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“Hey, you guys!” called a breathless voice from behind us. “Wait up!”

Corinne Baker rolled her eyes as she drew to a halt. “Hurry up, loser,” she returned sardonically, glancing over her shoulder with a smirk. We all turned then, watching as Penny Weller jogged down the crowded hallway towards us.

“Sorry, sorry,” she continued, exhaling sharply as she caught up to us. “Ms. Fenimore kept me after class.”

Corinne arched a brow. “No problem,” she replied, in a voice that very much implied it was a problem. She was smiling however, as were the rest of my friends. Even Penny smiled, albeit uncertainly. I didn’t blame her; my own smile felt tight and uncomfortable. It was always hard to tell what kind of mood Corinne was in – she had the ability to smile through seething anger. It was a little scary, and it didn’t take much to set her off.

We stood in awkward silence for a moment. I glanced at the rest of our friends – Sheila McGregor, Margie Greene, and Darcy Redmond. They were all wearing identical, uncertain expressions. I’m sure I looked the same. We shifted our weight awkwardly from foot to foot, apprehension filling the air as we waited. For a fleeting moment, I felt a rush of exasperation – why were we all waiting for Corinne to tell us how to react?

I quickly quashed that feeling, though. It was my choice to be with these girls now. I should’ve felt privileged – back in middle school, they were the crème de la crème of the eighth grade. We hardly ran in the same social circles. The one time I did try to break into their clique, I was roundly rejected. After all, I had the gall to date one of Corinne’s ex-boyfriends, so I hardly knew my place.

Looking around now, I wondered if I still didn’t know. These girls were my friends now, but sometimes, our vibe didn’t feel very friendly.

Corinne flipped her hair over her shoulder. “Well, I don’t know about you bitches, but I’m starving,” she announced. She gestured down the hallway. “Shall we?”

The tension in the air deflated. Penny breathed a small sigh of relief, grateful to dodge Corinne’s Ice Queen wrath. We murmured and smiled and followed Corinne down the hall, our chatter picking up once more.

As we rounded the corner to the cafeteria, I peeled away from the group. “I’ll see you guys inside, okay?” I called, forcing a note of cheer into my voice that I didn’t really feel.

It was my turn to feel the heaviness of Corinne’s glare as she narrowed her eyes at me. “See you,” she replied dismissively, turning her back on me as she stepped into the noisy, crowded cafeteria.

Sheila shot me a small smile. “I’ll save you a seat,” she called, the last of my group to disappear into the chaos.

I sighed, pushing open the door of the first floor girls’ room. I’d been hanging out with those girls for nearly two years; they all knew I had diabetes. So why did Corinne always feel the need to let me know she was judging me? Like I was hanging onto my place in the group by a thread, simply because I didn’t walk into the cafeteria with the rest of them on a daily basis?

There are some things I’ll never understand.

I glanced around the bathroom quickly, wanting to make sure it was empty. Even though I was alone, I still slipped into the middle stall and locked the door behind me. I liked the extra privacy, and there was no need to subject anyone else to my daily insulin ritual. I looped my purse on the hook at the back of the door and took out my injection kit, resting it on the top of the toilet paper dispenser. It’s been nearly five years since I started giving myself daily, multiple injections of insulin, and I’m more than used to it by now, but I still feel like a very sick person every time I have to do it. My hands were trembling as I ripped open the alcohol swab and rubbed a patch of clean skin on my abdomen. Even after I’d given myself the shot and dismantled the syringe, I felt weak and shaky. I braced myself against the stall wall, swallowing hard as I waited for the queasy feeling to pass. It seemed to last longer and longer these days, no matter what I did. I’d taken to giving myself my morning injection right at the breakfast table these last few weeks, but not even an immediate shot of juice or fruit seemed to help the dizzy, nauseated feeling.

After a few moments, I shifted my weight onto my feet and stood up again, replacing the items in my kit and closing it up, stowing it safely in my purse. I took another deep breath, wiping my hand across my brow as I prepared to exit the stall. My hand froze on the lock, however, when I heard the outer door open and close. The water in the far sink splashed on just then, and I rocked back on my heels. It would be just easier to wait until she left, I decided.

