I stare at myself in the mirror critically. I have no idea how Ray plans to make me look princely. The fact of the matter is that I’m a tall and scrawny white hipster - her term, not mine. My lack of athletic ability is painfully obvious as I stare at the reflection of my lanky bare torso. My dark hair is falling limply into my eyes, just touching the rims of my black-framed glasses. I’ve never really thought about the way I look before, but as I look in the mirror I can really see what all of my classmates must see when they look at me: a weak book nerd in second-hand clothes.
“Ray, I don’t know if I can do this,” I shout through the bathroom door.
“Shut up and open the door,” Ray hollers back. I brace myself and then open the door to the bathroom hall where Ray is waiting for me. When I see her I do a double take.
She’s wearing a gown. Not a fluffy, tutu-skirted dress or baggy tunic like she wears to school, covered in bright colors and strange patterns. No, this is an honest-to-God real dress. It’s a shimmery navy blue, covered in a layer of thin black lace that makes the blue look deeper and richer. The skirt ends just below her knees and the top is held up by just a wide strap over one shoulder, leaving the other bare. Somehow the dark dress makes the caramel color of her skin look softer and her gray eyes look brighter.
Her feet are bare, her hair is hanging loose, and she isn’t wearing makeup, but it doesn’t matter. All of those old feelings I thought I’d crushed in junior high flutter to the surface for a moment.
“Ray, you look-” I stop, stuttering, trying to figure out just what exactly it is I’m trying to say. “You look amazing.”
Ray smirks but her cheeks go pink. “If you didn’t sound so surprised by that I might be flattered,” she says. “I’ll look better when I finish my hair and makeup, but it’s you we’ve got to worry about right now.” She eyes me appraisingly and that reminds me that I’m standing there in my boxers, my hair still damp from the long shower I had to take to wash all the paint off me. “First off,” she says, “go put these in.” She hands me a little plastic case and I know immediately what’s inside: my sole pair of contact lenses.
“Can’t the first order of business be pants?” I ask uneasily, shifting my bare feet on the tile.
“Contacts first, then we’ll worry about your clothes, Romeo,” Ray instructs. “Now march.”
I grudgingly go back into the bathroom and put in the contacts. It’s an awkward and painful experience. I’ve only worn contacts a handful of times and I end up poking myself in the eye more than once. My eyes are red and watering by the time I get the stupid things to stay in and then I blink around in confusion. Having clear peripheral vision for the first time in years is really disorienting and looking around kind of gives me a weird feeling of vertigo.
Ray appears over my shoulder and meets my gaze in the mirror. “See, now Miss Princess can see your pretty bloodshot eyes,” she says teasingly.
“You’re the devil,” I inform her and she just smiles.
“Alright, clothes now,” she says. She hangs a black garment bag on the back of the door and pulls down the zipper, revealing a trim black tuxedo. As she pulls it out of the bag I stare at it; it’s a simple black and white tux, James Bond style. It also looks incredibly expensive.
“Where exactly did you get this?” I ask tentatively.
“The theatre costume closet,” Ray answers, pressing the suit into my arms. “It’s from one of the old plays, I just tailored it a bit to fit you. Didn’t need too much altering, the other guy must’ve been a toothpick too.”
“You stole it from the school?” I ask, alarmed.
“Borrowed,” Ray says firmly. “I never said you get to keep it. I’ll take it back first thing Monday and no one will be any the wiser. It’s not like it gets used, it’s just been hanging there for years. I had to wash it like five times just to get the smell of dust and mothballs out.”
“This is insane,” I tell her, looking down at the tuxedo anxiously. It’s bad enough that I have to wear a tuxedo in the first place, but now she’s having me wear a stolen tuxedo into the very place she stole it from. It’s like robbing a bank and then walking back in to deposit the cash you just swiped.
I’m even more worried by the fact that Ray doesn’t look concerned in the slightest.
