"But she died," I said sadly, remembering holding in tears the first time saw the movie. "All that doesn't matter," Peter continued, "everyone wanted Jenny, but who did she marry and whose child did she raise? Who did she finally admit she loved?" I had always thought she had settled on Forest out of desperation. I had never looked at it from Oliver's angle. "I always thought Jenny was using Forrest," I admitted. "She just didn't know she loved him yet," Oliver smiled. He had an incorruptible view of the movie. He saw love where I saw capitulation. I liked his view better. "All this time I thought she was a bitch," I laughed. "Nope" Oliver insisted, "Forest was just smarter. It took time for Jenny to catch up." I pulled Oliver closer. His view was so much softer than mine. I imagined his view on real life was softer as well. I lost some of my harshness at that moment. Good riddance. We spent some time talking about the books we've read and places we've gone. We danced around topics that could give away our pasts. It was a game and Oliver was a master. He wanted something for everything he gave. For me, it was becoming inwardly painful. It was no game that Oliver liked Tasha. It was no game that Ella liked Oliver. I had created an impossible situation. How was I to know I would meet someone like Oliver? Tasha would die tonight. Where did that leave Ella? My phone buzzed in my purse. I pulled it out, flashing its soft pink cover as I quickly turned it to silent and put it back. I wasn't going to interrupt what little time I had. "Even your phone matches," Oliver observed, as he once again offered his hand. "Pink is my colour tonight," I said, "I am consistent, if nothing else." We rounded a small fountain ringed with little cement ducks. "I like consistency," he said softly, no smile. He meant he liked me. Tasha did something stupid. Something Ella wouldn't do. She leaned forward and tilted her head up. Peter responded. His lips were a curse. A beautifully soft, caring curse. He couldn't dance, but he knew how to kiss. His hand found the back of my neck, cradling it in safety as my world became the two of us. The edge of excitement took over my body, cascading from my lips to my toes. I wrapped my arms around him and pulled him closer. I wanted so much more of him. I didn't want to share him with Tasha anymore. "That...that was unexpectedly wonderful," Oliver stuttered in my arms. "You expected it to be bad?" I joked. "I expected to take the rest of the night to work myself up to it," Oliver said, "I liked it better this way."
"So you assumed I would just let you kiss me," I teased. "No," Peter laughed, "I assumed I would work up the courage to try." His bravery wasn't in question as his lips took mine again. My hands combing into his hair as we tried to see how close our bodies could get to each other. I could feel how much he desired me. He was delicious. "We should get back inside," Oliver said after we had kissed forever. His face was a permanent smile. I was sure it matched mine. We were really good at kissing. I wondered if we were good at other things. Things that didn't require clothes. His phone buzzed again. I began to really hate the thing. He apologized profusely as he answered it. I smiled and nodded as if it didn't matter. Life must have been easier before the birth of the mobile phone.
"Well get a warrant." pause.
"That senator, what's his name, on the NSA committee," pause.
"Yep, that's him. He'll expedite it," pause.
"Call me when you know more." He ended the call with another apology to me.
"Sounds serious," I said as I returned my hand to his. He gave it a squeeze. I liked keeping the physical contact. It was a simple pleasure that seemed to affect my whole body.
"Someone is rattling my cage," he admitted, "it's time dependent or I would just turn off my phone. Sorry."
"You have senators who do your bidding," I observed, "must be important."
"Actually, I do his," Oliver laughed, "but if you find me more impressive the other way, I'll claim the power." We shared a smile as we continued our stroll back to the dance. Our hands swung together, our words easily finding things to agree on. My mind was churning, trying to find a way to tell Oliver about Ella. I didn't see a good way. Every way held shame and Oliver's loss of faith. I couldn't handle him thinking less of me. I liked how Tasha looked in his eyes. I loved how he kissed Tasha. I was about to remove my borrowed tennies when a cheer went up in the main hall. "The dancers must be here," Oliver said. My confused look made him clarify. "Professionals. Come on," he said, holding out his hand. His excitement made me forget that I would be a few inches shorter without my heels. He led me quickly to a clear spot around the dance floor. There were two couples, gymnasts by my calculations, throwing themselves around to a really wild Big Bad Voodoo Daddy song. The two girls spent almost as much time in the air as they did on the floor. Oliver was enthralled, his hands clapping in rhythm with the crowd. I joined him as we traded looks, smiles, and a few hip bumps as the pros showed us all how poor of dancers we really were. How they did it was a mystery. The four danced to two more wild songs, changing styles, but never tempo. I kept thinking one of the ladies would lose it and go flying into the crowd. It was an amazing feat of stamina as well as skill. The applause was deafening when the dancers finished the final dance. It was the first time I could tell they were breathing hard.
