Aidan Baker didn’t know everything about the world, but he was pretty sure senior prom wasn’t supposed to smell faintly of manure. And in all his mom’s old favorite teen movies, the music at prom had never had to compete with the screech of the train wheels on steel rails. Nor had he imagined a special table over by the snack table with a computer set up with an ongoing Zoom meeting for those people who still feared, or whose parents still feared, people gathering in groups. This was senior prom. A super unofficial event sponsored entirely by parents and held in Connor Harris’ parents’ barn.
“Pretty great, right?” Connor joined Aidan near the big wide-open double barn doors, motioning toward the place with his Applepocalypse™ flavored PowerSlam Liquid Energy drink. “Should have seen the set up for all this, man. I mean the unofficial parental prom committee went crazy. My dad. Emma’s mom. Brianna’s mom and dad. Alexander’s uncle. Logan’s family. Tons of people way up there in the rafters, dusting, knocking down cobwebs, scrubbing out pigeon crap, setting up the disco ball and stringing up about a dozen strands of those clear Christmas lights. Emma’s mom?” He held his hands up to his own chest, miming holding up breasts as he spoke in a falsetto. “It’s gotta look like starlight. It’s gotta look like the stars. A night under the stars.”
Aidan pushed Connor’s hands down. “OK. I get it. Emma sees you acting like that, she’ll knock you out.”
“She’d have to touch me to do that,” Connor said. “Might be worth it. But word is she’s more interested in you.”
“Pretty sure Kaitlyn would object,” Aidan said.
“Dude, forget Kaitlyn,” said Connor. “The girl dumped you. Over Zoom. She’ll probably still be quarantined in her room, like, five years after all this virus hysteria is finally over. Anyway, you’d only been officially dating – what? – a month when we all went to lockdown? Chalk it up to another casualty of the Lost Year and move on. TLY, dude.”
Despite his fancy rented tux, Connor was far from the most sophisticated guy Aidan had ever known, but maybe he was right. It just bugged him because things with Kaitlyn had been going so great. Their first date had been to the movie theater out at Northern Quest Casino. Press a button on the reclining chair, and a waiter came out so they could order popcorn, chicken strips and soda. He’d spent almost all the money he’d made waiting tables at Italian Dreams, but it had been worth it. Then the governor said nobody could go anywhere or do anything. The theater and the restaurant where he worked closed for good. The ski trip he’d planned with Kaitlyn was scrapped, and Kaitlyn’s parents, terrified of COVID as though it was an extinction-level event, kept her stuck at home even when people started going out while wearing masks. The relationship, barely begun, was probably doomed as soon as it was limited to texting and FaceTime.
“I’m going out to get some air,” Aidan said.
“Sure, dude,” said Connor. “I’m going to get some chicken wings.”
The weather had cooperated perfectly, offering a warm spring night with only the faintest hint of a breeze. The abnormally dry spring meant fewer bugs as twilight fell. Aidan made his way down the path past the goat pen toward the back of the Harris property. Zach Innis and Olivia Rodriguez were ahead of him, holding hands, about to sneak off into the woods to do something that required a bit more privacy.
“Hey, man,” Zack said. “Don’t tell any of the parents we’re going out here to –”
“Explore nature,” Olivia finished for him.
“You know you can count on me,” said Aidan.
Zach smiled. “Just like I could always count on you to catch my passes.”
“Yeah, junior year,” Aidan said. “Can hardly count the four games we had this year as a season. Sorry you got robbed. I know you were hoping for that college football scholarship.”
“You know this last fall, while we were supposed to be playing football and nobody knew if we’d get any games at all, while the weight room was closed, I was pretty down. Thought the lockdowns had wrecked my whole life.” Zach shrugged. “But with all that time at home, I researched online. Turns out the whole college sports scholarship dream is more a myth. By senior year, if college scouts haven’t already been talking to you, they never will.”
“Sorry,” Aidan said.
“Don’t be,” Zach said. “Getting off the football field and out of the weight room helped me see there’s a lot more to life than sports. It was going to end sometime anyway, right? Plus football is a brain damage factory, and that’s no good. In a way, the COVID lockdown gave me a reset. Stuck at home, I read a lot of articles about it. I think I want to study viruses and everything, work to find cures and everything. TLY, man.”
“TLY,” Aidan echoed, watching his friends vanish into the shadowy woods.
