Artie peeked into his dad's office. "Did Miss Jolene leave already?"
Lawrence nodded. "You just missed her."
"Aw, man. I wanted to see what she thought of my costume. I guess I'll have to show her later." Artie lingered in his dad's office. There was something else on his mind that he wanted to talk about, but he wasn't sure if it was a topic he should bring up. "Hey, dad. Since we have a minute, just you and me, can we talk?"
"Of course," Lawrence replied. He turned to his son, giving him his full attention. "What's on your mind?"
"I was just thinking about something. . ." Artie stammered a moment, looking down at his hands as he tried to come up with the right way to broach the topic. "I was just thinking, Mom's been gone a long time and it would be okay if, you know, you wanted to start dating again or anything like that."
Lawrence exhaled sharply. He was so taken aback by that remark that for a moment he was without words. When Artie looked up at him, he could see the sincerity in his son's eyes and knew he had to respond in a way that showed he was taking this man-to-man talk just as seriously. "Do you think I should?"
"I don't," Lawrence said firmly. "And I hope you think that's okay too."
"Oh yeah, it's fine," Artie replied, suddenly feeling embarrassed for bringing up this topic at all. "I just thought . . .never mind."
"What's on your mind?" Lawrence asked before Artie could slink out of the room. He didn't want to let this go with just a 'never mind.' "What makes you think I would want to start dating again?"
"It's just . . . I saw how you looked at Miss Jolene when she was playing dress up with Lorna. Didn't she remind you of Mom with that black wig on?"
"No, not at all," Lawrence said, surprise evident in his voice. He had thought there was something familiar about the nanny at that moment, but it definitely was not any similarity to Eileen that struck him. He found himself a bit irrationally offended that Artie would have drawn a comparison to his mother.
"Oh, okay, I guess I was wrong," Artie said as he started to cross the room. "I just want you to be happy."
Lawrence nodded wordlessly as Artie left the room. He wished he could assure his son that he was happy, but he couldn't bring himself to say those words. Saying he was as close to happy as he could be, thanks to his children, was more truthful, but that wasn't a burden he wanted to place on his young son. "Dating again" as Artie had put it, wouldn't make any difference in his happiness. He knew there was only one woman for him and she was gone.
* * * * *
Shayna walked through the conference room of the community building taking stock of everything that had been set up for the teens' Halloween party. She made a quick survey of the Halloween decorations that had been put up and made sure everything was in place at the snack table before she turned to her helpers, Julian and Meghan, and gave them a nod of approval.
"Everything looks great. Thank you so much for helping," she said. Her attention was pulled away as guests started filtering into the room. "And just in time too. I'm going to double check the decorations out front. Have fun."
"Your mom seems really into this," Meghan remarked as Shayna hurried away. "I wouldn't have thought Halloween would be her thing."
"It's the organizing and planning that she's into," Julian replied. "She's this way about any of the community events that she's in charge of. She likes to get things done."
They fell into an awkward silence, something that seemed to happen between them a lot. Julian wondered if he should say something nice about her costume, but before he could speak, Meghan's attention was already diverted elsewhere.
"I'm going to go talk to my cousin. See ya," she said and flounced off.
When Meghan walked over, she found Judith distracted by the decorations. Taking advantage of the situation, she leaned in close to Judith's ear and said, "Boo!"
Judith jumped and quickly spun around. She had to take a second look before she recognized her cousin behind the bright red wig and make-up. "Meghan?"
Meghan laughed. "You should have seen your face. Where's your costume?"
Judith rolled her eyes. "This is my costume."
Meghan looked her cousin up and down. Glasses, a button up shirt, and a tie wasn't her idea of a costume. "I don't see a difference," she said with a shrug. When Judith scoffed at her, Meghan changed the topic. "Where is everyone? Did Maura not come with you?"
"I haven't seen her yet. She wanted to come separately and see if we could recognize each other in our costumes."
"Well, she's going to spot you a mile away," Meghan remarked, shaking her head. "I suppose she and Jeremy will be making an entrance together anyway. . . I set that up, you know."
Judith was about to say that she didn't think they would be coming together, but Meghan's last statement caught her off-guard. "You? What did you do?"
"I was the one who told Jeremy that Maura liked him. She still hasn't thanked me yet."
