Jessica twirled, looking at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her light blue dress swirled around her knees. The fitted bodice was held by straps of thin, braided darker velvet. Her brown hair was loose around her thin face. If she angled her head just right, her curls masked the acne that spread across her cheek. Her shy smile was coated in cherry lipgloss. She felt…almost pretty.
Her first year of high school was also her first at boarding school, Duke Waltham’s Preparatory Academy. She had left home with a childlike faith that everything would be perfect there. At her new school, no one would tease her for being scarecrow skinny or bully her for being smart. At Duke’s, she was finally going to fit in. And that faith panned out, for the most part. There was one girl, Jane, who was simply awful to her, but then, Jane was awful to almost everyone. So when Jane entered the bathroom, Jessica twirled her way out in a hurry.
She met up with her best friend Shannon at the bottom of the dormitory stairs. Since day one, the pair had been inseparable. They had met at orientation when Jane shoved Shannon out of her way and right into Jessica. Jessica’s dark curls were a stark contrast to Shannon’s platinum blonde straight-as-a-board tresses, but aside from that they looked very similar. Both were skinny and on the shorter side with thin, pale faces.
“The earrings you wanted to borrow,” Shannon said, holding out a pair of silver hoops. Jessica hooked them into her ears and held out an arm.
“Shall we go rock the singles’ corner?” Jessica asked. Shannon hooked her arm in Jessica’s, and the duo set off across the quad for the Commons building where the Fall Fling was being held. Fall Fling happened halfway through the first semester as a celebration for the completion of midterms. It was the first school-wide social event either girl had attended.
They walked through the big double doors. Autumn-themed garlands and wreaths decorated the walls. The bleachers had been folded up, and the gym looked magical with the bluish film softening the fluorescent lights. Shannon spotted Mariana, Noelle, and Drew and dragged Jessica to the far side of the gym. One of the upperclassmen that Jessica had seen before but never spoken to tapped her shoulder.
“Do you want to dance?” he asked, “I’m Everett. I’ve seen you around.”
Jessica looked at the dark-haired boy with the hooked nose and then at Shannon. Shannon shooed her away. Jessica allowed herself to be led onto the dance floor. Jessica was not a good dancer. She was self-conscious and nearly ran out when Jane told her she was so bad that she had three left feet. But Everett was kind. He taught her how to move less like a gangly giraffe and more like a graceful swan.
A slow song came on, and he held her close. She looped her arms around his neck. Looking into his eyes, she saw magic. For the first time in her fourteen years, she felt like a beautiful princess straight out of a fairy tale. And there it was. Her first kiss. His lips on hers. She felt like she was flying. The song ended, and the pair stepped the smallest bit apart.
“Oh my god, you have to come with me,” Shannon hissed, walking up.
“Now?” replied Jessica impatiently. It wasn’t really a good time. The dance was almost over and she didn’t want to waste any of it.
“Yes, now. I’m sorry, like a hundred kinds of sorry, but I need you.” Shannon gave Jessica a meaningful look. Reluctantly, Jessica took a full step back from Everett.
“Breakfast tomorrow? See you at eight?” Everett asked. Jessica opened her mouth to answer but Shannon cut in.
“Yes, yes. Breakfast tomorrow. She’ll meet you at the doors to the dining hall.” With that, she dragged Jessica away.
“This better be the most urgent emergency of your life,” Jessica muttered as she followed Shannon into the ladies’ room.
“I need a tampon, okay? You keep them in the little zipper pocket inside all your bags regardless of whether or not you need them. Well, I need one. Something decided to sneak up on me.”
Jessica fished a tampon out of her bag. “You could have just asked to borrow my bag.”
“Well, I didn’t think of that,” Shannon said, snatching the tampon and rushing into a stall.
Jessica paced while she waited for Shannon, her heels clicking on the tiled floor. “I was having a really good time.”
“Yeah,” Shannon’s voice echoed a bit, “sharing lipgloss with whatever his name was.”
“It’s not whatever his name was. It’s Everett. And that was my first sharing lipgloss, so sorry not sorry if I’m a little cranky about you butting in.” Jessica’s voice rose at the end to overcome the whoosh of the toilet flushing.
“That was your first kiss?” Shannon repeated, coming out of the stall. It banged closed behind her.
“And he might have kissed me again if you hadn’t interrupted.”
“You’ll get your chance at breakfast tomorrow,” Shannon told her, washing her hands.
Breakfast did not come soon enough for Jessica. She awoke at 6:34, glaring at the crimson digits on her alarm clock.
One minute passed.
Two minutes passed.
Three minutes passed.
And still there were eighty-six minutes until her breakfast date. With a sigh, she got up. Taking her towel and her shower caddy, she headed down the hall to the bathroom. She showered slowly and then returned to her room to pick out an outfit. She checked the clock. Seventy-two minutes to go.
She flicked on the small desk lamp, though she probably could have just turned on the overhead light as her roommate slept through just about everything. Jessica tried on three pairs of jeans before deciding on the first pair. Sixty minutes left. She tried five shirts, discarding each: hole in the armpit, too short, afraid the flowing sleeves will get into the food, spaghettis sauce stain, big enough that her body looked flatter than a topographic map of Kansas. The purple shirt she finally settled on didn’t do much in that regard either (she didn’t have a lot to work with), but at least she wasn’t drowning in it. Forty-nine minutes.
