One year ago
ohnny’s steps echoed in the near-empty, multilevel garage. He stepped into the small, wood-paneled elevator, hit the
button, leaned against the back wall, and sighed. His stiff, yellow, spray-dyed hair was beginning to itch, and the elastics holding his large, stretchy mask in place were cutting into his skin. Though he wished to be rid of both nuisances, he kept his arms folded across his chest. Probably because at the moment he didn’t feel like being himself. The unmasking was supposed to occur at midnight, and he’d left a few minutes before it took place.
Snow White had been
. Apparently, he should
have attended the Storybook Masquerade Ball dressed as Prince Charming to her Snow White. It had sent a strong signal, she’d said.
Had it? They’d only gone out a few times in the last couple of months, and she’d made it clear they were on the same page. Not ready for a commitment. Dating for the heck of it. Enjoying life as single people. They didn’t even live close to each other. They were both graduate students at Ohio State University, and both were commuting from over an hour away in opposite directions.
But tonight she’d said her mother wanted to meet him next Sunday. . . at her entire family’s annual Mother’s Day picnic. The only kind yet firm way he could think of letting her know he wasn’t about to meet her mother and entire family at an important event, was to politely ask
her mother wanted to meet him, and then let the conversation run its course.
The course had been a very public slap across the face. It was as unexpected as it was unprovoked. Next thing he knew, she’d left with a vampire. Oh well.
He’d always considered himself good at observing people and reading their intentions. It was a natural talent he’d worked to build up over time because he liked people. But dating was getting too complicated, and it wasn’t like he had much free time anyway. Between graduate school and renovating houses for his older brother’s business to help pay for his studies, he barely had time to play. But whenever he was quiet and still, a vague sort of loneliness stabbed at his insides. Filling his time with amusements had worked for a while. Lately, though, the harder he tried to fill the lonely spaces, the more they seemed to expand.
The doors were about to slide shut when a woman wearing an off-the-shoulder peasant shirt, a colorful, swishy skirt, and a big black butterfly mask stepped in. He smiled, relieved to have someone else to focus on. He opened his mouth to ask her about her mask and costume, but then immediately shut it. It had been brought to his attention that he didn’t know how to speak without flirting, and after the slap, the last thing he needed was to be misunderstood.
The woman in the peasant costume hit a button on the panel and he sighed again. She glanced back and bit her lip, as if she was amused by his sigh. He tossed her a weary look. She caught it and offered him an apologetic smile before quickly turning back around.
But her sweet, guileless smile, and the understanding sparkle in her dark eyes, hit him, hard, right in the solar plexus. A strange feeling began to buzz and flutter there. It made no sense. He stood up straight and went on full alert. Like a soldier threatened by an enemy. The elevator began its descent with an unsteady lurch.
They rode down in silence, each standing very still in the cramped space. She looked down at her feet and Johnny did the same.
The elevator stopped and the doors slid open. The woman took two steps and Johnny looked up, relieved she was leaving. But the moment he looked out, he saw they had stopped in between floors and she wasn’t looking where she was going. His hand jutted out and he grabbed her arm, pulling her back so fast and so hard that she fell against him.
She turned her head to look up at him, and a jumble of words spilled from her lips, from “thanks” to “sorry” to asking whether he was okay. Confusion hit Johnny. Her voice was familiar, but with every inch of her pressed against every inch of him, instant lust was fogging up his brain. How old was he, fifteen? He cleared his throat and practically shoved her away, which made her stumble forward. Feeling like an idiot, he reached for her yet again and caught her by the waist.
“Um. Wow. Thanks. For grabbing me just in time. The first time.” She shook her head, probably wondering why he was treating her like a rag doll. Feeling like a lecherous idiot, he hung his head in shame. What was up with him tonight?
She hit the
button once again. The doors closed and the elevator shifted with a loud, screeching sound. The lights flickered off. One moment they were glancing at each other, alarmed, and the next they were in each other’s arms in the now-pitch-dark elevator.
