Authors: Caroline B. Cooney
IVE GIRLS SAT BEFORE
their mirrors, playing with eye shadow, blusher, electric curlers, and jewelry. Saturday night, and a formal dance. Lovely gowns, sparkling necklaces, throbbing music, sweetly scented flowers.
But the five girls were thinking only of love. And one girl was loved too much, and one was not loved at all.
Thunder rolled across the autumn sky like an announcement that it was time to leave for the dance. Lightning streaked above the bare branches of the trees, and the last leaves whirled through the blackness of night and settled on the wet pavement.
Tonight, both the loveliest of dreams and the worst of nightmares would come true.
ETH ROSE CHAPMAN WENT
to the dance because of a dress.
Beth Rose had no fashion sense. No matter what she put on, when she got to school, it turned out to be wrong. She had a remarkable ability, she thought sadly, to look dowdy. I’m sixteen, thought Beth Rose, and I’m already matronly.
If she chose bright colors, they clashed. If she chose pastels, she looked like a hospital patient. Gathered skirts made her look plump and tight skirts rode up her knees and bunched at the thigh.
But not this dress.
It was her great aunt’s. A month ago Beth was visiting her Aunt Madge and found it wrapped in a clear plastic dry cleaner’s bag, hanging on a rack in the attic. “I wore that to my senior prom in 1938,” said Aunt Madge, smiling gently to herself, touching the bag, but not the dress within.
Beth Rose stared at the dress. A very soft gleaming pink. She was not permitted to wear pink. She had dark red hair and her mother categorically stated that pink was impossible. Aunt Madge and Beth Rose stood silently, admiring the dress. Aunt Madge said, “Try it on, Bethie.”
She tried it on.
Such an old-fashioned dress, and yet not one where people would giggle at her; not a dress where people would wonder why it hadn’t been given to the Salvation Army decades ago. Its style was unusual, but timeless. There were three fabrics: one of glistening pink and one of delicate, faintly gray lace (but Aunt Madge said it had always been gray). Then there were tiny bows of silvery ribbon tipped with pink along the sleeves, dancing from the falling shoulders to the tight lace-cuffed wrists.
Aunt Madge had an enormous old mirror set in a mahogany frame that tilted back and forth. They tipped the mirror until Beth Rose was captured from her hair to her bare toes. “But my hair is red,” said Beth.
“The pink is so pale it doesn’t matter,” said her Aunt Madge. “Anyhow, your hair is the loveliest red I know. Dark, not gaudy. Gleaming, not bristly.”
Beth Rose touched her hair. Her mother always groaned whenever they went to the hairdresser. The hairdresser always groaned. Her hair was thick and unmanageable and uncooperative. It didn’t matter what shampoos and conditioners they used, it never changed. Beth thought it looked like a wig for someone who had had brain surgery.
“Needs braiding,” said Aunt Madge, and her fingers began twisting and plaiting in Beth’s hair until the top had become a flattened cap of narrow braids that rested on thick waves falling to her bare shoulders.
The neckline of the old prom dress dipped in scallops edged with the old gray lace. “I look so fragile,” breathed Beth, “as if I’m a museum piece.”
“What you look,” said Aunt Madge briskly, “is perfect. No question about it, Brose. You must find an important dance and wear this dress.”
Beth Rose stared into the mirror for a long time. The dress was a Cinderella dress. Transforming. In it she felt herself to be everything the dress was: soft, gleaming, fragile, timelessly lovely. “But I’m not really like that,” she said sadly. “In school I’m so ordinary, Aunt Madge. I’m always a C.”
“What’s a C?” said Aunt Madge.
“Average. I get a C in English and I get a C in math. I get a C in gym and all my friends are C-type people. A-plus people don’t even know I’m alive. And this—this is an A-plus dress.”
“Which needs an A-plus occasion,” said her aunt.
The girl touched her hair, her cheeks, her throat. She could not believe that lovely reflection was her. She said slowly, “Well, there’s the Autumn Leaves Dance. First week in November.”
“That’s that, then,” said Aunt Madge. She gently took the dress from Beth’s shoulders, undoing the long, long row of tiny fabric-covered buttons in back, and put it up on its padded hanger.
“Why Bethie,” Aunt Madge exclaimed, when she had finished slipping the dry cleaner’s bag over the dress again, “you’re crying! Sweetheart, what’s the matter?”
She could weep with her aunt. She never dared weep in front of her mother. Her mother just got impatient. “If you’d only try harder,” her mother would snap, as if Beth hadn’t struggled all her life with all her energy. But Aunt Madge never did that. Aunt Madge said, “Tell me, darling, is it the dress? What is it?”
“It’s me. I can’t go to the Autumn Leaves Dance because nobody will ask me. I’m not the kind of girl boys ask.”
Her mother would have said, “Nonsense.” Or else, “If you’d just try to be more attractive, easier to get along with. …”
Aunt Madge made comforting little noises and rocked Beth as if she were an infant. She said, “Can you go alone to this dance or is it for couples only?”
go alone,” said Beth. “Some boys will. But girls? They just don’t. I couldn’t do that.”
“In this dress you could do anything,” Aunt Madge said.
Through the flimsy bag the dress had an ethereal look to it, like a pink cloud of summer sunset blown by the wind. Beth Rose said, “I’m not brave enough, Aunt Madge.”
