The car jams to the curb and I hop out before the valet can reach my door. I’m in the biggest hurry of my life and I don’t care who knows it.
I’m alone when I run up the front stairs, and I’m alone when I cross the vast empty lobby of the hotel and step into the glittering ballroom. Hung with twinkling strands of light and dotted with white-draped tables, it is crowded with people I have known for years. And that’s the moment I feel the most alone of all: when I enter my senior prom.
It’s my own fault, of course. Sure, it was a boy who broke my heart, but I am the one to blame. I am the one who broke a promise.
Still, I hold my head high, because I have a reason to be here. I have a grand romantic gesture to make, an epic speech to give, a heart full of regret to bleed out over the scuffed vinyl.
When I scan the dance floor, I see him standing on the edge, swaying back and forth in that way guys do when they don’t want (or know how) to dance. He isn’t looking for me, but that makes sense, since he’s here with another girl. She’s right beside him and their fingers are twined together.
Nothing about tonight is going to be easy.
Even though I’m clearly visible on my new front porch, my unwanted ride heralds his arrival with a sharp honk, loud enough to cut through the Damned, playing in my earbuds.
Oliver Flagg is the kind of guy who likes to make an entrance.
I wait until his gas-guzzling behemoth is completely stopped before I kill my music and trudge toward it. Whatever Oliver is listening to—I can hear drums and guitars—abruptly cuts off as I approach. Even though I’m a perfectly reasonably sized person at five and a half feet tall, I practically have to take a running leap to get into his vehicle, because it’s so monstrously huge, but eventually I am strapped in with my backpack on my lap. Ready to get this ride—and senior year—over with.
“You’re ten minutes early,” I tell Oliver. Just because our moms are BFFs doesn’t mean we have to be.
“You were ready,” he says mildly. “Waiting outside and all dressed up for the first day of school.”
Since I’m in one of my standard outfits—jeans, Chucks, a black tank layered over a white one—I know he’s being facetious. I also know he probably doesn’t comprehend the word “facetious.”
“I was listening to music. I was embracing the solitude.”
“Now you can embrace hanging out.” He flashes his patented hot-popular-jock grin in my direction before reversing onto Callaway Lane. “Besides, you’re supposed to show up early for the first day of school. These are the glory days, Rafferty.”
“Glory days.” The words come out of my mouth in a flat line. As far as I am concerned, high school is something to get through and get over. I don’t need to roll around in the overblown tradition of it all.
But this is Oliver Flagg. He wallows in window dressing. He festers in frivolity. If there’s the remotest chance that something will involve a sign-up sheet or a spirit banner or a dude dressed up as a bird (our school mascot is a robin), Oliver is in.
Simply put…he loves that shit.
And I hate it.
I really hate it.
We pull onto Plymouth and rumble west in stiff silence as pastures and maple trees and farmhouses slide past us on both sides. Crazy that this much rural country exists only twenty minutes outside the city.
I finger-comb my hair, which is not quite brown and not quite blond, not quite straight and not quite curly. Not quite anything…just like me.
I apply lip gloss. I squirm in my seat and accidentally send the dozen empty plastic water bottles at my feet rattling against each other. Finally, I’m not able to take it anymore and I blurt out what we’re both thinking. “Look, I get it. It’s not like our moms consulted us when they came up with this little plan.” Oliver glances at me but doesn’t say anything, so I keep going. “It’s cool. You’ve got better things to do.” His eyebrows squinch together in the middle. “Drive me a couple more times so they won’t get all pissy, and then we’ll come up with an excuse. We’ll tell them you have practice and I’ll take the bus.”
This time, Oliver’s eyebrows jolt upward. “Practice?”
“Throwing or kicking or dribbling or whatever you do. Seriously, it’s fine.”
Oliver’s lips twitch into a half smile. “My, uh, dribbling practice is after school. It’s no big deal to drive you in the mornings.”
“It’s no big deal to take the bus.”
“Except that the ride is an hour and a half long. The bus goes all the way out before coming back to school.”
He’s right, but I hate being his charity case. “I know you have amassed a certain amount of nice-guy cred, but you don’t really have to pick me up. It’s egregious. It’s excessive.” Belatedly, I remember that Oliver might not follow my advanced vocabulary, and I dial it back so he’ll understand. “It’s too much.”
“I don’t mind.”
I shift again in my seat to observe his profile. There are girls in our class who would trade places with me in a hot heartbeat. Those girls place a lot of weight on tan skin and tight muscles and chocolate-brown eyes (I’ve heard Zoe Smith refer to them as “bedroom eyes”), but none of that does anything for me. I’m a brains girl, all the way. “Of course you mind. Who would want to be responsible for getting someone else to school every single day?”