Chapter no 15

Better Than the Movies

“I love you. I’ve loved you for nine years; I’ve just been too arrogant and scared to realize it, and… well, now I’m just scared. So, I realize this comes at a very inopportune time, but I really have this gigantic favor to ask of you. Choose me.

Marry me. Let me make you happy. Oh, that sounds like three favors, doesn’t it?”

My Best Friend’s Wedding

The days leading up to prom crept by, mostly because I was the world’s biggest loner. Jocelyn wasn’t talking to me, Wes was just a neighbor now, and Helena was completely avoiding me.

I worked every night and picked up extra hours, so at least I was making bank in my solitary, pathetic life. And I watched my favorite movies when I wasn’t working, so I had my emotional-support DVDs to keep me from thinking about all the things I didn’t want to think about.

Michael met me at my locker the day after the promposal, and he was as thorough and efficient as he’d always been. We discussed what time he’d pick me up, what colors we’d be wearing, and where we were eating.

He was perfect.

Which was why, as I did my hair on the day of prom, I tried to convince myself that maybe everything had happened for a reason. I mean, the Joss thing was still a big nightmare that I had to 1x, and it felt oddly empty that Helena was out for the day when I was getting ready for prom, but maybe I’d been meant to momentarily go over to the dark side with Wes in order for me to really appreciate the incredible lightness of Michael.

A cautionary tale, perhaps? I turned on the Michael playlist as I straightened my hair and tried getting excited for the night. The bottom line was that I was

going to prom with Michael Young, the boy I’d loved for as long as I’d been old enough to create memories.

It was actually happening.

The problem with the playlist was that all the songs now had Wes memories attached to them.

The Van Morrison song from my original meet-cute with Michael now made me think of Wes bumping into us in the hallway and then giving me a smart-ass look about my taped windshield. And the Ed Sheeran song from the party now reminded me of Wes giving me his pants—and holding them up for me—after I got vomited on.

“Dammit, Bennett, get out of my head.” I 1nished my hair and moved on to makeup, applying casual glam so I looked better than usual but not too made-up. When I was 1nally 1nished, I checked my phone and, of course, there were no messages.

I put on my dress—it was so pretty, I wanted to be buried in it, by the way— but it felt slightly wrong. Jocelyn should have been there, putting on her dress too, and Helena should have been hanging around, making jokes and taking pictures.

I shushed the voice that added Laney to that list, including her as someone who should have been getting ready to have her dream prom with Michael but couldn’t because I’d decided to take her out of the equation.

Just when I was about to go downstairs, I heard a door slam and looked out my window. Wes walked out his front door in a black tuxedo, and he was carrying a corsage box. He hopped down the steps with his usual relaxed gait, and his dark sunglasses made him look rebellious in addition to handsome.

Kind of perfect, and it hurt my eyes to look at him.

I pressed a hand to my stomach as he walked to his car, which was parked in the driveway for once. It looked like he’d washed it, because all the mud that had been splattered on the side for as long as I could remember was 1nally gone. He climbed inside, started it up, and I felt something pinch in my center when he drove away.

I went downstairs and was putting on my shoes when the doorbell rang. While I felt a couple of half-hearted butterAies in my stomach, the anticipation

was minimal.

But—and I was hopeful with this but—if I really pushed myself, perhaps there was still the possibility of an enjoyable night with a sweet date. I stood and ran my hands over the front of my dress, walked over to the front door, and pulled it open.


Michael was on my doorstep, his tuxedo perfectly accentuating his blond hair and tan skin. He looked like Hollywood, like one born to wear tuxedos. He smiled at me and it was all warmth and good feelings as he said, “Wow. You look great, Liz.”


“Stop!” My dad strode into the room with a half smile on his face, cargo shorts, and a GOT MILK? shirt. “I need to get pictures, you two. Helena had stuP to do,” he said, his eyes landing on me. “But she’d kill me if I didn’t get photos.”

I bit the inside of my cheek as the guilt curdled in my stomach. Because even though I’d meant what I’d said to Helena, I felt like trash for making her feel bad.

“Of course.” Michael gave my dad a charming smile and said, “Nice to see you again, Mr. Buxbaum.”

“You too, Michael. How are your folks?” As he said this, my dad gestured for us to go stand in front of the piano. “I heard your dad is a colonel now.”

“He is.” We walked to the piano and faced the camera. “He got the official title change last year.”

“Do we have to use a title for you now?” My father thought he was funny. “Like Junior Colonel Michael?”

“Come on, Dad, he’s not the son of the chicken guy.” I rolled my eyes, and Michael laughed. “Just take the picture.”

