“TEACHERS DIDN’T see you sneak out, did they, Sarah?” Howard Blake’s whisper reached out to me, coaxing me deeper into the darkness.
“Don’t think so.” My voice—thin as tracing paper—disintegrated in the night air. Maybe before it even reached the night air. What was I doing?
Evening had stolen all the blue from the sky, draping it in veiled shades of black. The lone glimmer of light, a slender, curved moon high overhead, dangled among sooty clouds. Pastor Johnson wouldn’t like me being here. He’d add this transgression to my growing list of sins. “We shouldn’t do this. Not here.”
“We have to. Please, Sarah.” The quiver in Howard’s plea reminded me of a bluegrass guitar, its strings vibrating long after being plucked.
Behind me, muffled chords from Faith Hill’s “There You’ll Be” leaked from the gym, tempting me back to the dance floor. Inside me, adrenaline bubbled like a shaken bottle of Dr. Pepper, its foam out of control, making me dizzy with risk. Dizzy—and excited.
“Please-please-please.” Howard pressed his palms together and held them in front of his lips. “You can’t leave.”
“Don’t worry,” I said to calm his nervousness. And mine.
Applause skidded into the night. New music. Louder. Faster. Matching my heartbeat.
“We can’t stay here,” Howard said. “They’ll find us.”
Sport jacket sleeves draped to his fingertips. Pant cuffs bunched in excess around his ankles. Poor Howard. Daddy had splurged on my strapless dress. Howard got stuck with his brother’s hand-me-downs. He fiddled with the longhorn bolo on his braided leather necktie, slid it up and down, the tarnished bull more confident than either of us.
“I know a good spot,” he said.
A thicket of clouds slid across the moon and masked its light.
“It’s too dark now,” I said, glad to have an excuse to go back inside.
“Don’t chicken out. You can follow the wall.” Howard slipped deeper into the night. Only his voice stayed close. “Come on, you promised.”
A promise was a promise, Daddy would say. Your word, your actions, reflect the honesty of your character.
I didn’t feel honest sneaking out like this, but I reminded myself of my goal. And, it was only this once. What could one time hurt?
Filling my lungs with the late spring air, I breathed in my resolve. I could do this. I would do this. I dragged my fingers along Canonville High’s prickly bricks, arched my feet and inched forward on tiptoes—Momma’d have a fit if my imitation Valentino heels sank into the dirt.
“Let’s dance right here,” I said when I reached the corner of the building. Field crickets sounded a Morse code. Chirp-chirp-chirp, scratch-scratch-scratch, chirp-chirp-chirp. My feet anchored with their call. “We don’t have to go farther.”
“We’re almost there, come on. I chose the perfect place. You’ll see.”
Who would’ve thought learning to dance would be so important to a guy like Howard, but fitting in, being accepted—geez, just to feel normal—I understood all that. If dancing was the answer for Howard, I had to help him.
“Wait up, Howard.” My toes crushed against the front of my shoes as I hurried to stay close.
Halfway along the back of the building, he stopped. If this was Howard’s perfect place to dance, he knew less than I thought. I didn’t expect strobe lights, and there weren’t any stars, but even the field lights along the west side of the running track offered no glow. Town vandals had once again used them as target practice, leaving each bulb atop its pole, exposed and shattered.
Thankfully, the moon peeped out from behind knobby clouds, providing pale—if unreliable—light. “We’ll start with the basics,” I told him. “You’ll pick up the steps faster than Mr. Nobel can give out tardy slips.”
“They told me you’d be special.” He turned his head down, his eyes unable to meet mine.
I hadn’t meant to embarrass him, but wow, I could do that to a guy? A warm haze replaced my shimmying insides. I lowered my chin, gave him a mock frown. “Who told you I was special?”
My tone came out way too flirty. I quickly added, “I’m curious, that’s all.”
None of the freshman girls talked with Howard. Except me. A little. So, if they said I was special, maybe I shouldn’t have worried about dancing with him in front of them.
Nope. Too risky. Got enough judgment from Momma. Didn’t need any from uppity classmates. But here? Behind the gym? Where nobody would see? I could be nice. I could be a friend. And not because my boyfriend—the real love-of-my-life—was at home, not even knowing how I felt about him, but because everybody needed a friend. A special friend. Even Howard.
“Didn’t think you’d really come.”
“Me neither.” Giddiness toyed with me. Kinda nice, kinda weird, relaxing my shoulders, stretching my smile.
He stabbed the ground with the point of his boot. “Glad you’re here.”
I was glad too, but I didn’t say that. I just hoped he didn’t step on my toes with those clodhoppers—how’d I explain that dirt to Momma? I didn’t say that either. “Should we start?”
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