I readjust my mask. It’s Cal’s, because in all my planning and plotting and saving, I forgot about that one small detail. Or maybe, deep down, I didn’t really think I’d win.
Cal’s mask is heavier than I thought, and smooth to the touch. When she gave it to me glitter came off on my fingers. I blinked, my eyes burning.
“I…don’t know where Chloe is,” Cal told me hesitantly. “I didn’t see her after the, um, the contest.”
She shook her head. “While you were in the bathroom she kind of came up and, um, lost her cool. A little.”
I paled. “Do you think she’s going to tell Catherine?”
Cal shook her head. “If she does, she’ll get in trouble too. So I don’t think she would, but just—Elle—watch out. Chloe doesn’t take losing lightly.”
“What could she do at a dance party?” I scoffed.
Sage shrugged. “It’ll keep you on your toes. And when you meet Darien, please don’t do anything rash.”
I gasped. “You wound me! I’d never!”
She gave me a level look.
“I’ll be nice,” I mumbled.
“Mm-hmm. We’ll pick you up at eight? It’ll be cutting it close to get you both home by midnight but…”
“Eight is great,” I assured her with a smile. I still wished they would come to the ball, but if my best friend and my apparently not-psycho stepsister want some alone time, who am I to stand in the way? “You two have fun.”
And then they had left me in the gold-plated lobby, absolutely alone. Dressed up as Black Nebula Federation Princess Amara, shedding glitter from her starched coat like stars.
After one more person, I’ll go in, I tell myself, nodding to another couple emerging through the revolving door. Or maybe one more.
But the minutes tick by, and after a while the music from the ballroom grows loud enough to echo inside the lobby, and I’m still standing here.
Deep breath in, deep breath out, I think. I can do this.
I don’t know what’ll happen once I go inside. I don’t know if the ball will live up to all the ideas in my head, to all the memories of my parents waltzing around the living room, to what Dad always wanted it to be.
But if I never go in, I’ll never find out. And I’m tired of being afraid of things I can’t control.
I turn toward the music at the end of the hallway and show my ticket to the volunteer at the gilded doors. She tears it in half and hands it back.
“So do a lot of people go stag?” I ask, trying to sound chill. My voice comes out in a squeak.
“I mean, it all depends.” She pauses. “But I don’t think you’re alone at all.”
She gives me a promise-sworn salute and the nervousness building in my chest slowly ebbs. I return the salute, curl my fingers around the doorknob, and push.
The ballroom is dark, decorated in shades of purple and blue. Pinions of light spiral around like shooting stars. And it’s full, so full of people. I stare at them in unabashed wonderment. Dad told me about this ball. How he pictured it. He used to sit on the foot of my bed and paint a picture in the air with his hands.
“It’ll be huge—grand! Dark, like space, but not dark enough that you can’t see. And everyone dressed up. Look, there’s a Spock over there! Is he dancing with Chewbacca? A Turian with a Nox! Can you believe that, Elle? The things you never thought you’d see right there. It’ll be a universe inside our universe that exists for only a few hours. Only,” he added, “until the stroke of midnight.”
I slowly wander to the steps leading into the saturated ballroom, staring down at the people with glowing drinks and pointed ears, the dark lights that make purple armor and blue sneakers and white teeth glow. A heavy fog hangs over the dance floor, swirling around dancers, wrapping around legs.
A smile slowly spreads across my face. “You made it, Dad,” I whisper, and then follow the steps down into the ball.
LIKE FEDERATION PRINCE CARMINDOR DURING THE Brinx Devastation, I just gotta live through this.
Ten more minutes, I think, standing in the middle of a throng of fans. I’ll give the Rebelgunner girl ten more minutes to get here. The meet-and-greet with the first-place winner went fine: she was polite, totally nervous, here with her girlfriend dressed as CLE-0. Third place was very…bro-ish. We bumped fists. It was cool.
Now Gail is perched beside me, the glow of her phone illuminating her face as she texts mercilessly. She can’t still be going through emails or contacting Mark. It must be something else.
“Darien, can I get a picture?” asks a girl I can barely see. She pulls me into a selfie before I have a chance to say no. I smile and the camera blinds me.
