Back to December
Cindy stuffed a clean dinner plate into the cupboard. She was upset enough to do it forcefully, but not so upset as to put them in the wrong place.
I do have some self-preservation instincts.
She honestly didn't know what she expected: she had only ever had two big secrets and one came out when she and Jimmy started dating. It was natural that the other would be blurted out in the worst possible scenario.
She sat on the bar stool and rested her head on her open palms.
Why is it so difficult to repress things?
It was not an experience she was likely to forget, no matter how hard she tried. Memories flooded back:
It was a balmy day in early December (winters in Retroville were rarely cold, but this heat wave was almost unnatural). She had decided to forgo carbon emissions and was walking home from school. It hadn't been a fantastic day: she'd gotten a 90 on her pre-cal test, she could only remember two of the three characteristics of Gothic cathedrals when called upon in art history, and she and Jimmy had argued. Again. Something they had been doing a lot of lately. She couldn't even remember what had started the fight, but she mumbled unused snappy retorts under her breath as she walked. She could hear a car driving up beside her and mover slightly farther away from the street. Strangely, the car didn't pass her, but kept a very slow pace directly behind her. She walked faster, digging through her purse for pepper spray. Out of her peripheral vision, she noticed it wasn't a car, but a black limousine tailing her.
It couldn't be…
She could hear a window rolling down and heard a familiar slimy voice call out, "Good afternoon my dear Cynthia."
Oh no. "Don't you have someone else to bother, Eustace?"
He ignored that. "Mmm, Cynthia. I do love that name. But of course, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."
She wheeled around. "It's that which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet. If you are going to use Shakespeare to harass me, at least use it properly."
"Ah, but my intention is not to harass, dear heart, but to have a civil conversation."
"Well you've already killed that chance."
His smiled slipped slightly. "Will you please get in the limousine, Cynthia? I wish to speak privately with you."
"Ha! Not in this lifetime. I would really rather not end up on a milk carton today, thanks."
His demeanor slipped entirely, "Look, I have my chauffeur driving and a butler in here with me."
"Gee, accept a ride with you and two people on your pay roll, let me think…" she tapped her index finger on her chin.
A man in a navy blue hat stuck his head out the window. "Trust me miss, we hate him more than you do. You'll be safe." Eustace nodded his head in agreement.
"Um, riding in the, uh, trunk," she raised an eyebrow, "He said something derogatory about my racquet ball skills. Listen, are you getting in or what?"
She deliberated for a minute. "All right, but just so you know: if I don't get to my Aikido class by 4:30, my mother will have the entire city police force out looking for me."
"It won't be a problem," he said through gritted teeth.
The door opened and Cindy slid onto the seat across from Eustace. Expensive orthodontia work had fixed his buckteeth, but he still maintained the same smug expression that he had when they were children which kept him from being attractive.
She squirmed uncomfortably on the faux leather interior. "Now, what is it that's so important that you had to kidnap me?"
He sat back against the seat, a glass of Flurp in his hand. "Cynthia, let's drop the pretenses. You and I are friends, no?"
She crossed her arms. "No! Every time I try to give you the benefit of the doubt, you end up taking advantage of my trusting nature."
"Well I can assure you that it would not be in my favor to betray you this time." He offered her a glass, which she took begrudgingly. "You see my dear-"
"Ok, if this is going to be a civil conversation you have to stop that."
"Stop calling me darling or dear, I have a name."
"All right Cynthia, here is my proposition: I want you to go to my academy's winter formal with me."
She blinked. "You're kidding."
"I do indeed wish I was…but the situation has become dire."
"Aren't there girls at your own school you could ask?"
"No, Marlin Academy is an all male establishment. Our sister school, Hildegard Bingen Day School for Young Ladies, is where most of the fellows find their dalliances."
"Let me guess: none of them have fallen victim to your charms?"
He ignored her sarcasm, "It's not that I did not try…but most of the females there are vacuous ninnies who care more about personality and character than polo scores or net worth."
"What shallow fools" she deadpanned.
"Well it's not as though I can attend the formal by myself. And father insists that I go so as to build 'social skills.'"
"And you thought I would bend over backwards to go to some boring dance with your stuffy friends?" she shoved the glass back into his hand.
"I thought you might like to do a friend a favor."
"Now, if anyone else said something like that I might be tempted to believe them, but for some reason I don't take this request at face value. There's no way you would ask me for a favor without already having an ace in the hole. Let's just get the blackmail out of the way."
"There is no blackmail, but there can be bribery if you wish."
"Call it a trade if you wish. You come with me and be your usual charming and intelligent self, and I will give you whatever your heart desires…within reason of course."
"I find the fact that you think you can buy me to be incredibly insulting. And can't you just ask someone for real?"
"To be honest," he looked vaguely uncomfortable, "there really isn't anyone else I would want to go with. Most girls I meet share none of my interests. At least with you there is a chance for engaging conversation."
