A Kiss in the Dark
It’s funny how they say a picture is worth a thousand words, because the one I’m looking at has me pretty speechless.
There’s nothing special about it. Not to anyone else, anyway. It’s a snapshot of me, Joel Hargrove, and Ben Collins after an impromptu game of basketball in Ben’s driveway on a sunny Saturday junior year.
The beginning of what was supposed to be something amazing.
But being that our friendships went up in literal smoke since the photo was taken almost a year ago, I have no idea why it’s currently staring back at me from the smudged surface of Jadie Donovan’s cell, posted to the school’s share site for everyone to see.
“So who put it there if it wasn’t you?” Jadie yells over the bustle around us on the football field, blinking lashes coated in electric-blue mascara. Her lips are painted silver, and spiral ribbons of silver and teal spring out from her glossy black ponytail. “I thought you were finally talking to both of them again.”
I sneak a peek at Meredith, who’s jumping up and down, waving her pom-poms a few feet to my left. She’s looking anywhere but at me, which I should be used to by now.
“I mean, we are. Sort of. But it’s not like this.” I hold up the phone, indicating the photo. Not even close.
Jadie shrugs and slips her cell into the back pocket of her jeans. “Guess you won’t be spotlighting that one on the blog this week. Not that a crap ton of people would notice if you did.” She shakes her head and returns her attention to the fancy black camera tattooed with RIDGEDALE YEARBOOK labels, flipping through her last shots of the game.
She’s talking about our newest endeavor—the one that rose from the ashes of our defunct cheerleading careers—as yearbook photographers and keepers of the Ridgedale’s Finest page, the site where students and administrators upload their snapshots of the school year. She’s also exaggerating its obscurity, just a little bit.
But I’m still hung up on the picture itself, and my eyes automatically dart to the metal platform in the center of the field, which is usually reserved for homecoming and graduation ceremonies. Because during tonight’s halftime, in addition to the usual performances by the dance team,
cheerleaders, and marching band, we’re welcoming Mr. Hargrove—one of the algebra teachers and Joel’s father—back to Ridgedale after a yearlong tour in Afghanistan. Wearing his army fatigues, he’s an exception to the sea of silver, white, and teal. He waves at the crowd from behind a podium wrapped in a giant yellow ribbon. Joel, looking a little overwhelmed, stands next to his father with hands in his jeans pockets as he surveys the crowd.
As if he senses me staring, Joel looks over and catches my eye. His hand lifts in a hesitant wave.
“He’s got some nerve kissing ass to you and Ben all of a sudden,” Jadie says in my ear. She gasps and grabs my arm. “Do you think he posted it?”
“How would I know?”
I’m trying to act like it hasn’t occurred to me. But the minute Ben began sort of speaking to me again, instead of closing up like a sun-deprived flower every time I get within five feet of him, is when I sensed Joel circling cautiously, trying to close some of the distance between us. Searching for weak spots in my armor.
And now a picture of the three of us mysteriously appears where he knows I’ll see it. It’s a little too coincidental.
Before I can say anything else, Jadie brightens. “Let’s have someone take a picture of us. Now that we’re always behind the camera, we’re never in pictures anymore.”
When the “someone” she grabs is none other than Meredith, I stiffen. I know Jadie’s intentions are good. But her efforts to orchestrate a truce between Meredith and me
have started to feel like theatrical demonstrations of, Look! I’m living proof that fights with Meredith Kopala aren’t a death sentence!
In Jadie’s case, it’s true. In mine, not so much.
I stand there, trying not to look uncomfortable as Jadie gives Meredith a quick tutorial on operating the camera. Then Jadie bounds over to me and puts her arm around my waist. We press our faces together, and I do my best to smile. In the few seconds it takes for Meredith to snap the picture and hand off the camera to Jadie, she doesn’t look at me once.
Probably because all she’d see is the traitor responsible for the blackened, ash-coated remains of what had been our junior-year homecoming float. And that wasn’t even the biggest thing I ruined.
As she rejoins the rest of the cheerleaders, I think about how strange it is to be standing in the middle of the football field when so much has changed. Not the hot-dog-and-popcorn-scented air crackling with competitive energy and celebratory yells and school pride—that’s exactly the way I remember it. But now that I’ve traded my teal-and-white pleated skirt and shell top for street clothes and a black camera a lot like Jadie’s strapped around my neck, the only indicator that I used to be part of the group of clapping, kicking girls to my left is the injuries. Hence the flesh-colored brace clamped around my left wrist and hand like a robotic glove.
