Alyssa Greene was screwed.
There simply wasn’t enough time left. Even on summer vacation, her mother had her fully booked. Cheer squad met almost daily for training. She had workshops and seminars and conferences all designed to pad her resume. Bible camp was a solid two weeks, gone. Jesus Christ, she was even volunteering at the animal shelter after church every Sunday. Her mother was trying to kill her all while assuming summer projects would magically get done in between, and she sure as hell was expecting perfect grades on them.
Who had time to read all of Hamlet and write five pages on it in less than two days when she was fully booked? It was already afternoon, and her thighs were killing her from practice. Luckily, her friends were equally screwed, and now it was a group effort to solve their problem.
It was the sort of problem that required coffee while a strategy was assessed.
“So what’s the game plan?” Kaylee asked between sips of iced latte as they exited the shop.
Aylssa offered, “Could we split it up and then just explain it to each other?”
“I don’t even understand Shakespeare,” Shelby replied with a wince, looking down at the sidewalk as they walked along the strip of stores, “Maybe we can just pay someone to do it for us?”
“I’m not cheating,” Alyssa countered, staring at the small towncenter ahead of them littered with people, “We just need some help. So we can still do the work ourselves. Assistance, not cheating.”
The following silence made it painfully obvious they were out of ideas, and the girls collectively sighed. Sunshine mocked them while children happily buzzed around their parents, and the town park was full of green and cheer as they walked by. The positive vibrations of summer joy merely underlined the eminent failure of their mission.
An evil smirk began to form on Kaylee’s lips. “Shit, I’m good.”
“I just had an amazing idea. Emma will help.”
“Yeah, look, she’s over there.”
The nearby park had a few visitors, but Kaylee had gestured to a young woman sitting beneath a tree. Alyssa had seen her before around school, even in one or two of her classes, but she couldn’t say she knew her well at all. She did band, she was generally pleasant, and beyond that, she kept mostly to herself.
What Alyssa did know, and did not often admit to herself, is that Emma was pretty.
Despite the shade of the tree, her dirty blonde hair was golden in the full shine of the summer brightness around them. Her fingers were busy plucking away at the strings of a guitar; small decorative stickers of leaves and vines covered the instrument. A faint smile played on her lips as she mouthed words Alyssa couldn’t hear but found rather adorable. The whole picture of her sitting on a blanket in the park, simply playing away, was peaceful.
She didn’t seem to have a care in the world, and Alyssa felt an immense sting of guilt at the thought of interrupting her.
“What makes you think she’ll help us?”
“She can’t help it, she’s way too nice. We used to hang out, she’ll say yes.”
“Is she good at English?” Alyssa asked, still hesitant.
“Better than we are now.”
Before there were any further objections or uncertainties, Kaylee’s pace quickened as she beelined to the park. Alyssa didn’t see what other choice she had except to follow; the other girl was right, they didn’t have much else.
Still, it felt like an ambush as they marched across the grass towards their prey.
“Well, look who it is,” Kaylee called out as they approached, offering a wave.
Emma’s hair fell in her face as she looked up in surprise. A small smile followed.
Alyssa suddenly felt very aware of how gross she was following practice that morning and ran a hand over her head to smooth out her ponytail as they stopped before the blanket.
Kaylee, however, remained cool. “You having a good summer break?”
“I can’t complain. Sucks it’s almost over,” Emma replied casually, nodding towards the trio, “What about you guys?”
“Coach is keeping us busy.”
“My arms are gonna fall off,” Shelby added dramatically, stretching for good measure.
Alyssa thought she saw Emma’s lips twitch, but her voice remained even as she asserted, “I’m sure the football team is thankful for your sacrifice to your art.”
It was hard not to snicker too at the hidden sarcasm. The other two cheerleaders, however, seemed to believe their small talk was effective.
Kaylee continued innocently, “It’s actually a crazy coincidence we ran into each other, we were just talking about how badly we need your help.”
Emma sighed, leaning back to rest on her hands. The guitar remained on her lap.
“I figured there was a catch. What’s up?”
“The Lit reading. We maybe didn’t do it.”
“It’s due in two days,” the woman on the blanket commented with a raised eyebrow, “I expected you two to procrastinate to the last second, but I’m a bit surprised you did.” She was looking at Alyssa now.
Alyssa glanced away.
“I got stuck at bible camp for a few weeks.” And about one million other things.
“We’ve had to train for cheerleading, like, all summer. Please, you know we’ll get busted if we just use Sparknotes, teachers plan for that shit,” Kaylee pushed, hand firmly planted on her hip.
Alyssa looked back to Emma, who did not seem to be outwardly for or against the whole operation. Freckles dotted her shoulders under the straps of her tank top; a plaid shirt was tied around her waist. Her pink lips pursed slightly in thought. The guitar on her lap lightly bounced from a restless leg. Blue eyes scanned the lot of them before finally settling on hers.
They were beautiful.
“We could treat you to lunch or something?” Alyssa blurted out.
Emma’s eyes narrowed quizzically. Her other two companions glanced at her in surprise, but nodded their approval and assurance quickly enough. All she could offer was a small smile.
After a pause, the woman returned her hands and attention to her guitar. She started strumming before nodding to Kaylee, “Your house? Tonight?”
“Sleepover study bootcamp it is. Thanks, Em!”
Their retreat was quick, but Alyssa glanced over her shoulder as they departed. She only got to hear a few notes of string and hints of a sweet voice before they were clear of the park.
“Nice touch bribing her with food.”
Strategically, it made sense, and she was known for her logical deductions. Her motivation should have been to reward someone for helping them. However, she had just wanted to see more of the other woman, a realization that was mildly terrifying if analyzed too closely.
She simply shrugged and suggested they get ready for tonight.
A night with Emma Nolan.
Aylssa was really screwed.
When she rolled over, Alyssa had a brief moment of panic. The darkness was not her usual darkness, and the hardness beneath her did not feel like her bed. As she continued to blink away the night, she recognized Kaylee’s room. Their backpacks laden with books, laptops, and hastily completed essays sat in the corner. She reached for her phone and confirmed they had only finished a few hours ago.
Rubbing her eyes, she sat up slowly, hoping not to disturb anyone with the rustling of her sleeping bag. Kaylee and Shelby shared the bed, and both seemed dead to the world at this hour. As sleep continued to seep away, however, Aylssa noticed the other sleeping bag across the room was empty. Emma wasn’t here.
She was thankful the past evening had been exactly what it was supposed to be. Emma had navigated the text for them, expertly explained key quotes, and provided needed guidance for them to complete their own work. She was clearly smart and for that Alyssa respected her. It was still uncertain however why she had decided to help them, unless the offer of food really was enough to sway her. Alyssa tried not to ponder too deeply, and had often fought glances at her while she hummed next to them as they typed away.
They finished their goal, and she wouldn’t fail. So why couldn’t she sleep?
Why did it matter what Emma was up to?
She gently lifted the top of her fabric cocoon and silently eased herself free. Slowly and carefully, she made her way into the hall and down the stairs.
A small light cept from the kitchen. Treading as delicately as possible, Alyssa peaked around the corner. The light above the stove had been turned on to seemingly the dimmest setting, but she could still make out Emma sitting in a barstool near the kitchen’s island with an empty glass and a book. She was hunched over and writing, pausing to look up as the observer entered the kitchen. Luckily, Alyssa didn’t think she had startled her. In fact, she had a small, welcoming smirk as she closed the small notebook.
“Eh, couldn’t sleep. Figured I’d sneak down for some water. I missed their ice.”
The newcomer tried not to laugh as she sat down in the unoccupied barstool.
“Yeah, their fridge has the cool, fancy, crushed ice dispenser. It’s always better than cubes,” Emma stated with absolute confidence and a goofy smile.
It was nice, her smile.
“Did you used to come over a lot?”
“A few weekends in middle school. At least until Kaylee got too popular for me.”
Alyssa frowned, and Emma quickly added with a chuckle, “Don’t worry, she’s still civil. Plus, once she discovered boys, she got a little annoying, between you and me.”
Her tone remained jovial, but Alyssa noticed she didn’t meet her eyes this time, instead playing with her pen.
