Prom Segment, Sweet Southern Boys

Chapter Twenty-Nine

It was a sunny mid-morning in April. Shelby, Randy and John Mark sat quietly at a picnic table under the pines at Cloverdale Community Rec Center. Their backpacks and school books were scattered across the table, pages ruffling now and then when balmy breezes sighed through the tall pines above.
It had been a week since news came that the charges had been dropped, but the boys had become inseparable before that, and they were still inseparable. Because while much had changed, much had not.

John Mark, bouncing his heels against the ground and tapping his pen on the table top, went over a paragraph in the textbook open before him for the third time and fretted, "I don't understand this. It doesn't make sense."

"What is it?" Shelby inquired absently, preoccupied with his own studies.


"Oh. Yeah, it's weird sometimes."

"Don't you have to know it for all your computer stuff?"

"Yeah. I know it, but I can't explain it...."

"Gee, thanks, you're a big help."

"I'll help you with it later," Randy said, also somewhat preoccupied. "I know you understand it. It's just that this particular book teaches it in a stupid way."

"Oh, good," John Mark said. "I thought I was getting stupid."

Shelby stopped his reading and looked at his friend. "Give yourself a break. The last few weeks haven't exactly been conducive to learning."

"Tell me about it," John Mark said softly, looking back at him. He had gained nearly all his weight back, and he looked fit and hardy, and "to die for" again. In fact, much of life almost the way it was before the Trouble for all of them. But somehow, the warm spring air around them didn't penetrate the coldness at the center of their chests.

"It sure would be nice to see y'all get back to being your old selves," came an unexpected girlish voice from behind them. It was Cecilia Blake, whom they'd all known since grade school. She walked around the table to sit opposite them.

"Thanks," John Mark said shortly, trying to make it clear that they did not want to be bothered without being outright rude about it. It didn't work. "Aren't you supposed to be in school?"

"I'm skipping a class. I just want to say a few things to you. Then I'll go."

Nobody replied because, even in their isolation, they were too polite to tell her to leave them the heck alone.

"Have y'all studied George Herbert yet?"

"Who's George Herbert?" Shelby asked, frowning.

"Renaissance priest-poet in the Church of England, lived in the early seventeenth century."

Still frowning, Shelby asked, "Yeah, but who was he? Do we have to study him to graduate? I haven't seen that name in our curriculum."

"C. S. Lewis didn't think much of his writings, but he was a master of one-line quotes, many still relevant today. And I don't think you have to study him to graduate. But it is imperative that the three of you learn one particular George Herbert quote -- for the rest of your lives in general, and particularly in reference to an event happening soon."

"What event?" Shelby inquired.

"Why us three?" said Randy.

"What quote?" John Mark asked.

"Quote," Cecilia said. "Living well is the best revenge, unquote."

 Silence around the table stretched out as they waited. Cecilia looked at each of them in turn. "Prom night is two weeks away. I know y'all can't go to the official prom, but my 'sources' tell me all three of you have received invitations to at least four prom night parties."

"We're not going to any of them," Shelby told her.

Cecilia ignored him. "Trust me, this is the one you want to go to."

She took three ivory colored envelopes out of her purse, glanced at the names calligraphied on the front, and distributed them. "This is THE one to attend, the biggest, the best, -- and the sponsor parents asked me specifically to invite y'all. They believed in you and supported you and they want you to get your lives back, like so many of us do. Now listen. Two weeks is plenty of time to rent a tux and get a date."

Three pairs of unsmiling, unblinking eyes were riveted on her.

At length, Randy said, "As a general rule, nice girls are reluctant to go to prom night with rapists."

Shelby glanced at him and shook his head slightly. However bitter Shelby might be himself, it was still so foreign and disturbing a thing to see in Randy and John Mark.

Cecilia heard the bitterness but chose to ignore it in favor of getting to the point. "I know five girls right now who'd go to prom night with any one of you, in a heartbeat, if you'd just ask. They believed in you from the moment the news broke, and their belief never wavered."

"Like who?" John Mark said.

"Well, Joanne Sanders, for one."

