aunt's wedding a few years ago, and I remembered thinking that this was the type of dancing that one did with small children to make them feel cool. I smiled to myself, wondering which of us, Noelle or I, was supposed to be the small child and which was supposed to be the condescending teenager.
I tried not to care. Noelle was a good dancer, and she got me through several songs almost without thinking. And then a slowdance came on. Inevitably, I looked for Elliot. I always did at dances, and, over the past few years, he'd even danced with me a few times. We were close.
Liv and Elliot were swaying in each other's arms, Liv's head resting on Elliot's chest in a position that made me almost too jealous to breathe. Beside me, I could hear Noelle chuckling, and I forced myself to tear my gaze from Liv and Elliot and find out what Noelle found funny.
Alison had a finger jabbed into Gavin's chest and appeared to be whispering furiously at him. As Noelle and I watched, she slapped Gavin across the face and stormed out the doors of the cafeteria, letting them swing closed behind her. Gavin gaped for a second and then sidled over to us. "So, Noelle . . ."
"Not a chance," she spat, and she grabbed me by the shoulders and started dancing.
Gavin shuffled away, and, when he was gone, Noelle said, "Go on, if you want. Find a knight in shining armor." Her eyes were directed somewhere vaguely above my head. I turned and saw Walker Hughes standing right over of me.
A lot of people at Westham were tall, but Walker was a special sort of tall. His soft haircut and eyes made it easy to forget that he was an incredibly angular person, with pointy elbows and pointy knees and even slightly pointy ears. He was at least 6' 5", which was tall by almost anyone's standards, but his thin frame accentuated his height. As I was only 5' 4", I looked up and then up some more to meet Walker's gaze as he in front of me.
He cleared his throat. "So, Caroline. Um, I . . . I know it's been pretty crappy, what's been going on, and I realize that you have no interest in me and you probably wouldn't even know who I was if I weren't Elliot's roommate, but, um, do you want to dance?"
I stole one last glance at Liv and Elliot and then said, "Sure." A smile softened Walker's features until he seemed neither so tall nor so pointy, and he put his arms around my waist. I laced my fingers together behind his neck, and we danced.