I could tell you about how I spent way too much on my dress (basically two months of shitty drive thru Dunkin Donuts wages from this summer), or about how my shoes pinched, or about how Ted bought a corsage that totally clashed with my dress and I had to suck it up and wear the stupid thing anyway. I could tell you about how I burned my finger on my curling iron, or about how many times I tried to put on the stupid fake eyelashes before I threw them down in disgust and trampled them beneath my (uncomfortable) shoes.
Because that all happened. Also, Ted did not get a limo. Which would have been fine if he had borrowed his dad’s car like he could probably have done if he’d thought it through. And even showing up in his car would have been fine if only he had cleaned it out sometime in the last, oh, I don’t know, TWO GODDAMN YEARS? So it was either cram into the front seat in my midnight blue dress possessed of a nearly gargantuan tulle skirt and just pray to whoever was listening that I didn’t:
A) Crush the hell out of it and ruin my entrance, or:
B) Become caked in the crumbs and dust of pizzas past, not to speak of the grime of dirty pennies dug from pockets, leakage from sports drinks, and god forbid, bodily fluids.
I did not hold out a lot of hope for that scenario, so I tactfully explained to Ted that we were going to drive my 1990 Jetta instead. Ok, so it was dodgy and not that pretty, and yes, the transmission had been acting up. But it was clean.
“Come on, Lottie, I can’t drive stick. How’s it going to look if I have to help you out of the driver’s side?”
“A hell of a lot better than it’s going to look if I get Reeses’ Pieces adhered to my ass. Get in.”
So actually, I guess I wasn’t that tactful, but you know that whole Bridezilla thing? Well Promzilla happens too, and it especially happens when everyone’s been making a big deal about how this was going to be Carver High’s best prom ever, and when your mom has been clipping pictures of prom dresses since last year, and you happen to be dating the hottest guy on the basketball team right after said team has just swiped States’. Even if he IS colorblind.
Because midnight and pastel blue are not the same color. Even a little.
“Fine, if it’s what you want,” Ted said, getting in the passenger side of Dylan, which is what I named my car after the Charlie’s Angel that I wish I was most like.
Even though I know the one I’m actually most like is Natalie, because I am a giant dork, and also because I really don’t carry red hair well. At least I’m not clumsy, but that’s about all I have to be grateful for, and it’s not much, though given the nature of my shoes tonight maybe it is.
“What I want is to have my one perfect night in my whole high school career, and it was supposed to start with a limo and flowers and soft moonlight or something.”
Ted didn’t say anything to that, but I could tell out of the corner of my eye that he was making a face. It was a distinctive face that happened every time I did something that he decided was high maintenance, like ask him to be on time for something, or expect him to remember to pick up the snacks on the way to a party, or when I hinted that maybe he should compliment me on my new jean skirt that I only spent forty bucks and five hours to get. All I can say is, it’s a good thing he’s good looking.
Or maybe it’s bad, I don’t know. Maybe good-looking people don’t have to learn how to be good people? That wasn’t fair. Ted wasn’t a bad guy at all. He totally didn’t torture his little brother and sister as much as he could, and he talked to his parents with polite (if mostly monosyllabic) language, and he usually got the door for me. Ted was a good teammate and a pretty good friend. If you were on the basketball team. If you were pretty.
Not that he was a jerk to other people really. He just didn’t notice them.
Sometimes I wondered why we were together, both because his tendency to ignore anyone who wasn’t exactly like him annoyed me, and also because said tendency should probably have ruled me out. I think.
Ted seemed not to agree, because here we were, parking outside the hotel where prom was happening, and he was helping me out of Dylan. I froofed my skirts and unobtrusively yanked the sparkly strapless bodice up so it wouldn’t create an unfortunate nipple incident. Well, unfortunate for me. It would probably amuse the mouth-breathers endlessly.
“You look great,” Ted said, but he sounded impatient and mechanical, like he knew it was what he was supposed to say, and he was glad it was out of the way now.
I guess I didn’t sound much better.
We walked into the hotel lobby, and followed the signs to the room where most of the junior and senior class was congregated in their formal glory. Or something like that. The DJ was playing something popular and peppy, which was not really what I wanted to dance to, and the trend in colors was tipping more toward frosting-y pastels, and I started to feel out of place in my dark, dramatic dress. I was starting to feel much more out of place when Ted’s basketball buddies crowded around, their girlfriends trailing off into their own subgroup.
This was the thing I really hated about dating Ted.
