Chapter Sixteen

Mat's footsteps rattled the old stairway. Mat stretched at the top of the steps and flexed his fingers, bathing them in sunlight from the window in front of him. He continued warming them and looked at the stairs behind him. Three large holes with stripped plaster around them reminded Mat of the events of only a couple weeks ago. Mat shook it out of his head and walked into his parents' room.

The antique stuff in the room gave Mat horrible nostalgia of his grandmother's house. It even smelled like it in there. Could be the aged wood, or maybe because no one had occupied it for a couple weeks. Mat got used to the musty, quaint smell quickly. He reached his still chilly hand to the closet door and pulled. It was a sliding door, but the metal wheels had rusted after years of rare opening. Mat put both hands on it and pushed it open.

The closet was quite vacant, containing only a few things, like a couple dresses, a nice shirt and other miscellaneous bits of clothing. Mat's eyes gleamed as he saw the suit. "Thank heavens I have a good memory," Mat said. He pulled the suit down off its hanger and brushed the dust off.

It was a very simple suit, but it did look dated. The last time it was worn was by Mat's dad in the early 90's. It had a black jacket, black pants, and black shoes. It had a slight luster to it, but it looked to be simple cotton; nothing fancy. It came with a plain white shirt.

Mat set the suit on his mom's old bed and thought for a second, just looking at it. "Don't like the shirt. Too plain. Maybe black everything would be good." He looked up at the bedpost in thought. He went back to the closet and yanked out the nice shirt. It was a shiny black shirt with a shiny black tie round the collar.

Mat's eyes glimmered at the pitch-black shirt and tie. "Woah. Cool, but it's probably not the same - " he said, taking it over to the suit. He plopped the shirt on the suit. " . . . Color," he said. It was near identical, but it was still a little different. Only in the light could you notice. Mat laughed and picked both things up. He took the suit in his room and dressed. When he emerged from his room to go put gel in his hair, it was quite obvious it was not Mat's suit. The sleeves covered Mat's hands, leaving only the tips of his long fingers exposed. Mat's dad was 6'4", but he was lanky like Mat. His dad was stronger and bigger around the waist as well. The shoulders of the black jacket slumped on Mat's thinner frame. The pants covered his black fake-leather shoes. The suit did look cheap, but it looked good at the same time. Mat shifted more than walked to the bathroom for his gel.

After he gelled his hair up and finished getting ready, the clock downstairs chimed six. It was still light outside like the afternoon and the birds sang loudly. The cars rumbled outside in the clear Friday night. Mat clambered down the stairs and into the kitchen. He creaked the fridge open and yanked out a ham sandwich he had made last weekend. Mat opened the baggie and gave it the sniff test. It passed and Mat sat and ate it. He pondered the coming hours as he munched, and his eyes sagged a bit. He also pondered sleep, what John's suit would look like and how his date would go. He thought of sleep some more, then his slightly sore hands. He finished the sandwich and he got up. He looked out the little back window in his kitchen. He watched a blue jay flutter of when a knock came from the front door. Mat went across the living room to answer it. He opened the screen and gave the old door a push.

"Yes," Mat said. He saw Mrs. Murphy on the doorstep, his neighbor who had agreed to watch over Mat after his mother passed away. "Yes, Mrs. Murphy, did you need something? Come in if ya - "

"No, Mathew that's OK, but thank you." Her little eyes squinted way up at Mat. Her tiny brown eyes and aged face caught the afternoon sun. "I'm just telling you I'm going out for the evening. If you need anything I've told the Jacksons across the street you're here." She looked at Mat's suit and back up at his face. "You look very sharp. Are you going somewhere too, sweetie?"

"Well thank you." Mat cleared his throat. "Yeah, actually I'm going to our school's prom dance thingy tonight, so I won't be round either."

"Well, that works out!" She said with a broad smile. "Chad's off with his date to the dance too! Who's the lucky girl you're taking?" Mrs. Murphy said, nudging Mat weakly in the rib.

Mat smiled, then stopped for a second. "Uh, no one," he quickly stated.

Mrs. Murphy smiled and reached up to pat his cheek. "Really. Well don't worry. They'll learn. You're quite a mature young man. They just need to grow up and realize that," she said in such a maternal tone it reminded Mat of his own. A big vroom echoed through the neighborhood. "Well, that's my bus, dear. I'll see you!"

Mat nodded back to her as she carefully stepped down the concrete steps in front of the house. Mat closed the front door and the screen. He walked back to the couch, and the street became silent again. Mrs. Murphy had always been like a second mother to Mat, even though he only saw her a little. Since Mat's mother's death, she would keep an eye on him. Mat knew her son Chad from school and they played as little kids. Chad was the vice president under Mat, so they'd probably become friends again next year. Mat leaned his head back carefully, keeping the gel still and upright until it dried. He rested it on a clean spot on the wall and closed his eyes. He sighed comfortably and drifted into a nap.

***

The grandfather clock rattled Mat to awareness. He jumped awake and gasped in. Mat slowed his breathing quickly and stood up. He cleared his throat and stretched big. He adjusted his jacket and prepared to adjust his tie. He walked over to the grandfather clock. He lifted his hand to adjust his tie, but his hand stopped. It sank back to his side, and Mat read the time as 8:01. The hourly chime had stirred him, and he was late to the dance now. His heart slumped when he looked out the window at the magenta sky and the sun dipping its toe in the broad horizon.

