The moon was rising high in the sky as people from Tampa and beyond came to the lavish Chambrelle Hotel for the Halloween party. Traffic around Tampa was ridiculous, everybody heading to the same place at the same time. This horrendous traffic was the reason that a usual 20 minute drive turned into 45 minutes for Mark and his companions. Mark sat in the front passenger's seat in Monaghan's car and leant his head back on the head rest. He closed his eyes momentarily, trying to savor the last minutes of peace he had until he entered the circus of the party. When Monaghan finally turned the car into the crowded parking lot, Joey shook Mark from the back seat to bring him back to reality. Suddenly, everything rushed into the depths of Mark's stomach all at once: excitement, curiosity, fear… But what was he afraid of? Perhaps it was that he was a Talbert entering a Welton party, which put a target on his forehead. No, that couldn't be it. Nobody would know that he was there anyway, if everything happened as planned, that is. Maybe it was that he was afraid Elaine would reject him. Yes, that must've been it. Mark's biggest fear was rejection after all. When somebody didn't say yes to him, it would feel like he was being shot in the stomach and trampled on.
Mark situated his mask on his face and waited for Monaghan and Joey to compose themselves. This time, there was a break in tradition. Mark did not lead the way. It was Monaghan that was the tip of the bird flock, and as a jumbled, incoherent unit, they made their way up to the bouncer at the door, pushing through the crowd of extravagant costumes and equally extravagant personalities. "VIP here! Move out of the way!" Monaghan bellowed.
"Name?" the bouncer said monotonously.
"Monaghan D'Sarion." The bouncer started scanning his clipboard. "I'm Mayor D'Sarion's nephew." The bouncer stopped skimming and smirked.
"And who are the Phantom and Zorro?" he asked. Mark started freaking out. He looked over to Joey whose pupils widened. Nonetheless, Joey stepped forward.
"Well…" Joey floundered for a minute. "I am Joseph…" he scrambled for a last name, then spit one out, "Cranberry! Joseph Cranberry."
"Like the Thanksgiving side?" the bouncer was very confused.
"Yes. Don't judge." Ironically, Joey then waited for the bouncer's judgment.
"You're good to go. How about you, Phantom?" Mark was a very calculated person, and thinking of things like this on the spot only served to make him more paranoid of being discovered.
"Shakespeare!" Joey interjected. Mark gave him the most disgusted of looks. He could not believe what he had just heard. Sometimes, Mark wondered how Joey even made it to his senior year and how on Earth he was projected to actually graduate.
"So you're Joseph Cranberry and William Shakespeare?" the bouncer asked in confirmation, hardly believing it himself.
"Yes," Monaghan said. "And I am the mayor's nephew, an honored guest, and I was told I could bring two other guests of my choosing. These are my chosen guests and I demand that you let us in." The bouncer gritted his teeth and opened the door for them. With one last demonizing glare, Monaghan, Joseph, and Mark (in that specific order) entered the party.
It was like a whole other planet in there. The décor was spectacularly done. Balloons in black, orange, purple, and neon green covered the mile high ceiling around the extravagant chandelier hanging down. Though the main lights were out, the golden walls shone from the strobe lights surrounding the stage. On the stage itself was a DJ mixing music on the many laptops and high tech equipment he had around him. Upwards of two to three hundred costumed people were dancing in close proximity on the ballroom floor. Mark wondered how on Earth he was going to find Elaine in this mess of people. The three boys turned to face each other. "If you want to go find What's Her Face, go ahead. Joey and I can handle the name taking," Monaghan yelled to Mark over the extremely loud music.
"Thank you!" Mark responded enthusiastically and patted Monaghan on the shoulder. "I'll repay you for this."
"No need," Joey said, "Just go." Mark smiled and pushed through the people to look through the crowd. Joey and Monaghan made their way towards the stage and found a secluded, empty area behind a pillar to settle and take notes.
The DJ cut the music and spoke into the microphone, making people settle. "Let's go ahead and get started with these long awaited auditions, everyone." The Welton family subsequently took a seat in a long line of chairs to judge the auditionees. Monaghan laid eyes on Elaine and looked desperately in the surrounding vicinity to make sure that Mark wasn't trying to do anything risky. When he couldn't spot the Phantom mask anywhere, his nerves settled a bit. Mark, in fact, had noticed the compromising arrangement of Weltons at the front and smartly decided he would like to live to see 18. Mark stood next to the hors d'oeuvre table, waiting for his chance to speak to her and tell her how much he wanted to try a relationship with her against all better judgment and odds. Just as the first person was getting on stage to perform a skit, Lydia tapped on her father's shoulder.
