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The Wallflower

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She spun around in front of the mirror in her new Laura Ashley dress. The Snow Ball was special so her mother had taken her all the way into the city to the Laura Ashley boutique so that they would have the widest selection of dresses for her to choose from. She really wanted a white, lavender, and rose dress even though technically that color scheme was out of season. But her mother assured her that the larger boutique in Indianapolis would probably have one.

And now here she was in her brand new three-quarter length floral dress with puffy sleeves, as pretty as she could be. But she knew that wasn't quite pretty enough . . . it never would be. She found her favorite necklace – the one with the large rose-colored beads – and draped it over her neck. It matched perfectly. If only her drab, brown hair did. She was plain, boring – in sharp contrast to her clothing. Her mother had indulged her with the dress, but would not let her don make-up. That was for high school she said. So, there wasn't much she could do to liven up her features.

She sighed and found her lavender banana clip – an early Christmas gift from her cousin in California. No one wore them in Hawkins yet, but her cousin assured her they'd be all the rage in no time. But what did it matter what she wore? It's not like anyone would notice if she was fashion-forward anyway. She pulled her hair up into the clip and it fell back onto her neck like a well-groomed horse's mane. To go with her horse face she thought and frowned, pulling it out.

Her mother knocked on her door. "Can I see?"

She let her into the room and gave a little twirl, showing off the dress.

"That's lovely, sweetie. I'm sure he'll take notice of you tonight."

She blushed deeply. Her mother pretended not to notice and just came over and started petting her hair. "Now what are you going to do with this?"

"I'm going to wear it down."

"Really? But that's so plain. Didn't your cousin give you -?"

"I'm not wearing it."

"Okay, okay," her mother said, acquiescing. "Come sit with me."

She patted the bed and they both took a seat.

"Now about this boy . . ."

Yes, this boy.

She had known him for years. They'd always gotten along. And the summer before last . . .

"Get away! Get away everyone! You're scaring him." Dustin was yelling at a crowd of kids.

They had all been chasing a snake through the grass, including her. It had eventually gotten cornered and tied up in a mess of broken up chainlink and other debris in the corner of their school's baseball field.

"Back away!" Dustin had commanded.

The snake was scared and thrashing about, injuring itself.

"Hey little, buddy," Dustin got on his knees and spoke quietly to it – tried to calm it down.

One of the boys jeered, "You're going to get bit, Henderson."

"Oh no!" one of the other girls gasped. "What if it's poisonous?"

Dustin turned his attention away from the snake for a bit, to reassure them all that it was harmless. "He's not poisonous, he's a type of garter -"

The girl flounced off before he could finish his sentence and most of the boys had already gotten bored and drifted off, too. Dustin just shook his head. "Oh well, less of a crowd probably makes it easier on this little guy."

She watched as he delicately extracted the snake from the chainlink, talking soothingly to it the entire time. By the time he had it completely removed only the two of them were left.

"You want to pet him?" Dustin held out the snake to her. It was dark green, darker than grass, and had a bold yellow double stripe down its back. "He won't hurt you."

"I know," she said and raised a finger to it, stroked it along the yellow stripe. Its head started thrashing a little, scared at her touch, but Dustin spoke soothingly to it in an attempt to calm it down.

And then suddenly the snake whipped around and bit Dustin's left hand. "Owww!"

He dropped it and it slithered away quickly. It was out of sight within seconds.

"Let me see," she said and took his hand. There was a bluish-purple V-shaped bruise forming between his index finger and thumb where the snake had bitten him. But there was no bleeding. "Weird."

"I know, huh?" Dustin said. "Notice there's no teeth marks?"

She nodded.

"I think we should call him Gumby. I don't think he has any teeth!"

They had a good laugh together sitting there in that baseball field just the two of them.

As she walked home that day she began to realize that she liked Dustin. A lot. And from that day forward she had never uttered another word to him – she was too shy. But it wasn't like he had noticed her silence . . .

"Sweetie, you gotta at least say hi to him. Let him know you're alive," her mother was saying. "You're so painfully shy it isn't good for you."

She just hung her head and nodded. Her mother knew she had a crush on some boy, but thankfully didn't know which one - or that she hadn't actually uttered one word to him in over a year.

Her mother dropped her off in the front of the gym's entrance for the Snow Ball and it was Mr. Clark, the science teacher, who greeted her.

"Ah, you're one of the first ones here!" he exclaimed.

"I know," she said self-consciously. Her mother always insisted on being crazy early to everything and it was always so nerve-wracking waiting for others to arrive.

