Marshall steers the lumbering station wagon past the edge of the pull-out behind the cactus and scrub cedar. He turns off the car and opens the windows. He knows no one can see his car tucked back here. Especially at twilight. It’s like the gathering shadows swallow him. He closes his eyes and tunes his ears to the sounds outside his car. First, a few birds chirrup. Then he hears a rustling, maybe an armadillo, creeping under the brush. Last, a breeze. Marshall can hear it stir through the trees before it creeps inside his car. Always the air moves out here even when it’s dead still in town.
Marshall found this spot right after his grandfather gave him the car. He drove around looking for someplace quiet. When he stopped in the pull-out, he noticed a break in the cedars along one edge and drove out past it to this spot. He likes to come here to think. Sometimes at school—people, gossip, drama—it all comes at him too fast. Out here, though, he can slow it down, think about what each person said, how they looked when they said it. Out here, he can think about Leann.
Asking Leann to the senior prom had been the easy part. All he had to do was bring it up at lunch when they were sitting with Robert and Mary Louise. All he had to do was bring it up casually.
Like, “Hey, why don’t we all go to our senior prom together?”
Once they were all like, cool idea, then he’d bring up the next part.
It was a little trickier.
“What do you say we go together, but as dates? Like I’ll take Leann. You and Mary Louise can go together.”
Leann sounded suspicious. “Why would we want to do that?”
Marshall was prepared. He rocked back on the cafeteria bench and shrugged his shoulders. Then he looked her in the eyes. Her translucent blue eyes. “Because it’s prom. We should have the full prom experience, you know, tuxedoes and corsages. It doesn’t mean we’re going to be romantic. We’re still hanging out, but why not go for the full meal deal?” Marshall made sure his tone was not defensive. He couldn’t sound like he wanted the corsage or the tuxedo. Even though he did.
Mary Louise went for it right away. “I think it sounds cool. We could be like prom pretenders. We’d get the experience without getting all weird and nervous.”
“But I’m the one who has to shell out the money for the corsage and the tuxedo,” Robert said.
That’s when Leann jumped in and backhanded Robert on the shoulder. “Quit whining,” said Leann. “You think I have a prom dress hanging in my closet? I think this sounds just weird enough to be fun. Let’s do it. You and me, Marshall, the prom pretenders.” Marshall couldn’t have planned Robert’s reaction any better. He’d hoped Robert would be a little negative. He’d seen Leann counter Robert’s resistance before. Her hesitation about all things social seemed to evaporate when Robert dragged his heels. Pushing him moved her.
Marshall smiled. Not too big. Just a slight upturn on one side of his lips and then he grabbed the apple from his lunch tray and took a big bite, saying, “Cool,” as he chewed.
Getting her to come out here after the prom might be a little more difficult. Marshall turns the key in the ignition. The engine chugs and then turns over with a roar. It silences all the night sounds. Marshall maneuvers the car around the cedar break, across the pull-out and back on to Hwy. 281. He’d figure it out.
He’d been studying Leann from the moment she entered Fredrick Johnson High last August. Usually the first day of school is a parade of everyone trying to make the best first impression. Not Leann. Her long, almost-black hair was, well, messy. And a little greasy. It sort of hung limp, close to her cheeks, nearly covering her eyes. Except behind the dark strands, Marshall could see she was watching everyone. She didn’t smile at anyone. When she said her name in class and where she came from—Midland—she didn’t offer up any more information. She didn’t giggle or wink her eyes at the class or do anything that looked like she wanted a friend or that she even wanted to be liked. She looked like she wanted to fade into the background. Her t-shirt and jeans had no graphics or labels. She sat a little hunched over as if she was afraid someone might come up behind and surprise her.
Marshall wondered if she was doing it on purpose. Or if she was really shy. He watched her. A week after school started, no more dirty or messy hair. She still let it hang in her face but by then, no one noticed. She’d slid off everyone’s radar but his. Two weeks later, she wore a nicer t-shirt.
Leann was cursing herself as she ran, late, down the empty halls. She should have known she didn’t have time to change her shirt again but she was tired of looking so plain. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself, just wanted to look a little bit nice, but now she was late and everyone would notice her as she opened the door to her first period biology class.She kept her head down. Mr. McCloud kept talking and handing back their corrected quizzes. Leann glanced up, looking for a seat. She spotted one in the middle of the back row and headed towards it, careful not to trip or step on anyone’s shoes. Extra careful not to look in anyone’s eyes.