"She's engaged."

Cecilia shook her head. "She is not. Not since the middle of February. All kinds of things happened this spring while y'all were ... preoccupied. Come on back and get caught up. Get your lives back. Have some fun..."

On Shelby's other side, Randy shifted on the bench and studied her narrowly for a moment. "These five girls you mentioned.... Would one of them happen to be you?"

Cecilia looked at him coyly. "Could be."

"Arright, put your money where your pretty little mouth is. Would you go to this prom party with me?" he said, gazing at her steadily and filliping the unopened envelope.

Her smile went from coy to candid and she said, "In a heartbeat."

Randy smiled, and it was like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. "Then it's a date."

Cecilia rose to go, and paused to look at John Mark and Shelby. "One of you call Joanne and the other call Wendy McIntyre. Or Julie Ritchie. Or Beverly Murphy. Okay? Do it soon before they give up and make dates with somebody else."

She stepped behind Randy, rested her hands on his shoulders and leaned down to kiss his cheek. 

 "Well, ta-ta for now."

A corner of Randy's mouth quirked upward and the dark eyes he cut to his friends held a sparkle they had not seen in weeks.

* * *

Shelby sat on the end of the sofa next to the telephone, tapping the prom invitation against his fingers in an irregular cadence. On the back of the envelope, he had penciled in a phone number. He looked at it a few seconds, hung in indecision a few seconds longer, sucked air between his teeth, and then picked up the handset. Ainsley stepped into the room as he was dialing and he gave her a smile and a wink.

She stared, then sat beside him on the couch. He couldn't be said to be his old self, but that smile and wink were wonderful signs she hadn't seen in a long time. She wondered what was up and who he was calling.

"Hi, may I speak to Wendy, please?" A short wait. "Thanks." There was a longer wait and Ainsley got very interested. Bubba was calling a girl....

"Hi, Wendy, this is Shelby."

"Hi, Shelby.

"How you doin'?"

"Fine. How you doin'?"

"Better," he said.

He heard her short gasp. "Oh, Shelby, I'm sorry. That was a dumb question."

"It's not a dumb question, and I am doing better," he said.

"I can't tell you how sorry I am about what happened to you and John Mark and Randy. I knew those girls were lying from the first moment I heard about it."

"I know. We got your notes. All the cards and notes and letters we got from people supporting us -- they meant the world to us. We'll never be able to thank people enough..."

There was a short silence, and then Shelby said. "Cecilia Blake gave me something interesting this morning. An invitation to the Graham-Olsen prom party... I'm thinking about going."

He heard Ainsley's soft gasp beside him, and he glanced at her. Her eyes were wide, her mouth open, and she clasped her hands together in anticipation.

Wendy said, "Word on the street is that it's going to be the best. Best location, best music, best food, most people..."

Shelby bit is lip and then said, "If you don't already have a date, would you like to go with me?"

"Oh, I'd love to. To go to the prom with the best dancer in school! Oh--" she gasped. "I'm sorry, I did it again!"

Shelby laughed and said, "It's all right. It's kinda of like trying not to say 'see' and 'look' when you're talkin' to a blind person."

Wendy laughed. "Yeah, it's kinda like that."

"What color's your dress?"

"It's peach."

"A peach dress for a sweet Georgia peach," he said and he could almost hear her pleasurable blush through the phone. It was already starting to come back, his way with women.... "Do you want a flower for your shoulder, or your wrist?"

"Oh, my wrist. I don't want to stick a pin through the peau de soie."

"Through the what?"

"The peau de soie. The fabric. It's like satin, but not as shiny. It's thick and heavy and the weave is so tight that pins can make permanent holes in it."

"Oh.... Well, by all means, then, a wrist corsage it is. Gracious, I don't want to be responsible for putting pinholes in the pody-swah...." he said.

"Shelby, you clown," Wendy said, giggling, and he joined in with a quick laugh.

"It's good to hear you laugh," she told him. "It's good to talk to you. We've really missed all three of you at school.... So, is a white carnation boutonniere okay?" Wendy asked.