Without thinking, I put my fingers to my lips and whistled my appreciation. Heads turned, I flushed in embarrassment. The Meriden had never heard a whistle. On the other side, another whistle let loose. George, with a wicked smile, winked at me as he pulled his fingers from his lips. He felt no shame. I loved him like a brother at that moment. Protocol broke down as other whistles broke out and Oliver wrapped his arm around me, laughing and pointing at George. I pulled Oliver close, my shield against impropriety. Peter's parents walked out to the center of the dance floor to congratulate the dancers. They made short statements, introducing the dancers and expounding on their exposition. Mrs. Peterson then turned, looking directly at me, her smile was endearing. "It is no secret that my son spent his youth dodging lessons in the finer things of life," she paused as the audience laughed, "Tonight, he will pay the piper and please his mother by accepting a lesson from Mr. and Mrs. Ikeji." She indicated one of the pairs of dancers. I hid my smile as Oliver vehemently shook his head, trying to wave off his mother with his hand. The crowd thought it a fine thing.
"I believe you have already selected your partner, Oliver," Mrs. Peterson said, waving us forward. Normally, I would shun the spotlight. This time, I relished it. At least I knew he was a worse dancer than myself. I found his fear was selfishly making me bolder. I took Oliver's hand and, to a chorus of laughter and cheers, pulled a hesitant man to the center of the floor. Mrs. Peterson seemed especially pleased. "If you leave me out here..." Oliver whispered as we came forward.
"I'll never leave you," I said quickly. My heart thumped as the words left my mouth. They were Ella's words. They held more meaning than a dance lesson. I saw Oliver's face go from grim to a silly boy grin. I was no longer pulling, he was coming of his own accord. He had felt the double meaning as well. He liked how it sounded. I liked how it sounded. "Introduction?" Mrs. Peterson asked Oliver, her face almost laughing at his attention to me.
"Of course," Oliver said, returning to protocol, "Mother, this is Tasha Igwe. Tasha this is my mother, Rebecca Peterson." Rebecca held her hand daintily. I tried to duplicate as best I could. "So pleased to meet you, Tasha," Rebecca said with more friendliness than I expected. "Very nice to meet you, Mrs. Peterson."
"Rebecca, please," Rebecca said, "I'm so happy you have convinced Oliver to allow me to tease him." Her face was lit up. She was enjoying herself. I can only assume that Oliver had been more difficult in the past. "It will be fun," I said, looking up at the smiling Oliver. His eyes were boring into me, ignoring the surroundings. I quickly looked back to his mother. Her eyes were traveling between Oliver and I at great speed. She seemed to see something that pleased her. I felt like a pawn between mother and son. Luckily, Mrs. Ikeji stepped forward to end the awkward confrontation. Rebecca relieved me of my purse so I had my hands free. "Tasha, Oliver," Mrs. Ikeji started, "we are just going to do a basic swing step." Rebecca stepped back out of the way, her smile still glued on her face. "Face each other. Oliver, lightly grasp Tasha's right hand in your left..." The instructions continued. We both heard and adhered to the lesson, but none of it was reaching long-term memory. It was if they were spoken from a distance, miles away. Oliver's eyes and mine were making love with each other. Our feet moved as instructed, our bodies shifted and arms moved, but the eyes remained. "I think you have it," Mrs. Ikeji announced. There was brief applause and well-meaning jeers from those who knew Oliver well. We didn't care. It was all so far away. The music started and we kept dancing as others joined us on the floor. I don't think Oliver realized he was actually dancing competently. I wasn't going to break the spell to tell him. It was all so lovely. Almost perfect. I only wished Tasha would leave. Ella wanted Oliver to herself. When the music stopped, Oliver