I’m going to kill him.
I balled my hair up on top of my head and turned my face in the dingy mirror of the gym restroom to view my profile. Why on earth I’d let my best friend talk me into going to our senior homecoming dance dateless was a mystery I was still trying to solve, five minutes before he was due to show up.
Maybe I can say I’m sick. He’s got Andie and the rest of the group. He won’t miss me.
I eyed my blue formal dress, trying to come up with other excuses.
Stomach bug? Headache? Surely I can injure something in the next five minutes.
I let my hair drop down with a sigh, then twisted it over in an attempt to finish the bun I’d tried to do. One of the harsh fluorescent lights above me flickered and buzzed, washing out my already light skin. I pinned up the sides of my hair, my eyes going to my phone every few seconds, waiting for Cameron’s text as if staring at it would hurry it along. Which was ridiculous on principle, and of course the thing would alert me anyway when he texted me. Like all cell phones.
When my phone did go off, I jumped as if I hadn’t been expecting it. I hated this bathroom and the way it made sounds echo so harshly off the hard concrete block walls. My thumb flew to the messenger icon to check the text.
By the buffet. Save me.
Cameron lived next door and had been my best friend since we were both six. The only reason we went to the dance separately was because he was going with his girlfriend of seven months. I, on the other hand, had gotten dumped behind a Taco Bell back in May. Even though it was now the beginning of October, it still stung now and again. Ryan’s reasoning had made sense and been fair – going off to college in Rhode Island – but we could have made it work, right? Long-distance and all? There were so many ways to keep in touch nowadays.
On the bright side, at least Ryan had paid for my meal before breaking up with me.
The gym had been tricked out with cheap streamers and bad decorations, and I didn’t even know what theme had been chosen. I hadn’t paid attention during voting and simply checked off whatever box was next to the longest and most obnoxious name. I raised my eyebrow at a half-filled balloon bobbing along on a draft, wondering why the Homecoming Committee had half-assed it so badly this year. Was our senior class really that lazy? I put one foot out the door, caught sight of a girl I had zero interest in seeing, and darted back inside the bathroom to hole up in one of the tiny stalls like a wimp.
Why does she have to be here?
Because of course she was, I reasoned irritably as the metal door screamed open. Cara Daniels, Cameron’s ex-girlfriend from a couple years ago, walked in on clicking high heels. I curled up as tight as I could on the toilet, crouching uncomfortably on the plastic seat and praying I didn’t dunk my nice dress is the water. Or slip.
Cara finished her business and breezed out of her stall to the sinks. Water gushed out. She really took hand hygiene seriously, with how long she was washing. The water turned off, but there were no sounds of departure. She must have been primping. Just when I thought she would never leave, she said into the silence,
I started, but didn’t say anything.
“C’mon, Blakely. The food isn’t that bad.”
I had no choice but to walk out and confront her. I didn’t even bother with the pretense that I had been using the toilet by flushing it and wasting water. Just sulked out.
“How did you know it was me?” I asked. Cara smiled as she turned back to the mirror and adjusted the sparkly barrettes in her short brown hair.
“I saw you walk in here fifteen minutes ago. Waiting for Cameron?”
That sounded extremely stalkerish to me, but I didn’t call her on it. “I just got a text from him, actually,” I said, holding my deus ex machina of a phone up, grateful for the out. “Gotta go.”
“Really?” Cara raised her eyebrows. “With that hair?”
I stopped in my tracks at this poor excuse for cattiness. “What?” I said, because surely this blatant bitchery was not actually happening.
“Here, let me help.” She reached for me, and before I could scoot away far enough and mumble more than, “No, I’m good,” she’d grabbed me and spun me around.
“Boring,” she said, taking my rhinestone pins down. “You should do something else with it.”
“I just wanted to do something simple,” I replied.
“Right.” Cara twisted my hair with a quick yank and started to do up another bun. “Are you having fun tonight?”
I shrugged. “It’s all right. Not the best thing I’ve been to, not the worst.”
“Who did you bring?”
“Myself. I’m so awesome I make up both halves of a romantic couple.”
“Oh. That’s too bad you had to come alone.” She stabbed a bobby pin into the back of my head.
“Ow! What the hell?!”
“I mean, you’re pretty and all,” she continued, as if she hadn’t just inflicted pain upon me. “When you try,” she added, because complimenting people was clearly outside her purview. “But you’re just so different from everyone else.”