My dad directed us to stand in a super-awkward pose, with Michael’s arm around my waist, and I just shut my mouth and smiled to get it over with. Thankfully he was quick, and after about four shots he let us leave.

“Have fun, kids.”

“Sorry about him,” I muttered to Michael as we walked to his car. “He’s just as dorky as he always was.”

“Your dad was always great,” he said, smiling as he opened the passenger door for me.

“Yeah—I s’pose.” I grabbed a handful of long dress and got in, and looked out the window after he shut the door and walked around to the other side. I looked at my dad on the porch, smiling and waving all by himself, and it occurred to me that he could’ve been like that all along if he’d never met Helena.


It was wrong that she wasn’t there.

“So you’re good with Sebastian’s?” He pulled out of the driveway, and I noticed his car was immaculate. Clean, vacuumed, not a speck of vent dust—the interior was perfect. From somewhere in the center of my brain, I wondered if the inside of Wes’s car looked like that too. I mean, he’d clearly washed the outside of the Bronco. Was it to impress Alex?


“What? Hm?” I blinked and came back from the delay. “Yes. Sebastian’s sounds great.”

When we got to the restaurant, the hostess led us to a stunning table with white linens, a vase full of lilies, and white candles, already lit. I sat in one of the chairs and said, “Wow.”

Michael sat across from me and immediately put his napkin on his lap. “I assumed that romantic Little Liz would want Aowers before her senior prom.”

“Wait, what? You got those for me?”

He smiled and sighed. “It was the least I could do. I kind of caught you oP guard, last minute, with the whole thing.”

I lifted oP my seat just enough to lean forward and smell the gorgeous Aowers. How could he be that thoughtful? It was such a perfect gesture. “Yeah, not gonna lie, I was shocked when you asked.”

“After what you said in the music room, I decided what the hell.”

What exactly had I said? I racked my brain but I was clueless. I’d been so focused on Wes and Alex that I really hadn’t paid attention to Michael at all. Bad move, Liz.

“What about Laney?”

A shadow passed over his face before quickly disappearing. He said, “She’s going to prom with her friends.”

“Oh. And you’re good with that?”

“Here’s the thing. I have no idea what she wants, and I don’t want to waste senior prom trying to 1gure it out. I’d rather—”

The waiter showed up, interrupting him with menus, specials, and drink oPerings, and I could tell Michael was relieved. It was clear to me that he wanted Laney but was too afraid to put himself out there. He’d rather pretend I was his magical date, safe Little Liz but maybe something more, than risk going for it and getting denied.

That should’ve made me feel like garbage, but I didn’t really feel anything about it. In fact, I felt the same about his non-burning-love for me as I would about his opinion on the whole ketchup vs. mustard condiment war.

Utterly unaPected.

Holy crap—I did not care.

I felt more relaxed just by admitting it to myself. Because really—why was I forcing it? Michael wasn’t the one—no big, right? And maybe I wasn’t going to 1nd the one. That was okay too, right? Why was I wasting my life trying to live up to the ridiculous expectations that I was setting for myself?

I changed the subject by pointing out a twenties art deco print on the wall, and by the time the food came, we were in the thick of a conversation about The Great Gatsby.

“I hear what you’re saying, Liz—I do. But Daisy’s sole purpose in the story is to be Gatsby’s unattainable dream. She is the green light. So she can’t be a monstrous antagonist.”

I rolled my eyes and put a piece of steak in my mouth. “Wrong. His memory of her is the green light. Remember—‘His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.’ Once he reconnects with her in the Aesh, she’s no longer the green light.”

He nodded and spread butter on his roll. “That is true.”

I said, “Daisy in the Aesh is a monstrous antagonist. She toys with his aPection, cheats on her husband, and lets Jay cover for her when she drives over

her husband’s mistress. Then, when he’s murdered and left to be a pool bobber, she leaves town without ever looking back.”

“Well,” he said, reaching out and grabbing his water glass, “those are all valid points. I still don’t think she’s the villain here, but you’ve succeeded in knocking her down a notch for me.”

“Aha—victory is mine.” I dipped my fork into the creamy baked potato and scooped out a bite. “At this rate, before I die I’ll be responsible for turning hundreds of readers against Daisy Buchanan.”

“A life well lived, I suppose.”

We’d just 1nished with dinner when dessert showed up—he’d taken the liberty of ordering cheesecake for me ahead of time—and I very nearly fainted with gratitude.

I stuck my fork into the cheesecake and asked, “How did you know I love cheesecake?”

He leaned his face forward and said, “I didn’t—I just wanted it.”

I smiled and felt the cheesecake slide against the roof of my mouth. “Well, it was still thoughtful.”

“Hey, you guys,” came a voice from behind me. I picked up my water and took a sip.