leaned down and kissed me. Not as one would kiss a friend, but a lingering, don't-ever-leave-me kiss. It was in the middle of the dance floor and completely inappropriate. It was a lovely thing and all mine. I wanted Tasha to die. "Would you like a drink?" Oliver asked, ending the kiss before I was ready. People were staring so I assume the kiss went longer than protocol prescribed. "Water," I answered, my smile letting him know I wanted more of his lips. To hell with protocol. "Ruth and Betty deserve some attention," Oliver said, "I'll meet you there." He followed with a kiss that was all too short. I let him go, holding his hand until the distance forced it away. I stepped off the floor in a euphoria, thinking only of Oliver. "Your purse, dear," Rebecca surprised me, coming up from behind. "Thank you," I said as I took it. Rebecca's smile was on the edge of comfort. She wasn't trying to disguise it. "Oliver seems to think a lot of you," Rebecca observed. I stopped and turned toward her. "And I him," I said truthfully. The thought of my false identity flashed back at me. I had to tell him. I couldn't leave and not tell him. "I don't think I have ever seen him...smitten," Rebecca laughed once she got the word out. I was a little uncomfortable talking with Oliver's mother about Oliver. I hadn't known him long enough to be allowed that type of comfort level. "I am sure he is just being kind," I said. "No," Rebecca continued, "smitten is the correct word." I feared her smile might crack her face. She reached out laid her hand on my arm. "I am just surprised is all! No one has ever gotten him on a dance floor and you have done it twice in one night."
"Surely..." I stumbled with a response. "Believe me, he is smitten," Rebecca said, her eyes glanced over me, "and I, for one, am not disappointed." She smiled then added, "you have a wonderful night, Tasha." I think she sensed my comfort level had been reached. She had the same intelligence in her eyes that Oliver had. "You too," I stammered as Rebecca turned to walk away. I was relieved when she left. I was under enough pressure. I had no idea how to tell Oliver about Ella. How would I ever tell his mother? I was screwing things up just by being here. "Have fun outside?" Betty joked as I moved to their table. Her eyes were bouncing with inference to salacious ideas. "Betty!" Ruth warned. Her scowl was forced. She was holding back a smile. "We just went for a walk," I said, trying to keep everything G-rated, "we had a wonderful talk. He's a nice guy." Betty smirked under Ruth's glare. "Oliver seems quite taken with you," Ruth observed, "I don't think I have ever seen him on the dance floor before." I smiled because I couldn't help myself. To think, I might be his first real dance. I knew I wasn't his first kiss. He kissed too well to be a beginner. "It was fun. Did you see that he was actually getting good near the end?" I asked, trying to stick to facts and get the conversation away from the relationship. "Everyone saw," Betty replied, "I think he would have jumped off a bridge if you asked." This time, Ruth didn't admonish Betty. She watched me, trying to see my reaction. I couldn't fight it.
"I like him," I admitted. Betty laughed and Ruth's smile went warm. Tasha was digging a hole too deep for Ella to climb out of. I needed to just fess up to Oliver and let the chips fall where they may. "That's a good thing," Ruth said, "I would hate to see that man's heart crushed." I wondered if that is exactly what I was about to do. Ella, the heartbreaker. I pulled out my phone, more to create space between the ladies and myself. I needed to think. Work out the words necessary to convince Oliver this all wasn't some malicious hoax. I was sure it would involve a lot of apologies and grovelling. I turned it back on and keyed in my impossibly long password. I smiled as I typed. So very appropriate, even if Oliver was unaware. A flood of texts and unanswered phone calls were listed on the main screen. Only Arun had the number. I checked the latest text.
Dump the phone. They are tracing it.
