How I Got Carter

Chapter 24

By Roe St. Alee

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Dark grey, with more grey. I’m still not convinced this is going to work.

I loop my tie through itself one more time and pull it down. I tighten the knot and push it up until it’s snug against my neck. I straighten my collar one more time and then slip on my jacket.

I’m sure I’ll take it off again while I’m waiting, but I have to see one more time what everything looks like together. Sam helped me pick everything out, but I was reluctant to go for this look. I was all for the standard, classic black suit, but he insisted that I do something different. So I shelled out an extra fifty bucks for a grey, slim fit suit. He assured me that it would look great, a little different but not tacky, and that he had the perfect tie for me to complete the look.

There’s a magical moment in every man’s life where he can put on dress clothes and look good. Sometime between fourteen and thirty you turn the proverbial corner and start to really look handsome in formal wear. As a little kid you look adorable wearing a tux, but eventually you grow up too much to look cute and not enough to look handsome. You spend a few years in between the two, and it isn’t a good look.

I’m a little bit scared that I haven’t quite crossed the threshold yet. The last few times I dressed up, I felt like a little kid with a fancy sack draped over me. A boy trying to wear his dad’s clothes. Last year’s dance was the first time I wore anything like this since I was little, but for the life of me I can’t remember how I really looked. I didn’t have anything at stake, and I wasn’t worried about it.

But this year, I want to look good.

I take a deep breath, hoping to maybe fill out my suit a little bit more, and I take a look in the mirror.

I can’t not smile when I see my reflection. Call me vain, but I look good.

Really good.

I pull my arms around, and everything feels good too. Snug but not tight. Everything fits just like it’s supposed to, and I don’t look like a little kid at all. I look older than normal in fact, and the grey suit looks great.

That gives me hope.

Even if tonight is a total disaster on every other front, I’ve got this going for me. Whether or not any of my dreams come true at this dance, at least I look good.

So why do I still feel uneasy?

I know the answer to that one. Because everything tonight really boils down to one question. Before I can even start to think about all my dreams coming true at the Winter Dance, I have to ask myself: What exactly am I hoping for?

I still don’t know.

I sigh as I put my jacket back on its hanger. But I also smile a little bit. Unsureness aside, it’s a miracle that I even get to worry about it in the first place.

Everything has happened so fast I’ve hardly had time to wrap my head around it. Two weeks ago I was almost sure that I would never talk to Carter again. In fact, I would have gone out of my way to avoid him at all costs. The football game at Grey’s house was sort of a last hurrah in my mind. A final chance to see if I could even be with him in a group setting, let alone one on one.

So there I was, on the farthest end of the Carter spectrum, ready to jump off into oblivion. Carter had chosen Beth, and I had chosen to put a stop to my infatuation with Carter.

But then it all happened. Within two hours everything got turned on its head. Carter broke up with Beth. I got roped into going to going to the Winter Dance with Carter and the guys. Then Carter himself asked me to go with him, telling me he changed his mind and was choosing me.

Who could have guessed?

I had spent so much time psyching myself up to end it with Carter, and so much energy trying to convince myself to accept that it was the right thing for me to do. I wasn’t ready for a complete 180. Even though it looked like everything was coming up Jackson for once, I still couldn’t be happy. At least not right away.

Bad timing doesn’t wait for anybody, I guess.

I close my eyes and try to think about tonight. What would a perfect night be like?

A minute goes by, and no perfect image comes to the surface. More like a hundred snippets. Do I want this to be romantic? Do I want Carter to really work for it? Or do I want us to just feel comfortable with each other again, and have a good time, as friends? Do I want him to kiss me when we’re done? Take me home and see what happens?

The doorbell rings.

I feel my stomach do a backflip.

Carter’s here.

I take a deep breath and put my jacket back on. I look in the mirror one more time and adjust my tie. I’m lucky that my hair looks good short, so I don’t have to worry about it. Everything is in place, my outfit is great, and I’m going to the Winter Dance with Carter Mulkins.

This is it.

I come out of my room and see, with some anxiety, that my mom has already gotten the door and welcomed Carter into the house. They’re talking and laughing as I come down the stairs, which is more or less every teenager’s nightmare. Carter is talking to my mom.

He looks up and flashes me one of his biggest, best smiles. He starts saying something to my mom, but I can’t hear it over the pounding of my own heart. I see my mom smile at Carter and look up as well, beaming. I will myself not to pass out or trip and fall down the last half of the staircase.

Carter looks amazing, just like I knew he would. Not just good, but ‘need-to-remind-myself-to-keep-breathing’ good. He’s wearing a simple black suit with a black bowtie. He’s still in football shape, so while the black slims him down a little, he fills his suit out perfectly. He has a bright red handkerchief in his chest pocket. He could have stepped out of a magazine.

He’s still rocking that million-dollar smile, and I can’t decide if his teeth or his eyes are shining brighter. I feel dizzy, and I’m not sure what I want to do. Should I hug him? Kiss him? Rip off all his clothes and devour him right here and now?

Luckily before I have a chance to do anything regrettable, my mom steps between us and gives me a big hug.

“Oh, honey,” she says. I can tell from the little waver in her voice that she’s on the verge of tears.

“Mom,” I say, my voice muffled in her embrace, “it’s ok, I’m just going to the dance.”

“I just can’t believe that-”

“I went to the dance last year,” I remind her, hoping that she’ll give me some space me and stop embarrassing me in front of Carter.

She finally releases her grip and holds me out at arm’s length. “I know,” she says, tears welling in her eyes. “Just let your mom be proud of how handsome and grown up you look.” She looks over at Carter. “It’s what we do.”

“Can we go now?” I ask.

Mom looks me up and down one more time before taking a deep breath and nodding her approval.

“You can go,” she says. “But be safe tonight and call me if you need anything, or if anything changes, or if you need a ride-”

“Yes,” I say. “I will call you if anything at all happens.”

With one more tight squeeze to my shoulders, my mom finally lets me go. She turns to Carter before we’re officially dismissed.

“Carter, honey, so nice to see you again,” she says.

Carter nods to my mom and smiles. “You too, Ms. Willard.”