Instinct made him duck into a corner, plant his feet wide, and tuck her head into his chest with one hand, while wrapping his other arm around her waist. One of her hands pulled his head into the crook of her neck and shoulder, while the other grabbed hold of the railing behind him.
Less than a second later, the elevator lurched and dropped down the last six or so feet. They were lifted off their feet and slammed against the wall, but they held on tight, and their combined strength softened the blow.
For a moment, neither moved. Their hearts were thundering against each other so hard he didn’t know whose was whose. “Are you okay?” he asked, looking down. He now had both arms wrapped around her waist, and her arms were fastened tightly around his neck.
He felt her nod. “Are
?” she asked.
“Yes. We’re lucky we weren’t up higher.
They slowly disentangled themselves and stepped away from each other. Johnny checked to make sure his limbs and neck were in working order. “Are you sure you’re okay? No whiplash or anything?”
“I’m sure. Everything works and nothing hurts,” she assured him.
He fished around for his cell phone, turned on its light, and beamed it at the control panel. “I think we should try the red button,” the woman said. Johnny pressed it. They waited. Seconds passed and nothing happened.
“Let’s try prying the door open,” she suggested next. He smiled despite himself, liking her take-charge attitude, and shined his little light on the doors. They were shut tight.
“Do you have anything on you that’s thin and strong enough to stick between them?” he asked, doubtfully, while he flashed the light around the tiny elevator.
“No,” she said on a sigh. “Just a few bobby pins holding my wig in place.”
Johnny then shone the light along the panel next to the door and found a certificate. He tried the only number listed, but got a message saying the office was closed and to dial 911 in case of an emergency.
“I’ll call nine-one-one,” Johnny said. He hoped she didn’t expect to be rescued right away. He didn’t want to take police away from true life-threatening emergencies when the two of them weren’t in imminent danger. They were already on the ground floor, and they both seemed to be okay. “Are you claustrophobic or anything like that?”
“No. I’m fine. Um, maybe we should call the police department instead and let them know we can wait if their hands are tied,” she said. “They’ll know what to do or who to call.”
Johnny looked the number up, called, and explained their situation to a desk sergeant, who sounded relieved they could wait a while because they
actually tied up. The sergeant then offered to call the fire department for him, telling him that whoever was free first would take care of them.
Johnny relayed the message to the peasant girl, slid down the wall, and stretched his long legs out in front of him. It was too dark to see anything, but he heard the rustle of her skirts and knew she had sat down, too. “I can wait,” she said. Her voice was soft, melodic, and soothing.
As much as he wanted to get away from the odd energy that was again beginning to fill the space between them, they had no choice but to wait.
“Remember that rash of hurricanes a few years back when every newscaster’s favorite two words were
?” she asked. “I always wished they’d just tell everyone to stay put and be safe, because who’s really going to crouch and squat for the entire duration of a storm? But now I get it. This feels like hunkering.”
Johnny laughed. “Maybe this is the theater department’s way of getting back at us for sneaking away early. They probably rigged the building so no one could leave before midnight. They’re into drama, after all.”
“Well, the plot twist is wasted on me. I wasn’t leaving. I came out looking for someone, but she’s probably gone by now.” The dark and their proximity made it easier to catch the little notes of worry and exasperation in her voice.
“Would you like to call her?”
“No. She’ll only be annoyed I came looking for her. I couldn’t help it, though. I wish I could.” The last sentence was said on a sigh.
They were silent for a long while, but Johnny couldn’t seem to get his thoughts in order. He was too aware of her even breaths and the tension in the air each time she shifted and tried too hard not to touch him. Her scent was especially appealing and it intrigued him because it wasn’t a perfume or soap or any fragrance. He was close enough to smell
He brought his leg up and accidently brushed his thigh against hers. Neither moved. In fact, she remained almost
Could she feel the strange energy between them, too?
“Let’s play a game to pass the time,” she proposed.
