LET THERE BE LIGHT

“Beep, beep!” Lindsay shouts out her window as I scurry down the icy walkway, sucking the cold air into my lungs, loving the way it burns, loving even the bitter stink of Lindsay’s cigarette and the exhaust that’s clotting the air. “Hot mama! How much?”

“If you have to ask,” I say, sliding into the passenger seat, “you can’t afford it.”

She grins and hands me my coffee before I can reach for it. “Happy Cupid Day.”

“Happy Cupid Day,” I say, and we clink Styrofoam cups.

She too looks clearer to me than ever before. Lindsay, with her angel’s face and messy, dirty blond hair and chipped black nail polish and battered leather Dooney & Bourke bag that always has a film of tobacco and half-unwrapped Trident Original at the bottom. Lindsay, who hates being bored, always moving, always running. Lindsay, who once said—“It’s the world against us, babes”—drunk and looping her arms around our shoulders when we were out in the arboretum and really meaning it. Lindsay, mean and funny and ferocious and loyal and mine.

I lean over impulsively and kiss her cheek.

“Whoa, lesboing out much?” Lindsay shrugs a shoulder up to her cheek and wipes off my lip gloss. “Or just practicing for tonight?”

“Maybe both,” I say, and she laughs long and loud.

I take a sip of my coffee. It’s scalding and has to be the best coffee in all of Ridgeview, in all the world. God bless Dunkin’ Donuts.

Lindsay chatters about how many roses she expects to get and whether Marcy Posner will, as usual, break down and cry in the bathroom during fifth period because Justin Streamer dumped her three years ago on Cupid Day, thus permanently sealing her fate as only medium-popular, and I look out the window and watch Ridgeview go by in a blur of gray. I try to imagine how, in only a few months, the trees will shoot their tiny stems into the sky, the barest spray of flowers and green breathed over everything like a mist. And then, a few months after that, the whole town will be an explosion of green: so many trees and so much grass it will look like a painting still dripping wet. I can imagine it waiting under the surface of the world, like the slides just have to be flipped in the projector and summer will be here.

And there’s Elody, teetering down the lawn in her shoes with no jacket on and her arms wrapped around her chest. When I see her, radiant and alive, the relief is so huge I let out a tremendous shriek of laughter. Lindsay raises her eyebrows at me.

“She’ll freeze,” I gasp, by way of explanation.

Lindsay twirls her finger by her ear. “She’s totally cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.”

“Did someone say Cocoa Puffs?” Elody says, getting into the car. “I’m starving.”

I twist around to look at her. It’s all I can do to keep from climbing into the backseat and jumping on her. I feel an overwhelming urge to touch her, make sure she’s really real and here and alive . In some ways she’s the bravest and most delicate of all of us. I wish I could somehow tell her this.

“What?” Elody scrunches up her nose at me, and I realize I’m staring. “What’s wrong? Do I have toothpaste on my face or something?”

“No,” I say, and again the laughter bubbles out of me, a surge of happiness and relief. I think; I could stay forever in this one moment. “You look beautiful.”

Lindsay giggles, checks Elody out in the rearview. “There are some bagels under your butt, beautiful .”

Mmm , butt bagels.” Elody reaches into the bag and pulls out a bagel, half squashed, then makes a big deal of taking an enormous bite out of it. “Tastes like Victoria’s Secret.”

“Tastes like thong floss,” I say.

“Tastes like crack,” Lindsay says.

“Tastes like fart,” Elody says, and Lindsay spits coffee on the dashboard, and I start laughing and can’t stop, and all the way to school we’re thinking of flavors for butt bagels, and I’m thinking that this—my life, my friends—might be weird or screwy or imperfect or damaged or whatever, but it’s never seemed better to me.

As we’re pulling into the school’s parking lot, I scream for Lindsay to brake. She slams to a stop and Elody curses as coffee slops all over her.

“What the hell?” Lindsay puts a hand on her chest. “You scared me to death.”

“Oh—um. Sorry. I thought I saw Rob.” Up ahead I’m watching Sarah Grundel’s Chevrolet turn into Senior Alley fifteen seconds ahead of us. The parking space is a small thing, a detail, but today I’m not going to do anything wrong. I don’t want to take any chances. It’s like the game we used to play when we were little, where we had to avoid all the cracks in the sidewalk or else it meant we’d kill off our mothers. Even if you didn’t believe in it, you made sure you were stepping correctly, just in case. “Sorry. My bad.”

Lindsay rolls her eyes and steps on the gas again. “Please tell me you’re not going psycho stalker.”

“Leave her alone.” Elody leans forward and pats my shoulder. “She’s just nervous about tonight.”

I bite my lip to keep from giggling. If Lindsay and Elody had any clue at all about what was actually running through my head, they would probably have me committed. All morning, whenever I close my eyes, I keep imagining the feeling of Kent McFuller’s lips brushing against mine, as light as butterfly wings; of the crown of light surrounding his head and the way his arms felt when he was keeping me on my feet. I lean my head against the window. My smile is reflected back at me, growing wider and wider as Lindsay drives up and down Senior Alley, cursing because Sarah Grundel took the very last parking space.

Instead of following Elody and Lindsay into Main, I break off and head toward Building A, where the nurses’ office is, muttering an excuse about a headache. That’s where the roses are stored on Cupid Day, and I have some adjustments to make. Okay, so maybe lying isn’t 100 percent kosher on the Good Deeds Scale (especially lying to your best friends), but it’s for a very, very good cause.

The nurses’ office is long and narrow. Normally a double row of cots runs its length, but the cots have been cleared out and replaced by huge folding tables. The heavy curtains that usually keep the place movie theater–dark have all been drawn back, and the room is literally sparkling with light. Light bounces off the metal wall fixtures and zigzags crazily over the bright white walls. There are roses everywhere—overflowing their trays, stashed in corners, a few of them even scattered across the ground, petals trampled—and if you didn’t know that there was actually an organizing principle to all of it, and a purpose, you would just think that someone had set off some kind of a rose bomb.

Ms. Devane, who usually oversees Cupid Day, isn’t around, but there are three Cupids standing over one of the bins, giggling. They jump and scoot backward when I come in. They’ve been reading the notes, obviously. It’s strange to think about—those little scraps of paper, snippets of words, half compliments and backhanded compliments and broken promises and semi-wishes and almost expressions of what you really want to say: they never tell the full story, or even half of it. A room full of words that are nearly the truth but not quite, each note fluttering off the stem of its rose like a broken butterfly wing. None of the girls talks to me as I start walking the aisle, scanning the labels on the trays, looking for the S ’s. I doubt that anybody else has ever barged in on the Rose Room, especially not a senior. Finally I find the tray labeled: St–Ta . There are five or six roses for Tamara Stugen and another half dozen for Andrew Svork and three for a Burt Swortney, who has the most unfortunate name I’ve heard of in a long time. And there it is: the single rose for Juliet Sykes with a note looped delicately around its stem. MAYBE NEXT YEAR, BUT PROBABLY NOT. Maybe next time, but probably not.

“Um…can I help you with something?” One of the girls inches forward a couple of feet. She’s twisting her hands together and looks absolutely petrified.

Juliet’s rose is thin and young, delicately tinged with pink. All of its petals are closed. It hasn’t bloomed yet.

“I need roses,” I say. “Lots of them.”

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