04 Feb Wild Child Sneak Peek
The smell of alcohol already stained the air.
Grimacing, I hovered around the edges of a crowd of sweaty high school bodies clad in strappy dresses and tuxedos. A skirt of deep blue rustled around my legs with no design except a layer of sheer, shimmery fabric over the top. The bodice was a little tight, but my chest felt tight anyway.
Anyone would, wearing a dress. Not to mention the fact that I hadn’t been asked to this prom, my best friend was here with the sweetest, most popular girl in the school, and I hated crowds with an introverts fiery passion.
Still, I pressed on.
The high school gym hadn’t trulytransformed despite the sparkle lights, food table, and crepe banners clogging the air. You can’t hide run down with cheap decorations, not even for the last dance of the year.
The sudden absence of pulsing music left only shuffles and whispers in the air. The principal, Mrs. Comstock, tapped across a stage on the far side of the gym. She wore a pair of bright pink high heels and a pencil skirt of sheer black. Teenage couples pulled apart, turning their attention to a spotlight that illuminated her salt-and-pepper hair, pulled back into a bun, as she stopped at a microphone in the middle of the stage. She held an envelope in her left hand.
“Boys and girls,” she said, voice fuzzy from the speakers. “Hope you’re having a good time, and thank you for behaving yourself. The time has come to announce the King and Queen of this year’s prom.”
A round of applause and whoops rippled through the room, followed by a drumroll from the DJ, who worked in the corner. My stomach clenched. As if any of them needed Mrs. Comstock to tell them who would be King and Queen. I crossed my arm in front of me, tucking my icy fingers away. At least I wasn’t late.
Where was the perfect couple anyway?
My heart thumped as a familiar set of broad shoulders came into view on the other side of the room, near a punch guarded by the towering football couch Mr. Bell. He glowered right behind it, as if daring anyone to try to get past him with alcohol. Not far from him, Devin had his hand around a girl named Cassidy’s. He tugged her closer to the middle of the room, where a few of his football buddies had congregated. When Devin leaned down to whisper in her ear, and she grinned broadly, I clenched my fingers together and resisted the urge to dart away.
This was a mistake. I shouldn’t have come. Didn’t matter that it was Devin’s senior prom, that he’d surely take the crown withCassidy, or that it was our only opportunity to have a dance together before he exited the teenage world and stepped into the adult one.
I shouldn’t have come.
But something kept me glued to the spot as Mrs. Comstock ruffled through the envelope to pull out a piece of paper as if she didn’t already know the two names there. Soft music started in the background, a royal accoutrement with dramatic violins. Two of Devin’s friend nudged him from behind. A good-natured roll of his eyes followed.
I wanted to vomit.
Mrs. Comstock leaned closer to the microphone, gazed out on the crowd, and grinned. The spotlight washed out her tanned face as she waited, no doubt delaying the suspense. My heart hiccuped as she paused for another seemingly endless minute before crying, “Devin and Cassidy!”
Music crashed through the speakers, drowning out the shouts and cries of almost everyone in the room. Devin, with a heart-stopping smile, held a bent elbow out for Cassidy. A hand covered her mouth. Her eyes—so perfectly warm and kind and compassionate I wanted to hate her but couldn’t—sparkled with shock.
Really? I wanted to say. You’re surprised? No one else is.
The perfect couple ascended the stairs on the side of the stage together, toward the awaiting student body present and vice present who held their crowns. Cassidy’s tiara sparkled obnoxiously as they set it on top of her head. She looked beautiful, with her dark skin and bright eyes offset by an aquamarine dress. She waved at her adoring public that had gone wild the moment the crown hit her head.
But it was Devin that took my breath away.
The tuxedo cut angular lines across his thick shoulders, and his hair had an adorably tousled look. Star quarterback had served him well—he looked like a King up there with his bowtie, wide smile, and a genuine affability that boggled me.
I leaned back against the wall, crushing my skirt in my hands. My heart banged so loud in my ears I couldn’t hear the screams anymore. Just the race of my blood through my body. There was only half an hour left of the dance, plenty of time to find him in the crowd later and beg a dance. Cassidy would let me—she was good and kind that way. She wouldn’t feel like the tag-along best friend that was only a junior would be in her way.
The way I felt she was in my way.