She sat down and glanced to the right. An A+ at the top of a paper on the desk next to her caught her eye. She read the name next to the grade. Marshall Johnson. She couldn’t remember the face of anyone with that name. She fought her curiosity. She glanced up. Just long enough to notice that he wore rimless glasses and his eyes were hazel. Just long enough to feel her cheeks prickle with heat. Then she looked away.
Marshall hoped the A+ would get her attention. Whenever he sat behind her or near her, he noticed she got A’s on every paper and quiz that he’d been able to see. Someone who was smart would only be curious about people with the same grade or better. When McCloud handed him the A+ and she sat next to him, it seemed like a sign so he left the quiz on his desk. He felt her look at him but he kept staring ahead as if McCloud was imparting the secrets of the scientific universe. Really, Marshall was counting how long she looked at him. One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three—
Almost three seconds. She noticed him.
After that, Marshall made sure to sit near her. Not in an obvious way. He tried to get to class right after her and sit down near her. He kept to himself but one time he looked at her as he sat down and she said, “Hey.” He nodded back at her. Marshall was careful to hold back. He didn’t want to scare her away. She seemed like she could be easily scared.
At the end of class, one day, she passed him and said, “See you tomorrow.” Then she said “Hey” every morning. Once, when she sat next to him, he saw her double-check her homework assignment with what he wrote down.
By January, Marshall noticed she was eating lunch with Mary Louise everyday. He eased into the cafeteria line behind them one day. As Leann picked up her tray, she glanced at him and said, “You want to sit with us?”
A week later, their threesome sat at a table where Robert was sitting alone. The next day, they were a foursome. Marshall didn’t mind. He liked that Mary Louise and Robert were there. It helped him blend in better. He could pretend to be eating while listening to them talk. Listening to Leann talk. Listening to how she feinted and dodged and never really opened up but made it seem like she was there, a part of them.
Leann thought she could hold her breath for a whole school year and not talk to anyone. She wondered if it were possible to live someplace and not know anyone the entire time you lived there. It turned out it wasn’t. Something happens. You forget your gym shorts and you have to borrow some from this girl Mary Louise and after that Mary Louise says something to you everyday. Something nice. Not very prying. You say something nice back. Not very revealing. You find yourself liking not being alone. Pretty soon you have one friend and then two and then three and presto you’re going to the prom. Maybe it’s just the thing to do to finish off this exile from Midland, her home. A prom. A step toward normal. With friends. No romance. A sort of date with Marshall. It would be all right. A sort of date. With Marshall.
She still wasn’t sure about him. He looked like a dangerous combination of smart and sensitive. She liked smart because she hated dumb. But smart meant she had to be watchful. Smart meant someone could pull a fast one on her. Smart meant she wasn’t sure she could trust him.
Sensitive confused her. She thought he was sensitive. Maybe it was his eyes. Or those glasses. They made him look vulnerable. Breakable. Maybe it was the way he didn’t look at her directly. Or push himself at her. He couldn’t hurt her if he was sensitive. Could he?
It couldn’t hurt her to go to the prom with a pretend date. Could it?
She was never sure what would hurt. It was like all her antenna mixed all the signals up when someone got close. She couldn’t figure out what they wanted. Or she did know what they wanted and it was wrong but they said they loved her so it couldn’t be wrong but it was her uncle so it was wrong but he said he loved her but it was wrong. Then it was her cousin but it was wrong but he said he loved her but it was wrong. It was wrong every time. But they said they loved her. They said so. Then her mother found out, said Leann was a “little tease, the kind of girl that gets boys in trouble.” No one said any different. Her mother sent Leann away. “Go live with my sister. See if she can teach you to keep your hands to yourself.”
The night before she left, her cousin whispered at her door, “Wanna suck me off one more time before you go?” Leann didn’t move. She wasn’t sure what she should do. She sat up, thinking she should go to the door. He was always nice to her afterwards. She could hear him breathing. Then he kicked the door and said, “Bitch.” Leann gripped the edge of her bed and held her breath. She pushed away the wish that she should have opened the door.
When her aunt picked her up at the bus station, she didn’t ask what happened. She never pried. She let Leann be. After a month, it felt like Leann took her first breath of air. Then a second and a third. When it came time for the prom, Leann was almost breathing normal.
Marshall pulled up in front of Leann’s house. This was it. He had to keep reminding himself it was pretend. It wasn’t really a date.