Mat rushed into the kitchen and grabbed his keys and the ticket to get in. He rushed to his backpack near the stove and put his hand in the front pocket. He groped around, looking up in thought of the things his fingers found. After a moment his hand retreated from the bag and held a pack of gum. He popped a piece in his mouth and checked the tarnished stovetop. He curled one of the spikes back up and left the kitchen. He patted his pockets as he walked through the living room, making sure he had everything. He also checked his neck for his cross necklace. He got the key ready and locked the door behind him as he left the house.

The sun shone brightly in the clear mid-May sky. The crimson rays bled onto Mat's already ruby-colored Mini. Mat hardly stopped to watch the sun set, and he fumbled with the key to his Mini as he approached his car. He found the key and unlocked the car. He dropped himself in the car and slammed the door. He let his head thud back on the old cloth seat top and he breathed out. He waited for a moment, then thrust the key into the ignition and gave it a turn. The engine revved and stopped for a second. Mat's head slumped on the wheel and he said a prayer. "Please, God, no," he pleaded. "Please make it start." He gave the key a turn again and held it. The engine belched and came to life. Mat lifted his head from the wheel and smiled. "Just one more night, little car. Then you can quit if you want." He looked skyward and winked. "Thanks."

He pulled out his drive and yanked the slip of paper out of his jacket that gave information about the dance. Mat came to a stop sign and read the slip aloud. "'End of the year dance in the Great Ballroom at the Hotel Monticello downtown, 1500 E. Main Street.' Bet that wasn't cheap." Mat looked up to his rear-view mirror to check for cars behind him. There was one coming in the distance, but Mat could wait at the stop sign a bit longer. He continued reading. "'Come for a night of blah blah blah . . .'" Mat sighed. "'Blah blah, arrive no later than 9:00," Mat said glancing at the watch taped on the dash that acted as the clock in the old car. He nodded at the 8:15 it read. "You must stay the entire time for safety reasons.' Safety reasons?" Mat thought. He shrugged his shoulders and eased the gas down. "Well I know how to get to the hotel in my sleep." He looked at the street sign and made a left, easing the gas a little harder after every turn.

***

Mat pulled in to a parking spot on the street and looked up at the hotel his car rested in front of. It was the Royal Square Hotel, a highly prestigious hotel. The Monticello was nice enough, but it was more bark than bite. Mat got out of his car and fed the parking meter a handful of quarters. He locked his car and looked down East Main at the fuchsia, 8:30 sky. The streets were busy with cars. Mat walked down the sidewalk, feeling a little weird in a suit. Other pedestrians saw him and gave him a funny look. Mat just stood tall, proud of his less than thrifty suit. He arrived at the overly grandiose front door of the Monticello. A bellboy stood at the door and opened it for Mat. Mat nodded at him and smiled. He still wondered how the ticket for the dance was still cheap. "Some serious tax money," Mat said under his breath.

He entered the front room and followed the sign for his dance. He walked down a narrow hallway, hearing the faint sound of high schoolers' voices. Mat adjusted his tie once more as he walked down the dim hallway. He reached in his pocket with his free hand and retrieved his ticket. He rounded the corner and saw a couple familiar students running the ticket table. Mat walked up to them with a smile and a proud stride. The two boys at the table smiled back at Mat, then glanced at his suit. Mat held his confidence strong.

"Sup, guys," he said to their slightly fake smile. They took his ticket and smiled again.

"Nice suit, dude," one of them said, who was in a plain black and white suit.

The other chimed in. "Awesome threads man," the other said. He handed Mat his punched ticket. "Have a good time."

Mat walked in, slightly more confident, if that's possible. The ballroom was huge, dim, and quite filled with people. The walls were decorated with banners and mood lighting. There was a stage on the far end with James Madison High banners and flags and such draped over the podium and surrounding parts. The room was many dark colors like purple, blue, magenta and red. The DJ sat behind a large table near one side of the center of the room, and he had an Aerosmith slow dance song blaring over the oversized speakers. The room had probably a thousand people in it, and every guy and girl was looking their sharpest. Mat looked at some of the girls he would never have gone for on any given day. But all the dolling up of their dress, hair and such made Mat stare longer than usual.

He admired the brief spectacle as he walked across the broad room. One of Pink's most popular songs came over the speakers. The crowd answered with a cheer and some very odd excuse for dancing began. The couples on the relatively small dance floor began to dance, shall we say, comfortably close. Mat struggled to ease by the crowds, bumping into dozens just to see who was there. Mat looked over people's shoulders for John, Josh, Chad or anyone else he knew. He also looked for Michelle, but expected her to be engrossed with Ryan for the moment. But he still liked her, and to see her on a night were even the ugly looked nice, he would faint at the sight of her.

After a few minutes, Mat had reached the other side of the lengthy ballroom. Mat had to crane his neck to see the big clock on the wall. It showed quarter till nine o' clock. Everyone would be here in fifteen minutes or so. He got nudged several times by the passerby. Mat proceeded to go back towards the entrance to wait for someone he knew. The Pink song finished, and a cheer rose up once again as a Jennifer Lopez song began to play. Mat didn't care for her, and he rolled his eyes. He collided shoulders with a strong, stout fellow, causing Mat to spin. Mat caught his balance and saw that the person he bumped was Josh Albertson, the camouflage jacket guy in Mat's PE class. He had a camouflage tie this time and a plain black suit.