Because I freaking loved my best friend, and that ugly truth had occurred to me earlier that day as I’d watched him get dressed. As I comprehended the pit in my stomach at the thought of him with another girl. Seeing him on the stage, as far from me as he’d ever been, slammed the truth into me all at once.
Now, watching them dance and whirl together, the truth was obnoxiously clear. Devin was more than friend to me. He was friend, he was soul. Tears prickled my eyes with heat and I forced them back with one last shot at my crumbling denial.
No. I didn’t love Devin. Not like that, anyway.
Devin was my best friend, not my lover. He was the other part of me. The second side of my heart that beat in tandem with mine. The last seven years living in Pineville, away from the stepfather that wanted to kill me, had been bearable because of him. Amazing because of him.
Safe because of him.
“Damnit,” I muttered as the weak strands of my denial began to fade. Why did I even try? There was no denying the truth.
I did love him.
And how could that ever work? It couldn’t. Because love was fickle and men left. Even the ones you loved. Mama had made that lesson very clear.
You fall in love, she told me, and men leave. It’s the way of things for girls like us. Besides, baby, you’re the kind of girl that will always take care of yourself. You deserve the truth. Stay away from them.
Nevermind that Mama had some weird views on life, and had led both my sisters down terrible paths with her advice. While she whispered sweet tales of romantic passion to Lizbeth, she told me the cold hard facts of life and love. Men leave. Love fades. Take care of yourself first.
Jim, my abusive stepfather, made it very clear that I wasn’t good enough for him. And my real father had left me to die with Jim as well. While I had glowing examples of worthy men—my pseudo-father Maverick, my brother-in-law JJ, and of course Devin—the truth always rang in my ears like a high-pitched reminder.
So, no. If I loved Devin and lost him too, I’d lose myself. Was it worth the risk? Well . . . maybe. Because wasn’t Devin already inextricably tied up in me?
Besides, I thought as I watched him and Cassidy twirl around the stage to an especially pungent romance song, Devin deserves the princess, and I am the sword maiden.
Dev and I were too alike.
It would never work.
That felt easier. Brutal, cold hard reality. Not the dreams of me being the girl in his arms. Me in the tiara. Me in the dress—and actually enjoying it, which would never happen. No, this was reality, and reality was far safer than dreams.
With all my strength, I swallowed back my emotion. Pushed back the truth that had dangled at the edge of my mind for years now. Even though I’d just acknowledged it today, I tucked it in a tiny box and set it in the corner of my mind to ignore. There it would pulse like a little heart, reminding me that it knew the truth, even as I strove to lie to myself.
The crowd surged into their own dancing as Dev escorted Cassidy off the stage. Suddenly, my tendency to keep to myself—and ignore almost everyone but Devin—swamped me. There was no one else here I really knew aside from a few friendly acquaintances that were more waves in the halls. No reason to stay. Stay and dance and tell Devin how I really felt?
That was locked away now.
A tap on my shoulder distracted me. My shoulders bunched as I whirled around, then they relaxed. My only other friend Jax stood there with a wry smile.
“Hey,” he said, then tilted his head to Devin. “How you doing?”
My tension faded. No punch in his hand. No alcohol on his breath. Instead, I swallowed and said, “Great. Just wanted to see it happen.”
He grinned. “They look great together, don’t they? The two nicest people in the school deserve the crown.” His eyebrows rose. “Don’t you think?”
“You all right?”
I tilted my head to crack my neck. The room felt like a warm swamp filled with cheap perfume and alcohol. Mr. Bell abandoned the punch bowl to escort a kid out of the room by his shoulders. Two other kids slipped up, emptying a new bottle of what appeared to be rum inside the punch with a snicker. Idiots.
“Yep,” I said, “I’m good.”
He nodded knowingly, as if I’d said something wise, but I caught the hint of sarcasm in his face. “Sure. You’re good. You just got here?”
“Yep. I’m on my way out now.”
Wrinkles appeared in his brow. “Why? Don’t you want to dance with D–”
“You look handsome tonight, Jax.” I patted his lapel, where a red rose graced the pocket, “I need to go.”
His gaze darted behind me, then his lips twitched. I sensed someone approach as Jax stepped back a little.