"Wow Eustace, that's actually kind of sweet."
He gave her a quick once-over. "And I wouldn't mind having an excuse to look at you for an entire evening."
"And you ruined it." She reached up and tapped on the front window, "I would like to get out now please."
"But-" the limo stopped abruptly, "surely there must be something you want."
"There is" she turned to face him before stepping out the door, "I want you to leave me alone."
She had hurried home with enough time to do her homework and get to the lesson, eager to forget the day's events; however, when she returned home, things went from bad to worse. She pulled into the driveway and instantly had the sensation that something was amiss. The formal dining room lights were on –a room which was reserved for holiday meals and work-related functions– certainly not Monday night dinner. She hoisted her bag over her shoulder and walked slowly into the house. Laughter rang through the den, leading her through the kitchen.
Oh you have got to be kidding me!
There at her table sat her mother, Eustace Stritch, and his butler du jour, yukking it up like old friends. He made eye contact and briefly smiled a self-satisfied smile before saying, "Ah look, Cynthia has returned." Her mother ushered her in, smiling jovially. "My dear you must hear the good news: your friend Eustace has invited you to his academy's winter formal!" she leaned in close, "you know, his father owns Stritch Enterprise, and that business is worth-"
"I know who he is mother," she interrupted, "but when did our guest arrive?"
"Just half an hour ago," he swished his drink around in the glass. "I wanted to ask you in person. A phone call is just so uncongenial, you know." His green eyes glinted maliciously.
"Oh, I know a fair amount of things."
"And that is just fantastic! She'd be delighted to go of course. It will take place right after term ends for the holidays" she clapped her hands together.
"Yes, it will be a rather grand affair," Eustace continued to eye Cindy, who could do nothing but will the chandelier to come loose and fall on him. "I do hope you will enjoy it. You know, we can purchase Cynthia's dress is need be. Father insisted I take care of everything."
"Oh no, that won't be necessary. Such a kind offer though," she nudged her daughter, "Thank him, dear!"
"Oh, would you please leave the room mother. I have a good many things to say to dear Eustace."
"Actually I would like another glass of this pulp-free orange juice, Mrs. Vortex."
"Of course dear," she beamed, "I'll have to go out to the garage to get a new bottle." She hurried out of the room giving Cindy her be courteous glances.
"Why you sneaky, underhanded, son of a-"
"Ah ah, my dear. Your darling mother wouldn't want you to say anything you regret."
"The only thing I regret is not asphyxiating you when I had the chance. How could you do something to manipulative and evil as to go through my mother! Just to get a date!"
He rolled his eyes, "Come now Cindy, would a date with me really be that bad?"
"Alright, give me one valid reason why you don't want to go and I will leave now," he glanced towards the door, "Of course, mummy dearest will be sad to see me go."
"Well you can dig your own grave then, because if I go down, you're coming with me!"
"From a sensible standpoint it makes sense for you to come: some of the brightest minds in the state will be there, you'll never run out of people to talk to, and the food will be divine," he swished the glass of remaining juice, "well, to your untrained palate at least. And won't mother be happy that you have a proper suitor."
"But you aren't a suitor, you are a manipulative cretin who will stop at nothing to get his own way! And she like my suitors just fine thank you very much."
He gave a shrewd glace, "Oh? I wasn't aware you had any suitors at the moment."
"Or are you still dating that Lance fellow who's not good enough for you?"
This gave her pause. Lance Dorian was a member of the Retroville swim team who she had met (and who she discovered possessed an unfair amount of charm) at Libby's Halloween party. They had talked for a while and gone out a few times, but she had eventually grown bored with him. She often grew bored with the boys she went out with: they were always too shallow, too dim, or just…boring. Someone who thought Jocelyn Burnell was a YA author was not someone she needed in her life. It was too bad she had ended things with Lance before Thanksgiving though, because an ironclad excuse to escape this invitation would be worth tiresome conversation about the butterfly stroke.
"At the moment I am currently unattached…but that does not mean-"
"Cynthia, I am beginning to get insulted. What exactly is so terrible about me that you can't do me one little favor?"
"Besides the fact that you pull stunts like this? I don't trust you farther than I could throw you."
"I would imagine that would actually be pretty far," she refused to smile at the pseudo compliment, "look, I promise I am telling you everything. When I have I ever gone back on my word?"
"Let's see: that time on Mars, when you used your time box to try and proclaim yourself ruler of El Dorado, Libby's 8th grade graduation party, the 'steel wool' incident-"
"Alright, I will admit that in the past I have been-"
"A two-faced weasel?"
"-Somewhat untrustworthy, but I can assure you this is genuine. Have Neutron hook me up to his lie-detector if you want."
She flushed. She really didn't like where this conversation was heading. "That will not be necessary."
He raised an eyebrow. "What's this now: are you and the resident 'boy genius' on the outs again? My my, what a surprise."