Her mother would have said, “Nonsense, Beth. Don’t be a ’fraidy cat.”
Aunt Madge said, “Nobody’s that brave. To go alone and know you’ll stand alone all evening while everybody else is a couple? Especially if there’s a lot of hand-holding and kissing. That’s the worst part. You stand there in some dreary corner, trying to look as if you
being alone. And of course everybody knows you’re a fake, and they stay away from you so they won’t catch whatever disease you’re carrying.” Aunt Madge shuddered.
“So you see I can’t go,” said Beth Rose.
“Yes, you can. The dress will make you different.”
It was true. The dress had changed her. “Just think of me as your fairy godmother,” Aunt Madge said softly, and she waved a graceful wrist, its blue veins showing as if she were holding a magic wand. “And now you’re going to the ball to meet the handsome prince.”
And of course Beth couldn’t resist. She took the dress home to Westerly and hung it in her closet and touched it like a magic charm every morning and evening, and bought herself a ticket to Autumn Leaves.
But now it was seven o’clock on Saturday night, and the dance began at eight, and now she had to carry the plan out. She, the C girl, the average girl, had to put the dress on and actually appear at that dance.
Panic washed over Beth like a rising tide, carrying with it the debris of all her past failures. I won’t be able to carry it off, thought Beth Rose. I’ll be laughed at. I’ll stumble around the walls of the cafeteria and end up with some teacher trying to be nice. I’ll sit on some metal folding chair for two hours while the teacher tries to think of something to say.
She drew the plastic bag off the dress. The bag clung to the dress, as if not wanting to leave the shimmery pink and the gray lace, and Beth Rose thought,
Please let me look lovely in it.
Please let it work this time, too. Let me be special!
NNE STEPHENS WAS THE
A-plus Beth was thinking of when she said no one ever noticed her. Beth was right. Anne had never even known Beth existed until this year, when they were in the same gym class and played volleyball on the same side of the net. Anne always served perfectly. Beth Rose always missed and afterwards her wrist hurt.
Anne found her mildly irritating. A person should be able to do
But Beth Rose Chapman’s lack of ability was the last thing on Anne’s mind at seven o’clock the night of the Autumn Leaves Dance.
Anne, too, had a full length mirror, but when she stood before it she saw nothing but perfection. Anne was unarguably the loveliest girl in the junior class at Westerly High. However, she was a little tired of seeing
reflections in her mirror every time she got ready to go out with Con.
Her mother and grandmother participated in her dates as much as she did, Anne sometimes thought. They loved Anne’s perfection, they loved dressing her—as if she were a very tall Barbie doll—and they loved the sight and the thought of Anne with Con.
Her grandmother had bought her tonight’s dress. The older women took turns outfitting Anne. She was probably the only girl in the state whose family was dying to buy more clothes for her at any time.
The dress for this, her first formal dance, was layers of deep electric blue, jaggedly cut, so that the skirt swirled unexpectedly, shifting with every breath, making soft whispery sounds as the brilliant blue fabric slid over itself. The neckline was not symmetrical, and her grandmother had had Anne’s hair done so that it was swept to the side, and offset the unusual neckline, and then bought Anne a rhinestone necklace with an art-deco star that trembled just below her throat, and another one to go in her hair. The sleeves were beaded, tiny tiny beads of exactly the same color as the dress, so that in some lights you couldn’t tell the beads were there, and in other lights Anne sent rainbows across the room as if she were hung with prisms.
Anne ran her fingertips over the beaded patterns. How strange they felt beneath her fingers! How smooth, and absolutely perfect.
Her mother adjusted the thick sash, moving it a little too high so that Anne twitched with wanting to push it back down. Her grandmother took out the rhinestone star in her hair and moved it an inch farther back, so that Anne could no longer see it, just feel its unaccustomed weight. Her hair was thick and gold, in as many layers as her dress, and its waves swept up majestically on one side and lay flat on the other.
“She’s perfect,” said Anne’s mother contentedly.
This was the final sentence Mrs. Stephens uttered before all of Anne’s dates. Anne smiled, fulfilling her part of the tradition, but she did not meet her mother’s eyes, even in the mirror. Because she was not perfect; in the last few weeks she had found out just how imperfect she really was; and if her mother knew. …
“You know what?” Anne’s grandmother said. “This must be just about your third anniversary, too.”
Yes, Anne thought. We were in junior high. Con was scrawny, with a shape rather like a chewed-on pencil. His hair was still being cut at home, and his mother was so bad at it he looked as if he had fur instead of hair. But I liked him. Oh, how I liked him!
In ninth grade, Con grew seven inches. You could practically sit at the table and watch him grow. He was awkward that year, and never got off the bench in any of his beloved sports, because he could not control those suddenly long limbs. And then the following summer, his complexion cleared, his hair filled in, his braces came off, and his coordination returned.
And he was handsome, and dark, and suave, and he knew it. Oh, how he knew it! Con would never admit it, but he was as fond of perfection as Anne’s mother. They weren’t seniors, but she knew that their yearbook the following year would have herself and Con as Couple of the Class. She was idolized by the younger girls. She, Anne Stephens, had the life and the boy they all yearned for, daydreamed for, maybe even prayed for.