Seven-year old Emma sat beneath the shadow of the trampoline, shaded from the hot summer sun by the cool fabric stretched above. The fresh-mowed grass tickled her knees. Her neighbor and second-best-friend in the whole wide world knelt across from her, his round freckled face serious.
“Are you scared?”
“Nah,” he said. He clenched his malformed fingers into a tight fist. Emma tried not to look straight at them. He got embarrassed when you did that, and she didn’t want him to think she saw the webbing instead of him.
“What if something goes wrong?”
“Nothing will,” he mumbled, clearly embarrassed to have mentioned the surgery to her in the first place. She frowned at the ground, not wanting him to go. All she knew of hospitals was that they were cold and white and bright, and people went away to them and stayed away for a long time.
Her mom had stayed away for years after her sister was born.
“I’ll be fine,” he said. She nodded, tears stinging her eyes. The moment was broken when her brother Ed ducked beneath the trampoline. “Hey! What are you doing here?”
“Nothing,” she said, wishing he would go away. Vaughn’s brown eyes lit up at the sight of the older boy, making her heart ache. He adored her stupid brother.
“Eating grass,” Vaughn said. He grabbed a fistful of the green and shoved it in his mouth, making Ed laugh.
“You should eat grasshoppers,” Ed said. “They taste like lemon drops.”
“How do you know? Have you ever tried one?”
“No,” Emma interrupted, stymied by the argument.
“I dare you,” Ed said, his eyes gleaming. “I dare you to eat a grasshopper, and you’ll see.”
“Yeah!” Vaughn said, excited at the idea. “Eat a grasshopper! I’ll catch it!”
The two boys took off in search of a grasshopper, laughing. Emma stayed beneath the cool shade of the trampoline, alone.
“Who are you gonna be?”
“The bride,” Emma said in all her ten-year-old wisdom. Obviously. Big sister rights, here. She draped the length of white lace over her head and looked at her little sister Kari through the makeshift veil. Kari pouted at her.
“Who am I gonna be?”
It wasn’t duh, and they both knew it. Depending on who was there to play wedding with them, Kari had played the role of dad, priest, or wedding guest. She beamed at the groom assignment, and hurried to rummage through their dress-up chest for an appropriate suit. Emma began tying her dandelion bouquet together; daydreaming about the day she would really marry Vaughn.
They would walk down the aisle together, all their friends and family throwing flower petals that would drift around them like a snowstorm. He would turn toward her, his dark brown eyes gleaming like river-soaked rocks, and then they’d be family for real, like Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder.
The sliding door to the backyard opened, and Jo stepped out onto the backyard patio to scowl at her two little sisters. Arms folded, she said irritably, “I’ve been looking all over for you. What are you doing out here? It’s dinner time.”
Seeing Emma’s attire, Jo’s eyes widened with outrage. “Why are you wearing my prom dress? Where did you even get that!?”
“We’re having a wedding,” Kari piped up. “Emma’s the bride.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Jo dismissively. “Mormons don’t have weddings. We get married in the temple.”
She slammed the sliding door behind her, leaving her crestfallen sisters behind.
“Come on,” Kari said quietly. “Here comes the bride …”
“No,” Emma said, pulling off the veil. “It’s dumb.”
Emma bit her thumb nervously, staring across the outdoor courtyard through the double-glass doors at a cluster of teenagers draped around an indoor cafeteria table. Charity was always telling her she was welcome with the church kids, but Emma found them intimidating. Tara, straddling a backward-facing chair, was loose-limbed and confident in her basketball shorts. She didn’t speak often, but when she did it was with a wry twist to her mouth and dry wit that made the table boisterous with laughter. Bryan sat a few chairs away, grinning as he told some story, his hands gesturing wildly in the air. Emma could remember playing flashlight tag in the dark with Bryan only two years ago, when they were twelve.
Back then, they used to hang out all the time.
Vaughn was leaning back in his chair, arms folded across his chest, eyes gleaming with amusement. Emma studied his odd-shaped face with hungry eyes. It really was a funny-looking face–still babyish fat in all the wrong places, with an odd leanness juxtaposing in way that was both eye-catching and repellent. His dark hair was buzzed too-short, amplifying his big ears and outsized features. When he smiled, the teeth flashed in laughter were crooked. She’d outgrown her crush on him years ago, back when they were in sixth grade and golden-haired Andy moved into the neighborhood … but lately, Emma couldn’t help noticing that Vaughn was still thoughtful. Sweet. Funny.
Kinda cute, in a gargoyle-like way. She kind of wanted to ask him out, see where it could go … but it made her stomach hurt to think about him saying no.
It wasn’t Vaughn that was stopping her from approaching the table, though, or Bryan or even Tara. It was the Becca’s: one blonde, one brunette, and one forgettable. Pug-faced blonde Becca was snuggled up to her boyfriend Bryan, and she scared the crap out of Emma. Something about the sneering way Becca eyeballed her made Emma suspect that the other girl knew about the crush she’d once had on Bryan. It was ages ago, before Becca even moved to the area, but somehow Emma was sure that was no defense.
“Hey,” said a voice behind her. Relieved at the familiar voice, she turned to Allen. He was just her height, with an angels face. Eyes the pale washed-out blue of the Washington sky, and long blond hair so light it seemed silver in some lights. He was so pretty he made her heart hurt. “Where you been? I been looking all over for you.”
“Sorry,” she said. She dug into her back pocket and produced the forged hallway passes she knew he was looking for. “Here you go.”
