THE DOOR TO THE MUD ROOM SQUEAKED. Emily Hampstead put a pencil in her French textbook and stood as Katherine Dempsey stopped at the kitchen door to take off her bike shoes. Emily went to the refrigerator and took out the Brita pitcher.
“How was your day?” She handed Katherine a tall glass of water. The older woman chugged it down before answering.
“Fine. In addition to all the classes going smoothly, no one came to office hours.”
“That’s unusual, isn’t it?”
“For me, yes. I was able to finish reviewing the book on the history of American military nursing and send it to the editor.”
“That’s great. You’ve been working on that since we came to Newton.”
“Longer than that, if you count all the research and brainstorming before I started writing.”
“So, we’ll soon have a best-seller on the shelves?”
“Hardly. University of Chicago is an academic press. I figure the editor, you and Mark will be my only readers. Maybe a couple of students trying for brownie points.”
“I’m glad you let me read the manuscript. I liked it.”
“Thanks, dear. And how was your day?”
“Easy. We had a study hall, so I got all my homework done.” She waved at the kitchen table. “I’m reading ahead in French. A short story about a girl cycling in the Loire Valley.”
Katherine took a protein shake from the refrigerator. “Did you get my note about supper?”
“Yes. The casserole has thawed, but it’s too early to put it in the oven. I didn’t expect you home so soon.”
“Southerly winds today – in case the sweat didn’t tell you.”
“Mark should be back in plenty of time.”
“Good. Thanks for your help, Emily. I want to remember to say that often, especially now that there is an extra mouth to feed.”
“He does like to take us out, you know.”
Katherine rinsed out the protein shake bottle. “You finish your story. I’ll go shower and change.”
“Don’t forget your stretches.” Emily winked and grinned. Her mother sometimes forgot to stretch, which could lead to cramped muscles.
Mark took a second helping of casserole and topped off everyone’s wine glass.
“You look pensive all of a sudden, Emily.”
“Just thinking.” She sighed. “The junior prom is next month.”
“No one has asked?”
“No.” She shrugged. “And I don’t expect anyone to.”
“I noticed that you’ve never brought anyone home. Any reason for that?”
Emily and Katherine exchanged glances. Mark had been Emily’s stepfather for only three years, but she had adored him since before he had proposed to Katherine. Still, he often found himself surprised by the experiences his new wife and stepdaughter had shared before he met them.
“I’m not exactly Miss Popularity at school. Most of the kids are friendly enough, but I run with two crowds who don’t attract boys: a Girl Scout troop that does wild camping and a road racing team. Neither of those involves the school.”
“And you’re an honor roll student,” said Katherine. “All in all, you must be intimidating, dear.”
“I was going to say awesome,” said Mark. Emily smiled.
“Nice of you to say, but my escort is expected to be unrelated, and, ideally, matriculated at my educational institution.” She affected a British public-school accent. They chuckled.
“You really want to go to the prom, don’t you?” said Mark.
“Not for its own sake, I think. I like dancing, and I enjoyed the other dances. But the prom is different. It means so much to my friends, and I want to see them having a good time. I’m the only one who doesn’t have a boyfriend or at least a date for the prom.”
Katherine looked over her wine glass at the conversation. Emily recognized that look and braced herself for something surprising.
“Why are you waiting for someone to ask?”
“You could ask someone you like.”
“All my friends are girls, Mom. You know I’m not lesbian or anything. We already have two gay couples coming.”
“It’s the twenty-first century. No one needs to know who asked whom.”
Mark said. “I remember being in awe of the smart girls who played varsity. If I were your age at Newton High, I would dream of taking you to the prom, but I’d be too scared to ask.”
“So, find some shy guy hiding in the library?”
“Or bring a date from off-campus. One of the road racers who’s not at your school or is home-schooled.”
Emily took a sip of her wine. She smiled at them. “I was thinking of going by myself, but finding a date could be fun. Thanks.”
