On the night of the Christmas dance, Clare is dressed in her spider dress, her coat on, waiting by her doorstep for any sign of Lucho's van. Her parents have wished her good luck, and may she enjoy her time in the arms of a pretty boy.
The air is tinged with a crisp coldness – the kind of coldness she feels comfortable in, exposing her cheeks to. She doesn't know why that is. Coupled with her budding anticipation, it makes her feel precious (like she could walk easily in the inches-deep snow) and a foreboding – her dress would be the crown of thorns lodged on her body, the others jeering and mocking at her.
But no, they will never break her. Though she could have chosen the typical fluffy outfit like all the rest, or give up attending altogether, she is here now, ready to be laughed at, ready to hold Martin's arms in the music.
Earlier at school, Martin demonstrated how he will protect her during the dance; Lucho and David will be attending also, staying near her side (but not conspicuously so) – while there is little they can do about the occasional whispering, they will be watching out for anyone who tries something like splashing her with fruit punch, or outright assaulting her. They'll be dancing in the meanwhile, with each other or with other friends there.
"You'll be safe under our watch," Lucho promised. "That I guarantee."
Much of the houses in the cul-de-sac are lit with lights, multi-coloured hues diffused onto the dusk sky, as if to make a stand against the impending night. Her parents, having returned yesterday from their business trip, are busy setting up the Christmas tree inside at this very moment.
She sees the headlights come around the corner, and the van skidding slightly on the road. It pulls over next to the driveway. A loud honk.
Clare gets in the passenger door – it's a spacious van, and she is seated by Martin, drinking coffee.
"All set back there?" Lucho asks. "Okaay-- let's go."
The drive to school is tedious; when they've managed to see the building, numerous cars are jamming the road, where other students are waiting their turn to be dropped off or park. A white limosine in the midst takes up space – one guy steps out with a girl, dressed in matching red and white, and they are greeted like celebrities stolling on the red carpet. It's Vincent and Maria.
Apparently, the dance is so much of a big deal for everyone to get noticed, and Clare glances out the snowclad windows to see groups of people, dressed like Santa and his jolly green elves.
She is already looking out of place.
"Damn, the parking lot's filled.." Lucho says, noticing how the cars ahead are moving to the mall's parking spaces now, opposite the school's entrance. "Hope we don't get our suits dirty."
"Are you ready for this Clare?" Martin asks, holding her hand. "This is going to be our moment – let's make the most of it."
The parking spot they eventually wind up in is a considerable distance from the school. Their feet trudge through a mixture of yesterday's slush and today's snow, and it takes a while to cross the road over when the other cars are honking their horns at the passersby, impatient.
In the school's foyer, there are signs posted, pointing to the gymnasium and the cafeteria. Most people are swarming in the direction of the gym – Clare, Martin and his friends have to drop off their coats though.
Much of the school's hallways have been cordoned off. Only Lucho's locker is available, so they all agree to stuff their coats in there.
"Whoa.. Clare--" Lucho's eyes seem to widen, seeing Clare's outfit for the first time. "That really looks stylish!"
"She picked it out herself," Martin says, in his old one-piece suit. It's the same suit he wore when he auditioned for the strings orchestra a year ago. "I think it looks nice. Yes."
David just gives an approving nod. With his white tuxedo and bowtie, he is a debonair charmer (something like Sean Connery), having slicked his hair back.
And when the doors open to the gym, it's surprising how the gym's transformed from the typical basketball court to a lush dance floor. The spotlights from the ceiling dazzle; everyone is dancing, boogeying to the rapid beat of the music set by the hired DJ.
And Clare recognises the tune – it is September, by Earth, Wind and Fire. Hearing that song blared over the loudspeakers immediately gives her a sense of reassurance; she's heard it dozens of times back at home, when she'd privately dance it out wearing headphones in her chair.
So she dances.
She dances, shaking her body left and right. Nevermind what other people think of her. She dances on the floor, enjoying herself – sees Martin doing the same (thanks to her), and as the music starts transitioning to another song, she feels a wonderful euphoria rushing through her body, hot and warm.
If the night goes on like this, it could easily be the best night she's ever spent at the school.
After a while, Clare decides to take a short break from the dance floor – she pulls Martin along with her to the cafeteria for a eat to bite. David and Lucho head along too.
The kiosks are closed for the night, but in the midst of the food court is a table filled with cupcakes and caramel brownies, watched over by the janitor (who made them). The people who aren't really interested in the dancing sit by the tables, playing Magic the Gathering or just talking about the latest in game news. Numerous balloons are stuck floating by the ceiling.
Clare helps herself to as much of the brownies and cupcakes as she can; apparently her early dinner wasn't enough for this particular night.
"I'll be back, I have to go washrooming," Martin says.
In the washroom, as Martin sits down in the stall, he overhears someone entering, talking over the phone.
"Oh, it's perfectly alright," he hears, "I hope you're enjoying your time back at home. I'll show you some clips of Gina's wild dance moves after."
"Damnit, why did I have to get suspended by that bitch?" Martin recognises who it is over the speakerphone; it's Enrique! "I'm missing out on a lot of fun-- but that doesn't mean I have to cry about it. Listen, did you see her there?"
"Did you see Clare there at the dance!????" There is a kind of frenzied urgency in Enrique's voice.
"Yeah – she's got on this weird-ass black dress, and dude, you should have seen her funky dancing! Urghaurghaurgg! Trash like that shouldn't even be here in the first place."