“Get dressed now or I’m not going to have time to do anything with myself before we go,” she says. As I nervously start slipping into the suit - which is complicated to figure out since I’ve never worn a tux before - Ray starts unpacking some scary looking tools from her bag. The only thing I recognize are the comb and blow dryer. Everything else must be some of those weird girly hair tools that only chicks understand.
“That goes around your waist, stupid,” Ray tells me as I try to figure out the different parts of the tux. Shirt and pants are easy enough but then suddenly this shiny black waistband appeared out of nowhere and I'm completely nonplussed. Ray helps me fit the stupid thing in place and then steps out of the way to let me get a good look.
It looks - cool. All of my clothes are either hand-me-downs or from the racks at the local thrift store so I’ve never exactly owned clothes that fit me right. It doesn’t help any that I’m a beanpole either. The tux fits me right everywhere. I wonder if this is how it feels to be one of those kids who can afford to get nice clothes from the department stores at the mall. It’s almost liberating, in a way. And I kind of hate myself for thinking it, because I never thought I’d be reduced to one of those douches who cares that much about his clothes.
“Not too shabby,” Ray says, eyeing me up and down. I can’t stop a little smile from curling up my lips. She’s trying not to show it, but she’s impressed. “Okay, now sit down so I can try to tame this crazy hair of yours.”
I sit down on the edge of the bathtub and let Ray take a dozen different things to my head. Trying to follow what she’s doing makes my brain hurt. There are sprays and gels and blowers and brushes and some sort of weird thing that burns my ear when her hand slips. (A flat iron, I find out later.) When she is finished my hair is smoothed back over my head, the front sticking up just slightly and all of the random errant curls slicked into place.
“What’d you do?” I ask in awe. I’ve tried for years and I’ve never managed to get my hair to do anything more than whatever the hell it wants to. Every time I tried, I think I just angered it because it only got curlier.
“Trust me, it’ll look even better once you’ve got that mask on,” Ray says. “Now hold still.”
She holds up a thin black pencil and I immediately balk. I know what that thing is. “No, you are not putting makeup on me,” I say firmly, leaning back out of her reach.
“Jacob Alan,” she says, like she’s my mother chiding me for a temper tantrum, “I thought you agreed to trust me on this.”
“That’s before I knew makeup was involved,” I answer. I’m in serious danger of tipping back into the still damp bathtub but I’m not risking getting close enough for her to get ahold of me. I do have some standards.
“It’s just eyeliner,” Ray argues. “Look, the majority of your face is going to be covered up in that mask. All your princess is going to see of you is your eyes, so that’s what you’ve got to sell. You have pretty eyes but this will emphasize them. I swear, it’s so light you’ll hardly know it’s there but it’ll make your eyes pop.”
I fold my arms defiantly. “Zarayha Kay, you are not putting makeup on me and that’s final.”
Ray rolls her eyes. “Fine, whatever, don’t trust me,” she says, throwing up her hands in surrender. “It’s your big day, go ahead.” She turns to face the mirror, lifting the pencil to herself instead. “I’ve got to get ready now. Go check on the painters. But be careful! If you get any paint on that tux I will skin you alive.”
“Yes ma’am,” I say and toss her a salute on my way out of the room. I don’t miss the look she shoots me, half-annoyed and half-amused.
It’s a bit of a maze wandering through the house and trying not to stumble into a mess. Paint cans and drop cloths are scattered everywhere. The air is thick with the smell of wet paint even though all of the windows are opened to fumigate the place. It took three coats of paint but we’ve finally managed to get the pea soup green to cover up the dirty dandelion color. I find Ray’s friends finishing up the trim in the upstairs hallway.
“Thanks guys, I owe you, big time,” I tell them.
One of the guys - a short, round kid with dark hair and huge, bushbaby eyes - looks up and grins. “Don’t worry about it, Zarayha told us what’s going on. Coach Murdoch kicked me out of football tryouts for being too fat. Like he’s got room to talk, right? So anything that’ll spite him, you can count me in.”
I can’t stop myself from laughing at that. It’s good to know I have allies in my war against the Slug. “Still, thanks a ton,” I say. “Come by The Funk sometime, dinner’s on me.”