“Hey, Antoine,” Emily said to the back of the student three lockers down from hers. She had admired that broad back and those muscular legs often enough in the peloton with the K-bikes team. Problem was that he always rode off immediately after each ride, so she never had a chance to chat with him. They were the only riders who showed up on their bicycles rather than with the bikes on a car.
Antoine straightened and jumped.
“Jeez, Em. You scared the shit outta me!”
“Sorry. I didn’t know you were concentrating.”
“Not that. It’s just that you move so quietly.”
“Oh. Well, sorry again. I have something to ask you, but not here.” She looked at the hallway teeming with shouting students rushing to their classes. He fell in next to her as they walked to math. “I noticed you started riding to school this year. Do you live nearby?”
“Close enough. Anderson Avenue. I would rather ride than take the bus.”
“I totally understand that.”
“You’ve never taken the bus, have you?”
“Not since seventh grade.”
“It took until last summer and some help from Matt to convince my mother to let me ride. I so prefer this.” Matt Owens was the owner of K-bikes and the team coach.
“Would you let me ride with you today? Maybe get an ice cream or coffee at Dillon’s?”
“I guess.” Antoine looked around. No one was paying attention. He gave her a quick grin. “I couldn’t drop you if you wanted to follow me. See you at the bike rack.”
They found their seats just as the bell rang.
Antoine and Emily carried their sundaes to the table in the corner. Emily almost tripped when he pulled out her chair and held it for her.
“No one’s ever done that for me.”
“My mama taught me to hold doors, and to offer my seat on the bus, too.”
“Well, my mama’s not much for what she calls sexist gallantry. It took my stepfather a whole year to get her to stop complaining when he would open the car door for her.” She smiled. “One day he said that he doesn’t act that way for bitches and phonies, so she would have to stop being a lady if she wanted him to stop being a gentleman – or something like that.”
He laughed as he sat. They each spooned a bite of their ice cream, while he looked intently at her.
“Your nickel, Em.”
“Have you asked anyone to the prom?” Antoine dropped his spoon. He took a napkin to wipe up the spilled ice cream on the table.
“Are you kidding?”
“No. Mary and Joanna are going, and my two friends in the scout troop. I’d like to go too.”
“Are you asking me?”
“Sure. Do you have a date already?”
“Of course not. I wasn’t going.”
“Why not? It’s the prom.”
Antoine stretched out his arm alongside Emily’s. “You even have to ask why?”
Emily stared at the shining limb next to hers. The muscles in his forearm rippled as he tapped his middle finger. It looked familiar.
“Do you play piano?”
Antoine dropped his jaw.
“Yes. How did you know?”
“The way the muscles in your arm move when you tap your finger.”
He pulled his jaw back in position. “What’s that got to do with – wait a minute! Is that the first thing you just noticed about my arm?”
“Well, yeah. And how shiny your skin is. It’s cool.”
Antoine took his arm back. “Emily, you are one weird girl. You didn’t just notice what color my skin is?”
“Sure, after I noticed your arm muscles. They’re much more interesting.”
“You’re putting me on, right?”
“No. Why would you think that?”
“Because this is America, and I’m Black. The only one in our class, I might add.”
“So? We’re friends; we’re on the same racing team – and both on the honor roll, I might add.”
“Because this is Newton, population less than twenty thousand and ninety-percent white.”
They ate their sundaes in silence. When they were almost finished, Emily asked, “I know almost nothing about you, because you always ride off alone. I know you came for freshman year. Where were you before?”
“Fort Hood, Texas. You?”
“Fredericksburg, Virginia. We came here in time for seventh grade.”
“I’d expect a Southern belle to understand race relations better than you seem to.”
“Tell me about your family, and I’ll tell you about mine. Then maybe we’ll each understand better.”
“What do you want to know?”
“What brought you here. What your family does. What you like or hate – that sort of thing.” She put down her spoon. “For example, my mother teaches at Wichita State. Feminist literature. She moved here from a better-paying job at Mary Washington University after my father was killed. We were pretty much basket cases after that until she met my stepfather, Mark. They were married three years ago. You?”
