Every girl who was any girl left school early that year to get her hair done for prom, even crippled Charlie Todd, whose hair had finally grown back after that car accident. We thought it was nice that she was still going to prom after being paralyzed and all. She stared at the intercom just like we did.
Amber was first to leave, of course. She was the most popular senior girl. She taught us how to tie cherry stems into knots with our tongues. Ms. Martin, the Chemistry teacher, stared at her as she left the class like, are you happy now? And she was. We had to watch her leave.
Meredith was next. She used to be nerdy, but Amber started hanging out with her, so we all had to like her, even though she lived in an apartment over by the Home Depot and wore her favorite shirt too much. She walked out with her head ducked a little, not used to being Amber’s best friend. It didn’t matter. She wouldn’t be for long.
Then, the intercom called, “Charlie Todd.”
She got up and swung her backpack onto her good shoulder, grinning a big grin that looked totally uncool. She limped out of the room, her left foot dragging the floor with every other step. We sat on the edges of our chairs, cursing our mothers for being so slow. We were supposed to leave before Charlie Todd.
We whined at our mothers when we got in our cars, but our mothers were on their phones and held up their fingers like, just a second, Sweetie. They drove us to the trendy hair salons where we filled the chairs, clutching magazine pictures of the hairstyles we wanted.
“Make me look like this.”
The stylists sprayed and heated and twirled, but we hated it. No fancy braid or messy bun was going to change our foreheads or our ears. We told each other that we looked beautiful, so we could hear that we looked beautiful.
We crammed onto Kristen Leonard’s front steps with our dates behind us, their hands on our bellies. We held our stomach muscles tight under the light pressure of their fingertips through our dresses, pressing back against their chests; they smelled of spearmint tobacco.
When we got in the limo, one guy said, “Hey, Amber, show us your tits.” Amber wagged a finger at him, put a hand to her chest, and giggled. We were shocked by his request and stung he didn’t say it to us. We poured vodka into coke cans and sat up straight, holding our stomachs tight. We leaned into the boys next to us when the limo made a wide turn. We thought maybe they would hold us, but they didn’t.
When we got to prom, we scoffed at the theme the student council chose, a carnival theme with masks and crowns on the tables. There was a giant carousel horse painted on the stage backdrop, like a little kid birthday party. We were so much more sophisticated than this. We wanted roses and romance, but the student council was lame.
We laughed at each other in the masks and took pictures making faces. A couple of the selfies looked really good, though, in those masks. They hid our foreheads, distracted from our ears.
None of us were surprised when Charlie Todd showed up with a boy from another school, a Catholic school guy from Father Ryan, who we all knew was just a neighborhood friend, such a sweetheart to go as Charlie’s date. This made his dimples even deeper, his floppy, brown curls more handsome and casual. We were surprised by how confident Charlie looked, as if her date was there because he asked her and not the other way around.
Her dress was royal blue and off the shoulder. Her left arm, curled and withered, couldn’t keep the strap up, so it kept falling down, and she pulled at it with her good hand with the good wrist and the tacky corsage. We knew she picked the flowers out herself. We knew he never saw a bill.
The photographer asked them to face each other and for Father Ryan guy to put his hands on her waist and for Charlie to put a hand on each of his shoulders. She was too small to reach; she had always been small. We remembered when she was voted the prettiest girl in sixth grade, when she wore those black velour pants we all wanted, and she could do cherry drops on the pull-up bar longer than the rest of us. We wanted to be her, but that was before she hit her head in the accident and scrambled her brain.
She reached up with only her good arm, her right arm, the clumsy corsage near the top of his arm. She fit her twisted left hand into the crook of his other elbow.
The photographer asked her again to put her arm up, but then took the picture really quick, blushing.
We danced by the table where she sat with the Father Ryan boy who waved to people he knew. Charlie’s good hand beat time on the table as we grinded our hips into the laps of our dates. Some of our knees stuck out of the high-cut slits; some of our breasts nearly bounced out of necklines not made for hip hop. We poured vodka into our cups when Ms. Martin wasn’t looking and took turns laughing at each other’s chugging.