“Good luck with that,” he muttered. A second later, a hand grabbed mine. I whirled around, coming face-to-face with a grinning Devin.
“I knew you’d come.”
My heart stalled like a dying car. I sucked in a breath to get it going again, arrested by the overwhelming presence of him. Devin, my best friend. The guy that was usually sweaty, smelly, and fell asleep with his body half on top of mine most Friday nights while we watched zombie movies. The guy that made a mean grilled cheese sandwich and never had a sip of alcohol just for my sake.
The little box in the corner of my brain exploded open.
Somehow, I managed a smile. “Hey.”
As easily as breathing, he tugged me closer, put his hand on my waist, and whisked me onto the dance floor. I caught a quick glimpse of Jax over Devin’s shoulder as I whirled away. Concern waited there. Before I could figure it out, Devin spoke.
An undercurrent of joy infused his words, not to mention surprise. A moment of annoyance washed through me. Of course I came. But I let it go. Parties—no, people—were not my thing.
“Of course,” I said quietly.
I couldn’t look him in the eye. For the first time in my life, I didn’t see the muddy little boy that caught fish with me. I saw Devin the almost-man. The graduating senior. The man that was going to work for the next six months until I graduated early and we could move to attend the state university together.
If he looked in my eyes, he’d see it all.
The utter vulnerability of my feelings took my breath away. Still, with his smell banishing the trace amount of alcohol in the air, I couldn’t help but relax. This was Devin. Devin was home. Even in a crowd of people that thought me reclusive and strange, Devin was safety.
Devin was my best friend.
“You looked great up there,” I managed to say. “Cassidy is beautiful. So . . . congratulations?”
He made a noise in his throat. I risked a quick glance up and couldn’t help a laugh when I saw his crown. Up close, it appeared cheap. A pliable metal with laurels and berries on it, sprinkled with green glass gems that mimicked the school colors of gold and emerald.
Devin smirked. “Laugh it up, Elle-bell,” he muttered. “I can’t wait to take this thing off. Will you have food for me when this finishes? I’m taking Cassidy home as soon as it’s over, and then I’ll head your way. I’m freaking starving.”
“You ate like three cheeseburgers three hours ago.”
“I know! And I’ve been dancing and talking all night. That makes a man hungry.”
Suddenly, I really relaxed. The irony in his voice. The ease of his escape to me. Even if I wasn’t Cassidy, I still had Devin. Stalwart Devin that never changed, that I trusted with every morsel of my body.
“Of course. All the banana’s, fudge, and ice cream a high school quarterback could dream of. Bethany just went shopping and also bought your favorite pizza rolls and bread.”
He pulled me a little closer. I closed my eyes as we moved together, breathing in his scent. I’d hate myself for it later, even as the gentle hint of pine lifted from his skin. We’d gone on a hike before he left to pick up Cassidy. I could still smell traces of the outdoors on him.
“Thank you,” he said quietly and I knew he meant for coming. For braving a crowd that would have hidden alcohol and made me extremely uncomfortable. For venturing out in a dress, with my hair freshly washed and straightened. For being here with him on this transitionary moment, even though I didn’t have to be. I should have been flattered, but instead I felt scared. His breath was hot on my neck and sent a shiver down my spine.
“Of course,” I whispered.
His hold on me tightened. My temple pressed to his jaw. Could he feel my heartbeat? Did he sense how breathless this made me?
“There’s something I wanted to tell you tonight,” he said.
His voice turned down slightly. With the music still blaring around us, it was almost imperceptible. I thought I imagined it. But then his palm turned clammy against mine.
“What’s that?” I asked. My voice was a rasp, but he didn’t seem to notice. The slow song shuffled into another one.
“I, uh, received some news earlier today. Good news, but surprising. Maybe not really news. More of a confirmed decision?”
He became a rigid board around me as he rambled around a blind topic. I blinked, fuzzy with the sense of impending doom. Of everything about to change. Of the world sliding away from me like a mudflow. I didn’t even have to speak. He’d paused for a beat, then plowed forward before I could tell him to just spit it out already.
“I enlisted, Ellie. I’ve joined the Marines. I leave for San Diego in two weeks. Two days after I graduate.”