Somehow he’d convinced all of them that picking up their pretend dates was part of the prom ritual. “We’ll meet outside the dance in the parking lot and walk in together but we should each pick up Leann and Mary Louise.”
Leann didn’t like the idea. “This sounds more and more like a real prom date. I think we should all go together.”
Marshall shrugged. “Okay. Then I want to be the driver.”
“No way,” said Robert. “I want my own ride.”
“I get carsick if I ride in the back,” Mary Louise added.
“Okay, I get it,” said Leann. “No one wants to be the cute couple in the back seat.”
Marshall wouldn’t have minded being the cute couple but he wanted to ask her to drive out to the pull-out with him in his car after the prom. If they’d driven together, it wouldn’t have worked.
Walking up to Leann’s door, Marshall composed himself. He had to act like this wasn’t a date. He knocked. An older woman answered. She had Leann’s long dark hair streaked with grey.
“My name is Marshall Johnson. I’m here to take Leann to the prom.”
“I’m Leann’s aunt. Jackie.” She reached out and Marshall shook her hand. It felt callused like a man’s. It felt strange to hold this hand and stare into a face that looked like an older version of Leann. Then Leann stepped forward. Standing next to her aunt, it looked as if time had split their cells. Neither smiled. Both had that same wariness in their eyes. Except Leann was beautiful. Her blue dress was dusted with silver so that it looked as translucent as her eyes.
As Leann stepped toward him and waved goodbye to her aunt, Marshall sucked in his breath and held it. He almost gasped. He almost exhaled an audible “Ahhh.” If he had, he would have had to pretend that he was acting like a real date. He was glad he didn’t slip up. He was glad he held it together as they walked to his car and he opened the door for Leann.
Anxiety rose in Leann’s throat. She slid into the passenger seat of Marshall’s car. As he walked around behind the car, she touched the door handle. She could run back inside. She could tell him she had food poisoning. She could fake stomach heaves. She could…
She held onto the cold metal handle. She breathed. Holding onto the door handle calmed her. If anything bad happened, she could fling herself out the door. When Marshall clicked open his door and sat down, she looked over at him. He didn’t look any different, right? He hadn’t done anything wrong, right? It was a fake date, right?
Leann looked a little ill. Marshall wondered if he should notice, out loud. You know, be concerned. But he wasn’t sure a friend would do that. Would a boyfriend?
“Oh, I got a corsage for you.” Marshall tried to sound as offhand as possible as he handed her the plastic box. “They’re gardenias. I wasn’t sure what color dress you would wear so I got a white flower. To go with anything.” Only it wasn’t meant to go with anything. It was meant for her. He wanted her to have those beautiful white flowers wrapped around her wrist all night.
Marshall watched Leann open the box and stare at the corsage. He heard her take a short sip of air as if smelling the flower would hurt. Then it sounded like she held her breath. Marshall wasn’t sure if he should start the car or not. She looked like she might open the door and puke. Marshall scrambled, “I hope you like it. It was weird bringing you the corsage. I got a little nervous. You know, like I worried if you would like it. This pretend stuff started to feel a little real, ya know?”
Leanne laughed. The thought that he was nervous made Leann laugh. A short, sharp “Hah” popped out of her mouth. Marshall jumped as if she had scared him. That made her laugh some more. “Yeah. A little too real,” Leann said and loosened her grip on the door handle.
“Maybe it’s the corsage. You don’t have to wear it.”
Leann took the corsage out of the box and put it around her wrist. She stretched her arm in front of her and looked at the bracelet of white petals. “Yeah maybe it is the corsage. It’s beautiful, though.”
“Good. I mean, let’s—I mean, it doesn’t mean anything. They’re just flowers, right? Just a tradition, right?”
“Right.” Leann raised the white flowers to her nose and breathed in their fragrance.
Marshall steered the car into the Fred High parking lot and looked for Robert’s truck. He was sitting on the tailgate. The cab windows were open and Travis Tritt was crooning, “I’ve had the best of intentions from the start.” Mary Louise was twirling around in an empty parking space next to the truck. She looked like one of those ballerinas that pop up in a jewelry box. Her skirt was even that white net material.
“We saved you a spot.” Mary Louise stopped twirling and jumped out of the way. “Actually I saved you a spot. Robert wouldn’t dance with me. He thought it was too romantic for a pretend date.”
