We’d been at the dance for a few minutes when Zac dragged me onto the dance floor. He was forceful about it, almost too excited, but I did it for Robb. His friend wanted more friends, and I could sympathize with it. I only had Robb and Crystal, after all, and Zac wasn’t a bad person. He was handsome, but I wasn’t attracted to him. He was too sure of himself, even worse than Robb’s cockiness. I could handle Robb. Barely, but I could—but I couldn’t handle Zac. He was too domineering, and when he kissed me on the dance floor, I had enough. I pushed him away and stormed toward the doors without looking back. I didn’t need to deal with him any longer. “Jess,” Crystal ran after me and latched on my arm. “What happened? I saw what Zac did—” “I just can’t, Crystal,” I said, brushing her off. I didn’t want Zac. I wanted—Shoman. She spun me around, the decorative lights flickered over her face, neon and blinding. “Are you okay? I can talk to Zac if you want me to.” “No, no,” I said, waving her intensity away. “I’m okay. I’m just getting air.” I forced a smile. “I’ll be back.” She frowned. “Don’t be too long,” she said, and I nodded, leaving through the back doors. The dance was in the cafeteria, so I walked across the concrete patio we ate at during lunch. The spring air was surprisingly muggy, but I didn’t care. I only wanted to get away. My heels echoed over the thumping music, and I rushed toward the grass. I didn’t even want to remember what shoes I wore. I kicked them off and circled a group of teenagers lingering outside. They eyed me, but I passed them, heading straight for the only place I knew would be close enough to the dance but far enough for an escape. I climbed the steep hill, and the wet grass tickled my ankles. The willow tree waved, as if welcoming me, and I sighed, rushing to the stump. I leaned my forehead against it and breathed. My heart was racing. My body was hot. I wanted to cry. I held my breath, dug my fingernails into the bark, and exhaled. I stopped shaking, and I opened my eyes, allowing the night to wash over my skin. If only I could transform. I groaned and stared into the top of the tree. It fluttered, flickering to one side and then the other. The green leaves somehow retained their color in the darkness, and it swayed, swishing against other leaves. The tree, in the mist of the prom’s loud music, whispered. And I understood why Eric liked it so much. It was serene, and it would be serene even after I died. I wouldn’t be alive, yet it would remain, and it would live. “Jessica?” I knew that voice. I turned around, and there he was—standing on the edge of hill. His brown hair waved like the tree, and his green eyes shimmered in the shadows. They were locked on me, but I couldn’t look away. He was dressed up, wearing long, black pants and a pressed shirt. A black coat hung over his shoulder, and a black tie hung loosely around his neck. For once, his headphones weren’t on, but I’d recognized him immediately. “What are you doing here?” I asked, and Eric stepped forward, rubbing his chin. “Are you okay?” he asked, and I threw my hands in the air. His eyes widened, and I held my hands to prevent more gestures. “I’m sorry,” I said, cocking my head toward the dance. “It wasn’t going so great.” He lifted his hands and brushed the branches away as he stepped into the tree’s space. “Why not?” he asked, sitting down before he leaned his back against the tree. He was so calm. I shrugged, sitting next to him. He leaned on his knees and looked at me. “Same boy problem?” he asked, referring to the last time I’d seen him in class. He hadn’t been there on Friday. “Maybe,” I said, wiggling my cold toes in the grass. “He isn’t here.” “Why don’t you dance with someone else?” “I did,” I said, and Eric shifted. “But I don’t want to. Not anymore.” He nodded, but didn’t meet my eyes. “That’s understandable,” he said, rocking his head from side to side.
