So continues my September Stories project! If you missed any of them, you can find the full list here.
Second Time's the Charm
By Danielle Davis
If it wasn't for Mitch, Tom never would have come to the party--it was too soon after Theresa had left. And he could tell Mitch didn't really expect him to show up anyway and only invited him as a nice gesture. Which was funny, considering that he was currently dressed as David Bowie's character Jareth, the Goblin King from the cult classic hit Labyrinth. One of his favorite films in the history of ever. It was funny because Jareth always got impulsively invited to where ever he ended up, too.
But this outing wasn't to steal some whiny girl's baby brother. It was to reestablish his independence, to reclaim some of the social life he'd abandoned after moving in with Theresa and her controlling, domineering manner. You never spend enough time with me. Why do you want to go out with those guys anyway, to pick up some other girl while I'm not around? If I'm not enough to keep your attention, why do you keep saying you love me? Prove it.
That's what it always came down to—prove it. Prove he loved her. Prove he cared enough about her to spend every non-working moment together. Prove the telemarketer on the other line wasn't a side girlfriend. Prove he didn't drink at the coworker's outing because she knew he'd be checking out other girls if he did...
So here he was, at a house party Theresa never would have let him attend. Proving to himself that he was still his own man. That despite how much he missed her, even after all her craziness, he could have a life outside of her.
Prove it. So he did.
He'd opted for Jareth's "Magic Dance" outfit, having found those pieces the easiest to find after a quick afternoon search online. He'd found a spiky blonde wig, the leather halter vest, and the high-heeled leather boots on Amazon. The shirt—puffy, white, and with frills down either side of the open neckline—he'd gotten from the local Salvation Army store, as well as a pair of grey women's tights. As a joke, he'd also stuffed a rolled up pair of soccer socks into his underwear to form a codpiece.
Theresa would have killed him for it.
Shortly after arriving, he was cornered by two Cyndi Laupers and a Madonna hanging on the arm of some guy painted green. While both Cyndis were dressed in mismatched pairs of bright-colored clothing, one of them had frizzy looking orange hair with blue and green geometric eye shadow shapes. The other sported short frizzy yellow hair, the canary colored kind that came from a bottle, and was smothered under what seemed to be a few hundred bead necklaces. Tom wondered what the difference between them was.
The Madonna was predictable enough: she'd gone the bleach-blonde with thick brown eyebrows route. She'd stuffed the softballs that were her fake boobs into a black bra with a fishnet shirt over it. Her wrists were obscured under a jumbled mess of black and grey bangle bracelets. The rest of her was non-descript in black capri pants with a black poufy skirt over the top. He never understood why everyone always picked Junkie Madonna over, say, Like a Virgin Madonna, but there you go. There was no accounting for taste.
Tom could almost hear Theresa's voice in his head: why are you staring at that Madonna's boobs? (he wasn't), why did you smile so long at yellow Cyndi if you're still missing me? (he hadn't thought he did), you're just trying to decide which one of them to take home to replace me (he definitely wasn't).
To block her subversive voice from his mind, he turned to Madonna's date, the muscular, green man wearing only a torn pair of cargo shorts.
"Are you The Hulk?" he asked, surprised. When the guy proudly nodded, Tom frowned. "But didn't that movie just come out last year? I thought Mark Ruffalo did a pretty good job, but still--"
"Dude, this is an '80s party. I'm not Mark Ruffalo, I'm Lou Ferrigno." The Hulk held his arms out to either side of himself and raised his eyebrows with an expectant smile. "You know, The Hulk...?"
Tom gave an obligatory chuckle, but shook his head. "Yeah, I, uh, recognized The Hulk part. But who's the Lou fellow?"
"He was only the best Hulk ever played! The Incredible Hulk TV series?"
"Oh! Right." Tom barely remembered, but he didn't like looking like he didn't know. This conversation already epitomized why he hated coming to social functions like this: they never really changed from high school to adulthood. The only differences were that folks looked older and hid their dislike of each other better. Otherwise, the exact same. "Wasn't that the '70s though?'
The Hulk gave a disgusted snort and turned to Madonna. "Can you believe this guy? The '70s? Who does he think he is?" He glared at Tom. "Who are you supposed to be anyway?"