“Hell, yes,” said Robert. He strode over and clicked off his radio. “I already can’t believe I spent $20 bucks on a damn corsage and $10 on this tuxedo from Goodwill.”
“Ooooh…you’re lucky, Mary Louise,” said Leann, admiring the bridge of sweetheart roses circling her wrist. “He spent more on your corsage than his tuxedo.”
Leann and Mary Louise laughed and headed toward the gym. Marshall trailed behind with Robert. “Phew, that tuxedo smells.”
“Shit,” said Robert. “I dumped a whole bottle of Old Spice on it.”
“Yeah, now it smells like cinnamon spiced cat pee.”
“Mary Louise didn’t say anything?”
“Naw, she’s too nice. Do you think I should change? I’ve got some jeans in the truck. I can still wear the shirt. It’s my dad’s.”
Marshall weighed Robert’s question. He’d gotten them to the prom. Leann was his date. It didn’t really matter if Robert dressed the part. “Yeah I think smelling like cat pee is a really bad idea.”
Robert loped back to his truck. “Tell Mary Louise I’ll be there in a minute.”
Leann and Mary Louise grabbed a table close to the dance floor. They waved to Marshall. Just as he got to the table, the band started playing a fast song. On impulse Marshall took both girls by the arm and pulled them onto the dance floor. When Robert came in, Leann pulled him into their circle. After a few fast songs, the band slowed it down. Marshall wanted to ask Leann but he had to pretend this wasn’t a date. He took Mary Louise by the hand and bowed, “May I have this dance?” Mary Louise giggled and nodded. As they pulled away from Leann and Robert, Marshall made himself not look at Leann. He pretended he wanted to slow dance with Mary Louise first.
Leann looked over at Robert to see if he was going to ask her to slow dance. He turned to go back to the table. Leann felt disappointed. She was enjoying herself. More than she thought.
She grabbed Robert by his elbow and pulled him onto the dance floor. “Come on.”
Robert moaned. “I hate this song.”
“Tough. This is our prom. We’re dancing.”
“Can’t we just pretend dance?”
“You want me to pretend slap you?” Leann raised her hand above Robert’s shoulder.
Robert moaned. Leann smiled. She didn’t have to pretend. She was having fun.
They danced every dance. When Marshall slow danced with Leann, he couldn’t let himself relax. He kept thinking of things to talk about. What he really wanted to do was concentrate on how one of her hands cupped his shoulder and the other hooked around his thumb.
One time, when all four of them were dancing together, sort of jumping in a circle, Leann leaned in close to Marshall, “Thanks. This is really fun.” Then she smiled. It disarmed him. He stopped dancing for just a second. He leaned in toward her. He could smell the gardenias, the sweetness hung between them. He wanted to kiss her. Her cheek was an inch from his lips. He stopped himself. “You’re welcome,” he said close to her ear. Then he jumped away from how perilously close he was to the edge of her and kept dancing, glancing over again and again, hoping she hadn’t noticed that the mask he was wearing had slipped for an instant.
Leann barely heard Marshall say, “You’re welcome.”
They were all laughing. They were all having fun. Even when the band took a break, they goofed around at their table. Leann thumb wrestled each of them and won.
When Marshall suggested they go to the Whip In afterwards, Leann didn’t hesitate. They were all in. Burgers, fries and sodas filled their table.
Ravenous, sweaty from dancing, Leann felt good. She sniffed her gardenia corsage. “I wonder where this corsage tradition came from.”
Robert waved his hand in front of his nose. “To cover up body odor.”
Leann backhanded his shoulder. “To cover up their date’s stinky tuxedo smell.”
“Hey, that’s in the car.”
Mary Louise waved her hand in front of her nose and smelled her corsage, “Still too close.”
They fell into laughing again. Mary Louise never insulted anyone.
“I have the receipt. I bet I can return it.”
“No way,” said Marshall. “You’ll have to donate it back to Goodwill.”
“You might even have to pay them to take it,” Mary Louise added and they started laughing again.
Outside the Whip In, Marshall opened the car door for Leann and took a deep breath. Here was the big moment. He was scared. What if she said no? Except they’d had a good time. Why couldn’t he just say it?
“Leann, can I show you something before I take you home?”
It was that easy. Minutes later, he was pulling off Hwy 281. No other cars were there. He slowed down and eased the car over the edge at the back of the pull-out. Sprigs of scrub cedar scraped the underside of the car. He turned off the car and rolled down his window.
“This is my favorite place.”
