The sky was pitch black and void of stars. A January zephyr brushed against her shoulders. Paige rubbed her arm, hoping to induce thermal heat. So what if this was Florida? She regretted wearing a sleeveless dress. It was supposed to make her look more grown-up and alluring; instead she fit the part of a frozen girl playing dress-up. She’d thought of asking Matthew to go inside, but he seemed so eager for an outdoor dining experience; she didn’t want to disappoint him.
A half-moon rested over the waters of the lake. Paige’s eyes drifted and stayed there.
The restaurant’s back deck was an extension supported by lumber beams and shadowed by wooden rafters above. The tables were round and dressed in white linen that seemed to float and shift with every breeze. Bourgeois middle-aged couples sat and chatted over cups of cooled green tea and white wine.
Paige tried to pretend that she was something other than a country-bumpkin from Leesburg. She stared at the menu and winced at the prices of each item. Eating out at an upscale district in Clermont was something she did every day. Yeah.
This had to be the best place a date had ever taken her. It wasn’t ‘high-school’ like a cheesy burger joint or pizzeria. It was more serious.
Lanterns hung from the rafters. There wasn’t too much light, allowing an intimate dining experience. And yet, not shadowy to the point where people stumbled blindly in the dark. It was perfect. Each table’s centerpiece was a green, fire-glass vase bursting with white blossoms. Napkins were folded in triangles next to silverware and glasses of lemonade. It was really nice. He must really like me.
The appetizer had already been brought out: balsamic shrimp with avocado and tomato slices drizzled in a tangy sauce. She ate her half already. Matthew’s was untouched.
Paige spotted Matthew rushing through the restaurant's back doors.
“Sorry about that,” he said, returning to the table.
He'd taken his obligatory trip to the bathroom. His brown hair was combed back into place and he smelled like a splash of his cologne. It was a pleasant scent: hints of orange, sandalwood, and something leathery, though not overpowering. But there was a whiff of something else...
Quitting smoking had been his promise to her over the New Year. Paige forced a smile. Weeks earlier, curiosity had gotten the better of her and she asked him why it took him so long to ask her out. “You're kinda intimidating,” he said. She had yet to decide whether or not that was a compliment. She decided one thing however, she didn't want to be thought of as off-putting, and thus she forced herself into a mood of perpetual happiness. She believed it worked sometimes, though at times she was sure that she came off as fake.
“I take it you haven't ordered yet,” Matthew said. He took a seat across from her.
“No, but you're just in time for the appetizer.” She gestured to the shrimp tray in front of him.
“Oh,” he chuckled. “I was really out that long?”
Paige poured over the menu, deciding and casting aside ideas based on the listed price.
He reached for her hand. “Don't worry about it,” he said. “Order whatever you want. My treat.”
They decided on meal choices and made small talk before the waiter came, took their orders, and collected their menus. Matthew finished off the last of his shrimp and wiped his lips with a napkin. He put the napkin down, stared at her with a look that was both determinant and confident, and said:
“Bass Towers is going through a revolution.”
Paige took a sip from her lemonade. When she thought of revolutions she thought of sensational works of literature like A Tale of Two Cities: angry mobs that toppled monarchies. She thought of Toussaint L'Ouverture and his dramatic overthrow of slavery on the island of Haiti. Revolution wasn't a word she would associate with a local high school. Perhaps a revolution of new ideas? Different schedule? New café? Something boring and mundane along those lines.
“I give up,” she said, with a grin. “Is something happening that I don't know about?”
Matthew's lips twitched into a smile. “Big changes are coming…in the way things are done.”
“C'mon Matthew, don't be like that.”
He leaned forward, holding her attention with his eyes. “Staff is investigating the Tigers’ drug use,” he said.
Is that all? Paige rolled her eyes. “They say that all the time.” It was a way for faculty to silence angry and suspicious parents. Release a reassuring statement, and then do nothing. Football was more hallowed than The Pledge of Allegiance at Bass Towers.
“Trust me, it’s real this time,” Matthew said. “Some of the Tigers’ rivals got a little prissy about their lost last game and cried foul on the basis of rules violations.” He shrugged, “Given they do that almost every year.” He laughed. “Sore losers.”
“So something different happened this year?”
“Do you know why Cedric is in danger of losing his scholarship?”
Paige shrugged. “I heard he shattered his kneecap.” She didn’t keep up with gossip about the quarterback.
“You don’t know he was really arrested?”
Her mouth formed words she wouldn't get to finish. The waiter arrived with two plates of steak fish and mango rice.
“Why?” Paige asked when the waiter left.
“Days before the second to last game, he was busted for speeding by police. They found a small amount of cocaine in his car.”
“I overheard my dad talking about it with some cops yesterday,” Matthew said to Paige's parted lips.
“Wait, this was before he broke his leg at the game?”
Matthew nodded, finishing off the last of his rice on the plate.
“Yeah,” he ended for her.
They let Cedric play anyway. “There might even be proof that he was using and dealing all season. And get this; he's not the only one. There's some guy who’s been providing the team with drugs for years.”
“Is he connected to Bass?”
The boy nodded and took another sip from his lemonade. “They're trying to get more information on him. If Cedric gives information on him and other people involved.” His emphasis on the word ‘other’ was clear. “He could bargain his sentence.”
It felt as though the air was knocked out of her. It sounded like his life was ruined, and what about his girlfriend? What about Robyn, did she know? And the other players?