“Right on,” the guy says cheerfully and his friends whoop enthusiastically. “Well we’re almost done here, just gonna finish up the trim and then we’ll put everything back where it was and we’ll be gone. Another hour, hour-and-a-half at most.”
“Jake, let’s go or we’ll be way more than fashionably late!” Ray shouts up the stairs.
“Okay, gotta go, thanks again guys,” I say and turn around, carefully sidestepping paint trays. All three of them yell, “Good luck!” after me as I jog down the stairs. When I turn to the front door I see Ray standing there, and even though I’ve seen her before I stop short again for a minute.
Her short black hair is wound up in curls and she’s traded all her eclectic colored streaks for just navy blue ones that match her dress. There’s a silver mask on her face, lined with intricate black lace, and her pale eyes are glowing out of it. A simple silver chain with a single teardrop-shaped diamond hangs around her neck and there are a few silver bangles on her wrists, but for the most part she’s unadorned and classic. It’s a look I’ve never seen on her, a sort of vintage Hollywood thing, and it’s breath-taking.
“Wow Ray, you look-”
“Amazing,” she finishes with a smile. “Yeah, so you’ve told me.”
“Actually I was going to say beautiful, but amazing works too,” I say, still blinking in surprise. When the hell did my best friend get so hot? I’ve always known she’s attractive, in her weird artsy way, but looking like this I can genuinely see guys ditching their dates for her.
Ray beams, her cheeks going red beneath the rim of her mask again. “Flattery, that’s a new one,” she says. “Now come here, we’ve got to put your mask on then we’re set to go.” She lifts up a simple white mask and I pause, looking at it suspiciously.
“That looks like a Phantom of the Opera mask,” I say, arching an eyebrow.
“Where’d you think I got the outfit from?” Ray asks in response. “The school did Phantom a couple years ago and this stuff was just sitting around in the closet all this time. And as far as masks go, it was this one or a gold one. I figured you’d rather go with the subtle one.”
“Good guess,” I relent and finally step up to her. She stretches out the black elastic band and then stands on her toes to slip it over my head, carefully tucking the band above my ears. The mask is a little too wide across the nose and cheeks but other than that it fits pretty well.
“Probably should’ve made a custom one for you,” Ray says critically, tilting her head to examine me. “But I didn’t think of it in time so this will have to do.” She gestures for me to spin around and I roll my eyes pointedly before turning on my heel. When I’m facing her again she grins. “By the gods, I am good. I’ve created a masterpiece.”
“Glad you’re pleased,” I say and laugh nervously. Now that we’re actually getting close to this dance thing happening, a whole horde of butterflies have suddenly erupted in my stomach and they are flitting around like they’re on crack.
“Okay Prince Charming,” Ray says and she opens the front door. “Let’s go. You’ve got a princess who needs to be swept off her feet.” She takes my arm and walks me to her jeep, and then we climb in and head for the school. It’s almost a comical sight, watching the dolled up Ray in the driver’s seat of the turquoise jeep, singing along to Sinatra as she fights with the finicky gearshift. I focus on that so I don’t have to think about what’s waiting for me at the school. My princess.
Who is she? Will she actually be there? Will she take one look at me and run for the hills?
When the jeep stops in the school parking lot I almost have a panic attack right then and there. Oh God, what was I thinking going through with this? I really am insane. I’m half-tempted to hop out of the jeep and run in the other direction as fast as I can. I’m just the nerdy book kid. Why would a deep, passionate girl want to be with me? The Murdoch punching bag and disco dork waiter. No, this is stupid.
“Jake.” I look over when Ray touches my arm and she’s giving me a reassuring look. “Breathe, babe.” I nod and take a deep breath, holding it as long as I can before letting it out. The pounding, swirling mess in my head lessens a little. “You can do this. Okay? So let’s go.”
