Friday, October 15, 2010

Into the Shadows - Chapter 17

Chapter Seventeen
Winter Wonderland


Paivi returned to school the next day after the incident in Dr. Hasenpfeffer’s class. She tried her best to do as her father had asked. She flipped through the EOS policy book, making sure she was following all of the rules correctly. She moved quickly and quietly through the halls, dragging Jason or Michaela by the arm. She didn’t want to be late for classes, especially not for lunch. She tried to keep to herself in class, and didn’t raise her hand or ask any questions. She would respond politely, if ever a teacher asked her a question, which was very seldom. She wished she wasn’t there, that no one could see her. Oh, to be invisible!

As for Dr. Hasenpfeffer’s class, Paivi dreaded going there the most. Instead of open and friendly, the class had taken on a dreary atmosphere, as if someone had died. They were not told where Dr. Hasenpfeffer was or when she would return. Instead, they had the ultimate pleasure of being taught by Mr. Finch, a squidgy looking substitute teacher in his twenties who bored them to death with his endless lectures. Paivi sat with Tyler at her assigned EOS table and attempted to avoid everyone’s eyes for the long fifty minutes of class. She could feel them anyways.

 There was a buzz in the hallways as students noticed the signs advertising the Youth Anti-Terrorism Coalition. Paivi heard students talking about the possibility of joining the group and shuddered. Kids with power did not sound like another ingredient she wanted to add to the already bitter soup of her life.
At least she did have the dance to look forward to, although she wasn’t quite sure she even wanted to be out in public anymore. It had been nearly impossible to even get the dress.

Paivi had gone with Michaela the previous Sunday to the dress shops in downtown St. Andrew to look for the perfect gown. She had a strict budget from her father, but her mother had slipped her a few extra bills when she hugged Paivi goodbye. They made every effort to avoid the ATC agents that wandered in packs through the streets of downtown St. Andrew.

They first headed to Nora’s Boutique. The weather had been cold and snowy all week, making the days a constant shade of gray. The warmth hit their frosty cheeks as they pulled open the door. The rows of colorful dresses brightened the dull day. Before they could get very far, a plump lady with a head of curly, gray hair held back in clips approached them.

“I’m sorry girls,” she said quietly, trying not to be overheard by the other customers. “But you’ll have to leave.”

“Excuse me?” responded Michaela loudly, causing the other patrons to turn and look at them.

Paivi burned with embarrassment, her cheeks turning a deep red.

“Why?” demanded an angry Michaela.

“Well, it’s not my rule, but people with those,” she pointed at Paivi’s glowing EOS badge, “are not allowed in here.”

Paivi could feel the customers staring at her. She looked at the floor.

“That’s fine. I wouldn’t shop in this dump anyways!” shouted Michaela as heads turned towards them. She grabbed Paivi’s arm and pulled her out the door, making sure to slam it on the way out.

Despite the streets of downtown St. Andrew being decorated for Christmas, Paivi couldn’t quite feel the same holiday cheer as she had in the past. The lampposts were dressed with evergreen garland and bright white twinkle lights. Shop windows sported wreaths and bright red ribbons, along with Santa Claus and his many reindeer. Paivi walked quietly down the street, glancing at the shops as they passed. She failed to notice the elaborate decorations—all she could see were the white signs with red lettering posted in every door and window that carried no holiday goodwill.

NO EOS ALLOWED

“Paivi, don’t let it bother you,” Michaela pleaded, trying to salvage the fun they were supposed to be having. “Come on, forget this—let’s go have a shake at Al’s.”

“Alright,” Paivi brightened slightly.

They turned the corner and walked down to the entrance of Al’s Café. Affixed to the door was the same sign posted in all the other shops.

NO EOS ALLOWED

Paivi’s face fell. This was insane. All of her favorite places didn’t want her there. And for what? She had done nothing to deserve being treated like a second-class citizen. Shame and self-pity was now gone, replaced by anger that she could feel welling up deep inside.

“Let’s just go home,” Paivi muttered through clenched teeth.

Paivi resigned herself to wear an old dress. What else could she do? On Monday at school she even thought about telling Jason that she wanted to skip the dance, but she didn’t want to hurt his and Michaela’s feelings after all the effort they made to make sure she could go in the first place.
That night after dinner, Paivi was sitting in the family room with Mr. Anderson and Torsten. The Chicago Bulls were playing Boston. Despite the exciting game, they were all rather subdued. The doorbell rang and Mrs. Anderson called from the living room where she was cleaning.