There were more of the same, mixed with apologies about Raj missing something technical. I felt blood rush in strange directions and my heart rate increased. I hadn't thought I might be caught. I was essentially using my own money. There was no way my stepmother could have found out, not this early. Coupon Crave wouldn't care if everyone was paid. Who were they? I was about to head to the bathroom, maybe throw the phone in the garbage. I turned into Oliver, smiling with a two glasses of water in his hands. "Your water ma'am," he said, making sure our hands met as I took it from him. "Thank you," I replied, trying to hide my nervousness. "You're looking rather please yourself," Betty commented to Oliver. "And why not?" Oliver returned, "I have danced with a beautiful woman and just had the most pleasant phone call." His arm wrapped around my waist. It felt so right there. I needed to dump the phone, but I placed it on the table instead. My arm found comfort around his waist. "Unknown relative leave you a fortune?" Betty prompted. I could tell she liked to get the whole story. "Better," Oliver said, "someone has been hacking my firewalls. Someone really good. It was only a fluke we noticed. We had experimental code running in front of the ticket site for this event to test it out. The same code we are planning to deploy for the military." Oliver sounded excited, "Whoever it is hardly left a trace. It's only because we were running exhaustive post-tests that we saw anything at all." My heart was beating so fast. I was hoping Oliver couldn't feel it. "You’re happy that you were hacked?" Ruth asked.
"Nope," Peter smiled, "I am happy that I may soon know who." He looked around the room. "We couldn't trace the source, but the destination of the purchases was traced to a single phone." He was almost giddy. I was sure I was pale as a ghost. "That phone is here. A team is coming with a handheld sensor to find the phone." "How exciting," Betty commented. She was thrilled. I felt bile rising.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the band announcer spoke. All heads turned toward him. "Grab your special someone and prepare for the midnight dance."
"I..I have to get my heels," I said, trying to smile through it all. Peter looked a little concerned. I assumed I sounded off. "I'll just be a moment," I added backing away from the table. He nodded and continued the conversation with Betty and Ruth. I turned and moved quickly. I was near the exit when I realized I left the phone on the table. My heart was trying to climb out my throat. I ran some words through my mind, reasons for going back for the phone. Two men rushed past me. Cheap suits and even cheaper cologne. One had some kind of device in his hand, the other following. I watched it unfold in slow motion. I backed away slowly, closer to the exit as I saw my imagined future dash itself against the rocks. The men kept moving closer to Oliver, I prayed they would turn. My eyes began to fill when the lead man pointed at my phone. I couldn't stop the tears. The look on Oliver's face went from disbelief to horror. He turned toward me, his whole face a distorted misery. I ran as the band started. There would be no midnight dance for Tasha. No life for Ella. I should have never come. I ran down the main steps in my now stolen All-Stars. The crime wave continued. I wasn't sure how I got to the bottom safely with my eyes flooded with tears. Tim had seen me coming and sensed the urgency. The limo was already running with Zac holding the door open. I still couldn't stop the tears. I had destroyed Oliver and any chance I had with him. His face, the disappointment, was etched in my mind. He would never look at me again with those lovely eyes.Tim pulled the limo out smartly and waited until we were on the main road before he spoke. "Are you alright, Ms. Igwe?" I tried to answer through the sobs. My throat wouldn't allow anything coherent out. I just nodded and buried my face in the seat. Everything had fallen apart. The dream that was Oliver was now a nightmare. I heard the divider slide up. Tim knew when someone needed privacy. The tears were under control by the time I returned to Arun's house. Zac opened the door and peeked inside as I was taking a deep breath. I let it out slowly, closed my eyes and did it again. My heart was slowing. I was wondering if I could be lucky enough to have it stop.
"You're home Ms. Igwe," Zac said quietly. None of the flirtiness he displayed earlier was there. It sounded more like he wanted me out. Of course, Tasha had run her course. Only Ella was left.
"Thank you, Zac, " I said as I exited.
"I'm sorry you had a bad time, Ms. Igwe," Zac said as he closed the door. From flirty to pity. A perfect end of the night. I heard the front door open and Arun came out of the house. There was panic in his eyes. Perfect. Arun handed Zac some bills, a tip. I hadn't thought of that. "Thank you," Arun said as he shooed Zac and Tim on their way. I felt like I was a lawn ornament. I stood there as Arun said my goodbyes and protected me from more pity comments. Arun didn't acknowledge me until the limo pulled away. "I am so sorry," Arun said, "I missed the logs. I should have washed the logs." He was shaking his head. "Doesn't matter," I whispered, "my shitty life returns. I didn't belong there anyway." I turned and walked toward the house. Arun followed with concern on his face. I was selfish and didn't accept his apology. I knew it was my own doing, my choice, but for some reason, I wanted others to suffer with me. "Oh no," Anita said when she saw my face. She had waited up as well. The tears returned when she wrapped her arms around me. I let her hold me. I held her back. Someone felt my pain and I let that comfort me. "What happened?" Anita asked quietly, once the tea was steeping. She had sent Arun away knowing I needed to talk. "I found him," I choked. More tears. "Who?"