"Well, I don't know if I'd draw too much attention to your part in it, if I were you," Judith said.
Judith was hesitant to share her true concerns with Meghan for fear that her words would get back to Maura. Jeremy had to be the one to set things right, otherwise Maura would be completely humiliated. Judith simply explained, "If things had gone badly, she never would have forgiven you."
"But it didn't. So win-win."
Judith was highly skeptical, but she decided it would be better to keep her thoughts to herself.
"So where's your lover boy tonight?"
"My what?" Judith started. "Oh, Vince? I don't know."
"Did you two break up already?" Meghan asked.
Meghan's judgemental, condescending tone infuriated Judith. "No," she insisted. "We don't have to do everything together."
Meghan was losing interest in this conversation. As her attention started to drift, she noticed Julian's friends walk into the building. She quickly turned away, pretending she didn't notice them before she grabbed Judith by the arm and started to pull her away from the entrance. "Let's go see if we can put in a song request before the D.J. gets swamped."
* * * * *
Julian hadn't realized he'd been absently watching Meghan and Judith, until Melanie and Sara called out to him. He turned his attention away from the girls by the D.J. booth and greeted his friends.
"Dude, is that wine?" Elden exclaimed as he spotted the glasses filled with red liquid on the snack table.
"I think it's just punch," Julian replied dryly. "Non-alcoholic punch."
Sara punched Elden lightly in the arm. "Yeah, dummy. You think they're going to serve wine at a party that's basically just to keep us out of trouble? Yeah, right."
"That's alright. I've come prepared," he said with a wink. He pulled back the side of his jacket to reveal a flask hidden underneath. "Anyone interested?"
"So much for keeping out of trouble." Sara rolled her eyes and laughed as she picked up a cup and handed it out to Elden.
Elden turned his back to the room as he reached into his jacket. "Keep an eye out."
Once the girls assured him no one was looking, he poured a splash of liquid into each of the cups Sara held in front of him. Melanie held hers out to him as well.
"We are not going to go overboard," Melanie said as a warning.
"Just have enough to loosen you up enough to dance with me," Sara suggested.
"Hey, I agreed not to go overboard," Elden said with a smirk, earning himself another smack in the arm. "How about you, Julian?" he asked motioning to the flask.
Julian hesitated a moment, then nodded. "Yeah, why not?"
Once Julian's drink was spiked, Elden returned the flask to his pocket and took one of the cups Sara was holding for himself. As the four friends each took a step back from each other, Elden took a sip. "That's much better. We might be able to make a night of this after all."
Melanie looked skeptical. She was only here because Julian had to be and she was trying to be polite for his sake, but she couldn't help thinking that this party looked like it was going to be really lame. "How long are we staying at the party, Julian? Do we have any plans for after?"
Julian had been scanning the crowd, but snapped back to attention when he heard his name. "I think this is it for me," Julian replied. "You don't have to stay if you don't want to, but I'm here for the whole night."
Melanie let out a sigh. That wasn't what she'd been hoping to hear.
"Then we'll stick it out with you," Elden agreed easily. "I think we can make this a fun night."
* * * * *
Vince was walking down the street alone on his way to the party. He had been unsure about whether he really wanted to go or not, but since his only other alternative was staying home and working on schoolwork, he decided he'd rather go. He knew there would be a couple of people there that he wouldn't mind spending some time with.
He and Maura had left the house at the same time, but she decided to take the long way to the party, afraid that if they were seen walking together her identity would be given away before she even stepped foot inside. When Vince heard footsteps approaching from behind he was sure it was Maura. He was about to tease her about having a change of heart about walking alone in the dark, but when he turned, he was surprised to see a guy disguised in Joker make-up approaching him.
"Scot? What are you doing here?" Vince asked. He stopped to confront him, but Scot kept walking.
"I heard there was a party," he replied.
Vince hurried to keep up with him. "You can't be here."
"Relax. I'm not staying. I just wanted to give you this," he pressed an envelope into Vince's hand. "Can you get it back to me tomorrow?"
"Yeah, I can do that," Vince replied. "But just so we're clear, this is the last time. I don't want you contacting me. I don't want you threatening my family or my friends. I'm done."