Because here was me, in a pricey ball gown and painful strappy sandals, smiling through my lip gloss like I had Vaseline on my gums, but I had to work for it. I had to work for it all. The dress. The smile. The made up face that made believe that I was one of the group.
There they all were, in peach and lemon and powdery confectionary colors, with slim-cut skirts, and I felt like an idiot. None of them had burns on their hands from stupid curling irons, because all of them had gone somewhere to get their hair done. By someone who knew what they were doing. None of them had mismatched corsages, because they were used to telling boyfriends (or their boyfriends’ moms) what flowers to get.
After extended minutes rowdy game-speech and dude-bro back-clapping or whatever was going on while I slowly edged into the shadows of the dance floor, a slow song finally came on, and people realized that whatever else it was, prom was a dance. Couples and groups of friends fed into the center of the ballroom, swaying under the red and gold balloons of the “Night in Paris” theme as imagined by Courtney Weaver based on watching Moulin Rouge.
It wasn’t half lame, but the fact that when Ted finally found me, he smelled like back alley pot and someone’s flask? That was pretty lame. He got handsy, and it’s not that I mind, because it’s not like he doesn’t know his way around, but it was kind of embarrassing, and anyway, pot and peppermint schapps (because someone thought it would be clever if their booze smelled like breath mints because no teacher ever has seen that trick) just don’t smell good. He was also slowly pulling the top of my dress down, and I had to fight to hold it up. Seriously, nipples stay inside.
“God, will you get off?” I said, pushing him and his slobbery mouth off my neck.
“What’s your problem?” he snapped, and I got the feeling he’d been wanting to say that a long time.
“You. You’re ruining this for me!”
Ted looked like I had just slapped him, which I kind of wanted to, but my hand wasn’t tingling, so I hadn’t. Yes, I had to think about it for a second.
“I’m ruining this for you? Sorry, who’s the one sulking in the corner?”
“I’m not sulking,” I said, though I was, except is it sulking if you have reasons? “I’m waiting for you to be done with practice time and actually come be with your girlfriend. On prom night.”
“Is that what you are? Because I thought you were pretty clear that I was just an escort for you.”
Not. Fair. Completely not at all fair.
“What, because I didn’t want to spend the night in a hotel room with you? That means I don’t want to be your girlfriend all of a sudden?”
“Well then, I guess I don’t. Ask one of your boyfriends for a ride home.”
So, like I said, prom sucked. I didn’t have any friends to commiserate with, not really. Mainly because they were doing things that were more fun. Leo was at a Dungeons and Dragons tournament, and Beth was a town over visiting her sick grandmother, which admittedly didn’t sound awesome, but it still beat getting broken up with and storming out of prom without anyone having the decency to notice your grand, melodramatic and frankly classic high school exit.
Except for the doorman.
“Hey, are you ok?”
I couldn’t tell if it was just tears on my face, or makeup too, but when I looked up at him, he made a grimace of solidarity and handed me the pressed handkerchief from his uniform pocket.
“Thanks,” I quavered, dabbing at my lower eyelids and bringing the starched white fabric away streaky.
“Go ahead and keep it. Wish someone had given me one on my prom night.”
“Why, what happened?”
I kept my eyes on him as I grappled to get my stupid torture shoes off my feet. In the process of which I broke one of my nails. Damn it, I spent hours on that manicure. Hours of my life. Wasted hours now.
“Oh, I got drunk and then I got busted. Dad was really pissed when he bailed me out.”
“That does sound pretty shitty.”
“It was. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t been getting drunk because my girlfriend had just broken up with me. Publicly. Really, really publicly,” he said, wincing, because going by how he looked, it couldn’t have been so long ago. I still hoped I wasn’t mad about tonight as long as that, but hope was clearly not my best friend right now.
“Did drinking help?” At least I knew where I could find some booze. A new life would be a little harder.
“What do you think?”
“Any suggestions?” I asked. Sure, maybe he was just the guy at the door, but he was the most decent person I’d talked to since Mom left for her late shift bartending and promised it would be a night to remember.
Well, she wasn’t wrong.
“Got a car?”
“Drive out to somewhere nice and secluded, and scream your guts out.”
“Well, I don’t know if that’ll help, but it’s something I can do.”
I cranked up the noise in Dylan the second her engine turned over (not without protest, but I ignored that). Joan Jett was wailing and I was yelling along with her, the kind of thing Ted never listened to or let me play when he was in the car with me. I threw it on every chance I got though, hoping some of her fuck you attitude would rub off on me, and I could stop being so nice all the time.
