MIDNIGHTS
written by Rainbow Rowell and narrated by Rebecca Lowman

31 December 2014, about nine p.m.

Mags hadn’t seen Noel yet this winter break. His family went to Walt Disney World for Christmas.

It’s 80 degrees, he texted her, and I’ve been wearing mouse ears for 72 hours straight.

Mags hadn’t seen Noel since August, when she went over to his house early one morning to say good-bye before his dad drove him to Notre Dame.

Noel didn’t come home for Thanksgiving; plane tickets were too expensive.

She’d seen photos he posted of other people online. (People from his residence hall. People at parties. Girls.) And she and Noel had texted. They’d texted a lot. But Mags hadn’t seen him since August—she hadn’t heard his voice since then.

Honestly, she couldn’t remember it. She couldn’t remember ever thinking about Noel’s voice before. Whether it was deep and rumbled. Or high and smooth. She couldn’t remember what Noel sounded like—or what he looked like, not in motion. She could only see his face in the dozens of photos she still had saved on her phone.

You’re going to Alicia’s, yeah? he’d texted her yesterday. He was in an airport, on his way home.

Where else would I go? Mags texted back.

Cool.

Mags got to Alicia’s early and helped her clean out the basement, then helped Alicia’s mom frost the brownies. Alicia was home from college in South Dakota; she had a tattoo on her back now of a meadowlark.

 

 

Mags didn’t have any new tattoos. She hadn’t changed at all. She hadn’t even left Omaha—she got a scholarship to study industrial design at one of the schools in town. A full scholarship. It would have been stupid for Mags to leave. Nobody showed up for the party on time, but everybody showed up. ‘Is Noel coming?’ Alicia asked, when the doorbell had stopped ringing.

 

 

How would I know? Mags wanted to say. But she did know. ‘Yeah, he’s coming,’ she said. ‘He’ll be here.’ She’d gotten a little chocolate on the sleeve of her dress. She tried to scrape it off with her fingernail.

Mags had changed three times before she settled on this dress.

She was going to wear a dress that Noel had always liked, gray with deep red peonies—but she didn’t want him to think that she hadn’t had a single original thought since the last time she saw him.

So she’d changed. Then changed again. And ended up in this one, a cream-colored lace shift that she’d never worn before, with baroque-patterned pink and gold tights.

She stood in front of her bedroom mirror, staring at herself. At her dark brown hair. Her thick eyebrows and blunt chin. She tried to see herself the way Noel would see her, for the first time since August. Then she tried to pretend she didn’t care.

 

 

Then she left.

She got halfway to her car, then ran back up to her room to put on the earrings Noel had given her last year for her eighteenth birthday—angel wings.

Mags was talking to Pony when Noel finally arrived. Pony was in school in Iowa, studying engineering. He’d grown his hair back out into a ponytail, and Simini was tugging on it just because it made her happy. She was studying art in Utah, but she was probably going to transfer to Iowa. Or Pony was going to move to Utah. Or they were going to meet in the middle. ‘What’s in the middle?’ Pony said. ‘Nebraska? Shit, honey, maybe we should move home.’

Mags felt it when Noel walked in. (He came in through the back door, and a bunch of cold air came in with him.)

She looked up over Pony’s shoulder and saw Noel, and Noel saw her—and he strode straight through the basement, over the love seat and up onto the coffee table and over the couch and through Pony and Simini, and wrapped his arms around Mags, swinging her in a circle.

‘Mags!’ Noel said.

 

 

‘Noel,’ Mags whispered.

Noel hugged Pony and Simini, too. And Frankie and Alicia and Connor. And everybody. Noel was a hugger.

Then he came back to Mags and pinned her against the wall, crowding her as much as hugging her. ‘Oh, God, Mags,’ he said. ‘Never leave me.’

‘I never left you,’ she said to his chest. ‘I never go anywhere.’

‘Never let me leave you,’ he said to the top of her head.

‘When do you go back to Notre Dame?’ she asked.

‘Sunday.’

Noel was wearing wine-colored pants (softer than jeans, rougher than velvet), a blue-on-blue striped T-shirt, and a gray jacket with the collar turned up.

He was as pale as ever.

His eyes were as wide and as blue.

But his hair was cut short: buzzed over his ears and up the back, with long brown curls spilling out over his forehead. Mags brought her hand up to the back of his head. It felt like something was missing.

‘You should have come with me, Margaret,’ he said. ‘The young woman who attacked me couldn’t stop herself.’

‘No,’ she said, rubbing Noel’s scalp. ‘It looks good. It suits you.’

Everything was the same, and everything was different.

Same people. Same music. Same couches.