“I’ll get it!”

Paivi could hear a flurry of activity from the front door.

“Hi Mrs. Anderson!” Paivi heard Michaela’s loud voice drifting down the hallway. “You remember Jason. He’s taking Paivi to the dance, you know!”

What were they doing here on a Monday night? she wondered to herself.

She decided to see what all the commotion was about. Paivi entered the living room and couldn’t believe her eyes. Michaela was laying out ten very different formal dresses that she had pulled out of a large garment bag. Some were long and some short. Some were full of sparkles and some were made of soft velvet. Jason saw Paivi and smiled, and Michaela wheeled around.

“Well, you couldn’t go to the dress shop, so we brought the dress shop to you!” Michaela clapped her hands in excitement.

“I can’t believe it!” Paivi stammered. “How did you manage this?”

“Jason’s sister is friends with the girl whose mom owns Destiny’s Bridal. Anyways, she told them what happened on our shopping trip yesterday. They were upset because they have to enforce the same policy and they don’t agree with it. So they let us take a bunch of different dresses in your size for you to try. We just have to drop off whatever you don’t pick tomorrow.”

Paivi ran over to Michaela and threw her arms around her, hugging her tight.

“You are the best!” she said, trying to push down the lump in her throat.

“Oh my god, you’re squeezing me to death!” Michaela’s voice was muffled by Paivi’s shoulder. “It wasn’t just me. Jason helped too. We had to pick out some dresses we thought you would like. We made a bet on whose dress you’re going to pick!”

“Michaela’s choices have no chance,” laughed Jason.

Paivi walked over to him, blushing and giving him an awkward hug.

“Thank you so much,” she whispered.

“If you are taking Paivi to the dance, you can’t see the dresses on her now! I’ll take you into the family room, you can watch the game with the boys.” Their voices faded as Mrs. Anderson led Jason down the hall to the family room. “Would you like something to drink?”

After two hours of trying every dress on multiple times, they had chosen THE dress. She didn’t want to take it off. It was long and light green and accented her eyes. She loved how it sparkled and could picture how it would look in the lights on the dance floor.


Friday was the last day of school before Winter Break and the day before the Winter Wonderland dance. It was quite festive as most of the students were celebrating the holidays. The hallways were full of red and green and brightly wrapped gifts and candy canes were passed around. Paivi, short on cash and barred from all stores but the supermarket, had nothing to give. Not that she had many friends left. Michaela, Jason, Aimee, Christian. A short list. She spent the evening before creating Christmas cards out of paper, ribbons and her very own artwork so she wouldn’t be empty-handed. She still felt like it wasn’t enough.

Michaela, Jason, and Aimee reacted generously to the cards. Aimee and Michaela gave Paivi small gifts, which she thanked them for. Secretly, she was happier with the fact that she still had a few friends to receive gifts from. To her, their friendship was more important than anything they could give her.
Christian was not as excited about Paivi’s card, which she delivered to him at lunch.

“Gee, thanks.” His voice was monotone. “Let me give you…oh wait, I can’t go buy you anything.”
He looked annoyed.

“Ah, don’t be such a Grinch,” Paivi chuckled.

“You tell me Paivi, just what is there to be excited about? Christmas? Um, no. None of us can go to any stores, so there won’t be any presents this year. And as for Winter Break, it’s even worse. It’s cold and we aren’t allowed into…well, anything! No movies, no restaurants, no bowling. So it’s going to be like being grounded for two whole weeks. Frankly, I’d rather just be at school, even if it means seeing my favorite ATC agents.”

He was out of breath after his tirade.

Paivi sighed, throwing her arm around his shoulder and giving it a squeeze. Boy, how things had changed in the few months since she had met Christian. She used to hate him, and now she just felt sorry for him. He was a sad remnant of the Christian Nelson who had ruled the school. His entourage hadn’t stuck around after the list came out, and aside from Paivi, he had no one.

“Don’t worry, we’ll think of something to do. We can all hang out, watch a movie at my house or something. I’ll call you. And at least there’s the dance tomorrow. Are you going?”

“No.” Christian stood up as the bell rang. “And neither should you.”

He stomped angrily out the door.


After school Paivi came home to an empty house. She was confused. Both of her parents’ cars were in the driveway, but neither of their badges were on the monitor. She tried not to read too much into it and decided to occupy herself by painting her nails a deep shade of red for the dance.