"We are not on the outs, we just had… a minor disagreement."
"Mmmm yes, that seems to be happening often. Reminiscent of the days when your squabbles were to hide-"
"Alright fine, I'll do it."
She clenched her jaw, "I will go with you to the stupid dance, but only on several conditions: 1) you will not touch me without my permission, 2) you will bring me home the instant I say to, not a second later, 3) I will steer the topics of conversation, 4) if any of your dorky friends make a pass at me, I will knock them unconscious, 5)" she hesitated, " Don't tell Jimmy about this."
"Think he'd be jealous, do you?"
"I think it's none of his business. Now I would like you to verbally agree to the terms." She took a metal box out of her bag.
"You carry a tape recorder with you?"
"Yes, now say, 'I, Eustace Strytch, agree to the listed terms set out per the agreement, and should I violate any of these terms Cynthia Aurora Vortex will make me eat my own socks."
"So, how do you know this boy?" Mr. Vortex had come home just as Eustace was leaving. Cindy had managed to escape upstairs and take a shower before dinner while her mother waxed poetic about her *shudder* suitor.
"We, um, go way back."
"And he's just the most polite young man you've ever met!" Her mother gushed.
Her dad looked incredulous, "I see he drank all the orange juice. So, do you like this fellow?"
There were a million things Cindy would rather be doing then having this conversation. "He's…amiable."
"You didn't answer the question."
"Of course she likes him dear, he's the heir of the Stritch Empire! And he dresses so well"
"Maybe you should be going to the dance with him, Sasha."
Fortunately, the phone rang, and her mother practically danced out of the room.
He turned to look at his daughter, a suspicious look on his face. "Now Cin, I'm not usually one to be inquisitive about your boyfriends, but there's something very… not right about this scenario."
There was no avoiding it. "He's a unique case."
"Meaning I don't like him and I'd rather be sealed in carbonate than go to this stupid dance. I have to go though."
"You know, it would take some serious persuasion, but we could try to talk your mother out of it…maybe"
"It's not just her. It's something I have to do. We made a deal."
"Alright, but I don't like this. I don't care how rich he is, do not tolerate his nonsense!"
She chuckled, "Will do. Believe me."
The next day at school was not much better. She debated whether or not to tell Libby, but eventually decided it was best. Then immediately regretted it.
"Bwahaha, you and blazer boy! That's the funniest thing I've ever heard!"
"Are you finished?" Libby had snorted half of her milkshake out her nose, and some surrounding tables turned to see what they were doing. Perhaps the lunchroom was not the best place to do this.
"Just one more minute. Ahahahahaha! Ok now I'm good. Nope I lied!" she continued laughing. Cindy crossed her arms. "Oh calm down, you had to know I would find this hilarious."
"NO, I thought you would help me! Libs, this is serious. How am I supposed to deal with this if you don't help me?"
"I am taking it seriously. I made Sheen sit somewhere else so we could be alone, didn't I?"
This much was true. He sat a few tables away, looking over occasionally with sad puppy dog eyes. Carl and Jimmy kept calling him back to their conversation.
"It just seems like another trick. What if the dance is just a front for an elaborate scheme?"
"Then he shouldn't have gotten your mother in on it. It don't matter how much money he has, if he makes an enemy of Sasha Vortex- he's dead."
This didn't comfort her as much as it should have. "Ok, worst case scenario you just get Jimmy to take you back in time and feed Stritch his own fist."
Cindy looked away.
"Oh don't tell me you two are fighting again? Cindy, you've gotta stop this."
"Stop what, existing? You know that's just the way we interact."
"Ok, fair point."
Cindy groaned and laid her head on the table. "Why do things like this always happen to me?"
"Oh, quit moaning like this is the end of the world. Things might not go so terribly, and hey–the guy's loaded! Maybe you'll get something out of it. Preferably a yacht, but jewelry would work."
"Haven't you ever heard the expression 'money doesn't buy happiness?'"
"Haven't you ever heard the expression 'get that ice or else no dice?'"
Cindy rolled her eyes, "Ok Marilyn. Why couldn't he have just asked you instead?"
Libby sipped daintily from her drink, "Because you're too darn irresistible. Maybe if you'd agreed to go out with Kurt McGinty you wouldn't have this problem."
She picked up her head, "Why do all of your solutions involve me going on dates?"
"Because all of your problems stem from the inability to be honest with a certain geni-"
"Please please please do not start! My life is irritating enough without this old discussion."
Libby shrugged. "I guess there's no escaping it then. So, what are you going to wear?"
"I was thinking a suit of chainmail armor covered with spikes."
"Any way you could make it blow up like a puffer fish if he touches you?"
She somehow managed to navigate the next few weeks of classes and mid terms, only to grow more apprehensive as the event approached.
