(Previously published in Clare Literary Journal)

I’d been waiting a long time for the house to be so quiet. It was delicious freedom to be sixteen and know that my parents would not be coming back for hours. Finally, I could do whatever I wanted, and they would never need to know.

I had it all planned out, the perfect afternoon. For a start, I was going to play on the computer for as long as I wanted, and there would be no one to tell me I had been on it for too long. It was Saturday, my homework was already done, and not even my siblings were around to make me feel guilty about monopolizing the sole desktop.

I sat at the old wooden desk in the dining room, ignoring the familiar mix of papers and electrical cords that covered its surface and focusing instead on the soft tap of mouse clicks sounding clearly through the stillness. I imagined the game’s background noise expanding out into the unfamiliar emptiness of the living room to my left, the chirping of birds and other sounds of simulated nature filling the entire house.

The game was called Blooming Gardens. The rules were simple. Each turn I moved one flower, and three more randomly appeared. The goal was to line up rows of five to make the flowers disappear before the grid was filled.

Nothing else required my attention; I poured all my thoughts into the game. I watched the board with perfect concentration, lining flowers up, trying to keep paths open for the most effective movement, and planning out my moves at least two or three in advance. Each move led into the next, as plans were shifted, delayed, or pushed towards their conclusion. Always there was something more to do, until the final spaces were filled, and the cheerful little “Game Over” screen left me feeling it had ended too soon. Again and again, I clicked back to the menu to play again, each time certain that I would do better than the last. I had lost track of how many games I had played when the ringing of the phone broke through my concentration.

I walked to the kitchen, lifted the phone from its charger, and examined the Caller ID. Patterson*—Why would they be calling us?

The phone let out another ring. I concluded that it must be Mrs. Patterson calling about something related to St. Charles. Brian and Caitlin still went to school there. Quickly, I ran through a speech about my parents’ whereabouts, pressing the button to answer while it was still fresh in my mind.


The voice that answered me was young and male and completely unexpected. I hadn’t spoken to Ben Patterson since our eighth grade graduation. For a brief moment, I wondered whether he had gotten our number confused with someone else’s.

Can I talk to Shannon? he must have asked.

Yeah, it’s me, I replied, squelching the temptation to use the grammatically correct form “It is I.”

He spoke again: I was wondering if you would like to go to prom with me.

All at once, the room jumped into sharper focus. The lights shone brighter, the scattered multitude of refrigerator magnets called themselves to my attention individually, and every item sitting on the countertops became an object I had never seen before: the large glass pitcher that we never used, the row of matching cookie jars with rings of flowers painted on between the stripes of thin blue ridges, the apple-shaped egg timer resting on the stove. I was astonished by the number of details my eyes had grown accustomed to skipping over, laid out before me now with such clarity.

Two seconds after he asked, I couldn’t have told you exactly what he had said. Word choice was lost. Tone of voice was lost. Everything had been swept away except for the fact that a boy had just asked me to go to prom with him.

The last time a boy had shown interest in me was in the seventh grade, while I was attending a cousin’s wedding. I was doing my usual: just sitting at a table and waiting for the reception to end. I had no interest in the dancing until the DJ announced a slow song for couples only. It was then that he appeared, like an unspoken wish fulfilled, a boy I’d never met before asking me to dance. My siblings expressed the shock I felt, but I agreed with a smile of excitement.

We moved slowly, a soft sway from side to side, taking our cues from those around us. An aunt and uncle sidled up to provide us with some free advice, showing us where to position our hands and how to slowly turn. When they left, we finally began to speak.

Where are you from? What’s your name?

We parted ways after the song, but after the throwing of the bouquet we met again. Shyly, he handed me a small treasure rescued from the floor: a large pink rose fully opened and separated from its stem. I cupped it in my hands like something precious.

That moment marked the sum total of my romantic experience: three years in the past and collecting dust in the farthest corner of my mind.

And now Ben Patterson was asking me to prom. For a long, sweet second, I trusted this completely.

Then the shock wore off and my instincts screamed suspicion. This time was different. I could feel it.

When Ben and I had graduated from the eighth grade, there had been thirty six kids in our class. Most of us had attended the same school since kindergarten. None of the boys were even friends with me. If any of them ever claimed they were, it was either to look good in front of a teacher or to mess with me.