"Well, evening Mat!" Josh said at a loud tone over the music. Mat leaned closer to hear him. "You just get here?"

"Yeah, I did," Mat said, forcing a shout. "You having fun?"

"Yes, sir, I am, for the most part," Josh said, looking over his shoulder at a girl behind him.

"What, you mean you haven't liked something?"

Josh nodded, putting his hand on his slightly bristly chin. "The music, of course. Should play some rock or something. Finger Eleven, Flaw, something better." Josh looked at Mat's suit. "Love the suit, man."

"Thanks. Yeah I would have to agree 'bout the music," Mat said, trying not to sound like shouting. His fairly quiet voice was hard to hear in the ruckus round him.

Josh nodded and looked over his shoulder again. He motioned the girl behind him forward to be next to him. "Mat, I want you to meet my date." The girl next to Josh extended her hand and shook with Mat. She had soft, shine-less hair that was wavy in a ponytail behind her head. Her face was small and round, and her nose was thin. She had sallow skin and a thin frame. Josh continued introducing her. "Her name's Angie Kerr. She goes to Shawnee on the west of town."

Mat continued smiling and released her hand. "Nice to meet you, Angie." Mat looked behind him towards the entrance. The hip-hop song came to an end, and the room erupted with talking and laughter. "Well, I'm going to see who else is here. I'll be up front, OK?" Josh nodded and he raised a hand in parting. Mat raised one back. "See you two, nice meeting you, Angie!" he said over the loud talking. The talk slowed as the next song came on. The whole front room exploded as one of N'Sync's most popular songs came on. The girls did the boy band's dance, and even some of the guys knew it and joined in.

Mat rolled his eyes again, but smiled, trying to keep his spirits high. He made his way through the crowd, which had increased since he got there. Surely he'd find someone . . .

Mat arrived on the other side of the herd of high schoolers. He looked at the clock again, which showed five till nine. Mat looked back towards the entrance and saw a very familiar face. Katrina walked through the door. Mat could have used some of that duct tape he had suggested to John earlier that day. Mat's chin slid down and his hand found it and raised it back. She was prettier than he had thought she would be. She stopped at the door and turned around. John followed in very stylishly. His suit was pure white and his sunglasses were frame-less pink. He wore silly brown loafers on his feet. Mat held a laugh as he walked up to greet John.

"John! What's up!" Mat said as they approached and clasped a shaking hand. "That's a pimpin' suit, John," Mat said finally releasing his laugh. "Where'd you get it?"

"Some suit I found a couple weeks ago. Had to go get it from the dry cleaners today. It was cool in the 70s or somethin'. What about yours? Is that your dad's?"

Mat slightly frowned. "Yeah. His old suit with a shirt and tie of mine. We kinda contrast. You're all white, I'm all black."

"Yeah, well, it's cool." John looked over to Katrina and motioned her over. "Let's go dance, shall we?" John said as Katrina approached. They began to walk off, and Mat followed. Mat still held a laugh from John's quite impressive suit. Mat looked through the crowd as he followed the two onto the packed dance floor. The last song just ended and a dance beat started. Mat shrugged his shoulders and his foot followed the beat. Mat's head followed. More crazy dancing filled the floor, and Mat was shoved of the dance floor by the surrounding couples. Everyone seemed to have a date but him, but Mat didn't mind.

As Mat looked across the crowd, he saw Ryan. He looked harder and saw that the girl Ryan was dancing with was not Michelle, his date. It was someone older than him. Mat's mind angered a little, but rose when he realized that Michelle must be here, too. He proceeded across the dance floor as the dance groove finished. The DJ announced a break, and the lights overhead brightened a little. People migrated in groups off the dance floor and to the sides of the room. Mat walked over to find John. He found him and went to talk with him. "Fun dance, eh John?" Mat said, finally able to speak in a normal tone.

"Yeah," John said, smiling confidently.

"What about y-you Katrina," Mat said to Katrina, meeting her eyes. "You having fun?"

She smiled and her eyes glittered. "Yeah, I am actually," she said cordially. "Think I might have had more fun before the dance though."

"Really? What'd you and John do?" Mat said winking at John. John smiled stupidly.

"Well, we went out to eat," she said, trying to think of more.

"Really?" Mat said, trying to keep a smile back. "Never seen anyone do that before," he said softly. She laughed, and John did too.

"It's OK, Mat. Just because you didn't get a date doesn't mean you have to pester mine." John said with a genial smile.

"OK, OK," Mat said putting up his hand and smiling. "I'll leave her alone."

"Yeah. Besides there's a lot of people wi -" he said, stopping, looking over Mat's shoulder. "Wi . . . without a date," John said, his speech drifting away. His talking was quiet, but not a whisper. "Uh, Mat. Behind you, a little to your right. Like twenty feet away, maybe."

Mat raised an eyebrow and turned to see what John was talking about. He followed John's stuttered directions. He didn't see anything, but walked that direction to see what John was yapping about. "You'll see," John said as Mat walked off. Mat kept moving forward and looking around where John had instructed to. A girl moved out of the way and the person John was talking about was revealed. Mat stopped dead in his tracks. Michelle faced him.