Matthew pushed aside his cup, thinking. “This affects everyone,” he said. He counted off his fingers. “Football as an extra-curricular activity, first of all. This is so wide-spread they’re seriously considering whether to continue the program next year. Of course, questions for the coach, if he knew anything, why they didn't enforce proper drug testing methods. The players ...”
“This isn’t well known?”
He shook his head. “Not yet. My dad and the school are in a hurry to cover their asses. Lessen the blow. The media is going to be all over this. Drug-use among the Tigers has been going on for years, apparently. Staff has continually ignored it. There are rumors that some teachers might be users or dealers themselves.”
The food settled sour on her tongue. Paige put down her fork.
Matthew sobered. “Of course, this will more than likely mean trouble for my dad.” He became thoughtful. “He was careless. There is a good chance that the school will let him go.” He stared out to the lake.
“I didn't know,” Paige said. His dad might lose his job as principal and they were eating at a fancy restaurant as if nothing were happening?
Matthew sighed. “We’ll be fine.”
The plate in front of her was still quite full and her face forlorn.
“There’s a nice walking path by the lake,” he said. “Wanna skip dessert?”
“I’m sorry about your father,” Paige said.
Matthew nodded, his mind in a million places. It might be the end of football at Bass Towers, but it wouldn't be the tidy, happy-ending he’d hoped for. If the team went down, it would bring more than a fistful of people down with it. It made him angry. Angry with his dad and angry with those fucking drugged idiots, people one could loosely term as ‘athletes’.
He looked at the girl next to him. Smooth skin and large, green eyes. Matthew took in the way her hair flowed soft and red over her chest. She was beautiful. He would have told her then, if he hadn't already said it twice that evening.
They walked side-by-side on the stone-paved path, talking quietly about their hopes and fears for the future. Tentatively at first, he reached for her hand. His palm fit cleanly into hers. She didn't let go.
Outdoor lamps dotted and lighted the trail. Near the path wild sage and angelonia flowers grew. It was a nice distraction. She was a nice distraction.
The temperature steadily dropped. Matthew removed his jacket and draped it over Paige’s shoulders. Her dress was too summery for the occasion. The skirt of the dress ruffled at her knees as she walked. The navy material snaked up her hips and wrapped around the curves of her body. He tried not to stare.
Its heady scent hit them in the face before they saw it: the lake. Paige sat by a rock overlooking the water. Her nose was red from the cold, but she smiled, contented. Matthew sat next to her. They didn’t speak; they were happy to just sit and enjoy nature. Fingers itching for a cigarette, he rubbed his pant leg listlessly.
Taking off the jacket, she draped it over her knees before pulling them to her chest. “I didn’t see Cedric at the last Student Association meeting. Now I know why.”
“Yeah, I mean, I wish the guy well. He was one of the better players. Pretty cool too. Didn’t look down on anyone.”
Paige rested her head on her knee, chuckling. “You had to make that comment about the game.”
His eyebrows drew together.
Matthew shrugged. “Oh that. Considering his record. Ow!” She poked his side. “You weren’t there last year. Before all of the scholarship talk and before he ‘won’ the final game.”
“He’s not that bad player,” she said, although she couldn’t stifle the laugh that followed.
Pushing up his glasses, he grinned. “We’ll just have to agree to disagree. What’s with you and him anyway?”
Her eyes drifted to the ground. “Nothing. I think he’s nice but everyone keeps telling me differently.” She kicked at a pebble. “You were jealous when you saw us together, weren’t you?”
“I…don’t want you to get hurt. Those players aren’t known as the most monogamous, especially Devon. He’s cheated on his girlfriend so much I don’t know why she’d still with him.”
Paige looked up, stunned.
He caught her expression. “There’s a lot you don’t know about Bass.” He picked up a pebble.
The wind picked up, blowing her hair in her face. “I’m sure I can handle myself.”
“Sure of it. I’m just not sure I could handle you being used.” His fists clenched. The edges of the pebble stung in his hand. He tossed the rock into the lake, watching the water ripple. Looking next to him, he saw Paige blushing.
I’ve liked you since the day we met? He’d gotten tired of simply watching her in Anatomy and Physiology: Paige in class, bouncing around from desk to desk with an inquiry about homework or a dissection. Her habit annoyed more than one person in class. Matthew would slouch back in his seat, apparently disinterested, but he was very interested—in her.
“I mean,” he started. “You have a lot to be proud of. You’re smart. Fifteen and graduating,” Matthew said. “We always manage to have fun when we hang out. You’re pretty...”
She looked at her hands. “And you’re none of those things?” Paige said. “Okay, I wouldn’t describe you as pretty, that is unless you really want me to or something.”
“But, I find you very intelligent, and you're fun...
“In my own way.” Matthew finished for her.
“I think you are,” Paige said. He thought he was boring as hell, but it was nice to hear differently, especially from her.
It was silent. Her ears reddened, and her eyes were glued to the ground. “And you’re cute,” she said.
She finally looked up to meet his eyes. She smiled.
He leaned forward, watching her lids close, before he pressed his lips against hers. He felt at once relief and fear, longing mixed with inadequacy.
The kiss lasted seconds before they pulled away. She rested her head against his collar. His heart jackhammered against his chest as he clenched her waist.
He breathed in the intoxicating scent of her vanilla perfume. With his free hand, he tilted her chin up, compelling her lips to meet his again. Hers were soft, hard, warm, and cool as the night air around them. She wrapped her arms around him and allowed the kiss to deepen. They pulled away.
Foreheads touching, Matthew held her hands in his. Rubbed them.
His voice was hoarse. “Paige, I want you to be my girlfriend.”