“But you shouldn’t let him—or anyone else—ruin your night.” I fiddled with my dress. “I didn’t say he—they—ruined my night.” He smiled. “But you’re out here.” “You are, too.” This time, he chuckled and stood up. He stretched his arms over his head and breathed the night in. In seconds, he was staring at me again, but his smile had spread. “Come on, Jessica,” he said. “Get up.” He offered his hand, but I didn’t move. “What?” He rolled his green eyes, stepped forward, and grabbed my hand. Pulling me to my feet, he only bent down again to pick up my shoes. “We’re going to have fun tonight,” he said, dragging me downhill. “What does that mean?” I asked, unable to comprehend what Eric Welborn was doing. We were walking back to the dance. “Wait, Eric. You cannot be serious.” He responded with a laugh and only stopped at the school door. “You might want to put those shoes back on,” he said. I pointed at the prom. “We are not going in there.” “What?” he asked, raising his brow. “You don’t want to be seen with me?” “It’s not that—” “Then put on the shoes,” he said. “We, my homeroom partner, are going to dance.” My face flushed, and I turned my face away as I slipped my shoes back on. He wasn’t kidding. “Happy?” I asked, clicking them against the ground, and he nodded, opening the door. “You are a difficult one, Jessica,” he said, and I rolled my eyes at him. “Coming from you, that’s saying a lot.” “I know,” he said, taking my arm as the door shut behind us. Wind blew against my bare back, and I shivered, not knowing if it was from the breeze or his touch. He placed his hand on the curve of my spine and steered me through the flickering neon lights. I closed my eyes and breathed, and then I was against his chest, and the music changed. The thumping beat from before mellowed, and Eric leaned down to whisper, “Relax, it’s just you and me.” I swallowed my nerves and placed my hand on his chest. He swayed to the right and then to the left. I followed his lead and breathed again. I expected my hands to shake, but they didn’t. I was calm, and Eric was, too. For the first time all night, everything felt right—like the magnificent moment I’d hoped for. But it was with Eric. He twirled me around, and my black dress flowed around my knees, swishing against his slacks when I stopped. His hand returned to my back, and my head rested on his shoulder. I hadn’t realized how much taller he was than me until now, and I was in heels. “Jessica?” His voice vibrated through my cheek. “Are you all right?” I nodded, hoping he wasn’t watching my expression. Even I could feel my smile crumble from my face. As much as I was happy with Eric, Shoman lingered. I liked him, and I still felt like I was betraying him. But hadn’t Shoman betrayed me? Shoman wouldn’t ruin my night. “What’s wrong?” Eric asked, slowing down, and I glanced around the dance floor. A few couples, if not all of them, turned away as I met their gazes. They had been watching. “Is it just me or is everyone staring?” I asked, and Eric chuckled. “They are.” “Why?” “Why do you think?” he asked, and I knew my question was already answered. Eric wasn’t exactly the type to come to school, let alone dance with another student. Seeing us dance was probably the biggest event that happened since the prom king and queen were crowned. “This is nice,” Eric said, changing the subject, and I nodded. Thud-thump. Thud-thump. Thud-thump. My ears filled with a heartbeat unlike my own, yet my ear wasn’t pressed to Eric’s chest. It sounded so familiar—so calming and strong. I only wanted to hear it, not the music or the whispers around us. “I’m glad I came,” I said, and I arched my neck to meet his eyes. “You weren’t going to, I’m guessing.” He chuckled. “Of course not.” I smiled. “I’m glad you came, too.” He returned my smile, but the corners twitched. “You don’t mind dancing with me with that other boy on your mind?”