Torsten arrived home not long after Paivi.

“I don’t remember them saying anything about going out,” he said as he joined her in the family room, flipping on the television. “God, that stuff stinks. I don’t know why you girls have to do paint your fingernails anyways.”

They began feeling restless as the clock hands crept closer to five. Paivi repeatedly walked to the foyer and looked out the front window, checking for any sign of her parents. Torsten’s eyes flicked back and forth from the clock to the EOS badge monitor as if waiting for it to react to the fact that it was still missing two badges.

The clock struck five. The monitor remained silent.

“Paivi,” Torsten whined nervously. “It’s after curfew. Where are they? What should we do?”

Paivi wanted to cry; she could feel the lump growing in her throat. She sat down next to Torsten and put her arm around him, hugging him. He was her little brother and she needed to act like the big sister.
“I’m going to give Mrs. Cardinelli a call. Maybe she talked to them.”

She picked up after one ring.

“Hi, it’s Paivi.”

“Oh, hi dear, how are you?”

“I’m okay Mrs. C. Um, I was wondering if you might know where my parents are?”
She bit her lip, hoping for an explanation.

“What?” Mrs. Cardinelli’s voice sounded alarmed. “It’s after five. You mean they aren’t there?”

“No, the cars are here, but the house was empty and there was no note or anything. I thought maybe you had talked to them?” Paivi’s knees felt weak.

“Well, I spoke to your Mom earlier, they had sent her home from work. But then I left to run some errands and I just got home. Look, why don’t I come over, I don’t want you kids sitting there alone.”

“Oh, Mrs. C., you don’t have to do that.” Paivi didn’t want to impose, although secretly she hoped Mrs. Cardinelli would come.

“Are you sure, sweetie?” she asked.

“Well, maybe later, if they still aren’t here. I just don’t want to ruin your night.”

“Oh, nonsense! Let’s do this, I’ll give the kids dinner and then get them off to bed. If they still aren’t home by nine, I’ll come over and stay with you until they show up. I’m not leaving you poor kids alone overnight. And Mr. C. will hang out here, just in case they call. Be sure to call me if they come home, otherwise, see you at nine.”

“Okay, Mrs. C. Thank you so much.”

Paivi hung up and went to sit on the couch. She was there only a few minutes before she jumped up and wandered around aimlessly. She couldn’t sit still. On she paced, along with a nervous Torsten, watching the crawling hands of the clock.

At last it was nine o’clock. The doorbell rang and Paivi ran to open it, thrilled to see Mrs. Cardinelli, but feeling a bit sicker inside because it wasn’t her parents.

Mrs. Cardinelli held out her arms towards Paivi and she gladly accepted the hug. The Andersons had known the Cardinellis for many years; Paivi didn’t remember a time when they weren’t a part of her life. Mrs. Cardinelli was the next best thing to having her own mother there. She tried for a while to take their minds off their parents, asking them questions about school and friends. The hours continued to tick by and they eventually ran out of conversation. Paivi returned to her aimless pacing, looking out the windows. She walked through rooms turning on just about every light in the house, chasing the shadows out of the corners.

Just before one o’clock in the morning, Paivi finally tired of her routine. She dragged herself down the hall and back into the family room, where Torsten and Mrs. Cardinelli were dozing on the couch. Just as she sank into the chair, she heard the click of the latch on the front door.

“Someone’s here!” Paivi shouted to the drowsy pair on the couch as she raced down the hallway.
Mr. and Mrs. Anderson were coming slowly through the front door. Their faces were ashen, their clothes disheveled, and they had dark circles under their eyes.

“Ohmygodareyouokaywherehaveyoubeen?” The words tumbled out of Paivi’s mouth like some kind of verbal waterfall. Paivi threw her arms around them both, tears from all of the stressful waiting poured down her face in relief. Torsten and Mrs. Cardinelli were right behind and joined in the giant hug.
Finally, Mrs. Anderson was able to encourage them all to let go, claiming she couldn’t breathe. They moved as a group to the kitchen, where they all sat down at the large table. Mr. and Mrs. Anderson looked exhausted.

“Thank you so much, Vi, for coming to be with the kids.” Mrs. Anderson patted her friend’s hand across the table.

“Oh, Maria, it’s nothing. I should go—I don’t want to get in the way.” Mrs. Cardinelli rose from the table.