Mat's breathing skipped. His knees wobbled. His heart flew above his head. English was a foreign language to him as he struggled to speak. His fingers stretched in his palms, taking the sweat of the tips of them. Michelle looked back into his eyes and time slowed for a moment. Mat's arm gave a jolt of pain and his face reddened. Mat forced a smile amongst the strange ecstasy he was in. He extended his quivering hand. "Hello, princess," he finally said.

Only a second had passed, but Mat felt like minutes had flown by as he admired her stunning appearance that night. She smiled back. "Mat," she said softly. She hugged him broadly, and Mat "was obligated" to hug back. Mat looked back at John from the corner of his eye. John had a huge smile and was laughing through his teeth.

"What's up, Michelle?" Mat said, backing away from the hug. "You having a good time?"

"Well, I just got here, but so far I am," she said surprisingly. "I don't know where Ryan went though. You seen him?"

Mat's smile faded a bit as he was reminded that she was taken at the moment. "I saw him dancing with some girl last song. Haven't seen 'em since."

Michelle's lips sagged. "Some other girl?"

Mat nodded weakly. "Yeah," he said flatly. "They were just dancing; nothing else." Mat said, lying a little.

"All right," she said worriedly. "I'll go see if I can find him, OK?"

"OK," Mat said comfortably. "I'll see you round, I guess." She turned, smiled, and nodded back at Mat. Her flowing aqua dress vanished behind taller people. Mat sighed softly and looked to see where she had gone. He saw her little ponytail bob between people, but that was all. Mat let it go and looked over and saw another beautiful person. Mat saw Kelsey all by herself near the refreshments table. Mat straightened his jacket and tried to push a spike back up. It did not cooperate, and Mat abandoned it as he approached Kelsey. She wasn't as pretty as Michelle to Mat, but she still made his heart jump.

He went up to her, but she was looking another way. Mat stood beside her and rested his hands behind his back on the table. Kelsey turned to Mat and saw him. She smiled at him and nodded weakly. "How are you?" she said softly.

"I'm good, what about you?" he answered. She shook her head. "Not good?" Mat said, taking long deep breaths to keep his speech consistent.

"No," she said helplessly. Her stare was straight ahead of her and as blank as her affection for Mat.

"What's wrong, Kelsey?" Mat said, trying to be the nice one.

She shook her head. "Don't worry about it," she said lightly.

Mat nodded. "I'm gonna guess it has something to do with Kyle."

She answered quickly. "How'd you guess."

Mat looked at Kyle talking with his friends across the way. "Wild guess. He bein' a jerk again?"

"Yeah," she said plainly. "He's ignoring me again."

"Should I go talk to him?" Mat said, hoping she'd say no.

"No, Mat, you don't - no. He hates you."

Mat massaged his wounded thigh. "I know."

"You do?" she asked oddly.

"Well, what, he's tried to embarrass me, hurt me." Mat paused in thought. "Disgrace me . . . " He paused. "He's tried to kill me."

"He has?" she said raising both eyebrows.

"Why did he have a cast?" Mat asked.

Kelsey stood slightly taller. "He hurt his arm throwing a football too hard, or something."

Mat shook his head. "No he didn't. I'll tell you that." He stopped and thought during the silence between them. "Besides I thought you all broke up."

"We did, but then he begged me to come back so I did."

Mat edged a little closer. "But he hurtcha. Do you wanna be hurt again or what?"

"No, I thought he got better," she said with a louder tone.

"Once a jerk, always a jerk, Kelsey."

Her face turned a sharp red. "Whaddya know anyway? Why does it matter?"

"I hate to see someone like you hurt herself." He heard Kyle's laugh amongst his friends. "I think I'll go talk to Kyle now," Mat said finally. Mat straightened his tie and jacket again.

Kelsey raised a hand weakly. "Don't," she said, pleading. "You'll get hurt."

"He's already hurt you. And besides I don't fight. I'll see if I can persuade him." He turned back to Kelsey and smiled. "Besides, I thought you didn't care 'bout me." He shrugged his shoulders and walked towards Kyle. Kyle glared at him and his friends spread out. Kyle was quite big, but he was no taller than Mat.

"What," Kyle said forcefully.

"Just tellin' ya I was just talkin' to your date and you're leavin' her alone over there. Don't be so mean." Kyle glared so sharply at Mat it made him fidgety. Mat nodded and was going to pass them when Kyle reached a hand down and stopped him.

"What's it to you?" Kyle said in the same quiet, but strong manner.

"I care about people, and it seems you don't," Mat said. Kyle's face sharpened, but his temper was still dormant. Mat passed by Kyle and tapped him on his injured shoulder near the spot where he was shot. Kyle winced with pain and gripped his shoulder. "Throwin' a football." Mat said as he walked away.

Mat went back to find John, but Katrina was standing alone. He looked round her but didn't see John. He walked over and asked her where he was.

"Well, I think he's doing something to introduce the dance. He told me about it."

Mat nodded as he remembered John said he was doing something at prom. "Fun."

The room quieted a bit, and the stage grabbed everyone's attention. The roar of talking dulled a little, and Mr. Reynolds ascended the stage. He raised his little hands to hush the crowd, but it was ineffective. He arrived at the microphone and brought it down to his height. He tapped it and a thump filled the room. He jerked back from it and moved closer.

