I closed my eyes, visualizing what I would say when I went on the stage in front of the whole school for the rally. My main focus was getting the seniors excited about graduation and especially the sober grad party I’d spent the last couple of months organizing. What had started off as another bullet point for my resume had ended up being something I was looking forward to. Especially after Marcus had told me his band would play.
It was loud out there, the entire student body smashed into the gym. From where I stood behind the thick curtain, the sound pressed into me. I took three deep breaths, my speech perfected, my confidence up. Daniel stood next to me, ready to take the stage with me even though he rarely spoke to the group. Hearing our names called over the speakers, we stepped out from behind the curtain. I could sense a slight change in the reaction of the audience to me. Normally there were loud cheers and whistles. Today along with those there was also a lower murmur. Not from everyone but from some. It was the first time I realized that my actions had a broader effect than just within my circle of friends.
I took the mic and cleared my throat. “Hello, everyone! Welcome to the last rally of the year! Who’s ready for summer?” Beside me, Daniel raised his hands in the air and gave a loud shout.
There was a collective roar from the audience but it too was followed by some more murmuring. It threw me off. My speech that I had practiced seconds ago was slipping away. My eyes shot around the gym and landed on Claire. Hers was the safe face I had always searched for in the crowd on the few times I’d lost my composure. It wasn’t a safe face today and only made the rest of my speech leave my brain.
“I’m sorry,” I heard my voice echo through the gym. Daniel let out a surprise grunt from beside me. I hadn’t meant to say it out loud but I had so I kept going. “I made a mistake. No, I won’t be vague like that. I’ll own up to it. I lied. I’ve been lying to my friends for the past month or so. Over something I didn’t need to. Mainly because I didn’t trust that my friends would still be my friends if I told the truth. And also because I was very self-absorbed and wasn’t thinking beyond my own problems. What’s wrong with me?”
It was a rhetorical question but someone from the audience yelled, “Nothing. You’re still hot.” Laughter bounced off the walls with that comment.
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, thanks. That didn’t really help. My point is I messed up. And Claire, Laney, Jules, I’m sorry. And actually, anyone else who heard about it and was disappointed in me, I’m sorry to you too. I’m trying to be better. I want to be better.”
During my speech I had looked around, took in the room, delivered a message, but now my eyes sought out Claire again. I bit the inside of my cheek when I saw the cold look still on her face.
“I’m sorry.” I handed the microphone to Daniel. “Save this rally,” I whispered. “Get them excited for sober grad.”
“I can’t. I don’t know what to say.” His expression registered panic.
“Just be fun. You always are.”
The panic left his face with that comment. “I am, aren’t I?”
I smiled, squeezed his arm, and left to the sounds of Daniel chanting, “Sober grad” over and over.
Marcus and his band were good, really good, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Most of the students that had come to sober grad night were dancing and attempting to sing along with the songs they’d never heard before. And considering none of them was drunk—the whole point of sober grad night—that had to mean the band was bringing them to this state of entertained. I gave Marcus a thumbs-up when he met my eyes. He seemed to laugh a little, like that wasn’t the correct way to express my approval. There was some sort of “rock on” sign but I had no idea what it was. That was probably what I was supposed to use.
I scanned the crowd again. Things felt different tonight. Normally people were saying hi or talking to me, trying to catch my eye. Tonight eyes drifted past mine without thought or interest. Things had shifted. It didn’t sting as much as I thought it would. I didn’t deserve to be noticed any more than anyone else, especially because I rarely tried to notice people back. I was still working on being better about that.
There was a group that was getting a lot of notice. I hadn’t thought Claire, Laney, and Jules would come, not after their reaction to my public apology. Dirty looks during the rally had been followed by complete radio silence since, but they had come. It wasn’t to make up with me, though, because they’d pointedly ignored me all night. And they were surrounded by people.
My boyfriend had his own graduation party tonight, and his sister, my only friend at the present time, was only a junior. So that’s how I came to be all alone at an event I’d spent the last few months of my senior year organizing. But I was okay with that.