“Truth or dare?” he suggested. Questions about her were swirling around in his head.
“Sure. If I can go first.”
Even though she couldn’t see him, he nodded and tried to brush away the strange, nonsensical sensation that his life was about to change.
“Truth or dare?” she asked. Her voice was close to his ear, telling him she’d turned her head. Her tone was all fun and innocence, but it was too close to his ear for comfort. Her breath sent shivers down his spine.
“Truth,” he chose, inching away.
She cleared her throat a little and took in a quick breath before releasing it. Funny how easy it was to catch all these small details in dark, close quarters. “Why did you shove me away right after you saved me?”
Johnny tried to find a way to speak the truth without making her feel uneasy about being alone with him. “I don’t know you, and so holding you close felt strange. I’m sorry I pushed you away, though.” It sounded lame.
She was quiet for a moment, as if she was mulling it over. “It’s okay. I can see how holding a stranger would feel wrong.”
“I didn’t say it felt wrong. I said it felt strange.”
“Truth or dare?” he asked, before she could ask him what he meant by that.
She hesitated. “Truth.”
“Who are you supposed to be?”
“Yes! Exactly!” she said, sounding surprised and happy.
He smiled, feeling inordinately proud he’d pleased her. “And where is Don Quixote?” he asked next.
“It’s my turn.” She paused. “Why did Snow White leave in such a huff?” The words tumbled out. “I normally wouldn’t ask and you don’t have to answer . . . but I’m in a brave mood.”
“Probably because you can’t see my face,” he said on a short laugh. “But I don’t mind answering. She left because I thought we were only friends. She, uh, didn’t.”
“Does that happen to you often?”
“It’s my turn, Dulcinea. Truth or dare?”
“Truth,” she said, and he could hear the doubt in her voice.
“Where’s Don Quixote?”
“There isn’t one. Not yet. I mean, there’s a Don Quixote on the horizon who I know is perfect for me, but dressing up is not his thing. Truth or dare?”
“I don’t even know why we’re asking anymore. What could we possibly dare each other to do in here?” he asked.
“Sing and make a fool of ourselves?”
“My brothers say I can’t sing, so I’d definitely make a fool of myself. I wouldn’t mind, though.”
“I didn’t think you would. You’re Prince Charming, after all. You’d find a way to make the fact that you can’t sing seem endearing,” she said, sounding amused.
He grinned. “You’re probably right, but how can you possibly know that?”
“I know your type.”
“Ouch.” He rubbed his wounded heart. “Reduced to a
. Prince Charming’s worst nightmare.”
She let out a breathy laugh and her arm grazed his. Goose bumps instantly appeared. It was pathetic. His body was behaving like that of an awkward teenager’s. “I promise I didn’t mean it in a bad way,” she said.
“How did you mean it, then?” he asked, genuinely curious.
“Whose turn is it?” she asked.
She was quiet for a moment. “Actually, I wouldn’t reduce you to a type. You’re no Prince Charming. He’s a stock character. Perfect for women searching for a standard prince. I meant that you seem to possess true charm. The kind that draws people in, soothes ruffled feathers, and makes those around you feel at ease. Everyone wants to be around charismatic people. There’s a special light around them.”
“But . . .”
“I didn’t say there was a ‘but’.”
He smiled. “Look, I know the Don Quixotes of this world only see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear, but I’m okay with you saying what you really think.”
“This conversation is getting weirder by the minute.”
“I know.” He chuckled. “But there’s nothing else to do and it’s entertaining. Let’s run with it.”
“Okay, then. Here goes.” She drew in a breath and let it out before shifting away from him. “I—Well, I once knew a very charming boy. He ended up hurting someone. Badly. It wasn’t his intention . . . I don’t think he ever even realized what happened. He was only being himself. But his light gave hope to a girl who was in a very dark place, and when she thought he’d taken his light away . . . well, she couldn’t find her own. She would’ve been better off if she’d never met the charmer.” Her voice had become quieter and sadder as she’d gone on.