When the abysmal day was finally upon her, Cindy had worked her nerves into frenzy. Her mother had spent the preceding week smiling uncharacteristically and humming to herself, no doubt fantasizing about a million dollar wedding between her daughter and the tycoon's son. Cindy wanted to vomit.
She forced herself to make an effort while getting ready. She arranged her blonde waves into a stylish Gibson roll adorned with jeweled hairpins, and applied eye shadow that matched her dark green dress. At five minutes to seven, she slid into a pair of black high-heels.
There. No one can accuse me of not trying.
She would have mused about looking festive were she not on her way to meet the manipulative cretin she hated more than anyone. That attitude's really going to help you get through this. I'm just being a realist: there's no way this is going to be fun. You could at least try to enjoy yourself. Maybe it won't be horrible. Maybe I'll get hit by a bus and won't have to go. Maybe this is why you've never had a real boyfriend: you have expectations that are way too high. Maybe I don't want a boyfriend. The image of a certain someone flashed before her eyes before she dismissed the thought.
Suddenly, she heard the doorbell ring and a muffled squeal that must have been her mother. "Cynthia! There's a young man here for you. Make haste!"
She sighed heavily and made her way down the stairs. Her mother, father, Eustace, and Blix were waiting by the front door. Her mother's face was stretched out in a smile that would creep 0ut the Cheshire cat. Her dad was side-eyeing Eustace, who stood confidently with a smug expression on his face. He appeared to be looking at her, but would not meet her gaze. She had to admit, he did clean up nicely in his gray suit, which was no doubt tailored to fit. He could pass for handsome if it weren't for incredibly irritating atmosphere of arrogance. The pretentious creep even had a crimson rose affixed to his lapel. He finally made eye contact and smiled when she came to stand next to him.
"Good evening my dear Cynthia."
"Oh, you two make such a handsome couple! We must get a photograph!"
Good, she can use for my Amber Alert if need be. Now stop that.
She decided that there was no use grumbling: this night was happening whether she enjoyed it or not, so she might as well try to have fun.
She stood next to Eustace who in turn put his hand on the small of her back.
"Move it down one millimeter and I will break your foot" she whispered through a smile.
"I wouldn't dream of it, darling."
After about eight hundred snapshots, they finally put on coats and went to the limo.
Her mother stood outside the door waving. "Have a marvelous time! Cynthia can be home whenever, she has a house key!"
"She will be home before one am, do you hear!" her father's voice boomed.
"Oh dear, let them have their fun."
"Have I told you yet how ravishing you look this evening?"
She slumped in her seat. "Have I told you that I have no use for your nonsense?"
He readjusted his burgundy tie. "Cynthia, when will you accept the fact that I am trying to be sincere? That dress makes you look positively radiant, and I can appreciate how much effort went into that hairstyle. Why it took Blix a good twenty minutes to affix my own bouffant with pomade." He tapped a finger of his hair, "See, it doesn't move."
She chuckled in spite of herself. "You can actually be pretty decent when you try".
"I keep telling you that, Cindy, but you never believe me."
She smiled, "So, are we going to your school?"
"Don't be ridiculous; we're going to the Hotel Élite. It will take about twenty minutes to get there."
"Oh. How… luxurious." She picked at the hem of her dress, struggling to come up with a conversation topic. "I hope your friends don't think I'm too low-class," she said jokingly.
He was obviously unused to humor from her. "Nonsense, dear. No one is that stuck-up." He reached into his jacket pocket, "But if you're that worried-"
"I'm really not worried."
"-I have a little something that might make you feel better." He handed her a book-sized velvet box.
She accepted it hesitantly, gently opening it to reveal a thin gold necklace adorned with deep red gems. "Uh..."
"I thought gold would go well with your skin-tone. Shall I fasten it for you?"
She closed the lid and threw it back to him. "Eustace, I can't accept this. And I said no bribes."
"This is not a bribe. I merely wanted to express my appreciation to you for helping me." He took the piece out and extended it to her. "Besides, you know everyone there will be decked out in ice."
"I don't think that slang is from this decade." He gave her a pointed look. "Ok, I'll wear it tonight, but I won't keep it."
"Whatever. But if you change your mind, I have no use for it."
She rolled her eyes, but turned to face the car door.
He leaned forward and slid the chain around her neck. It felt cool on her skin, and the dangling gems hung against her collarbone. The boatneck of her dress displayed it well. She couldn't help but admire the effect.
"Fantastic. I hope garnet was an all right stone choice: they match my boutonnière. I thought pearls would be too casual."
Her head shot up. "What did you say?"
"Pearl is your birth stone, correct? Your birthday is in June."
"Oh, yeah. I suppose so." Eustace continued on about undertones or whatnot. She was too shaken up by the memory of the last time a boy gave her pearls. A pearl. A single perfect pearl that was currently wrapped in a napkin in her bedside drawer.
How did he know- does he know? It seemed more like an offhanded comment then a set up.