Carter opens the door and steps outside. I turn to follow him but my mom grabs my arm one more time. The door closes behind him, which leaves me and my mom. Oh boy...

“Jackson,” she says, with a rising intonation.

I know what this means. It means she needs to tell me something very important, and that I better devote my complete attention to whatever she is about to say. I turn to face her to receive my final instructions.

But she doesn’t say anything. She just gives me a pointed look. Then she intensifies the look by raising her eyebrows a little.

I roll my eyes. “Yes, mother,” I say, “I know.”

She doesn’t have to say anything. I know exactly what she means. I didn’t say anything to her about this being a date, and in fact I told her the opposite. We’re just going as friends.

But she’s my mom. She knows that I have feelings for Carter, and she is reminding me, nonverbally, to be safe and respectful in my interactions with him. Or however she would tastefully say it if she had to do more than give me a look.

I also didn’t tell her anything about us having a falling out, but I’m sure she knew about it. She had to have picked up on how I was feeling for a few weeks, and it can’t have taken much of a guess to figure out what was the cause.

When I told her we were going to the Winter Dance together, she seemed surprised. Even under the guise of going stag with a big group of our friends, she knew. At least she knew that there was more to it than that.

Maybe some people can get away with hiding their personal lives from their moms, but I sure can’t. She’d never fall for that.

With one last tearful look at me, and now confident in my ability to be safe, careful, upright, and whatever else the moms of the world require of their children, my mother finally lets me leave the house.

I take my first step outside and am immediately assaulted by Carter pinching my cheek.

“You’re so handsome,” he says to me in a crude imitation of my mother’s voice. He’s grinning like a maniac.

I knock his hand away, but smile.

Carter leads me out to his car, which to my surprise is not his dad’s Tesla. My heart sinks a little bit. I thought Carter would be pulling out all the stops tonight. Maybe I was wrong.

“I hope you’re not mad,” he says as we get into the RAV4.

I kick myself. I must have looked disappointed when I saw the car, and now Carter will think I’m a brat. Why can’t I ever just be happy with what I have right in front of me?

“I figured I would just ask while I was talking to your mom.”

I stop putting on my seatbelt and turn to look at Carter. “What?”

“I asked your mom if you could stay over at my house tonight,” he says.

That explains the look I got from her before she let me leave.

“Not in a weird way,” he corrects himself as he starts the car. “I just told her that we were all hanging out after the dance.”

“Oh,” I say, “ok.” I didn’t know that we were doing that, but it should be fun.

Carter chuckles. “We’re not,” he says, “I just want you to come over.”

Oh. That makes more sense.

Still, it’s a little presumptuous. I wasn’t even sure about going to the dance with him, much less going home with him.

“Only if you want to,” he adds, seeing the hesitation in my eyes. “No pressure or anything.”

If I want to.

This takes me back to my whole dilemma that I have with this night in the first place. Do I want to? Or rather, why do I want to? What am I looking for from Carter? What am I looking for from myself?

I flinch in surprise as I feel Carter’s hand land on top of my own. He gives me a quick squeeze.

“Only if you want to,” he reiterates. “I know you’re still thinking about all this.”

If I want to.

...

Yeah, that’ll work.

I’m not sure why I’m letting myself get so worked up about it. He himself told me to take my time and figure out what I want, and that he’d be sure in the meantime. He’s finally being open with me and communicating what he wants. This is him being sure, and me getting to make the call.

“Alright,” I say. “We’ll see.”

I didn’t mean for it to sound coy, but it does, and Carter gives me another smile, a little bit playful, before he lets go of my hand. I love how many different smiles he has. From the heartwarming to the mischievous and everything in between.

Trying not to think too hard about his invitation, I decide to change the subject.

“I figured you would have the Tesla,” I say.

He doesn’t turn to me but I see him cock his eyebrow a little. Now it’s my turn to be presumptuous, I guess.

Or he’s remembering the blow job I gave him last time we rode in it.

“We’ll have to leave the car overnight at Ricky’s place, so I wasn’t allowed to drive it,” he says. “That car lives in the garage any time it’s not on the road.”

Makes sense.

“I still got the limo though, don’t worry.”

I almost forgot about that.

Carter’s family has a driver, and I guess the company has other cars that you can rent. He mentioned it to me and Ricky after school last week, but I forgot all about it. Sounds like his dad was able to make it happen.

“That’s awesome,” I say, thinking back to my ride from last year. Ko dropped me and Katy off in his MR2. Katy barely fit in it with her dress on. “It’s so cool of your dad to do that.”

Carter scoffs. “Yeah, I guess.”

He doesn’t continue, but I look at him until he decides to share whatever he’s thinking. I know he doesn’t talk much about his parents to anyone, but if he’s going to make a comment on it, he needs to follow through.

“It’s just like him,” he finally says once he sees me staring at him. “He does what he thinks is cool, but…”

He trails off again.

“But what?” I say.

“It’s really awesome that he got us the car for tonight.”

I wonder if I shouldn’t press the issue any further, but I feel like he’s so close to opening up. I don’t want to make him upset, especially when we’re about to go to the dance, but he always told me about how I was the person he could talk to about stuff like this. And for all his talk about us giving this a chance, it would be a step backward if he didn’t feel that way anymore.

I decide to try one more time. If he’s still keeping quiet after this, I’ll let it go.

“So what’s the issue with the car?” I ask. I figure that question is neutral enough that he can still deflect it if he wants to.

He thinks for a second and then answers.

“I told him all about our plans for tonight, that I’m going with the guys, and their dates, and with you. And he didn’t know who you were.”

I have to force back my laugh. Is that what he’s upset about?

“That’s ok,” I tell him, “I’ve never even met your dad.”

I’ve only been to Carter’s a handful of times, and his dad has always been out of town or working. Knowing what little I know about Carter and his parents, I never asked for an introduction.

Carter shakes his head.

“It’s not that,” he says. “It’s just how he is. I’ve mentioned you a bunch of times, but he… he doesn’t remember stuff like that.”

He talks to his parents about me?

“I’m sure he’d remember you if he met you,” Carter says, “he’s really good with people.”

“Yeah,” I say. His last argument almost seemed directed more to himself than to me.