Michael said, “Hey, Lane.”

The water went down the wrong tube and I started coughing. A tiny squirt shot out of my mouth, but I quickly recovered, catching the spray with my napkin, though it took me a solid ten seconds to stop coughing. I could feel the eyes of everyone in the restaurant on me as Michael asked, “You okay?”

I blinked away tears and nodded, a couple more cough-spurts forcing their way out before I was able to say, “I’m f-1ne.”

Another cough.

I tried for a calm smile as I took a deep breath and attempted to regain my composure.

“I hate when that happens.” Michael tried making me feel less embarrassed by grinning and saying, “I swear it happens to me, like, once a month.”

“Same,” Laney said, walking around the table as if to make sure I could see just how pretty she looked while I tried being a human fountain. “Drinking is

hard, right?”

Michael laughed and she smiled at him, and I kind of felt like spitting water at the two of them. Not because I cared that they seemed adorably perfect, but because it made me miss Wes. Laney must’ve realized she was just standing and staring at my date because she blinked and said, “Oh. Well, I should go back to my table. Have fun tonight, guys.”

“You, too, Lane,” I muttered, and did a little wave with my fork. Yeah, some attitudes were hard to change.

Michael looked a little lost for a second after she walked away, but he recovered and took a bite of his cheesecake. “Wow—this is really good.”

I nodded and stabbed my cheesecake with my fork, scraping the 1lling all over the fancy plate. “Yeah.”

I don’t know what I was thinking, but I asked, “Did you know her when you lived here the 1rst time? Laney, that is.”

His mouth turned up a little and he grinned. “Oh, yeah. She was a total brat back then and used to tell on me all the time at recess when I didn’t let her play kickball with us. I hated that little snot.”

Okay, that made me smile. “I hated her too.” “Honestly, I expected her to grow into a total witch.” Hadn’t she?

“But somehow she didn’t. Did you know that she volunteers every weekend at the animal shelter?”

“Wow.” Seriously? Even though I was suddenly empathetic to Michael and Laney’s star-crossed-lovers plight, that didn’t mean I wanted 1rsthand knowledge that Laney Morgan was a better human than me. “Um, no, I did not know that.”

“And she’s saving up so she can go on a mission trip this summer.”

I wanted to Aip the table and yell something along the lines of “Are you fucking kidding me?”

Instead I nodded and said, “I had no idea.”

“But let’s talk about you, Liz.” He set his chin on his hand. “Wes told me that you’re ‘literally’ the coolest person he’s ever met, so you’ve changed a lot too. I

mean, the last time I saw you before we moved, you wore a kimono and bright red lipstick to a neighborhood cookout. You ate your hot dog with silverware.”

I laughed in spite of myself as he said, “That’s one hell of a level-up.”

I cleared my throat and said, “Wes was exaggerating. I may not eat hot dogs with a knife and fork anymore, but I haven’t changed that much.”

“Don’t be modest.” He pulled out his phone and started scrolling, clearly looking for something. After around thirty seconds, he muttered, “Boom” and held out his phone for me to look. “See?”

I took his phone and looked at the screen. It was a message thread between Michael and Wes, dated right around the time Wes agreed to help me.

Wes: She’s de1nitely cute, but she’s also cool AF.

Michael: She is? Thought she was always kind of high-strung.

Wes: Liz is… diPerent. She’s the kind of girl who wears a dress when everyone else wears jeans. She listens to music instead of watching TV. She drinks black coPee, has a secret tattoo, runs three miles every day rain or shine, and still practices the piano.

Michael: You sound cuPed already lol.

Wes: Whatever. What time are you going to be there?

My eyes were scratchy as my heart stuttered in my chest. I gave an exaggerated eye roll and handed back his phone. “That isn’t real.”


I sighed, and it occurred to me that it was a good time to fess up. Maybe if I confessed my sins, he could follow his heart and 1nd happiness with Laney. Because why should they suPer just because I was a shitshow? I looked at him and said, “He was trying to help me. I asked Wes to talk me up to you, so that’s why he said all that. He was doing me a favor.”

His eyebrows crinkled. “Are you serious?”

I didn’t want to make things weird with him and Wes, so I just glossed over how planny it all had been and pretty much just said that Wes did me that tiny favor.

He gave a little chuckle. “You really haven’t changed that much, then, have you?”

That made me laugh. “Sadly not.”

I went on to tell him about how my waitress uniform had actually been my favorite dress and how I’d totally made up The Diner, and we both laughed until we had tears in our eyes.

I excused myself and went to the restroom while he settled the bill, and once the door closed behind me, it was a struggle to keep the tears at bay.