Eustace was still talking as though nothing had changed, but she still couldn't help feel a little anxious. She didn't want to think about those kinds of memories tonight– or ever if certain people continued to be a jerk.
Suddenly the car began slowing down.
"Ah good, we're here." They waited for the chauffer to park, before opening the door. Eustace stepped out and extended a hand. Ordinarily Cindy would have gone on a rant about how she was perfectly capable of getting out of a car by herself (and how lazy was he to need a servant to open the door?) but she was too distracted by the sheer opulence of the building, and absent-mindedly took it. There were a multitude of vehicles in the lot- some limousines, some expensive-looking sports cars, and even a few horse-drawn carriages.
She almost laughed. "I can't imagine what your prom must be like."
The corners of his mouth turned up in a faint amused smile. He muttered under his breath, "You'll see."
Before she could ask what he meant, they strode through the gilded front doors. The inside was ornately decorated (a little too Rococo for her tastes) but when an attendant ushered them into what must have been the ballroom, her jaw dropped in astonishment. It was like something from a movie, or a dream where life was like a perfect Jane Austin novel: all beauty and elegance (with none of the abject poverty or lack of air conditioning).
"On the back wall is a table of amuse-bouches for you to enjoy. Glasses of sparkling cinder are next to that. The music is courtesy of the Retroville County Orchestra."
Eustace handed the man a folded bill and he returned to his post.
"Well, what shall we do first? I imagine you haven't had dinner."
She had eaten half a sandwich before she started getting dressed, but that had been at least two hours ago. And she was more curious than hungry. "I want to meet your friends. Are they here yet? What time did this technically start?"
He hesitated, "The doors opened at seven, but-"
"Eustace! Good to see you made it." A tall boy with a shock of red hair came up to them, followed by a decent-sized group of others. Eustace shook away a small look of pain. "And this must be your lovely date." He held out a hand, "Norman Batesly. Of the Batesly Hotel Chain. I'm a bit miffed they didn't want to host this there, but that's irrelevent."
"Uh, Cindy. Vortex. Nice to meet you."
"I have to say, we've been very eager to meet Eustace's girlfriend."
"What was that now?"
Eustace grabbed her arm. "Uh, excuse us for just a moment." He dragged her over to a corner behind a pedestal.
"You have exactly one second to explain why they think I'm your girlfriend."
"Alright, now don't get mad-"
"Norm and I were shooting the breeze one day, and having a classic verbal sparring match, and I didn't have any response to his latest rowing score so I may have said that I had a girlfriend who was an athlete."
"There was no way that lie could go wrong."
"Well, I managed to avoid the Halloween soiree due to bronchitis, but this dance posed a problem"
"Which is why you 'couldn't go alone'."
He gave her a side-eyed glance, "You know how it is when rivals talk. Why anything can come out."
She let out an exasperated groan. "Fine. But you owe me big time."
They rejoined the group. "Now dearest, Norman didn't mean to offend your senses. Cynthia simply cannot stand the word 'girlfriend'; it's so crass."
"Heh heh, yeah… Significant other is much more elegant. Gender neutral and all that-"
"Just try to avoid it in the future." He patted her shoulder, a little longer than was necessary, "Now, this is Richard Walker, of the Walker Ranch which-"
The boy to his right interrupted, "Eustace, you don't have to tell her where we get our money from. Hi, it's very nice to meet you Cynthia."
"Cindy, please call me Cindy."
The dark-haired girl in the pink dress next to him came forward. "Cindy Vortex? Rachel Oxendine. I think we met at the statewide science fair last year."
After being introduced to the rest of the group, the band struck up a jaunty foxtrot.
Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it) her mother had forced her to do cotillion for four years, so she had some experience ballroom dancing.
She and Eustace moved as one unit, sashaying about the floor in even steps.
One, two, right, together; step, turn, right, together; back step, rock, forward, side step, together.
"This is all so formal. What, do you learn to waltz in gym class?"
"Well, when we're not playing jai alai or learning to captain a yacht."
She stared at him dumbfounded, until a smile spread over his face.
"Eustace, was that sarcasm?"
He laughed, "They'll play modern music when the orchestra takes a break."
"Do you even realize how incredible this is? It's like you're in a different world."
"Don't be silly; we're just ordinary people, with a combined net worth of trillions of dollars."
They danced a few more sets before indulging on hors d'oeuvres and cider. She talked with some of the girls, who convinced her that she must come to their fencing club. She even danced with a few other boys, all of whom were very charming. She had to sit down to rest her aching feet, which weren't used to so much activity in heels.
Cindy hated to admit it, but the night was actually pretty fun. Who knew that Eustace Strich would be her best date of the year?
Of course, it's not really a date. Just…an agreement. I could never date someone so… So what? So not Ji- No, don't think like that. Not tonight.
Suddenly, one of Eustace's friends came up and offered her his hand. She accepted it, desperately trying to remember his name.