We noticed when Charlie’s date urged her up and wiggled his hips as she pumped her right arm with the music, feet spread, balance unsteady. She wasn’t stable enough to step from side-to-side, so she looked trapped in this pose, pumping her butt back, swinging her right arm. Her left arm curled up tighter against her ribs because she forgot to relax it.
We tried not to laugh, but we couldn’t help ourselves. We got those kinds of giggles that just won’t stop, like in the middle of Chemistry when Ms. Martin is giving us the evil eye in order to shut us up. We didn’t want to laugh, it was just that one of us made that hilarious face at the others, and we were so good at talking with just our faces. We didn’t even know how easy it was to make each other laugh. It didn’t matter; Charlie didn’t notice as we planted our feet, bounced our knees, and swung one arm around, too. We called it the Charlie Horse.
When Charlie sat back down, Amber offered her some vodka. Charlie shook her head, but her date put a little in his cup. He asked Charlie if she wanted to try it, and we all watched, wide-eyed, when she took a sip and made a face. She smiled at our big thumbs up when we passed her table, so she let Amber pour her some, too. We told her she would get used to the taste. We made her feel like one of us.
Charlie wasn’t as smart as she used to be. In sixth grade, she won the math award. She looked really pretty in a white dress with a gold belt at the awards banquet. We all wanted that dress.
When a slow song came on, Charlie’s date pulled her from her chair. We danced really slow and turned our dates around so we could watch. He placed her twisted hand in the crook of his elbow and clasped her good hand in his. They swayed in one place as he held her upright. Sometimes we saw her lean a little too far to the left, and he stiffened his arm to keep her from stumbling.
Our dates slid their hands down our backs as far as they could without actually putting their palms on our asses. We used to like it, fingers grazing the tops of our butts, but not now. Now, we wanted to hold hands like people in black-and-white films, like Charlie and her date. As we clutched our two hands around their necks, we wanted them to hold us, but they didn’t.
Charlie’s date tried to dip her at the end. She stumbled a little, and we wanted him to do that to us. When the next song came on, Amber walked over and grabbed Father Ryan’s hand.
“Dance with me,” she said and pulled him to the dance floor. We all wanted to be Amber. We all wanted a turn.
He laughed; was he shy? He let her grind her ass into his hips. Charlie sat at the table and gulped her drink. She looked around, still so happy, like he was hers, but he wasn’t. We knew he wasn’t hers. Not at all.
We forgot to suck in our bellies until our dates slid their palms up toward our boobs, and we tightened our stomachs a little too late. We pushed their hands away. We put them back on our hips where it was more romantic.
Meredith walked over to Charlie’s table and sat next to her. Meredith was so lame. We didn’t understand why Amber wanted to hang out with her now; look at her talking to Charlie like that. She put a mask on Charlie and they giggled liked they were best friends or something. Where was Amber? Did she see this?
Meredith put on a mask, too, then took a selfie with Charlie.
“Come on,” Meredith said. “Do you want to go to the bathroom with me?”
“Ok,” Charlie said.
They got up and went to the bathroom, and we could tell by how fast Charlie hobbled that she was excited.
“Amber,” one of us said. Did she see?
But Amber ignored us. She sat down with Father Ryan at Charlie’s table and leaned into him, her hand on his thigh. He sat up straight but ducked his chin. His smile stretched full across his face, pushing those dimples into caves we wanted to explore with our tongues.
“Come here, girls,” she said. “We need a picture. Put on a mask.”
So we all grabbed a mask as fast as we could. Some of us pushed others out of the way to get the last ones on a table. We crowded around Father Ryan on his chair, pressing our boobs into his shoulders, our knees into his back. Amber sat in his lap, and we said “cheese,” as he stretched to be seen in a tiny pocket of air.
Charlie and Meredith walked up as we giggled and straightened. Done with the masks, we tossed them back onto tables, where they skid and fell to the floor.
Charlie’s face fell a little, the left side of her smile always a little droopy anyway. We gave him back. If she was jealous, that was her problem. He wasn’t hers, and we knew it.