She pinned her hair half back with a shiny silver clip and flopped into her chair to do some algebra homework. Not exactly her ideal way to spend a Sunday morning, but she couldn’t very well watch the clock for forty-eight minutes. Three agonizing problems later, she put her pencil down on the desk in frustration.
She had a date, her first date, in thirty-two minutes and she was doing algebra homework? Her stomach growled. She rummaged in her desk for a granola bar; there was no point in needing to eat like a pig on her date. Could she even go on a date? What did she even have to offer someone like Everett?
I’m smart, she told herself. I’m kind. I’m creative. She looked at the sketch pad next to her. So my sketches aren’t very good, but at least I’m trying. I read the news everyday. I like animals. i’m so much younger than he is. Why does he want to date me when he could date one of those pretty, blonde, busty cheerleaders in his year? I’m just a kid. But maybe he sees something in me that I don’t.
By the time she needed to leave, Jessica had talked herself out of going and then into going again. She pulled on a gray sweater to counter the chilly morning. Not wanting to go in her ratty tennis shoes, she pulled on her black boots and headed out. She pushed open the door that led outside the dormitory. Sunlight hit her in the face, and she squinted. She pulled her sunglasses off the top of her head and put them in place. No longer blinded, she saw Everett.
“Hey,” he said simply. “I wanted to walk with you.”
They didn’t really talk as they crossed the quad. Their fingers brushed together and they fell naturally into holding hands. Jessica’s heart skipped a beat.
The dining hall had the usual Sunday morning students who were getting a meal in before the bus to the 9AM service at a local church. As they walked through the cafeteria line, Jessica asked Everett if he planned to attend.
“Nah, I’m Jewish. I just thought this was a reasonable time for breakfast. Why, are you?” Everett looked sad at the thought that she might have to go. He scooped some scrambled eggs next to the sausage on the plate.
“No. I just wasn’t sure if we were having a quick breakfast or a leisurely one,” Jessica said, picking up some pancakes.
“Who says ‘leisurely’ these days?”
“I guess I do,” Jessica replied blushing.
“You’re cute when you blush.”
Jessica just blushed a deeper shade of red; it was like a dream. The pair stopped at the drink station before grabbing a table. They sat across from each other, awkwardly looking up every now and then. Jessica got up for a moment to fetch some syrup. She sat back down, determined to have a conversation of some sort.
“What’s your favorite class?” she asked lamely.
“I’m taking Intro to Law,” he told her, “I’m thinking about being a lawyer. I really like it. We’re doing a chapter on forensics in criminal cases. It’s really interesting. What do you want to be?”
“I don’t know what I want to be. But whatever it is, it will have nothing to do with math.”
As a conversation topic, it didn’t last very long. Despite their leisurely intentions, both had eaten quickly and, with nothing else to occupy their mouths, they needed another topic.
“The rec room in the Commons is usually empty around this time. We could go watch Japanese game shows,” suggested Everett.
“Why Japanese game shows?”
“Have you ever seen a Japanese game show?” Jessica shook her head. “They’re absolutely hilarious. I mean, you can’t understand a word of it, but it’s great.”
“I’m not so sure on that one,” Jessica said skeptically.
“I’m sure. Don’t you trust me?”
“Of course. Let’s go check out those Japanese game shows.”
They cleared their trays and walked one building over. Everett had been right, the rec room was empty. He retrieved the remote from on top of the old, boxy TV. There were several ugly, floral couches between the TV and the ping pong table at the back of the room. They chose the one that was most centered.
Everett pressed the power button then quickly clicked through channels until he found the right one. Duke’s didn’t have a lot of channel options. It was surprising to Jessica that they got a channel with foreign game shows; they didn’t even have TNT. They joined the show in the middle, but it didn’t really matter much.
Everett put his arm around her. The TV seemed very far away to Jessica, and she was so tired. The drowsiness took her by surprise. Something’s not right, her brain screamed at her. She fought to keep her eyes open, but it was so hard; she was so sleepy. Everett’s hand pushed her shirt up and undid her jeans. NO. She wasn’t sure if she even said the word aloud. She tried to push his hand away, but her arm was too heavy to move.
And then everything was gone.
Sometime later, Jessica became vaguely aware of the world again. She didn’t wake as one typically does. Instead, light and noise filtered down to her like she was underwater. She struggled to breach the surface and make some sense of it all.
There was the sound of a buzzer and a cacophony of some Asian language. Harsh lighting stabbed at her eyeballs even through her closed eyelids. There was a person next to her. She fought to sit up, fighting against the invisible weight that plagued her limbs. Reality trickled into her brain: the rec room, Japanese TV, Everett’s hand, passing out, the pain she felt, her pounding headache, nausea.
She lurched unsteadily to her feet. The floor tilted dangerously, but she somehow kept her footing. She looked back at the couch, at Everett, at his smirk. She stumbled from the room. She made it into the bathroom and snicked the deadbolt into place. Her strength gave out, and she crumbled to the floor.
She didn’t believe in fairy tales anymore.