“Divina, you’ll never guess what I heard this morning!”
My best friend Savannah wrapped her thin arms around mine and huddled close. I could smell the new floral scented body spray she’d applied liberally after gym class; Her blonde hair was gathered up in a perfect ponytail, perky and shining as though she hadn’t just finished a mile.
“What did you hear?” I asked, as I traded my literature book out for my science textbook. Our lockers were next to each other- that was how we met, freshman year. Coincidentally, we shared half of our classes, and the same lunch period, which meant I only had to endure about a third of my day without her.
“Mason Dixon is single,” she whispered.
Mason was a junior and a football star here at Melody Spike High. Though he was a grade older than us, we shared a lunch period- and we often saw him milling around the halls, soaking in his daily dose of admiration.
“He and Haley broke it off?” I clarified. I was not much for gossip, but it was Savannah’s bread and butter. Like her mother, she prided herself on being the first in the know; and she disseminated the information she acquired to a select few (me).
“Yes!” she squeaked.
I cracked and smile and closed my locker door, making my way back down the hall toward science class. Today we would be dissecting pig hearts- I’d taken my older brother James’s advice and applied some vapor rub under my nostrils. He said it helped with the nausea.
“Vina, are you even listening!”
Savannah planted her feet and tugged back on our interlaced arms, hauling me to an abrupt stop.
“That’s good, Savy,” I said dutifully. “You should ask him out or something.”
Man, I wasn’t looking forward to those pig hearts.
“Or something? Vina, do you know how rare of an opportunity this is!? This is huge!”
I knew my best friend wouldn’t let up until she was satisfied. Groaning inwardly, I pasted a smile on my face and gripped her arm a little tighter.
“Oh my god- Savy- I just realized! Homecoming is next month!”
Pleased with my response, Savannah shrieked and bounced up on her toes, ushering us through the doors of room 21C and into the worst hour of my day.
“Horatio,” I said under my breath.
Savannah looked up, peering at me through ridiculously large goggles. Savannah had bright blue eyes and a near flawless complexion- teenage acne seemed to have bypassed her completely.
“That was his name,” I said with conviction. “It was Horatio.”
She blinked, then looked down at the pig heart that lay on a paper mat in front of us. I had the scalpel in my hand, poised over the preserved organ, breathing in and out, in and out. I was going to be sick.
“Vina, did you just name your pig?”
I nodded, feeling my face flush and my stomach roil. Great.
“Honey, you don’t look so good. Are you gonna ralf?”
A burp escaped me, but I was too sick to be embarrassed. I could feel Savannah’s hand patting me on the back. Sweat broke out across my neck and face, and my hands trembled.
“Miss Ramirez, are you ill?” asked Mr. Nielson, our science teacher.
I burped again, louder this time, and a group of students burst into a fit of giggles. To my horror, Mason himself appeared at my side, his cedar scented cologne wafting around me. I wanted to crawl into a hole and hide. In fact, I envied Horatio in this moment.
“Mason, would you take Miss Ramirez to the nurses’ office, please?”
Savannah shot Mr. Nielson a look of incredulity and then huffed in blatant disappointment.
“Sure, Mr. Nielson,” said Mason.
A cold shiver ran down my arms as Mason’s hands- his actual hands- reached down and pulled me up gently, gripping me to ensure I was stable enough to stand under my own power. I felt my face heat as twenty-seven pairs of eyes followed our progress out the door and down the hall toward nurse Carrie’s office.
“I’m sorry you’re sick,” Mason apologized.
The further away I got from Horatio’s heart, the better I was beginning to feel. I could practically feel Savannah sulking from down the hall.
“It’s alright. I think it’s starting to go away,” I admitted. I knew I should probably turn back and finish science class- but the prospect of returning to the fleshy organ in front of me held no appeal.
“We should have you checked just to be safe,” said Mason, rubbing one hand along my arm.
Mason and I had had exactly two encounters in my three years at this school: the first encounter was when he bumped into me at lunch. The second one was when I sat in ketchup, and he informed me in front of half the football team that I had a ketchup stain on my butt. Needless to say, his gentle demeanor today was unexpected.
“Th-thanks,” I stuttered.
Why was he being so nice to me? Granted, Mason was never mean- but he was usually pretty oblivious to me.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” he said cautiously.
“You know Haley and I broke up. . .”
“Homecoming is next month,” he continued.
Oh god. Oh god, oh god, oh god!
“I was wondering if you’d like to be my date to homecoming,” he finished.
I stopped moving, my mouth agape. Mason laughed.
“Oh, come on, it’s not that odd, is it? I mean- you’re cute, and you’re always top of the class and . . . I’ve liked you for awhile.”
“You- I- you have!?” I sputtered. The nausea was gone.
“Yeah,” he said. “You’re so different from the other girls,” he told me.
“Is that a good thing?” I asked.