But they’d all grown apart for four months, and in wildly different directions.

Frankie brought beer and hid it under the couch, and Natalie was drunk when she got there. Connor brought his new college boyfriend, and everyone hated him—and Alicia kept trying to pull Connor aside to tell him so. The basement seemed more crowded than usual, and there wasn’t as much dancing. . . .

There was about as much dancing as there would be at a normal party—at somebody else’s party. Their parties used to be different. They used to be twenty-five people in a basement who knew each other so well, they never had to hold back.

Noel didn’t dance tonight. He stuck with Pony and Simini and Frankie. He stuck by Mags’s side, like he was glued there.

She was so glad that she and Noel hadn’t stopped texting—that she still knew what he woke up worried about. Everybody else’s inside jokes were seven months old, but Noel and Mags hadn’t missed a beat.

Noel took a beer when Frankie offered him one. But when Mags rolled her eyes, he handed it to Pony.

‘Is it weird being in Omaha?’ Simini asked her. ‘Now that everybody’s left?’

‘It’s like walking through the mall after it closes,’ Mags said. ‘I miss you guys so much.’

Noel startled. ‘Hey,’ he said to Mags, pulling on her sleeve.

‘What?’

‘Come here, come here—come with me.’

He was pulling her away from their friends, out of the basement, up the stairs. When they got to the first floor, he said, ‘Too far, can’t hear the music.’

‘What?’

They went down the stairs again and stopped midway, and Noel switched places with her, so she was standing on the higher step. ‘Dance with me, Mags, they’re playing our song.’

Mags tipped her head. ‘ “A Thousand Years”?’

‘It’s our actual song,’ he said. ‘Dance with me.’

‘How is this our song?’ she asked.

‘It was playing when we met,’ Noel said.

‘When?’

‘When we met,’ he said, rolling his hand, like he was hurrying her along.

‘When we met here?’

‘Yes. When we met. Downstairs. Sophomore year. And you saved my life.’

‘I never saved your life, Noel.’

‘Why do you always ruin this story?’

‘You remember the song that was playing when we met?’

‘I always remember the song that’s playing,’ he said. ‘All the time.’

That was true, he did. All Mags could think to say now was, ‘What?’

Noel groaned.

‘I don’t like to dance,’ she said.

‘You don’t like to dance in front of people,’ he said.

‘That’s true.’

‘Just a minute.’ Noel sighed and ran downstairs. ‘Don’t go anywhere,’ he shouted up to her.

‘I never go anywhere!’ she shouted back.

She heard the song start over.

Then Noel was running back up the stairs. He stood on the step below her and held up his hands. ‘Please.’

Mags sighed and lifted up her hands. She wasn’t sure what to do with them . . .

Noel took one of her hands in his and put her other hand on his shoulder, curling his arm around her waist. ‘Jesus Christ,’ he said, ‘was that so hard?’

‘I don’t know why this is so important to you,’ she said. ‘Dancing.’

‘I don’t know why it’s so important to you,’ he said. ‘Not to dance with me.’

She was a little bit taller than him like this. They were swaying.

Alicia’s mom came down the stairs. ‘Hey, Mags. Hey, Noel—how’s Notre Dame?’

Noel pulled Mags closer to let Mrs. Porter squeeze by. ‘Good,’ he said.

‘You guys really fell asleep against Michigan.’

‘I’m not actually on the football team,’ Noel said.

‘That’s no excuse,’ Mrs. Porter said.

 

 

Noel didn’t loosen his grip after Alicia’s mom was past them. His arm was all the way around Mags’s waist now, and their stomachs and chests were pressed together.

They’d touched a lot, over the years, as friends. Noel liked to touch. Noel hugged. And tickled and pulled hair. Noel pulled people into his lap. He apparently kissed anyone who raised their eyebrows at him on New Year’s Eve. . . .

But Noel had never held Mags like this.

Mags had never felt his belt buckle in her hip. She’d never tasted his breath.

Mrs. Porter came back up the stairs, and Noel held Mags even tighter.

‘A Thousand Years’ began again.

‘Did you tell somebody to start it over?’ Mags asked.

‘I put it on repeat,’ he said. ‘They’ll stop it when they notice.’

‘Was this on the Twilight sound track?’

‘Dance with me, Mags.’

‘I am,’ she said.

‘I know,’ he said. ‘Don’t stop.’

‘Okay.’ Mags had been holding herself rigid, so that she’d still be standing upright, even if Noel let go. She stopped that now. She relaxed into his grip and let her arm slide over his shoulder. She touched the back of his hair again because she wanted to—because it was still missing.

