Lilac in Winter
ABOUT THE BOOK
Lilac Sophia Carpenter is sixteen years old.
She’s going to be sixteen years old for the rest of her life.
Confined to bed as her health declines, Lilac lives her life in daydreams, imagining her love story to her former best friend, Nathan Emery. But Lilac and Nathan haven’t talked since that fateful night—the night of her sister’s wedding, when her health worsened and his life unraveled and the already-fractured pieces of their friendship became irreparable.
With the comfort of her daydreams becoming more and more elusive, Lilac must decide if reality can be greater than her own imagination when there’s little time left for living.
“There she is!” My mother coos when I enter the living room. “Doesn’t she look beautiful, Frank? Frank.” She swats him in the chest. “Tell your daughter she looks beautiful.”
My father looks up from his newspaper and smiles. “You do, honey. You look beautiful.”
“Okay, now turn around. Go on, twirl.” My mother makes a circular motion with her finger, and I roll my eyes and do what I’m told, ever the dutiful daughter. “I knew that dress would be perfect. Didn’t I say that dress would be perfect?”
I hate the fact that my mother is right, so I don’t say anything. But she is. And it is. The dress is perfect. A light purple chiffon gown with a cinched, beaded bodice, the dress is light and airy and exactly as romantic as I could have dreamed.
“How much did this perfect dress cost me?” Dad asks, but my mom waves him away.
“Never mind that,” she says. “This is your daughter’s prom. This is going to be the best night of her life.”
I don’t tell my mom, who never went to her prom, that it probably won’t be the best night of my life. In fact, I could hardly care less about going to prom—where the music will suck and the punch will be spiked and Jessica and Amanda will spend the entire night in the bathroom because they lost Prom Queen to, predictably, Gretchen Kelly. What I do care about is this dress, because I feel beautiful in it, and my date, because he makes me feel beautiful, too.
“He’s here!” my mom squeals, peeking through the front curtains. “Oh, he looks handsome.”
“Mom!” I hiss, but I run to her side and sneak a look beside her. “He does look good in a tux, doesn’t he?”
We watch him walk up the sidewalk. “What’s he got in his hands?”
“That’s your corsage, of course!”
“Oh, of course.”
We jump back from the window as he approaches the door. A second later, the doorbell rings.
“Hold on, hold on,” my dad says, closing his newspaper and putting down his glasses. “I want to meet this young man.”
“Dad, you’ve met him a thousand times before.”
“Not on prom night, I haven’t.”
My mom and I exchange looks. “Come on,” she says, placing her hands on my shoulders and steering me into the kitchen. “Let’s touch up your hair.”
We can hear my dad greeting my date at the door, then the low murmur of voices as they talk about—actually, I don’t think I want to imagine what they talk about. When I step into the foyer a few minutes later, he’s shifting nervously from foot to foot, but he has a smile on his face.
“Wow.” His eyes rake over my body, and I blush. “You look great, Lila.”
I suddenly feel shy, and I don’t know why. I try to shake the nerves off and point to the plastic container in his hand. “Is that for me?”
He glances down at it, then hurries to open it. “Yeah, it’s a white orchid. The lady at the flower shop said it would go with your dress… That’s—that’s what she said.”
“It’s beautiful,” I say and hold my hand out for him to place it on my wrist. “Thank you.”
My mom is glancing back and forth between the two of us, a confused expression on her face, like she’s trying to see something there that isn’t. I don’t know what she’s thinking. I don’t bother to ask. “It’s a very lovely corsage, Dan,” she finally says, but her words sound too forced, like she’s fitting a puzzle piece into the wrong slot.
“Okay,” my dad says, clapping Dan on the shoulder. “Let’s take some pictures.”
A dozen smiles later and we’re walking down the driveway to his car—a ’78 Mustang he’s bought and restored himself.
“We’re going to have fun,” Dan says with a smile, opening the passenger door for me.
“Probably not,” I say. “But it’ll be nice to try.”
Dan laughs and shakes his head. “I never know what to make of you, Lila.”
He’s not the only one.
Our prom is held in the grand ballroom of the luxury hotel downtown—the same ballroom, coincidentally, where my sister is married. Nearby, in the open-air courtyard, some of my classmates are gathered in groups, taking pictures and admiring each other’s dresses, but we’re being ushered inside by our teachers who drew the short stick and couldn’t be less thrilled about serving as chaperones for the evening.
“It looks nice,” Dan comments over the din of the music.
And it does. Arches of gold, white, and blue balloons outline the dance floor while large round tables with navy tablecloths line the perimeter. On the right side of the ballroom, a buffet is set up, and some of the football players are already piling their dishes with slices of ham and an assortment of cold salads while their dates admire the desserts.