“It’s a great thing.”
We resumed our walk to nurse Carrie’s office as I processed the fact that Mason Dixon had just asked me to the Homecoming dance- and how I would tell Savannah.
It had been three days since Mason asked me to Homecoming. Savannah was giving me the cold shoulder- not returning phone calls, and always managing to be “out of the house” when I came over. I felt awful; my stomach was in knots and my chest felt hollow. I’d decided to tell Mason I wouldn’t make it to Homecoming. Maybe I would be out of town?
I bumped directly into him as I rounded the corner, getting a face full of his chest.
“Hey there, ladybug! I was just looking for you.”
Mason smiled down at me, making me feel like a child earning her father’s approval. Three other jocks stood behind him, wearing stoic expressions.
“Yeah! Come here.”
Mason pulled me into a tight hug- although pleasant, it was awkward. Especially since Savannah was watching us from her locker.
“What are you up to after school, ladybug?”
I cast my eyes around, searching for a way out. Did I like Mason? Of course, I did. He was good-looking, popular, intelligent. . . but the look on my friend’s face made me feel like the worst kind of traitor.
“I’m actually going to Savannah’s house after school,” I lied.
I glanced at Savannah, whose eyebrows were drawn together in confusion.
“Oh,” Mason said, deflated. “Well, I’ll call you then.”
“You have my phone number?”
“Yes. Your mom gave it to me when she invited me over for your birthday party on Sunday.” Max winked, and Savannah’s jaw hit the floor.
I’d forgotten about the party- I was turning sixteen.
“I have to go,” I said.
I left Max and his friends and Savannah’s shocked expression.
I decided to make good on my word. I rode my bike to Savannah’s house later that evening, hoping that after she’d witnessed me publicly rejecting Mason, we’d make amends. I was wrong.
“What are you doing here, Divina?”
Savannah held the front door close to her body, obscuring my view of the inside of her house, where’d I spent so many hours. She glowered at me- a cold expression I’d never been on the receiving end of; I didn’t like it.
“I- I was hoping we could talk.”
Her eyebrows shot up.
“You wanted to talk. Alright Vina, let’s talk.”
“Let’s talk about how you pre-empted me the first chance you got with Mason only seconds after learning he was available. You staged the whole ‘sick’ business to weasel your way in, and it worked. You pretended not to like him as you were undermining any chance I might have gotten with him!”
“Not true! Savy, I had no idea he was going to ask me to Homecoming!”
“You said yes.”
Savy’s eyes were red and her face flushed with anger. Looking at my best friend up close, I saw the depths of her hurt- and I wanted nothing more than to take it all back.
“I’ll call it all of!” I yelled. “I’ll go back there and tell Mason Dixon I’m not interested.”
“But you are!”
I considered the question. In truth, I found Mason appealing (what teenage girl didn’t?) But I’d never imagined having an opportunity to even speak to him, much less date him.
“Yes,” I admitted finally. “But I care more about you than some stupid dance.”
I saw a flash of emotion in my best friend’s eyes, and for a beautiful moment, I thought I’d broken through her icy exterior.
“No. You’re not getting off that easy, Vina. This means war. I’m going to show everyone who really deserves to be on Mason’s arm at that dance- and it isn’t you.”
Her words cut through me like a knife. My anger roiled. I’d come to apologize- grovel, even- and Savannah was determined to be obstinate. She was blaming me for wanting the same thing she did; and she was determined to see me fail.
“Fine. May the best woman win,” I said.
Before I could say anything else, Savannah slammed the door in my face, leaving me alone on her front porch, tears in my eyes.
On Sunday, Mason showed up for my birthday party. I had been avoiding him since the confrontation with Savannah- ignoring his phone calls and text messages. I couldn’t be certain how much of what Brianne had said was true; she and her friends were known to start trouble, especially when it came to handsome boys like Mason.
Mason surprised me with a bouquet of flowers, making it nearly impossible to be angry with him. No boy had ever gifted me flowers. Of the guest list, about half showed up to my party, which was held in our backyard. Dad had built a gazebo that he made sure to point out to everyone in attendance, and mom gushed over the well-wrapped gifts piling up on the folding table. I searched for Savannah, my heart breaking when the sun dipped below the horizon and the party finished, and my friend never came.
As evening turned to night, I sat in the center of my bed, surrounded by gifts, feeling sullen. There was nothing sweet about my sixteen.
The following morning started off badly. Aside from being a Monday, my curling iron broke, and my favorite pair of pants split while I was shoving my leg into them. Mom had accidentally burned breakfast, and my little brother, Peter, had put toothpaste in my shoe. The grand finale was finding my bike- which I kept propped against the garage door in the driveway, with flat tires, with the words, “traitor” in pink spray paint.