 

 

‘You don’t like it,’ he said.

‘I do like it,’ she said. ‘It’s different.’

‘You’re different.’

Mags made a face that said, You’re crazy.

‘You are,’ Noel said.

‘I’m exactly the same,’ she said. ‘I’m the only one who’s the same.’

‘You’re the most different.’

‘How?’

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘It’s like we all left, and you let go—and you’re the one who drifted away.’

‘That’s bananas,’ Mags said. ‘I talk to you every day.’

‘It’s not enough,’ he said. ‘I’ve never seen this dress before.’

‘You don’t like my dress?’

‘No.’ Noel shook his head. She wasn’t used to seeing him like this. Agitated. ‘I like it. It’s pretty. But it’s different. You’re different. I feel like I can’t get close enough to you.’ He pushed his forehead into hers.

She pushed back. ‘We’re pretty close, Noel.’

He sighed, frustrated, and it filled her nose and mouth. ‘Why don’t you have a boyfriend?’

Mags frowned. ‘Maybe I do.’

He looked devastated and pulled his head back. ‘You wouldn’t tell me something like that?’

‘No,’ she said, ‘no—Noel, of course, I would. I’d tell you. I just don’t know what you want me to say. I don’t know why I don’t have a boyfriend.’

‘It’s going to get worse,’ he said. ‘You’re going to keep changing.’

‘Well, so are you,’ she said.

‘I never change.’

Mags laughed. ‘You’re a kaleidoscope. You change every time I look away.’

‘Don’t you hate that?’ he asked.

Mags shook her head. Her nose rubbed against his. ‘I love it.’

They’d stopped swaying.

‘Are we still dancing?’ she asked.

‘We’re still dancing. Don’t get any big ideas, Margaret.’ He let go of her hand and wrapped that arm around her, too. ‘Don’t go anywhere.’

‘I never go anywhere,’ Mags whispered.

He shook his head like she was a liar. ‘You’re my best friend,’ he said.

‘You have lots of best friends,’ she said.

‘No,’ Noel said. ‘Just you.’

Mags held on to his neck with both arms. She pushed on his forehead. He smelled like skin.

‘I can’t get close enough,’ Noel said.

 

 

Somebody realized that the song was on repeat and skipped to the next one.

Somebody else realized that Mags and Noel were gone. Natalie came looking for Noel. ‘Noel! Come dance with me! They’re playing our song!’

It was that Ke$ha song.

Noel pulled away from Mags. He grinned at her sheepishly. Like he’d been silly on the stairway, but she’d forgive him, wouldn’t she? And there was a party downstairs, they should be at the party, right?

Noel went downstairs, and Mags followed.

The party had changed while they were gone: Everybody seemed a little bit younger again. They’d kicked off their shoes and were jumping on couches. They were singing all the words to the songs they always sang all the words to.

Noel took off his jacket and threw it to Mags. She caught it because she had good hands.

Noel looked good.

Long and pale. In dark red jeans that no one else would wear. In a T-shirt that would have hung on him last year.

He looked so good.

And she loved him so much.

And Mags couldn’t do it again.

She couldn’t stand across the room and watch Noel kiss someone else. Not tonight. She couldn’t watch somebody else get the kiss she’d been working so hard for, since the moment they’d met.

So, a few minutes before midnight, Mags scooped up a handful of Chex mix and acted like she was going into the hall. Like maybe she was going to the bathroom. Or maybe she was going to check the filter on the furnace.

Then she slipped out the back door. No one would think to look for her outside in the snow.

It was cold, but Mags still had Noel’s jacket, so she put it on. She leaned against the foundation of Alicia’s house and ate Alicia’s mom’s Chex mix—Mrs. Porter made the best Chex mix—and listened to the music.

Then the music stopped, and the counting started.

And it was good that Mags was out here, because it would hurt too much to be in there. It always hurt too much, and this year, it might kill her.

‘Seven!’

‘Six!’

‘Mags?’ someone called.

It was Noel. She recognized his voice.

‘Margaret?’

‘Four!’

‘Here,’ Mags said. Then, a little louder, ‘Here!’ Because she was his best friend, and avoiding him was one thing, but hiding from him was another.

‘Two!’

‘Mags . . .’

She could see Noel then, in a shaft of moonlight breaking through the slats of the deck above her. His eyes had gone all soft, and he was raising his eyebrows.

‘One!’

Mags nodded, and pushed with her shoulders away from the house, then Noel pushed her right back—pinning her as much as he was hugging her as much as he was crowding her against the wall.

He kissed her hard.

Mags hooked both arms around the back of his head, pressing their faces together, their chins and open mouths.

