Erin Downing, Author Erin Downing, Author
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Prom Crashers

Ages 12 & up
Simon Pulse: February 2007

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Chapter Five

Emily clutched the bottom of her dress in her fist, fabric pulled taut over the back of her thighs. She knew that when she released the ball of shimmery pink satin, it would be wrinkled and sweaty. She didn’t care.

It was the first Saturday of prom season, and she was wiped. So far, crashing proms wasn’t easy—particularly since Emily was attempting to attend her first two proms in the same building at exactly the same time.

She had just left date number one—Neil—right outside the doors of Marshall’s prom, excusing herself to go to the bathroom. In reality, she was running off to prom number two.

It had taken way longer than Emily had expected to get from the mall to Neil’s prom. They had met up with a bunch of Neil’s guy friends for a romantic pre-prom meal at a Taco Bell, then the whole group went back to someone’s house for pictures.

Emily had stood to the side as the parents—who were all gathered together at one house—took picture after picture of the guys hamming it up and trying to look manly. Except for a few choice “babe” remarks, they mostly ignored Emily. She chalked it up to their insecurity.

It felt like hours later when they finally piled into a big van and got a ride to the convention center from one of the dads. Emily had promised to meet Max at eight thirty outside Park’s prom, and as they pulled into the parking lot of the convention center, she felt like it was already midnight. She felt bad for thinking it, but spending time with Neil and his friends made time drag more slowly than a really bad civics class. Emily was pretty sure she was late.

As soon as they stepped inside the convention center, Emily excused herself—agreeing to meet Neil outside the Marshall prom doors in fifteen minutes—and ran through the halls of the city convention center to find Max. She was a little scared Max would think she had already been there and would leave or try to get in himself. Patience wasn’t one of his strengths.

Emily slowed to a walk as she came around the corner into the main hall of the convention center. The entrance to Park’s prom was at the top of a long escalator. She rode up, searching for Max in the crowd gathered near the main doors. She couldn’t find him, but Emily was instantly aware of the ticket takers guarding the only entrance to the prom. She and Max would need to be creative if they had any hope of getting in.

Across the hall, Emily noticed a guy who looked vaguely familiar. Uh-oh, she thought, ducking her head. It was one of the guys from the Foot Locker in the mall—he knew she didn’t go to Park. Slipping behind a pillar, Emily gave herself a second to breathe.

“Can I help you?” A perky-voiced brunette appeared in Emily’s periphery. The bouncy hair and flushed cherub cheeks belonged to a short, well-endowed girl who was squeezed into a sequined silver dress. It looked like the dress was holding all her body parts in, and if someone snipped the back, everything would pop out. “Everything okay back here?”

“Yeah,” Emily said, smiling back. “Okay.”

“Are you looking for someone?” There was a glint of something—suspicion, recognition, kindness?—in her eyes. “Because I can help you. I’m Ally, by the way.” She laughed. “But you knew that.”

Emily nodded. She needed to get out of there. It seemed like Max hadn’t yet arrived, and she needed to get back to Neil. “Uh,” she stuttered. “Time?” she asked meekly. It was as though she suddenly couldn’t form full sentences. “What time is it?” Ally expanded the question for Emily. “Eight thirty. Time to vote for Prom Queen!”

“Uh-huh,” Emily slipped past Ally and made a hasty retreat back down the escalator. She was right on time, and it looked like Max was late. She would have to come back again in a few minutes, and just hope Max would wait nicely until she got back. Because Neil would surely start to think something was going on if she wasn’t back soon.

As promised, Neil was standing just outside the Marshall prom doors waiting. She felt a twinge of guilt for double-dating behind his back. But the guilt melted away as soon as she stepped inside the doors to the prom and took one lap around the perimeter with Neil. The prom was scary, to say the least. And Neil? Not charming.

There were only eighty people at the event, and not a single one even remotely resembled her hot crush. Everyone was grinding on the dance floor, and the sweat from the perfumed bodies mingled with the smell of catered pork egg rolls to create a funky, floral mist in the air.

Emily wanted to vomit.

Neil paraded Emily around the small, cramped ballroom, stopping periodically to greet one or another of his acquaintances. While he and his friends high-fived and swapped postprom party plans, Emily looked around the room for Ethan. He was definitely nowhere in sight.

Emily was itching to escape, eager to meet up with Max. But Neil had a firm grip on her arm, and she knew she couldn’t use the bathroom excuse again this soon. She spotted a punch table across the dance floor, and vowed to drink as many cups as were necessary to make it obvious to everyone that she really ought to go to the bathroom. “Hey Neil,” she said, tugging the arm of his tux. “Do you want a glass of punch?”