I knew without asking that this was Savannah’s work- it was her handwriting. Grumbling to myself, I found the tire patch kit and quickly repaired the tires, riding the painted bike to school. Needless to say, I attracted quite a bit of attention as I sped past the students on foot, locking my defaced bicycle in the bike rack.
Brianne and her friends laughed from a distance, and Mason materialized behind me, throwing his arm around my shoulders.
“What happened to your bike, babe?”
I was so mad I wanted to spit.
“Someone wrote on it,” I said.
“I see that. . . any idea who it was?”
“No,” I lied.
I was just about to tell Mason the dance was not worth it, when I spotted Savannah watching us from the picnic tables across the front lawn. I narrowed my eyes, contemplating going over there and scratching her eyes out. Instead, I let a sly smile spread across my face, and I turned toward Mason, stretching up on my tip toes and kissing him on the mouth.
The other students hooted and hollered, and Mason took the opportunity to pull me in close for an encore. Somehow my first kiss seemed anticlimactic- and completely devoid of any romance. A few seconds later we parted, and Mason’s hot breath danced across my face as he pressed our foreheads together.
“See you Saturday,” he promised.
“I’ll be there. Babe.”
To my delight, Savannah was not there when I looked back. I’d won this round.
Saturday came quickly. The Homecoming dance was hosted in the school auditorium, which had been cleared of tables. The theme was fairytale, and banners, balloons and streamers decorated every surface. The speaker system blared the most popular music, and the floor was filled with gathering students and chaperones that milled about. Mason’s arm was linked with mine, his cologne intoxicating. I searched the crowd in vain, wondering if I’d see Savannah here, tonight. Despite her assertion that Mason would leave me for her, the deadline had come and gone, and it was me on his arm. I took a minute to reflect on that; I knew I should feel happy- victorious, even. But I couldn’t help feeling like I’d lost, anyway.
Mason towed me out to the center of the dance floor, where Haley danced with her new date- a lacrosse player and newly transferred student from the East coast. I didn’t think it was an accident that Masons drew me into his arms and whispered unintelligible words in my ear while we danced side by side, two exes and their new companions.
“You look beautiful tonight,” Mason said.
I smothered a smile as Haley’s head shot up from her date’s shoulder, shooting me a scathing look. Then, just as quickly as the pleasure had come, it abated, giving way to a new kind of emotion: dread.
Was it possible that Mason was only using me to get back at his ex-girlfriend, Haley? Was Haley’s date a casualty, as well as I, in this elaborate plot to reconcile in spite of their own pride? A rock settled in the pit of my stomach as I watched the way they glanced at eachother, Haley and Mason. It was clear they were more interested in one another than in their actual dates. Regret took hold as I realized my mistake too late, and I disengaged myself from Mason and left him standing in the center of the auditorium.
On my way to the bathroom, I spotted Savannah engaged in lively conversation with cheer captain Brianne and her friends, Amber and Lannah. Since when did Savannah socialize with the cheer squad? It was only two years ago that Brianne had stolen her cell phone and put her personal conversations on the class projector for all to see. And Brianne was Mason’s ex-girlfriend.
Something wasn’t right. I drifted through the bodies, keeping myself scarce and listening in. Brianne was commiserating with Savy about the turmoil between her and me and telling her that she was better off without Mason and I. Brianne and Lannah moved to either side of Savy, flanking her, and guided her toward the back doors of the auditorium and out into the crisp fall night.
There were no chaperones out here, and only a handful of other students. I hovered on the other side of a tree, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then, just as I’d expected, Lannah and Brianne hoisted Savy up and tipped her toward the fountains headfirst, intent on dunking her there. I yelled at them and raced toward the group, hoping to rescue my friend from humiliation. A crowd filtered out the door, drawn by the ruckus. I reached Brianne and her friends just as they tossed Savannah into the water. I shoved Brianne, who spun around and grabbed me by the hair, tugging me toward the fountain. Her friends assisted her in hoisting me into the fountain, too, right beside Savy. The girls cackled at our wet forms, Savy and I dressed in identical dresses. Each of us had thought to wear the matching fairy dresses we’d worn last Halloween.
Mason stood at the door with Haley by his side, laughing the hardest. I wanted to be angry at them all, but I was angrier at myself. Savy remained there in the cool fountain water, staring off into the night. The group trickled back inside, leaving us to our silence.
“I’m sorry Savy,” I said finally. “I’m so sorry.”
I managed to get to my feet, my soggy dress clinging to my ankles. Savy’s hand reached out suddenly and gripped my wrist, and, hauling herself to her feet, she cracked a gentle smile and used her free hand to sweep my soaked hair out of my eyes.
“So am I,” she admitted.
The trouble over Mason Dixon didn’t matter, anymore. The world was full of people like Brianne and Mason; but I realized that while people like them were a dime a dozen, girls like Savy were one of a kind.
“Nice dress,” Savy said.
“Not as nice as yours,” I teased. And just like that, the war was over.