I’d graduated after thirteen years in public school. I’d probably be remembered, but I hoped I’d spend the next thirteen years of my life on something I could be remembered for.
“Hey, Gia.” A deep voice called me out of my thoughts.
I smiled. “Blake, the ice cream man. Happy graduation.”
“You too. This is a great party.”
“Thanks. I had a lot of help.”
The music stopped playing and Marcus said into the microphone, “The band is going to take a five-minute break. We’ll play some prerecorded music.”
Soon Marcus had set aside his guitar and was heading our way. I thought he was going to ask me about food or something but he just stopped in front of me and nodded. “Good crowd.”
“Thanks for playing. They love you.”
“Marcus, this is Blake.”
The guys nodded at each other.
“Your band is really good,” Blake said.
“Thanks. Despite being told otherwise recently, I think we’re halfway decent.” He winked at me. “Speaking of, where are your lovely friends tonight?”
“Um.” I pointed to where Claire, Laney, and Jules were now dancing with a group of guys.
“You outgrew them?”
“I think they outgrew me.”
I don’t know why those words made my eyes sting.
Someone grabbed me from behind and I let out a small yelp. Bec came into my view, so I could only assume the arms still wrapped around me belonged to Hayden. I tipped my head back to see him.
“You chose only the most laid-back teacher to serve as the security guard at the entrance,” Bec said. She put her arm around Marcus, who gave her a side hug back.
I laughed. “You guys broke into the party?”
“‘Broke in’ is such strong wording. ‘Let in’ is a better way to put it.”
“We thought you might be lonely,” Hayden said in my ear, “but it looks like you’re fine.”
Marcus backed up while saying, “Looks like the boys are ready to play again. See you.” He paused about five steps away. “And, Gia, I was serious.”
“Thanks.” Should I be thanking someone about telling me I outgrew my friends? I looked over at Jules, who was whispering something in Claire’s ear while pointing at someone else. Yes, maybe I was okay with moving on from them for now. Maybe this summer or next year Claire and I could patch things up. Claire caught my eye then before I could look away, and I thought her expression said there was hope. She gave me a small smile but then let Jules lead her toward the food table.
The band started playing again and Bec grabbed Blake’s arm. “I have no idea who you are but let’s dance. I have someone I need to make jealous.” He shrugged and followed her. It was hard to tell if, sitting behind the drums, Nate had noticed Bec.
I turned to face Hayden.
“Should I be jealous?” he asked.
“Of what?” At first I thought he was talking about Bec but then I realized he meant Marcus. “Oh. Of course not.” I cleared my throat and attempted my best low, husky voice. “I want to dance with you.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Was that an imitation of a robot? No, wait. A robot who smokes.”
I hit his chest. He gave me his smoldering stare and I was so happy that I didn’t have to control my reaction this time. I grabbed a fistful of his shirt and pulled him toward me. Our lips collided.
“You don’t have to be a statue, Gia. She’s not painting a portrait,” Bec said.
“Oh, right.” I adjusted my position on the stool where I sat while her mom painted.
Hayden came into the room and stood peering over his mom’s shoulder. “Are you really painting bones?”
“Bec gave me a good idea.”
“I told you she didn’t need you here,” Bec said.
“Of course I need her here. She’s my muse.”
“I actually need to steal her,” Hayden said.
“No, I’m in the zone.”
“Just for a second. Bec, take over.”
“I love how you all think anyone works as my muse,” Olivia said in a huff.
Hayden took my hand and pulled me out of the room. Out in the dim hall he pressed me against the wall and kissed me.
“You stole me for that?” I asked with a laugh.
“Yes . . . I mean no. I stole you to tell you our plan is in motion. Nate is on his way over. You distracted her long enough for me to steal her phone and text him.”
I smiled. “Nice. Payback is so fun.”
“So immature. Is she going to kill us?”
“Absolutely. But in the meantime . . .” His lips found mine again and I relaxed into him.