Neil smirked and said, “Sure,” he looked around at his friends, then continued, “But don’t you think we should get to know each other a little better first?” He laughed, slapping hands with one of his friends. Emily ignored the innuendo—she wasn’t sure how his comment was even remotely relevant or appropriate to the question.

“Okay, Neil.” She strolled across the room and filled two big glasses full of punch. She quickly took another look around for Ethan, then returned to Neil and his friends. She caught the tail end of their conversation as she returned to the outside of their circle.

“…Emily’s hot, isn’t she?” one of Neil’s friends was asking. Emily blushed—compliments were always appreciated. Even from this crowd. Neil’s back was turned to her, so he couldn’t see Emily approaching when he said, “Oh, yeah. I’m in there.” Then he turned to gesture to Emily. When he saw her standing behind him, he grabbed his glass of punch out of her hand, put it on a table, and led her to the dance floor.

She quickly downed her glass of punch and followed Neil’s lead. After a few deliberately not-too-close slow dances, she grabbed another drink. “Thirsty?” Neil asked, wagging his eyebrows.

Emily smiled thinly and nodded. “Mm hmm.”

“I know how to quench your thirst,” Neil laughed at his grotesque line as he turned toward another group of friends. Emily gagged and rolled her eyes before following him. She got to his side just in time to hear her prom date announcing, “Neil’s the man. This chick is totally into me!” while not-so-subtly pointing to Emily. She pretended not to hear.

She was playing dumb. It was her survival strategy.

Four cups of punch later, Emily finally managed to escape Neil’s sweaty embrace and ran from the Great Lakes ballroom to Hall A (with a bathroom break on the way), where Park’s prom was already in full swing. When she arrived, Max was standing with his back facing her, looking mighty fine in his dad’s tails.

“Hey you.” Emily huffed. She was out of breath and suspected she was emanating the stench of egg rolls.

Max turned. “You look nice. Cute corsage.”

Emily glanced down. She had managed to forget she was wearing the corsage Neil had given her. It was a bouquet of brightly dyed carnations, and itched her wrist like crazy. When Max pointed to it, she scratched at the raw skin on her wrist and peeled the cheap elastic and flowers from her arm. She tossed it in a nearby garbage can and reminded herself to come up with an excuse for its disappearance when she returned to Neil.

“Have you been here long?” she asked. She carefully studied the couples entering and leaving the Hall, formulating a plan. “I came earlier, but you weren’t here yet. Then I couldn’t get away.”

“Maybe half an hour. No biggie.”

Emily spotted a group of several couples drunkenly making their way up the escalator toward the hall. She linked arms with Max and approached the group as they boisterously piled off the escalator. Emily plastered a smile on her face and approached one of the girls in the group, draping her in a huge hug.

“Heeeeey!” she said, giggling. “You look soooooo cute!” The girl gave Emily a weird look. Emily continued. “Did you guys go to Monaco’s for dinner? Yum.”

Emily had now attracted the attention of another girl in the group. Luckily, this girl was piss drunk, and easily fooled. She pushed past her date and the first girl and slurred, “Nuh uh. We went to Kelly’s.” She leaned in to Emily, whispering conspiratorially. “So good. But I maybe had a teensy eensy bit too much champagne in the limo. Shhhhhh.” She stumbled, then righted herself again. “You’re in my history class, right?”

“Yeah,” Emily responded. “Emily—what’s your name again?”

Drunk girl linked arms with Emily and Max. “Claudia!” Emily and Max blended into the middle of the group of Claudia and her drunken buddies—none of whom, except Claudia, had really noticed Emily or Max—and weaved past the teachers into the prom.

They were in.

Inside, it was insanity. Since prom had already been cooking for more than an hour, the dance floor was packed. The Black Eyed Peas were pumping from the speakers on stage, and there were several girls on the dance floor whose already too-short and too-tight skirts were now riding dangerously close to the butt cheek line. A line of desperate-looking guys stood nearby, gawking and smiling at one another.

Emily held Max’s arm tightly. She could feel him shaking with laughter through the sleeve of his tux. She nudged him in the ribs to remind him that they needed to get their job done before pissing anyone off.

Glancing around the ballroom, Emily immediately gathered that the Park prom theme was Under the Sea. Streamers and crepe paper had been hung over the ceiling tiles, creating the illusion of waves and water. The streamers covered the air conditioning vents, trapping the cool air behind crystal blue waves. As a result, under the sea felt a lot like a sauna.

There were tiny fish hanging from all the chairs, and clusters of shells were spread over the tablecloths. The buffet table was encased in a giant mermaid tail; a chocolate fountain erupted from the center. It looked like the mermaid was hemorrhaging mud.