"Go send her my regards for me, would you kindly. See to it she never wants to come back."
"Absolutely." That someone hangs up his phone.
Oh no..! Martin hurriedly finishes using the toilet, but before he can get a look as to who it is on the phone, that someone has already disappeared out the door. Clare is going to be under attack at the dance, but what should Martin do? She's having such a good time dancing, and he doesn't want to spoil her mood worried about the fact that someone's aiming their sights on her – the solution would be to have David and Lucho be extra vigilent watching out for her, and they should be able to intervene before anything happens.
Back at the cafeteria, Lucho is having fun with the helium balloons – he's breathing helium air from them, making his voice high-pitched like Donald Duck, which Clare giggles at.
"Hey Marty--!" Lucho grins. "Try the helium!"
"No, there's something important I need to tell you guys first--" He huddles Lucho and David together in a whisper, such that Clare can't hear – she glances at them, wondering what they are talking about.
"I was in the washroom and I heard someone talking over the phone with Enrique. They're going to do something to Clare – but I'm not sure what exactly."
"Who was that on the phone?" Lucho asks.
"I'm not sure. I didn't get a good look at him. Just be extra careful, and don't ever let Clare out of your sight; who knows how many people are going to be involved in this. Understand?"
Clare has heard her name mentioned in their whisperings. "What are you guys talking about?"
"I'm telling the guys some advice about watching over you," Martin goes. "So you don't need to worry about anything Clare. I've got everything under control!"
They make their way back to the gym, where it has become a slow dance, everyone coupled up in each other's arms.
"Relax," Martin says, taking Clare's hands, "and don't let go of me."
She buries her head in his neck, and allows herself to float through their movements. It's one of those sappy songs they're playing, but you can't help needing to be by someone's side upon listening.
been a long road to follow
been there and gone tomorrow
without saying goodbye to yesterday
are the memories I hold still valid?
Of all the loneliness she's endured, perhaps this moment signifies the light at the end of the tunnel.
or have the tears deluded them?
maybe this time tomorrow
the rain will cease to follow
and the mist will fade into one more today
She stares into Martin's brown eyes, glad that he has coaxed her to the dance, looking forward for today and tomorrow, and all the days afterward. To her amusement she notices over Martin's shoulder that David and Lucho are dancing as well in each other's embrace.
At the end of the song, everyone stops dancing – a slow clap from a few, which turns into outspoken applause for the DJ.
"Thank you! Thank you," the DJ goes, speaking into the microphone. "I would like to take this opportunity to give special thanks to the sponsors who have made this Christmas dance possible.."
Martin feels someone tug at his collar from behind-- dropping a sharp pin down his suit.
"Aaagh!" He tries reaching down his back to get it, but can't reach it – the pin is poking him by his torso.
"What's wrong?" Clare asks.
"Mierda, someone dropped a pin down my back..!" Martin says. He looks around for the perpetrator, but all he sees are people staring at him reacting out of pain. "Who did this?"
No one says anything; Martin hurries for the door so he could get the pin out in private.
Clare sees him go, and it feels like watching the comforting edge of the swimming pool moving away as she drifts towards the deep end.
She is suddenly surrounded by people – two girls who start grasping her by the shoulders.
"How's it going, Clare?"
She immediately recognises the underlying mockery in their tone of voice; her first instinct is to struggle, break free of their grip. She tries lunging forward, but their hands still hold steady over her. "You bastards, let me go!" Clare yells.
Lucho and David hear the commotion behind them – they turn around to see Clare's arms pinned behind her, and the sound of a handcuff locking her wrists together.
"Halp!" Clare goes, gathering everyone's attention.
But suddenly, Gina takes the microphone from the DJ, a spotlight trained on her. "This is the Student Response Team, stepping in to intervene. We are taking Miss Belhomme from the dance floor for the sake of everyone's safety. Please clear the way to the doors."
Because the teachers needed a way to claim responsibility over the Christmas dance without having to actually supervise, they have appointed students to do that job for them. The Student Response Team, consisting of people wanting to get extra credit.
"What the hell?" Lucho and David step in between the gropers and the gym doors. "Clare didn't do anything wrong – you let her go!"
"Get those bastards off of me!" Clare tells them.
"Mister, she slipped a tack in her dance partner's suit," Groper #1 goes, hauling her by the shoulder. "That is why we are taking her out of here. Come on, Clare, let's go."
"I don't believe a word of it--" Lucho takes a swing at one of the gropers, but she quickly dodges and slams him in the chest with her elbow, sending him down.
"Resistance will be considered an act of insubordination!" Groper #2 glances down at the sprawled Lucho, before picking him up. "What is your name, boy?"
"Well Lucho, you have officially given up your dance privileges. Get out. Go home. If we ever see your face here again--"
Only one of the gropers have their hands on Clare, so Clare takes that opportunity to slam her on the leg, before yanking herself out of grasp and make a run for the exit.
Groper #2 paws at Clare as she rushes by, tearing her dress at the back.
The doorway is almost in reach..
Someone trips Clare and she tumbles down, her cheeks sprained by the waxed floor. She sees it is Maria, who just stares down at her, eyes blank and unsympathetic compared to the effervescent facade she had on earlier.
"Thank you, Maria," Groper #2 says. "We'll take it from here."
Clare could just barely hear everyone clap after the doors has shut behind.