"Good evening, everyone. Welcome to the End of the Year dance! I hope you all are having a great time," he stated, reading from a little card in his hand, but pretending not to. "We will give out awards for appearance, personality, achievement, and the like. They'll be given out by class by someone in the committee from that class."

Mat nodded and tilted his head to Katrina. "John'll do it for the freshmen I guess then." She nodded in agreement.

"Yeah, I think Kyle's doing it for the juniors." Her speech trailed off a bit.

Mat raised an eyebrow. "John's your date, not Kyle." He turned back to pay attention. "Who would wanna be?" he said under his breath, thinking of Kelsey.

"Thanks, and have a good night," Mr. Reynolds said. Four people came on stage as he stepped back. One was John, one was Kyle, and the other two Mat didn't know. John walked up first to the microphone.

"Hey guys, I'm John Kosava on the Dance Committee and I'd like to welcome all the freshmen to the dance!" He finished and the freshmen clapped and cheered. The sophomore committee member did the same for their class, Kyle did it for his class to a great uproar, and the senior's committee leader did the same, receiving a more civilized answer.

The five people got off the stage and returned to their dates. John came back and Mat gave him a pat on the back. "Cool, John," Mat said plainly.

"That was kinda cool," John agreed. A slow dance song began and John took Katrina's hand, smiling broadly back at Mat. Mat was left alone again, and he scanned the room for someone to dance with. He saw a girl he only knew from Mme. Debois' French class, but he always enjoyed speaking with her. He moved towards her. It seemed she didn't have a date either.

He asked her to dance and she agreed. He took her arm and they began to dance. Mat looked over her shoulder to see everyone else. She was rather tall, but still shorter than Mat. He saw John and Katrina, Josh and Angie, Ryan and Michelle (much to his distaste), and Kyle and Kelsey. Mat looked back down at the girl he was dancing with and she smiled back. They barely talked during the dance and it ended as softly as it came. Mat hugged his partner and they separated.

A techno song came on, and Mat did some silly dances after that song. Mat had fun for the next two hours just being silly. Mat enjoyed having fun and being silly, but he was no comedian. He used his unique style to make those around him laugh. Several commented on the cheap look of Mat's suit, but he didn't care. Several complimented him on it. Mat didn't see anyone he knew well for the next couple of hours. When the clock on the wall showed 11:00, Mat was a bit tired.

His spikes had fallen, his tie was a bit loose, and his jacket lay on a chair on the other side of the room. He met up with Josh after a dance and the DJ didn't start a new song. Everyone turned to the stage as the former five people who were up there before went up. Talking still filled the room, but the people on stage weren't ready anyway. Mat did hear a voice that was familiar. It was Ryan's, and it was not a pleasant one. Michelle walked off angrily, but still competent.

She walked in Mat's direction; he was the only person she knew in sight. She hid behind Mat as Ryan approached. When Ryan saw Mat was in front of her, he remembered earlier that day. He stopped and shrugged it off. "Stupid girl," he said under his breath. "You care too much!" he said as he marched away, face red, and fist tense.

Michelle came out from behind Mat. She looked at Mat with a smile and the "oh well" look. "What'd he do to you know," Mat said flatly.

"He said I was nothing. He said I'd never amount to anything." She looked away. "But you think so too, I bet."

"What?" Mat said confusedly. "Whatcha beatin' yourself up for? It's just Ryan."

"I know, and I still like him." Mat winced.

"I didn't think you did anymore. Thought you were past him."

"No!" she said sharply, staring hard at Mat.

"Michelle, think for a second. Please." She continued glaring. "What has Ryan done to you? Has he made you feel better about yourself, or somethin' like that? I've never seen him say something nice to you." She looked at Mat's shoe. "I just don't want you to regret things." He patted her on the shoulder and walked back to Josh and his date.

"What was that?" Josh said.

"Not sure," Mat said truthfully. Mr. Reynolds tapped on the microphone and lowered it once again. He read from another little card.

"Good evening students. I hope you're having a lovely time." Mat rolled his eyes at the prepared speech. "We'll now distribute the awards for individual classes. These are the people you distinguished to be the prettiest, nicest and highest example of your respective class. A boy and a girl will win each one. The committee representative from each class will give them out." Some people clapped for him as he left the stage, but it was minimal. The senior representative got up and gave awards for the prettiest, nicest, and school valedictorian. Mat didn't know any of the winners.

The junior and sophomore representatives did the same, and Mat didn't know any of their winners either. He shrugged and looked behind him for Michelle. She was over by the refreshments table, and Mat moseyed over there for the freshman awards. Mat smiled at Michelle. She gave him a weak glance back. Mat leaned a little closer. "I bet you'll win one."

Michelle shook her head. "Probably not."

"Well, you qualify for all of them. Why don't you think you'll win?"

"Because I won't. I'm not good enough."

Mat smiled a little. "Do you think you're not good enough, or does Ryan not think you're good enough?"

She thought in silence as John came to the microphone.