“She’s pretty obsessed. I usually tune her out at every sleepover until she falls asleep,” she replied with a shrug, offering a small smirk.
Emma looked up and exclaimed, “Exactly! And then, boom, midnight snack time with crushed ice.”
It was that damn smile again. Alyssa looked away to the nearest distraction she could find.
“Hopefully that’s not more homework,” she said, nodding towards the small notebook under Emma’s hands.
“Hell no, I did all my summer projects already, unlike some people,” the girl snickered, to which the other offered a playful eye roll, before stating more soberly, “Actually, I’ve started trying to write my own songs.”
“Woah, that’s awesome.”
“I’m not very good. But I’m hoping practice will help.”
The locks of her hair were messy from sleep and falling across her face. She focused on spinning the cap of her pen.
Alyssa knew enough from Debate that conversations weren’t always what they seemed. A dance, a battle, a maneuvering in between the spoken and the unspoken. Emma was cheerful and almost playful one moment. But there was the occasional retreat. A small white flag.
Maybe generally keeping to oneself made someone hesitant, no matter how charming they were.
She wanted to know so much more.
“You know, I didn’t get a chance to thank you personally for helping us,” she broke the silence as gently as possible.
“I don’t mind. I like English. At least it wasn’t math or science, though I doubt you would’ve needed my help with those,” Emma replied, glancing back at her conversation partner.
“I definitely like those more.”
Alyssa shook her head but couldn’t hide her smile. Emma grinned at the accomplishment and added, “Why?”
The other shrugged. “There’s only one answer. You can be undistubatebly correct, prove it with the numbers, and no one can say you’re wrong. Literature is so subjective. It’s an opinion, and people will definitely judge yours if it doesn’t line up with theirs.”
“Who cares what people think?”
Alyssa chuckled, “That’s literally the point of being graded, you have to care.”
Emma tilted her head in thought. “As long as you have proof from the book to back you up, they can’t fail you.”
“Just passing isn’t enough in the Greene household.”
“Ah. So this just isn’t about what the people reading your papers think about you.”
Alyssa was at least thankful Emma had merely brushed the line between casual and serious conversation. She offered interest without pressure. The other girl wasn’t really sure if she was ready to get into that shitshow...but she was shockingly tempted.
“Everyone’s got baggage. Mine is a perfectionist mom,” she replied casually, resting her elbows on the counter and leaning her head against her hand.
Emma leaned in, eyes narrowed, like she was investigating a massive conspiracy.
“So the whole uptight vibe you give off from cheerleading, student council, debate team, bible camp…?”
“Ouch, uptight?” Alyssa winced in mock-pain, but again, found herself unable to stop a smirk.
“You’re right, I’m sorry,” she replied, throwing her hands up in fake surrender,” I’m just a little band geek, who am I to question greatness?”
Her display earned her a playful smack to the arm before Aylssa could suppress the urge.
“No, you’re right. That’s all her. If I’m not valedictorian when we graduate, I think she’s going to disown me.”
She tried to make her admission sound as nonchalant as possible, but she couldn’t suppress the small sigh that followed. The next two years of her life were planned quite perfectly so that the following four at college could be just as perfected, all for...a lifetime of perfection?
“I don’t know, I bet you’re still pretty awesome without all of that,” Emma stated firmly, now mirroring her companion with her head in her heads, resting against the counter, “What would you do if it wasn’t up to your mom?”
“That’s hard to imagine.”
Who was Alyssa Greene without the master plan? And why did Emma Nolan want to know?
The light was dim, but even in the shadowy night, she felt those blue eyes on her, assessing her. Alyssa sat up and bit her lip.
“I always liked dancing. I’m terrible at it, but alone in my room...I can forget about being perfect for like three minutes.”
Life seemed a lot simpler when it was just her and a song.
Life seemed really complicated when Emma kept beaming at her like that.
“I think my new mission in life is to get you to relax. For more than three minutes. Maybe we’ll be really wild and shoot for five minutes,” she said with a wiggle of the eyebrows.
Alyssa had to stifle her laughter for fear of waking the whole house.
On second thought, maybe she could handle something a little more complicated...maybe. She really didn’t want to ponder too much farther why her stomach was doing back handsprings and somersaults.
“So what about your parents?”
Emma accepted the diversion easily enough, sighing, “They’re a little less ‘get straight As and stay a virgin for Jesus’ crazy and little more ‘the government can’t take our guns and we think racist jokes are funny’ crazy. If I manage not to stick out too much or say anything too outrageous, they mostly ignore me.”
The apology felt lame as it tumbled out of her mouth. She wanted to say more.
Emma merely shrugged. “Like you said, everyone’s got baggage.”
Alyssa gave her an empathetic nod. It grew quiet again under the small, yellow kitchen light with the inky blue all around them. She still wanted to say more, but she was afraid. Of what, she wasn’t precisely sure.
The air of seriousness, however, was easily dismantled when Emma turned to her and asked, “Wanna dance?”
“You’ve looked hella stressed out all day writing that paper. You need that five minute break we talked about,” she explained, plopping down from the barstool.
Emma didn’t explain. Instead, she offered her hand.
It was ridiculous. Certainly not an efficient use of time, so her mother would say. But that was precisely the point, wasn’t it?
What if she just...gave in to whatever this was?
She took Emma’s hand, who eagerly pulled her off the stool and walked them to the adjoining living room. The blonde dug out her phone from the pocket of her sweatpants, a long cord wrapped around it that she began to unravel.
“Here, so we don’t wake anyone up,” Emma explained, offering one of the headphone’s earbuds as she tapped at the phone’s screen, “They aren’t fancy or wireless, but they get the job done.”
The song was familiar, something likely overhead on the radio, filled with beats of sugary pop and electric pounding. Her partner easily began the wild tossing of her head, throwing her hands in the air. Confidence radiated off of her as she owned the ridiculous motions.
Alyssa started swaying and her hips seemed to know what to do and when to do it. She threw in some jumps that probably looked more like cheerleading than raving, but she just continued to allow her limbs to move on their own. She decided in the moment not to care about how she looked; this seemed to be one person who wouldn’t hold it against her. Then, suddenly, Emma was holding her hands, twisting and turning them both like children spinning in circles.
It was all outrageously silly and stupid and goofy. But there was Emma, grinning like crazy at her, and Alyssa felt her mouth hurting from smiling so much.
“You lied. You’re not terrible at all.”
The dance break may have lasted longer than the originally promised five minutes. Alyssa simply forgot to keep track.
The next morning, Kaylee and Shelby were a bit confused when they found the girls passed on different sides of the sectional in the living room downstairs, but they didn’t question it. After all, sleeping on the floor in a bag probably wasn’t the most comfortable for anybody.
JUNIOR YEAR SEMESTER 1
There was something about sitting on the cold, dirty floor of the school hallway outside the girl’s bathroom that really set the mood to what was looking like a crappy evening. A sea of lockers dotted the aisle as it plunged into the darkness of the rest of the school. Behind her, light and music beckoned from the gym.
Alyssa knew she had to get her shit together; this much crying was bound to smear her make-up for all to see. She was carefully hidden around the corner of the hall, but wilted mascara would incriminate her immediately. However, trying to simply sniff away a panic attack wasn’t doing much good, and the tailspin in her mind was only getting worse.
“Woah. Who do I need to beat up?”
Emma’s head poked around the corner, looking down at her, witnessing what Alyssa only assumed was the biggest hot mess of the century.
With a quick sniff and trying to wipe away the evidence of her fit, she replied, “It’s nothing like that. Sorry, I don’t know why I’m crying.”
“That’s OK. My grandma says crying is good for you, means you’re not heartless or emotionally constipated,” Emma explained, sitting down next to her, “Wanna talk about it?”
Alyssa sighed, her breath shaky, leaning her head back on the tiled wall behind her. She glanced hesitantly at the girl next to her and was met with only genuine concern.
“Juniors can get elected to Homecoming Court, and someone that I know counted the votes hinted I’m winning, and I’m freaking out. I figured a senior would get picked.”
Emma tilted her head. “I’m confused, I thought most girls want to be queen. You seemed fine when we talked last week.”