With a flourish, Tom stuck one leg forward and bowed deeply over it. "Care to guess? Here's a hint: I'm a sexy tyrant from another world. Also a movie star."
Madonna clicked her fingers together as she stuttered to get her answer out. "Ooh, ooh! I know! You're, um, Tina Turner, right?"
They all looked at her with blank expressions. Under the scrutiny, she laughed nervously and twirled a lock of bleached hair. "You know. Aunty, uh...Aunty Entity. From that Mad Max movie?"
"I'm not a woman!" Tom cried. He pointed to the socks at his groin. "The codpiece? The boots? It's not like I bolted a pair of boobs to my chest!"
Madonna frowned. Tom straightened and put his hands in front of him. "Not that there's anything wrong with that." Her frown turned to a scowl.
Chit-chat was never his thing. He looked into the living room and jumped in mock surprise. "Oh, look! There's...somebody...I know!" He scuttled away feeling like he'd dodged a bullet.
As he passed from the living room into the den, he looked around for other faces he knew. Namely Mitch. He knew a fair amount of Mitch's friends, having met them at one time or another, but he didn't know them well enough to just walk up and start a conversation with them. Such was the burden of being an extroverted introvert: he wouldn't mind chatting it one of them struck up a conversation with him, but the thought of initiating it made him feel sweaty. But he still wanted someone to talk to.
"Stupid social anxiety," he muttered to himself.
"I know. It sucks doesn't it?" The voice came from behind him, and he turned to see a woman dressed as some kind of Victorian queen. He'd walked right past her from where she sat in an armchair next to a potted plant. In her lap perched a fat orange tabby. Her hand hovered in the air above its head, having apparently stopped mid-pat to talk to him.
Something about her seemed familiar. As he struggled to identify what, the cat labored to its tiny feet and attempted to butt its head against her hovering hand. But its footing was precarious on the mass of shiny material that made up her skirt and it tumbled inelegantly to the ground with a startled waow!
"Whoops," the queen muttered. She looked back up to Tom and gave a winsome smile. "So who're you supposed to be? Tina Turner?"
Tom scowled. "Seriously?"
"Nah, I'm just messing with you," she laughed. "It would seem we were made for each other, King and Queen that we are."
Now that wasn't what he expected to hear. His eyebrows shot up as he gaped at her. "I, uh...this is not helping my anxiety." But she was quite pretty, despite the Elizabethan collar of her costume and he found himself reaching a hand forward with a smile. "I'm Tom."
"Liza Belle," she murmured. Her voice was a little breathy as she gazed up at him through her eyelashes. She held her hand above his outstretched one, as if she expected him to kiss the back of it.
There is no way you're kissing this bitch's hand, Theresa said in his head.
So he dipped into the courtly bow he'd given the Cyndis and the Madonna and gently took her hand in his. He kept eye contact with her, marveling at how vibrantly green her eyes were, as he pressed his lips to the back of her hand.
"My lady," he murmured. He straightened, still holding her hand. Then he remembered why she looked so familiar, and he couldn't believe it had taken him so long to realize. She looked exactly like the girl he'd been in love with in high school, Liza Pennington. They'd had a few classes together, shared a study group or two, and never spoke to each other beyond questions about teachers' assignments. But he'd developed an infatuation with her during his sophomore year that had deepened to something stronger than a mere crush. He used to go to track meets just to cheer her on, not that she ever noticed him.
He had loved her from afar and she'd barely known he existed. What kind of a small world would have them show up again at the same party decades later? She was a bit taller now and had a beautiful set of crows feet around her eyes, but her gown showed off a lithe figure and her eyes twinkled like she was hiding a secret she couldn't wait to tell.
Gazing into her eyes, he felt a ghost of the spell she'd cast back then unfurl within him. It pulled at him, the desire to keep talking to her, to hold her hand.
He cocked his head at her, considering. "And which Queen exactly are you? I don't remember too many Victorian queens running around in 1980."
"Well, the invite didn't actually specify which '80s we could choose from," Liza smirked. She passed her a hand down the rich fabric of her skirt. "So I went with the 1580's." Her lips pursed in a mischievous grin. "What brings Jareth, the Goblin King, to such a lowly place as this? Did someone offer up their baby brother?"