"Are you enjoying yourself, Miss Vortex?" his voice was smooth and deep, the words rolling off his tongue like silk on steel. She didn't like it.
"Yes, it's been a rather enchanting evening." The music picked up. "It's hard to believe that once upon a time the waltz was considered scandalous."
He didn't return her smile. "The days of yore are rife with antiquated notions. The aristocracy of many nations threw lavish parties like this all the time, despite the fact that the rest of the country was starving. Such extravagant displays of wealth were often to overcompensate for their lack of personalities."
"Um, yeah. Fancy yourself a history buff?"
"Just an enlightened thinker." He glanced down at her neck. "That's quite a necklace you're wearing."
"Oh, thank you. It was…a gift."
"Oh I don't think so. You've certainly paid for that."
She couldn't believe the audacity of this guy. "I'm sorry, do I know you, Mr.-"
"It's Matt. There's no need for pretense with me."
"No need for manners either apparently. What is your problem with me?"
"Oh, I have no problem with you Cindy. Like you, I don't belong here."
"Um, I was invited here by my fr- uh boyfriend."
"That's not what I mean. You aren't part of the privileged few who own half this state, so you don't even see why you don't belong with these people."
"And you do?"
"No. Unlike the rest of these oblivious sycophants, I don't have an impressive lineage or a trust fund or a limo. But I do have a dad who is a teacher and a work-study with the dining hall."
Her skin bristled. "And what? You think you're better than them because you're not wealthy?"
"No, I think I'm better because I have a conscious. How much do you think this little shindig cost? More than some people's college tuition. You go to Retroville High, correct?" He didn't wait for her to respond. "How many of your friend's are going to rely on scholarships or student loans to pay for college? See, at Marlin, people don't write application essays, they just write checks out to their university of choice."
"What exactly are you trying to tell me?"
He ran a finger over the necklace. "Don't mind me, I just like to hear myself talk."
The song faded to a stop. "Well thank you Matt, but I think-" She broke apart from him and turned to walk away.
"You know, you're just as lovely as Eustace described. Although I would say your eyes are closer to peridot than emerald."
She halted. "What?
"Peridot- the birth stone of the month of August. Of course, it's understandable that you don't know that since your birthday is in June."
She stared at him, flabbergasted. "How-"
"Oh, your boyfriend has been very eager to volunteer information about you for the last few months. Nothing about your interests or hobbies mind you, but your academic records are very impressive, I must admit."
She was in shock. Months? He only asked me to the dance two weeks ago. In order for him say that I'm his girlfriend, that would mean…
She felt her stomach lurch.
"Why are you telling me this?"
He smiled. "You seem like a nice girl. I don't want you to fall in with the wrong crowd."
Cindy stalked across the dance floor, her fists clenched at her side. She spotted Eustace near the punch bowl chatting up a blond girl in a black dress. He looked over and noticed her coming towards him.
"Ah hello darling, I was just telling Clara here about your most recent karate spar and how you smote the opponent in eleven minutes flat."
"That was a tae kwon do competition. I need to speak to you outside." She grabbed his arm and strode purposefully towards the door.
"Cindy wait, I didn't mean to confuse them. I wasn't there! Cindy! Cynthia stop!"
She whirled around. "Riddle me this Eustace: how is it possible that you've been telling your friends that I'm your girlfriend when you only asked me to this dance two weeks ago?"
"See, in order for that to be possible you must have been planning this for quite some time."
He glanced around, then pulled her out the door and over to where the cars were parked. "Now, what's all this nonsense about?"
"Stalking me after school, conspiring with my mom, the sob story about one-upping your rival: you needed me to pretend to be your girlfriend all right. They already thought I was!"
His demeanor changed. "If memory serves me right, you agreed to that deal."
"I agreed when I thought you had made up some hypothetical girl to keep from being humiliated, not because you told them you were dating me!"
"I personally don't see the difference."
"You lied to me! Not to mention tricked me and behaved like a self-centered creep! How exactly did you see this scenario playing out?"
He kicked his foot over a loose rock. "Alright, if it's the truth you want: I had hoped that perhaps this splendor of the evening might convince you to give my courtship a chance."
"Your mistake was believing I'm as shallow as you are. Why did you have to drag me into all of this?"
"Oh come on Cynthia, you know why."
She rolled her eyes. "If you expect me to believe that you did all this because you like me, you must be out of your mind."
"Why is that so hard for you to believe?"
"Because we have nothing in common? Because you continually trick and deceive me? Because you never express any interest in me unless it's for your own personal gain?"
He didn't say anything, his expression growing unreadable.
"You don't want to date me Eustace. At least not for the reasons you let on. You just want yet another status symbol. "
Suddenly his demeanor changed. He took a step closer, invading her personal space. "Why can't it be both?" His voice was deep and smooth. "After all, we do make a handsome couple, we get along well enough, and there would be a variety of perks," he ran his finger over her collarbone, right above her dress's neckline where the gold necklace glimmered in the light from the streetlamp.