“I know I sound ungrateful, but this was one night I didn’t have to deal with as much pressure as usual. I could just be in the crowd,” Alyssa mumbled, whipping away another stray tear on her cheek, “I’m so nervous, I want to throw up.”
“Fair enough. But, hey, you’re class president and captain of like every club you’re in. Queen isn’t a huge stretch. You don’t even have to say anything, it’ll be cake,” Emma flashed her a grin, leaning in to bump her shoulder with her own.
Alyssa wished she could just believe her. Her easy smile, kind words, trusting eyes. If Emma had exerted any additional effort into her appearance this evening, it had been minimal. Maybe a nice brush of the hair, a change of wardrobe into a very simple, light blue dress. And yet, she still looked like herself and still looked wonderful. A realization that, for some odd reason, just made Alyssa feel even more sad.
“I’d have to dance in front of everyone.” Her voice was hoarse now from tears.
“You like dancing.”
“Not publicly. My mom is a chaperone so she’ll be just making a mental list of things I messed up,” she grumbled on, hating the whining, hating herself for not being able to just suck it up as she said it, “I hope I don’t win.”
It sounded as bitter as she felt, and she hated that Emma was the one to see her like this. She glared at the wall of lockers in front of her.
The woman beside her stood up.
Emma extended her hands. “Stand up with me.”
Alyssa weakly lifted her limbs and allowed herself to be yanked up. To her surprise, however, Emma didn’t let go once she was standing, keeping their hands firmly locked in the space between them.
They felt nice.
“Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to win because you’re the most amazing person ever. Sorry, but it’s the truth, so we have to face that reality,” Emma summarized matter of factly, eyes locked with her own, “They’re going to put some plastic crown on your head, but I think you can handle that part too. Then, the dance, it’s not even a real dance. You and the king will stand there fake swaying because everyone will be watching. Here, like this.”
Hands guided hands to shoulders, and Alyssa could now feel soft skin left uncovered by Emma’s sleeveless dress.
“It’s not supposed to be a real dance. He’ll probably be nervous too since, again, everyone is staring and awkwardly put his hands too high on your hips so none of the chaperones slap him. Just like this,” her dance partner explained, hands gently pressing to her back, not quite low enough to feel right.
“You’re gonna death grip his shoulders. And you’ll just kinda zone out for like two minutes. It’ll be fine, promise. The most stereotypical and forgettable high school dancey dance ever.”
They began to sway and very slowly turn. It was...simple. Emma led the way, and she followed trustingly. Alyssa thought she smelled vanilla. She had to fight the surprising temptation to move closer into a sensation of warmth and safety.
“All people will remember is you were queen, looked crazy good in your dress that brings out your eyes, and simmer with loathing or jealousy all night they weren’t you or your date.”
Alyssa felt herself flush and rolled her eyes. When she looked up at the face before hers, smiling brightly, she felt her own lips curl. The vicious spinning of her mind and gut had been settled by the very light turning of their dance. Emma gently stopped their movement and patiently waited. The dance position now felt like a loose hug.
Alyssa took a steadying breath before saying, “Thanks.”
“Just stating facts, Your Highness,” she quipped back, sarcasm oozing at the use of the formal title.
Alyssa playfully scoffed back, “A queen would be Majesty.”
Both girls laughed, and with the motion, Emma casually removed her hands from Alyssa back. The latter found she missed the comfort they had provided but quickly followed suit by innocently dropping her hands from the other’s shoulders.
The question of why she felt the loss of another woman’s touch might be another crisis for another day.
“How do you stay so calm all the time?” Aylssa asked, realizing this was the second emergency from which Emma had graciously rescued her.
“Probably because I’m secretly freaking out and anxious all the time,” Emma snorted with a laugh before her gaze grew more serious. “Feel better?”
Alyssa wanted to ask more, to know more, but decided she should let the joke remain as is. Instead she offered a small smile.
“A little. Seriously, thank you. Your date is probably wondering what’s taking you so long in the bathroom.”
Her response was another chuckle, “No, they won’t. Since I don’t have a date.”
Alyssa hadn’t meant to sound so surprised. Emma simply cocked an eyebrow, signature grin in place while she struggled to think of an excuse for her reaction.
Instead she blurted out, “You look nice.”
The girl jumped at the sound of her name and looked wildly towards the noise.
Repositioned from their little dance, Alyssa had accidentally emerged into the hallway proper, the direct path back to the festivities. Kaylee waved in the distance.
Emma still remained tucked behind the corner into the adjacent hall, and Alyssa glanced at her apologetically.
“Look down in the front. I’ll get as close to the stage as possible. Just look at me, and take a breath,” she whispered, shooting the likely queen a thumbs up.
Rather than dread, something warmer swam in Alyssa’s chest. She smiled with a nod, then turned to begin her march down the hall to the gym.
All she had to do was just breathe.
JUNIOR YEAR SEMESTER 2
Alyssa glared at the balloons and bouquets that other students carried up and down the hallway. They were mocking her.
She had recently come to a decision, and she was not one to falter once she had made up her mind. One didn’t get perfect grades and boast a resume like hers for lack of drive and motivation, even if it was sometimes inspired by maternal terror rather than personal ambition. Still, Alyssa Greene got the job completed when all was said and done.
But with each step amongst the throngs of teenagers wearing obnoxious amounts of red and pink, she was beginning to lose her nerve. Her battle strategy was solid. Use a Trojan Horse for the approach and entry. Deliver the package. Exercise containment protocols for any fallout, then evacuate.
She took a deep breath as she spotted her target, quickly fixing her outfit and smoothing her hair for any imperfections.
It was now or never.
As Alyssa approached, Emma looked up from her open locker.
“Happy Valentine’s Day,” the brunette explained cheerfully, opening a large bag to hold out between them, “from the Student Council.”
Emma smirked, reaching her hand in the bag. After making an exaggerated show of biting her lip while feeling around the bag excessively, her hand eventually emerged with a small valentine.
“ ‘You’re so sweet .’ And it even has a lollipop to drive it home,” Emma snorted, holding up the card and candy.
“I wanted the Disney ones, but apparently they were ‘childish.’ I’m not bitter,” Alyssa sighed with mock disappointment. The other laughed earnestly in response.
“I can see. Well, thank you, Madame Class President,” Emma quipped sarcastically with a small bow.
Alyssa smiled back, but her chest felt like it was about to burst.
She really thought the movies and books and TV shows had been lying for so long. Swooning was not a thing. Her friends were just overly dramatic about boys. Everyone made a big deal over nothing.
But it really only took one signature goofy smile from the girl in front of her for it all to click. Her heart was running a marathon and doing somersaults into her tummy. This is what the big deal was. It was still nameless, but it demanded action. And Alyssa was sick of fighting it. Her mind still fed her doubts, but it was time.
She grabbed a small, white box sporting a blue ribbon from her jacket pocket.
“And Happy Valentine’s Day, from me.”
Emma’s eyebrows shot up. Alyssa prepared to abort the mission. Everything was fine, she could be casual. This was normal. Friends being friendly. Gal pals.
“Thanks.” The smile seemed genuine enough as she plucked up the box. “Should I open it now?”
Alyssa bit her tongue, hands twisting the top of the bag of valentines. But once Emma untied the ribbon and popped open the lid, she couldn’t stop the word vomit.
“I wasn’t really sure what type to get at the store, but I thought of you when I saw it.”
Alyssa had spent an embarrassingly long time in the music store. She assumed guitar picks would be a gift Emma would like, but who would’ve thought something so simple in function actually had varying levels of size, material, and quality? Then there was the matter of the color and design, way too many questions of Emma’s preference that Alyssa simply didn’t know the answer to. They had only interacted a few times, albeit meaningful ones for Alyssa. A handful of conversations, a few class projects over the year that included non-scholastic discourse. They seemed to keep running into each other. But maybe she really didn’t know her enough after all to pick the right thing.
Maybe this really was some horrible idea based on a feeling that was incredibly wrong in so many ways.
Well. It was too late now.
In the end, she had settled on a collection made of clear resin with real flowers and leaves encased inside. A natural beauty, or so she hoped.
Alysa watched helplessly now as Emma gingerly picked up one of the bits of plastic, a tiny daisy encased inside. She spun it slowly between her fingertips, admiring the petals, before delicately placing it back in the box.
