3450 words (13 minute read)

Spring Fling

The clouds arrived at 6:07 pm. The beautiful skies that Dunam had been enjoying for weeks were suddenly swallowed in grey. A strong, cold wind blew up from the Skookullom. Loud cracks boomed through the forest, as cedar boughs broke and tumbled down.

The rain came. It started as a light patter, slowly cranking to a full torrent. Drops hurled from the sky, calling down hail after. Rivulets ran through dirt, collecting into streams, then snaking out of the forest and onto asphalt, where they morphed into thick, black sheets that seemed to varnish the land.

Students who’d only minutes ago been basking in the pre-prom light were forced into their cars. Lightning ripped over the sky, startling pets, putting parents on edge and electrifying Cascadia seniors. Everyone could feel that something was about to happen.

The rain washed away everyone’s plans of arriving fashionably late. Suddenly, getting to the prom became a matter of survival. The C-Court parking lot burst with cars, spraying through the deep puddles that had formed. A-Court trucks rammed their way into the spots normally reserved for laidback smokers and drama nerds. Cars spilled out onto the sides of Simmons road. By 7:30, couples were jogging toward the school, tuxedo jackets held to ward off the rain.

The more chivalrous of students could be seen walking alone, having dropped off their dates at the door, and becoming—for the moment—the envy of the girls who hiked through the deluge in heels.

As the prom-goers choose their various strategies for arrival, Colin watched, in growing discomfort, their own plans unravel. The Blues Brother shades that Jay had brought as disguises sat in the backseat of the batmobile, useless in the darkness. As they drove towards the gym, the batmobile’s single windshield wiper, working overtime, suddenly flew off the car and out into the baseball field. Their windshield was immediately plastered in a thick sheet of water. Colin stuck his head out to navigate, which still did little to help his visibility and less to help his comfort. The C-Court parking lot was full, and showed no signs of emptying, even after their third circle through. They saw students eye their backfiring jalopy with disdain. Jay rolled down his window and whistled at passing freshmen.

“Yo! Can we get a valet? Three hundred bucks? Five hundred?” Jay waved a stack of bills through the window.

“C’mon. Who’s an entrepreneur?”

He pulled the soaking money back into the cab.

“Sheesh. Lazy kids. No wonder our economy is so bad.”

The only parking spot they could find was at the far end of Simmons road, in front of the stop sign at Snowden road outside of Teddy’s auto part lot, a good ten minute jog to the school. They spent half hour an hour sitting inside, waiting for the rain to subside, which it did not.

Jay was nervous. For the first time since he could remember, he had no plan. Colin looked anxiously at Jay, waiting for some guidance. As pondered what to do, he broke up the silence by advising Colin on prom. He’d been once, his freshmen year, and that made him the resident expert.

“And the last dance is a slow dance. Get it lined up beforehand, with whoever you like best.”


“Because the last dance is when the magic happens. Trust me. Also, some kids will get more and more drunk as the night goes on. Don’t be surprised.”

“Is it like a party, then? Will there be fights and… sex?”

Jay sighed. “Don’t think of it in moral terms. Only a few people will drink, but they’ll loosen up the whole crowd. The drunk kids encourage the sober kids to go dance. Its symbiosis. Greater social good.”

Jay nodded, pleased at his cogency. The batmobile’s clock—an antique timepiece nailed to the dashboard—read 8:27. Jay had a flash of his dream. He saw Hal getting out of his mom’s car, banging on the mobile home door. Hal would be picking up Liz right now, Jay was certain. He did some quick calculations to see how far along they were in the playlist. “One hour, three and a half minutes a song, eighteen songs in…”

The rain showed no sign of abating. Jay sighed and turned to Colin. “We’d better go. Grab the weapons.”

In the backseat they’d stashed a grenade launcher, a plasma rifle, and a Gorkon Power Blade. Jay peered out his window. The prom traffic now had mostly abated. Way down the road, they could see the parking lot with a few straggling trucks still searching for spots.  Colin lifted the plasma rifle.

“How are we gonna carry them?”

Jay sighed. “I don’t know.”

“I could loop the Power Blade through my belt.” Colin offered.

“Ms. Shirell will see it then.”

“What if we just brought the grenade launcher in, and we stashed the plasma rifle and Power Blade outside?”

“Outside? They’ll get—”

A knock on the window startled them. Colin threw the plasma rifle into the backseat. Outside stood a dark figure, face obscured by the fogged glass. Colin cautiously rolled down the window. The figure was wreathed in dark foul weather gear. It poked its head into their cab, dripping water onto Colin’s lap. It was Stevie.

“Hey, there you are. I’ve been looking for you. What are you guys doing?”