Leann glanced over at Marshall. His head was tipped back and his eyes were closed.
“Close your eyes and listen. It’s amazing.”
Leann reached for the door handle. She wasn’t going to close her eyes. Ever.
“Here.” Marshall reached over and cranked open Leann’s window.
Leann flinched and pressed back into the seat away from his arm.
The cool night air crept in the window.
Leann held her breath.
Marshall saw Leann reach for the door handle. That isn’t what he wanted. “No wait, Leann. I didn’t bring you here to kiss you. Or do anything. Honest.”
Leann’s hand didn’t move away from the handle.
“I wanted you to see this place. Hear it. I like to come out here and open the windows and sit and listen.” Marshall stopped. He didn’t want to use this many words to explain this place but he felt like if he didn’t talk she would open the door and walk away. Maybe even run away.
“I once walked straight out from here. A couple of hundred yards. Maybe more. I came across the old Stillwell house. Only it was barely a house. Bit by bit, the wind and the animals, even the insects had taken it back. I bet if we walked out there now it might even be gone. Completely. Gone.”
Leann didn’t say a word. Marshall could barely hear her breathing. He could smell the gardenias. The sticky sweetness fought with the cedar-tinged night air.
Leann stared straight ahead. The moon had come out from behind a cloud and it caught a bleached rock in its gaze.
“Leann, I need to tell you the truth. Is that all right? Can I tell you the truth?” Marshall waited for her to answer but she didn’t. “I noticed you right away. I saw you on the first day of school last August and I, well, I wanted to bring you here the minute I saw you. I noticed how quiet you were. I thought you would like it here.”
Marshall let himself stare at Leann’s profile. Now that he wasn’t angling to get behind her defenses, he was lost. He thought she would understand this place. He thought she would understand the silence. He thought about starting the car and going back, but he couldn’t give up. Yet.
“Everybody at Fred High thinks they’re going to be something someday. That’s what we’re there for, right? To be something more than we are. But what if we don’t do that? What if we just get jobs and get married and have kids and grandkids and then die? What if all we’re supposed to do is be happy with that? Do you know what I am saying, Leann?”
Leann still hadn’t moved. Marshall was running out of words. He couldn’t see what he was doing wrong.
“I mean I’ll probably go to college and do something, I don’t know, engineering, teaching. But then I come out here and I think, what if I just loved someone? What if that was my whole life’s work? To love someone. Be a good husband. A good provider. What if, when the wind and bugs erased me that was all I’d done: Loved one person? Wouldn’t that be good enough?” Marshall said every word he had dreamed of saying to her but instead of weaving some beautiful picture, they fell in a mess on the seat of the car.
Marshall reached his hand toward Leann. She flinched. He let his hand drop on the seat beside her. She pressed her body closer to the door.
Leann wasn’t sure if she should open the door and run. She tried to find the edge of her skin where it touched the night air, the seat, the door. He kept talking to her, pelting words at her.
“I wanted you to know that if you ever thought you wanted to be that one person, I would love you. I swear.”
Leann counted each breath of air she took. In between, she heard Marshall’s words. One “I” Two “Would” Three “Love” Four “You” Five “I” Six “Swear.”
“I thought maybe you would understand,” Marshall’s voice trailed off.
Leann swallowed another sip of air. Held it hard inside her. Love. The word dripped like acid down Leann’s throat. She stared ahead, but in her periphery, she could tell Marshall hadn’t moved. She pushed the words out. “Take me home.”
Marshall looked at her profile. The way the shadows cut across her face, it looked like her mouth and her jaw line were lopped off. Marshall wanted to believe she hadn’t said those words. If he couldn’t see her mouth, maybe she hadn’t said them. Maybe it was the quiet playing tricks on him. Maybe it was the wind that always blew out here, whispering those words. But how could that happen? Wasn’t this where he was supposed to reveal himself and she was supposed to understand him? Wasn’t this place meant to bring them together?
It was her. Marshall rolled up his window. The smell of gardenias filled his nostrils. Even though he couldn’t see them, Marshall knew the bright white petals had turned yellow. He started the car and turned back to the highway.
Leann stared ahead. She didn’t roll up her window. The wind blew over her. She shivered a little. Her hair whipped across her face. At first, she liked how the strands of hair lashed at her. Until she saw the moon. Then she reached up with one hand and held her hair back so she could watch the moon float next to them. When it slipped behind a cloud, she wished with all her heart it would come back out.