Her hand-washing seemed to go on forever, though, and my stomach turned over on itself. I couldn’t stand it any longer – I needed to eat. I unlatched the door in a rush, propelling my feet forward. Let whoever it was think the worst of me – anorexia rumors had followed me around for years. I kept my eyes low, focusing on the sink straight ahead, and I tried to ignore the other person.

The other sink shut off, but the girl just stood there, tapping her wet fingers on the sides of the basin. I could sense her hovering, as if she was waiting for me to notice her. I looked up sharply, opening my mouth to ask what the big deal was, but choked the words back when I realized who it was standing next to me.

I shut off the water in my sink as I gazed at the other girl’s reflection in the mirror. “Kristy,” I said, unable to completely hide my surprise.

Her eyes shifted to mine, though her expression didn’t change. She hadn’t really changed much in the last couple of years – she was still short, her long brown hair pulled back in a messy ponytail, dressed in warm-up pants with an untucked t-shirt. She looked awkward but determined, sizing me up in the mirror.

“Stacey,” she returned after a moment, her voice carefully neutral.

My spine stiffened as I reached up for a paper towel to dry my hands. I felt as uncomfortable as she looked, and for good reason. We hadn’t really talked much since the summer before freshman year, when I’d unceremoniously quit the Baby-sitters Club.

Again.

And, apparently, my quitting was just the beginning. I’d heard from Claudia that the group had dissolved a few months later, and that Kristy blamed me for it.

I hadn’t spoken to her – or Mary Anne, or any of the other ex-club members, except Claudia – since.

I wasn’t sure what she wanted from me now, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to stick around and find out, either. Kristy is rather infamous for her ability to hold a grudge (just ask Cokie Mason). The last thing I needed was for her to think that this was the perfect opportunity to unload her wrath, especially if it had been simmering for a couple of years.

I tossed the paper towels in the trash and took a step away from the sink, which Kristy took as her cue to speak. “Listen, Stacey,” she said, dropping her gaze, “I need to talk to you.”

I furrowed my brow, studying her reflection in the mirror. “About?” I prodded hesitantly.

“Sam,” she replied, and my heart skipped a beat. I stepped up to the sink again, my curiosity piqued. Kristy’s expression was still stormy, but she barreled on.

“You know he’s a senior this year, right?” she said.

I nodded silently, wondering where all of this was leading.

“And for whatever reason, he’s really into all of this senior prom stuff,” she continued, waving her hand dismissively. I hid a smile – that was the Kristy I remembered, never having much patience for dances or dates.

Still, I had to wonder why she was telling me all of this. My stomach turned again, and desperately, I willed her to get to the point.

Her eyes met mine in the mirror again. “His girlfriend dumped him,” she said flatly.

My hunger deserted me. I slumped forward slightly, gripping the sides of the basin for support.

Kristy shrugged, struggling to contain her emotions. “I guess they were close. She really did a number on him – apparently it was out of the blue. Said she was bored of him, wanted to date other people, or some such nonsense.” Her mouth twisted in a fierce frown, her hands fisting at her side. “Whatever,” she muttered. “He’s been moping around the house ever since. If I wasn’t depending on him to bring me to school, he’d probably keep himself locked up in his room on a daily basis.”

I bit my lip, unsure of how to react to this news. My immediate feeling was one of, well, surprise. I’d known of Sam’s relationship with this girl – he’d more or less broken it off with me to pursue her. We’d dated casually, on and off, since I was in middle school. We were never exclusive, even if I’d wanted that, once upon a time. More than that, though, we’re friends – good friends, real friends, the kind of friends who see each other through really shitty situations. I’d leaned on him, and he’d leaned on me, and, at times, things had taken a romantic turn.

I didn’t like giving up that part of our relationship, but I could understand it, especially when I saw him with her for the first time. Sam was in absolute awe of her, in a way he’d never been of me – or any other girl. He was so head over heels in love that I couldn’t be angry or upset that he’d decided to go for her. And she’d seemed nice enough, at the time.

Though, if Kristy’s story was true, I could certainly understand her desire to absolutely deck the girl now.

All the same, I was equally surprised that she’d sought me out to deliver this news. My relationship with Sam had strengthened over the years, enduring the rift that had ended my friendship with his sister. It was, I had to admit, pretty big of Kristy to seek me out, even if I wasn’t sure I could do anything to make the situation better.