John nervously stepped forward lastly. He held a tiny slip of paper. He exhaled through his teeth and cleared his throat. "Well guys," he said, adjusting his hair and smoothing it back. "I'll give out the awards for nicest, prettiest and best example for the freshmen." A little cheer rose at the word "freshmen." John smiled, but his face shone a little in the light. "The best-looking freshman guy and girl this year are," he said, bringing his little slip of paper up and into sight. "Hunter Jones, and," he said pausing for the clapping and for the winner to get on stage. The fellow that got on stage was a big built fellow, like football material. He grinned as he took the award from Mr. Reynolds and shook his hand. He stayed on stage for the next name to be called. John cleared his throat and the clapping ceased. "And the prettiest freshmen girl is," John said, squinting hard at the paper. He smiled and laughed away from the microphone. "Michelle Fennway!" he said into the microphone.

Mat looked at Michelle with a broad smile. Her jaw dropped and her feet absentmindedly moved towards the stage. Mat leaned toward her ear as she walked towards the stage. "I told you," he said warmly. He clapped for her as she went up. She went up and got her award, still holding the awestruck expression she had when she first heard her name.

John called the two nicest freshmen up (Will Christiensen and Katie Jeffries) as Michelle came back to the place where Mat was. Mat clapped as Michelle approached. She had a brilliant smile on her face. She set her award down on the table and just looked at Mat.

"How did that happen?" she said. "I'm not pretty or anything."

Mat looked surprisingly at her. "Pretty doesn't come close, Michelle," he said confidently. He turned back to the stage. "You earned that one."

She smiled and Mat looked over her shoulder. Ryan was standing stag on the other end of the table. Mat smiled at him and nodded sincerely. Ryan scoffed and looked elsewhere. Mat turned back to look at the stage. John had a big smile on his face and was comfortable now. "And the examples for the freshman class are," John said pausing. He looked up in thought. "I dunno, should I tell y'all?" Some people laughed and "yeahs" and "yeses" came from the audience. Mat laughed and Michelle did with him.

John lifted his hand. "Alright, alright. This year's exemplary freshman," he read. "Is Sarah Rochelle and," he said before the applause came. A nervous looking African-American girl in a pink dress went up on stage and got her award. Mat clapped for her; she was in his math class. John straightened up and Mat waited eagerly for the exemplary guy, just in case. "And this year's exemplary freshman guy is . . . Wait. Can't read it," John said, as he squinted at the little writing. "Oh! It's Cameron Peak!" A great hurrah came from the middle of the room and a tall, intelligent looking fellow walked up to get the award with a great smile and long stride. Mat smiled and clapped for him all the more. Cameron had helped Mat in his worst class; biology.

Mr. Reynolds came back up to the microphone and lowered it. "The dance goes on for another thirty minutes. Have a good night, everyone." He got off the stage and the attention focused back to dancing. The stage dimmed and the music started up again. It was another hip-hop song by a guy named Nelly. Everyone cheered and moved to the dance floor. Mat smiled. He was in a good enough mood, he played along and danced too.

About halfway through the song, Mat had danced round the floor, and he saw John on the edge of it. Mat went over to him and gave him an over- exaggerated hug. "That was awesome, man! Didn't think you'd do that much."

"Yeah. Was kinda surprised who won, though."

Mat turned his head. "You mean you didn't know who was gonna win?"

"Nah. Reynolds gave me that little piece of paper right before we went up."

Mat nodded. "Well, I'm gonna go see if I can find," Mat said making quotes with his hands. "'Someone' to dance with."

John smiled and winked quite visibly. "OK, Mat." They both smiled and departed for a dance. The song ended, and a slow song Mat didn't know came over the speakers. He looked around and saw barely anyone without someone to dance with. He got off the floor and looked in the crowds around. He only saw one person without a dance, and it was Kelsey of all people. Mat approached her, but a fairly strong friend of Kyle's seized the chance and arrived first. She smiled up at him and took his hand. Mat exhaled through thin lips and dropped his head, turning to go wait for the end of the song by the wall.

Mat watched many happy people dancing, kissing, and all that mushy stuff. Mat wasn't upset, but maybe a bit bummed. The song ended and the DJ announced the last song of the night. Mat went again to look for a dance. He was looking for Michelle when the song began, which he heard many times on the radio. It was "Hero", by Enrique Iglesias, and Mat wasn't exactly a fan of it. But he could dance to it nonetheless. He searched for her and found her on the dance floor, dancing with someone else.

He moved off the dance floor with a frown and a downcast stare. He looked up and saw Michelle glance his direction. She quickly turned back to the guy she was dancing with and said something in his ear. He nodded to what she said and they separated. Mat still stood on the edge of the floor, and Michelle walked his direction, but he didn't see her coming. He got a tap on the shoulder and his head raised a little and met Michelle's eyes.

"Michelle, uh, um," he said, stumbling all over his words. "Uh, do you wanna dance?" he said as strongly as he could, staring into her eyes.

She smiled as truthfully as she did when he helped her on the first day of school. "Well, yeah," she said softly. Michelle took Mat's hand and led him onto the floor. Time slowed again, and the people around him lost their color. Michelle reached her hands up, and they began dancing when the chorus began. They simply looked into each other's eyes for a moment, daring not to speak. Mat smiled fully at her.

"What changed your mind?" he said at last. "Did you finally just forget Ryan or did something else change you?"

She smiled back. "Actually, you made me think," she said. "Like, I've always thought no one really accepted me."