Not to mention the damage that no one else can see.
A scuffling sound scratches through the speakers as Mr.
Fielding, our principal, steps up to the podium. I ready my camera as Jadie jogs away to work a different angle. Mr. Hargrove waves at the crowd, then salutes the football players, who are lined up on the opposite side of the stage next to the marching band. The football players have removed their helmets, per Coach Simmons’s orders. Fielding lays his arm around Mr. Hargrove’s shoulders.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!” The crowd erupts into cheers as if he’d announced that everyone had won a million dollars. “Tonight is a very special night. Not only are our Ravens playing their very first game on home turf”—he pauses, waiting for the roar from the stands to quiet—“but we’re also here to welcome back our friend, algebra teacher extraordinaire and father to our very own Joel. Please give a hero’s welcome to Mr. Cedric Hargrove!”
The crowd explodes into a fresh frenzy, and my camera captures frame after frame of Principal Fielding proudly squeezing Mr. Hargrove’s shoulder while Joel maintains his uneasy posture in the background. On my other side, Meredith jumps and kicks so vigorously that my ponytail sways in the breeze her limbs create.
“Thank you, all. It’s so good to be home!” Mr. Hargrove says into the mic. He pulls Joel into a side hug while the stands roar. “I want to thank everyone who kept us in their prayers and who took care of my family while I was gone. Especially everyone who kept my boys in line.” He ruffles Joel’s blond hair, then waves to a spot in the stands, where I assume Joel’s mom and younger brothers are seated, before
leaning back into the mic. “One of the things I get asked a lot before I leave for duty is ‘Are you scared?’ It’s been a long time since I’ve had to answer that question with ‘yes,’ and I’ll tell you why.
“During my first deployment, I was injured pretty badly. I woke up in the hospital with a collapsed lung, a broken leg, and a host of other nasty injuries, including a broken jaw. With all that time stuck inside my own head, unable to walk and barely able to talk, I did a lot of agonizing over what would happen if my family had to live without me.”
He stops and looks at Joel, who’s hunched into his jeans pockets like this is something he’d rather not remember.
“Now, you might think this is crazy,” Mr. Hargrove continues. “But what made me the most determined to get out of that hospital was the fact that I’d promised this kid”—he reaches for Joel’s shoulder—“that I’d teach him to ride a bike.”
Joel stares at his feet, looking like he’s wondering how this speech became about him and what he can do to stop it. And I’m wishing this story weren’t so endearing, because empathy is the last thing I want to feel for Joel.
“Summer came and went,” Mr. Hargrove says, “and I never got to make good on my promise. But somehow, when I finally did get home, what do I see but my boy, zooming around the driveway on a shiny blue bicycle that he’d taught himself to ride.”
He’s holding on to Joel like he’s afraid he’ll disappear, and Joel looks like he’s wishing he could do exactly that.
“I knew then that if I had to lay down my life defending my country, my family would find their way. Because they had a strong foundation of faith and courage and they were more than capable of forging their own path.” He hugs Joel to his side again. “So if there’s one thing that I want to instill in all of you, aside from ‘a squared plus b squared equals c squared,’ it’s that you have the power to do anything you put your mind to.” He turns to Joel, whose face is downright gray. “Anything at all.”
The crowd roars. I could’ve sworn Joel and his father didn’t get along, but Mr. Hargrove’s speech told a different story.
The words “I hate him” emerge from my memory as clearly as if Joel had come up and whispered them into my ear. When did he say that before?
Mr. Hargrove motions for Joel to take the mic, but he shies away. Someone in the crowd shouts Joel’s name, igniting more whoops and whistles to egg him on. When it becomes obvious that he’s not getting out of there until he says something, Joel steps tentatively behind the podium and swallows hard before leaning into the microphone.
“Thanks, everyone. Uh, it’s been a tough year without my dad.” With his voice magnified from every corner of the football field, the hitch of nerves is unmistakable. And I assume it has at least something to do with the other thing I hear: snickers from the token hecklers. My jaw tightens and my hands clench. Well, my right hand does. My left fingertips press into my brace. I’m not exactly the president
of Joel’s fan club, but I have no patience for people who get their jollies off public assholery.