It was hard not to feel for her, though – the amount of her brother’s pain that she felt herself was obvious, as was her determination to make it better. Kristy has always been fiercely loyal to those she loves, and that’s definitely something that I miss, now that we’re no longer friends.

“Anyway,” she sighed, releasing her fists, smoothing her still-damp hands over the front of her pants. “I know you two…”

Her words trailed off as she turned and looked at me, furrowing her brow with grim determination. “I know you two are close, even if you’re mostly caught up in your own little world these days.”

I flushed under her scrutiny, but let the rude comment slide.

“My brother really needs a friend right now, Stacey,” she continued, working to keep her tone even. “And I think – I think that friend should be you.”

That brought me up short. “So what are you saying?” I asked cautiously, unsure of her reasoning.

She exhaled sharply, schooling her features into one of exaggerated patience, as if she was about to explain a complicated concept to an eight-year-old. “You mean a lot to my brother, and so does this prom. So why don’t you go with him?” she suggested, managing not to sound as condescending as she looked.

“I don’t know…” I was hesitant. I’ve been through bad breakups before, and the last thing I ever felt like doing was going out and celebrating. And what could be worse than feeling miserable at your senior prom? I didn’t blame Sam for wanting to sit this one out.

“Come on,” Kristy wheedled. “It’s not like they print the names of the couples on the prom tickets or anything.” She looked – and sounded – doubtful of that last detail, but she’s never been one to let details get in her way when she’s on a roll. “And it’s not like you’d be the only sophomore there – aren’t, um, some of your friends going, too?”

I nodded, but didn’t speak. Corrine had been bragging about being asked to the prom by a senior, lording it over the rest of us like we were inferior if we couldn’t do the same. Sometimes, being friends with her was incredibly draining.

I eyed Kristy. Not for the first time did I wonder if I’d made a mistake, trading in one difficult friend for another.

Kristy rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on, Stacey,” she huffed, fisting her hands against her hips. “I realize you’re hanging around with the plastic personality brigade now, but can’t you put someone else’s feelings first, for a change?” She shook her head. “You know what? Never mind. Forget I even asked.”

She turned on her heel, storming towards the door. She had it halfway open before I managed to formulate a response.

“Kristy!” I yelped. “Would you just wait a minute?”

She looked back at me, her expression full – of frustration, of anger, of helplessness. I’d only ever seen Kristy cry once before, all the way back in seventh grade when we thought another group of girls was usurping our baby-sitting territory. Her expression now was almost identical to the way it had looked then.

“I’ll do it, okay?” I said, my voice sounding far calmer than I felt.

She nodded curtly. “Thanks,” she grunted, turning around and storming out of the bathroom.

~*~

Our strange conversation floated around the back of my mind for the rest of the afternoon – through the disgusting hot lunch in the cafeteria, through Corinne’s thousand-yard accusatory stare, through history and English and art classes that afternoon. My punishment for being late to lunch was for the rest of the group to desert me the moment the final bell rang that afternoon, but I didn’t care.

I wanted to see for myself that what Kristy had told me was true.

Not that I thought she was lying, but…well, if Sam was in as bad a shape as she intimated, I wanted to know exactly what I was getting myself into – and how guilty I should feel that I hadn’t noticed it myself.

I lingered in the parking lot after school, pretending to find the rose bushes near the gym particularly fascinating. I didn’t have to wait long – it’s not hard to pick Kristy Thomas out of a crowd, especially not when she’s carrying a softball bat over one shoulder and hustling as if her life depended on it. Even from halfway across the parking lot, I could hear her chattering a mile a minute. She looked back sharply then, dropping the bat to the ground as she realized she’d gotten out ahead of her companion.

“Come on, Sam,” she cajoled, trotting back a couple of steps and tugging on her brother’s sleeve. “You’re going to make me late!”

I waited, straining my ears to hear his reply – I was expecting something jokey, or witty, or gently sarcastic, but heard nothing. If he spoke, it was barely a murmur; I couldn’t hear it. Kristy’s expression softened, and she simply took his arm, slowing down to his speed. Sam trudged along beside her as if he the weight of the world rested on his shoulders, his head hanging down like a lost, unloved puppy’s.