She was beaming. “It’s perfect, thank you.”
“No problem. I hope you don’t think it’s weird,” Alyssa muttered before she could stop herself.
Shit. Maybe she wouldn’t notice.
“Why would I think that?”
She couldn’t offer much besides a shrug. “It’s Valentine’s Day. Friends don’t usually get each other things.”
Mission status: Failure.
The blonde offered a small smile.
“I’m honored you thought of me. And actually…” she paused to turn back to her still open locker, unzipping a pocket in her bag. When Emma emerged, the white box was gone, and she held out her fist.
Alyssa obediently held out her hand. A black thumb drive fell into it.
“A carefully curated playlist for the next time you’re dancing in your room or whenever,” Emma explained, returning to grab a book from her locker and closing the door.
Alyssa wasn’t so oblivious that she didn’t notice the nonchalant tone. Perhaps this really was a casual exchange between friends. Still, Emma had taken time to compile the songs for her, and she knew music was something special to her. It was still enough to incite the fluttering in her stomach.
“That’s really sweet. Thank you.”
“Good thing I got the ‘sweet’ card,” Emma chuckled, nodding towards the valentines Alyssa was still holding in her other hand.
The other smiled back, but she was out of witty comebacks this time. The gift operation was done, but the stasis remained. A bold declaration had simmered to an awkward admission of an acquaintanceship, and as they waved goodbye to go to class, Alyssa felt the self-inflicted disappointment.
Friends . She really blew it.
Son of a bitch.
There was a love song.
Alyssa had listened to the playlist and spent approximately three of her following class periods analyzing every possible outcome of what Emma’s playlist could mean. Her attempts to formulate a hypothesis were now spilling into Debate club practice. Thankfully, they were simply catching up on a few business items and sharing cupcakes for the holidays, and her role as captain was limited, if not needed this time. Alyssa’s pastry remained untouched on her desk as she explored a true topic of debate in her mind.
Why would Emma give her a love song?
On one hand, it was Valentine’s Day. The intimate, emotional art form and technique of the gifted mixtape was well documented. There was a love song. There were even two other slow songs hidden amongst the more excitable modern dance hits. Three songs seemed ample evidence that something more was happening here.
On the other hand, it was Valentine’s Day. Her situation wasn’t exactly on the cover of a Hallmark card. Alyssa couldn’t picture a reality where whatever crazy, unimaginable, incomprehensible thing she was feeling was somehow also felt for her. With a woman. She still couldn’t dare to give it a name. The idea to even give a gift had been a lapse of judgement and a desire to simply do something without overthinking it. Plus, they had said they were friends. Well, she had said they were friends, but there was no objection or contest. Emma had presented everything so casually.
So what did a damn love song mean?
Alyssa practically lunged over desks when they wrapped up Debate early, bolting out the classroom and into the hallway.
This was stupid. She would see Emma, mention the songs, and Emma would somehow explain it perfectly as a gesture of true friendship. Then Alyssa could proceed with shoving whatever inappropriate feelings she’d humored too long deep into a metaphorical box. It would be done, over, and she could move on while forgetting the whole ordeal ever happened.
But, Jesus, she didn’t think she could wait until tomorrow to ask her. How awkward would a message on Instagram make this situation?
Alyssa sighed, halting her power walk as she faced the side doors that fed into the school’s student parking. It was still too early for her mom to be pulled up, anxiously waiting by the curb. Maybe she could sit here and somehow manage to compose a message to send on Instagram that seemed innocent enough.
As she turned away, a white and blue truck caught her eye through the door’s window. Everyone knew who the signature older model belonged to.
Emma was still here.
Alyssa retreated down the hallway in earnest. Emma only belonged to one club, so her sole goal was the band room. However, as she continued on her path and couldn’t hear any of the telltale music, dread built in her chest. It was February. It was cold. The school’s band wasn’t performing or marching for many school events, especially with football over.
Turning the corner to the dark, empty room was deafening in its silence, the resolute and firm answer Emma was not here. Alyssa huffed, glaring at the vacant seats in the large classroom. She was running out of time, and she was out of ideas. The blonde had once joked she lived in this very room, even choosing to settle in the cramped closet where they stored the instruments like a musical Harry Potter. She didn’t exactly have school spirit for anything else. This had to be it...and yet there was no practice.
Then why was the door open?
Alyssa took a hesitant step inside, her gaze intently searching the dark corners of the room. Light was limited and mainly poured from the open door where she stood. However, a small crack of light caught her eye.
The storage closet appeared to be in use.
Walking over, there was still silence. Alyssa wasn’t sure if she should try to open the door; there wasn’t exactly a protocol for this.
She took a deep breath. Then, she did what seemed most practical; she knocked.
A beat passed. Fumbling, muffled sounds echoed from beyond the door.
When Emma opened the door, her eyebrows were twisted in confusion and a small frown turned the bottom of her face. At the sight of her guest, however, the blonde’s face seemed to blossom. Her smile was incredible.
“Hey,” she muttered, seemingly breathless with surprise.
The word Alyssa had been so afraid to use flooded so easily to her conscious. Crush. She wanted Emma Nolan, and there was no turning back to make excuses for it as something platonic.
She needed some answers about a love song.
“How’d you know I was here?”
“I saw your truck was in the parking lot still. You mentioned once you like to hide in here.”
“It’s too cold to hide under the bleachers outside. Being one of the equipment managers has its perks,” Emma commented, stepping back to hold the door open and allowing Alyssa to step inside, “I thought you had Debate?”
The closet was a modest size as far as closets went. Lots of shelves, lots of cases of instruments. The carpet looked ancient. A single bulb lit the room, faintly buzzing. Emma’s bookbag and a textbook rested on the floor.
The new arrival removed and deposited her bag on the ground. “We ended early. People had dinner plans, including Ms. Martin.”
“I know, right?” Alyssa laughed, leaning against one of the cabinets, “My mom won’t be here for another hour.”
“Need me to take you home?”
“Honestly, I’d rather just enjoy the freedom for a hot second of having nothing to do,” she replied, trying to stay calm and collected. She glanced around and continued, “It’s kinda nice in here.”
“It’s quiet. Better than my house.” After a quizzical eyebrow shot her way, she explained, “Dad gets grumpy on holidays, figured I’d just stay away for a bit.” She shoved her hands in pockets, mirroring the other girl resting against the opposite wall. The shrug that followed indicated she didn’t have much more to say on the topic.
The mechanical hum of the fluorescent light was the only noise.
Alyssa bit the inside of her lip.
“I listened to your gift.”
“I had my laptop with me and some spare time during lunch,” Alyssa explained as she played with the zipper of her jacket, “I loved all of them.”
Love. That was a loaded word right now.
The other woman seemed pleased. “Really?”
“Yeah. I was a little surprised some of them were slower though.”
“You can dance to slow songs,” was the very nonchalant response.
The brunette narrowed her eyes, tilting her head. “Isn’t slow dancing more of a two person kinda thing?”
“If you want. I figured I’d make sure you had choices in case you had a date for Valentine’s Day.”
Alyssa pushed off the cabinet, standing up straighter. Her mouth was dry, and she couldn’t keep her hands still. Emma, on the other hand, looked calm, her hands still in her pockets and her form still reclined against the wall. The sleeves of her flannel were lazily rolled up. Her blue eyes, however, were directly focused back at Alyssa’s. Under their intensity, the brunette’s contemplation turned down to the ground.
Maybe Alyssa could try to be the brave one, just this once.
“There was someone I wanted to ask, but I chickened out,” she said hesitantly, slowly glancing back up.
Emma replied with a dry, hollow laugh, “Me too.”
Before Alyssa could ask herself a million questions on whether it was right or wrong or stupid or unrequited, she asked for the one thing she really wanted.
“Will you dance with me?”
Emma’s expression grew softer. She slowly lifted from against the wall, taking one smooth step forward. Given the size of the closet, they were now only inches apart.
“Sure,” was the gentle reply.