“You can stay, Violette, you know you’re family anyways!” Mr. Anderson gestured for her to sit down.

“So, where were you all day?” Torsten was wide-awake now, sitting on the edge of his chair.

“We were with the ATC, at their offices. We were,” Mr. Anderson paused, appearing to search for the right word, “questioned. A lot. And for a long time.”

Mrs. Anderson began to sob into her hands.

“Did they hurt you, Mom?” Torsten jumped out of his chair, moving to comfort his mother.
Mr. Anderson answered for her.

“Look, we don’t need to relive today’s events. It’s all over now and we’re home safe.”

“What are we going to do?” Paivi put her hands on the table. “We should leave. Come on Dad, we have to get out of here.”

“No,” Mr. Anderson was firm. “If this is what it takes to prove that we are loyal Americans, then that is what we will do. Sometimes, Paivi, you have to take a stand for what you believe is right, even if it is painful. I know we’re innocent. We’ve never hurt anyone. We are good people and I will be damned if I am going to run off like some coward. That just makes them think they were right, that we are some kind of criminals—that we have something to run from. Hopefully things will get better now that they know the truth about us.”

Paivi looked down at the table, ashamed. She couldn’t understand her father’s feelings. Everything in her was telling her to run. But he wouldn’t listen. What could she do?

Mr. Anderson stood up, trying to force his voice to sound slightly more cheerful.

“I think it’s been a long day for all of us. I could sure use a good night’s sleep.”

Everyone rose from the table. Torsten helped Mrs. Anderson up; she had finally slowed to sniffles.
“Thank you again, Violette, for looking after the kids. You’re a good friend.”

“I know you would do the same for me,” she replied.

Mr. and Mrs. Anderson hugged Mrs. Cardinelli and walked her to the door. Torsten and Paivi waited for their parents, heading upstairs for a restless night of sleep.

Paivi tossed and turned most of what was left of the night. Towards dawn she drifted into an exhausted sleep.

Suddenly, she was freezing. All around her she could feel an icy wind tearing at her clothes, ripping at her skin. She was barefoot in the snow and was unable to feel her toes. Snowflakes swirled around her head. She wrapped her arms tightly around her body, trying to conserve every bit of warmth.

In front of her lay a dark forest, the trees black in the night. She turned around to find a large body of water, stretching into infinity just behind her. Dark, cold, and silent. The sky was dark—there was no moon, no stars overhead.

She knew she would freeze to death if she stayed there. Her mind was numb, too frozen to think. She placed one foot forward into the snow. Maybe if she could do it again, move faster, she could get warmer. So it began, one foot in front of the other, until she paused to look around. The trees had swallowed her. The forest was so dark she couldn’t see her hand in front of her face. She didn’t know where she was supposed to be going, she just knew she had to keep moving.

One foot in front of the other. Again. Again. Again. Her whole body felt numb now.

Keep moving, she told herself. It won’t be long.

Step, step, step through the deep snow. It was up to her knees now.

And then it was there.

A small clearing appeared in the woods; in the center was a small log cabin. The windows glowed brightly in the darkness sending streams of light into the dark forest. A chimney lazily trailed smoke into the air above.

Paivi instantly felt warmth flow through her, from her head down to her toes. She was so hot—she couldn’t understand why the snow around her wasn’t melting. She took a few more steps forward, up the wooden front steps and across a wide porch to the front door. She put her hand out to grab the door handle.

Paivi’s eyes flew open. She blinked, confused, not believing she was only in her room. Exhausted, she gave up to her tired body and drifted back to sleep.


Paivi awoke at noon, completely panicked due to the fact that she had only five hours to get ready for the dance. Happy that her parents were safe, she put the events of the previous night behind her. Mrs. Anderson and Mrs. Cardinelli had offered to help her with her hair and make-up. After two hours of blow dryers, curling irons, and roughly one hundred bobby pins, her hair was done. It would probably take four days to get it out.

Paivi ran to her room, slipping into her dress and grabbing her shoes. She stopped to look at herself in the mirror. She felt like a princess. But she still needed jewelry. She sprinted to the dresser, she had to find something quick—Jason would be there any minute to pick her up. Paivi opened her jewelry box and dumped the contents out on her dresser. On top of the pile of necklaces and earrings, gleaming in the light of the lamp, sat the ornate box that contained the gold and silver necklace that she had gotten from her parents for her last birthday and popped it open. She picked up the necklace and hooked the clasp around her neck. The locket felt warm against her skin. She grabbed a pair of earrings that caught her eye and shoved them in her ears as she ran down the stairs.