Because—Wes’s text. God. Yes, he’d sent it to help me, but all those things he’d said? I wanted him to see me that way so badly. He’d gone above and beyond what I’d asked him to do when he’d sent that text, and now I would never be the same.

“Oh. Hey, Liz.” Laney came out of a bathroom stall and began to wash her hands.

“Hey, Laney.” I turned on the faucet even though I hadn’t even used the bathroom, and started washing my hands.

“I love your dress—it’s gorgeous.” She smiled at me in the mirror.

“Thanks. Same, only more,” I muttered, and gestured toward the long pink gown.

“Are you okay?”

I gave her side-eye in the mirror. “Yeah, why?”

She shrugged and looked down at her hands. “You’re here with Michael Young, and he got you Aowers and cheesecake and can’t stop looking at you, but you look sad.”

Butt out, Lanesville.

“Is it because of your mom?”

What?” I was so shocked by her words that I stopped lathering my hands.

The only sound in the bathroom was the faucet continuing to run.

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Laney’s smile dropped. “I’m tactless. I’m so sorry for saying anything. I just think all the time—when I see you—about how hard it would be not to have your mom around, especially during your senior year when everyone is sharing all these milestones with their parents. I’m so, so sorry for bringing it up.”

I stared at my foamy hands and didn’t have words. Laney Morgan had seen something that no one else had, and it felt totally foreign to be understood by her. “No, it’s 1ne. I didn’t know what you meant.”

She turned oP her faucet and reached for a hand towel. “Still. Sometimes I can’t help sticking my foot in my mouth. I’m really sorry.”

I raised my eyes to the mirror as I rinsed oP the soap. “You’re right, though. It sucks. That’s not what my problem is at the moment, but that is always there.”

“I can’t imagine. My mom still talks about you all the time.”

“What?” I shut oP the faucet and straightened. “Your mom remembers me?”

Laney nodded. “She used to come up to school for lunch—remember how parents did that sometimes in elementary school?”

I nodded and grabbed a towel, remembering how smiley her mom had been when she’d joined the class.

“It was the year your mom died, and she said you had the biggest, saddest eyes she’d ever seen and she wanted to take you home with her. She always used to get an extra order of fries in case you wanted some, but you always just shook your head no.”

I blinked hard then, but couldn’t stop one tear from escaping. “I don’t remember that, but I do remember how perfect your mom seemed.”

“Oh no, Liz, I didn’t mean to make you cry.” Laney grabbed a tissue and handed it to me. “Your makeup is perfect, so knock it oP.”

That made me smile, and I wiped at my eyes. “Sorry.”

She leaned toward the mirror and checked her teeth before straightening. “I should probably go back. And Michael’s probably wondering where his date went.”

She had the same slow-blink, slo-mo disappointment that Michael had when she said that. I breathed in through my nose before saying, “You know Michael only asked me as a friend, right?” It was practically true, so I didn’t add this to my tally of 1bs that had been piling up lately.

I swear to God, Laney Morgan looked nervous and awkward. She said, “No way! I saw the promposal. That can’t be true.”

“It is. And Michael told me that you guys have been talking, but he also thought maybe you weren’t over your ex. Which is probably why he asked me to prom instead of you to begin with.”

She looked like she didn’t know how to respond, but something that looked a little bit like hope sparked in her eyes.

I glanced in the mirror and ran a hand over my hair. “If you have feelings for him, you’re going to have to tell him. He seems to be shy about putting himself out there, which is why he could never be the lead in a rom-com, by the way, so if you like Mike, you’re going to have to be brave.”

Her closed mouth turned up into a little smile and the girl’s princess eyes were sparkling. “Y’know, you’re kind of cool, Liz.”

I was the antithesis of cool, but it was nice to hear. “Does that mean that you like him?”

She nodded and her eyes got even bigger. “You have no idea. I have never felt like this before about anyone.”

I rolled my eyes and tossed the tissue. “Well, then don’t drag your feet.” I went back to the table, where Michael looked ready to go.

“You ready?” He set his napkin on his plate and looked at me expectantly. “Let’s go prom it up.”

He laughed and we left, and as we drove toward the convention center where prom was being held, I wished I could just go home. I was happy that Michael and Laney were destined to have their magical night, but aside from that, no good could come from prom.

Joss. Wes. Alex.

Everyone I cared about—who was going to prom—didn’t want to see me. “I 1nished that book already, by the way.”

“Which book?’ I glanced out the window as we passed McDonald’s.

He cleared his throat, and when I turned, my head, he gave me a look. “That book.”

That made me smile. “Of course. Like it’s brown-bag fodder. That book.”