“Strategizing,” Jay muttered defensively.

Stevie pointed to the ceiling. “Your roof’s leaking.”

They turned. A stream of drips fell from the ceiling, splattering the grenade launcher.

“Oh no!” Jay spun around and wiped it dry with his sleeve. “Do these work if they’re wet? Hey... where’s the Power Blade?”

There were only two weapons on the backseat. Colin stared at the hole in the floorboards.

“Uh, I think we mighta lost it.”

“You were in charge of weapons!”

“I had to drive.”

“Great. What if some kid finds it?”

“Should we go back and look?”

Jay turned to Stevie. “What’s going on in there?”

“Uh, I don’t know. Kids are dancing?”
“What song was playing when you left?”

“I don’t know the name.”

“Well sing it.”

Stevie sang it. Jay snapped his fingers. “That’s one of the few I don’t know yet. But it goes that one, then James Taylor. Rats, we don’t have time to look. Let’s go.”

Jay opened his door.

“So bring the pulse rifle or no?”

“Ah… just… leave it, I guess.”

The three of them walked down Simmons road. Ahead, Jay saw the gym lights sparkle through the wall of water. Stevie, lost underneath her rainproofing, shuffled along like a scarecrow while Colin lumbered at his plodding pace. Jay kept miserable pace with his friends, his tuxedo getting drenched, fighting the urge to run ahead.

“Talent Show, Bigmouth, Age of Consent…” Jay counted off on his fingers. “We’ve got nine songs. Nine songs until Hal makes his move. Whatever his move is.”

By the time they reached the gym their tuxedos—cheap, synthetic, not built for the elements—were saturated. Their shoulderpads sagged over their chests like sponges, and their feet sloshed with every step. Through the darkened glass doors, past their three sad reflections, the ticket booth was empty. Jay had a flash of his dream, in which he and Liz ran through the rain, and had their tickets taken by Ms. Shirell. There was no sign of her now.

“C’mon.” Jay grumbled.

He flung open the door and a deep, pounding bass enveloped them. The air was heavy with the humidity of rainwater evaporating off student bodies. Kids bustled in and out of the gym, gossiping, laughing, too lost in prom to notice three bedraggled latecomers. The only ones who registered their arrival were three girls in matching peach dresses sitting by on a bench by the door. On seeing Jay, they burst into laughter. Jay ignored them, scanning C-Court for any sign of Hal or Liz.

A big hand-drawn banner proudly proclaimed this prom as a “Spring Fling.” Through the doors of the gym, Jay saw an awning of pink and blue balloons. Beyond, pillars of brown balloons leapt up into the air, then draped with green balloon leaves. Little bundles of shrinkwrapped red candy hung down as “apples.” The balloon version of an apple orchard. The strumming guitars of New Order’s Age of Consent played through the doorway, and they heard shrieks of delight from the dance floor.

Colin peered through the gateway. “So this is prom.”

Jay shouted over the music. “Everyone keep your eyes peeled. Find Liz. Don’t let Hal see us.”

Colin moved his massive, wet body to hide Jay. Stevie looked ready to go to sea in surrey coveralls and thick Gil jacket. Her tiny face barely peeked out.

Jay arched an eyebrow. “Stevie… did you bring anything other clothes?”

“Sure did!”

She unzipped her jacket and shed her outer skin into a light blue strapless dress that was dry and—even Jay couldn’t help admitting—flattering. Jay saw Colin’s eyes widen. Stevie looked down at their dripping outfits.

“Did you?”

Jay held up an explanatory finger, when he saw Ms. Shirell leave the girls’ bathroom and return to her post before the C-Court door. She folded her arms over her chest and shook her head at the music, swivelling her gaze around C-Court to find any rulebreakers. Jay tensed as he awaited her gaze to fall on them.

A murmur of voices grabbed her attention. A wave of suits and dresses spilled out of the gym, into C-Court. Ms. Shirell scanned the crowd sharply, settling on three seniors—Buddy Blaine, Tim McManus and Chad Arkin—who elbowed their way through the crowd, flushed red and laughing hysterically. Tim turned back to the DJ, shouting “How about some Boy George?” Buddy clapped an arm on Tim’s back and they staggered into C-Court.

Colin’s eyes widened. “Jay— are they…?”

“Yep.” Jay nodded grimly. “Stinko’d.”

Ms. Shirell, apparently having the same thought, moved to engage.

“Excuse me! Are you boys leaving?”

The boys turned and began to flirt with her. Ms. Shirrell remained fierce, the color draining from her face. Jay thought he noticed the slightest edges of a smile, too. Enjoying it. He shuddered at the perversity of Cascadia.