“You’re an angel,” he said, slipping an arm around her waist and pulling her flush against him. She blushed, her heart skidding a little in her chest, and tried to pretend she was unaffected. Allen acted like this with all the girls. When she first met him, she’d been naive enough to think he wanted to be her boyfriend … right up until she met his new girlfriend. A flirt through-and-through, that was Allen.
She glanced past Allen at the group clustered around the table. To her surprise, Vaughn was looking straight at her, his lips pursed in what looked like disapproval. One of the Becca’s leaned over and whispered something in his ear, and his face cracked wide and grotesque with a grin as his eyes squinted mean and piggy at some shared joke. Becca smirked toward Emma.
Emma turned to Allen. “Got a smoke?”
“You look beautiful,” Emma’s mom said, smoothing the silky fabric of the pale-blue dress across her daughter’s hips. Emma faced herself in the mirror and smiled tentatively, her heart hammering in her chest. Her mom had been reluctant to get the dress, which was sleeveless, but Emma had begged. It seemed perfect: blue like water, fitted like a glove, and swirling flared like a mermaid fin down from her knees. What better dress to wear when going to a dance with the star of the swim team?
The doorbell rang, and Emma turned bright-eyed toward it. Kari snickered from where she was draped belly-down on the bed. “I can’t believe you actually asked Vaughn to the dance.”
“Scratch that,” Ed said from the hallway. “I can’t believe he agreed to go.”
She ignored the ribbing of her siblings and glided upstairs, heart hammering with anticipation. Kari’s disbelief and Ed’s mockery notwithstanding, she’d done it. She’d asked him, and he’d said yes, and they were about to have their first date ever.
When they were children, she’d liked him so much it hurt. If she concentrated, Emma could still feel the shadow of that wanting across her heart. She wasn’t sure, but she thought it was a seed that could flourish and grow into something more.
If he wanted. If he was interested.
The door opened on the familiar face she’d known for a lifetime. Emma took one look at the features she knew so well, and knew it was all wrong. He pasted on a smile as they posed for photos with her parents. She could feel in the way his hand rested on her hip, his fingers barely touching the fabric, that he would rather be anywhere than here.
She was miserable before they even reached the car, and bright with chatter as she tried to salvage the night. Even if he didn’t like her like that, she thought, they were still friends. They could still have fun.
They arrived at the dance, and Vaughn slammed out of the car and strode toward the school doors. Awkwardly, Emma unbuckled her belt, unlocked the auto-locked door, and let herself out. She had to lift up her pretty skirts and trot to catch up to him. He cast her an impatient look when she reached him at the doors, but said nothing. They stood in awkward silence, his shoulders hunched and hands thrust deep in his pockets as they waited to enter.
Emma shivered in the cool night air next to him, regretting her sleeveless dress. She thought longingly of Allen, who would at least have offered her his coat to keep warm.
“I’m cold,” she said, a hopeful hint.
“Me too,” Vaughn said, a firm rebuff.
The ticket collector held out his hand, and Vaughn thrust their dance tickets at him with a surly grunt. The school cafeteria was transformed with paper lanterns and disco balls, the floor covered in a sheen of glitter. Vaughn led her to the punch table and ladled out two cups, then muttered, “I’ll be right back.”
Half an hour later, Emma finally spotted him dancing with a Becca.
Tears of humiliation burned under her stupid makeup, threatening to ruin her perfectly powdered face. She turned and walked down the hallway, not wanting him to see her react. Not wanting him to know she was hurt.
It was stupid, she thought. They were supposed to be friends. She thought they were at least that. If he didn’t want to encourage her, that didn’t mean he had to be rude. He was supposed to be her friend.
Friends didn’t treat you like this. Friends didn’t make you cry at your first-ever school dance.
“Hey,” said a familiar voice. “What are you doing here?”
She turned and looked at Allen in the dark and shadowed hallway. Against her will, a smile tugged at her lips. “Same thing you are.”
“Avoiding your date?”
He held out his hand, and when she took it he pulled her close. They swayed together to the faint music piping down the hallway. Emma slowly lowered her head until it was resting on his shoulder, and he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her closer.
“Don’t cry,” he said softly, his voice a breath against the shell of her ear. In the shadows of the hallway, the dampness of her tears glimmered silver.
“I’m not,” she whispered, ashamed that she was. Stupid to cry over a boy she didn’t even like. Stupid to cry over a childhood crush. Stupid to cry over a boy.
Allen pulled back a little to look at her, putting his curled index finger under her chin to nudge her into looking back at him. After a long moment, he leaned forward and kissed each tear track with a butterfly-soft touch. She inhaled a soft, shuddering breath, and then his salt-stung mouth touched her lips. She froze for a moment, stunned and breathless, and then closed her eyes as she opened her mouth to her first kiss.
*Authors note: I don’t actually remember when Allen and I first kissed, but I do remember that I was upset and he was comforting me. I think it was actually before I realized he wasn’t boyfriend material, though. He was most of my firsts … first kiss, first public hand-hold, first snuggle. Never a boyfriend, though. As his best friend, I ended up having more longevity than any of his girlfriends, so it worked out for me.
I did have a massive crush on Vaughn when I was a kid, and planned to marry him someday. The crush faded as we grew up, and was long gone by middle school. At some point in my teens, the vestiges of my childhood affection stirred again and I asked him to a dance. He said yes, but then was rude and dismissive the entire night. Not only did it kill any budding interest in him, it also killed any sense of respect or friendship I had for him. I kept wondering why he’d even agreed to go if he couldn’t even treat me with basic courtesy.