He started talking about the Bridgerton book, and I forgot about everything else in the world as he waxed poetic about how great a setting a pirate ship was. He and I discussed it right up until he was turning oP the car in the parking lot.

“We should probably go in, I guess?” I glanced at the event center through the windshield and was nervous for the 1rst time since I’d been waiting for Michael to pick me up.

“That’s how these things work.” He pulled out the keys and said, “Let’s do this?”

I swiped gloss over my lips and opened the door. “Let’s do this.”

When we got inside, Michael handed the security person our tickets, and the big bald dude looked at me with bored eyes. “Purse?”

I shook my head and pointed to the front of my dress. “Pockets.” His eyebrows went up. “Nice. You kids have a good night.”

“You too.”

We headed into Ballroom C, and the second we walked through the doors, it was like entering a diPerent world. No, it wasn’t magical. It was a brightly colored, way-too-loud wedding reception world. The theme was Mardi Gras, which basically just meant that everything was a jarring purple, yellow, or green color.

“Hey—there’s Wesley. Over by the papier-mâché baby.”

I followed Michael’s gaze and yes, there was an enormous papier-mâché baby sitting atop an even bigger papier-mâché cake. My eyes scanned the crowd for Joss, but I didn’t see her anywhere. My stomach Aittered a little bit as Michael led me toward Wes.

Stop it, Liz.

I took a deep breath, put my hands in my delightful pockets, and walked across the room, concentrating on not stumbling in my heels. “We Are Young” by fun. was blaring, and it still felt like it always had—as if the band was trying to convince us of something.

“That is one huge baby,” I said, smiling as we got closer.

“Right? Bizarre.” Michael grinned up at it, and I was looking at him when a voice yelled,

“Mrs. Potato Head!”

I looked past the baby and there was Adam. I really did like Wes’s friends. I said, “Hey.”

“Don’t call her that anymore; her face is normal again.”

I rolled my eyes at Noah, who was standing behind him. “Gee, thanks.” “I could’ve said almost normal; you should be grateful.”

That made me smile. “And I am. Thanks for the kindness.” “You’re welcome.”

“A Louisville tie?” I rolled my eyes at his ridiculous sports tie that was covered in red cardinals and big, obnoxious Ls and said, “That’s, um… unconventional.”

“But dope, yes?” He ran a hand over it and said, “Cardinal-chic.”

“That tie is awful,” Laney said. She’d just exited the dance Aoor with Ashley. “It’s like you lost a bet or something.”

“Liz likes it.”

“No, she doesn’t,” Adam said, looking at me with a question on his face. “Do you?”

I just smiled and shrugged as “New Year’s Day” by Taylor Swift came on. “See, she’s too nice to tell you she hates it.”

“Or she’s too nice to tell you that she loves it and you have no fashion sense.” “Bennett’s over there,” Noah yelled over the music, and pointed to the dance

Aoor. “With Alex.”

I looked in the direction his 1nger was pointing, and my stomach sank when I saw them. They were dancing, Wes’s arms around Alex’s waist as hers were locked around his neck. She was wearing a red dress that made her stand out from the crowd, and I couldn’t come up with anything but compliments for her. Quite a catch. He was leaning down so he could hear whatever she was saying, and they were both smiling.

I felt queasy.

Had he always looked so impossibly handsome? And had he always smiled with such warmth? I could feel his fondness for her from across the room just by staring at his really nice mouth.

The mouth that had been on my mouth.

When I attacked him. Ugh. I took a breath.

I really had fallen hard for him, hadn’t I? I stared at them, the picture-perfect couple, as Taylor Swift made my soul ache.

Please don’t ever become a stranger

Whose laugh I could recognize anywhere—

“Do you want to dance?” Michael looked down at me, and I realized he’d probably misinterpreted my stare of longing as a wallAower’s wishful gaze.

“Um, not yet,” I said, pinning a smile on my lips even though my cheeks were warm and I felt ill all of a sudden. “Unless you want to?”

“Nah, I’m good.” He gave a shake of his head that was all relief. “Want something to drink?”

What I wanted was for him to stop trying to make us a thing. We both knew it wasn’t there with us, but Michael seemed hellbent on going through all the romantic motions, I’d started the evening guilty of the same thing but quickly realized I couldn’t force it.

I should’ve said something when we saw Laney at the restaurant, because if I’d learned anything lately, it was that honesty was the best policy.

So I said, “I’d love a Diet Coke, but don’t hit concessions until after you 1nd Laney and talk to her.”

His eyes narrowed. “Come again?”

It came with a smile and an extra helping of Texas on top, yet it still did nothing for me. I was fully recovered, 1lled with Michael antibodies, so I looked at his face that had been a part of so many childhood memories, and I said, “She isn’t hung up on her ex; she’s hung up on you. Go 1nd her.”