Neither moved. Alyssa realized the ball was very much in her court. The coward in her begged to laugh it off, to ask for an upbeat song and just goofy moonwalk her way out of this. But she was so close now she could see the grey flecks in the oceans of Emma’s eyes. Her shampoo or perfume beckoned with the warm welcome of vanilla and inviting comfort of a fresh cake, sweet and indulgent.
It was time to choose, and she knew what she wanted. Maybe Emma would understand and forgive her later.
With a small nod, Alyssa draped her arms across Emma’s shoulders and around her neck. She felt hands on her lower back and waist, and it was suddenly harder to breathe. They were so close. This was different than at homecoming, and this certainly felt different than every other dance she had shared with anyone else.
With no planning or prompting, they both began to move slowly to a silent melody. Alyssa imagined the song she had obsessively listened to hours ago, still so unsure of its meaning, the love song from Emma’s playlist, and swayed to the memory of yearning violins. Her partner easily moved with her, and she melted against her, wanting to savor every second before reality came crashing back, before the other told her it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Their cheeks touched, and neither moved. Alyssa closed her eyes to the closet, trying to burn every sensation into memory.
Emma gently turned, her lips brushing her partner’s ear, murmuring, “You wanna tell me who you were going to ask?”
The cold ache of dread began to creep in. She was out of time and stolen moments.
Alyssa could barely whisper, “Promise you won’t hate me?”
“Why would I hate you?”
“I’ve been told every Sunday that it’s wrong.”
Emma stopped, and their dancing halted. Alyssa prepared to be shoved away or to open her eyes to witness the sting of horror across the other’s face. But the hands on her hips didn’t move, and when she slowly leaned back, she saw nothing of anger.
Emma’s eyebrows were set heavily in concentration, eyes fiercely inspecting Alyssa’s own. They were so close, she could feel her take a deep breath.
With confident resolution, she said, “Alyssa, I’m gay.”
Could this really be happening?
“I think I am too.”
“I have, like, an insanely huge crush on you.”
“I think I do too.”
“Oh,” Emma frowned, forehead wrinkled with confusion.
“Is that bad?” Alyssa asked hesitantly, moving to step away.
Emma’s hands remained firm but gentle on her back, keeping her close. “Not at all! It’s just way better than I expected, honestly.”
Confusion melted into pure joy. Emma was smiling in full force, and Alyssa felt her own lips turning upwards.
“What’d you expect?”
“You know, the usual when the band geek asks the most popular girl in school out. Rejection. Either that or you’d run away in horror from the weirdo lesbian.”
Alyssa smirked, “I mean, you’re definitely a weirdo, but not because of that.”
“Right, but you like a weirdo, so what’s that say about you?” the blonde replied snarkily, grinning madly.
“That I must be crazy. That this is crazy,” she sighed, ”What are we going to do?”
“I’m not sure, I didn’t think I’d get this far,” Emma mumbled, “It could be our secret, until we’re ready. Do you think you’d be OK with that?”
Emma liked her. Emma Nolan liked her back.
“That could work,” Alyssa murmured, still stunned and happy and nervous and warm all at once, a million feelings still pounding in her chest.
“And maybe, I could hold you like this a little longer?” Emma asked softly.
“Yeah, maybe,” she whispered back, leaning into their embrace. The arms wrapped around her back hugged her even closer.
She could see blonde highlights in Emma’s eyelashes, she was close. Her gaze dropped to Emma’s lips.
“And maybe, I could…”
Alyssa was closing her eyes before Emma finished her statement, and the statement itself was in fact never finished. The lips that pushed against hers were uncertain at first with the smallest, most delicate touch. Their noses bumped with inexperience, but even the clumsy nature didn’t halt the journey they started. A kiss turned to kisses, growing deeper, more confident like a song building tempo. Arms wrapped more tightly in sync with moving lips as dulcet sighs composed a duet the two somehow already knew. Their mouths danced to a shared melody Alyssa never wanted to stop dancing to.
The perfectionist finally knew what perfection felt like in Emma’s arms.
“I am so freaking excited you were able to sneak away.” Emma was practically vibrating in the truck seat next to her
“I had to prove all my summer assignments were done. I purposely didn’t ask for anything for two weeks. Her defenses were down.”
“You mean you didn’t wait until the last minute this time to do your projects?” the blonde deadpanned, glancing away from the road for only a second to offer a smirk, “What’s the cover story?”
Alyssa rolled her eyes but answered, “Shopping and hanging out with the usual suspects in Chesterton. I need to be home by 6PM for dinner.”
“I think we can handle that.”
The windows of the truck were rolled down, and the warm air whipped their hair as they blazed down the highway. Alyssa stuck her arm out, twiddling her fingers in the wind to the beat of the song blaring on the radio. Emma had planned the whole day as a surprise, but Alyssa had an inkling of where they were going. Still, it was a beautiful day, and the company was all she wanted.
Eventually, they took an exit, and pulled into the parking lot of a restaurant with exteriors that had seen better days. Emma offered the explanation that they were picking up lunch to go, to enjoy later when they reached their destination. The other woman simply shrugged, enjoying the small adventure, eagerly ordering a sandwich. They grabbed a small table in the corner of the building while they waited for their order to be ready.
Alyssa was bemusedly admiring the walls sporting decor from decades ago.
“How’d you find this place?”
“Google. Food looked good,” Emma replied, looking around while tapping her fingers on the table, “It’s busier than I figured it would be for a small town, old school diner.”
Brown eyes glanced down at the twitching hands, “Is that why you’re nervous?”
“I’m not nervous. Just can’t wait to spend the whole day with you,” she responded with a warm smile, moving her hands to her lap, “If anything, we’re lost in the crowd and no one will notice me admiring you for a few minutes.”
The pure adoration on her face was apparent, and Alyssa giggled.
“You’re always so cheesy, it’s very endearing.”
“Hey, we’re celebrating today!” Emma exclaimed before learning closer, speaking more softly, “Half a year of amazing. Six months of awesome.”
“I guess it’s fine,” Alyssa sighed as if bored, immediately breaking character and laughing at the other pouting in response. She glanced around the restaurant before turning back to whisper, “You know I was a mess before I knew you, Emma Nolan.”
The pouting immediately cleared, giving way to a huge smile.
“I wish I could kiss you right now.”
“Shhh. Later, in the truck.”
Emma looked around before continuing in a hushed tone, “I was thinking by the lake, actually.”
“I had a feeling that’s where we were going.”
“What gave it away? When I asked you to wear a bathing suit?”
“Probably when we started driving North towards the huge, big, wet thing,” Alyssa snorted before leaning in closer to softly say, “I’m excited too.”
“Yeah. We don’t usually get to be alone,” she quietly agreed, her eyes once again glancing at the other patrons.
“I know. I’m sure we can find a place, the park is huge.”
Emma paused her inspection of the restaurant and glanced back at the brunette.
“A place to…?” she trailed off, but the quizzical eyebrow indicated she was hopeful regarding the answer.
What a flirt.
Band practice all summer had left its mark on Emma, who had been the only one able to fill a vacancy for a tuba player for the upcoming year. Her arms were toned from carrying the heavy instrument through complex marches in the heat. Her hair was drenched with golden highlights from the sunlight, and, while her complexion necessarily didn’t allow for tanning, freckles covered her arms and shoulders, clearly visible in her tank top. She looked vibrant, radiant even, and it made Alyssa dizzy with warmth, as if intoxicated.
She halted her perusal of her girlfriend, returning to look into her eyes.
“Like you said, a place to be alone,” Alyssa murmured simply, enjoying the way Emma flushed in response. Perhaps she teased her too much. The blonde was fidgety, now playing with the salt and pepper shakers at their table, toying with the straw dispenser, acting utterly adorable.
Alyssa stifled a smile, continuing to simply observe the other woman. Certainly a little teasing could be forgiven.
Emma had moved on to spinning the ketchup bottle before rather firmly placing it down, as if suddenly realizing what she was doing.
“OK,” she cleared her throat, “remember how we had that like big, serious, adult talk about how we would make sure we were clear-headed when we both agreed to maybe take an important next step in our, um, partnership? And agree to everything beforehand so no one felt pressured to...accept terms,” she winced slightly with her word choice. She did another visual sweep of the room before looking at the other woman intently.