Being nice got me a lame boyfriend who just wanted some eye candy and seven minutes in heaven in a sleazy hotel room. Being nice lost me said boyfriend. And worst of all? Being nice meant I stormed off without slapping his all-American square-jawed face.
If nice guys finished last, then nice girls just got finished.
There were lots of places in Carver where a girl might go to scream her head off. We had plenty of woods, and even if they were all liberally posted with NO TRESPASSING signs, I figured as long as I wasn’t doing any off-season deer hunting, they were unlikely to take punitive action.
All I had to do was figure out where was the most deserted of all of the woods and all of the roads in town, and head straight for it. Ted and most of his friends lived in the big houses close to town, or else in the new row of Barbie McMansions that had sprung up just beyond the limits to accommodate all the people who mistakenly believed Carver was a “good place to raise the kids”.
Yeah, sure. Just look at us.
Anyway, I lived out further, about six miles from Carver High, and about fifteen from the hotel, and I knew about all the back roads. Dylan was pretty good about handling them, especially when I was in the mood to really drive. Which, right now, was probably not my mood, since I was too distracted and distraught, but it was something to at least try to focus on.
Where I would’ve wound up had I actually chosen, I really don’t know. It would be pointless to think it through now.
Because Dylan was sputtering and squealing, her back wheels fishtailing through mucky spring ruts. My heart raced as I fought her and rolled with her in equal measure, doing my all to make sure we didn’t wind up in the ditch. We did anyway, but it was at a crawl instead of a sprint.
I tried the key in the ignition and got nothing but a high-pitched whine and a few coughs out of the engine.
“God damn it!” I yelled, pounding the dash with the heel of my hand.
I don’t know how Dylan felt about it, but my palm got sore, so I stopped.
So, despite the gentrification going on in town, there weren’t a whole lot of lights in Carver, so when it’s dark, it’s pretty freaking dark. That’s awesome when you’re stargazing or trying to figure out if the moon is waxing or waning or whatever, but it’s not great at all when your car breaks down and you are a teary monstrosity in a mess of tulle and you’re barefoot with bursting blisters.
In the dark.
This was not how I’d imagined my night going, but then, thinking back to the boozy smelling guys and the girls who giggled over their inside jokes in public, maybe I wasn’t doing so badly. Oh, who am I kidding? I’d been looking forward to tonight for months. It was a thing. I thought, sure, high school wasn’t great, and I didn’t have that many friends, just a few decent ones, but this year was supposed to be better. I was supposed to be leaving on a high note.
Yeah, I was standing in the middle of a deserted road next to a broken down car, barefoot in a prom dress. Look this situation up in the thesaurus and “high note” is not going to be a synonym.
At least I could take off the ugly corsage now. I dragged it off my wrist and chucked it into the woods as far as my one season of softball in sixth grade had prepared me for.
“FUCK!” I yelled after it.
I would’ve kicked Dylan, except my toes would have gotten the short end of that stick, and I was no engineer, but I guessed that kicking your vehicle was unlikely to make it go. So I fell back against her in a huff, and cursed that I had no cell phone.
Possibly I should have bought one with the money I spent on my dress, which would have been the better choice on two counts at least. Because seriously, May is not as warm a month as you might think, not when you live in New Hampshire, and my strapless dress was not bought with practicality in the forefront of my mind. Clearly. Well, I had learned my lesson, and the next time I tried to social climb my way into one decent high school experience, or, you know, whatever the adult equivalent was, I made a mental note to rent some movies and order in instead.
I tried to start Dylan about six times before I gave up, and figured all I could do was walk toward home until either I got picked up by someone who didn’t look like they would murder me and make a purse out of my skin, of I would at least wind up at home. Eventually. With very dirty feet.
The best thing I could say for my plan, if you’re being generous and allow me to call it that instead of what it was, which was an unmitigated disaster, anyway, the best thing about it was at least I could kind of see. Now that I had no choice, I had some pretty good night vision going on, and the stars were really pretty if you cared about that kind of thing.
Which I totally would have, if I had spent the last hour dancing with Ted, and he had maybe casually taken me outside and pointed out the constellations he would just happen to know, and then we would kiss and it would be better than all the other kisses we’d had which now I thought about it had been mediocre at best. So, maybe Ted being here wouldn’t actually improve either my mood or the appearance of the stars and dammit, dammit, dammit!
“Hello, Charlotte,” said a low voice behind me, and a hand brushed my shoulder.
My naked shoulder.
“Now, now. That’s no way to greet someone who wants to help you.”