He stared at me for a second, looking like he had no idea what to say. I smiled at him and nodded, just to show I didn’t care.

“You sure?” He looked concerned, gazing at me the exact same way he had so many times when I’d been crying dramatically over neighborhood shenanigans, and it hurt my heart a little. I was letting him go, the dream of him, and Little Liz had never allowed herself to imagine that would ever happen.

“Yes, I’m sure.” I laughed and pointed toward the mass of overdressed students. “Now go 1nd her!”

“C’mere.” He pulled me into a hug, and it was weird how emotional I felt.

He drawled into the top of my head, “Thank you, Lizzie.”

I rolled my eyes and pushed at his shoulders. “Will you go, please?”

He grinned and saluted me, which should’ve been dorky but was a little adorable. “Here I go!”

I watched him head oP in search of his happy ending, and then I pulled my phone out of my pocket. No messages. I shut it oP and put it back, letting my hands settle into the pockets. I looked at Giant Baby, at the lack of detail on his

papier-mâché face, and tried counting how many little smoodges of paper it’d taken to create that thing. Because I needed something—anything—to look at other than Wes.

I looked at that baby for a solid 1ve seconds before my gaze shifted back to the dance Aoor.

And oh, dear God—Wes was looking at me. He was dancing with Alex but our eyes met over her head. My heart beat hard in my chest and my breath froze as those dark eyes dipped down over my dress, then ran up to my hair, before settling back onto my face.

I raised an eyebrow as if to say, So?

I’d meant it to be playful, like a diluted attempt at recapturing our banter, but all it did was make his face tighten. He frowned before he and Alex moved a little and he was no longer facing me.

“I’ll be right back,” I muttered, not that anyone was listening, and I headed out the door in the back of the ballroom. I didn’t really know where I was going in the enormous convention center, but I needed to get away. I couldn’t stand another minute of prom, and I de1nitely couldn’t stand Wes looking at me like he hated me.

I wandered all the way down to the end of the long hallway, and then I saw a stairwell, which was the perfect place to hide for a while. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching me, and then I pulled open one of the heavy metal doors and ducked inside.

“Oh my God!”

“Oh!” I put my hand on my chest and looked at Jocelyn, who was sitting by herself on the steps with her orange stilettos on the Aoor in front of her. It was almost like she had to be a hallucination, because what were the odds that she and I would be hiding out in the same stairwell? “Geez. Sorry. You scared the crap out of me.”

“Same.” She tilted her head and looked annoyed to see me. “Did Charlie send you to 1nd me?”

“No.” I’d heard that when Kate had gotten an actual date-date, Cassidy and Joss had decided to follow suit so it wouldn’t be just the two of them, but I still couldn’t believe Joss had agreed to go with Charlie Hawk. “I haven’t seen him.”

I hated that I had no idea what to say to my best friend. I missed her and wished so badly that I could go back in time and not hide things from her. “I’m just hiding.”

“Trouble in paradise?” She looked up at me like she didn’t like me. At all. “Nah—I’m just bored.” I knew I probably shouldn’t admit my foolishness to

someone who already thought I was a fool, but I couldn’t stop myself. “As it turns out, I don’t really like Michael that way. And he and Laney are super into each other but just really terrible communicators.”

She studied her nails as she said, “Is that right.”

“Yes.” I cleared my throat and leaned my backside against the door. “It also turns out that I actually do like Wes, but he actually does like Alex now. So.”


“And,” I said, swallowing. “And it turns out that I’m so, so sorry. I miss you.”

Joss coughed out a little laugh noise but didn’t smile. “Do you think the fact that everything blew up in your face is going to make me forgive you?”

“Of course not.” I dug my hands deeper into my dress pockets, my face getting instant sweat beads as I realized my safe spot in the stairwell was about to become all about confrontation. “But at least you can take comfort in the fact that I’m suPering.”

“I don’t want you to suPer.”

“Listen.” I sighed. I just missed her so much. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but I am so sorry for lying to you. I knew you’d call me out for trying to land Michael, and instead of thinking that through, I just went ahead and kept it from you so I wouldn’t have to deal.”

She wrapped her arms around her knees. “Such a wimp move.”

“Right? And I shouldn’t have let you think that I liked Wes, either. I mean, it ended up being a self-ful1lling prophecy, but it was pretty despicable.”

“Yeah, it was.”

“Yeah.” I inhaled and said, “I’m gonna go back now so you—”

“Sit.” She pointed her head toward the step beside her and said, “I miss you, too. I’m about to forgive you over the whole prom debacle. But.”

I sat and waited.