~*~

It was incredibly short notice – only three days had passed between my conversation with Kristy in the girls’ room and the day of the prom – but I managed to pull it off. My mother helped me pick out a beautiful, dark red dress, long and slim-fitting and off the shoulder. It was more of an evening gown than a true prom dress, but I thought it looked really sophisticated. I paired it with some tasteful silver jewelry, which looked great in contrast to my springtime tan. My mother insisted on dressing my hair, swirling it up in a complicated hairstyle and tucking it behind silver combs.

The final package looked pretty amazing, if I do say so myself. Certainly not bad for three days’ work (with a big thanks to my mother’s employee discount from Belair’s)!

The prom had already officially started by the time I made it across town to the Thomas-Brewer mansion, but it was still early in the evening. The sun waned behind the house as I pulled into the driveway. I carefully extracted myself from my car and walked up the front steps, smoothing my dress over my hips and taking a deep breath as I contemplated the door.

For one brief moment, doubt clouded my mind. What if this was all a monumental joke, some weird revenge scheme that Kristy had concocted to get back at me for quitting the BSC?

No, I told myself, my eyes falling closed, a memory of Sam’s sad figure from two days ago floating into the forefront of my mind. Kristy can be rude, but she’s not cruel – and neither is Sam. He enjoyed playing practical jokes on us back in middle school, but that was all in good fun.

I rang the bell, feeling guilty for even entertaining such mean thoughts. What had spending all my time with Corinne and her group done to me?

It wasn’t long before I felt – rather than heard – the thunderous galloping of feet on the other side of the door. I could hear muffled voices on the other side, accompanied by the muffled bark of a dog, but still, the door remained closed.

I furrowed my brow, feeling both confused and amused.

Just as I was trying to decide whether or not to ring the bell again, the commotion in the house stopped.

“Seriously, Kristy,” came a male voice, growing clearer as the knob turned in front of me, “why do I have to open the door? You’re already standing here.” The door swung open, revealing to me the menagerie that waited on the other side – but the only person I saw was my erstwhile date.

He was staring at me in utter amazement, as if I was the last person he expected to be standing on his doorstep.

“Hi, Sam,” I greeted him, suddenly feeling nervous. I clasped the strap of my handbag between my fingers.

He blinked rapidly. “Stacey,” he sputtered, his eyes roving down the length of me, “you look – amazing!” (I flushed.) He furrowed his brow as his gaze met mine once more. “But…what are you doing here?”

I smiled at him, pleased to see an expression other than despair cross his features. “I’m your date, silly,” I replied, my nerves banking easily, now that I knew he liked what he saw. I took a step forward, laying my hand over his. “We’re going to the prom.”

“We are?” he echoed skeptically, not quite able to tear his eyes away from me. I could understand his confusion – he was standing there in ratty jeans and an old t-shirt, quite obviously having given up on the idea of going to his senior prom now that his girlfriend had deserted him.

I squeezed his hand reassuringly, catching his gaze once more. I hated to see him so troubled, and I could sense that the old, fun-loving Sam lurking just below the surface…if only he could move past his hurt long enough to let it out.

He leaned close, lowering his voice. “This isn’t a joke?” he asked, his tone almost desperate, making me wonder just how much his ex had messed him up.

I drew a bit closer, my smile fading as I searched his eyes. “This isn’t a joke,” I assured him. You know I could never hurt you like that, I added silently, before catching myself – did he know that?

After a long moment, his mouth curved into a smile, causing my heart to skip a beat. “All right,” he said, lacing his fingers through mine. “I’m going to the prom!”

I smiled back, tilting into him as the clasp of his hand tightened over mine, only for the moment to be broken when a cheer broke out behind him. We glanced back, not even realizing we’d had an audience.

Sam took a step backwards, releasing my hand. “I’m – just – going to change,” he said, pointing over his shoulder as he backed into the house. He gave me a lingering look as he turned for the stairs.

“Stacey! Stacey! Stacey!” While I was staring off behind my date, two sets of child-sized hands began pulling on my arms. I looked down, realizing that Karen and Emily Michelle were tugging me across the threshold and into the house, both wearing identical, enchanted smiles.

“You look beautiful!” Karen declared, gazing up at me adoringly.

“Pretty,” agreed Emily Michelle, reaching out to touch my skirt.