He started dancing to a rap song, so Charlie did, too. Amber offered to refill her cup, and Charlie said, “Ok.” Amber poured a lot in there. We all gathered around Charlie, telling her to drink up, like us, and dance, like us. He would hear us. He would notice us. She bounced in place, and the strap over her left arm kept sliding down, so we kept tugging it up since she had her drink in the hand that still worked. We told her to drink. We told her it was such a pretty dress.
She drank while she danced and pursed her lips like she was really into it, and we said, “Yeah, Charlie! Get it!” She shifted on her feet and made a funny face.
Where was Father Ryan? He was talking to Meredith. We wanted him to see how nice we were to take care of her. We looked at him while we danced.
“I feel funny,” she said and giggled. We couldn’t let Father Ryan know Amber poured too much in her cup. If we knew and didn’t tell, we looked as bad as Amber, and we didn’t want him to think we were ugly.
The DJ stopped the music and announced it was time for prom queen. Our hearts fluttered. Maybe, for once, we would hear our own name and not Amber’s. Maybe this time would be different. We couldn’t stop the hope that spread through our chests, squeezing our hearts like a hug. Perhaps someone had seen us for who we are now, not who we were in sixth grade when we got enormous pimples on our noses that Dylan Jacobs called tumors. Maybe someone saw us like those moments in the mirror when we were putting mascara on, and for a second, we thought we were beautiful.
But we always remembered what it felt like to stand next to Amber in the bathroom mirror. What did Amber see? Was she always happy with herself? Did she know she looked better than us in the mirror?
We felt pretty next to Charlie, but then, Charlie must feel ugly next to us. We’d never thought about this, and it made us feel bad. Did she see how the left side of her mouth drooped down a little, even when she tried to smile? Did she see the scar in the middle of her hairline where they cut her head open to get to the bruises on her brain?
She had a different reflection than she did in sixth grade when we all wanted to be her.
Amber put her hands on Charlie’s shoulders and leaned down to her, whispering really loud so Father Ryan could hear, “I voted for you.” She smiled at Father Ryan who smiled a little back.
“I voted for you, too,” Meredith told Charlie.
We all looked at each other wondering who voted for Charlie and who got left out of the joke. We always voted for Amber, but maybe this time we were supposed to be funny and vote for Charlie. No one told us, so why did Meredith have that stupid grin on her face? She used to be the joke.
Charlie’s eyes got big as she looked up to the stage. She held Father Ryan’s arm and leaned a little. He kept looking at us like we did something, which was really annoying because it was Amber who did it, not us. We didn’t even vote for her like a joke, though we would have if Amber had just let us know. We worried about why she didn’t tell us.
Ms. Martin took a piece of paper to the DJ who cleared his throat in the microphone really loud.
“Drumroll, please,” he said, so we all started clicking the heels of our shoes on the dance floor as fast as we could. “And the prom queen is...”
Charlie’s mouth fell open a little.
Amber squeezed her hands into fists and squealed. We were confused. We thought she had rigged it so Charlie would win. Charlie frowned and wobbled.
Amber pushed through us as we just stood there. She raced up to the stage and let Ms. Martin put a crown on her head.
“Thank you,” Amber called to us with the huge carousel horse behind her. We hated that we voted for her. We thought about voting for someone else, but we didn’t. Why didn’t we? Why did we always vote for Amber?
“Well, my dear,” the DJ said. “You get a dance. Who’s the lucky guy?”
“He’s right there,” Amber waved out into the crowd. Her date put his arms up in the air, and his friends jabbed his back.
“Ok, then, I need everyone to clear the floor so our queen can have her royal moment.”
We stood there, confused. Angry. Amber made it look like she voted for Charlie, but there is no way. She was such a bitch. She did that on purpose to make us look bad, and she still got to be queen, and we had to watch her dance.
As we started to clear the floor, Charlie made a weird gurgle sound, and she started laughing and laughing. She laughed so hard she put her good hand on one knee, and her left arm curled up tight against her ribs.