The doorbell rang as she reached the bottom. Mrs. Anderson let Jason in. He was dressed in a black suit with a red and green Christmas-themed tie that pictured elves dancing in a kick line like the Rockettes. The tie glowed with little lights. He looked up at Paivi as she stood on the bottom step.


“Wow Paivi, you look really pretty.” He smiled.

“Thanks,” she managed as the heat spread through her cheeks.

Mr. and Mrs. Anderson planted Paivi and Jason in front of the fireplace and wouldn’t allow them to leave until the camera was full. Paivi made sure to wait until after the pictures to attach her EOS badge to the shoulder strap of her dress. It glowed garishly but at least the red color complimented the holiday theme.

Paivi and Jason finally made there way out to the car, where Jason’s older sister, Jessica, was waiting for them. Her dark hair, though much longer, and dark skin resembled that of her brother.

“I was beginning to think I would need to come rescue you!” she teased as they got in the car.

Jessica quickly drove them back to the Santos’ house. Due to Paivi’s unwelcome status in all shops and restaurants, Mrs. Santos had invited Paivi, Michaela, and Michaela’s date, Dan McIntosh over for dinner before the dance. After another round of pictures and plates piled with steaming hot homemade lasagna, it was back to the car and off to the dance.

Paivi and Jason followed Michaela and Dan down the hall into the gymnasium upon arriving at school. Paivi could hardly believe her eyes, the view was the same as her vision from so long ago. Glittering snowflakes hung from the ceiling, brightly colored Christmas trees sported bright twinkle lights. Giant, gift-wrapped boxes served as seating around the gymnasium’s perimeter. Tables with punch and trays full of brightly decorated Christmas cookies stood at the back of the room. The deejay booth stood at the front of the gym, bass pumping out of the speakers and reverberating off the walls.

They had arrived right at seven o’clock, due to Paivi’s curfew. They would have to leave at eight thirty in order to ensure that Jessica could get her home by nine. She hoped Jason wasn’t too disappointed about having to leave early, but he never mentioned it. With finely dressed students continuing to arrive and the dance floor still pretty empty, Jason and Dan decided a trip to the sweets table was absolutely necessary.

They were standing over the long table, remarking on tray after tray of brightly frosted sugar cookies, some shaped like stars or Christmas trees, when a voice interrupted their cookie discussion.
“Hi Jason.” The voice was light, but phony.

Paivi turned to see who owned it and came face to face with Melissa, Jason’s ex-girlfriend.
Ugh, she thought to herself. This can’t be good.

“Hi Melissa,” Jason greeted her.

“Can I talk to you for a minute?” she requested, keeping her voice polite.

Jason took a bite of the snowman cookie he had picked up.

“Sure.”

“Um, in private?” Melissa emphasized the word.

Jason looked thoughtful. Paivi watched him nervously, hoping he wouldn’t leave her.

“Um, no.” He bit the head off the snowman. “But you could talk to me right here.”

A few of Melissa’s friends who had been pretending to look at the cookies turned towards them. Michaela and Dan also fell silent, listening carefully to the exchange.

“Are you sure you don’t want to reconsider?” Melissa urged, glancing coldly at Paivi.

“Nope. I’m good.” Jason casually popped the remainder of the snowman into his mouth.

“Fine then.” Melissa seemed to steady herself. Her two friends stepped up behind her, their arms crossed.

“Well,” she began, folding her arms over her chest and cocking her head to the side. “I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

“Huh?” Jason appeared surprised at her concern.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but you’re kind of hanging out with some questionable people. I thought you were, I don’t know,” she smirked,” having a hard time dealing with our breakup.”

Jason snorted.

“Excuse me? I’m doing just fine, thanks. And I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

He folded his arms over his chest and met Melissa’s glare. Dan and Michaela stepped up behind Paivi and Jason.

“I was going to see if you’d like to get together sometime? But you’ll have to stop hanging around with people like that.” She nodded in Paivi’s direction.

Paivi bristled, but held her tongue. She had promised her parents she would stay out of trouble. She could feel the energy welling up—so much so that her necklace felt it was burning into her skin. She sucked in a deep breath. As much as she wanted to respond, she couldn’t risk and outburst, verbal or otherwise. Instead she remained silent, clenching her fists.

