The Prince Who Wouldn’t Laugh

Jenn and I sat at the table in the corner and drank our punch.

It was so, so bad. The punch, not the table. Our table was fine, I guess. We were far enough away from the dance floor to avoid getting bumped into, but we were close enough to get a good view of the royals.

Yup. Royals.

Directly across from us—give or take a balloon display—was the official table for the Harkin High Homecoming Court. You had your usual suspects, of course: the baseball players, the student council overachievers, the cheerleaders. But my personal favorite royal was Taran Reynolds. Unlike the other princes, he always seemed unaware of his popularity. Everybody liked him, and it wasn’t just because of his muscles, or his princely shoulders, or that jawline that he stole from a Disney cartoon.

No, Taran Reynolds was just… nice.

Which was probably why every girl at the prom made an appearance at his table and asked him to dance. So far, he’d said no to every single one. Maybe he was just waiting for the right girl—or guy.

“Ed, you’re staring again,” Jenn said. She nudged me in the ribs. I could always tell when my best friend disapproved of something I was doing. She was pretty good at jabbing her elbow into my torso.

“Sorry,” I said. “No drool this time?”

“No drool.”

Jenn smiled. We were so comfortable together. That was just one of the perks of bringing my straight best friend to the homecoming dance.

For my own sanity—and for the safety of my ribs—I forced myself to stop staring at Taran. Instead, I looked at some of the happy couples dancing a few feet away. Naw. Too cutesy. Then I looked at the giant castle against the back wall.

“What’s this year’s theme again?” I asked.

“Medieval something-or-other,” Jenn said. “Maybe Game of Thrones. I really don’t know.”

Maybe.

There weren’t any papier mache dragons anywhere, but there were a bunch of castles and lords and ladies and stuff. It was a pretty cool dance, actually. And everyone seemed to be having a great time, especially the four guys and four girls over at the royals’ table. Their crowns and tiaras set them apart from everyone else, but then again, so did their perfect skin, teeth, and hair. They were the popular kids, and they all looked so cool.

And without realizing it, I was once again staring at Prince Taran.

“You are seriously crushing,” Jenn said.

I tried to ignore her, but there was definitely judgment in her voice. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’m pretty sure we shared eye contact in algebra once.”

Jenn laughed. “Ah yes. Math. The language of love.”

“Shut up.”

She grabbed my cheeks and forced me to look her right in the eyes. Her eyes were blue, which perfectly matched her dress and my tie. “Look,” she said. “He’s straight. And you’re dreaming.”

You know, maybe it wasn’t the best idea to invite Jenn to be my homecoming date. This was supposed to be a magical night, not dragon-magical, but magical-magical. Love-magical. On any other day, I’d appreciate her blunt honesty. But not tonight.

“You’re being a little negative,” I said.

A shadow loomed above my head. I looked up. I guess there were dragons here after all. There was a little purple one hanging by fish wire right above us.

Before I knew it, Jenn was standing. She grabbed her dress so she wouldn’t trip, and then she started marching away.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going to test my hypothesis,” she said.

I was almost afraid to ask. “And what is your hypothesis?” I asked.

“Straight as an arrow.” And she was gone.

I shouted out to her, “That’s not a hypothesis! That’s an… orientation!” But she didn’t hear me.

She walked right across the dance floor. She was oozing confidence. Thankfully, there were no dancers in her way, because if there were, I had the distinct feeling she’d just plow right through.

I watched as she walked right up to the royal table and casually placed her hands on the tablecloth. All the princes and princesses turned to look at her.

Taran was the first to say hello. God, he looked so regal. He wasn’t even wearing his crown at that moment. He was just sitting there, tall and calm, and I could totally see why everyone voted for him.

Apparently, Jenn was her usual blunt self. I couldn’t see her face—not like I’d be able to read her lips anyway—but I could assume that she was asking Taran to dance.

He said something in reply.

She clasped her hands together. That was a good sign, right?

Then she left.

Not a good sign.

“Well, madam scientist,” I said. “Is your hypothesis correct?”

She sat with a thud. “I don’t know.” She was still looking across the room, looking at Taran, studying him. “He says he’ll only dance with someone who makes him laugh.”

“That’s a weird way to brush someone off,” I said.