“Me just telling him should be enough.”

We ride in silence for a minute or two, both digesting the conversation.

Suddenly he turns to me a little and moves his right hand toward me. I almost think he’s going to put it on my thigh, or reach for my hand again.

But he doesn’t. He thinks better of it (or maybe wasn’t planning on it at all), and runs it through his hair instead.

“I’m really glad you came with me tonight,” he says.

I don’t say anything but I’m sure he can see my smile out of the corner of his eye. I have to admit, this feels good. Really good.

This is what I always imagined a relationship would feel like. It’s not all about getting taken out on dates or have someone ask you to the dance. It’s the private edges around the main events. The car rides, getting ready, or the intimate moments after it’s all over. Everyone will be together at the dance, but this is when Carter and I get to be alone together. That’s what couples get to share that the rest of the world doesn’t.

I’m still not sure what tonight is exactly, but this was the idea, right? I’m trying to feel it out and see if this is what I want.

And whether it’s something I’m doing intentionally or not, my guard is dropping. Slowly but surely, I’m feeling more and more like I want to be with Carter. But am I willing to risk getting hurt all over again?

------- ------- ------- -------

By the time we get to Ricky’s, there’s already a flurry of activity all around the porch and the driveway. It looks like we’re the last ones to arrive, as I see all the couples accounted for and several sets of parents hovering around them.

“Are we late?” I ask Carter, half joking. “It looks like everyone’s already here.”

“Yeah,” he says as he backs into a suitable parking spot off the edge of the driveway. “I think we’re like thirty minutes late.”

“What?” I ask. “You told me to be ready at quarter to five.”

Carter laughs. “I sure did. Did you seriously want to sit here for half an hour while everyone’s moms take a million photos of us?”

When he puts it that way, it makes a lot of sense.

“I just hope there’s still food,” I mutter as we get out of the car.

Carter makes a good point. Everyone looks like they’ve about had it with taking pictures. Maybe the girls are still having fun, but Gray, Matt, and Ricky get up and practically run over to us as soon as we walk away from the car.

We make our way to the garage, where Ricky’s parents have laid out a massive spread for us. Ricky definitely acquired his cooking ability from his parents, as they’ve made a pile of burgers, dogs, chicken, and plenty of sides for us to eat. Clearly I didn’t have to worry about missing the food.

Carter and I get started on our dinners, and the guys go for round two. We got here at the perfect time. The parents have corralled the girls and are doing separate pictures with them, trying to use the last of the good light for that. Luckily that leaves the rest of us free to grab some food.

We don’t get much time, however, as Carter and I are only about halfway done with our food by the time the group comes looking for us.

Leading the pack are the three girls. They didn’t know each other before toinght, but it looks like they’re all getting along, talking and giggling together, all with smiles on their faces. It’s more than I’d be able to say for myself after thirty minutes of photos with my parents.

I instantly recognize Jackie, Matt’s girlfriend. I’ve hung out with her a few times, mostly at summer gatherings that I’ve crashed with Katy, since she and Matt are cousins. She’s a tall, slim brunette with big, doey eyes that make her seem meek, even though she isn’t as timid as she looks. Her dress is simple and black, cut just short of the floor but with an open back.

Heather is the perfect complement to Gray, with a full figure and ample cleavage practically spilling out of her dress. She manages to pull it off though, as her look is still tasteful. She looks great, and she and Jackie seem to be hitting it off, which bodes well for the group tonight.

The last girl in the pack must be Caitlyn. Ricky’s mystery girl. Her being here proves that she’s real, but it’s hard to know much more about her than that at a glance. She’s pretty, I can at least say that. She’s the most done up of the three girls, but her dress is also the most modest. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

After that comes a slew of parents. Ricky’s parents I recognize, as well as Jackie’s. I know Gray’s mom is older than most of our parents, so she’s easy to spot. Heather’s family is obvious too, as she’s the spitting image of her mom, down to their exact body dimensions if I’m not mistaken.

Which leaves Caitlyn’s mom and dad, more reserved than the rest of the gang as they approach. I’m sure they’re a little bit concerned tonight with the obscenely handsome young man from another school who is going to be whisking their daughter away for a night of dancing.

As expected, the person orchestrating the whole operation is Matt’s mom.

We all know Marlene.

Small but ferocious, she runs our local newspaper and does everything from photography to editing to ad sales. She’s at every event in town, knows everyone in a 50-mile radius, and doesn’t waste a single second jumping into the pack of boys and divvying us up for more pictures.

“Gentlemen, there’s no time to lose,” she says, simultaneously moving my chin to the proper angle and adjusting my tie. “We only have a few minutes of daylight left. Nice to see you, Jackson,” she adds almost as an afterthought.

She sorts us through several poses and setups, apparently making up for lost time after Carter and I missed the first thirty minutes of the photo session. No wonder the guys had looked so relieved to have a break when we arrived. This is exhausting.

“Aren’t we done?” asks Gray to no one in particular, just on the off chance that someone will come to our aid and release us.

“Of course not,” replies Matt’s mom, pushing Grey up against Ricky’s back in an effort to decide which one of them is taller. “We still need to do a big group photo now that everyone’s here.” She waves to the girls and moves them all back in front of her lens.

“Now let’s see,” she mutters to herself, “why don’t you go here, and Carter, you stand next to Matthew, and…”

Matt’s mom stops arranging us and stares at me and Carter shaking her head, as though she just noticed that neither of us brought girls with us to balance out the picture correctly. She starts shuffling us in and out of the formation, trying different places that will make everything look right with the other three couples.

“Now why don’t two handsome boys like you have dates to the dance?” She takes a full three seconds out of her setup routine to put her hands on her hips and look at us sadly. “I’m sure you could-”

“Mom,” Matt cuts her off. “They don’t want to have dates for the dance, ok?”

She dismisses him with a wave of her hand. “Just look at you two,” she says, sizing us up. “I bet you could get any girl at the school to go with you if you wanted.”

“Mom, they’re…” Matt physically intervenes and moves her away from us, back where she can stop adjusting the line up and take a picture. “They didn’t want to go with anyone, and no matter how handsome you say they are they’re not taking you to the dance either.”