"Right, fine," Scot huffed with annoyance. "I thought we were friends, but fine, if that's the way you want it. Just for the record, I'm done after this too."
"If that's all you wanted, then you can go now," Vince replied coldly.
Scot stopped to stare Vince down. He seemed for a moment as if he were going to challenge him on his words, but then decided to let it go. "I'm going to step into the party for a minute just for appearances, alright? Then I'll be gone for good."
Vince stopped and sighed as Scot walked ahead to the community building. When Vince looked up, he saw that his interaction with Scot did not go by unnoticed. He wondered if he should go over and explain what was going on, but instead he hurried into the community building after Scot, deciding it would be better to keep an eye on him now and explain later.
* * * * *
As Vince disappeared into the building, Jeremy approached the front of the building from the opposite direction. When he saw the figure in red standing alone on the sidewalk he called out softly. "Hey."
He could tell by the way she moved that she had heard him, but instead of turning around, the figure hurried toward the entrance of the community center.
Jeremy hastened his steps and called out again. "Hey, wait up. Can I talk to you for a second?"
The figure stopped at the door without going in. She let Jeremy catch up to her but she still didn't turn around.
Jeremy slowed his steps and took a second to catch his breath as he gathered his thoughts. "I'm glad I caught you alone. I have something I've been wanting to say." He turned away as he tried to find the right words, afraid that if she turned to look at him he would lose his nerve.
"Sometimes I feel like we kind of have a connection, like maybe you like me, but then other times I get the impression that you want to be as far away from me as possible. Honestly, I'm really not sure what to think. I just wanted to let you know that I really do like you a lot and I have since the beginning of the school year, but if I'm pestering you or being a nuisance or anything like that, just tell me and I'll back off and leave you alone from now on. I don't-" he stopped mid-thought as he caught sight of someone on the sidewalk approaching the community center.
It looked like Natalie, but it couldn't be. Jeremy desperately tried to come up with some other explanation. Maybe his eyes were playing tricks on him. It was dark and she was in costume, so it was possible that he could be mistaken. He blinked and squinted, but his impression didn't change. It was definitely her. His pulse started to race in panic. If that was Natalie, who had he been talking to this entire time?
Horrified by his mistake, Jeremy turned to make an apology and try escape this embarrassing situation as quickly as possible, but when he saw the face peering back at him from behind the red hood, his blood turned to ice. There was Maura smiling at him, her eyes gleaming with admiration. He felt absolutely sick.
"Oh, Jeremy. How could you even think that?" she cried out as she grabbed him in a hug.
Paralyzed with shock and unable to think clearly, Jeremy just stood rigidly, his arms pinned to his side, as Maura squeezed him tight. When he turned his head, Jeremy caught sight of Natalie who seemed to falter for just half a step before continuing into the building with her eyes cast down.
Maura let go of him as she said hello to Natalie. She waited for Natalie to go inside before she spoke again.
"I'm so sorry if I've been giving you mixed signals," Maura said, turning to look Jeremy in the eye. "Just now I wasn't trying to avoid you. There was just something with my brother and I didn't want you to see me upset. But I want you to know that I really like you too and I promise from now on I'm not going to give you any reason to doubt what my real feelings are."
Jeremy opened his mouth to speak, but no words would come out. He had no idea how he was going to set things right now.
Maura grabbed him in a hug again. "Oh, you've made me so happy! You have no idea!" She practically squealed as she grabbed his arm and led him into the building.
Jeremy let her pull him as far as the entryway and then quickly excused himself for the restroom. While he took a few minutes to compose himself, Maura went ahead into the party to find her friends.
* * * * *
Meghan was having a great time at the party hanging out with her friends from the neighborhood and her friends from the dance squad that had made it to the party. She had been dancing almost nonstop since the D.J. had started playing and after putting her all into busting out her best moves for several songs, she decided she needed to stop and take a breather.
She stopped over at the snack table to get a drink just as Elden was refilling his own.
"You've really got some moves," he remarked.
"Thanks." She eyed him warily, wondering why he was acting nice to her. "I'm just having fun."
"I can tell," he said. She took a step away, but he followed. "I'm not surprised though, that you can dance. I remember seeing you practice at Julian's out on the deck."
"Oh, that's right. When Jasmyn was getting me caught up on the dance squad's routine." She purposely left out the ulterior motive of trying to draw Julian's attention away from Sara and Melanie.