She gets out of the jeep and I take one more deep breath before getting out too, joining her on the sidewalk leading up to the school. There are a few other stragglers heading for the front door like us, but it looks like the majority of the senior class is already there judging by the packed parking lot. We flash our student IDs (I glance away, blushing, when Ray pulls hers out of her bra) and slip in, eyed suspiciously by the teacher standing guard at the doors, and then follow the sound of a bass beat to the gymnasium.
The inside of the gym looks like a crazed blend of past and future. The decorators clearly tried to stick to the masquerade theme, with billowy strips of material covering the walls and antique-looking baubles draped from the ceiling, but then there are crepe paper streamers and colored lights flashing in every direction. It’s a very poor attempt at combining the 15th century with a night club. People are crushed together, dancing to techno music, feathered and glittery masks on their faces to match whatever dress or suit they’re wearing.
“It looks more like Mardi Gras threw up in here,” Ray says, narrowing her eyes as she peers around the gym. A group of guys, hooting and hollering like idiots, push passed us and she draws up close to my side. “So where are you meeting her?”
“By the punch bowl at eight,” I answer, glancing over at the long white table that runs along one of the walls.
“Ten minutes,” Ray says, looking up at the clock above the doors. “So, you got time to spin me around the dance floor once before you go? The guys will want me even more if they think I’m here with someone.”
I laugh at her logic but nod. She puts her hand on my arm and half-drags me out onto the dance floor with the other couples. We’ve just started moving with the beat when the song abruptly changes to a slow eighties’ ballad. I smirk and hold out a hand to Ray, saying in my best imitation of a classic gentleman, “Would you honor me with this dance, oh beautiful maiden?”
“That was a little over the top but I suppose since you asked so nicely,” Ray says and laughs as she takes my offered hand. When she steps closer I set my other hand on her waist and she settles hers on my shoulder. “You know, you really do clean up nice.”
“I’d be flattered if you didn’t sound so surprised,” I reply, grinning. Ray rolls her eyes and rests her head against my shoulder. “Tired already?”
“Hey, I’ve had a long day, thank you very much,” she answers. “It’s hard work bailing your butt out of trouble, you know.”
“So I’m paying you back by letting you use me as a headrest?” I ask, raising an eyebrow.
“Oh you still owe me,” she assures me without even bothering to look up at me. “Big time.”
“I’ll remember that,” I say. Before I can say anything else there’s a bright flash from next to us that makes little purple spots blink in my eyes. Ray lifts her head and we both look around to see a kid next to us, holding up a camera. “Cute couple,” he says from behind a neon green mask and then turns and disappears into the crowd.
Ray and I stand there for a minute before we go back to dancing. “You better hope your mystery girl didn’t hear him calling us a couple,” Ray says with a wry laugh. “Wouldn’t want to start things off on the wrong foot.” I laugh but immediately find myself looking up at the clock to see how much time I have left. “You’ve only got a few minutes now,” Ray says, following my gaze. “You should probably get over there.”
I nod and take a deep breath. This is it. Ray reaches up and smooths out my collar and then smiles at me. “Go get her, Tiger,” she says. I want to say something back, thank her again or anything, but really I’m sort of afraid that if I open my mouth I might projectile vomit. I’ve never been so nervous before in my life. So instead I nod one more time and then head for the refreshment table.
There aren’t a whole lot of people hanging around the table. Two guys are hovering near the platter of store-bought cookies at the end of the table and there’s a teacher standing against the wall keeping a firm eye on the punch bowl. Probably making sure it doesn’t get spiked. I stand in front of the bowl, my hands in my pockets to stop myself from fidgeting and wait.
A girl walks up the punch bowl and she casts me a quick smile before pouring herself a cup and leaving again. I deflate. No need to start panicking. It’s just barely eight, there’s still plenty of time. I don’t need to start freaking yet.
“Excuse me, this might sounds like a stupid question, but are you Raisins?”
My heart leaps up into my throat. I turn around slowly, bracing myself for the moment. My brain is whirring a mile a minute, wondering just how this is going to turn out. Who can she be? What will it be like to finally meet her? Every fantasy and dream that I’ve had over the last two weeks boils up in my brain all at once.
And then there she is.