We were too closer together for me to see him, but I didn’t need to. The steadiness of his voice, slightly hushed around the edges, let me know he was scared. Scared of what I’d say. How I’d react. We stopped dancing somewhere near the edge of the gymnasium, not far from a bright green EXIT sign.
I’ve joined the Marines.
It echoed through my mind with undulations. For half a breath, I almost laughed. Told him that it was a funny joke and the timing was poor but I could tell by the rigid way he held me in his arms—almost like he didn’t want to see my face—told me this wasn’t a joke.
He had joined the Marines.
“What?” I heard myself say.
“Ellie, let me explain before you run off, okay? It’s . . . it’s the money. I can’t afford to go to college, even if I stay home for six months and work and save it all. The scholarship I was hoping for didn’t come through.”
While he continued to explain, the words filtered through my mind. GI Bill and no stress about finances now and we’ll be okay vaguely occurred to me. My mind narrowed into a fuzzy tunnel of thoughts that all revolved around one tiny phrase. It whispered through my thoughts in Mama’s voice.
They always leave.
Heart thumping, I pulled away. A panicked expression filled his face, but I didn’t look right at him.
“I-I need to go.”
Before he could protest, I headed toward the glowing sign and pushed through the heavy doors. It spilled me into the parking lot, and the shock of cool air from late spring shocked me out of the tunnel. Out of the questions.
Out of the disbelief.
While I stumbled toward the truck, the door slammed open against the wall behind me, then wheezed closed again. Footsteps ran to me.
He reached for me, but I moved my arm too fast. Livid, I whirled around to face him. This time, I looked him right in the eyes.
“How long have you had this planned?”
He faltered for only a moment. “Since last summer.”
“Last summer?” I cried. “That’s over a year.”
Uneasy now, he nodded.
“Last summer is when we started talking about going to the state university together. When we toured it together. Do you remember that? Do you remember us discussing plans and talking this out and you agreeing?”
He shifted. “Ellie—”
But I plowed over his plea, too hot to stop now. “Did you know then that you wanted to go to the Marines?”
“I don’t want to Ellie. I just don’t have a choice.”
“Did you know?” I asked again, my voice expanding. His jaw became rigid and taut as he stared at me, so gorgeous in the low light that it made my heart ache. Finally, he looked the ground and nodded. His voice was low when he whispered, “Yes.”
“Yes you’ve been lying to me for a year?”
His nostrils flared. “Yes, but—”
He stopped on his own this time. When he finally set his eyes back on mine, I had to look away. There was pain and fear and disappointment and maybe, just maybe, a hint of resentment.
It was that chance of resentment that sent a shockwave through me.
I stepped back, shaking. Another tremor of pain crashed through me. I nodded. There was nothing else—I had to escape. Had to leave. Had to get out of here before I . . .
“Okay,” I whispered.
What else could I say? For the last year, Devin had been sneaking behind my back, letting me believe we had a future together. All that time, he knew he would betray me to go to the Marines. He allowed me to believe in the dream of us.
And isn’t that when I’d fallen in love?
When the thought of it being just him and me wasn’t a dream? When we’d leave this small mountain town together and conquer the world? When everything wasn’t so scary and so big and so impossible because he would be at my side?
And it was all a lie.
The heat in my eyes returned, this time with ferocity. Still, I blinked the tears back with the maddening thought that Mama had been right. Although I’d talked myself out of believing her for the last couple of years because Devin was different, Mama had been absolutely right.
They always leave.
Maybe it was just a matter of time for all of us. For Maverick to leave Bethany. For JJ to escape from Lizbeth.
Maybe we all ended up alone. Safer that way, at least.
“Ellie.” He put a hand on my shoulder and I realized I’d stopped moving away from him to stare at the ground. “Please tell me what you’re thinking. I know you feel betrayed and this is frightening and . . . “
He trailed away again. My heart fought my head which hurt from all the pain and everything felt like a big, ugly trap that rolled around me. And, pulsing in the corner of my mind, was the tiny box where I’d tucked the truth and it screamed at me now.
You love him. You love him.
He’s leaving, Mama whispered. Because they always do.
I stepped back. “I have to go,” I said. “I . . . I have to go.”
With that, I picked up the dress that I’d carefully chosen, grateful that I’d worn my tennis shoes, and I disappeared into the night with a carefully masked sob.
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