“Help me do what, exactly? I don’t see you driving a tow truck.”
Actually, I couldn’t really see him at all, which was way worse than the lack of tow truck. I mean, I could make out the vague shape of him in the dark, enough to know that he seemed to have a lot of hair and he was showing a lot of skin for a dude, but like I was one to judge right now? So not one to judge right now.
However, I could totally judge him for basically jumping out at me in the middle of nowhere.
“I was going to give you the night you’ve been dreaming of, actually.”
Well, didn’t he just have a pair? I snorted.
“Wow, do you trot out that line for all the girls, or am I meant to feel special?”
“I do not make such an offer to just anyone, no.”
“Maybe that’s because no one else is standing out here like…like…some kind of sitting duck,” I finished, lamely, I admit, but I had no way out of this situation, and I desperately needed out, and that was consuming the part of my brain that might’ve ordinarily furnished me with a better retort.
“Most likely that is because you cannot do both of those things at the same time.”
I glared at him, but in the dark, it didn’t matter. It wouldn’t anyway, since my makeup was in streaks down my face, and I felt about as good as the doorman’s handkerchief looked right about now. Which was untidy and damp, and a bit like I’d been in someone’s pocket for several hours.
“Allow me to begin from the beginning, this will all make more sense that way. I am Prince Bradan of the Far Woods. You called me, and I am here to grant your wish.”
“You’re not in a tow truck, ergo, wish not granted.”
The man sighed, which at least made me feel somewhat less uncomfortable talking to a stranger when I was completely alone and unable to get further than my legs would carry me. The fact that he had referred to himself as a prince clearly implied that he was crazy pants, but it seemed like the kind of crazy pants that played video games in his mom’s basement, and not the kind that went around with an axe in his back pocket.
“You wished for a night that you would remember always, for a dance and a glimpse at the finery you so clearly lack in this…place,” he said, the emphasis on place making it sound like it left a trail of acrid slime down his tongue. He could keep his slime. I’d had enough with dances and parties for the next, oh, decade or so.
“Look, dude, I just want to go home. Maybe a dance would’ve been great, like, a week ago? But now I’ve had it about up to here with them, and my dress is pretty much ruined, and so is my night, so who the hell ever you are, just leave me alone, ok?”
Then, to top it all off, the guy took my hand, pulling me into his own personal space, which, by the way, definitely violated mine.
“A dance, my lady, is always in order.”
With my hand in his, he placed his other on my waist, twirled me around, and before I could blink, I had fallen straight through the dark and out the other side into a strange and glittering world.
The space felt massive, the way you can just feel emptiness stretching on either side of you when you’re in a field, like you could just sprint in any direction and not hit anyone or anything for a minute at least. Except this place was that kind of big while being packed. If it hadn’t been for the guy’s hand on my waist, deftly steering me away from collisions, I’d already have an egg-sized bruise on my forehead and a lot of stepped on toes.
But he whisked me around, pulling me into the music, which was not like anything I’d heard on the radio. It was music that had gone feral, but was dressed up for the occaision.
Because, oh boy, was it an occasion. I was pretty sure this is how Mom thought prom was going to be when she spent so much time helping me pick a dress and shoes and talked hair and makeup.
Mom didn’t really have a prom, and I wanted it pretty bad. Who doesn’t? Glitz and glam, pretending for a night that you were basically royalty? Sure, I’ll take that. Except that it turned out, even with a hot date and a dress, no one forgets what you really are. Hint: I am not a princess.
Don’t I just wish?
“You see? Do not tell me that this isn’t what you wanted,” said Bradan (I had decided I couldn’t call him Prince anything).
“Well, it’s pretty nice,” I hedged, falling into the rhythm of his dance, and actually starting to enjoy it.
I mean, stranger danger and all, but, come on. It was beautiful. Glitter was falling from the ceiling like snow, and the dancers around us wore dresses and suits that could’ve come from any time in the last couple hundred years, or all of them at once, who knew?
“’Pretty nice?’ This is a royal ball, you know. While I may be used to such things,” he placed a hand over his heart, before taking my hand again, “I hardly would have imagined you would be so used to it.”
“Oh, sorry, you thought you’d come to the middle of nowhere and we’d all be hicks? I’ve seen TV. I know what glamour looks like.”
And until tonight, I thought I wanted it. Maybe because I’d never had it that much, and then suddenly I did. I got to live the dream, but like most dreams, when you try to tell someone what it was about or why the hell it was so great? It doesn’t work.