She shivered. "You can't get everything you want just by throwing money at it. I know you rich people think you can have whatever you want whenever you want, but a relationship can't be bought."
"Who says this has to be solved with money." He clasped her chin between his thumb and forefinger. "I can get what I want without that." And with that he thrust his mouth against hers, forcibly pulling her body closer. He moved his other hand to the small of her back then down to-
"Ugh!" Eustace doubled over in pain. Cindy unbent her leg then stepped back to stomp on his foot.
She shook with rage. "You do not get to touch me without my permission, and last time I checked brie-breath, I didn't give it!" She dug her heel into the soft leather of his loafer, "Get this though your thick skull: I will never date you. I do not like you, and after this, I will never trust you again. This façade may have tricked me into finding you tolerable, but I assure you I will not make the mistake of seeing you as anything other than a bottom-feeding worm, writhing in his own pretentious filth."
She released his foot and he let out a squeak. "And if you ever go behind my back to my mother again, I will make you wish you had never been born. Capisce?" He nodded his head, still doubled over in pain.
She gave him one last repulsed glance. "There was once a time when I thought we could be friends, but I'm beginning to suspect that you are incapable of human emotions. She unhooked the necklace and threw it at his feet. "Don't forget your bribe."
She opened the back door to his limo and climbed in. The driver had the partition rolled down and looked at her with a concerned expression.
"Will you take me home Wilfred?"
He nodded, "He didn't hurt you, did he miss?"
She shook her head. "I'm alright." But she still shook a little in her seat. That act of bravado was mostly due to the adrenaline that shot through her when Eustace kissed her. She probably shouldn't have reacted so violently, but-
No, he had it coming. Now he'll think twice before laying a hand on any girl.
She rubbed the spot on her neck that he had touched. It felt like someone had rubbed hot coals against her chest.
Some night this turned out to be. I think I'll stick to movie night with Libby from now on. It's less trouble than attempting to date. That only ever ends with disaster.
"Would you like a bottle of water Miss Cindy? There's a refrigerated compartment in the back-facing seat."
"What? Oh, no thanks. Are you going to be in trouble for leaving without Eustace?" She hadn't thought how all this might affect him.
To her surprise, he chuckled. "After the way he behaved, his father will have worse in store than having to wait at the school. Don't you worry, all will be well."
She smiled slightly. Of course now she had her mother to contend with. There was no way she would understand.
I'm probably going to have to write Eustace an apology letter. And invite him to dinner. And marry him.
She pulled her knees to her chest and buried her face in her hands for the remainder of the ride. When the vehicle stopped in front of her house she collected herself and opened the door.
"Uh, miss," she turned to look at Wilfred, "If there's any trouble, just remember that the hotel has surveillance cameras in the parking lot."
"Thank you. I hope it doesn't come to that." And with that she headed up her driveway.
She closed her front door as quietly as possible. The porch lights had been left on, but the house lights were all turned off. Hopefully that meant her parents were both asleep. She didn't feel like dealing with her mother that night. It was only just now midnight, but Sasha did have to work the following day. She slipped out of her shoes and tiptoed towards the stairs. Halfway to her room, a voice called out, "You know, midnight was Cinderella's curfew, but you had until 1 am."
She turned around slowly. "Yeah well, my carriage turned into a pumpkin sooner than expected."
Her father's smile faded and he walked over and put one hand on her shoulder. "What happened sweetie?"
"Eustace Charming turned back into a rat"
His face ignited with fury, "What did he do? Did he hurt you? That pompous spoiled little twerp thinks he can do whatever he-"
"No, Daddy, he just…"
She sat down on the carpeted steps and briefly explained the evening's transgressions. Her father's indignation showed through the entire story. When she finally finished, he uncrossed his arms.
"Well Cin, I know you possess the ability to shatter a man's spine with your elbow, so I applaud your willpower."
"But I have half a mind to call his father."
"Please don't, the Stryches can buy and sell this entire town. Besides, his dad is going to be in Japan doing business for the next two months. It wouldn't do any good."
He hesitated, "I don't like the idea of him getting off scott-free, but you have to promise me that if he even comes near you again, you'll have him arrested. Do you hear me?"
"I will do whatever won't get me sued. At least until I pass the bar and can counter-sue."
He chuckled. "Alright sweetheart. And I'll do my best to keep your mom from pestering you about all this."
"Thank you dad."
He kissed her forehead. "Goodnight Cindy. Sleep well."
She grabbed her shoes and made her ways up the stairs to her room. She closed the door and pulled off the dress to hang it on her closet door. She sat at the end of her bed and look at Humphrey who was curled up in his dog bed. The bulldog seemed to sense she was there and hopped up next to her. He nuzzled his head on her arm. Tears ran down her cheeks as the clock struck one.