Finally satisfied with our arrangement as Matt moves back into position, she shrugs and picks up her camera.

“Ok, Matthew, I’m just saying… Alright, let’s everyone squeeze in for the photo.”

Everyone leans in and smiles. As overbearing as Matt’s mom is being, she’s making all of us laugh, which will be great for the picture. Everyone except Matt, of course, who is probably going to get caught mid eye roll.

Matt’s mom takes a few shots, adjusts some settings on her camera, then takes a few more. As she does it, I feel a movement against my waist. With how tightly we’re all squeezed together, I’m sure you can’t see it in the pictures, but I know Carter’s just put his hand on my waist. I instinctively lean back into him, and we get closer.

It’s our little secret in the pictures. That little bit of contact, signifying, albeit only to the two of us, that we’re here together. It’s another one of those tiny little things. Is this how it would feel if we were actually together?

And just like before, I find myself really liking it.

With what must be the one thousandth picture, we’re all distracted by a sound at the end of the driveway. A rumble in the gravel at this point can only mean one thing. The limo’s here.

I hear a low whistle from someone as the car pulls up. It’s a gorgeous, jet-black BMW. Clearly washed and shined since the last time anyone drove it, we all get a clear view of our reflections as it pulls up in front of us.

As the car stops, the driver’s door opens and I’m just as struck by the person who gets out as I am by the car. A handsome black man steps out onto the driveway and adjusts his jacket. He’s long and lithe in the body, with strong angular features. His movements are so practiced and graceful, even just getting out of the car looks like it could be some sort of artistic expression.

Needless to say, the uniform doesn’t hurt either. As I’ve said, I’m a total sucker for that.

“Hi Anthony!” calls Carter, and gives him a wave.

The driver gives him a nod and smiles broadly, revealing a set of perfect, white teeth.

“Mr. Mulkins,” he says.

Carter rolls his eyes as he walks up to Anthony and they slap their hands together. “Just call me Carter. my dad’s not around, ok?”

Anthony laughs. He has a great laugh. It’s deep and genuine, the sort of laugh that makes it impossible not to like someone.

“You’ll always be little Mr. Mulkins to me.” He gives Carter a look up and down. “Even if you’re all grown up and dressed up.”

Carter leads Anthony over to everyone’s parents and lets them all introduce themselves. I’m sure they want to know exactly who will be driving their kids around all night, what time he promises to bring everyone home, and all the other things parents are always so concerned about.

As for the kids, we run straight over to the limo and start piling in. It’s not every day you get to ride in a car like this, and there’s a steady chorus of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ as everyone comes in and sees the interior, replete with leather seats, neon lights, and sparkling grape juice for us to drink. Plus, if we get in the car, they can’t take any more pictures of us, right?

We all get situated in the back of the limo, and Carter joins us last of all, taking a seat next to me in the front-facing back seat. We roll down the windows as the parents approach, getting hit with one last burst of flash bulbs.

We say our goodbyes to all the parents, several of whom are in tears, and Anthony slowly pulls out of the driveway. You’d think we were headed off to the war with the way the moms are getting choked up.

Out on the road, we can all finally relax. The photos are done, we’ve eaten our fill, and all that’s left to do is enjoy the night. We pop a bottle or two of the faux-champagne and make a few toasts before settling back into our seats and hanging out.

The Winter Dance, I think to myself as I sip on my drink. I’m going to the Winter Dance with Carter Mulkins, riding in the back of a limo. Who would have thought?

As we continue to drive, my thoughts turn back to Anthony. It’s so cool that Carter’s dad could get this hooked up for us. I get how Carter might feel a little jaded about the whole thing, but you can’t deny that we’re riding in style, especially with a driver like that. He comes across as so smooth and sophisticated, it’s like he’s half of what makes the ride in the limo feel so legit.

“How long has Anthony been your driver?” I ask Carter, unable to suppress my curiousity.

He furrows his brow in thought. “Pretty much forever,” he says. “There was a different guy when I was really little, but he retired and then Anthony took over.”

That would explain Anthony’s ‘little Mr. Mulkins’ comment. But still, it’s hard to believe Anthony is a day over thirty, which can’t be right unless he started driving for the family when he was still a teenager.

“Do you know how old he is?” I ask, letting my curiosity get the better of me.

“It’s crazy, right? I think he’s in his 40s, just because of how long he’s worked for us, but…”

“There’s no way.”

Carter shrugs. “He has to be. He’s worked for us for twelve years, and maybe it’s hard to say ‘cause I was a little kid, but I think he’s always looking exactly like this.”

I shake my head in disbelief. Those are some good genes. If I look half that good when I’m in my forties I’ll be stoked.

I’m not usually attracted to older guys, but Anthony definitely doesn’t seem like he’s forty. And his smile, his laugh, and that uniform…

Forget having a driver if I ever get rich. If I’m loaded when I grow up, I’m going to make sure that I have a really hot driver.

I feel like I could stay in the limo forever, but after what only feels like a minute, we’re making the familiar turn off the main road and onto our school’s campus.

We pull up to the drop off area and enter the queue along with all the other cars (and a handful of limos) dropping off their kids. I can feel the excitement building more and more as we approach the school entrance, but I still feel mine mingling with plenty of anxiety.

It’s too late to back out now. I’m going to the Winter Dance with Carter. For good or for bad, there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

We pull up and Anthony dashes around the side of the car to open our door and assist everyone in getting out. Carter and I are last to leave, and he tells me to hold on a second. I stand on the sidewalk while Carter talks to Anthony for a minute, presumably about our exit plans once the night is over. Anthony gives him a slap on the back before sliding once again into the driver’s seat and pulling away.

Left by ourselves, at least in regards to our own group of friends, Carter walks over to me and puts a hand on my arm. He flashes one of his most dazzling smiles and leans in a little closer to me.

“Are you ready for this?” he asks.

He’s definitely turning on the charm right now. I haven’t experienced it for a while, and it hits me hard. I’m putty in his hands when he does this. His quiet voice, sly smile, and the way his eyes sparkle. It’s too much for me to resist.

And I let it happen. Whether or not it’s the right thing to do, I let him in.