Farther down the gravel path, the trees and shrubberies gave way to a clearing before a cliff. The last cars of the train down in the ravine rolled off into the echoing distance. An early coyote darted about, and a few bats flittered through the air. Zach would study biology. Aidan was pretty sure Olivia had talked about heading down to WSU to train to become a teacher. Aidan had been accepted to Eastern Washington University. The school was planning for in-person classes, but the Lost Year had been full of moving back and forth among stages of freedom. All that had to happen was the governor deciding more lockdowns were needed, and everything could be closed as with the snap of his fingers. Aidan was done with online classes. Zoomed out. And while Zach, Connor and others dropped TLY in an “aw shucks” or ironic tone, Aidan really did feel lost. High school had essentially vanished for the fourth quarter of his junior year and had only returned with a host of confusing and contradictory rules and regulations – including the prom prohibition that had sent his class to this underground celebration on this farm – during the fourth quarter of senior year. This was supposed to be his year to prepare for his future, but with so much uncertainty and chaos, it didn’t seem the future was prepared for him.
The smell of smoke wafted over him. Odd, considering how far he was from the bonfire pit. “Out here all by yourself?”
Aidan jumped a little.
An older man joined him, smoking a cigar. “Not drinking, are you?”
“Good. He puffed his cigar. “Rick Harris. Connor’s grandfather. My son owns this farm.” Aidan introduced himself. Rick continued, “You’re missing the party. Get all dressed up to come back here, stare off the cliff at the train tracks. Not thinking of skipping town on the next train?”
Aidan shook his head and gave the lame joke the small laugh it had earned.
“Graduation coming up. What are you going to do after high school?”
“No idea.” Aidan sighed. “It’s been crazy lately. My friends are calling it the Lost Year. I’m not sure of anything.”
“Oh, I know how that goes.”
Aidan shot him a disbelieving look.
“Well, not having my school shut down due virus hysteria, but being unsure about the future. I graduated from high school in 1968. I wasn’t too interested in college, but it was that or go fight in Vietnam.”
“What did you do?” Aidan asked.
Mr. Harris blew out a plume of smoke. “Got drafted to the Army. Infantry.”
Aidan nodded respectfully. “I don’t even have a war I can ship out to.”
“First time in a long time, that’s true,” said Mr. Harris. “Well, sometimes war skips a generation.” It was a very sad joke, rooted, Aidan knew from his required American history class, in a lot of truth. Harris nodded. “Before this turns into one of those ‘My generation had it so much harder’ type lectures, I’ll just say, yeah, you kids been through a lot.”
“But it could be worse?” Aidan said.
“Yeah! You could have died from COVID. A lot of people did, you know. You’re alive. You’re healthy. And so what if you’re not sure exactly what next year will bring. I’m saying you got time, kid. The greatest gift in the world. This idea that you have to have everything figured out, whether or not to go to college, what you’ll do with your life, by certain dates, is just bonkers.”
Aidan smiled. Some of what the man was saying made sense.
“Now would you get back to the prom? A bunch of parents spent big money putting this together, and last thing I need is a lawsuit when some kid falls off the cliff in the dark. Anyone else out here?”
“No, sir,” Aiden said, true to his friends.
Back in the barn, Aidan grabbed a Fantastic Fury™ PowerSlam and watched most of his senior class and their dates shaking their way through the limbo line. Caleb Jennings fell on his butt early, laughing the whole time. Several others made it. Sophia Martin. Samantha Travers. Jackson Sharp. Zoe Crawford. Paige Walsh. To people outside that barn, they were only names, but Aidan had grown up with them. They were his friends, teammates, study partners – so much of who he was defined relative to them. And the COVID lockdowns had robbed them all of so much time together.
Emma Davis laughed as she shot forward, righting herself after going under the limbo stick.
“Aidan!” She hadn’t been watching where she was going and ran right into his arms, almost spilling his PowerSlam all over her sweet black-and-white dress. “Where have you been all night? I’ve been looking for you.”
Her hair was cranked into a fancy twist that shined under the lights, and she didn’t step away but remained there smiling as a slow song came on.
“I was just outside thinking about how strange things have been.”
Emma shrugged. “TLY, right?”
It was an expression of helpless resignation over an important school year gone horribly wrong. COVID chaos had changed them all, in one way or another, and what it meant for his future, Aidan couldn’t be sure. But he had time, and right now, he knew the Lost Year had brought him to this rebel prom with this awesome girl.
“Wanna dance?” he asked Emma.
“Yes,” she said, simply and seriously.
Aidan went with her, swaying to the music in an orbit among a thousand disco ball stars and all his friends, some things lost, but so much gained, and smiled with hope if not certainty on the future stretching out before them all. “TLY,” he whispered.
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