Amber glared at us all, but we couldn’t scatter because Charlie gurgled again, and we couldn’t look away. The DJ played “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” to let Amber get onto the floor, while we were supposed to clear the way. Amber told us to move as she bumped into us.
Father Ryan grabbed Charlie’s elbow, but she shrugged him off.
“Why are you laughing?” he asked.
“I feel like I’m in an 80s movie,” she said. She looked at the flowers on her wrist, ripped them off, and let it fall to the floor. Petals scattered everywhere.
“Move,” Amber said again, moving through us. She slipped a little on a rose petal.
“We need everyone to get off the dance floor,” the DJ said. “Except the queen.”
“Oh my god, look at the lights going around,” Charlie said. She put her hand in the air and tried to grab the spinning disco-style lights. Then she started dancing to Aretha, her right arm swinging wildly and her butt going back, back, back as she stood firmly with her legs apart.
Who did it first? We don’t remember. But someone spread her feet, bent her knees, and started doing the Charlie Horse with Charlie. Most of us were laughing until we realized others were doing it, too. So we planted ourselves in place and thrust our butts back over and over, squeezing our left arms tight to our sides and pumping our right arms in the air with the beat. Our dates must have slinked off, embarrassed. Even Father Ryan. He was no saint, just a boy with deep dimples and a nice heart.
Amber bounced around among us like a pinball. She wouldn’t leave, but we didn’t want to give her space. We did the Charlie Horse with Charlie, feeling our ribcages open and something fly out. We danced until the DJ cut the music all together, and Amber stood in the middle of the floor, hands on her hips, as we pushed our hair out of our faces, smiling, and helped Charlie to her seat.
None of us watched Amber as she slow danced with her date, a spotlight on them as they swayed back and forth. We sat Charlie down who was cackling, her left arm tight against her side.
“Charlie,” we whispered, trying to shush her. Ms. Martin was looking at us, suspicious like, but Charlie just kept cackling. Amber craned her neck while dancing with her date, looking for the noise that echoed over the love song.
We looked around for Father Ryan. Where was he? He needed to get her out of there or something. Our dates were gathered at a table looking at someone’s phone and passing around tobacco dip to hide in their lips.
There. Father Ryan was by the speakers near the stage. He was leaning into someone. Who? They were talking close; her hands came up his sides around to his back, and he leaned in. We stood in front of Charlie so she couldn’t see, and we felt our ribcages snap shut again. When he raised his head, we saw Meredith, her chin lifted up to him. She was smiling.
Charlie put her head on the table and burped.
“Charlie, come on,” we said and tried to sit her up.
“Leave me alone,” she said. “I’m used to it. ”
She said this tired, like it was our fault, but it wasn’t our fault. We knew how she felt. We would never get to be the girls we voted for. The ones we turned into queens. This made us feel alone even as we walked around arm-in-arm.
There was screaming by the speakers after Amber had her dance; she was yelling at Meredith. Father Ryan was gone, leaving another girl behind, and we needed to hear the fight.
We looked at Charlie with her forehead on the table, and we left her there. As we hurried away, she slid forward, her cheek catching on the tablecloth, stretching, until she flumped to the floor. Mrs. Martin ran over to her, leaned down with her nose to Charlie’s head, then looked up at all of us like, are you happy now?
We weren’t happy. We were desperate. Meredith started to cry, and Amber needed a new best friend. With a chance like that, we couldn’t think about Charlie or how we treated her or how we only did it because the other girls were doing it. We couldn’t think about how we would have kissed Father Ryan, too, if we had been Meredith. How we wished we had been Meredith.
We couldn’t think about how Charlie was going to feel in the morning when she had to face her parents, when they asked how did this happen. We didn’t know how it happened. It was just the way it was. We didn’t have it all figured out; we were just hoping someone would vote for us, too, but no one voted for us. We were no different from Charlie, except she wasn’t afraid to be alone, and we were.
K.K. Fox received her MFA from the University of Memphis. Her short stories have appeared in publications including The Adirondack Review, Memphis Magazine, and Straylight Literary Magazine. She lives, writes, and teaches in Nashville, Tennessee.