“Bring me the sunset in a cup,” she said with a snotty smile, then flipped her hair over her shoulder and walked away.
What the hell does that mean? he thought. If she didn’t want to go to the dance with me, she could’ve just said no.
Mark had watched Ally throughout high school. She was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, with dark hair and matching eyes. He had been silently in love with her for four years. Finally, he got the nerve to ask her to the winter semi-formal dance and she gave him that cryptic answer. He blew his breath out in a puff, shoved his hands in his pockets, and walked in the opposite direction.
Fourth period English class was in one of several temporary structures the kids liked to call “the sheds.” The school population had grown too fast for the building to handle, so the school made do with several modular buildings as classrooms until they could get an addition built. The students had to trudge across the parking lot between classes. It had been a record year for snowfall and cold temperatures, making a trip to the sheds particularly unpleasant.
Mark picked a seat in the back, and opened his notebook, pretending to review last week’s lecture. Really, he was sneaking glances at Ally as she talked and giggled with her friends before the bell rang.
Mr. Parker stood in front of the class and began with one of his usual silly jokes before getting down to business. “Happy Friday everyone! What do ducks like for a snack? Milk and quackers!”
The class groaned, but everyone liked the English teacher. He was young and enthusiastic about creative writing with an ability to hold the kids interest and get them involved with their work.
“I’m going to split you into groups today and have you read your essays to each other. I want constructive criticism. Don’t just say you love it or hate it. Give some real feedback. I’ll be circulating around and listening in.”
Mark looked at his new group mates. There was Carol, the class nerd; Mikey, who looked like he was about to fall asleep; John and Bill, both stars of the football team; and Ally. He smiled to himself then cringed. He wanted to be close to her. He wanted to hear her story, watch her lips move as she read aloud. Unfortunately, he’d also have to take a turn. He could imagine her watching him as he read his essay, her eyes locked on him as he stumbled through the words on the page. Or worse yet, she wouldn’t be watching him at all, but playing with her cell phone or doodling in her notebook. Either way, he’d die of embarrassment.
A crack cut through the air like a firecracker, interrupting Mark’s self-conscious thoughts. The students snapped to attention, looking around to see where the noise had come from. Another crack, followed by a groan and a creak, filled the room. Mark looked up in time to see the ceiling sagging, beams bending with the weight of the snow, about to collapse. Without thinking, he grabbed Ally and threw her under Mr. Parker’s desk, covering her with his own body just as the weak roof let loose, caving in on top of the classroom.
It was dark in the wooden cave, the entrance packed with snow and debris. Mark tried to kick a ceiling panel that was lodged in front of the desk to no avail. They were trapped. He didn’t know how long they would be there, but he was sure help would come soon.
“Are you okay?” he whispered. He heard her movements but she didn’t say anything. “Ally?”
“Yes. I’m okay,” she said, her voice small and quivering. “Are you?”
He gave himself a mental check. “Yeah, I think so.”
“The roof caved in. All that snow. It just… snapped.”
She made a small noise, and Mark quickly added, “They’ll dig us out soon. Don’t worry.”
He paused then added, “I promise I won’t fart.”
“Eww, that’s gross!” She swatted at his arm, but she also giggled. He was scared and knew she would be, too. Making a stupid joke was worth it to hear her laugh, even at the risk of sounding like a juvenile idiot.
They waited quietly until he started to shiver with the cold. Soon, he could hear Ally’s teeth clattering together as well.
“Let me move my leg, then you can sit in between them and lean against me,” he said.
A long silence followed.
“I’m not trying to get into your pants. I’m trying to keep us from freezing to death. It will help if we share body heat.”
“Okay,” she said and moved to the right enough for him to shift around and pull her into his arms. He pressed his face to her hair, inhaling the scent of her shampoo. He had dreamed of the moment when he could hold her like this, but he hoped it would be under different circumstances.
He wanted to talk to her, but he didn’t know what else to say. Their silence filled the space, broken only by the sounds of their breath and the small rustles of their clothing. They sat wrapped in each other’s arms, the numbing cold seeping into their bones.
After what felt like an incredibly long time, Mark started to worry. He couldn’t hear a sound from the outside world, and he had no idea how long they had been there. In the time warp of the dark, it felt like days.
“Mark?” Her voice startled him. It was a pleasant sound in the void.
“I’m sorry.” She spoke so quietly he wasn’t sure he heard her right.
“About this morning. When you asked me to the dance.”
He thought her reply that morning was rude and insensitive, but he wasn’t about to say that now. Instead, he replied, “It’s okay.”
She didn’t say anything for a long time. Then, she whispered, “It’s Emily Dickenson.”
“‘Bring me the sunset in a cup.’ It’s a poem by Emily Dickenson.”
“Oh.” Oh? He groaned inwardly. She wanted to talk to him, have a real conversation, and all he could think of to say was oh.
“You were the fifth guy to ask me to the dance. I just…” She trailed off.
She was quiet for a long time and he didn’t dare ask her for an explanation.
“I just thought that if you had the right response, maybe you’d be the right one to go with,” she finally blurted out.
“What would the right response be?” he asked.
He felt her shrug. “It was stupid. There isn’t a response.”
They heard a distance scratching sound. Thumps and creaks filtered into their protected space and soon voices were added to the mix. A small crack of light broke through and a gloved hand appeared, pulling at the ceiling panel that had blocked them in.
“Hey! I found two in here. They’re alive!” An emergency worker in blue coveralls stood in front of the desk, leaning in to look at the two students huddled there. He helped them crawl from the space.
Someone draped a blanket over Mark’s shoulders and guided him toward an ambulance. He stood there shivering, looking at the caved in ruins of his temporary classroom.
He felt a tiny cold hand slip into his and turned to see Ally standing next to him. She pointed to the horizon where the sun had slipped below the hills, spreading orange and pink brush strokes across the sky.
“It’s not in a cup,” she whispered. “But it’s perfect.”