Alyssa bit hard on her lip to keep from laughing at this unique usage of code in public, trying to keep her voice serious with a firm nod.
“And we also discussed considerations like how sporadic and limited it would be, if it were to happen, given, well, those alone time issues we talked about, and that we’d have to be OK with that?”
“And just general acknowledgement that communication is key while we navigated a whole new world we weren’t familiar with. Safety concerns, unrealistic expectations due to toxic media representation, and so on.”
A smile twitched on Alyssa’s lips, but she quickly feigned seriousness.
Emma rolled her eyes at the obvious teasing, before continuing in a fierce whisper, “So before we get to the lake, and I start losing my mind seeing you in a bathing suit,” she sat up straight and returned to normal volume, “I would like to very respectfully request a, um, well-”
“Parley,” Alyssa interjected.
“Parley, exactly. To maybe open up negotiations. If you aren’t opposed,” Emma gestured as if they were sitting across a boardroom table discussing contracts.
With mock solemnness, sitting up even straighter, Alyssa replied in her most Debate captain worthy voice, “I am open to your proposal.”
Emma sighed, running her hand over her face, “Maybe I should’ve waited until we were in the truck.”
“No, no, I think you’re doing great,” the other choked a laugh before again embodying the cold negotiator,” What are your terms?”
Emma sighed before returning to sitting up straight and continuing her business presentation.
“Should circumstances align at the lake, and there are no objections at that time, or even so long as there’s overwhelming consent at multiple uhhh check-ins, perhaps we could proceed with the...the…”
“Expanding the partnership.”
“In the woods,” Alyssa deadpanned.
“Or in the little, like, sandy area near the woods and the lake. I mean, what a view. Maybe even in the water?” Emma babbled before collapsing into a slouch, glaring at the table, “This seemed so much better in my head. But also was totally not my main goal for today. Just a possible addition. Maybe,” she glanced back up to the woman across from her.
Alyssa sighed sympathetically, breaking the act and offering a small smile.
“Is this why you’ve been jumpy? Why are you so nervous?”
“You’d be nervous too if you were trying to make something perfect for the most perfect woman on the planet,” Emma grumbled.
Alyssa frowned; Emma was the one always calming her anxieties. It took great restraint now not to reach out and touch her, to soothe away the worry with a brush of her fingertips. And yet, incredible warmth bloomed in her chest at this woman desperately wanting to cultivate a beautiful, intimate experience for her. For them.
She leaned as far across the table as she could to ensure no one would hear her.
“I love you.”
“Emma!” a voice loudly barked from the counter, “Order for Emma!”
The girl leaped from the table at her name with a yelp, her knee slamming into the surface. She shot the bewildered Ayssa a sheepish grin and darted to collect their food. With a shake of her head and small chuckle, the latter too retreated from their table, instead walking to the front door. She opened the door as Emma walked up, fussing over making sure they had everything they had ordered in a large paper bag, and they walked into the parking lot.
Emma rather pointedly focused on the contents in her hands, muttering a checklist, inserting comments on napkin quantity and soda brand quality. When they reached the truck tucked in the back of the lot, Ayssa followed the driver to her side of the vehicle, placing an arm on her hand before she could pull the handle of the door.
“Hey, look at me,” she gently commanded.
After a quick glance to confirm they were well concealed between cars and far enough away from any people, Alyssa cupped Emma’s face, lightly stroking her cheek, ensuring the blue eyes were on her.
“Us ‘expanding the partnership?’ It’ll be perfect for me because it’ll be with you. Whenever it happens,” she explained firmly with a soft smile, “So you don’t need to force it to be perfect. We’ll know when it’s time, and I think we’re going to have a great time at the lake together whether today’s the day or not. But I’m ready to find out with you, either way.”
The tension melted away from Emma’s body, and she wrapped her free hand around Alyssa’s waist, pulling her the final few inches towards her with the ease and comfort they usually shared. The kiss was deep and confident albeit perhaps too brief, but the two knew not to risk too long in the open.
Alyssa wasn’t afraid to let her girlfriend see her glance down her body as she turned away, flashing a devious grin as she walked around to her side of the car.
As they settled in the cabin and the engine turned over, Emma mentioned casually, “I love you too, by the way,” a teasing smile playing on her lips.
It wasn’t the first time they had said it. But every time still felt like they had stumbled on some miracle. Even in a shithole town full of terrible people, they had found each other.
The nerves were gone, and they were all smiles as they returned to the road, driving onwards to the lake that awaited them. Emma turned up the radio, and even the static of the old car couldn’t taint the upbeat energy pouring through the speakers. She immediately began belting out the lyrics, dramatically beckoning for her partner to join in a duet. Alyssa couldn’t deny her, and she immediately joined in, shouting the words back between fits of giggles as the driver drummed on the steering wheel. They danced and wiggled in their seats, hands thrown to the ceiling when the beat demanded it, voguing out the meaning of the songs they proudly sang.
The wind pouring from the windows, streaming sunlight, music, and laughter all mixed deliciously with the August air. Alyssa turned to admire the passing country road landscapes.
Daydreams flashed in her mind of what the future of the day might hold. It was easy to submit to the fantasy Emma had mentioned, of the two of them tangled in the water, bodies pressed close, while she gasped for something more than air. More than summer heat scorched her skin at the mere thought.
And yet more images danced before her. There was Emma still, now splashing her playfully, crashing down next to her on a towel, giggling as they listened to music streaming from a phone. Shared sandwiches and crumbs.
She looked over to see Emma still contentedly singing along with the radio, swaying with the melody in her seat. She saw a dedicated, romantic lover. She saw a goofy, supportive best friend. All one in the same, and all the more perfect for it.
Maybe they would make it through whatever life threw at them, together.
SENIOR YEAR SEMESTER 1
Up. Up. Left. Down. Right. Up.
“Come on, Greene, I thought you were athletic and stuff?”
Down. Left. Left. Left.
“I think you’re cheating!”
Arrows continued scrolling quickly across the screen before them, an electrical beat pumping from the speakers. Flashes of color indicated a heated battle, one Alyssa was not keen on losing, no matter how cute her opponent was. Dance Dance Revolution was not what she had pictured when they had settled on an afternoon at the mall’s arcade. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t going to crush the competition.
Once the war was raged, the cheerleader tried too hard not to flaunt her victory, though Emma was nothing but smiles per usual. The duo, however, did find themselves out of quarters, and proceeded to exit to continue the mall tradition of aimlessly wandering around.
“I feel so gross,” Alyssa huffed, pulling her hair into a ponytail, painfully aware of her slick skin beneath her clothes.
“You look lovely.”
Alyssa glanced briefly next to her and found Emma’s eyes and smirk were already upon her. It wasn’t too outwardly devious, but the look made her feel even warmer all the same.
She returned to focusing on the way forward as they walked forward, but playfully quipped back, “Hush.”
“It’s been a few weeks, I’ve been missing you.”
Now Ayssa knew the heat really wasn’t from just all the dancing. She tried to ignore it.
She sighed back, “I know, it was a lot easier to sneak around when my mom was working, and we didn’t have school.”
“Do you ever wonder what it would be like to not sneak around?”
She didn’t sound sad, not exactly. Alyssa looked back up.
“Everyday,” she murmured, desperately wishing for nothing more than to kiss her to prove it.
“Same,” Emma replied with a small, melancholy smile, “Still too scary?”
“Still not sure if Mom would send me a rehabilitation camp or just kill me. You?”
“I’m definitely leaning more towards that murder option with my parents. But my grandma said something weird last weekend, did I tell you?”
“No, what happened?”
“Well, she’s been kinda asking if I was seeing anyone, teasing me I’ve looked so happy. Kinda hard to hide the glow from being with you,” she crooned dramatically, earning a light slap to the arm, “Anyway, I obviously blow her off every time, especially since my parents are usually around. But I went over to help her with some yard work this weekend, and she was like, just. I don’t know. We had that dramatic pause where she told me she loved me no matter what. Then moved on. I wonder if she’s starting to suspect the plaid.”
Alyssa huffed at the joke before offering a smile.
“She sounds sweet.”
“She is. I hope you can meet her one day,” Emma beamed back, before looking back to where they were walking, “I might tell her.”