“Gross,” put in David Michael, drawing my attention further into the cavernous foyer. He was standing off to one side, watching his younger sisters with bemusement as they oohed and aahed over my dress. Andrew stood solemnly beside him, with Shannon, the dog, at their feet.

“Where are you going?” Karen wanted to know. She circled around me slowly, pressing the bridge of her glasses up the slope of her nose as she marveled at my dress.

I opened my mouth to respond, but someone beat me to it. “The prom,” piped up a new voice. I looked up and saw Kristy standing next to her brothers. She gave me a small smile before stooping down to pet Shannon.

“The prom?” echoed Karen, sounding overawed. I could practically see the wheels turning in her head. She turned, spotting her brothers off to one side. “Come on, David Michael and Andrew,” she said, marching up to them. “We’re going to the prom!”

Before they could protest, Karen had both of them by the arms, dragging them into the living room. Emily Michelle trailed after them, humming a nonsensical tune and dancing around, a dreamy expression on her face.

I smiled, shaking my head as I smoothed my gown once more. There’s never a dull moment at the Thomas-Brewer household.

Kristy stood up, allowing Shannon to skitter on behind the kids. She slowly turned to face me, stuffing her hands into the pockets of her jeans and training her eyes to a point beyond my left shoulder. “Thanks, Stace,” she murmured.

“Sure,” I managed, swallowing hard over the lump that had suddenly formed in my throat.

The awkward moment was saved when Mrs. Brewer wandered into the foyer. “Did I hear someone say something about the prom?” she asked pleasantly. Kristy ducked out of the room as her mother approached me, her eyes widening with delight. “Oh, Stacey, you look lovely!”

“Thanks,” I replied, feeling a light flush burnish my cheeks at her approval.

“Doesn’t she?” echoed another voice, drawing our attention to the stairway. My breath caught in my chest as I watched Sam descend. He was dressed to perfection in a tastefully cut black tuxedo, his dark hair curling ever so slightly over his forehead. He smiled at me, his entire expression lighting up, and I felt warm all over, my heart fluttering in my chest.

“You clean up pretty nicely yourself,” Mrs. Brewer joked as her son approached, brushing a bit of lint from the lapel of his jacket.

Sam only had eyes for me as he took my hands in his. “I guess I’m glad I kept this,” he said sheepishly, “though I never thought I’d have the chance to wear it, after…well, anyway, you look beautiful. Have I told you that yet?”

“You both look wonderful,” Mrs. Brewer cut in. “Now, how about a picture before you go?” She turned, taking a few steps down the hall as she called out to her husband to bring the camera.

I wasn’t really paying much heed to her, however, the entirety of my attention taken up by Sam. He looked like the old Sam again, the one who had captured my heart in seventh grade, his eyes alive and his smile promising. A rush of memories came to the surface – the first time we’d confessed our feelings to each other, our first real date, our first real kiss…

A flash went off in my periphery, startling me, quickly followed by another, and another.

“Oh, Mom,” Sam groaned, releasing one of my hands and holding his up in front of his face. “Do we really have to do this?”

“Just one more,” she cajoled, directing us to stand next to each other. Sam’s arm snaked across my shoulders, and my patented picture-smile turned genuine just as she snapped the picture.

Mrs. Brewer looked up, her eyes turning watery. “It’s so nice to see you smiling again,” she said softly, and I knew she wasn’t talking to me. I could feel tears welling up behind my eyes, and I knew that if I wanted to make it to the dance with my makeup intact, that it was time to leave.

“Come on,” I said softly, taking Sam’s arm. “We should go.”

“Have a lovely time!” his mother called after us, still clutching the camera. Her words drew the others from the living room, and all of his younger brothers and sisters came to see us off, making me feel proud and self-conscious all at the same time. We descended the front steps and walked down the driveway, breathing a sigh of relief when we finally heard the heavy front door close.

Sam stopped a couple of steps from my car, causing me to glance back at him. “Stacey,” he said quietly, gazing at me intently. “I don’t know how you knew, but – thank you.”

Thank your sister, I thought, drawing closer to him. I gazed up at him, feeling bold enough to touch his cheek before curling my hand around his neck. “Anytime, Sam,” I whispered, pressing a gentle kiss to his lips before pulling away with a smile. “Anytime.”