No that there wasn’t a certain magic at work, dancing with Bradan, brushing past dresses like snowflakes, or like cascades of moss, or even one woman who seemed to look like the inside of a geode, full of sharp edged glitter. I had pictured prom this way, and the disappointment I had when it was so, so much less was at least partially being made up for here.
“May I offer you a drink?” asked Bradan, gesturing his long-fingered hand to the table laid out by the wall.
I was thirsty, but I shook my head.
Rule one of being somewhere unfamiliar: do not eat the food or drink the drinks. Rule number one of boys: don’t drink anything they give you. Bradan might be a bit weird as boys went, since in the light it was clear the thing he wore looked like a military uniform from the mid eighteenth century except for the glam rock hair and the fact that I was quite sure his trousers were leather. But weird didn’t mean trustworthy.
“Are you sure?”
“Sure I’m not taking anything you’re offering.”
His lips curled into a tight smile that I was worried might snap back at me, like a very well coiled bullwhip. Now I thought of it, there was an intensity about his eyes, like they were liquid tension, and it was putting me off my stride. Unfortunate, given that we were dancing, and I got my toes stepped on.
Have you ever had your toes stepped on after they’ve already been pinched into awful points by your shoes? It hurts like something that small has no right to hurt, and I yelped. It was the sound of a distressed puppy, and the blood rushed straight to my cheeks, where it made a further mess of my face.
“My lady, are you hurt?”
“Did you seriously just call me ‘my lady’? I think I may have a brain tumor or something,” I said, hobbling out of the throng of dancers, and taking Bradan’s arm. I wasn’t proud. Stupid heels. They really ought to be burned. Men wearing shiny boots to dance with barefoot girls probably should be banned too.
Bradan waved his hand, and suddenly roots sprung from the ground, weaving themselves into a bench-like configuration. He sat, and pulled me to sit next to him. The party continued in full swing around us, apparently not noticing that there were two people sitting in the middle of it all.
“I suppose I should confess that I did not bring you here simply to grant your wish.”
“Obviously. My wish was for Dylan to start.”
Bradan cocked his head at me, clearly not understanding my meaning, but he waved his hand as if to dismiss his confusion, and carried on.
“It was propitious, but I took advantage of the situation for entirely selfish motives. My kingdom, you see, is in a bit of an uproar,” he said, and glanced around at the frills and frivolity that I thought kind of contradicted his statement, “yes, yes, it all looks rather lovely, but remember, I’ve put on this show for your benefit. It is merely a pretty mirage, and the underneath is nothing but a riotous mess.”
“That has to do with me how, exactly?”
“I am meant to be the king of the Far Woods, but my leadership cannot stand without a queen. And just when I despaired of finding one, I heard you, hoping. Wishing.”
“Pretty sure I wasn’t wishing for you.”
I sounded brash, but he had a point. I’d been cutting out dresses and dreaming fantasies of fairy lights and romantic princes sweeping me off my feet. I’d wished for the kind of power that came with beauty, at least in the movies. And here it was, at my feet. Or, at my side, anyway.
The question was, did I really want that? Or had I just decided that I did because girls are supposed to want to be princesses when they grew up?
Prince Bradan put his index finger under my chin and softly turned my head so that I had to twist and face him. He was otherworldly looking, beautiful, but strange. Completely unlike any of the idiot boys I had spent all year stupidly trying to impress just so I could bring my paper fantasy to life. And look how well that had gone.
“Oh, not by name, my lady, but believe me, your voice was quite loud.”
I bit my lip. He was right.
“What about my mom? What about school?”
“I’m not a monster. Visit your mother, by all means. There is a precedent for such things, you know.”
“Ok. Ok, but what if it doesn’t work out? I mean, let’s say your people don’t like me, or maybe I don’t like you. Like, what if you got me the wrong color corsage, and forgot about the limo, and maybe you’ll think I’m not all that interesting, and here I am, in the middle of some crazy party where I don’t really know anybody. What about that?”
On the bench, next to my hand, a single flower sprouted. It was deep blue, almost black, and its petals were rimed in dew so that it sparkled in the light. The exact color of my dress. I didn’t recognize it, but it was exotic and magical.
“I’ll take that drink now,” I said.
I knew what it meant.
Prince Bradan smiled, showing just enough of his teeth that I could tell they were strange and pointed. I took his arm and let him lead me to a fountain which sprinkled wine into a crystal cup, which I let him press to my lips.
“My queen,” he said.
I could get used to that. I smiled at him, and felt the points of my teeth sharp on my lips.