Carter steps in beside me as we walk into the school, and his hand finds its way to the small of my back. It’s inconspicuous enough to anyone who might see us, but I know that it’s possessive. Just like how he held me ever so slightly during our pictures, he’s claiming me as his date, if only privately.

This is what it feels like to have Carter Mulkins take you to the Winter Dance, I tell myself. And it feels good.

As we walk into the dance, I can’t help but smile. I know it’s just the gym with a bunch of cheesy decorations and other stuff that parents brought to dress it up, but it’s nice. It’s a facade, but it works. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think we were somewhere fancier, somewhere far away.

That’s a school dance in a nutshell, really. It’s the same old people who come here every day for school, and the same old building around us, and it’s nothing special. But we’ve saved up our money, thrown on our best clothes, and tried with all our might to make this night something that we’ll never forget. We’re all tricking ourselves into having the most magical night of our lives. If we don’t look too closely, we’ll all be pleasantly swept away by the illusion.

Again, I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do, but I let it happen.

No one in our group seems like they’re in a big hurry to dance, and that’s fine by me. The gym is only about half full right now, and plenty of people are still wandering in. Once this place is packed I’m sure we’ll all be dancing, but for now our crew just posts up at a table in the back of the room and helps ourselves to some snacks.

As we mingle around the tables, I start to feel more at ease. This isn’t as awkward as I was worried it might be. Not with Carter, I mean - that’s a whole different story. But more with me coming here without a date. Plenty of people go stag, but I wasn’t sure what the rest of the group would be like. Would they couple off as soon as we walk in the door and leave me to awkwardly shuffle around by myself for the rest of the night?

But it’s not like that at all. I can hardly keep up with all the people coming and going from our table. There’s people from class, the soccer team, drama, and more of the guys’ friends from the football team. The girls all compare and compliment each other’s outfits as they go, and the guys all compare and compliment each other’s dates.

After an hour or so of hanging out, the room starts to shift. The lights have gotten dimmer, they’ve turned up the music, and more and more people are slowly but surely finding their way to the dance floor. Finally our group comes to a consensus, and we all head out to shake our bodies.

I take a deep breath as we migrate. This is the part I was most worried about, but also the most excited for. I like dancing. I like it a lot. And while you don’t need a date to talk to people, sometimes you need one to dance.

It was so much easier with Katy last year, but now I’m more or less on my own. I mean, I can dance with Carter and all the guys when it’s more of a free-for-all out there, but I don’t exactly expect him to waltz me around the floor during a slow jam.

And it’s a shame, because I’m a good dancer. I don’t like to brag, but I have moves. Pretty good moves. The trick is that I need to be feeling it. If I can get in the zone, I’m going to have a great time tonight. I need to turn off all the awkward feelings, and get out of my shell.

Where’s a beer when I need one?

A huge bass note hits, and the room starts moving again. I don’t know the song the DJ puts on, but it’s a heavy trap beat that’s almost impossible not to dance to. I’m not feeling it quite yet, but at least it’s a start.

Halfway through the next song, I’m settling in and starting to get warmed up when my night takes a turn for the better. I don’t have to worry any more about mustering up my courage to dance, because Katy shows up.

“Sorry we were so late getting here,” she tries to shout over the music. “I’ve been looking for you, but figured you must be out here already.”

I flash her a thumbs-up in affirmation. I hate yelling. It doesn’t seem to bother Katy, so I’ll let her lead this conversation.

She pulls the guy next to her over in front of us and he waves. It’s Jeff. I smile and mouth ‘Hi’ to him.

“Are you guys ready to dance?” she shouts to both of us.

We both nod.

Katy leans in closer to me so she doesn’t need to yell. “Jeff is terrible at this, I need you.”

I smile and give her a wink as she steps back from me. This is going to be fun.

If Jeff can’t hang with Katy on the dance floor, there’s only one person who can. Me. We’ve been dancing together our whole lives, from our bedrooms with the stereo on, to last year’s Winter Dance, to a few more choreographed numbers in last spring’s production of “Anything Goes.” We get each other, and we both know how to boogie.

Within minutes, I’m feeling a hundred times better. I have my dancing partner, the music is good, and everybody’s having a great time. Now that I’m not flying solo, it’s way easier to move around the floor, getting down with whoever you find in front of you at any given moment.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like some spiritual thing for me. Nothing that deep. More like a silly, easy way to connect with everyone around you. The way Katy and I dance, it makes the place feel a little bit less like a dance club, and a little bit more like your cousin’s wedding.

And it’s definitely working.

The guys and their dates are all dancing harder now, and everybody is way less inhibited about dancing with everyone around them. Katy is the spark I needed to stave off my greatest fear about the night. The dance isn’t going to devolve into a bunch of one-on-one booty grinding, at least not with us working the crowd.

After a few more songs, I start to notice Carter. We’re not dancing with each other per se, but I can tell he’s focused on me. Not overtly, and I don’t think you would notice if you weren’t looking for it, but he isn’t hiding it from me. He gets close to me as often as he can, and we dance with and around each other more than anybody else.

I start to feel it again. I start to genuinely feel like we’re at this dance together. And once again, it feels good.

We get the last thump of the bass from a DJ Snake song, and then the whole room quiets down. Slow music fades in, and I know what that means. A slow dance.

This is where the reality of the night differs from what it feels like. This is where, in whatever fantasy it is that Carter is my date tonight, he swoops in and grabs my hand, pulling me back out onto the floor for a dance.

But this is reality. Instead of waiting around to watch everyone pair up around me, I cut through the mass of people on the dance floor and make my way to the drink coolers.

I grab a cup of ice water from some moms who are working the drink table and have a seat. I take a deep breath and sip on my drink. Dancing is hard work.

It’s actually a good thing, I think to myself. As much as I’m enjoying myself, this is a good break for me to cool down. Not just from dancing, but from Carter.

I have to keep reminding myself that he hurt me, and that I’m not sure what I want from him. Tonight’s a positive step for us, but I still need to think about things. This is about him being sure, and me getting to make the call.