“Thank you!” she squeals as the next girl pushes her way to the front and we repeat the process all over again.
I lean back toward Gail. “Can I go yet?”
“You said you wanted to judge the contest, right?” She doesn’t even glance up. “Well, half of that job is being here. The other two judges aren’t leaving anytime soon.”
“Yeah, but they aren’t getting nearly as much attention,” I point out.
“Darien?” says the next girl, dressed as Princess Amara. Her dark hair is pulled up into a braid and her makeup is incredibly spot-on, but she just makes me think of the Black Nebula Amara from the contest, and running into the blogger, and then rereading the text to Elle, and I start to feel sick again.
I was never that guy to just drop someone. I didn’t think I could be. Not until I was.
“Darien, I’m a huge fan and I run a beauty vlog. I would really love it if—”
That’s when I see her out of the corner of my eye—the girl from the contest, the one from the office, gorgeous eyes and a sharp tongue—and once I turn to look, I can’t look away.
At the top of the stairs, the girl with glowing red hair stares down at the rest of us from behind a sparkling golden mask. Her bowlike lips are painted the flaming color of a red giant. She’s beautiful.
“Excuse me,” I tell the vlogger and move closer through the throng of people.
As the girl descends, the crowd begins to turn and look. It must be the glint of her crown, the way her coat glitters. They bend to each other to wonder if she came alone.
“Who wouldn’t want to go with her?” a Nox near me whispers to his date.
She takes each step gracefully, even under the weight of every eye on her—even alone. This is where, in all the movies, the guy sees what he’s been waiting for the entire plot. This is where his life clicks into place. The meet-cute where he falls in love. This sequence.
But this isn’t a movie, and I’ve already missed my meet-cute. The sky doesn’t suddenly crash in around us. The world doesn’t lose sound.
Because this isn’t where I fall in love. I fell in love across the cell signals and late-night texts with a girl I barely knew.
WHEN I REACH THE BOTTOM OF THE STAIRS, a tall boy in red offers his hand. “May I?” he asks. His uniform is neatly pressed, a Starfleet insignia pinned to his chest and a mask tied behind his Vulcan ears. Not a Stargunner, but close enough. Beggars can’t be choosers.
“Sure,” I reply, and take his hand. He whirls me into the fray as the DJ starts another 8-bit anthem. We dance for two songs, but it’s not the dancing I thought it’d be. It’s not like Dad waltzing Mom around the living room. He’s a pretty awkward dancer, and I’m not much better. Besides, there’s some kind of cyborg next to use trying to grope his way to home base with a Night elf, and I’m not sure how I feel about that sort of union.
“So what’s your name?” redshirt shouts.
“Amara,” I reply.
Redshirt does not look amused. “No, I mean your real name.”
“Oh—well, what’s yours?”
He’s doing the redshirt equivalent of the white-man’s shuffle. Head bobbing, elbows in toward the chest, moving like a T-rex on drugs. I can’t take him seriously.
“Dave,” he replies. “Saw your costume at the contest today. You were…really something.”
“Thanks. It was my dad’s—”
Someone taps me on the shoulder and I spin around. A guy dressed as a young, soon-to-be-married Han Solo offers his hand. “Can I have the next dance?”
Then a girl in Final Fantasy garb asks after him, and then a humanized Pikachu after her, and then—there are just too many. Too many songs, too many dances, too many faces. I have never been popular before. I’m a nobody, just an extra in someone else’s movie. But no one here seems to have gotten the memo. It’s overwhelming and it’s sort of uncomfortable. If this is the kind of attention Chloe was after, well, she can have it. Give me my blog. Give me a dark theater. Give me Starfield.
Halfway through a pop-infused “I Will Always Love You,” I excuse myself from the din of the dance floor and make my way to the concessions. Most everything is picked over, but I grab a cracker with cheese and a small glass of punch.
I find a corner of the ballroom that’s dark and less populated and sit down against huge bay windows. My cheeks are hot from dancing, and I’ve been sweating in this jacket for three songs now. I tug at the collar and press the cool side of the glass against my neck, closing my eyes for one sweet second.