My fingers tightened on his jacket. “Of course not,” I said, surprised by the truth. I was having fun, and it didn’t matter that Shoman existed. He wasn’t here, and Eric was. And I liked them both. I lowered my face, hiding my blush, and forced my feelings into my gut. My stomach twisted. “Not even a little bit?” Eric asked, and I giggled. “Maybe a little,” I said, gesturing to the stares around us. He laughed, too. “Understandable,” he said, placing his hands on my hips. We swayed to the music, but it felt like we were draped in a silence I didn’t want to break. But I had to. The question was lingering, and it had been since I found out, but only now could I feel it control my lips. “Did you love her?” I asked, and his shoulders tensed. “Hannah?” he asked, and I nodded, knowing the girl who’d been killed two years ago was his girlfriend, and, apparently, his reason for being antisocial. But he’d broken through that with me, hadn’t he? I wanted to know. He sighed, but he didn’t speak, and I opened my mouth, “I didn’t mean to offend you—” “You didn’t,” he said, shrugging his rigid shoulders. He was trying to relax. “You’re honestly the first person to ask, and I respect that,” he paused, and we turned in a circle before he continued, “I suppose I did.” My eyes shot to the floor as if my heart had fallen there. Why was I so saddened by his honesty? I couldn’t explain it, but I didn’t want him to love her—the girl he’d dated all those years back—but his feelings weren’t mine to decide. Eric’s hand moved away from my hip and met my chin. He lifted my face, and his green eyes lit up in the darkness. “Not in the way you think,” he said, and his eyes flickered over mine. “I loved her, because she was the only person who understood who I was. I loved her like a best friend, not a girlfriend.” He held his breath, and his chest rose beneath my hand. “I know that now.” I couldn’t speak. Instead, I bit my quavering lip and laid my head on his shoulder. We remained like that, barely moving, and finished the mellow song in silence. When the song ended, Eric didn’t move away, and I didn’t want him to. I didn’t want the dance to end. He buried his face into my neck as we came to a stop on the dance floor. “You look so beautiful tonight, Jessica,” he whispered into my hair, and his grip tightened before he let me go. His body heat disappeared, and chills covered my skin. He stepped back, and I froze. Shoman managed to break through the moment and slice his words in half. Shoman’s warmth, touch, smell, and words. Everything was flooding back to the instant when he left, and I couldn’t force the memory away, even though I was looking at Eric. “I wish I could stay longer,” he said, shoving his hands in his pockets. “But I can’t.” He smiled, but his normally keen eyes were fogged over. He wasn’t here any more than I was. “Have a good night, Jessica,” he said, and, without another word, he walked past me. He kept his head down, and his brown, shaggy hair covered his face. As he walked away, the entire dance floor followed his movements, watching him until he was out the doors. Then I felt their gazes on me. I shivered, lingering in the last moment I’d seen Eric’s back, lit up beneath the golden lights as he opened the doors leading outside. I pretended he was still there, I wished he’d come back, and I wanted to believe he hadn’t left. I felt as if I’d lost Shoman twice. “Oh my God!” Crystal’s voice shattered my thoughts as she grasped my arm. She was by my side, but I couldn’t look at her. She pulled me off the dance floor, but her voice drifted past me until we reached our table. “Why—what—I don’t even know where to begin.” “How about how Welborn was dancing with her?” Robb suggested, kicking back his chair as he crossed his arms. Crystal waved her hand at him as if she could swat him away. “What was that about, Jess?” she asked, but I could only focus on Robb’s darkened gaze. “I didn’t know Welborn and you had a thing going on,” he said, and I shook my head. “We don’t,” I said, but my entire body was hot. Did that really just happen? “Ooo,” Crystal whistled. “Defensive.” “We—” I tried to speak, but I could barely control my lips. “We don’t,” I repeated, but every piece of me was vibrating with nerves. Why was I feeling this way? “You look sick,” Robb said, but his voice sounded as if it was spoken through thick glass, foggy and contorted. I had to grip the table from falling over. “Jess?” Robb touched my shoulder, and his brown eyes were warm again. “Are you okay?” I breathed, nodding, but I didn’t have to speak. Linda ran up behind Robb and wrapped her arms around his torso. “We should ditch this dance,” she said, but Robb didn’t look away. “Where’s Zac?” he asked, and Linda groaned. “He just left,” she said. “He was upset about—” She stopped, and I looked up to meet her glare. She smiled and tapped Robb’s shoulders. “We’ll talk in the car. Let’s go find him.” “Okay,” Robb said, finally turning to his date. He grabbed her hand and turned toward Crystal. “Sorry, guys, but I think I should go. Can you get rides?” Crystal nodded. “Just find Zac.” “Thanks,” he said, and then they were gone, but I barely felt them leave. Eric. His touch. It was familiar. And the way he’d spoken was too. Teresa—a girl who wasn’t related to Eric—drove him around and watched him. Like a guard would. And Hannah had died. Like Shoman’s friend had. It couldn’t be. “Jess?” Crystal sat in a chair, but she leaned over, trying to catch my eyes. “Are you okay?” “I have to go,” I said, not even bothering to pick up my clutch as I turned around. “What?” Crystal tried to follow me, but I stopped, turning her back around. “I’m fine,” I promised. “But I have to go,” I said. “Don’t wait for me.” My shout echoed behind me as I ran through the dance floor and out the doors—allowing the night to guide me toward the only boy I never thought I’d see again.