Some of them seemed to enjoy messing with me. There was a period of several weeks sometime in junior high during which one boy used to walk up to me in the lunchroom and deliver random pick up lines. He would wait to see my reaction and then walk away without any explanation. My friends tried to tell me it was possible that he just liked me, but that wasn’t true. He found amusement in it. I could see it on his face: the tiny smirk crouching behind the face of his deadpan delivery.

I suppose the joke was that I didn’t know that they were pickup lines. Yes, I really was that naïve. I knew a total of one swear word, I don’t think I knew that birth control existed, and I certainly didn’t understand why this boy seemed to be spouting complete nonsense. Or maybe the joke was that he would never actually be interested in me, that none of them would.

They never told me this, never actually said anything close to it, but it is impossible to spend thirty five hours a week for as many as nine years in close proximity with someone without gaining an implicit sense of what they think of you. And I knew that any one of them would have found the idea of dating me absolutely laughable.

Before this, I had thought that Ben Patterson was one of the nicer guys in the class. He had never personally called me Shannie or cracked a joke at my expense, at least not that I remembered. I hadn’t believed that he would.

But in the seconds that followed his question, while silence claimed both sides of the phone line, I wasn’t thinking about him as an individual. My thoughts were not expressed in words but in flashes. Memories were not relived but lingered just below the surface, serving only as the base for my perceptions. And my growing fears were subjugating both. My snap judgment wasn’t concerned about rationality or fairness. He was a guy. He was in my class. He was one of them. I had no reason to believe that he was any different from the rest.

My conscious thought had no time to even understand how this conclusion had been drawn. There was urgency now. Had ten seconds passed? Fifteen? He was still waiting for an answer. Knowing that my instincts were usually correct, I searched only for the final confirmation, a logical argument that would point to the same conclusion. It found it in the pages of the high school rule book, committed to my memory. Only juniors and seniors were allowed to go to prom. Both of us were sophomores.

Experience had not prepared me to answer an invitation to prom, but, oh, I knew exactly how to deal with a prank phone call. It was not too late; the pause between us was still stretching on.

Why are there voices in the background? I demanded.

There aren’t any voices in the background, he protested.

His voice almost threw me off. The answer was given at the right time; there was neither hesitation nor the too-quick reply of the obvious liar. The tone seemed to be exact: surprise, a bit of confusion, a hint of something that might even be related to pain, none of it overplayed. It almost sounded genuine. He was a better actor than I had thought.

He repeated that there were no voices. He tried to argue with me further. I hung up on him.

There are always voices in the background. You just have to listen hard enough.

Those guys might think a lot of things about me, but if they thought I was an idiot, they were dead wrong. The phone did not ring again.

I returned to the dining room, where the flower-filled grid was waiting for me patiently. I slid into the desk chair, feeling grateful for the distraction from the aftermath. If I could pretend that this game was the only thing that mattered in the world, I could easily create an outlet for myself, a place where everything made sense, a place where all the outcomes were completely fair, a place where I could do something and have it actually make a difference.

I clicked a sunflower, and it popped out of the ground with a cute cartoon sound effect, hovering behind my cursor until I clicked another square of earth. It took root once more as three new flowers sprouted up with a sound effect meant to imitate their rapid growth.

The game ended when the grid was filled, but I liked to think that, in theory, the game could last forever. Every row of five or more would disappear, and, if I could just align them fast enough, I could keep it going. If I considered the rules carefully, if I measured all the variables, if I finally discovered just the right strategy, I would never have to lose again.

But as hard as I tried to drown them out, thoughts were already starting to stream in through the cracks in my focus. The pain was sharp and fresh. I could picture all the boys right now, huddled together in Ben’s kitchen, laughing about the fact that I will never get a boyfriend.

I clicked another flower, and a row of roses disappeared.

If he really meant to ask me out, there would have been some sign of it earlier. He would have done something nice for me, paid me a compliment or two, at least stopped to say hello if he ever happened to pass me in the hallway. That was how these things worked, wasn’t it?

Processing endlessly, still I could not reach the certainty I craved. Burying the tiny seed of doubt took a lot of effort when I refused to believe that it existed, but I was persistent. Of course he had known the rules about prom. Of course that had been a voice I heard.

Of course I believed that my interpretation was correct. I still do. The only problem is that I’m not sure what it is anymore.

* Names have been changed