"I'm going to get some food. Alright?" she asked.
"Take your time, sweetie. Enjoy yourself." Lydia stood from her seat and went around the crowd to reach the table on the side. Lydia approached the table, took a small plate, and began to pile on little quiches.
After she had put four or five on the plate, a male voice sounded in front of her. "A quiche fanatic?" Lydia glanced up and across the table. In front of her was a tall, tan, brunette boy dressed as the Phantom of the Opera. His eyes were piercing hazel, his smile was perfect, and Lydia couldn't help but blush when he spoke. She wanted to reach out and touch him, but held back because she didn't want to seem too forward.
"Actually, yes." Lydia chuckled, which served to make the blood rush to Mark's cheeks and his stomach jump up and down. Her voice was music to his ears and he never wanted her to stop speaking. "It's… very high in calcium." Very high in calcium! Lydia bit her tongue to punish herself for her stupid response. This was what her inexperience with boys amounted to. Realizing her stupidity, she quickly tried to salvage herself. "I'm sorry. That was really –"
"Cute," Mark interjected. Lydia couldn't help but grin. How on Earth could one person make her feel so helpless? Mark reached across the table to take Lydia's free hand. "Would you like to take a walk outside?" Lydia set her plate of quiche down and nodded her head, never letting go of Mark's hand in the process. He guided her out the side door and onto a path that lead to the hotel garden. "So tell me about yourself." Mark looked down at Lydia.
"Well, I am a poetry fan. Robert Frost and Shakespeare are my favorites." It was too good to be true, Mark thought.
"Is that so? I am too. It's a little secret I keep from my friends, they can be quite judgmental at times." The truth was, Mark kept a stash of poetry books in his closet. If Joey or Monaghan ever found out about it, they would surely tease him to no end, so it was his little secret. Most nights before he went to sleep, he would dig one out and absorb the words on the page like a sponge. The roots of his poetic fascination traced back to when he was a young boy. Instead of reading him bedtime stories, his mother would read him bedtime poetry. It was generally Roald Dahl and Shel Silverstein, but as he got older, he delved into the works of deeper poets like Donne, Marvell, and Frost. Mark did wish that he could go back to the Dahl and Silverstein days, as that was when he and his mother were actually close. Now, his mother seemed only present as an entity to remind him of how to be a good Jew, but that was all she concerned herself with anymore.
"Oh," Lydia said, "I'm sorry about that."
"It's fine. Anyway, where do you go to school?" Mark asked. Lydia chuckled nervously and looked away. She hated this question. It always seemed to be the deal breaker in forging lasting relationships with boys.
"Tampa Bay Academy, but I swear, I am not one of those rich, snobby girls." Anytime she told somebody she was a TBA student they assumed she was some conceited girl who only cared about money, so she always felt the need to add a disclaimer at the end. Mark, on the other hand, could not believe what he was hearing. This beautiful girl loved poetry and went to his school.
"No way! I go to TBA, too!" Lydia stopped walking and turned to face Mark. She wanted to cry at that moment. Everything about this seemed to be falling into place. Perhaps those times where she thought she would leave high school unkissed, untouched, and unloved were leading to this. "I'm a junior and I haven't seen you around."
"I'm a sophomore, but I spent last year in England with a relative." Mark and Lydia, still hand in hand, reached a gazebo and sat on a bench inside it. Lydia used her free hand to remove Mark's mask. She released a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. She ran her fingertips along his cheek and he leaned into her hand, never wanting to part from the warmth radiating off of her, never wanting her to remove her extremity.
"What is your name?" Mark whispered.
"Lydia." Lydia. Only five letters, but perhaps the most beautiful name his ears had ever acknowledged. "And yours?"
"Mark." His name was just as beautiful to her as hers was to him, and she just wanted to shout it out to the world. "You can't tell anybody I'm here, though. I shouldn't be here."
"Why shouldn't you?" Lydia was a bit confused. "Everybody in Tampa is invited."
"Not everybody. Not Talberts." Lydia was quick to piece two and two together. She freaked out and stood up. "What's wrong? The only thing that could be possibly compromising was if you were a Welton." That was it for Lydia. She let out the tears that had built up.
"Mark," she finally said his name, and it was a knife in his chest. "I am David Welton's only daughter..."