I scan the sea of teal jerseys, glad to see that Tyrell Davis, the quarterback and Jadie’s boyfriend, is scowling into the crowd. But it’s Noah’s eye that I’m hoping to catch. He’s not hard to find, being that he has biceps bigger than some people’s heads, long black hair that brushes his shoulders, and a jaw chiseled into a permanent state of Don’t mess with me. And since an injury kept him from dressing for the game tonight, he’s wearing his jersey with jeans and a black brace over the knee he reaggravated in practice earlier this week.
He might be new to Ridgedale, and he might’ve defected from the same rival territory as Joel, but I’m sure a stare down from Noah could end the sneering in two seconds flat.
Except that when I locate him, Noah is doing some sneering of his own—at Joel. Until he sees the disgusted look on my face, and then his eyes dart to the ground and he shifts on his feet.
Joel starts to speak again, but his words are lost in a loud screech of feedback. And then, as if the night had swallowed the field whole, everything goes black.
Cheers and chants morph into hollers of confusion. All around me, commotion swirls in the darkness.
“The power went out!” someone yells, as if that much weren’t obvious. I blink furiously to adjust my sight. My night vision has always been terrible, and all I can see are
bright dots dancing in front of me where the grid of stadium lights were glowing two seconds ago. When I extend a hand and come in contact with nothing, I decide my best bet is to stay put. The last thing I need is to trip over something and add another broken bone to my running tally.
Except that’s when I hear Coach Tori shout, “All my girls, get over to the fence! Wait for my instruction!” I change my plan and shuffle toward the sound of her voice. That’s when I slam into another body. I shriek as hands clasp my arms, steadying both of us. I’m pretty sure it’s a boy—or maybe it’s a tall girl—until his fingers bump my brace and a very male voice says, “Macy?”
I know that voice, but I can’t tell who it is. Despite the chaos, he spoke as quietly as if we were the only two people on the field.
In the next second I’m aware of only two things: one, his hand has moved from my arm to the back of my neck. And two, his lips are pressed gently against mine.
There’s an instant of horror, a fleeting moment when I realize I shouldn’t let this happen. But there’s something about the way his mouth finds mine, tender and sweet and urgent and desperate all at the same time. It’s . . . familiar. It’s not so much a thought in my head as a reaction in every synapse of my body: I know you.
My hand dislodges my camera from where it’s squeezed between our bodies and then brushes the hem of a short-sleeve shirt as I ignore the minuscule part of my brain still capable of logic and make a clumsy attempt to pull him
closer. I want to hold the back of his neck the same way he’s holding mine. I want to make him tell me who he is.
Except that I think I already know.
Then, as if my own thoughts have burst the magic bubble of that moment, he pulls back.
“Joel?” I gasp.
The air shifts with his retreat. I’m still standing with my hand in the air, fingertips warm from his skin, when the lights come on a second later. The collective cheer that rises in the stands registers as static in my ringing ears as I shield my eyes from the sudden glare. I whip around, scanning the turf. My heart is beating like I’d sprinted the entire length of it.
I don’t see anyone running away from me. I don’t see anyone close to me, period.
My mind is a million miles away. I don’t even notice that Jadie has jogged over until she grabs my arm.
“Oh my God,” she says. “That was so freaky! What happened?”
I wish I knew. It takes me a second to notice that I’m staring dazedly instead of responding, and to realize that she’s talking about the blackout.
Because no one saw the other thing that happened.
“It was really weird,” I finally say.
Inwardly I’m still freaking out, and Jadie is looking at me like I’ve spontaneously changed species.
But there’s no way that I imagined it. Someone kissed me in the dark. But why?
And more important—who?
I take out my phone and fumble to pull up the Ridgedale’s Finest page. “Who did you say posted that picture? The one of me and Ben and Joel?”
“Uh, I didn’t. It was anonymous, remember?”
Somehow, hidden identity has become the theme of the night. As I stare at our smiling faces and touch my still-tingling lips, I’m suddenly convinced that the timing of this photo’s resurfacing wasn’t an accident.
Because there’s a story behind it, or at least the beginning of one.