“Want something to drink?”
I nod and tell him I’m going to find our table, then point to the left so he knows where I’ll be.
It’s not much different than school. Friends request to sit with friends, and it ends up being exactly like lunchtime in the cafeteria. I’m not saying I mind it—it certainly makes it easier to know where you belong—but it strikes me as disappointing that we can’t, for one night, shed our expectations of each other.
I weave my way through the maze of tables, glancing at the name cards and smiling at those I know from class. I see Jessica and Amanda’s names and pause, wondering for a brief minute if I’m sitting with my old elementary-school friends, but no—their table is made up of the theater crowd.
“You’re with me,” a familiar voice says in my ear. I don’t have to turn around to know who it is.
“Actually, I’m with him.” I point to Dan, who’s on the other side of the room talking to one of the football players.
Nathan blinks. “I meant the table, Lilac,” he says finally, and I feel my cheeks grow red for the second time tonight. “We’re over here.”
I follow him two tables over, and sure enough, there’s my name in scrawling script on the place setting. The chairs are empty.
“Where’s your date?” I ask, removing my wrap and placing my handbag on the table. Nathan’s eyes linger on my dress for a moment too long before he swallows and runs a hand through his hair.
“She’s with the Bobbsey Twins.”
He means Jessica and Amanda—an old nickname that never really stuck except for him and the fact that it’s true. Ever since the fourth grade, Jessica and Amanda have been practically glued at the hip.
I follow his gaze across the dance floor and, sure enough, I see them dancing with Christine Blythe, Senior Class President.
“Chrissy?” I ask. “You came with Chrissy?”
He raises an eyebrow and crosses his arms. “What’s wrong with Chrissy?”
I shrug my shoulders and pick at the tablecloth. “Nothing. I just didn’t think you were into her.”
It takes a long time for him to answer. When he does, his words are measured. “Is this gonna be a long night, Lilac?”
“No,” I say.
“Good. Cause Chrissy’s a great person. And you’re here with my best friend, so—”
“Because he asked me.”
“He asked me,” I repeat myself. “I’m here with him because he asked me.”
He’s staring at me. Those dark eyes locking on mine like he can see right through me. I don’t know what he’s seeing, can’t tell what he’s thinking. I hate that I never can tell what he’s thinking.
“You were waiting for me,” he says plainly. I don’t answer. “Lilac—” He takes a step closer. “Were you waiting for me?”
“Yo, they have little quiches!” Dan exclaims, walking up behind us. He has two glasses of punch and a dish of hors d’oeuvres balanced in his hands. “I brought some for us to share.”
I grab two mini quiches and stuff them in my mouth, if only to stop myself from saying anything stupid.
The night drones on predictably. Dan and I dance during the slow songs then roam the buffet tables during the rest. I try to ignore them, but I find my gaze wandering over to Nathan and Christine, where she rests her head a little too comfortably on his shoulder, where he holds her a little too close around the waist. I look away.
The crowd begins to thin around eleven. Hotel staff carry the empty food platters away on carts, and the few couples lingering on the dance floor sidestep their way around balloons that have come loose from the arches.
“Bartlett’s having a post-prom party at his house,” Dan says as I gather my wrap and handbag. “Do you wanna go?”
I’m scanning the ballroom for Nathan and Christine, but it’s been hours since I’ve seen them.
“I don’t know. Maybe. Who else is going?” We make our way through the courtyard and out into the parking lot.
“Probably the regular crowd,” he says and starts to list names.
“What about—what about Christine?”
“I dunno. Probably. Hey…” He tugs gently on my wrap, bringing me to a stop. His smile is shy and warm, lit by the afterglow of the night. “I had a really great time tonight.”
His fingers dance with my own, lacing together and unwinding and then wrapping around my hand, pulling me forward. Nathan’s forgotten. It’s Dan that’s here. Dan with the kind smile and soulful eyes. Dan who brought me a white orchid and said I looked great and danced with me at prom.
Dan who I’m kissing right now, in the middle of the hotel parking lot.
I don’t know why it feels so wrong.
When we pull away, he’s grinning, and he reaches behind me and opens the passenger door. “So,” he says. “CJ’s?”
“Actually, I’m pretty tired. I think I’m just going to go home.” I watch his face fall, and I want to say something to make him smile again, but I don’t have it in me. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, and I just need to be alone to figure it out. Besides, if Nathan is at the post-prom party with Christine, he’s the last person I want to encounter while my feelings for Dan are in doubt.