Not that I purposely want to play hard to get, but I need to make sure I give myself plenty of room to breathe, and ample time to think. When he’s laying it on, Carter’s charm is powerful and suffocating. It would feel good to let myself get swallowed up by it, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’d be drowning.

I need to take it easy. I can have feelings for Carter without letting it eat me alive. I can pursue him without killing myself over it. Tonight is good, the perfect chance to just enjoy being here with Carter, and not getting myself too worked up about what it all means.

For the first time in ages, I feel like I can actually do it. There’s something different this time around. I can’t say if it’s him or me, or a little bit of both. Whatever it is, it actually, honestly feels good.

The first slow dance ends and I drain the rest of my cup. Thinking can wait until later, I tell myself. For the rest of the night, I’m not going to sit in the corner and brood. I’m just going to hang out with my friends, dance with Katy, and have fun.

And if a few little sparks happen to fly between me and Carter, so much the better.

The night flies by and it’s honestly perfect. Katy and I have a crazy good time dancing, even if Jeff is tripping all over himself trying to keep up.

The whole crew we came with is tons of fun, and everyone seems to be getting along and having a great time. Heather and Jackie are both fun to hang out with, and even Caitlyn isn’t quite as weird as I thought she might be. I’m still not sure exactly what Ricky is getting himself into - or more likely not getting himself into judging by the big gold cross she’s wearing around her neck - but whatever. She’s a good dancer, and besides making Ricky stand significantly farther away from her than modern morals dictate during the slow songs, she can hang.

I even manage to snag a few dances along the way. Obviously Katy grabbed me for one, during which we dramatically pranced around like we were at the king’s ball. She made me take two ballroom classes with her last year, and we show off our moves any chance we get.

I had to give her back to Jeff at some point though, and just as I was getting ready to leave the dance floor, I bumped into Caitlyn and Jackie. They couldn’t find Matt and Ricky, so I took each of them for half the song, while Carter grabbed them for the other half. I know I’m gay and all, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy taking pretty girls for a spin around the dance floor.

Late in the evening, just when I’m not sure I can dance for another minute without my legs giving out, the music stops again, and the DJ grabs a microphone. Perfect timing for me to get a breather. It must be time for the final thank yous, warnings, and advisements of the evening.

“Who out there is having a great time at the Winter Dance?” he asks us.

A cheer goes up from the crowd. I have to agree, this guy is killing it with the music.

“We’re going to slow it down again now, for the next to last time tonight.” A hush comes over us all. “If any of you out there are still biding your time, you’ll only have one more shot at a dance after this one.”

I chuckle to myself a little bit as I start to leave the dance floor. With that introduction I almost want to go find Carter and ask him for a dance.

But no, I couldn’t do it. Even though he’s been great tonight, I’m sure he’s not ready to take that step.

It makes me sort of sad to say it, but I don’t think I am either. It’s nothing to do with Carter or how the two of us feel about each other, it’s more because of our school.

I haven’t seen a single gay couple out dancing tonight, and I know there’s a handful of us out here. Plenty of girls have danced together during slow songs, but not in any serious way. A few guys from the football team were promenading around earlier, but clearly as a joke.

If two dudes actually pulled each other in close and danced, it would be a scandal.

I shake my head and take a seat back at our table as I listen to the DJ make his last couple of announcements. It’s such a bummer. Even if I had a boyfriend and everybody knew it, I still don’t know if I’d be brave enough to get out there on the dance floor with him and announce it to the whole world.

I’d love to say that I’m confident enough to do that, but I’m not. I’m not in the closet, but I don’t like being the center of attention. You have to leave the pioneering to people like Sam, people who are completely fearless. For me, maybe in a few more years when someone’s already broken the ice.

“Dude, come on!”

I look up to see Ricky standing next to me, panting.

“What?” I ask him.

I hardly have time to act indignant or surprised as he grabs me and pulls me out of my chair. With a conspiratorial arm around my shoulder, he guides me briskly away from the gym and into the corridor outside. I blink my eyes and try to get them to adjust to the bright lights of the hallway. I wish he’d slow down so I could get my bearings, but Ricky doesn’t let up, dragging me half blind through the school as quickly as he can.

“Where are we going?” I ask. He’s really on a mission.

“Just hurry up,” he says, pausing halfway through his sentence to gulp down a breath of air, “we’re already late.”

We loop around a corner and I can hear the next song starting. The DJ must have wrapped up his announcements and we’re getting back into the music. If I know anything about school dances, we’re going to have this slow dance, then two more songs for everyone to dance to (one might even be a mashup of a bunch of dance tunes), and then one final slow dance to close out the night. The lights will come up, and then we’ll all walk out to “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire. I’d put money on it.

“Almost there,” Ricky mutters to himself as we take one more left turn.

Where is he taking me? I wonder if he has booze stashed in a store room or something like that and that’s where he and Caitlyn are hiding out. She seemed like more of a Goody two-shoes than that, but Ricky can be pretty persuasive when it comes to peer pressure.

We finally arrive at our apparent destination. The auxiliary training room.

It’s a little room right next to the gym where teams do workouts or have meetings when the full gym isn’t available. I know baseball will stick their hitting nets in here during the spring and the tennis team will use it for conditioning and stuff when it’s too rainy to practice outside.

Without even breaking stride, Ricky leads me up to the door, opens it, pushes me inside, and slams it closed behind me.

It’s dark.

There’s a little bit of light in the room, but after the brightness of the fluorescent lights in the hallway, I can’t see a thing. I know it’ll take at least a minute before I can make out anything, so I put my hands out in front of me as I take a tentative step forward. There’s nothing in front of me, and it feels kind of like walking into an abyss…

Suddenly my hands make contact with something. It’s a body, or least a torso. Before I can react, the presumed person in front of me grabs my hands and pulls me toward his or her body.

Even without sight, I instantly know who it is when I get close. It’s the smell. A good smell, in fact the best smell. Sweet, musky, and manly.

It’s Carter.

I feel an arm slip around my waist as he pulls me against his body. He starts moving, gently gyrating back and forth against me, and it takes me a second to figure out what he’s doing.

He’s dancing with me.

After the shock of the darkness and stumbling into Carter starts to wear off, I realize that I can hear the music from the gym coming clearly through the wall next to us. It’s a little bit muffled, but still audible. It’s the perfect volume for the quiet of this room.