“I feel like something is wrong with us lately. Like I’m constantly chasing you.” Joss’s pretty face was sad, and I hated that it was my fault.

She said, “It’s our senior year. I kind of pictured us doing, like, everything together and making the most of every second we have because we’re going to be living in diPerent places in a few months.”

She reached up and took the pins out of her updo. “Homecoming, prom, senior pictures, senior pranks—I thought we’d make all of those things totally epic. But you just keep disappearing on me for the big things.”

“I know.” I had never thought of it from her perspective. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re there for everything else, every little thing that doesn’t matter. But, like—are you even going to show for graduation? Am I going to have to walk alone? I don’t know what your deal is.”

“It’s complicated.” It seemed like those two words explained everything about me. I swallowed and tried to make her understand. “I know we weren’t friends when my mom died, but it sucked. Like, of course losing a parent sucks, but it suck-sucked. Everything felt lonely and sad—every single thing. You could’ve given me ice-cream cones at Disney World with Tom Hanks doling out pony rides, and I still would’ve cried every night because she wasn’t there.”

I slid out of my shoes, leaned my head against the cement block wall, and closed my eyes. “But eventually it started getting better. Not quite so terrible. I learned that if I could make it through the day without crying, I could go home and watch her movies, which always made her feel close.”

“I’m sorry, Liz.” She leaned her head on my shoulder and wrapped her arms around my right bicep.

“It all became normal and 1ne, but lately it’s just… diPerent.” “DiPerent how?”

I opened my eyes and focused on the OPEN DOOR SLOWLY sticker on the stairwell exit. “I’m a senior. Everything is tagged with ‘last time’ and secretly all wrapped up in family. Last homecoming dance—‘Parents, gather round for pictures of your babies.’ College visits—‘Oh my God, my mom was so embarrassing when we toured the dorms.’ It’s my stuP, but every single milestone feels empty without her, so I don’t even feel like doing it.”

She lifted her head and gave me a look. “Dress shopping?”

I took a shaky breath. “Bingo.”

“Why didn’t you just tell me?” She looked genuinely hurt. “I know I can be quick to judge, but I’m your best friend. You can tell me anything.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“I need to you listen to me. You know that, right? That you can always talk to me?”

I nodded and leaned into her, sighing and telling her everything. How I felt when it seemed like she was dismissing my mom’s absence, what Wes had said about my mom and how I lived my life like I was in one of her screenplays.

I said, “I hate to say it, but I think he might be right.”

“Think?” She shook her head and said, “Bennett has you pegged.”

“Right?” I wiped my cheeks and wondered when I’d become such a crier. “I’m so sorry I’ve been such a tool.”

“Well, I’m sorry I’ve been a tool too, and let’s move on. We’ll both do better.” She leaned back on the step and said, “So what’s happening in the ballroom?”

I wanted to hug her and gush, but I was also good with moving on. “I heard Jessica Roberts describing your shoes earlier.”

“Not shocked—they’re incredibly sexy.”

I moved down another step and turned sideways so I could lean against the wall. “So are you having any fun?”

She pursed her lips. “I’m sitting in a deserted stairwell—by choice. Do the math.”

“I’m sorry I ditched you.”

“No worries—this’ll make for a better memory. I mean, my imagination could never have reached far enough to consider a situation where I’d be going to Chili’s in a prom dress with a guy wearing a denim tuxedo.”

I laughed. Charlie was liked by everyone because he was great at football, but he was out there. During sophomore year, he wore suits to school every day because he thought he looked sophisticated. “He took you to Chili’s?”

“In a motherloving jean tux, Liz—you’re missing the most important part.” “Was he being ironic?”

“Girl, he bought it on Amazon because the model wearing it looked cool.” She grinned and shook her head. “He doesn’t know the word ‘ironic.’”

I bit down on my lip to keep from cackling. “At least he’s nice.”

Joss gave me side-eye and said, “He tried to touch my butt—with both hands

—the 1rst time we danced.”

“Is he okay? Or did you stuP his body in a janitor’s closet?”

“Puh-leeze; like I’m going to do time for a guy in a Levi’s suit.” She gave a little shrug and said, “I am leaving his ass here, though. I drove since he doesn’t have a license, and my goal is to stay missing until it’s too late for him to 1nd another ride. Make the fool call his mom for a ride.”

We both lost it then. We were cackling so hard that we were both crying when the doors to the stairwell Aew open. We gasped in unison as Wes’s friend Noah stepped into our space.

He looked as confused by our presence as we were about his. I said, “Noah?” at the same time he said, “Dammit, you guys scared me.”

Jocelyn leaned back on her elbows, and I gestured to the step below us and said, “What are you doing all the way down here? I thought the cool kids were still down in the ballroom.”