We drive home in relative silence, save for his rhythmic tapping on the wheel to a song only he can hear. He seems to be thinking about something, but I don’t dare ask him what. When we pass Nathan’s house, I lean forward to look out the window. His truck is in the driveway. I exhale a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.
Dan turns into my driveway and shifts into park. My house is dark, save for the downstairs hall light. My parents have already gone to bed. I find myself glancing up at Nathan’s room, at his window that sits opposite mine. The blinds are drawn.
“Is it Nathan?” Dan’s voice startles me more than his question, like for a split second I’d forgotten where we were, that he was there. He’s looking at me—there’s frustration etched on his face, but his tone isn’t accusatory. If anything, he sounds defeated. “It is, isn’t it?”
“No,” I say. And then, because I need him to understand, I say it again more firmly. “No, not at all.”
“It’s just, you guys used to be close once—”
“That was ages ago, eons ago…”
“—and I saw the way he was looking at you tonight.”
Now I really am surprised. “The way he was looking at me? You’ve got to be joking. The only time Nathan looks at me is when I’m literally in his way. Believe me, it’s not like that.”
“That’s where I think you’re wrong,” Dan says, and there’s a sadness in his eyes now, like maybe he’d hoped he was wrong, too. “I think it’s exactly like that.”
I don’t know what to say. There’s a part of me that wants to grab the lapels of his tux and pull him towards me and kiss him, show him he’s wrong. There’s a part of me that want to tell him, “Forget it. Let’s go to CJ’s party and have some fun.” There’s a part of me that wants to rewind the past ten minutes and start again. There’s a part of me that’s ready to say goodbye.
There’s too many parts of me. I don’t know how this ends.
He ends it for me. He sighs and leans over, presses his lips against my cheek, then shifts the car into reverse. “I had a really good time with you tonight, Lila,” he says, a small smile painting his lips. “I’m not gonna forget it.”
I don’t know why I’m crying as I gather my things and step out of his car. I don’t know why there are tears spilling down my cheeks as I watch him back out of my driveway, watch his taillights disappear down the street. But suddenly I’m sad… Sad like I’ve just let go of something honest.
I swipe at the tears on my cheeks and turn towards the house.
His voice is so soft, I almost don’t hear him, but when I look up, he’s standing on his porch. He’s not wearing his tuxedo jacket or vest, and his bowtie is draped loose around his neck. He looks good, even like that. I can see why Christine went out with him.
“Good night?” I call across the yard.
He closes his door and begins walking towards me. I hesitate, start up the driveway towards my house, then close my eyes, say a prayer, and stride across the grass. We pause a few feet away from each other, standing on our own properties like we’re marking our territories, and in between us is no-man’s land. Who knows who’s going to make the first move to claim it. This is anybody’s game.
“That was Dan?” he asks.
I nod. “And Chrissy?”
A smirk lifts the corner of his mouth. “She’s not here, if that’s what you mean.”
“My parents are inside.”
“Well… Tell them I say hello.”
“What!” I explode. “What do you want me to say to you right now? I went to the prom with Dan, and you went with Chrissy, and so what.”
“So, I need to know.” He takes a step closer. “I need to know if you were waiting for me to ask you.”
I bite my lip. I’m not going to lose it in front of him—not here, not now, not tonight. He takes another step closer. I stare at the ground, afraid to look at him. He’s inches away, and I can feel him there, like the small space between us is charged with magnetic energy and it would only take one gentle nudge to draw us together. I want to pull away. I want to move forward. I’m afraid of what I really want.
“Were you waiting for me?” he asks again.
“It doesn’t matter anymore, does it?”
“Yeah, it does.” He reaches behind him, pulls something out of his back pocket. When I glance down, he’s holding a pin corsage made of a pale purple lilac and sprig of baby’s breath.
I inhale sharply, suddenly aware of everything around me. I can hear crickets in the garden bed, the light wind brushing against the leaves overhead. Dew is already clinging to the grass, and the condensation has started to soak into my shoes.
And Nathan’s standing in front of me, holding a flower that was meant for me, eyes boring into my heart. He’s asking questions I don’t want to answer. Offering answers I’d give anything to hear.
“Yes,” I breathe, and suddenly his arms are around me, his face nuzzled in my hair. I relax against him, wrap my arms around his back as he holds me tighter. “Yes, I wanted you to ask me.”
“Jesus, Lilac,” he’s saying over and over. “Jesus... Didn’t you know? I’ve been waiting all this time for you.”
I’m crying now. Not because of what he’s said or what’s happened tonight. I’m crying because my mom was right—prom is the best night of my life.
And I’ll never get to see it.