Most of the tables had been pushed to the edge of the room. Emily and Max weaved in and out of them, making their way around the room. “I don’t see Ethan.” Emily said, squinting for a better view of the dance floor. She had glasses, but refused to wear them.

Her mom had gotten the frames on clearance at Dylan’s, and they looked like something an evening news anchor would wear.

“What are you going to do when you find this guy?” Max asked, pulling off his jacket. His wavy hair had begun to curl in the humidity of the room, and his cheeks were flushed. “Do you just saunter up to him and say, ‘Hey, I’m stalking you’?”

Emily hadn’t really thought about that. She had only thought through the process of getting into the proms, but hadn’t come up with a good explanation of why she was there. “Dunno. I guess I’ll just have to figure that out when I find him. I’m hoping the circumstance lends itself to a reasonable explanation.”

“Right.” Max said. He didn’t look convinced. “Care to dance?”

Emily grinned. “But of course.” She led Max onto the turquoise-tiled dance floor. They squeezed into an open space next to a couple who seemed to be searching for lost treasure in each others’ throats and another couple that was bickering about whether the girl’s dress was “technically” green or teal. The guy seemed overly concerned.

“Bizarrely enough, I’m having fun,” Max said as they started slow dancing. “You?”

“Other schools’ proms are cheesy,” Emily said honestly. “But yeah. It’s good to get away from Neil, for sure.”

“How’s it going with him? No Ethan sightings, I assume?”

Emily shook her head. “No.” She laughed and leaned back to look at Max. “But I enjoyed many delicious egg rolls and a lot of punch.”

They danced silently for a few minutes—watching clusters of girls sing along to Christina Aguilera, hugging and swaying in time to the music—before Max said, “Do you remember how every time I used to spend the night at your house, we would sneak out of your basement and into my parents’ kitchen to get cake?”

She nodded. “Your mom makes a mean cake.”

“I know. I could really go for a piece of that cake right now.” Max sighed. “This prom crashing thing sort of makes me feel the same way I did those nights—it’s that ‘we could get caught, and it’s exciting’ feeling. But the stakes are higher, and this time you’re wearing an almost-stolen dress.” He shook his head before cracking a smile. “Emily, you used to be such a nice girl. What happened?”

She smiled back. “I’m still a nice girl. And because I’m such a nice girl, I guess I should get back to Neil,” Emily leaned back and rolled her eyes. “But the breath! The hair! The lame one-liners! I don’t think I can go back there. No, Max, no! Don’t make me go!” She raised her arm to her forehead, Scarlett O’Hara style. With the pretty gown, she was feeling almost damsel-in-distress-like.

“What if you didn’t go back?” Max said, eyebrows raised. “I mean, you’ve already collected your corsage. You’ve sampled the buffet. You’ve conquered the prom. Would it be so awful if you just left Neil to fend for himself? Is there any reason to go back?”

Emily considered his suggestion. Max was right. Neil had his friends, and she’d completed her mission. Neil definitely wasn’t “in there.” So going back was just delaying the inevitable. She would eventually need to ditch Neil to get to the third prom of the night, where Sid and Charlie were waiting for them.

“I guess I could leave him there.”

“That’s the spirit!” Max pumped his arm in the air. They had danced over to the edge of the dance floor and, when the song ended, they broke apart. “We should probably get to Memorial’s prom sometime soon anyway.” He checked his watch. “It’s a little after ten.”

Suddenly, the short, silver-gowned brunette Emily had met earlier approached them. She now wore a crown and a sash that read “Prom Queen.” A trail of small, wimpy-looking girls fanned out behind her. The prom committee, Emily presumed. Prom Queen cleared her throat and spoke. “I don’t know you. And I know everyone.”

Emily stared blankly, buying herself time to organize a response. Now that the votes were counted, it seemed Prom Queen wasn’t quite as eager to make friends. Prom Queen lifted her over-plucked eyebrows. “Hmm? Who are you?” She jammed her hands into her hips. “You need to leave.” Several teachers turned to stare. Prom Queen had drawn a crowd. Emily and Max needed to get out of there. Now. “You know,” Emily said, directing her response to Max and pointedly ignoring Prom Queen. Her voice had taken on a combination British-Swedish-German accent. “I am very sad right now.”

Max caught on. He nodded his head and said, “Yah, yah.”

Prom Queen continued to stare them down.

Emily shook her head and pouted. “We have been at your school for almost one whole year, and I have come to realize…no one ever notices the foreign exchange students.” And, turning on her heel, Emily stormed away with Max in tow.

Two proms down, seven to go. And still no Ethan.

© Erin Soderberg Downing

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