"What a silly thing to think, princess," Mat said quickly, taking a risk. "Ryan just made you think worse of yourself, and your other friends expected you to be better." Mat looked over his shoulder at John with Katrina. John smiled over Katrina's shoulder at Mat and Mat smiled back, nodding. "But Michelle, you are valuable. To me and," he said, looking around at everyone else. "A lot of other people, too." He thought of the necklace around his neck clinking softly against his shirt. "Especially Him," he whispered.

"Well, thanks, Mat." She smiled and laughed. They moved closer and she rested her head on Mat's shoulder. Mat simply grinned and mouthed the words to the end of "Hero." The song faded and everyone still clutched his or her partner. Mat did too.

The DJ came over and wished everyone a nice evening. Everyone clapped for him and dispersed from the dance floor. Mat separated from Michelle to go get his jacket. She would go get her things, too, and they would meet up before they left separately . . .

Mat went over to the chair near the wall and picked up his jacket and John's jacket. John came over and retrieved his jacket and donned it. He was quite warm, and took it off after thinking about it for a second. "I'm sure you had lots of fun, John."

John looked at Katrina out of the corner of his eye. "You bet, man. And I bet you did, too," he said, winking again.

"Yeah, the last part was pleasant." He smiled big like John always did. "But now I'm gone. I'll call you next week; see if we can do somethin' sometime."

"OK, man." John slung his jacket on his shoulder and locked arms with Katrina. "I gotta take her home."

"Don't you mean she's gonna take you home? You can't drive, John."

"Well, I got a permit, so . . . well - "

"Whatever you say, John," Mat said as he walked away to meet up with Michelle. They met, and she was holding a large bag. "So you goin' home with Ryan or what?" Mat said with a smile.

She shook her head. "He doesn't wanna talk to me. Probably forgot I was his date." She moved a step closer. "Is there, uh, any possibility that, maybe I could get a ride?" Mat prepared to answer, but was cut off. "And not to my house, 'cause my dad's mad right now. He's on one of his binges right now."

"Yeah, I remember you said that earlier today. Well, where to then?" Mat said, edging closer and swallowing nervously. "I'm sure your dad will be fine with me bringing you back to - "

"I don't think he will be," she said worriedly. "He was barely alright with Ryan coming to get me." She bit her lip and seethed in. "Could I stay at your place? For just one night?" she said timidly.

Mat's face blushed and it felt all warm-like. "Well, uh, I don't see why not," he said rocking on one leg.

She smiled then frowned a little. "Thanks, but I still don't get something."

"What," Mat said apprehensively.

"How come you've always liked me?"

Mat smiled. "You wanna list?"

"No I mean, I'm a jerk to you a lot. We used to be friends."

"Still are as far as I'm concerned."

She shook her head. "Still though, I know that I hurt you some," she said trailing off. She reached her free hand up and tapped Mat's cuts she gave him earlier in the year. The scars had faded, but the pale red lines were still visible. Se continued softly. "I don't feel like I know you. Ever since that party where Ryan asked me out, I just felt like I had to hate you."

"It's OK, princess. I forgive you for where you coulda been nicer."

"But how can you? I was so mean to you. All my friends said so; they just didn't tell me till like a couple days ago. I can't be forgiven. I don't even see how you can forgive me." Her eyes sagged and watered a tiny bit.

Mat's mind fused. His hand moved without him telling them and his lips followed. His hands reached to the back of his head and he unclipped his necklace. He put the necklace in one of Michelle's open hands. The cross clinked into her hand and Mat closed her hand. "Because a long time, a Man did the same thing for me." He met her eyes with a smile and she followed. She sniffed in and nodded.

"OK," she said.

***

Mat put Michelle's bag in the small trunk of his Mini. He opened the door for her. She lifted her bright blue dress and quite gracefully sat in the broken cloth passenger seat. Mat got in and put his key in the ignition and paused. He exhaled slowly and waited to turn it. Michelle looked at him oddly.

"What?" she said, looking at the rusty key. "Whatcha waitin' for?"

"Didn't start when I was comin' here till I waited." He closed his eyes and turned the key. He smiled with satisfaction as the little engine buzzed and whirred. She smiled too, and Mat pulled out of the space and turned for home.

"I take it you had a good time," Mat said. "I sure did."

"Yeah, it was really cool, actually," she said, looking out the window at the busy downtown streets.

"You mean you didn't expect it to be?"

"Well, I had my doubts," she said, looking back at Mat. "Ryan and I were already finished by then, and so I figured he'd just ignore me."

"Which he did," Mat noted. He eased to a stop at a red light.

"Yeah he did. But I won that award thing, and you made me feel better."

"I'd give more credit to the award." He laughed as he turned the car left. "You shoulda seen your face."

She laughed and agreed. "I expected you to win something."

"Nah," Mat said. "Dozens better than me. I'm probably guessin' your dad didn't make you feel to good about tonight either."

"No, he didn't. At least you have a loving parent. How is your mom doing by the way? She out of the hospital?" she said innocently. "I don't think I've met her," she said in thought.

Mat's heart dropped and he remained silent.

"Is your mom gonna be home?" she asked.

"No, Michelle," he said flatly, trying to keep a positive tone. "She died about an hour after you came to visit."