Somewhere in the distance, a parent was reprimanding a screaming child. The vendor at a stand was offering samples. Smells and conversations from the food court buzzed and drifted throughout the lines of shops.
The world was still turning in the most basic, everyday way, seemingly unaware that something had shifted.
There was hope. Terrifying, unruly hope.
Alyssa murmured, “I’m really proud of you.”
“I haven’t done anything yet.”
“Still,” she continued, slowing their pace to a pause, stepping aside to a storefront window, “I know this isn’t easy. Some days we’re glowing, others we’re freaking out over our big ass secret,” she leaned as close as she could and whispered, “But you’re always an amazing, supportive girlfriend. I love you.”
Emma’s eyes flickered eagerly back and forth between hers.
“I know we figured hiding in plain sight as acquaintances hanging out in the crowded mall was easier,” she mumbled, glancing quickly to the scene around them before looking back, “But one of these days I’m going to slip and just kiss you if you keep saying sweet, romantic stuff like that.”
Her smile was always so confident now, and it was inebriating. She was familiar, safe, and yet still exciting. It was all there in the way she was looking at her, like what they had was undeniably right.
“Truck?” Alyssa choked out.
Neither could hide their smiles as they rushed out of the mall. Right or wrong wasn’t a question anymore, like when they first kissed. It really was so obviously right.
Something was wrong. Everything was fine last night, but something was definitely wrong now. When Emma had dropped her off from the mall, she had left her with kisses and smiles. So why hadn’t she texted her back since last night? They always said goodnight. Emma wasn’t at her locker in school the next morning.
What if she had died in a traumatic car crash on the way home last night? No...surely Alyssa would’ve heard something by now. Right?
What if she decided she hated her on the way home and was ignoring her? They had spent a fair amount of time tangled together in the truck in a dark corner of the mall’s parking lot. Emma’s hands had been firm on her thighs and her mouth hot on her neck and...well, one could simply say there was significant evidence to the contrary on the subject of Emma hating her, so that couldn’t be it. Hopefully.
Alyssa took a deep breath. Her anxiety was toying with her. This was ridiculous. She trusted her girlfriend, and she just needed to be patient.
Classes were admittedly a thankful distraction. The straight A student was masterfully trained in submerging herself in studies despite whatever impending doom was lurking for that day. Teachers lecturing and copious note taking consumed hours that would bring her closer to lunch and hopefully spotting the other woman.
Yet, when lunch came, and she tried to scope the numerous tables and crowds of students, she couldn’t spot her target. She purposely positioned herself so she could see the entryway to the cafeteria at her usual table where she was quickly joined by Shelby. Luckily, the latter was perfectly fine to sit in quiet and didn’t seem to notice the deep inspection beside her.
Kaylee, on the other hand, was immediately bursting with cacophonous gossip the second she arrived.
“Did you hear?”
Alyssa’s heart dropped with heavy premonition. She suddenly knew. She knew mere seconds before she heard it, what had eluded her all day, what was wrong with the universe, what was wrong with Emma.
Their greatest fear.
“Emma Nolan’s gay.”
“What?” Shelby gasped, slamming down her can of Diet Coke.
Alyssa didn’t stop or hide the alarm on her face. She knew it appeared as the shock and awe Kaylee desired. She knew she needed to act genuinely surprised.
“Her and her parents got into such a huge fight about it, the whole neighborhood heard. Sam, from our Bio class, lives next door and heard the whole thing. People called the cops there was so much shouting. Trevor’s dad’s a cop and was apparently at the station last night. So it’s like really real.”
Alyssa Greene hid behind her mask as best she could, but perhaps the bitterness had leeched too heavily into her voice. Both the other girls were staring at her.
“I just feel bad her parents freaked out so bad, you know?”
“Yeah, but they have to. How else is she going to learn to stop?” Kaylee surmised, eyes narrowing, “I mean, we’ve shared a locker room for gym class. She was probably watching everyone change, it’s so gross. Even just being in Bio with her this morning was so awkward for the rest of us. Good thing she decided not to show her face at lunch.”
After a brief moment of silence, Shelby questioned, “Are you going to eat your fries?”
Kaylee scoffed, “Don’t be such a fat ass.”
It was all so childish.
Alyssa took the distraction and stood up, gathering her bookbag, “I’ve got a Calc quiz next period I really need to do some last minute cramming for. See you at practice.”
It wasn’t a smooth exit, but there was only one person that mattered right now.
The band room would be in use, so she wouldn’t be in the closet. Alyssa, glanced out the window, recalling the fall day to be a rather warm one; she had been comfortable with her jacket. She bolted out the side door and to the football field.
The sight that greeted her from beneath the bleachers, hidden away, broke her heart.
Emma crying was a rarity, but the dark circles that stained the skin under her eyes indicated a night without sleep and without a reprieve from her sadness.
“Hey,” she muttered more to the ground than to the woman that immediately rushed to her side.
“Emma, what happened?”
“It’s pretty cliche, actually,” she replied with a hollow laugh, “My mom went through my song journal. Some of the love songs clearly had the wrong pronoun. She told my dad, and when they confronted me about it, I just...couldn’t lie anymore,” Emma sighed, finally meeting Alyssa’s eyes, “The rumor mill probably told you the rest since the whole town overhead it.”
“Oh, honey. Why didn’t you tell me? I’ve been blowing up your phone.”
“Sorry. My phone kinda got busted on the driveway. I think my dad threw it at me, actually. When they were kicking me out,” she trailed off, staring back down at the ground. She winced before shaking her head continuing, “I drove to my grandma’s and...and…” her voice caught, face collapsing in her hands.
All Alyssa could do is rub her back and hold her as she started to cry in earnest.
“I’m so sorry,” Emma sobbed, turning into the embrace.
“Don’t you dare be sorry, this isn’t your fault. They can’t just do this to you.”
“I’m eighteen, legally they can.”
“You did nothing wrong.”
Emma pulled them apart, eyes wild with panic. “People are going to suspect you if they see us together. It’s too risky. I know you don’t want to go through this.”
Alyssa ignored the small sting of panic that always haunted her. She needed to be the strong one this time. “We’ll be careful.”
“I swear your name didn’t come up or that I was even with anyone,” Emma gasped between sobs before questioning, “I didn’t ruin everything?”
“Of course not,” Alyssa soothed, cupping her face and stroking her cheek with her thumb, “You’re so brave. And strong. Hang on for me. I’ll get there too, I promise.”
She sniffed. “I’ll try.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
SENIOR YEAR SEMESTER 2
The mating rituals of teenagers were odd ceremonies to witness. The school was abuzz with seniors plotting the most outrageous ways to publicly question and announce their dates to prom. Balloons, flash dances, and even painted cars were some of the more extreme examples. One young gentleman even had the query tattooed on this chest.
Did they realize something so simple as asking someone to a dance was so profound? Not because of the glitter or the limos or the glamor, but because they got openly be with their date. A date. Was being in love for them as intense and magical? So deeply necessary, even if it meant sacrificing so much? Could they withstand hiding the most important thing that ever happened to them?
Maybe the kid with the tattoo understood. Needless to say, however, the whole prom thing left Alyssa grumpy.
To top it all off, her mother was in the building, standing a mere foot or two away from her, preening proudly over the ticket sales for the PTA sponsored event. Mrs. Greene had ensured her daughter volunteered for the same time slot she would be there, of course.
Lines were divided by last name, and Alyssa’s line was completely empty. Instead she smiled politely, ensuring her little song and dance as student council president was well played to anyone joining the other lines to purchase their prom ticket, or more likely, their ticket and one for their date.
When a familiar blonde walked towards the table and entered a line, she had to resist the urge to smile. The past few months had trained them to be extremely careful. Before they might have been paranoid. Recently they had seen it was critically necessary for survival.
Instead, Alyssa politely bowed her head, as she had with anyone else. Emma glanced around, then flashed her a quick wink.
Alyssa looked down and began to play with her pen, trying to resist staring at her girlfriend for the entire length of her ticket purchase happening beside her. Nick had the list of students with last names that would container “Nolan,” and Emma had just stepped up to the table.
“Two tickets, please.”
Alyssa’s head bolted up.
She couldn’t be.