“No, I’m pretty sure he meant it. Which totally sucks.”

“Because?” I asked.

“Well, have you ever seen the guy laugh?”

I thought back to the few classes Taran and I shared. Algebra. Chemistry. Economics. None of those classes were exactly laugh riots, but then again, what school subject was? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had never heard him laugh.

Sure, I’d seen him smile a few times, in that dreamy, far-off kind of way. But he always had that knowing look, like nothing could surprise him. And everybody knows that the best laughs come from surprise.

“I see what you mean,” I said.

“Maybe you should give it a try,” Jenn offered. It was a joke, but that didn’t matter. I would never do that. I was way too intimidated. Besides, I couldn’t dance even if I were on fire.

“Hey, losers.”

I looked up and saw Carrie and Carley. Carrie was the blonde one and Carley was the one with a plastic surgeon father and a nose that mysteriously shrank over the summer.

“Hi, Carrie. Hi, Carley.”

I recognized them from homeroom. You might recognize them from Dante’s Inferno. Or your nightmares.

“Nice dress,” Jenn said. She purposely said “dress” singular, so that Carrie and Carley wouldn’t know which one she was complimenting and which one she was intentionally excluding.

“We couldn’t help but overhear.”

“Since you’re both so loud.”

“That you both want to dance with Taran Reynolds.”

Carrie and Carley had a habit of finishing each other’s sentences, especially when there was an insult buried in there somewhere.

“Something like that,” I said.

“Well, isn’t that sweet.”

“And a little sad.”

“And also delusional.”

“And actually not sweet at all.”

They both wore matching outfits. Carrie wore yellow and Carley wore green. They were both pretty in a stuck-up kind of way.

“No offense,” Carrie continued, “but neither of you will ever dance with Taran Reynolds.”

“You won’t, either,” Jenn said.

Carrie looked like someone had slapped her in the face. “Is that a challenge?’

“I believe that was a challenge,” Carley said.

“He said he’ll only dance with someone who makes him laugh,” Jenn explained. “And since neither of you understand how humor works.”

“Watch me,” Carley said, and she marched across the dance floor.

Carrie clapped her hands in excitement. “Oh good. She’s gonna tell him the story about her grandma at the bowling alley.”

I had no idea how Carrie knew that, except maybe she and Carley shared the same brain. But sure enough, she was right. We all watched as Carley stood in front of the royal table and told a long, supposedly funny story. We saw her pretend to bowl. Then she pretended to be an old lady picking up a bowling ball. Then she pretended to accidentally throw that bowling ball behind her head. There really wasn’t a lot to the story, apparently.

Once she was done, all the princes and princesses of homecoming burst out laughing—except Taran. He smiled politely, but he didn’t laugh.

Carley took the hint and walked back to our table.

“Well?” Jenn asked, just because she knew Carley had failed.

“He didn’t laugh,” Carley said.

“Told ya so,” I said, wishing my voice didn’t sound as whiny as it did in my head.

“Not so fast,” Carrie said. “It’s my turn.” And she marched across the dance floor.

“Cool,” Carley said. “She’s gonna tell him about the time her dog went surfing.”

At that point, I was almost positive that Carley and Carrie shared a brain.

We watched as Carrie stood in front of the royals. Just like before, we couldn’t hear anything she was saying, but we could definitely see her act out the story. She pretended to be a dog. Then she pretended to surf. Then she pretended to pull her dog onto the surfboard. Then she fell over. I couldn’t tell if the falling-over part was intentional, or whether her dress got in the way.

She wasn’t hurt, though. She quickly stood up and all of the royals started laughing.

Except Taran. He clapped in appreciation, though.

Carrie walked back, totally disappointed.

“Sorry ’bout that,” I said.

“We knew it wouldn’t work,” Carrie and Carley said at the exact same time. Then they left to make out with some of the band members.

“I always enjoy their company,” Jenn said when she knew they were gone. She was sarcastic, of course, but Carrie and Carley would’ve totally taken that as a compliment anyway.

I looked over at the royal table. A few of the other princes and princesses got up to dance—with each other, not with us commoners—but Taran remained sitting. He held down the fort. “Well, I guess Taran isn’t going to dance with anyone tonight,” I said.

“Unless…” Jenn said. She winked.