New Order ended, cross-fading into My Bloody Valentine’s Loomer. Jay whispered to Colin and Stevie.

“Keep your eyes out. This is when Hal shows up.”

Stevie looked confused. “How do you know all this?”

“Because this prom is built from Hal’s worst memory, and he’s unwittingly shared it with me. Watch. My mom’s car is gonna pull up any second.”

Sure enough, past Ms. Shirrell and through the glass doors, Jay saw his mom’s brown Camry pull up. He squeezed Colin’s arm and Colin followed his gaze. Jay saw his mom’s head in the driver’s seat. Then Hal stepped out of the back.

“Whoa.” Murmured Colin.

Stevie shook her head. “Weird. What happens next?”

“He goes around and opens the door for Liz.”

They all watched. It was just like Jay’s dream. Except Jay was now an outside observer. Hal opened the door, and out stepped Liz. She was stunning. The same bright green dress from his dream, the same green veil wrapped around her neck. Hal held out his hand, and she took it.

“Crazy.” Jay muttered.

Ms. Shirell saw she had customers and disentangled herself from the drunk boys to return to her post. Hal and Liz jogged through the rain, and Ms. Shirell opened the glass door for them.

Jay motioned to the gym. “C’mon let’s go. Don’t let them see us.”

Using Colin as a shield, the three of them plunged into prom.

The bleachers on either side of the gym were pushed behind black curtains that hung from each side. Hugging the black fabric were gnarled trees, convincingly real in the low light. Fog machines billowed intermittent smoke, giving the dance an even more dream-like feel.

They passed the misanthropes in the back. Chris Hargrove’s massive flab oozed from a chair. He hadn’t even bothered with a tux, instead donning a huge blue shirt, a bolo tie, and a pair of dark slacks. Jay accidentally brushed Chris’ hamhock shoulder. He quickly turned to apologize. Chris held up a plastic coke bottle and spat brown juice in it.

“Watch it, homo.”

Christina Henley sighed at her boyfriend, pulling on his arm.

“Come dance.”

Chris grunted. “Homos dance.”

Loomer faded, and for a moment, the room held, ears perked, waiting.

“Ageisopolis.” Jay whispered, singing the the first notes.

The opening notes of Aphex Twin opened. Colin and Stevie looked to Jay in amazement. A few students drifted back onto the dance floor, undulating to the beat.

Jay glanced to the DJ table. Javier stood behind his console, wearing giant headphones. He spotted Jay and gave him a thumbs up.

“Does anyone see Hal or Liz?”

With the smoke and lights, it was impossible to see past the bobbing heads. Colin pointed.


Liz sat at one of the farthest tables. Jay nodded. Of course. It was the same spot as his dream. Liz was alone, with no sign of Hal. From his dream, he knew Hal was getting Liz something to drink. He would be gone for the duration of Ageispolis. Now was Jay’s chance to figure out what happened during The B-52s.

“I’ll be right back,” Jay muttered, pulling away from Colin and Stevie.

Liz watched him approach, carefully neutral.

“What happened to your suit?”

“Liz it’s me. Jay.” She stared at him, and he saw her recognition dawn.

“Jay!? I thought— you were deleted, or something!?”

“Not yet.”

Her fingers tapped the table, excited. “Did you bring the disk?”

Jay nodded. “It’s up in Tutorial.”

Liz scooted back her chair. “Let’s go.”

She froze. Jay followed her gaze. Under the arch of balloons, silhouetted under the C-Court exit sign, was Hal. Not more than fifty feet away. He wore a thin, grey tuxedo and held two red Solo cups as he looked out at the student body. Jay ducked down and grabbed Liz’s hand, pulling her away from the table.

“He’ll see us.” She whispered.

“I need to know what happens.”

They moved onto the dance floor. Ageispolis faded out and the sprawling twangs of Mazzy Star’s Into Dust played. The few kids on the dance floor moved towards their partners, embracing, swaying in the rhythm. Jay stood awkwardly, holding Liz’s hand amidst the crowd. Then he placed his hands on Liz’s hand, bringing her in. They moved stiffly from side to side. As they turned, he saw Hal walking back to the empty table, scanning the room, confused. He stepped backwards, deeper into the dance floor, turning away, nestling his face in her neck, hiding in the softness of it. He felt the firmness of her body up and down his own. It was the closest he’d ever been to a girl. He swallowed, trying to not to focus on her skin pressing into his.

“Why is he doing this? Why are you here?”

For several seconds, Liz didn’t reply. They two of them moved in a slow circle. Finally, she whispered:

“I did things in high school I’m not proud of.”

Jay snorted. “Who hasn’t?”

She looked into his eyes. “Things to you. This… isn’t our first prom.”