“Really, Melissa, you must be mistaken. I had no intention of going out with you again,” he chuckled.
Melissa’s face melted in anger and humiliation, going from cute to ugly in a fraction of a second.

“If you really want to continue to associate with a criminal, it’s your funeral. And that may not be far from the truth,” Melissa pointed at Paivi, “she very well could be a murderer. Have you asked her?”
Jason’s eyes narrowed.

“Don’t talk about her like that. Where do you come off? You’re just jealous.”

“Jealous? Of her? Please! At least I don’t have to walk around with a giant glowing reminder that I help terrorists. I heard you got beat up by the ATC agents in class last week because of her. You just better hope she doesn’t get you killed.”

“I know someone who’s gonna get killed!” shouted Michaela as she attempted to lunge at Melissa.
Jason grabbed her around the waist, pulling her back so that her flailing arms fell short of Melissa’s face. Dan and Paivi stepped in to pull her arms back.

Melissa jumped back, almost knocking over her shocked friends.

“Come on Michaela, we don’t want them to throw us out!” Paivi pleaded. “She’s not worth it.”

“You’re right.” Michaela glared at Melissa, her eyes daggers. “You’re lucky they were here to hold me back. You may not be so lucky next time.”

Melissa shrank into her friends, and they dragged her away to the far side of the gym. Luckily, no teachers or ATC agents had witnessed the exchange—they were all milling around near the entrance. Paivi took a deep breath.

In the dark of the gym Paivi noticed a glow coming from the entrance. She looked over to see who was coming in and saw a large group of agents, maybe a dozen, strolling through the door. She tried to get a look at their faces and realized they weren’t regular ATC agents. They were faces of students that she saw in the hallway and in her classes every day. There was Henry Blankenship, star of the basketball team, and Mike Howard, Paivi thought he played football. All of them wore the black ATC uniform, with big, black boots. Their badges glowed with the letters YATC. Youth Anti-Terrorism Coalition. Their recruitment posters had obviously done the job. She was relieved to see that they carried no weapons—just an air of authority—which she worried could be equally dangerous.
Jason followed Paivi’s stare.

“They’re not exactly dressed in their Christmas best, are they?” he observed. “It’s like a pack of Grinches.”

Jason was right—the atmosphere in the gym had become more somber. The students spoke a little quieter and pulled their groups a little closer. The boys in black seemed to puff up at the reaction, standing a bit taller and pushing their chests out. The group casually moved out to the dance floor with the crowd.

“I don’t know about you guys, but I need a glass of punch before we go out on the dance floor.” Jason steered them down to the last table, where they dipped plastic cups into one of the three punch fountains.

A popular song came through the speakers, causing the students still standing along the walls to run for the dance floor.

Jason grabbed Paivi’s hand.

“Come on, let’s go have some fun!”

Jason, Paivi, Michaela, and Dan made their way to the dance floor, blending in with the mass of bodies moving in rhythm with the music. Another fast song kept the crowd moving. Paivi’s favorite slow song came on next. Jason twirled her around, pulling her closer and placing his hands around her waist. She put her arms around his neck. She looked around the room, taking in his closeness and the ambiance of the glittering snowflakes and soft glow of the thousands of twinkle lights. It was so romantic; it was almost possible to forget the incident with Melissa and the YATC convention that seemed to be going on around them. Paivi closed her eyes, holding Jason close and giving him a squeeze, which he returned. She laid her head on his shoulder, breathing in the fresh scent of his cologne.

Opening her eyes, Paivi noticed that the dance floor was rather empty. She pulled back from Jason to get a better view. Couples were leaving the dance floor, some slowly, some more quickly. Paivi could see the YATC students walking through the remainder of the crowd, tapping people on the shoulder and pausing to say a few words. She looked anxiously at Jason’s face. His was an expression between anger and sadness.

“What are they doing?” Paivi whispered, biting back tears.

“They’re singling us out.” His hands tightened their grip on her.

Paivi saw there were a total of five couples left on the dance floor. Of the couples, at least one member of each pair was wearing a red glowing EOS badge. She could see Elena Pappas, her former teammate, dancing with a boy and looking as horrified as Paivi felt.

Around the perimeter of the dance floor, the YATC had split up. As if someone had flipped a switch, they proceeded to turn on their heels towards the walls, their backs turned to them. The crowds of students standing in front of them followed suit. A faceless wall surrounded the entire dance floor. And there was only one opening in the great wall of people—into the hallway that led to the exit.