Noel held on to both of her shoulders.

 

 

After a few minutes—maybe more than a few minutes, after awhile—they both seemed to trust the other not to go.

They eased up.

Mags petted Noel’s curls, pushing them out of his face. Noel pinned her to the wall from his hips to his shoulders, kissing her to the rhythm of whatever song was playing inside now.

When he pulled away, she was going to tell him that she loved him; when he pulled away, she was going to tell him not to let go. ‘Don’t,’ Mags said, when Noel finally lifted his head.

‘Mags,’ he whispered. ‘My lips are going numb.’

‘Then don’t kiss,’ she said. ‘But don’t go.’

‘No . . .’ Noel pushed away from her, and her whole front went cold. ‘My lips are going numb—were you eating strawberries?’

‘Oh, God,’ she said. ‘Chex mix.’

‘Chex mix?’

‘Cashews,’ she said. ‘And probably other tree nuts.’

‘Ah,’ Noel said.

Mags was already dragging him away from the wall. ‘Do you have something with you?’

‘Benadryl,’ he said. ‘In my car. But it makes me sleepy. I’m probably fine.’

‘Where are your keys?’

‘In my pocket,’ he said, pointing at her, at his jacket. His tongue sounded thick.

Mags found the keys and kept pulling him. His car was parked on the street, and the Benadryl was in the glove compartment. Mags watched Noel take it, then stood with her arms folded, waiting for whatever came next.

‘Can you breathe?’ she asked.

‘I can breathe.’

‘What usually happens?’

He grinned. ‘This has never happened before.’

‘You know what I mean.’

‘My mouth tingles. My tongue and lips swell up. I get hives. Do you want to check me for hives?’ Wolfish.

‘Then what?’ she asked.

‘Then nothing,’ he said. ‘Then I take Benadryl. I have an EpiPen, but I’ve never had to use it.’

‘I’m going to check you for hives,’ she said.

He grinned again and held out his arms. She looked at them. She lifted up his striped T-shirt. . . . He was pale. And covered in goose bumps. And there were freckles she’d never known about on his chest.

‘I don’t think you have hives,’ she said.

‘I can feel the Benadryl working already.’ He dropped his arms and put them around her.

‘Don’t kiss me again,’ Mags said.

‘Immediately,’ Noel said. ‘I won’t kiss you again immediately.’

She leaned into him, her temple on his chin, and closed her eyes.

‘I knew you’d save my life,’ he said.

‘I wouldn’t have had to save it if I didn’t almost kill you.’

‘Don’t give yourself too much credit. It’s the tree nuts who are trying to kill me.’

She nodded.

They were both quiet for a few minutes.

‘Noel?’

‘Yeah?’

She had to ask him this—she had to make herself ask it: ‘Are you just being melodramatic?’

‘Mags, I promise. I wouldn’t fake an allergic response.’

‘No,’ she said. ‘With the kiss.’

‘There was more than one kiss. . . .’

‘With all of them,’ she said. ‘Were you just—embellishing?’

Mags braced for him to say something silly.

‘No,’ Noel said. Then, ‘Were you just humoring me?

‘God. No,’ she said. ‘Did it feel like I was humoring you?’

Noel shook his head, rubbing his chin into her temple.

‘What are we doing?’ Mags asked.

‘I don’t know. . . .’ he said eventually. ‘I know things have to change, but . . . I can’t lose you. I don’t think I get another one like you.’

‘I’m not going anywhere, Noel.’

‘You are,’ he said, squeezing her. ‘And it’s okay. Just . . . I need you to take me with you.’

Mags didn’t know what to say to that.

It was cold. Noel was shivering. She should give him his jacket.

‘Mags?’

‘Yeah?’

‘What do you need?’

Mags swallowed.

In the three years she and Noel had been friends, she’d spent a lot of time pretending she didn’t need anything more than what he was already giving her. She’d told herself there was a difference between wanting something and needing it. . . .

 

 

‘I need you to be my person,’ Mags said. ‘I need to see you. And hear you. I need you to stay alive. And I need you to stop kissing other people just because they’re standing next to you when the ball drops.’

Noel laughed.

‘I also need you not to laugh at me,’ she said.

He pulled his face back and looked at her. ‘No, you don’t.’

She kissed his chin without opening her mouth.

‘You can have all those things,’ he said carefully. ‘You can have me, Mags, if you want me.’

‘I’ve always wanted you,’ she said, mortified by the extent to which it was true.

Noel leaned in to kiss her, and she dropped her forehead against his lips.

They were quiet.

And it was cold.

‘Happy anniversary, Mags.’

‘Happy New Year, Noel.’


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