Guardian of the Punch Bowl

The worst day of the entire year had dawned once again. After 365 long days, the world just couldn't go without it. An endless day of pure, undignified torture, and for those more fortunate than Reilly Sawyer, perhaps a little romance. No, sadly it was not April Fools Day, although Reilly would have preferred the alternative. The year was a little too early to be thinking of twenty-four hours worth of practical jokes. Spring was just barely beginning to show signs of poking through the grey and sludge. Of course, on that day the sun had spread the clouds like Moses parting the Red Sea; of course on that day the birds sang as though everything was right in the world; of course on that day the whole bloody world had to smile, laugh, and kiss, asking each other the greatest, most perplexing question the human species had ever created: Will you be my Valentine?

Reilly Sawyer hated Valentine's Day.

Every year for every Valentine's Day Dance, throughout middle school and high school, Reilly dressed up and took her empty seat by the punch bowl table. No one understood why she simply sat there, without a dance partner, without a boyfriend, without anyone really. Because of this she had been dubbed Guardian of the Punch Bowl. The name was a real hit in her books. Why she put herself through the torture of enduring an entire night watching other couples dance and exchange saliva and attempt some sort of juvenile romanticism was beyond anyone. Only Reilly knew.

"I don't understand your behavior, Reills." Her best friend, Nate had said at almost every Valentine's Day lunch for the past three years they'd known each other. As a rule, he never went to dances, claiming they were "boring and dumb" – his favorite adjectives. He pretended to know a great deal about the psycho species called females. Reilly had only proved to an enigma.

At this Reilly had shrugged with indifference. "Maybe I just like to pretend I'm someone else for awhile."

"You mean you like to fantasize?" Nathan's green and blue eyes sparkled in mischief.

She had pushed his head down towards the floor in an attempt to wipe the crude smile off his face. "Don't be gross. I meant something different."

Nate's smirk stayed in place. "I know." For some reason his smile faded and the childish glint left his mismatched eyes. "I know what you meant."

So there Reilly sat, the punch bowl not two feet away from her. This year the punch had been made red, as opposed to last year's pink, but it still represented her station. Her head rested in clenched fists, elbows digging into her knees. High top Converse shoes barely reached the floor, barely brushing the waxed hardwood as they swung lightly. A small sigh escaped her rarely glossed lips. She stared forlornly out onto the dance floor where couples of all shapes and sizes swayed back and forth. They all seemed so content.

The couple closest to her happened to be her close friend. She was dancing with a tall, awkward boy who had finally gotten the nerve to ask her out that day. Her hair had been done up in beautiful auburn ringlets and her red dress wasn't too bright. In fact, it matched her date's tie perfectly. It was sickening how perfectly they were coordinated. Her head leaned comfortably against his chest as he held her close, his own cheek resting on her carefully made-up hair. Oh how she hated them, hated it all, hated being the Guardian of the Punch Bowl. It was foolish to hope that anything other than her bothersome nickname would be looked upon with something akin to pity. Life just didn't work that way.

With a frustrated, sad little sigh Reilly stood and left the room, never to be Guardian again.

She walked slowly home, the cool night air on her bare arms and shoulders causing her to shiver frequently. A plain black dress without straps and a bit of lace went just past her knees. The bottom billowed out and swayed with the rhythm of her footsteps. Plum-colored hair had been straightened and gelled so it fell just right. Brown eyes had been dusted and prodded and poked with the access of make-up. All that work to look pretty, and for what? She didn't know anymore.

Her house stood in the bright moonlight, warm light illuminating the grass in front of the living room bay window. The front porch light had been turned on, her parents still out on their yearly 'date.' She remembered with a small smile how happy they had been as they'd waved to her, telling her to not have too much fun. Sitting by the punch bowl had never been fun, but she hadn't told them so. Reilly crossed the grass and up the front porch steps, opening the unlocked door. Her parents had never put much thought into security in such a good neighborhood and at that point Reilly hadn't cared. She wanted only to go to bed and forget the day had ever happened, until next year. Perhaps next year would be different.

The basement steps were dark and creaked even with her light weight. The empty den at the end of the stairs held only a small couch, coffee table, and a television. She knew the darkened room by heart. Past the den was a small hallway that led to her room, a welcomed sight. Just as her back was turned to venture to her bedroom the den lit up in warm light, illuminated by old Christmas lights.

"I figured it out." A voice startled her.

Quickly she spun around to see Nate standing with his hands behind his back. Black Converse shoes matched his equally black suit and tie, a starched light pink-collared shirt gleaming in the light. "Nate, what are you doing here?"

He took a step forward. "I figured it out." He repeated, his blue and green eyes sparkling with his profound discovery.

"Figured what out?" Had he lost his mind from over-thinking the female mind?

He smiled lightly and took two more steps towards her. His mismatched eyes traveled her up and down appreciatively. "You look pretty."

Reilly could feel her cheeks go as red as her friend's dress at the comment. "Um, thanks. You look…nice too." Her brows drew together. "Why are you dressed up? And what are you doing here?"

He shrugged but didn't offer any other answer. Without a word he laced his fingers with hers and used his free hand to pull her waist towards him. "Dance with me?"

Reilly stared at him, her eyes as wide as the giant red balloons that had been hanging in the gym. Her throat was unable to choke out anything remotely English, so she said nothing, only stared and nodded indiscernibly.

Nate smiled in amusement as they swayed side to side, so close she could feel his breath on her face. "For days I was thinking about why you would want to go to a dance all alone. I didn't understand it at all. But it occurred to me just tonight…" he didn't elaborate or continue, only pulled her closer until they were embracing, rocking side to side in rhythmic motion.

Reilly had never been more confused in her entire life. Her best friend was dressed in a suit, holding her tight. It was as though he'd read her mind without knowing.

"I kind of figured out something about myself too." he said, his breath on her ear causing her to shiver involuntarily.

"What's that?"

He squeezed her and pulled back, his face a mask of the boyish mischief she was used to seeing. "I know it's kind of late, but… Think you could stand to be my Valentine this year?"

She was a bit surprised, but smiled a little and shrugged. "Maybe."

Slowly he bent down and kissed her softly, pulling her back to him in swaying motion.

The Guardian of the Punch Bowl never went back to her post. She didn't have to.