His breath hitched and he buried his head in his hands. Why did this always have to happen to him? The tenth principle in Maimonides' Thirteen Principles of Faith, one of the most widely accepted lists of Jewish beliefs, states that God is all-knowing. In Mark's eyes, the all-knowing God brought Lydia to him, opened his heart to her, and to reject that gift due to a stupid rivalry would not only tear him apart inside, but would be a rejection of God. Rejecting God was not something he ever wanted to venture towards. Lifting his head back up, he said the three words that marked the beginning of the end, "I don't care." The next few seconds were a blur. Mark stood swiftly and took one step forward. He lifted up Lydia's chin with his fingers and pressed his lips fervently against hers. It caught her by surprise, but once she realized what was happening, she responded with the same amount of passion. It was her first kiss; her lips no longer virgins. She had imagined it like this, but even those fantasies couldn't measure up to reality. Mark sensed her inexperience and helped her along. When she didn't know where to place her hands, he guided them up to his hair. When she didn't know what to do with her tongue, he coaxed it into his mouth. Mark's lips left Lydia's and found their way to her neck, where he nipped and kissed her smooth skin.
Joey and Monaghan already had about three or four names written in a memo on their phones, which was not a good thing considering about ten acts had gone. "Our next and final act is…" the DJ looked at the name, "Devin Morrison." The two boys looked at each other at the exact same time.
"What the hell?!" Monaghan said to Joey. "He doesn't even go to TBA. Hell, he doesn't live in Tampa." Devin Morrison was Monaghan's cousin. Whereas Monaghan was Mayor D'Sarion's brother's son, Devin was the son of the mayor's sister, hence the different last name. Devin lived with his parents in St. Petersburg across the Bay. He attended the St. Petersburg Preparatory School, the Academy's primary athletic rival. Devin and Monaghan did not get along… at all. In fact, they avoided each other at all costs, and really only saw each other at family occasions like reunions and holiday dinners. It was just a personality conflict. Devin was very preppy, which came across to Monaghan as trying too hard to be liked. Monaghan was very belligerent, which Devin took as a lack of consideration for others.
Devin announced he was going to sing, and the music started behind him. Monaghan's eyes narrowed as he looked to for any possible flaw to point out to Devin afterwards, but he was disappointed to find that there was none. Devin was a magnificent singer with a voice that cut through the crowd. He sang a piano ballad by Radiohead and after the final note rang out, the crowd was still quiet. Then they erupted in cheers. "Don't take his name down," Monaghan ordered Joey, "He's not worth it." They looked to the line of Weltons in front of the stage. Both boys noted that one chair was empty and that Hunter was conversing with his father. Devin exited downstage right, passing the column where Monaghan and Joey stood. Monaghan grabbed Devin by his elbow. "What are you doing here?"
Devin chuckled. "Getting my big break. What I should ask is what is he doing here?" Devin motioned to Joey, recognizing him through the mask. Monaghan didn't even get a chance to respond because Hunter came and joined the group. That was when everything went south.
"What is who doing here?" Hunter asked. He looked at Monaghan suspiciously. Hunter didn't quite care for Monaghan but didn't respond much to his presence as he knew Monaghan was invited due to family connections. Hunter's eyes then strayed to Joey. "Who are you?" Hunter asked.
Devin smirked. "Joey Vanderbilt," he exposed.
Hunter was shockingly calm. "Well, Mo and Larry, where's Curly?"
"I don't know, actually," Joey said. "What does it matter to you anyway? We weren't bothering anybody."
"Yes, you were: the new star of Welton Talent Representation." Hunter patted Devin on the back and plastered a fake smile on his face.
"Who just so happens to be my cousin." Monaghan had no problem spoiling this for Devin, and did so without a shred of guilt.
"You two are related?" Hunter inquired, looking Devin in the eyes.
"Yes, but I've always been on the side of the Weltons, I assure you of that." The counterattack was made and Hunter fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Hunter smiled slyly again.
"Go over and talk to my dad. He has some information for you." Devin nodded and did as told. Hunter remained, however. When Devin was a ways away, Hunter turned back to Monaghan and Joey. "You have five minutes to find the Other One and leave."
"Or what?" Joey asked.
"Or you're dead." Hunter showed no emotion.
"Yeah, right. You're all talk and no show," Monaghan responded. But just when he doubted Hunter's malevolence, it back fired. Hunter lifted up his shirt and showed that holstered around his abdomen was a 9 mm, locked and loaded.
"Try me." Monaghan and Joey didn't want to take any chances.
Monaghan cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled as loud as his lungs and vocal cords would allow him, "Fuck!" Then they made a run for it, pushing through people, knocking them to the ground, and not even caring who they trampled over.
In the gazebo, Lydia sat in Mark's lap. They held each other, caressed each other, and intermittently placed small kisses on each other's lips, nose, and forehead. "I've never felt this way before," Lydia whispered.
Mark wrapped one of her curls around his finger and watched as it unraveled. "There have been times where I've thought I felt strongly for someone, but it has never been as strong as this."