"Works for me," Shelby said. "Wendy, I really appreciate your doing this. You've probably turned down half a dozen invitations, and risked not having a date..."

"It was worth the risk."

"One other question. Do you mind doubling?"

"With who?"

"Randy and Celia. We're really not into renting a limo... but he's borrowing his dad's BMW for the evening."

"That sounds lovely!"

"Oh it is. It's a sweet vehicle... Well, listen, I'll call you a couple more times before prom night, okay?"

"Okay.... Shelby?"


"Thanks for calling."

"You're welcome. Thanks for saying yes. Talk to you later."

When Shelby hung up, Ainsley flung herself at him and threw her arms around his neck. "Bubba!" she cried. "You're going to the prom! Oh, that's wonderful!"

He looked at her, amused by her excitement that was about tenfold his own. "I guess I'm tired of the gloom and doom and I'm ready for a little fun. But... it isn't the official school prom."

"Oh, that's okay," she said. "I hear hardly anybody's going to that one, anyway. Bubba, I'm so happy! I just wish there was some way I could be there and see you dance! I want to see you have fun and be happy again! Isn't there a window I could look through, just for a minute?"

"You'd like to see me having fun at my prom...?" He gave her a calculating look. "Let me see what I can do..."

 * * *

Chapter Thirty
Randy held open one of the double doors and Shelby the other, as their dates swept through into the ballroom. Celia was resplendent in her aquamarine gown with its princess waist, spaghetti straps, and bell-shaped skirt, her hair upswept and tumbling in a few ringlets around her face. Glittery earrings and and a corsage of white orchids at her wrist completed her look.

Beside her, Wendy looked like a sweet young thing in her peach peau de soie gown with its scooped neck, tiny cap sleeves empire waist. Her ash blonde hair fell from a center part down each side of her face where it turned under slightly at her shoulders. Tiny pearls at her throat and earlobes added a touch of elegance to an otherwise sweet girlish look. On her wrist, she sported a beribboned corsage of coral-colored sweetheart roses.

Neither Randy nor Shelby had rented formal wear for the evening but they were both stunning, nevertheless -- Randy an eye-catching contrast in a black suit and crisp white shirt with a black silk tie; Shelby in a suit of Confederate gray with matching vest and tie, and white shirt. The coat was of Prince Edward styling, long, reaching to the middle of his thighs.

The girls halted momentarily to allow their dates to catch up. The two couples were barely inside, and already they were causing a stir.

The dim ambient lighting in the ballroom was punctuated by bright lights highlighting various areas -- the refreshment tables, the bistro tables, other seating areas, and the band. The sponsors had outdone themselves with the decorations. The theme was A Night Under the Stars.

Their arrival had caused the second stir of the evening. The first had taken place some ten minutes before, when John Mark and Beverly had arrived, she in a black crepe gown with a band collar and slant-cut shoulders and flared skirt. She sported on her shoulder a corsage of white ribbons and cala lilies. Her hair was pulled back into an elegant twist at the nape of her neck. Glittery earrings dangled from her earlobes.

She was the perfect counterpoint to John Mark, who was dressed totally in white from neck to toe -- suit, shirt, satin four in hand tie, socks and dress loafers, all white. Even the stem and leaves of his white rose boutonniere were white.

When Shelby and Randy and their dates arrived, John Mark and Beverly were standing near the main refreshment table talking to Betty and Frank Graham, two of the sponsor parents. Shelby and Wendy spoke briefly, then veered off to the bistro tables where her friend JoAnn and her date were seated, and took the table next to them. Randy and Celia went to speak to a small knot of basketball players and their dates. There were thumb-gripping handshakes and a few back slaps for Randy from the teammates he had not been able to finish the year with.

Clearly, some attendees had known the Verona Three would be at the party, and some had not. And just as clearly, some were delighted they were there, and some were not. The three boys had known their presence would cause a stir. At what point they had consciously decided to amplify the stir with their clothing and grand entrances wasn't clear. On some level, they were just so fed up with this town, they felt like rubbing its nose in their innocence, and with the help of their dates, that's what they were doing tonight.