He sat down and said, “I couldn’t take it anymore. Prom is painful. You can either stand around with your friends and talk while wearing uncomfortable tuxedos, or you can dance to shitty music while your friends talk about you and think they’re funny. And so much planning and money goes into this one night, but there is no way the joy derived equals the ePort. Absolutely no way.”

Was it weird that I still thought it was possible that the joy could equal the ePort? Even though it hadn’t worked out for me, my heart still thought prom magic was a sparkling thing. Maybe that was just my obnoxious optimism messing with my head.

“So why did you come?” Jocelyn had a smirk on her face, but looked interested in how he’d answer. “I totally agree, by the way, but why did you come if you feel that way?”

“Same reason as you.” “And that is…?”

He raised an eyebrow. “You don’t know why you’re here?”

She rolled her eyes. “I know why I’m here, but you don’t, so there’s no way you could know that we share a reason.”

I crossed my arms and watched them. The little I knew of Noah was that he was the king of arguing; he seemed to enjoy the debate process. Joss, on the other hand, had no patience for people who argued with her.

Most didn’t because they knew better. He said, “You sure?”

She gave him a look.

He said around a smart-ass grin, “I thought we both came to see what a clown in a denim tuxedo actually looks like.”

That made her chuckle. “You came here for Charlie too?”

“Oh, yeah.” His face went into his natural sarcastic state as he smirked and said, “That blue suit really makes his eyes pop.”

“What could he have been thinking?” Jocelyn started laughing again and Noah’s smirk turned into a full-Aedged smile. I felt like I should slip away, but I knew that would ruin the moment. Also, I wasn’t ready to put space between me and Joss.

He kicked his legs out and leaned back on his elbows too, the male version of Jocelyn’s lean. “That guy was thinking with his ego. He knew he looked good in denim, so much so that he wanted to be swathed from head to toe in that scratchy, rigid, unstretching fabric that totally shows oP his amazing ass.”

“Oh my God,” Jocelyn said. “You have to shut up. You have to.”

We spent the next hour in the stairwell, just talking. It would have been fun if my brain hadn’t been so stuck on reminding me about Wes and Alex. I’d let him go before I’d ever fully realized that I even wanted him, and now Alex was making him forget he’d ever kissed me.

After laugh-crying at Jocelyn’s impression of the PE teacher, we decided we were done with prom. We each texted our respective dates with excuses, and Michael seemed 1ne with it. He even sent a thank you, btw message, which gave me hope that he and Laney would be official before morning.

I was counting the minutes until I could be warm in my bed, dwelling on my mistakes while Fitz attacked my feet under the blanket. Jocelyn and Noah, however, decided as we got closer to my house that they wanted to go to post-prom at the school gym. They’d both been planning to blow it oP, but now that

Noah was convinced he could make more free throws than Jocelyn, my uber-competitive best friend just had to go.

And she would totally beat him.

“You sure you don’t want to join?” Jocelyn pulled into my driveway and put her car in park. “I promise we’ll make it fun.”

“No, thanks.” I got out and slammed the door, then came around to her window and gave her a half hug. “But call me when you get home. Whenever that is.”

“Bennett won’t be there.” Noah gave me a pitying look and said, “He told me this morning that post-prom is a waste of time and he needs a good weekend of sleep before the big game Monday, so he’s coming home at midnight like a grandma.”

I appreciated his attempt to cheer me up. It was kind of sweet. I said, “I have a date with a movie and some ice cream. Nothing tops that, but thanks.”

“Let me guess.” Joss rolled her eyes. “Bridget Jones?”

I shrugged. “I think I’m feeling a little more Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly tonight, but either one will do.”

They said goodbye and pulled away, but instead of going inside I sat down on the porch swing and stared over at Wes’s house. The light was on in the living room, making me think of our late-night telephone calls and watching for him out the window.

I missed him so much.

I’d spent most of my life wishing he wasn’t always there, aggravating me with his Wes-ness, yet now, everything felt empty when he was absent. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone. I went into our messages and typed Hey, you, but quickly deleted it because—of course—Wes wasn’t home yet. Normal people stayed until the end of prom. Normal people weren’t home at—I checked the clock on my phone—nine thirty.

Wes Bennett was probably being crowned prom king at that very second. He was probably about to dance with his beautiful date, and once he 1nished staring into her eyes, he’d forget about baseball responsibilities and sweep her away for a fantastical night of 1relight and kisses that curled her toes.

Even when I closed my eyes tight, I could still picture them kissing.

“Screw this.” I opened my eyes, stood, and 1shed my key out of my pocket. It was time to go inside and gouge my eyes out.

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