I slide my arms up over Carter’s shoulders and let him lead me. We don’t do anything fancy, just the simple side-to-side swaying to the rhythm of the song that you see teenagers do. As we move back and forth, I let myself melt into Carter, putting my chin on his shoulder and leaning against him.

Pressed so close, I inhale deeply, taking in another breath of his scent. We’re doing it. I’m dancing with Carter.

“Sorry if this is-”

“It’s perfect.”

I cut him off before he even has a chance to say he’s sorry. I get it.

I’ll admit it’s a little bit weird that we’re tucked away in this room, away from the dance, and out of the public eye. But it’s like I was thinking before. It just isn’t the right time for us to take that step.

If we went out and danced in front of everyone, this dance will be all about everything and everyone else. There will be so much at stake, and so many distractions. I know we’ll both be thinking about the fallout and repercussions of us being together, and the reaction of the people around us will be more present than the dance.

But this is good. It’s private. There’s nothing else in the entire world except me and Carter. Dancing together.

And it affords another opportunity as well.

I tilt my head up off his chin and back a little bit. He can feel me move, and even in the dim lighting, I’m sure he can see my face in front of his. I close my eyes, only needing to wait a second or two before I feel him lean down and gently meet my lips with his own.

The kiss is so gentle, so light. It hardly feels like a kiss at all, more like another little part of us dancing together. Two bodies moving in harmony, from our feet to our hips to our lips.

We break away and I put my head back on his shoulder, powerless to do anything but close my eyes, smile, and get swept away in the final minute of our dance.

The last notes of the song play, fading into another heavy dance track, but neither of us move. We stay together, holding each other close until finally Carter pushes me back and plants another, firmer kiss on my lips.

“I’m so glad you came with me tonight,” he says, still close enough that I can feel his breath against my lips. “I just wish I could have done-”

I shush him and pull myself back into his body. I know he wants to tell me that he wanted to do more, but I don’t mind. I think he’s done enough. Enough that I’m really starting to believe him when he says that I’m his choice.

It wasn’t just our dance, or something else that he said or did tonight. It’s been the whole package. He’s been real tonight. That’s the only word I can think of that describes it. He hasn’t been putting on a show or trying to convince me of anything. He’s just been wonderful and attentive, and everything he’s done has felt completely genuine.

We finally break apart from each other, and my eyes have adjusted enough to be able to see, at least to some extent. I feel a familiar pressure in the bottom of my stomach when I see Carter’s face, something I haven’t felt in a while. It’s the kind of blind longing I used to feel when I saw him, but now it’s coupled with the idea that he might really be mine. That he just danced with me. That he kissed me, and he meant it.

“I left my phone in the car,” Carter says, “so I’m gonna go find Anthony, and we’ll come pick you and everybody up, ok?”

I nod at him and return his smile.

“Again,” Carter says, “sorry if this was weird. I just didn’t want to leave tonight without dancing with you, and-”

“No,” I stop him. “It was great. I’m glad I got to dance with you, too.”

I can’t help myself and slide in for one last kiss before he leaves. I start out with a little peck, but Carter doesn’t let go, returning it with even more force and intensity. This one reminds me of some of our other kisses. The one on the couch at my house, for example. The needier kisses, the hot ones. The ones that make my head spin.

“You know,” Carter says when he finally pulls away, “there’s going to be one more song. I don’t have to get the car.”

My eyes go wide when he says it. Is he serious? He’d be willing to do that for me?

“We don’t have to dance in this room,” he offers.

“No,” I tell him before I change my mind. “This dance was perfect.”

He doesn’t have to do that for me. Not tonight. We’re still trying to figure us out. We don’t need half the school breathing down our necks about it too. The fact that he offered was huge, but for now I want me and Carter to just be about me and Carter.

We share one more little kiss before he steps to the door.

“We’ll pick you guys up out front.”

Wow.

I take a minute to catch my breath before following Carter out into the hallway.

It’s happening.

Even with all the doubts I’ve had, and all the time and energy I spent convincing myself that ending it with Carter was the right thing to do, I feel like I was wrong. Whatever it was that made Carter see it, accept it, or be willing to go for it, I’m starting to feel it too.

I wish I could put my finger on exactly what it is that’s different about Carter tonight. It’s just a feeling I get about him. Like he’s turned a corner. Like the thing - whatever it was - that was blocking him from wanting to be with me, is gone.

I push the door open and walk back through the hallway and toward the gym. Part of me thought that the bright lights of the hall would sober me up, so to speak, but when I get back into the gym, I’m still buzzing with that positive energy I felt while I danced with Carter. It almost feels like certainty.

Pushing my way back into the crowd of dancers, I find Katy and a few of her other friends. She gives me a smile and waves me over. We only have another song or two to dance, and right now I just want to lose myself in how good I’m feeling.

Before I know it, the DJ is fading out the last upbeat song of the night, and fading in something a little bit slower underneath. I give Katy a big hug and let her go back to Jeff. I’m sure she’ll want to find him for the last dance. I weave through the crowd, which is slowly coupling up as I go.

I feel a smile creep across my lips. I could have done it. I could have had this dance with Carter. He offered to do it. It’s fine that we decided not to, but he was willing. That means a lot to me.

I’m just getting to the edge of the dance floor when someone grabs my arm. I turn back and am surprised to see Rachel, one of the girls from my English class.

“Are you dancing with anyone?” she asks.

I shake my head and hold out my hands to her. She slides into position in front of me and I put my arms around her waist.

We start dancing, and I can’t help but think how much of a coincidence this is. Rachel was technically the first person who put the whole idea of going to the dance with Carter into my head. The path from point A to point B was nothing I could have imagined, but regardless, we’ve made it to where we are now.

Rachel is a good dancer - nothing like Katy, obviously, but not bad. We move around the dance floor and both settle into a nice, easy rhythm.

“Did you ever manage to snag a date for the dance?” she asks.

I chuckle a little. “Yeah,” I say. “Or, no. I mean… sort of?”