And although they separated upon arrival, within ten minutes they had gravitated together, as was their custom. Shortly before that, the band finished its break and began playing again. The boys and their dates danced to a couple of tunes, but then took seats at the bistro tables. They got refreshments, had their prom picture made, and danced some more, noticing, but pretending not to notice, that the attendees were polarizing. Those who approved of the fellows were staying at this end of the ballroom, those who didn't were going to the other end.

Shortly after eight, when the band returned from another break and began warming up again, Shelby excused himself and went to the double doors and stepped outside. He returned about five minutes and carrying a small corsage, and he held the door open for his "second date" that night -- Ainsley.

He had not seen her get ready before he left with Randy to pick up their dates, and now he was a bit taken aback. Gina had made her pink satin prom dress, with its sleeveless fitted bodice and gathered skirt, and he was a bit surprised to notice, for the first time, that his little sister was getting, well, a shape to her.

Gina had pulled the front and sides of her hair back into a silver barrette. Ainsley had tiny silver earrings at her earlobes, a delicate chain with a cross pendant around her neck. Gina had put the slightest touch of blush on her cheeks, the slightest color on her lips, and a few strokes of mascara on her thick blond eyelashes.

Shelby was actually more than a bit taken aback. He was both pleased and proud as punch of his beautiful little sister -- he was also nostalgic for the little girl who used to squeal and giggle and stomp her foot and backsass...

"Bubba, this is beautiful!" she said as he took her by the hand and led her across the dance floor to the bistro tables, to yet another stirring of the crowd. This one Shelby was quite certain would happen.

One of the other-brothers had already located an extra chair and pulled it up for her.

"Beverly, I don't think you know my little sister. This is Ainsley." He looked at Ainsley, "Beverly is John Mark's lady tonight."

"How do you do," Ainsley said formally and Beverly smiled.

"I'm fine, how are you."

"I'm excited!"

"When Ainsley found out I was gonna come to this party, she was so excited, and she asked if there was some way she could watch. She wanted to see me have a good time, and she asked if there were any windows in the ballroom. Well, I decided to take her one better... An awful lot of people helped us get through our recent trouble, but nobody helped us more than Ainsley. So, as a treat and a thank you to her, I asked Mama and Daddy to bring her up here..." He glanced around and saw that his parents had come in and were chatting with some of the chaperone parents, " have a dance with me."

"Aw, that's so sweet!" Wendy said. "And Ainsley, you look beautiful."

"So do you. All of you do!" she said, her eye sweeping the faces around the tables.

At that moment, the band began to play and Shelby said, "Little sister, they're playing our song. May I have this dance?"

She smiled and nodded, and the two walked out to the very middle of the dance floor. The band was playing Sweet Child of Mine. Every eye in the place was on them at one time or another, and other dancers were slow to come on the floor. Brother and sister slow danced easily, talking, smiling, laughing intermittently. Ainsley was nearly beside herself with excitement. It showed on her face, it showed in her every movement. And it was clear that Shelby was enjoying her excitement.

Not long into the song, however, something unplanned and unexpected happened. Shelby felt a tap on his shoulder and he looked around in surprise to see John Mark standing there, his eyes twinkling. He put the back of his hand against Shelby's chest and gave him a little shove.

"Step aside, pal," he said. "I'm cuttin' in."

Ainsley clasped her hands together, delighted with this turn of events. She danced with John Mark for several minutes when they both saw Randy stand up and walk toward them. John Mark stopped dancing, stepped back and held Ainsley's hand out to Randy. It was a bit awkward, he was so much taller than she, but they managed.

"Shelby told us he thought there would be a surprise tonight. He didn't say he was the one who planned it," Randy said.

"Well, I helped him," Ainsley replied.

"Are you having fun? You sure look like you are."

"I've never had so much fun! It's even better because I got to dance with my other-brothers, too!"

Randy glanced to the bistro tables and saw Shelby talking, hands in pockets, to Wendy, and then take a step or two back toward the dance floor.

"I think your bubba's coming back," Randy said. As Shelby reached them, Randy took a step back and said, "Nice surprise."

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