Liz Lighty has always believed she’s too black, too poor, too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town. But it’s okay—Liz has a plan that will get her out of Campbell, Indiana, forever: attend the uber-elite Pennington College, play in their world-famous orchestra, and become a doctor. But when the financial aid she was counting on unexpectedly falls through, Liz’s plans come crashing down … until she’s reminded of her school’s scholarship for prom king and queen. There’s nothing Liz wants to do less than endure a gauntlet of social media trolls, catty competitors, and humiliating public events, but despite her devastating fear of the spotlight she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get to Pennington. The only thing that makes it halfway bearable is the new girl in school, Mack. She’s smart, funny, and just as much of an outsider as Liz. But Mack is also in the running for queen. Will falling for the competition keep Liz from her dreams … or make them come true?
I’m clutching my tray with both hands, hoping that Beyoncé grants me the strength to make it to my usual lunch table without any incidents.
I shudder at the thought of a slip that douses me in ranch dressing or a trip that lands me in the lap of one of the guys from the wrestling team. Or, worse, a video of that fall blowing up on Campbell Confidential, the gossipy, Twitter-esque app some senior created a few years ago that has become my worst nightmare. I’m grateful that in a few months all this will be behind me. I’ll be on my way to Pennington, the best private college in the state, living the life I’ve always dreamed about: one surrounded by people like me, in a place I fit, on track to becoming a doctor. It’s so close I can taste it. All I need is the email confirming that I got the scholarship and—
“Lighty, watch it! I’ve got a thing to do.” Derek Lawson leans into the word thing like what he’s prepping for is some big mystery as he plants himself directly in front of me. I take a step back— tray still in my death grip— and brace myself. I know what happens next. We all do. This type of public spectacle is second nature in Campbell this time of year.
Before I have a chance to spare myself the very specific torture that accompanies watching a flash mob full of varsity athletes singing and dancing in unison like some sort of value-brand boy band, it’s already happening.
Derek slides across the floor with the type of drama that would make the cast of Hamilton sit up and take notes. He climbs onto the long table where his crew normally sits and points down to his girlfriend and my not-so-secret rival, Rachel Collins. Someone presses play on a speaker somewhere, and that’s when it starts: another freaking promposal.
Even though this has been happening at least twice a week since the semester started, I swear one of the freshman girls at the table next to me faints from excitement when Derek begins singing a remixed and prom-themed version of “Time of My Life.” Her friends are too distracted to even help her up.
Prom in Campbell County, Indiana, is like football in Texas. The only difference is, we don’t get our fanaticism out of our systems every Friday night for months on end. Nope, in Campbell we just hold it in, eleven months and twenty-nine days per year, until one day we explode. The whole town, covered in a heap of sequins and designer tuxes and enough hairspray to fuel the Hindenburg.
It might be impressive if it weren’t so ridiculously, obnoxiously annoying.
“You’re the one girl, I want to go to prom with!” Derek is belting at the top of his lungs and it is certifiably awful, but no one seems to care. The girls from the pom squad come in from the hallway, where they must have been lying in wait, fully decked out in their uniforms, and grab their partners from the basketball team. And suddenly, they’re doing full Dirty Dancing choreo and not missing a beat.
The entire cafeteria is watching this show, and I sort of want to die. My stomach threatens to bring up the granola bar I ate for breakfast just at the sight.
Not only because it’s Rachel at the center of the attention again, but because this public of a display of, well, anything really terrifies me— even when I’m the furthest thing from being involved in it. I mean, everyone is looking at you, watching you, waiting for you to do something worth posting to Campbell Confidential. The idea of people’s eyes being on me for any longer than the time it takes for me to pass out their sheet music before concert band rehearsal makes me undeniably anxious. It’s why I never ran for class president or auditioned for a school musical and can barely take solos in band without wanting to evaporate.
When you already feel like everything about you makes you stand out, it just makes more sense to find as many ways to blend in as you can.
But still, there’s something about the way Derek is looking at Rachel that makes my heart sink. People like Rachel and Derek get the perfect high school sweetheart love story to tell their kids about one day, but tall, black, broke Liz Lighty doesn’t stand a chance. Not in a place like this, anyway.
I don’t resent my classmates— I really don’t. But sometimes (okay, most of the time) it’s just that I don’t feel like one of them. “I’ve searched through every Campbell store, and I’ve finally found the corsage for you!” Derek extends his hand, and Rachel grabs it, fully sobbing now. How she manages to look like an Instagram model even as she sheds a bucketful of fake tears, I’ll never understand.
Derek’s grand finale— I kid you not—is The Lift. With clearly practiced finesse, Rachel runs forward, leaps into his arms, and is lifted above the crowd in the cafeteria. She looks less like Baby and more like Simba looking over the Pride Lands if you ask me, but whatever. Everyone is on their feet by the time the song ends, and the entire fourth-period lunch booms with applause. There is a look of begrudging respect on my best friend Gabi’s face as she watches the poms and the basketball guys stand around clapping and looking up at the couple in admiration. Everyone in the room now has their phones out, no doubt recording for Campbell Confidential. And the freshman girls next to us are in literal tears— the one who fainted is even doing a CC Live recording from the floor.
I look past Derek and Rachel’s table and the hordes of fans surrounding them, and my eyes lock onto the corner of the cafeteria that I’ve avoided like the plague since freshman year. I can’t help myself. Some of the senior guys from the football team are cheering, standing on their chairs and shouting support to their fellow clichéman, Derek. All of them besides Jordan Jennings. I feel the same anxious clench of my heart I always do when I see him, my ex-best friend. His smile is faint as he claps, half-hearted, and I can tell how artificial it is from this far away.
He’s almost too cute to stare at for more than a few seconds at a time. And this isn’t just me being thirsty; with his smooth brown skin, his waves where his curls used to be, he really looks like he belongs in a teen soap opera— all effortlessly flawless or whatever.
I remind myself of what he made sure I knew when we were freshmen: People like me and people like him exist in two different stratospheres, and it’s best to keep it that way.