Tom grinned as she identified his costume. "No, not quite. I'm here to keep good Queens from getting into too much trouble. Though I imagine you wouldn't dream of it."
She grinned at him. "Oh, I don't know. I got up to enough trouble in my day."
"Like the time you and half the track team got suspended for skinny dipping in the school pool during Homecoming?"
Liza's smile faded as her expression turned to wary appraisal. "How did you--?"
Tom felt a blush surge into his cheeks. "I was the lifeguard on duty that afternoon. Tommy St. Germain?" He shrugged as her wariness turned to horror. "We also sat together in AP Calculus. Not that, you know...not that you'd probably remember me or anything."
They regarded each other silently for a moment, her gaping at him in shock and him wondering if she would slap him. That would not be the ideal was for this to go, but you never could tell with people sometimes...
Then hid her face in her hands and groaned. "I can't believe you remember that!"
He tried to hide his grin and failed. Instead, he admired the way her hair spilled over her hands, all the browns and golds and dirty yellows mixed in together in a shiny, wavy mass. God, he'd always wanted to run his fingers through it. He used to get in trouble daydreaming about it in class, actually. But that wasn't a memory he wanted to remind her of—it was bad enough, obviously, that he remembered her naked.
"It's ok," he lied. "I don't remember seeing much."
That earned him a peek through her fingers. He smiled reassuringly and she raised her head. He pretended not to notice the blotchy patches of red that flushed her cheeks.
"I'm Queen Elizabeth the first," she murmured.
"The Virgin Queen." Though he meant it innocuously enough, she blushed again. "Or Good Queen Liza, if you'd prefer."
She smiled. "That works. Good Queen Liza. Rolls off the tongue a bit, doesn't it?"
Without thinking, he blurted, "I've always thought Liza Belle did, too." When she turned wide eyes to him, he gave her a sheepish shrug. "But I guess I'd have though Gertrude would have been beautiful if that had been your name. Such is the nature of a crush, right?"
He tried to pitch his voice in a joking tone, but she gave him a slow, sweet smile. "You had a crush on me?"
Part of him expected to hear Theresa's jeering voice pipe up in his mind. But it, oddly enough, was silent for the first time all night. He took that as a good sign.
Unable to meet her eyes suddenly, he nodded at her shoes. Absently, he noticed they were sneakers. And not just sneakers—a bright, aquamarine pair. He burst out laughing. At her startled look, he pointed, unable to get the words out.
"And what's wrong with my shoes?" she asked in mock indignation. She planted her hands on her hips and pretended to glare at him. "I'll have you know, these actually DO match the 1980s, so I'm still within bounds."
His cheeks began to ache from how wide his smile was. Finally, after a few gasping breaths, he was able to speak. "Now you're mixing your centuries."
"Is that not allowed?"
He pretended to give it serious consideration. "I'm not sure. I think we'll have to leave it up to the judges."
She blinked, surprised. "There are judges for this sort of thing?"
"Of course. I think Mitch asked a trio of Elvises to do it a little later."
"Well, what should we do until then?" Her eyes sparkled at him. The cat twisted in and out of her dress to twine between her ankles, but she ignored it.
Tom offered her his arm and gave her a wicked grin. She slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow and returned the grin.
"Let's get into some trouble, shall we?"
"Well, if my Goblin King commands it..."
As they strolled arm in arm toward the crowd in the next room, he marveled at how things turned out sometimes. If he'd been able to travel back in time and tell his high school self that one day he'd be escorting Liza Belle Pennington around a costume party... If he could describe the way her eyes gleam when she looks at him, the way they darken like she's sharing a secret... It was a situation he'd have killed a hobo for the chance to experience.
But then maybe, he realized, it was better this way, to meet her all those years later. He'd certainly never been able to carry on any semblance of conversation with her. (At least not in real life.) And she almost certainly wouldn't have given him a second glance if he had tried. This way, they've come to appreciate what time has to offer, to get some experience with real relationships, to get time away from that childhood self and realize what they really want.
He knew he should be glad he got a second chance. But since he never really used the first chance he got, this was more like skipping ahead and starting from there instead. He wouldn't waste this chance.
Nobody was lucky enough to get another shot with someone like her. He'd make sure he didn't need one.