“Everyone’s their own unique snowflake, I guess. Are you finished now?” I tried to pull away, but she had me locked in her grip.
“Not yet.” Another bobby pin nailed my head. “Has it ever occurred to you, Blakely, that maybe you’re weird enough to actually be from someplace else?”
In all the years I’d known (or more accurately, been aware of) Cara, we had never had any sort of conversation besides “Hi hello how are you fine great later bye.” I spent real, actual time trying to figure out ways to avoid her creepy ass in school, and other than the fact that she made that rather difficult for some reason, we did not interact. Why she had chosen now, of all times, to corner and pounce on me in a gym restroom was beyond me.
“Like where?” I replied in annoyance. “Pretty sure I’m from here. Looking for love in Alderaan places. Although I do have a timeshare in Mordor. The weather’s not great, and the view gets kind of old, but – ”
“Is it weird being adopted and knowing nothing about your parents?” Cara continued, while I scowled. “Like, did they abandon you, did your dad knock your mom up when she was seventeen…are they dead…”
“I don’t think that’s what happened, and yeah, I’m fine with being adopted.” Again I tried to pull away. Again, she held me tight.
“I wouldn’t be so sure there’s not something else to it,” Cara said.
Where was this going? My skin prickled all over, and I felt like something was pressing in on me, like the air surrounding us was squeezing me. “You don’t even know my family, Cara.”
“Don’t I?” She jabbed the last bobby pin in and spun me around to face her, fingers gripping my wrist like a vise. Cold crept up my arm. Something wasn’t right at all. “Looks better.”
“Glad you approve,” I said through a thick throat, wanting to get out of there ASAP. Cara turned, slowly releasing my wrist, and left the bathroom. When the door finally closed behind her, I leaned over and grabbed the sink, breathing hard.
I looked up at my face in the mirror again, shocked to see how freaked out I looked. “What the hell was that all about?” I whispered.
* * *
Once on the other side of the bathroom door and surrounded by my classmates I felt better, though my heart still pounded. That conversation had unnerved me more than any other interaction with her for as long as I’d known her.
Shaking my head, I dropped down into a chair at the back of the gym, trying to get my breathing under control. Hoping to distract myself from what had just happened, I glanced around and spotted Cameron and Andie, his girlfriend of seven months, slow-dancing to a screechy song about someone’s true love dying and all that was left was their Pomeranian. Which didn’t rhyme with much. Neither of them looked at each other, gazes unfocused and distant, her hands loose on his shoulders and his limp on her waist, enough distance between them to fit a couple of my AP textbooks. They weren’t even trying anymore.
The torturous song ended, and something blasted out with thumping bass drowning out any lyrics except for “Uh. Uh. Yeeeeaaah.” Everyone started jumping and laughing, having a good time. I just wanted to go home. The little bit of time I’d spent here hadn’t been all that fun for me anyway, and now it completely sucked.
I stood up, checked my clutch to be sure I hadn’t forgotten anything, and pulled out my phone to text Cameron. Cara is such a creeper. I’m going home.
Tucking the phone away and looking up again, I saw Cara near one of the back exits, sending a quick look around as if checking to be sure no one was nearby. Then she slipped out. Unexpected anger at how she’d treated me dumped into my system all at once, and my fists and jaw clenched. I headed after her, determined to give her a piece of my mind. She had no right getting up in my business. I intended to tell her exactly that, hopefully without swearing.
Warm air greeted me when I pushed the door open and stepped outside. After it had closed behind me, the sounds inside the gym shut off. It felt so much better out here. Cleaner. Clearer.
Cara, however, was nowhere in sight.
Fine. I’d tell her off next time I ran into her at school. I certainly wasn’t going to hunt her down out here. I started wandering, thinking maybe I’d just circle around the building and back to the parking lot, and just enjoy the nice weather. Stars twinkled overhead, not a cloud to be seen. It felt…romantic.
I felt a pang from my breakup with Ryan. He’d really liked me. He thought I was funny. He thought I was beautiful. We had so much fun together.
I still couldn’t believe he’d dumped me.
My ears caught the sound of a hushed voice, one that could conceivably be Cara’s, and I followed it, walking as quietly as I could in heels determined to sink in the grass. The voice led me out by the tennis courts. Behind me, I heard the door to the gym open again. Probably someone out for a smoke break. Homecoming dances, so stressful.