"Well, you caught my attention," he said.
She turned to look at him wide-eyed, wondering for a moment if he had read her mind. Not wanting to appear caught off-guard, she turned the attention away from herself. "So why aren't you out there dancing and having a good time?"
"I am having a good time," he insisted. "I'm just not much of a dancer."
"Well, too bad," Meghan said with a shrug. She downed the rest of her punch and started to walk toward the ladies' room.
Not taking the hint that their conversation was done, Elden finished his drink then followed after her. "Is it 'too bad' because you miss out on the pleasure of dancing with me?"
Meghan scoffed and turned to face him. "If anything, you're the one missing out."
"You're feisty. I like it." She started to turn away, but he reached out and touched her arm. "You know, I think it's time we put the stuff that happened earlier this year behind us. I never cared about all that. No one does, really, except for Melanie and she's just jealous because you're way hotter than she is."
Meghan just stared at him and blinked. That was certainly not anything she'd expected him to say. "I am?" she sputtered, not sure how else to respond.
"Yeah, totally," Elden said, leaning in closer as he looked her up and down. "I think you know it too and I think you're not afraid to use it to your advantage."
As he leaned in closer and moved his hand lower on her hip, she grew increasingly uncomfortable. She wasn't sure what he was about to try and she wasn't going to let him get close enough to find out. With both hands she reached out to push him away while simultaneously jerking her knee upward.
Elden let out a grunt and doubled over in pain.
Meghan thought they had been alone in the hallway, but when she looked up, her attention drawn by the sound of laughter, she saw Julian, Sara, and Melanie had followed them. Sara was leaning against the doorway, nearly out of breath from laughing, Melanie was beside her rolling her eyes, and Julian was in front of them both, frozen in place with a stunned look across his face.
"I was just about to-" Julian sputtered. He looked back and forth between Meghan and Elden, not sure who to address his question to first. "Are you okay?"
Meghan nodded and Elden pulled himself upright as he tried to maintain a shred of dignity. Julian set down his drink and was about to help Elden up, but he waved him off.
"I'm going home," Elden announced and then looked over to Melanie and Sara who had ridden to the party with him. "Either of you coming with me?"
"Yeah," Melanie said. "I'm ready. I'll catch you later, Julian."
Sara followed, still giggling. "And you thought this wasn't going to be any fun."
"You know what?" Elden said as they headed out the door. "I changed my mind. You can walk home."
Before Julian could say anything to Meghan, their parents walked over.
"Everything alright?" Andrew asked.
"Yeah, it's fine," Meghan insisted. "I think I'm going to go look for my friends."
Shayna noticed the stray cup left behind and picked it up before Julian could stop her. As she was about to throw it away, she caught an whiff of a distinctive odor, one that was definitely not the odor of fruit punch. She stopped to smell it again, raised her eyebrow and passed it over to Andrew to confirm.
"Whose cup is this?" she asked.
Before Julian could answer, Meghan spoke up. "It's mine. Sort of. Somebody handed it to me, but I didn't drink from it." She looked back and forth between her father and Shayna. She wasn't sure what the story was, but she could tell something was up. "Is there something wrong with it?"
"Are you sure you didn't drink from it?" Shayna asked. "Let me smell your breath."
Meghan was quick to comply, but Andrew didn't think that was necessary.
"Shayna," he said disapprovingly. "Who gave this to you? Was it Julian's friend that just left?" he asked, motioning toward the door.
"No," Meghan replied, shaking her head emphatically. "I didn't know who it was. That's why I just set it down here without drinking it."
"I'm glad you did. That was smart of you," Andrew replied. "What was the person dressed like?"
Meghan tried to think of a costume she hadn't seen anyone wearing, but she knew she had to think fast. Any hesitation would give her lies away. "A clown," she said, naming the first thing that came to mind.
"I'm going to check the punch bowl," Shayna said, taking charge. "All of you go see if you can find anyone in a clown costume. Let's just hope this hasn't spread any farther than this," she said, holding the cup with two fingers before dumping it in the closest garbage can. "If minors are drinking alcohol on my watch-" she stopped short of finishing that sentence as she stormed into the conference room. They all hated to think of the consequences that would result.