“Mine retired from the Army. She was an instructor at the Nurse Corps School in Fort Hood. Dad was killed in Afghanistan. My grandparents live here, and they’re not well. Mom is an ER nurse at Newton Medical Center. No stepfather. I wish.”
“Do you miss Texas?”
“Not really. I don’t have any friends outside our church, but at least I don’t get the unsolicited hatred I got there. And I do have my family.”
They stared for a while. He dropped his gaze first.
“Are you afraid to go to prom?”
“No. Well, yes. Probably nothing at the prom itself, but I would worry about the bullying later and the things that could happen.”
“I’ve already come back to my bike to find it vandalized. Usually a red N painted on the saddle. Three times since the shootings last year. I worry about slashed tires or loosened bolts if someone wants to teach me a lesson.” He held his hands up and made air quotes.
Emily did not hide her astonishment. “I’m sorry, Antoine, but that’s bullshit!”
“Yeah, but it happens.”
Emily sat and thought. Antoine picked up their empty sundae dishes and took them to the recycling bin.
“I want to think about this. If you don’t go with me, you won’t go?”
“Of course not.”
“Don’t ask anyone else until I get back to you, then.”
He laughed. “You got some spunk, Em. I’m looking forward to the ride tomorrow after school.”
When the K-bikes team rolled into the Newton High School parking lot, the sun was still up. The racers hefted their bicycles onto the various cars and vans. Antoine rode to the street without saying anything.
“Not so fast, Dewberry, ” Emily shouted at him. “Wait for me.”
She made the left turn into traffic on Twelfth Street with him. The other teenage riders stopped and stared at the pair riding away. Some of them had never noticed Antoine except during the rides; they could not have told you how he got there or how he left after each ride.
“Can I come home with you, today or soon?”
“No. I want to meet your mother. She must be awesome, taking care of an Emergency Room, aging parents and you, by herself.”
“Em, you know what happens to Black boys who are seen hanging with white girls?”
“Antoine, this is Kansas, not Mississippi.”
“You’d be surprised.”
They rode for a couple of blocks.
“Well, do you have time to meet my mom?”
“Mama is on second shift today, but—”
“Good. Let’s go to my place. Just to meet her. Follow me.”
He sighed. “I usually follow you, Em. So does everyone else on the team.”
“Mom, this is Antoine Dewberry. He’s in my class.”
“And on the K-bikes team, I see.” Katherine wiped her hands on her apron and shook hands with the boy in the racing team kit.
“Please to meet you, Mrs. Hampstead.”
“It’s Dempsey now, but I’m still getting used to it myself.”
“Oh, yeah. Emily told me.”
“I asked Antoine about the prom, and he’s trying to educate me on the realities of race relations in America. Can we talk about this?”
“Emily, let’s meet him first, shall we?” She took off her apron. “Something to drink, Antoine? If you just came off the training ride, you’ll want both water and a protein shake.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“Emily?” She signaled with her head for Emily to serve the drinks. “Come, Antoine, let’s sit in the living room.”
Emily brought the tray out. Katherine and Antoine had just sat.
“Your mother is Major Yvette Dewberry, isn’t she?”
Antoine did not contain his surprise. “Yes, ma’am. How did you know?”
“It’s an uncommon surname. I interviewed her last year for a book I was writing. She is quite a hero in the nursing community. You didn’t know?”
“Well, she has a bunch of medals, but she doesn’t like to talk about what she did.”
“I know what you mean. It took me a long time to get her to open up.”
Antoine shook his head. “I never guessed. You probably know more about her than I do.”
“I don’t think so. We just know different things. She isn’t my mother after all. And you’re a third-generation Army brat. Both your grandparents were in Vietnam, weren’t they?”
“I’m not sure. I just know that they’re old.”
“Your grandparents look older than they should because they were both exposed to Agent Orange. I wrote a whole chapter on nurses in Southeast Asia, and your grandmother figured in it.”
