People like to believe the slide to rock bottom starts with cigarettes or drugs or alcohol or one of any hundred so-called vices.
Mine started with a dress a size too small, a limp corsage, and tepid fruit punch served in a paper cup already wilting from the heat of too many bodies packed in the American Legion Meeting Hall.
That was the moment when I realized the entire town of Cotton Creek, Georgia believed I was good for one thing and one thing only.
I’d ducked behind one of a dozen oversized balloon towers, pressing the lukewarm paper cup to my sweaty forehead. It didn’t actually cool me off—the ice had melted long ago, watering down the already tasteless off-brand punch—but it helped to pretend it did. My dress, a hand-me-down from my older sister and better suited to her slim form than my decidedly curvaceous one, clung like a second skin, drawing attention to my so-called assets in a way which had made old Mrs. Wilson turn up her nose and sniff at me and which also, unfortunately, made me sweat like a pig. The pile of curls, secured by a hundred bobby pins, half a can of hairspray, and prayer, was already in danger of falling down even though I’d only been at the dance for an hour. My corsage was worse for the wear, too, the flowers already drooping. I wouldn’t be surprised if I lost more than a few petals by the end of the night.
But it was all worth it because I was here with him.
Abraham Hansom. The Abraham Hansom.
Everybody in town, even his parents Mary and Marcus, called him Handsome Hansom and he was but he was so much more than that. He was smart and funny and he was nice—nice for real and not the fake kind the so-called Christians who occupied the front row of the First Baptist Church specialized in. He was the best thing in the entire town of Cotton Creek and everybody knew it.
And he’d invited me to prom.
Me, the girl who was literally from the wrong side of the tracks, whose daddy had run off with the next door neighbor’s daughter and whose mama had drank herself to death. The girl whose sister had been knocked up twice by the age of sixteen and was on her third kid and second marriage before twenty-one. If Abraham Hansom was everything right in Cotton Creek, I was everything wrong.
But again, it didn’t matter. Because he’d seen past all that, past the hand-me down clothes and shoes and the hair done in the kitchen of Lizbeth Richard’s doublewide. He actually saw me.
I leaned back against the wall and closed my eyes, glad nobody could see the dopey smile on my face. I lifted my cup to take another sip only to freeze when I heard Lynn Smith’s distinctive laugh.
“Oh, my God. Did you see her dress?” She laughed again and I caught a glimpse of her through the balloons as she flipped her waist-length blonde hair over her shoulder and turned to one of her ever-present groupies. “She should just stick a price tag on her chest.”
“There’s definitely enough room.” Beth Bailey, shorter, plumper, her own blonde hair twisted in to the same sort of chignon her mother wore to church every Sunday, scoffed and handed her cup to her boyfriend, Ben Barnes, the epitome of strong, silent, and stupid. “Everybody knows she has more tits than brains. She doesn’t need to remind us.”
“Yeah, I mean, and if it gets any shorter you’ll totally be able to see her va-jay-jay.” Dana Jones hadn’t had an original thought since she’d became friends with Lynn in the second grade but that didn’t keep her from acting as if she was head of the local chapter of the National Honor Society. I would have blamed it on the bleach she used in order to get her hair the same bright shade as Lynn and Beth but I didn’t think that had anything to do with it. “I still can’t believe you actually asked her, Abraham.”
Abraham. Abraham was there. He was listening to everything.
And he wasn’t saying anything in my defense.
“I mean, like, I know you have that thing about not backing down from a bet and all but still.” Dana snorted—another one of her annoying habits—and slouched against her boyfriend, Allen Woodard, second string quarterback for the Cotton Creek Cougars. “Seriously, would it really have been so bad to have to paint your truck pink for a week? I mean, it’s totally temporary. This, though, is senior prom. This is, like, forever. And all your pictures and memories are going to be with the class whore.”
He’d say something now. He would. He had to. There was no way Abraham Hansom would let—.
“Beth.” Even laced with exasperation, Abraham’s voice was low and rich and smooth, as beautiful as the rest of him. “Nobody keeps pictures from prom. That truck, though, will last me twenty years, easy.” He laughed, the sound wrapping around me like a blanket, providing me little warmth from his next words. “I’d do a lot worse than go to prom with Jeannie Jackson. Besides, how else am I going to get laid tonight?”
Even as the little knot exploded in to laughter, I pushed the balloons aside and stepped forward. Dana was the first to notice me, her big, blue eyes going wide and her jaw falling open. She elbowed Beth, who in turn elbowed Ben, the not so subtle nudging making its way around the circle until Lynn elbowed Abraham, standing with his back to me.
He turned, the lazy smile dying away, his dark brown eyes still beautiful, even though I knew they were full of lies. He raked a hand through his shaggy brown hair and flicked a tongue over the lips I’d been fantasizing about since freshman year. “Jeannie—.”
“You think you actually had a chance with me?” I took a step closer, my toes bumping against his. Lifting my chin, I said, “Bless your heart, honey.” I rested one hand on his shoulder, rising up until I was able to press my lips to his ear, lowering my voice to a whisper. “You couldn’t afford me.”
I dropped back on my heels and spun neatly, striding across the room, pausing only to throw away the mangled cup and wilted corsage before marching out of the American Legion. I had one more week until graduation. One more week and then I was out of Cotton Creek and I was never coming back.
Anyplace was better than here.