They wanted them to leave.

The other couples looked confused, and then humiliated as the realization set in and they understood what was expected of them.

“Jason, maybe we should just go,” she whispered, wishing she’d seen this in the dream.

“We aren’t going anywhere until we’ve had our slow dance,” he said loudly.

“Jason, I’m so sorry,” she stammered, her eyes finally overflowing with hot, angry tears that burned down her cheeks. She noticed that Michaela was not on the dance floor and scanned the crowd in panic. She knew Michaela wouldn’t have left her without a fight.

“No Paivi,” he pulled her back, looking into her eyes, “I’m so sorry, you don’t deserve this.”

He glanced around the small group at the others, their EOS badges glowing red.

“None of you deserve this.”

Jason pulled her close, kissing her softly on the head. She let the sobs loose then, crying into his shoulder.

The other couples moved closer to Jason and Paivi, not wanting to be the first to leave the dance floor. The song came to an end. The deejay didn’t start the next song. The gym was silent.

The couples all turned to look at each other. The boy with Elena, a tall red-head Paivi knew named Devon, grabbed Elena’s hand and nodded to the others, walking towards the exit. Each couple followed suit. Jason paused and quickly brushed Paivi’s tears away with his hand.

“Come on, you can’t let them get to you. If you do, then they win.”

He grabbed her hand, his chin high, eyes defiant. Paivi attempted to mimic his look, trying to feel defiant or proud, but not feeling like she was succeeding at either.

They exited the gym and could hear the music begin. Jason led her over to the group, trying to figure out how to get home. Jessica wasn’t due to pick them up for another forty-five minutes and they didn’t feel comfortable waiting until then. Devon and another girl, Sophie, had a car, and the groups agreed to go with whoever lived closest to the driver. Paivi and Jason were to ride home with Devon, Elena, and a girl named Stephanie, while Stephanie’s date and the others would go with Sophie.

Paivi felt a strong tap on her shoulder.

She turned to find herself face to face with Michaela, whose face ran with dark streaks of mascara. Her fists were clenched, her body tense.

“Oh my god, Michaela! Are you okay?” Paivi stepped forward, her arms out to embrace her.

“Don’t touch me.” Michaela’s voice was as sharp as a knife. Paivi noticed three YATC boys standing behind her.

“I have to ask you something Paivi.”

“Uh, okay,” Paivi tried to keep eye contact with her, but Michaela’s gaze was piercing.

“Teddy told me something and I want to know if it’s true.”

A boy in black, Teddy she presumed, smiled smugly and nodded.

“He said his Dad had to interview your parents yesterday.”

Michaela took a deep breath, closing her eyes tight and then opening them again. They appeared a little softer and sad.

“He said your parents knew my Mom was going to die; that she was going to have an accident. Is that true, Paivi? Did your parents know?”

Paivi was horrified and speechless. Her brain was so foggy after the events of the evening that she couldn’t think of a defense fast enough.

Michaela gasped—taking her silence as an admittance of guilt—and stepped back towards the YATC boys.

“Murderers! Your parents are murderers!” she screamed, her voice cracking.

“Michaela, please, I…,” Paivi trailed off, not knowing what to say.

Michaela lunged at her with her whole body, like a cougar pouncing on itsprey. Jason was quicker, having anticipated Michaela’s attack, and caught her around the waist. She struck him a few times with her fists, only hitting his chest. Devon stepped forward and helped Jason carry her to the three boys in black and set her down on the floor.

She immediately collapsed into a heap screeching like a wounded animal. The sound was piercing, causing everyone around them to cringe. Tears streamed freshly down her face, spreading the mascara like war paint.

Paivi felt sick, she wanted to throw up. This was her fault, completely her fault. She had destroyed her own best friend, who had been so fiercely loyal through this horrible, horrible year.

Michaela was on her knees, tearing at her hair. Her eyes bored into Paivi and she shivered. If looks could kill, she surely would have been dead twice over.

Michaela screamed out again.

“I hate you Paivi Anderson. I HATE you! You’re dead to me, DEAD!”

A few teachers came rushing through the door from the gymnasium, headed towards the commotion.
Paivi stumbled backwards, only to find Jason right behind her. He grabbed her arm and dragged her toward the door where the rest of the group was waiting.

Michaela’s screams continued to echo through the building and followed them out into the cold, starry night.

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