She laughs and I think from her smile she knows who I’m talking about. We weren’t obvious about anything tonight, but I’m sure if you were looking for it you could have noticed a few sparks flying between me and Carter.

“What about you?” I ask.

“It’s a long story,” she says.

I raise my eyebrows. If it’s shorter than the rest of this song I want to hear it.

She sighs, but it seems more tongue in cheek than exasperated.

“Ben never asked me, but Tyler asked Jen,” she explains. “And it turns out that one of his friends has a crush on me, so Jen finally convinced him to just ask me.”

“Who is it?” I ask. The real question being where is this guy now?

She looks embarrassed.

“So… that’s why it was kind of weird for him to ask me,” she says, “because he’s a sophomore.”

I try not to, but I laugh. Luckily she thinks it’s funny too and joins in.

“He had to leave early because of his curfew.”

I laugh even harder and she half-seriously tries to put her foot down.

“Don’t,” she says. “It was actually a lot of fun and he was really sweet. Cute, too.” She lowers her voice. “Even if he was a little short…”

The last few notes of the song play and we stop our dancing. Rachel leans up and gives me a kiss on the cheek.

“Thanks for the dance,” she says, and winks at me. “I’m glad you ‘sort of’ found someone.”

“Thanks,” I tell her as she walks away.

I smile a little bit as I think about it. I did sort of find someone. In the most convoluted way through the most circuitous route, I believe I did.

The lights start to come up in the gym, which is our cue to leave. The music is still on, but drops low enough that the sound of chatter is louder. There’s no mistake, it’s time to go home.

I make my way along in a crowd of people, shuffling slowly to the hallways. I’m about halfway to the door when Ricky barrels in next to me and puts his arm around my shoulder.

“Did you have a nice dance?” he asks.

“Yeah, for sure,” I tell him. As soon as I say it, I realize that he might not be talking about the Winter Dance as a whole, but the dance in the auxiliary gym with Carter. I feel my cheeks getting hot and suddenly wish the lights had been kept off during our departure.

Ricky definitely noticed.

“I bet you did,” he says, nudging his elbow into my ribs. Since when did he get so friendly?

“Where’s Caitlyn?” I ask, hoping to change the subject.

“She went home,” Ricky says, much less upset about it than I expected him to be. “Her parents wouldn’t let her ride home with us after the dance.”

“Huh,” I say. I let the silence last as long as it can before we both start laughing.

“Yeah whatever,” Ricky says. “She left like fifteen minutes ago. I’ve been looking for you ever since.”

“Really?” I ask. “Why?”

“‘Cause I didn’t have anybody to dance with on that last slow dance.”

We both laugh again as we finally spill out into the hall. It’s the first time anyone outside of my best friends has ever joked with me about being gay, but Ricky manages to pull it off. Since our talk at his house I’ve felt like he’s an ally for me, but Carter must feel the same way.

Ricky pulls out his phone.

“Carter says they’re in the line outside to pick us up,” Ricky tells me, “but it’ll take a few minutes.” He grabs his crotch and grimaces playfully. “Which is good, because I need to piss.”

I nod in agreement. “Me too.”

We squeeze out of the queue heading toward the main entrance of the school and make our way over to the bathrooms. We line up in front of our respective urinals, and as I unzip my fly I have a second to think.

This night has been amazing. There’s no other way to feel about it.

Carter has absolutely made good on what he told me. He said he wanted a chance to show me that he was serious about us, and he did. We had our dance together, we kissed, and every second of it felt real in a way that it never has before.

And he said something to Ricky. That might be the most important thing of all. I don’t know exactly how much he told him, but there’s no way that Ricky could have been involved with everything tonight and not know that something is up between us. That’s a huge step for Carter. It’s a huge step for us.

Ricky and I both finish our business, wash our hands, and head back out into the hallway. We need to round everyone else up, and then we can find the…

We round the corner and my heart drops when I see her.

Beth.

She’s standing in the hallway, talking to one of her friends. She sees us the second we come around the corner, and there’s no escape. There’s only one way to get back to the main entrance of the school, and it’s straight through Beth.

It’s hard to see her up close like this. She’s the person I always figured was my arch-nemesis, and now that I’m standing face to face with her, there’s only one unfortunate thing that comes to mind.

She’s pretty.

Very pretty. Her look might come across as a little mousy on someone else, but she knows how to make it work. Right now she looks fantastic, with a tight yellow dress that perfectly complements her dark features and brown hair. She doesn’t have a ton going on in the chest department, but her dress puts everything on full display. She’s on point tonight, I can’t argue with that.

“I hope you had fun with my date tonight,” she says.

But then there’s her attitude. She always comes off as so unpleasant, it really just kills the vibe. At least it does for me. When she opened her mouth to talk, I almost expected a stream of sickly green venom to shoot out.

It’s hard to tell if she’s directing her question at me or at Ricky. I’m probably just being paranoid though. I don’t think she harbors any specific ill will toward me. I think she’s just hating on us because we’re Carter’s friends.

“Don’t worry,” says Ricky, completely unfazed by Beth’s words and attitude. “We did. It’s a shame you couldn’t join us.”

He says it nicely. Much nicer than I would have said it, at least. It hardly sounds sarcastic at all, though I can’t imagine it isn’t.

“I know you don’t like me, Ricky,” she says.

She doesn’t say it in a shitty way, more in a matter of fact way. Ricky smiles sheepishly and shrugs. Looks like I’m not the only one who isn’t a big Beth fan.

“Carter’s an idiot, but I’m glad you guys all had fun,” she says. She sounds sincere when she says it, and maybe she is.

“Uh, thanks,” says Ricky.

“I was worried about him,” she continues, “since I broke up with him right before the dance.”

She nods curtly to both of us and walks away with her friend in tow.

I do my best to contain my shock, but I feel like my blood has turned to ice. I feel sick.

Carter broke up with Beth, I was sure of it.

He broke up with her so he could be with me. That’s what happened, and that’s what tonight was all about. That’s why I’m here, giving Carter a second chance because he finally made up his mind.

That’s why I could feel myself weakening, opening my heart back up to him, and letting him win me over. It was all predicated on this one, simple fact: Carter broke up with Beth.

Apparently, I was wrong.

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