By the furthest court, deep in the shadows, stood Cara. I edged along the brick of the gym, trying to get as close as I could and well aware that my sneaking skills left much to be desired. Once I got as close as I dared, my eyes widened as I took in the scene, and I started wondering if someone had mixed hallucinogens into the spinach-artichoke dip churning in my stomach.
Cara wasn’t alone. She spoke quietly, words I couldn’t make out or understand, to a man glimmering fuzzily behind a shimmery veil. The darkness hung thick around the veil…actually thick, like the man had emerged from sludge. Coldness begin to creep into my body, a sense of not right, and not just because this absolutely could not be happening, but because whatever I was seeing, it wasn’t good. It didn’t come from someplace good. It came from a place of wrong, a place of darkness, a place of….
Evil. Pure evil.
My head began to feel as thick as the sludge and started to prickle. I backed away, unable to take my eyes off the freakish scene, unable to move any faster.
I slammed into something hard and jumped, about to let out an involuntary scream. A hand clapped over my mouth and pulled me close against a warm body. I recognized the familiar scent.
The hand fell away as I turned around. “What the hell are you doing?” I whispered to Cameron. “You scared the hell out of me.”
“What are you doing?” he hissed back. “I thought you were going home, but I saw you follow Cara. You usually give her a wide berth. What is going on?”
I shook my head, heart beginning to beat hard again. “I have no clue. Cara – ”
“Hey, guys!” said, of course, Cara. I turned back around, dreading what I would see. “You looking for a smoke, too?” She held a pack out, looking completely normal, like nothing out of the ordinary and totally implausible had just happened. I silently told my heart to slow down, my hands to stop shaking, and prayed she couldn’t tell.
“No, thanks,” I said, trying to pretend weird things like this happened to me all the time. Like, all the time. So often I found it banal. “What’s up?”
“Oh, nothing,” she sighed, blowing a puff out. I coughed. “Just needed some fresh air. You, too?”
“Yeah.” I coughed again, and Cameron passed me the half-full cup of lemonade he was holding. I took a drink and handed it back.
Cara crossed one arm across her body, rested the elbow of her other arm on that hand. She had her cigarette up in the air between her fingers, her wrist bent back, as if modeling for whatever brand she was smoking.
“It’s like you guys are kissing,” she finally said.
Cameron choked as he lowered the cup from his lips. “What?” he coughed out, as I said the same.
“Sharing a drink. Swapping spit. Your lips have been on the same thing.”
Oh, whatever. This night had gone on long enough. “Deep, Cara,” I said. “I’m gonna head out.” I glanced at Cameron. “You coming?”
“Yeah.” He gave Cara some serious side-eye, then followed me back into the gym.
“First the thing in the bathroom, and now this,” I said. “Did you see what she was doing? Talking to that guy?”
“Yeah, I did.” Cameron looked back toward the door, a visible shiver racing over him. “I thought I was seeing things.”
“Me, too.” I pressed my fingertips against my temples in an attempt to stave off a very determined headache. How could that have happened? How could we have seen that? “I’m going to take off. I don’t feel well, and I think I’ve had enough fun for one night.” There is no way that could have been real.
“Yeah, I’m not really in the mood for this dance anymore, either, after…whatever that was. Let me get Andie, and we’ll go.”
“No,” I said, my hand going to his arm. “Stay. You don’t have to leave because of me. I’m just going to go home and….” I couldn’t think of what I’d do when I got home. I did have an exciting weekend of studying the periodic table of elements ahead of me, but I could comfortably put that off until at least 7:00 Sunday night. Eight if I was feeling bold.
“No, thanks,” Cameron replied. “I don’t want to be here anymore.”
“You really should stay,” I said. “I don’t want to ruin anything.”
“Trust me,” Cameron said. “You’re not ruining anything.” He turned and went to Andie. Predictably, and I couldn’t blame her, she looked angry about her evening coming to such an abrupt end. She motioned for Cameron to follow her, and they disappeared into the locker rooms that led to the pool.
Ten minutes later, Cameron barreled up to me.
“Whatever,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“What happened?” I asked, hurrying to keep up with his long, angry strides. “I take it she wasn’t happy her magical night was cut short?”
“Ah, no. She dumped me.”
“What? I know things weren’t going great with you guys, but I didn’t think she’d actually dump you.”
“Well, she did.” Cameron slung his arm around me, making me lose my precarious balance on my heels and stumble against him. He caught me and held me close as we walked away. “But you know what? I don’t have to deal with it anymore, and now I’m in the mood for a celebratory bacon cheeseburger. Have whatever you want. I’m buying.”