“Mom, I want to meet his family, even if he won’t go to the prom with me.”
“Well, now that I know that Yvette and her mother are in town, I’d like to see them again. Antoine, do you mind if we gave her a call?”
“No. Not at all, ma’am.” He dictated their home phone number. “I’m stunned.”
He was still shaking his head as he rode down their driveway, his lights blinking in the failing daylight. Mark pulled his Tesla well to the right to give him plenty of room.
“Hey, Em.” Emily jumped, spilling her physics book.
“You’re pretty sneaky yourself, Antoine.” She picked up the book and closed the locker. “What’s up?”
“Come home with me. I want to talk to my mama about the prom, and I want you there.”
Emily glanced around. “You’re sure?” Since Antoine mentioned the shootings in February of last year, she was more aware of the sour looks on some of the students.
“Yes. She wants to meet the daughter of the professor who convinced her to talk about her time on active duty. Before your mother comes.”
“Oh, okay, I guess.”
They walked out to their bikes. Their houses were less than five hundred yards apart as the crow flies, and less than a mile from school off Twelfth Street.
After they leaned their bikes inside the garage, Antoine’s mother came through the mud room. A trim woman with no gray in her short hair, her figure and her height explained Antoine’s athletic appearance. She had crow’s feet when she smiled, which must be often. When the smile relaxed, Emily noticed the set of a jaw in a face that exacted unquestioning obedience. Not like a mother, she thought. A commander.
“So, this is the famous Emily Hampstead. Come in!” She held the door for them. “Antoine has issues of Cycling News all over the house. You’re in the last two.”
“Pleased to meet you, Ms. Dewberry. Those articles were a surprise. Who would care about a mid-level race in Kansas?”
“No one would notice a small bike shop team taking all three places on the podium at the Midwest Regionals? C’mon!” She opened the refrigerator. “Something to drink?”
When they were seated in the living room with orange juice, Ms. Dewberry said, “I know you have to get home, so I’ll be direct. Why did you ask Antoine to the prom?”
“I wanted to go, and he’s the only guy friend I have at school.”
“You’re a beautiful girl, Emily. Why no friends?”
“Thank you, ma’am. I didn’t say no friends, just no male friends. The guys I hang out with are at K-bikes or on the racing team, and Antoine is the only one of those at school with me.”
“You like older men, I take it.” She grinned as she said it. Antoine looked down; he would have blushed if he could.
“Not especially. But Antoine smiled at me when he showed up for his first training ride freshman year.”
“She’d been riding with them unofficially for two years already,” said Antoine. “Even then, she was the fastest rider on the team.” He looked at Emily. “And, to be fair, you smiled first. No one else looked like they wanted me there.”
“Matt took a gamble on me as a twelve-year-old girl. No surprise that he was more interested in the way you ride than anything else.”
Yvette had been switching her gaze back and forth during this exchange. “Which brings us to the crux of the matter. Why would you invite a boy to the prom? And a Black boy at that?”
“Because who cares who invites whom? As my mother pointed out when the prom came up at supper, this is the twenty-first century. We’re on the same team, but we’re both nerds at school, because cycling isn’t football. We’re both on the honor roll, and I noticed that he checks out the same books at the library that I do.
“It doesn’t hurt that he’s smoking hot.” She grinned at Antoine’s stunned look. “C’mon, Antoine, hasn’t anyone ever whistled at you?”
Yvette laughed. A pleasant, almost musical laugh. “Girl, you are a piece of work!”
“I’ll take that as a compliment, ma’am.”
“It is. Now, haven’t you thought about the fact that he is Black and you’re not?”
“Honestly, until he mentioned it, no.” She glanced at Antoine and back at Yvette. “Should I?”
“Our reality, Emily, is that almost everyone does – and first. On top of that, Larry Ford’s girlfriend was white. The shootings at the Excel plant have everyone noticing mixed-race couples more than they would have.”
“Well, almost everyone I meet assumes that a girl can’t race or run or defend herself. It makes me push back.”