"Well, Nancy and Jonathan are setting up. I'm sure they can keep you company while you wait for your friends to arrive," he said.

Friends? Did Mr. Clark even pay attention to anything? She didn't really have any friends.

"Okay," she muttered and went into the gym. She found her way underneath the blue and white balloon arches marking the entrance to the ball and over to the bleachers that had been bedecked with tacky metallic streamers. She had a sinking feeling this was going to be where she would be planted for the rest of the night. No one ever noticed her – no matter how hard she tried to make herself look pretty or fashionable. Her mother always admonished her, saying that no one can compliment you on how you look - on all the effort you've put into it - if you can't even meet them in the eye.

"Hi!" Nancy Wheeler, Mike's older sister was suddenly standing in front of her with a friendly smile on her face. "Would you like to come help me set up the punch?"

"No," she answered meekly. She didn't know what else to say to this girl.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes," she said quietly and looked away.

"Okay then," Nancy said. "By the way, I love Laura Ashley too. And you look great in that dress – such pretty colors."

She was astounded and looked back up to meet the older girl's eyes. She was smiling brightly back at her. What had she done to warrant such attention? Before she could think too much about it, the first official song of the dance started and Nancy excused herself.

She was alone on the bleachers once again with nothing to focus on but Dustin's arrival. She had to say hi to him tonight. She had promised her mother.

An agonizing ten songs went by. All of his friends had already arrived, and with each of them she got more and more nervous. Where was he? Her stomach was in knots, she was even sweating a little. The longer this went on, the sicker she felt. She told herself as soon as he arrived, she would stand up, walk over to him, say hi and be done with it. Then she could just walk away if it was too awkward, which she knew it would be. That was her out. But she had to be bold – for the first part. She had to get through this.

An Olivia Newton John song started playing. She normally liked this song, but couldn't concentrate on it – she was too keyed up. And then . . .

There he was, strutting through the balloon arches as if he owned the place. Dustin.

His hair was different. Very different. She gulped. He looked . . . slick. It must be all the time he had been spending with that older boy, Steve. As she watched him calmly, confidently give a quick salute to Nancy she realized that Dustin was suddenly cool. Too cool for her . . .

She couldn't approach him now. What if he made fun of her for liking him? If she said hi to him now, she knew he would figure out that she had feelings for him. Her stomach twisted. He went over to talk to his friends and she lost sight of him behind a Christmas tree that was blocking her view. That allowed her to relax a little.

Time After Time started playing and she couldn't help but think wistfully of Dustin. It was safe to do so now that he was out of sight.

"If you're lost and you look you will find me"

"Time after time"

"I will be waiting"

"Time after time"

She sat on the bleachers, waiting, hoping for him to notice her. She wished she could be as bold as Cindy Lauper – able to just shave a criss-cross pattern on one side of her head and still be considered beautiful. Bold and beautiful. Someday perhaps she could be . . .

But Dustin? Dustin was bold. She was finally able to see him past the Christmas tree again, confidently striding towards a group of popular girls.

Oh no . . .

She was instantly on edge as she saw him hold out his hand to Stacy, one of the bitchiest girls in the entire school. She practically squirmed for him. Somehow, she just knew no matter how cool he had become, Stacy would –

And she did. One didn't even have to hear the conversation. Stacy turned him down and then her friends further humiliated him by laughing in his face, leaving him standing there.

Her blood boiled for him. How dare she? She wanted to kill Stacy.

But Dustin? Amazingly he shrugged it off and tried again. She couldn't believe it when she saw him approaching another group of girls. She only wished someday she could be so bold.

But then –

They rejected him before he even reached them. Her heart ached as she watched him forlornly gaze upon all the couples on the dance floor.

"Watching through windows"

"You're wondering if I'm okay"

Time After Time was a slow song. A song where people cuddled up and got close. He was all alone. So was she.

Dustin slowly made his way over to her – over to the bleachers. But he didn't see her – he kept his head down. He sat down so close to her that her heart almost stopped, but he turned away, dejected. Now was the time she realized.

This time of all times was when he needed a friend.

She stood up, her palms drenched, her legs shaky, determined to be bold. Not for herself, not to finally be noticed – but for him.

She took that first tentative step towards him and then –

Nancy, friendly as ever, asked Dustin to dance and swept him out onto the dance floor.

She sat back down without having ever really made a move. She watched Dustin and Nancy dance, noticing the easy way he was with the older girl and the way he made her smile – Stacy noticed too. It was then that she realized that she would never be as cool as him. She would always remain unnoticed in the shadows.