When I hear the bell, I head inside and up to my room. Todd is there already, changing into the required formal clothing for tonight's dinner and the ball. I've had some practice with formal wear, between prior years' school dances and having been an usher in my cousin Sarah's wedding last summer. I'm dressed relatively quickly, while Todd is having trouble with his bow tie. A glance at the clock shows me that we're getting short on time, so I take the plunge.
“Todd? Would you like help with that?” I ask.
He peers at me suspiciously for a long moment. I can almost see him debating which is the lesser evil... accepting my help, or taking the demerits for being late or improperly attired to the dinner. “Um, sure,” he mumbles, his fingers working to undo the mess of his latest attempt at tying it.
I step in front of him and re-settle the tie around his neck. He lifts his chin to give me more room to work. I start to chatter, a small part of me thinking that I must sound like that Miss Marjorie Prescott from earlier who insisted on carrying her own dress upstairs today... but if I don't, I'll notice how very close his lips are to mine because of how we're standing. “I needed help with mine last year,” I tell him. “Jim Chapman and Knox Overstreet had a tidy little business going... a nickel per tie tied. I understand they made a buck-fifty apiece. But I was in my cousin's wedding over the summer, so my father showed me how to do it properly, since we had time to practice.” My fingers work rapidly as I talk. “If you want, I'd be happy to show you how sometime when we're not rushed for time. And there you go.”
Todd steps back and looks at himself in the mirror. Then he turns to me with an almost puzzled expression on his face. “I... thanks, Cameron,” he says, a little stiffly.
“You're welcome, Todd,” I reply. “We'd better hurry.”
“Right,” he answers, and heads out the door.
I follow, hoping that maybe things will improve a little now. Todd and I have managed a civil exchange of words at last. Maybe now the room won't always be so cold and silent. My dreams aside, I know I can't really expect Todd to want to become my friend. I know he blames me for Mr. Keating. But I'd be happy with the occasional hello or how are you. Anything other than the pretense that I don't actually exist.
We step out into the hallway, filled with sophomores, juniors and seniors in evening garb. The younger boys have eaten earlier today, and are not required to attend the ball. But the entry is no less crowded than usual, as the female guests and the girls from Henley Hall are dining with us this evening. Since some of the Henley girls are attending dances as guests of men at other schools... Ginny Danburry as a case in point, off to Connecticut as Nuwanda's guest at the Choate dance... I think the male population might be slightly greater than the female population this evening. But since most of the girls are wearing evening gowns with big poofy skirts, they seem to take up more space than their numbers might indicate. To aid in the spirit of romance, guys without dates are paired off with unescorted girls, according to age. We're expected to give the young lady in question a corsage, sit with her at dinner, and dance the first dance of the evening with her, but after that, we no longer need to treat her as a date. Thank goodness.
I pick up the box containing the corsage I've purchased... pale pink rosebuds, which hopefully won't clash with her dress, whoever she turns out to be. Miss Alice Lowell, according to Dr. Hager's list. I take a deep breath, dreading this part, and turn to the nearest girl who isn't already on some fellow's arm. “Excuse me, Miss," I smile. “Could you point me towards Alice Lowell, please?”
She indicates a brown-haired girl in a green dress, seated off to one side. I thank her politely and walk over to the girl in green. “Miss Lowell? I'm Richard Cameron,” I say with what I desperately hope is a friendly (as opposed to nervous) smile. May I escort you in to dinner?” I hold out the corsage as I speak.
She looks up with a reasonably friendly smile of her own, offering me her hand. “A pleasure meeting you, Richard, and please call me Alice. Would you mind terribly if we try to sit with my friends Amy and Kathy, and whichever fellows they draw as escorts? Amy's my roommate; she just transferred to Henley this term, when her family moved from Texas, and she's kind of shy.”
“Of course I don't mind,” I say, shaking her hand, then pinning the corsage to her shoulder. “Shall we go find them?”
She takes my arm and we circulate a bit. Eventually Alice spots Amy with Pitts and Kathy with Todd. Meeks joins us as well, with a girl named Tina. The eight of us will fill one table, so we move into the dining hall. Dinner is something good, for once. No mystery meat tonight; instead, the kitchens produce chicken cordon bleu, with roasted red potatoes and green bean casserole. Strawberry shortcake for dessert, naturally. Drinks include pink lemonade, sparkling apple juice, and some sort of red punch.
As dinner progresses, Alice and Kathy end up deep in conversation while Todd and I apply ourselves to the meal. Much to my private amusement, the random draw seems to have worked well for Meeks and Pitts, as Amy and Tina both have what most people would consider an unladylike interest in science and technology. Tina talks about the transistor radio she built, while Amy talks of her father's work on the EDVAC and in helping to develop integrated circuits for Texas Instruments. I have no idea what an integrated circuit might be, but the idea of it has Tina, Meeks and Pitts quite excited.
After dinner, we join the throng heading for the ballroom, known more commonly as the gymnasium. It's been disguised with swaths of red and white crepe paper, hearts, and cupids galore. A band is up on a small stage at the far end. As is traditional, the ball opens with some instrumental piece that I suspect might have been current when Welton opened back in 1859. I get through my obligatory dance with Alice and see her to a seat with her friend Kathy.
Miss Marjorie Prescott grabs me as I head back towards the stag corner, squealing and flapping her left hand, newly adorned with a diamond solitaire ring, in my face. “He asked! He asked! And you helped it happen, so I wanted you to be the first to know!”
Right. I helped. Well, if she thinks so, far be it from me to disabuse her of her illusions. I can hear Todd behind me, snickering as he continues on to the stag corner. Making the best of an awkward situation, I summon up a smile. “My felicitations, Miss Prescott,” I tell her. “And if I might be so bold, may I claim my promised dance now, so that you may have the rest of the evening free to spend with your fiance?”
She nods and I dance with her, thankfully delivering her back to her betrothed afterwards. As I join the other non-dancers in the stag corner, I note that Meeks and Pitts are not there. I grin, scanning the crowd on the dance floor. Todd taps me on the shoulder, pointing towards the bleachers across the way. Meeks and Pitts, along with Tina and Amy, are seated near the top, apparently not having paused in their conversation from dinner. “Even while they were dancing, they didn't stop talking,” Todd says. “Something about main frames and terminals, I have no idea what they meant.” Apparently he's still grateful for the help with his tie, since he's still talking civilly to me.
“I think I'm scared,” I joke. “Whoever would have thought there existed girls who could talk to Meeks and Pitts? If they marry, their children will probably design the first moon colony.”
Todd looks away, his eyes going flat. “I hate this holiday,” he mutters, “It's worse than Christmas.”
I'm pretty sure I know what he means. But I have no idea what to say, so I just fall silent.
At this point, the lights change, shifting from a soft white glow to a rose pink, with small twinkling white lights appearing across the ceiling like stars. The singer steps up to the microphone and announces, “This next song is for everyone who's in love this Valentine's Day.”
As the music starts, Todd's face just... crumples. There's no other way to describe it. I can see the stiffness in his body as he quickly makes his way to the door and out.
As unobtrusively as I can, I follow.