“Unless?”

“Unless… yooouuu…” She stretched out her words. She wanted me to finish her sentence for her, Carrie/Carley-style.

I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction. “Unless I what?”

“Unless you gooooo… You know, unless you goooo tooooo aaaasssskkkk…” She wasn’t going to finish her sentence without my help.

“You want me to try and make him laugh,” I said.

“Duh.”

“Nope,” I answered.

“Come on,” she pleaded. “What’s the worst that can happen? He shuts you down? He’s a nice guy. He wouldn’t…”

I stood up without realizing it. Bravery just washed over me, I guess.

For once, I surprised Jenn. Even though we didn’t share a brain, we were seldom surprised by each other. It was a friendship bond. But right now, with my sudden wave of bravery, I caught her off guard. It was a good feeling, actually.

“Are you really going to go over there?” Jenn asked.

“I… uh… am going to get more punch.” Apparently the wave of bravery was more like a trickle.

“But your cup,” Jenn said.

I looked down at my cup. My more-than-half-full cup. Dammit.

I didn’t quite know what to do, so I grabbed my cup, chugged the rest of the punch, and slammed it back down on the table.

“Empty,” I declared.

Did I mention that the school’s punch tasted like old vitamins?

I walked over to the punch bowl, mad at myself for chickening out and even madder at myself for getting a stomach ache in the process.

Whatever.

I couldn’t dance anyway. I’d just embarrass myself in front of everyone.

“Nice suit.”

I looked up and saw Miss Ferry manning the refreshment table. She was the school guidance counselor, regular dance chaperone, and all-around great person. The refreshments weren’t exactly refreshing, but at least I’d be able to say hi to Miss Ferry.

“Hey.”

“What’s wrong?” she asked. I guess I couldn’t hide the scrunched look on my face.

“Nothing. Just chugged a glass of this stuff.” I gestured toward the fire-engine-red liquid in front of me.

Miss Ferry raised an eyebrow. She knew there was more to my story.

“Nothing!” I insisted.

She raised her other eyebrow.

Fine. She was the guidance counselor. She might as well guide me. “It’s just, I don’t know. Is it wrong to hope for something that probably won’t happen?”

She smiled. Counseling time. “Ed,” she said, “never lose hope. Hope is one of the most important feelings you could have.”

“Thanks,” I said, but she wasn’t finished.

“But don’t let your dreams of the future ruin the reality of the present.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means go out there and have fun,” she said. Then she pulled the refilled cup from my hand. “And don’t drink any more of this stuff. I think it’s expired.”

I walked back to my table, and before Jenn could ask why I didn’t have any more punch in my hand, I said, “Screw it. I’m just gonna dance.”

“What?” she asked.

“I don’t care about homecoming royalty,” I said. “They can have their fun. And I’m gonna have mine.”

“But you can’t dance!” she said.

“I know.” And before she could stop me—or at least tell me good luck—I marched out onto the dance floor and danced.

Badly.

When I say “badly,” you probably don’t realize the magnitude of badness. It was awful. Lots of elbows. And because I was basically the only one on the dance floor for this particular song, pretty much everybody was looking at me.

Jenn stared at me from our table. Her eyes were wide open in one of those I-can’t-believe-you’re-doing-that faces. She didn’t exactly look horrified, but she looked one step below horrified.

Carrie and Carley stared at me from the stage. They didn’t know whether to admire my chutzpah or revel in my embarrassment. I think they chose to revel, but they were too far away for me to be sure.

And over by the punch bowl, Miss Ferry looked on with pride. She knew I was dancing just for myself. She knew I had taken her advice to heart.

But I didn’t care about anyone’s reaction. I just cared about having a good time.

Then I heard a laugh. A loud laugh. A loud, goofy laugh.

I looked over my shoulder and there was Taran, homecoming prince, looking right at me.

Before I knew it, he walked onto the dance floor. He wore his crown, but he left the royal scepter back at the table. And he was smiling.

No, he was laughing.

“Hey. I’m Taran,” he said.

And for once, I wasn’t nervous. Somehow, making him laugh had leveled the playing field. Right then, he didn’t feel like a prince. He was just a guy, in a suit, holding out his hand.

“Ed.”

“Well, Ed. Wanna dance?”

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