"Him," I cried. Anita wisely held me again. It took a few minutes for my control to return. Anita was silent as she added sugar to the tea. She handed me a glass and we sat on the stools in the kitchen.
"Who is he?" Anita asked. She took a sip of her tea, never letting her eyes drift from my swollen ones. "Oliver," I sighed, "he was the one." Her eyebrows raised. I took my own sip.
"Not the same Oliver. Not flat tire Oliver?" I nodded my head. I let my eyes drop. "He didn't remember me, but it was him." I looked up, "I kissed him. He kissed me back. For a moment, everything was perfect and then..." This time, I held back the tears. I think my eyes were empty. "It was his computer stuff that Arun hacked," My head dropped again, "he knows it was me. The look on his face... I wanted to die." Anita's hand covered mine. "What if you talk to him?" Anita asked, "It’s not like you meant to hurt anyone."
"You didn't see his face," I said. The kitchen floor tiles held my attention. "I lied to him all night. He kissed Tasha, but he hates Ella."
"Was it a good kiss?" Anita smiled softly as she asked. "More wonderful than I had ever known," I admitted, "I didn't want it to stop." I looked at Anita and let the truth go, "Had we been somewhere private, I wouldn't have stopped." I shook my head, trying to not dwell on the impossible. "It's all ruined now. He'll never kiss me again. Not the girl who tricked him." "Men don't always think with their minds," Anita whispered, "maybe he liked the kiss as well. Maybe he'll overlook a few bumps in the road."
"Bumps? You mean prison," I said, "he was way too excited to catch the person who hacked him. He took it personally. No... Tasha is on his shit list and Ella can never show her face."
"I'm so sorry, Ella," Anita said, "I never thought anything bad would come of this. We just wanted you to get out there. You're too sweet to be by yourself."
"You didn't leave anything?" Arun asked, coming in without me hearing, "no one knows who you are?" His voice was shaking a little. His words lacking confidence. "The phone," I replied.
"They won't be able to break the encryption," Arun was thinking as he spoke, his eyes looking out the window, "at least not in a timely manner. Maybe years at the earliest." He paced over toward the refrigerator. "You used a long password, right?"
"Yes," I said. It was humorous when I typed it in, but now it hurt to think on it. Arun's concern was evident in his tone. "Arun, this won't get back to her, right?" Anita asked, "I mean, everyone got paid. No one was hurt. Certainly they won't pursue it."
"It was a Shark firewall," Arun answered. He was ringing his hands. "The same ones the military uses." His face held a little panic. "I didn't think they would ever find out."
"You mean they will look for her?" Anita asked. "Maybe...yes...I think they might," Arun admitted, "they will look for her and me." Anita's hand covered her mouth as her eyes widened. They both shared worried looks at each other. If they found Arun, they would deport the family. Their worries far exceeded mine. "I won't say a thing," I said quickly, "If this falls apart, I'm in trouble whether or not they know about you. No one ever mentions this again."
"It was all my idea," Arun countered, "I can't let you do that."
"You can," I demanded, "and you will. I will not have your whole family be torn apart because I was pissed at my sisters. This will end with me." It felt better to stop feeling sorry for myself. Proclaiming self-sacrifice was better than crying. "I was complicit anyway."
"Anita, your family comes first," I interrupted. Anita wrapped her arms around me. A mother knew what had to be done. A stubborn husband would have to swallow some pride. They had Arya to think about. "Thank you," Anita whispered in my ear. If it came to prison, at least I would have an endless supply of those potato things. "My shoes!" I shouted, "I left my shoes." I pushed the All-Stars out from under my dress. Ella bought the shoes.