“Not the same. I’m a woman, too, so I understand what you mean, but race complicates everything in America.”
They sipped their orange juice in silence.
Emily said, “I’ve read about white privilege, so I know this could backfire on Antoine worse than on me. But it makes me mad. I like you, Antoine. This is just not fair.” She looked at his mother. “Any ideas?”
“Actually, yes, but now that I’ve met you and formed an impression, it’s time for me to meet your mother again – and your stepfather. I am pleased that you take after her the way I expected.”
“She wants to see you again.”
“Antoine told me, and she called this afternoon. We agreed to meet tomorrow afternoon. You don’t have another date, do you?” She chuckled and stood.
“No, ma’am.” Emily and Antoine stood. “It was a pleasure to meet you.”
They walked to the garage. Antoine opened the door while Emily donned her helmet. The sun was still up, but she turned on her blinking lights anyway.
“It’s as close to a limo as I can get, Antoine. Hop in.”
“Where’s Emily, Mr. Dempsey?” Antoine climbed in the back of the Tesla and closed the door.
“At home. She may have invited you, but I’m old fashioned enough to make the gentleman go pick up his date. Your mothers should be at the school by now.”
“I didn’t expect my mama to volunteer to be a chaperone. She hasn’t been active with the school.”
“Most working single moms can’t. It’s the same with Emily’s mother. But I think it’s brilliant. Either one of them could quell a riot. Together, they’ll be like a SWAT team before anything happens.”
“Yeah, I guess. Mama can be pretty scary.”
Mark pulled up outside the Dempsey home. Emily came out in a fetching gown that flared enough below the hips for her legs to move freely. The sleeveless top showed off her well-toned muscles, which made observers notice her shoulders and head before her chest. Her hair was done up in a sort of reverse French braid. At least that’s what she called it.
Antoine and Mark both stared until Mark said, “Stunning, Emily.”
“Yeah, you look great.”
“Thanks, both of you. It feels weird. I don’t think I’ve worn anything more formal than a skirt and blouse since the wedding.”
Antoine held the car door for her. “First time for everything. Mama had to show me how to put on this tux.” Inside the car, he handed her a corsage, which they pinned to her gown.
Ten minutes later, Mark eased up behind someone’s rented limousine outside the school. Antoine leaped out and went around to hand Emily out of the car.
“Phone me when you’re ready to go. I may sneak in myself, but don’t you think about that.”
“Thank you, Mr. Dempsey.”
He started to move, then stopped the car. “And remember what I said, driver service includes any post-prom parties that you might want to attend. I’m just the chauffer tonight, seriously.”
“Thanks, Mark.” Emily bent her knees and waved at him.
Antoine held out his arm. Emily took it and they walked smoothly past the couples who paused to stare outside the school and down the hall…
Katherine put down her book when she heard the parking brake of the Tesla in the garage. She came downstairs in her bathrobe just as Mark and Emily walked into the kitchen.
“Mom, you didn’t have to stay up for us.”
“I know. I only got back an hour ago. Yvette and I had drinks at her house before I came home. You two looked like you were having a very good time. Want to tell me about the post-prom shenanigans or wait until breakfast?”
“I’d love to stay up. This was such a wonderful night that I don’t want it to end. But we do have church tomorrow.”
“Breakfast, then.” Katherine kissed her daughter before she headed up the stairs. “Good night, dear.”
Mark took Katherine in his arms and kissed her, long and passionately.
“And how was your driving gig, dear?”
“I had fun, too. Apart from the fact that I could stream books or movies in the car, I really enjoyed watching the kids. They had a ball at the prom, and even more than that at the pizza joint and Joanna’s house.”
“They can party hard, can’t they? It’s four a.m.”
“Oh, to be a teenager again.”
“Not me. Not for anything. Twenty-five maybe, but not a teenager.” She hugged him. “C’mon, let’s have our own post-prom party.” She loosened his tie and led him upstairs by the hand….
© 2022, JT Hine