“For who?” Nick asked, bewildered.
She looked directly back at him, face neutral. “Me. Emma Nolan. And a date.”
The young man took a moment to process the information before again questioning, “Who?”
Alyssa held her breath.
“It doesn’t matter,” Emma asserted, pulling out a sheet of paper, “I checked the rules the PTA sent us. Every student is allowed to buy two tickets, one for them, one for a date or guest. They can present ID at the door to confirm they’re a student here or in the county, you don’t need their name now. Literally says it right here.”
Alyssa looked on, frozen in horror, as her mother stepped towards the commotion.
“Is everything alright?”
This was literally her worst nightmare.
“She won’t tell me the name of her date,” Nick grunted, looking up at the woman now standing beside him.
Emma countered, “Your paperwork says I don’t have to.”
“Why don’t you just tell us the name of the nice young man you’ll be going with? If they’re a student here, we can check them off for their ticket.”
“She can’t because it ain’t a guy,” Nick scoffed, crossing his arms with a shit-eatting grin.
Alyssa’s mother blinked. “Pardon?”
“My date is a girl,” Emma explained simply and loudly, her voice staying firm but calm. Her posture was ridgid, the paper she was holding now crushed in a fist.
“This isn’t that kind of prom,” Mrs. Greene declared evenly. Her daughter could tell she was internally fuming; she spoke slowly when she was trying not to lose it.
Students in line were starting to watch. Even those walking by paused now to witness the unfolding scene. Alyssa couldn't even fathom how this would end well, but she desperately needed it to end.
And yet the smallest, softest voice from the corner of her soul whispered for Emma to keep fighting. That it was all for her, and for them.
“Right. It’s just prom, and I’m just a student that wants to go.”
“And you certainly can, just not with an inappropriate date.”
“What’s inappropriate about my date?”
“Principal Hawkins!” Aylssa practically screeched, bolting up the second she saw him in the distance. Her outburst caught his attention, if not that of the entire building. It was spontaneous and a gamble, but certainly a man that appreciated Broadway and the arts could be more sensitive to modern issues? Or in the very least, make this disaster of a conversation end.
“What’s wrong?” the man questioned as he walked unknowingly in the middle of a duel to the death.
A bomb had officially dropped on James Madison High School.
It was going to be a long afternoon.
“I heard a rumor you were going to ask someone out to prom,” Alyssa stated casually, crossing her arms and leaning against the concrete base beneath the metal bleachers.
Emma looked up from her phone, quickly pocketing the device.
“There’s this girl I’ve had my eye on,” she gushed dramatically, “I was planning a really epic promposal with like roses and me serenading her with this really mushy, romantic song on my guitar,” Emma trailed off, dropping the high pitched voice before deadpanning, “I guess the surprise is ruined since you were sitting there.”
“Right. That’s what ruined the surprise,” was the sarcastic response.
“I got to meet your mom though. That was fun,” she replied with a wiggle of the eyebrows.
“What are you going to do?”
Emma shrugged, looking at the football field through the bleacher seats. “Hawkins called me to his office. He said it’s up to me if I wanna do war with the PTA, but he has my back if I decide to.”
Alyssa nodded before repeating, “So...what are you going to do?”
“Depends,” she hummed, walking to stand next to the other woman, “Do you want to go to prom with me?”
“That’s a loaded question,” Alyssa sighed, arms dropping to her sides.
“It doesn’t have to be,” Emma replied, gently taking Alyssa's hands in her own, “Screw this town. I’m not trying to make a scene, but if they want to make it a big deal, we’ll make it a big deal. We’ll be leaving soon anyway, let’s go out with a bang.”
Alyssa bit her lip. “As much as I resent her, she’s still my mom.”
She could handle the whole school, even the whole town hating them. But she wasn’t fully ready to lose her only parent.
“I know. But is it fair to both of you that she doesn’t even know one of the most important parts of you?” she explained softly, “Look, I know it’s crazy-”
“Sure, sure, insane. I didn’t get to decide how I was going to come out. It got taken from me, and I decided after a lot of crying and hugs from you to make the best of it. And honestly, I feel so free now. Even with all the stares and comments from people, I still get to be me. Now that I’ve tasted it, this freedom...I want to offer it to you. The easiest, quickest, most glamorous way to come out.”
“I know. I just want to dance with you. At prom. Like every other student gets to do. And I’ll fight for the right to do it. For you,” she murmured, raising their joined hands to her mouth to place a kiss on Alyssa’s knuckles, “If you’re ready.”
Was she ready? Ready to risk losing her mother? No, absolutely not.
But to be by Emma’s side without reservation? Yes. To dance with her, not in the shadows but on a bright, open dance floor? To share the joy she felt with this woman with the world? Of course.
Was she ready to finally be free to be herself?
She knew the answer, and she swallowed hard.
“You’ll hold my hand?”
“I’ll be by your side the entire time,” Emma squeezed the fingers still laced with hers, “We’ll dance all night.”
Who could say no to that?
Emma’s eyes went wide. “Yeah!?”
“Yes. I’ll go with you to prom,” Alyssa laughed, and suddenly hands were on her hips, lifting her into the air with a twirl.
“I love you, Alyssa Greene!”
And it was time for the world to know.
I just wanna dance with you
And soon it's time to share it publicly
It’s time that you own it
And no more hiding how we feel anymore
I won't hide if you're by my side
“Come on. Lay off her.”
“Oh, are you on her side now?”
Who cares what other people say?
“No. I'm just not in third grade.”
And you wish there was a world
Where you were simply free to live
“Mom, I just want you to know what’s going to happen tonight.”
But your feelings have to be phony
You'd better learn to act
Let the whole world melt away
You're not yourself
You're not what she wants
You're someone in-between
Who cares what other people say?
And once we walk into that gym hand in hand
It's pretty obvious there's no going back
And said you'd go to prom with
Said you'd go to prom with
“I can't do this anymore. It hurts too much.”
“Are you breaking up with me?”
Said you'd go to prom with me!
“I guess I am, yeah.”
And that's a promise!
Who cares what other people say?
Endless rules apply when you're Alyssa Greene
Cause it's do or die when you're Alyssa Greene
Don't ask how or why when you're Alyssa Greene
Your whole life's a lie when you're Alyssa Greene
Go big or you’ve blown it.
I won't hide if you're by my side
Your whole life's a lie when you're Alyssa Greene
Your whole life's a lie when you're Alyssa Greene
Your whole life's a lie when you're Alyssa Greene
Before I met you, I was a mess
Not honest with myself, I confess
And turned my life around entirely
And in this other lifetime
When you tell yourself be brave you won't cave
That's the one thing I truly crave
“So, here it goes.”
“I love you, Emma Nolan!”
I just wanna dance with you
“You did it,” Alyssa murmured, swaying contentedly with Emma’s hands on her back.
“We did it. With some help.”
The two glanced across the dance floor to see Trent slapping a flask out of Angie’s hand that may or may not have been headed towards the punch bowl. Dee Dee was tucked closely to Mr. Hawkins in the corner. Barry was dancing with his mother, a plastic grown glittering on his head, amongst various students both local and from outside the town.
“I’m sorry I didn’t find my courage until the eleventh hour.”
Emma shook her head, pulling her girlfriend closer, “I’m sorry I put so much pressure on you. National media attention probably didn’t help.”
“No, you were right,” Alyssa smiled, “I’m so happy I got to see the vision in your head. I feel so relieved.”
She was rewarded with a small kiss to the cheek.
“All I could ever want is for you to be happy. You and your mom going to be OK?”
Alyssa looked over Emma’s shoulder to see Mrs. Greene talking with other parents. Her smile wasn’t the fake mask of the PTA president that fought against this prom with her whole being; it was the unadulterated joy of a mother celebrating her child.
“I think so,” she replied, glancing back to her dance partner with a smug smirk, “She wants you to come over for dinner next weekend.”
“Woah, I leveled up.”
They shared a laugh before Alyssa rested her head on Emma’s shoulder, allowing herself to drift away as they turned with the slow music. They had always fit together so perfectly, moving in complete synchronization.
“Never stop dancing with me,” Alyssa whispered.
She felt lips press against her ear. “I’m never letting go.”