She gasped and her lip dropped. "Oh, Mat! I never heard," she said weakly.

Mat nodded. "Guess you didn't hear."

"I, uh," she said stopping. "I'm sorry, so sorry," she said weakly. "Was it bad?"

"Died pretty peacefully after she saw the truth."

"Truth?" Michelle asked.

"The same thing I, well I think it was me, showed you tonight. The necklace. She believed in Jesus before she died."

"I see," she said. "Well, you know, uh, I'm a Christian too."

Mat slowed to a stop and tapped the brakes. "You are?"

She reached behind her into her bag and pulled out a little bracelet. It bore the letters WWJD. "I always keep it in my pocket. Helps me remember. Just not as vocal about it."

Mat smiled as he turned onto his street. "That's so cool," he said. "Didn't know of another Christian at our school."

"Neither did I, till I met you," she said brightly. "That's why I wanted to be friends. But when I get annoyed, everyone makes me mad. And I'm sorry for when I hurt you." She thought of the scratches on his face and his bruised side.

"Everyone messes up, princess, especially me." He pulled into his driveway and quietly got out. Every light but the Murphys was off in the urban neighborhood. Mat helped Michelle out and got her things. Mat slammed the trunk door and looked up at the sky. The stars shined brightly in the midnight clearness. He picked out some constellations and followed their paths with his eyes.

"Whatcha doin'?" Michelle asked as she looked up, too.

"Looking for constellations. Used to do it all the time when I was a kid. See?" he said, lifting Michelle's hand to point to a collection of stars. "That's Cassiopeia." He moved her arm and pointed at another group of stars. "And that's Gemini. And that over there," he said moving her limp hand again. "That's Orion, one of the biggest ones."

"I remember doing this," Michelle said. Mat lowered her hand and looked down at her.

"Yeah?" he said with a smile.

"Me and my mom would do it every month when a new moon was there. Then we could see the stars perfectly." Mat lugged her stuff into his house after he gave her the key to unlock the door. He set her bag down softly near the grandfather clock.

"Well, Michelle, I'm gonna go to bed. You'll want my mom's bed," he said, remembering his mom. "It's the most comfortable. I'll take the couch."

"OK," she said. "I'm gonna go change outta my dress."

"I'm not gonna bother," he said. She took her bag upstairs and Mat took his jacket and shoes off and lay it near the clock. He lay down on the couch and stretched out. He looked like a black olive among green ones on the old putridly colored couch. He pulled a blanket out from behind the couch, which covered his legs and little more. He closed his eyes and turned over on his side. A couple minutes later, Michelle came down the stairs, wearing normal clothes.

Mat opened his eyes at the sound of her little footsteps. "That was fast," he said, sitting up.

"Girls can change quick."

"I can see that," Mat said with a woozy voice.

"Good night," she said with a big smile.

"Sleep well, princess," he said. He rolled on his side and let his hand lazily flop over the edge. "See you in the morning." She nodded and went up the stairs slowly. Mat watched the last of her vanish up the stairs, and his eyes slid closed. He fell asleep before the clock struck one, and his dreams were the happiest he had had since before school.

The grandfather clock chimed three, and Mat didn't even budge. But someone upstairs did. Michelle came down the stairs in the black of night. Mat hadn't budged since he fell asleep two hours earlier. She walked up to him quietly. "Mat?" she said quietly. "Mat?" she repeated. "I can't sleep," she said much like a child to her mother. "Do you mind?" she said with a smile. She lay down next to Mat on the floor. She used Mat's jacket as a pillow and stretched out beside him. She closed her eyes and reached out her tiny hand. She found Mat's and gripped it. In his sleep, Mat felt her hand and held it loosely. She grinned and sighed, finally able to sleep. She joined Mat in dreamland, and there was silence in the house again.

The clock chimed eight times and Mat sniffed and stirred from his slumber. He opened his eyes and sat up. He got up and stretched like he did every morning. Sunlight poured in from the window over the couch. Mat shook his head into alertness and thought for a second. He walked to the stairs, still waking up. "Michelle?" he called. "Michelle? Are you awake? I can take you back home now." He waited a second for an answer. When none came he looked in the kitchen and went to check for her upstairs. He went back to his couch and sat down. He sat in thought for a moment, then looked at his jacket. A little post-it note like his mom used to write sat upon it. Mat picked it up and recognized the handwriting.

"Mat - sorry, but I left around 7. i'll just catch a bus home. my dad should ok now. yeah i borrowed a couple quarters from the kitchen table. i'll pay you back. call me - you have my number. we can do something next week if you want. i'll be around. Love ya - Michelle 3"

Mat finished reading the grammatically challenging note and set it down. When he set it down, he looked at his wrist. It had Michelle's WWJD bracelet on it. Mat laughed and stood up again. Something slid around on his slippery shirt. It was his cross necklace, which he didn't put back on the night before. He smiled and laughed again.

He looked at the bracelet and thought of Michelle and the God that it represented. He looked up and winked at the ceiling. "Thanks, God. I knew you'd come through."

He sat and thought of all that happened that year. He thought of John, Michelle, Kyle, Kelsey, and his mother. He got up at last and sighed a big sigh and stretched again. He slid his necklace back into his shirt.

Mat went into the kitchen to make some breakfast for the first Saturday of the summer.