"Honestly, you are being ridiculous. Just let me in!"
"Sasha, she was out late last night. Let the poor girl sleep in for once!"
"Breakfast will be cold by the time she wakes up. Besides, I leave for work in thirty minutes and need to speak to her!"
Cindy lay in bed, holding the covers over her face. The voices outside her door grew progressively louder. Her head pounded from lack of sleep, and Humphrey snoring on the pillow next to her didn't help.
Suddenly, the door flew open. "Good morning dearest darling!"
She pushed back the comforter and saw her mother standing in front of her bed holding a breakfast tray. "I took the liberty of preparing you a strawberry smoothie and whole wheat toast with jam." She sat the tray on Cindy's lap and sat on the end of the bed. "Now, tell me all about last night!"
"The veritable toast of junior society was rumored to be there! Did you meet many fascinating people?"
"Did they serve wonderful food? What kind of music did they play? Did you waltz? When are you seeing Eustace again?"
"The two of you looked so wonderful last night. I've ordered prints of the photo to send to all our relatives. Susan will simply die when she sees-"
"Mom!" she sat up abruptly, almost knocking over the tray, "I don't want to go out with Eustace."
"What? Why ever not?"
"He kissed me."
"He did? That's wonder- wait, then why are you acting so dour? Did he ask your permission first?"
She shook her head no.
"He kissed you without your consent? Well that is no way for a gentleman to behave. Just because he is wealthy doesn't mean he can do whatever he wants without consequences."
Cindy resisted the urge to scoff. It seems like that's exactly what being rich entails. Wait, is mom actually on my side?
"So I don't have to date him?"
Her mom gave her a look of disbelief. "Cynthia, you don't have to date anyone you don't want to! And I would prefer you cease contact with this boy until he lives up to the Strych name."
She turned to leave, muttering something about "too good to be true."
Cindy couldn't believe her luck, she thought for sure by now she would be the future Mrs. Strych-Vortex. She nibbled a piece of toast. Maybe she'll be on my side more often. Now all she had to do was swear Libby to secrecy and pray no one else ever found out about this.
She was wrenched from her flashback by a knock on the front door. A familiar voice called out, "Cindy! Let me in!"
"Go away Libby, I'm…I'm busy."
"Girl, I'm sorry I let that slip. I swear it wasn't intentional. If it's any consolation, I forgive you for mercilessly tricking me while I've done nothing but love you."
She let out a humorless laugh. "I suppose I had that coming. But I really just want to be alone."
"Cin, come one- it's just me. We don't even have to talk, just let me be there."
Cindy looked through the peephole and saw a smiling Libby standing on the stoop, holding a carton of ice cream, so she undid the deadlock and opened the door.
"Alright, you can come-" Then she noticed it: Jimmy hiding behind the potted topiary, which was just beside the door.
"And now we're even." Libby grabbed his arm and flung him towards the door. "Well, I'll just leave this here."
"You lied to me!"
"Imagine that." She ran off down the road. "I'm keeping the ice cream!"
"You don't even like pecan ripple! You said you forgave me!"
She let out an exasperated sigh and turned to go back in the house. Jimmy was standing sheepishly by the jamb.
"Well, come in." He followed her into the living room.
They sat on opposite ends of the couch. He hadn't attempted to say anything throughout the entire ordeal. He just looked at her with a nervous expression.
"Before you jump to any conclusions," she avoided eye contact, "I just want to say that we didn't actually date. We went on one date in December that lasted a maximum of three hours. We haven't spoken since that night, but none of this really requires explanation because you and I weren't even close to being an item then."
He hesitated, "Cindy-"
"So there's really no reason for you to be upset or me to feel guilty."
"I mean, it's not like you've never kept secrets from me, so there's really-"
She stopped abruptly.
"Look, I'm not upset. If you hadn't run out of the lab, I could have told you that it doesn't bother me that you went out with Eustace."
She rubbed her arm. "Oh. I just panicked. This has kind of been an emotional day."
"You can say that again. And… I'm sorry about the spelling bee thing."
She shook her head, "That was years ago. I made it out to be a bigger deal than it was. But… maybe we should make a point to not hide important things from each other from now on."
"I suppose that's reasonable."
"I mean, I'm not saying we have to be 100% honest all the time, but this way we never have to use that truth serum again."
"Well, Libby made me dispose of that on threat of decapitation," he paused," But if we are being honest then there's something else I need to tell you."
"What? You used a hypnobeam to win last year's Math Counts competition?"
"That's not the point." He took a deep breath. "I kind of knew about the date with Eustace."
"You what? Oh my gosh, did Libby tell you? She swore she had kept it a secret!"
"No, she didn't say anything. Before today I mean."
"Well the only other people who knew are my parents. Did my mom say something?"
He closed his eyes tight, then exhaled. "I know because Eustace told me."