The sun rose on Friday, May 19th, as the teenagers of Dunam prepped for prom. In Cascadia, A-Court buzzed with energy. Christina Henley’s shrill laugh was twice as loud as normal. Buster Alcock depantsed twice his usual share of freshmen. The few teachers who bothered policing the seniors ran around at twice their manic pace, jumping from fight to swirlie to pantsing.
Everyone felt the excitement, even those who weren’t going. In the C-Court parking lot, Rod Kennedy recounted his freshmen year prom, when the Elmer busted up the after party, and chased Chuck Hinley halfway up Bourdouin mountain. Bev Tolbert, Angie Evans, and Javier Magana knew the punchline coming but laughed anyway as they finished their morning cigs.
Only shop class was impervious to prom fervor. Most of the shop boys had long buried their hope of dancing in pork rinds and cola. Chris Hargrove—the unofficial king of shop—was one of the few who went to prom, and he did so only at the behest of his girlfriend Christina Hennley. Chris had no delusions about what he would look like in a tuxedo, let alone on the dance floor. Prom was just another thing to be endured—like so much of his relationship with Christina. He planned to spend the evening in the back of the gym, spitting Red Man in a cup, and laughing at the faggots not yet encumbered by massive guts.
It was Dunam tradition to release school early on prom day. By the final moments of third period, the kids were boiling over. Teachers gave up any pretense of educating and fell into police mode—where most were more comfortable anyway—barking orders at their classes: “Stop eating lead weights, don’t pour acid on your book bags,” until school doors burst open, and kids flowed into the spring air.
The town was like a kicked ant hive. The streets ran with kids. Cars raced on straightaways. Middle school children scattered in every direction except home. Every corner of Dunam where sun touched and adult eyes didn’t, juniors and seniors popped beers and passed Wild Turkey. Even the mill workers in lower Dunam must’ve sensed the pheromones in the air. With Todd McKraken out after the destruction of his home, they collectively called it a day at 3:30, retreating to the mill parking lot to break out Hamms, and reminisce over their own glory days.
Jay stood before the mirror in the Derving’s downstairs bathroom, adjusting his yellow tie. The pale blueness of the wallpaper made his head swim and his hands shake. He hadn’t slept last night. Both Colin and Stevie seemed satisfied that Jay had a plan for how to handle prom. But for the first time in his life, Jay didn’t have a plan.
Lying on the floor of Colin’s basement, in Colin’s sleeping bag, his mind kept running back through everything. He didn’t know what to expect tonight, and he couldn’t see any way of getting to Liz to ask. If Hal caught him, he would probably be deleted. For once in his life, he had no plan. They were going to prom, and they were going to wing it. His tired brain was still working through this options when he heard the chirp of birds. He watched the sky brighten through the basement sliding doors, as a family of cliff swallows fluttered back and forth out of their mud nest.
Eventually, he heard Colin’s parents creaking across the floors above. There was a tap on the sliding door; it was Colin. He’d made a show of leaving for school, heading out then circling back down to the basement. They listened together for Colin’s dad to leave for work. Then they were free. Camilla stayed home, but she never came down into the basement.
Before they’d left Tutorial last night, they’d had the foresight to search The Build for tuxedos. Colin struggled into his pants, then stared sullenly into the mirror. Jay buttoned his shirt and fussed with his cufflinks, tying and re-tying his tie. He splurted a blotch of LA Looks into his palm and ran it through his hair, stepping back to admire himself. Somehow, despite his diminutive frame, his tuxedo was too small, shrinking up around his wrists and feet. He looked over at his friend, who was having the reverse problem; his jacket was too big, hanging down past his hands. For the first time in a long time, Jay broke into laughter.
“Jeez, we can’t catch a break.”
Colin’s face was mock serious. He started doing jazzercise.
“What are you doing?”
Colin didn’t say anything. He started doing the sprinkler. Jay smiled.
“You’re actually gonna try to dance?”
“I’ve been practicing the Roger Rabbit.” Colin slid his feet back and threw his arms up in a hopelessly arhythmic display.
“I have a question. How is the Roger Rabbit different from the Running Man?”
“Only a master can tell.”
Jay laughed. He knew Colin was purposefully lightening the mood, and he was grateful.
“Is this part of Ko-Jitsu?”
“The purest expression of the form.” Colin’s stopped dancing and fiddled with his tie in a moment of sudden seriousness. “You know why I practice Ko-Jitsu?”
“To be a ruthless killing machine?”
Colin shook his head. “Back in eighth grade—I don’t know if you remember—I used get picked on a lot. Sometimes I’d get kinda mad.”
A mental image of Colin throwing math book across Mr. Hensley’s class flashed through Jay’s mind.
“I made Ko-Jitsu to help me fight better. But that’s not why I practice it. I still do K0-Jitsu because it helps you know what’s right and what’s wrong.”
“Didn’t you invent the eight laws of Ko-Jitsu?”
Colin shrugged. “Yeah but that doesn’t matter. It’s the follow through that counts.”
Jay watched Colin fumble with his tie. “You know, you’re one of the coolest guys in Cascadia.”
Colin chuckled at the floor. “I don’t know if that’s true.”
“I’m serious, man. And you like Stevie, don’t you?”
“It’s okay. I’m starting to come around to her. I think you should ask her out.”
“Yeah. I think she likes you too.”
“Oh.” Colin was quiet.
“I always thought you were the coolest person at Cascadia.”
Jay smiled, tugging at his jacket sleeves to try and stretch them down. They stood together in the mirror, Jay’s suit too small on his tiny frame, Colin’s jacket sleeves rolled up.
“Yeah man. That’s why we’re friends.”