"What are we going to do?" Lydia asked uncertainly, standing up. "We can never be together openly."
Mark stood up, too. "We'll find a way," he said. Honestly, he wasn't too sure what that way would be or how it would work out, but dammit, they were going to try. Just as he was leaning to kiss Lydia once more, he heard it loud and clear.
"Fuck!" It was Joey's voice. Mark stopped in his tracks.
"I have to go, Lydia. I am so sorry." He kissed her briefly and didn't give her a chance to speak before he ran away as fast as his legs could carry him. Lydia stood silently in the gazebo watching him run until his black cape made him blend in with the night and he disappeared around the corner. She looked back over her shoulder and noticed that Mark's mask was still there. She picked it up delicately and cried. Fortune surely was fickle.
The three boys wasted no time jumping into Monaghan's car and speeding out. "What happened?" Mark asked, heaving heavy breaths.
"Long story short, Hunter threatened to kill us," Joey said from the back seat.
"Oh, come on! You know he talks a lot of shit. Why would you believe him?"
"He had a gun, asshole! While you were God knows where, we were in there fearing for our lives!" Monaghan added.
Mark scoffed. "Fearing for your lives! That's a bunch of bullshit. So he had a gun, and what makes you think he would have actually shot you? There were all those people around and he would have gotten caught and taken to jail." Monaghan grit his teeth and Joey stayed quiet, opting to let the little argument blow over.
"Where were you anyway?" Joey asked while looking out the window at the city passing by.
"In the garden." Mark answered plainly and shortly, not wanting to divulge much information.
"Just getting some fresh air. It was kind of stuffy in there with all those people." Mark didn't say anything else the entire ride back home and when he got in his house, he wasted no time in going to bed.
As the night was wearing down and the partygoers cleared out the ballroom, the Weltons and Devin gathered in a conference room just off the lobby of the hotel. "Mr. Morrison, I must say that your musical talent is undeniable," David complimented. "I would like to offer you representation with us. We will make your music career take off. We just need to discuss some matters." David offered Devin a seat at the table with the rest of the family. Hunter and Brenda were very attentive to the conversation. Elaine was texting on her cell phone. Lydia was lost. She looked down at the Phantom mask in her lap; she had tried to keep it hidden. Lydia wondered where Mark could be. Was he thinking about her? Would she see him again? If the answer to those questions was no, she had no idea what she would do with herself. Surely, she would have to move on if that was the case, but how could she go to school every day knowing that he was there, the one who gave her the first glimpse of what it meant to be in love. Love? That was something she hadn't considered this to be, but the more she thought about it, the more she really started to see it as a possibility. And the more it lingered as a possibility, the more it solidified into a certainty. She was in love, in love with someone she shouldn't be, in love with someone fleeting. Lydia had no way of contacting Mark other than seeing him at school, and they never crossed paths to begin with, so there was slim chance of it happening now. Not to mention, if they were ever sighted within ten feet of each other, there would be outrage.
"Where do you go to school?" David asked Devin.
"St. Petersburg Prep."
"Oh, so you come from money?" David asked. Hunter scoffed.
"My uncle is Mayor D'Sarion." David lit up. This was just the edge he needed.
"How would you feel about transferring to the Academy? I know it's a bit of a drive every morning, but we can make it work. I'll pay half your tuition under one condition."
Devin raised a brow, intrigued at the direction of this conversation. "And that is?"
"You pledge loyalty to me. I know your cousin is Monaghan, and he is a Talbert associate. I don't want there to be any question about whose side you're on."
"Sir, you have my word." Devin and David shook hands.
"Bring your parents and lawyer to my office Monday at four and we'll negotiate. Welcome to the family, Devin."
When the Weltons returned home just past midnight, Lydia went to straight to her room to take a shower, but not before stashing the mask away in her closet where she was sure no one would find it. While brushing her teeth, Lydia noticed something peculiar. She slowly took the toothbrush out of her mouth and tilted her head to the right. She leaned forward to get a closer look. At the nape of her neck was the beginning of a bruise. It was only slightly purple, but she had a feeling that tomorrow it would be the color of an eggplant. Elaine had had one of these things before. Lydia had seen it. She rummaged through the makeup in the drawer of her sink and found concealer. She tried to dab it on her neck to cover up the purple spot when there was a knock on the door. "Lydia, it's me." It was Elaine. Elaine opened the door cautiously and her eyes went straight to Lydia's neck. "Is that a hickey?"
Lydia didn't answer. She averted her gaze so that she didn't look Elaine in her eyes. "If that's what you call it, then yes." Elaine crossed her arms then took the applicator of the concealer from Lydia and continued the dabbing of her neck.