Jay nodded. “You and Hal went to high school together. And you went to prom. I’m an uploaded version of Hal’s mind, so I have his memories. It’s just… the one of prom is blurry.”

Liz looked down. “Probably because it’s not a happy one. I asked you to go to prom.”

Jay’s vision blurred. The prom floor disappeared, and he was back in his dream. Only it was a different part—a part he’d never seen. There was no music. He was sitting in the library. He felt a tap on his shoulder. He spun around, and it was Liz. Smiling at him. He marveled at her, the shape of her neck. He felt his heart begin to pound. Liz opened her mouth.

Jay nodded slowly. “I— I remember.”

“It...” Liz struggled, “...wasn’t my idea. It was Jeremy’s.”

Another flash. This time, Jay was passing through A-Court. He saw Jeremy and the Johns, their faces blurry. Liz sat on Jeremy’s lap. He looked over the A-Court crowd and felt a deep pang of longing as the two of them laughed together.

“We were together at the time. He wanted to do a prank for senior prom. Something… funny.”

The B-52s flashed through Jay’s head, muted somehow. He was in the C-Court bathroom. The terrible fluorescent lights burned into his brain. Jeremy’s sneer was above him, and he struggled in Jeremy’s strong grip. Nausea, shame, and anger welled inside of him. Something terrible was happening.

He was on the dance floor again. He pulled Liz closer to keep himself steady, breathing hard. He could feel Liz shake. She felt as if she might cry.

“Jeremy and his friends took you into the bathroom. They took off all your clothes.”

Jay heard Private Idaho, muted, pounding through the bathroom walls. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Naked. Held up by Jeremy and the Johns.

“They dragged you into the gym, threw you inside, and locked the door.”

Jay’s heart pounded to escape his chest. He was in the gym, now. Everyone wore tuxedos and dresses. Everyone but him. He had nothing. He felt warm air over his skin. The crowd was staring at him, shocked. He covered his naked body with thin, insufficient arms. He turned back to the door, turning his backside to the crowd. He struggled, desperate to get out. The doors were being held shut and he heard Jeremy’s laughter on the other side. Then there was laughter all around. All of prom, laughing. Jeering down at him. He scanned the gym, desperate for help—a teacher, a friend—until he saw her. Liz. Between the tuxedos, in the back of the room, there she was. He looked at her, imploring, desperate for help. Liz, who was always nice to him. Her hand went to her mouth. He saw the corners of her mouth turn up. Laughing and trying not to show it. Laughing at him. He fell to his knees. The tears poured out, hot with anger and hatred. He felt something of inside him rip. He looked up at the laughing students with rage. He wanted to burn the world.

On the dance floor, he pushed away from Liz. He remembered now. Everything. Tears welled in his eyes, as he shuddered.

“How could you? How could you do that to me? To anyone?”

There were tears in Liz’s eyes, too. “Jay… please… I wish I didn’t. I wish I could take it back. I spent years thinking about it. I reached out to Hal. It was my idea t0 get dinner. I wanted to make it up. I’m so, so ashamed of what I did.”

Liz reached out for Jay’s hand. Jay pulled it back.

“You don’t know what shame feels like.”

Behind Liz, across the dance floor, he saw Hal moving towards them, searching.

“Hal found a way to it right.” He spat out, bitterly. “And I don’t blame him.”

Liz wiped at her eyes. “Yes. Hal’s about to get his revenge. And when he’s done, he’s going to delete Dunam. Everything.”

Jay stared, fighting his anger.

“He works for Pantheon Games. He’s not supposed to have The Build yet. He can’t let them know he took it. When he’s done playing, he’ll delete it.”

Jay’s jaw clenched. All he could see was her laughing at him.

Liz pleaded. “I’m not that person anymore.”

Hal was almost to the dance floor. Jay saw his eyes wandering towards them.

“I don’t care.”

Jay turned and pushed through the crowd.

“Jay. Jay!”

He didn’t look back. He disappeared into the dance floor, elbowing past slow dancing couples who jostled in annoyance. He stared at them, hating them. Hating everyone. Not even real. Part of a stupid, cruel program, imitating a stupid cruel world. He knew, now, what Hal had meant. That pain inside him… it would never leave. Never go away.

Mazzy Star faded. The first notes Summerhead rocked in. Suits and dresses poured back onto the dance floor, returning like a tide, laughing. On the edge of the dance floor, Jay turned to watch their vapid smiles. It was pointless, all of it. He saw Liz and Hal arguing on the dance floor. Good. Let them work it out. Liz, Jeremy, Dunam, Hal… they all deserved whatever they got. He didn’t care anymore. He was done. He was going home to play video games.

Next Chapter: Last Dance