The word was bittersweet in her mouth as she gazed down at me. I was actually taller than her, I knew that for a fact, but she was wearing those intimidating stilettos again. I had an awful time balancing in a pair of heels. I don’t know how she did it. And anyway, it didn’t matter. I wasn’t a stiletto type of girl.
“So you had fun?”
“Yeah.” She tugged the band from her hair. It flowed loose around her shoulders, beautiful, impeccable. Once upon a time we had both dyed our hair the same color, but I didn’t have the complexion for it. She was one of those people who could pull off any shade. Never mind that my natural was prettier than hers—now she was a gorgeous blonde, thanks to chemicals.
I was being spiteful. I knew better, but the superiority in her eyes was fuel to the fire.
“Maybe…” I handed her a pajama top from my drawer and turned away as she put it on.
“What?” She asked a moment later, flipping her hair out beneath the collar of the shirt. She flopped down onto my bed, all long limbs and ignorant grace. She patted the spot next to her.
I obliged, folding my legs up underneath me. “Maybe next time I could come with you guys.”
She scrunched her face up, causing her nose to wrinkle cutely. “I don’t know, Anna.”
“Why not? It would be fun.”
“I know.” She rolled over onto her back, kicking her legs up at the ceiling. “Hey, do you think my feet are big? Michaela said they were but I’m only a size seven.”
“No, they’re not big,” I said, keeping my eyes on my hands. They twisted themselves into a nervous bundle. “So? What do you think about me coming with you guys next time?”
She sighed. “I don’t think the guys would understand, you know? It’s just because you don’t hang out with them at school. They don’t know you. I mean, I’d love it, but…”
“Yeah,” I hurried to say. “Totally.”
She propped herself up on her elbows. “Please don’t be mad.”
“I’m not, Hail. I get it.”
“You’re the bestest ever.” She wrapped her arms around me, squeezing me tight for a millisecond. Then she let go. “Can you make popcorn on the stove? And maybe we can watch a movie or something.”
She clapped as I headed for the door. “Thank you! Yay! This is going to be so much fun!”
“Yeah.” I opened the door with a halfhearted smile.
I leaned against it a moment after it was shut, trying to fight back tears. I already knew she was going to say no, so crying was pointless. But still. Why was she so afraid to introduce me to her new friends? Was I not cool enough—nerdy little private-school Anna?
I missed being in school with her. I really did. But I couldn’t turn down the scholarship from Havisham Kane. It would get me into any school I wanted. Just the name had so much credibility.
Hailey had cried when I told her a year and a half ago. It was the summer before freshman year, and everything was changing. She suddenly became really beautiful in addition to smart, and my smarts were amplified. It was only natural for us to divert from each other a bit.
“You can’t go,” She said, wiping her eyes with the fifth tissue so far. “I can’t start a new school without you.”
“It’s not new,” I reminded her as gently as I could, rubbing her arm. “Kendall will be there and Jake and Catherine. They’ll be friends with you.”
She blew fervently into the sixth. “It’s not the same. I need you, Anna.”
I wish she would say that to me now: I need you, Anna. Instead of hanging out with her friends Friday nights and then coming over here to watch my TV and eat my food.
Sometimes I wish I had never gone to Havisham Kane, even though I had made some new friends and I really loved the classes and the campus and—
No. I was just being stupid. Hailey was bound to change a bit. It would probably be the same if I hadn’t transferred.
The nagging feeling in my throat told me otherwise.
I was just about to open my eyes and head downstairs when I heard Hailey’s voice, faint from the other side of the door, talking to someone.
“—up? Oh, cool. Yeah. I’m just over at my friend’s.”
I hesitated, then leaned forward to press my ear to the door, straining to hear. It was difficult. Our house was older, and they built everything so solid. In Hailey’s pristine, new-construction house, you could hear a whisper all the way upstairs. With the door shut.
“No, you don’t…uh-huh…but like…no, I promised her. Wait, he is? He said he wants to see me?” There was a pause. My bed creaked as she scooted off of it. I heard the zipper of her backpack, and she giggled. “Oh my god. Wow. Yes. I’m just changing. I’ll be there ASAP. Okay. Bye.”
I crept away from the door as quickly as I could and shot down the stairs. When Hailey appeared in the entranceway to our kitchen a moment later, I was casually heating oil up for popcorn.
“Oh, hey,” I said when I saw her, trying not to look guilty. “Do you want a soda?”
She shook her head and dropped her backpack on the ground.
“Hey, you changed,” I noted.
She nodded. “Anna—”
“Yeah?” I smiled at her hopefully. Okay, so it was pretty obvious. Her friends had called to ask her to hang out with some guy, and she was going to invite me to come with her. I would, and we would have an awesome time and then come home and eat popcorn and discuss how cute he was.
“Do you—” She pressed her lips together. “Um, my Mom just called.”
“Oh.” My stomach plummeted. “She, um, she did?”
“Yeah. I’m really sorry, but she needs me home to babysit Jack. She has some important meeting or something that she forgot to tell me about.”
I forged my best aw-man-that’s-too-bad face. “Do you want me to come with you?”
Her eyes widened a bit as she shook her head. “No. Thank you, though. It’ll be boring.”
“Right.” I turned back to the popcorn. The oil popped and sizzled. “Okay. See you…”
“Monday,” She said. “I can come over right after school Monday.”
“Great.” I kept my back to her even as she came up behind to hug me. “Monday.”
“Monday,” She promised, scooping her bag off the floor. “Bye. I can let myself out.”
As soon as the front door closed behind her I burst into tears.
- - -
Elona flagged me down at school Monday morning, waving me over to her locker.
“You’re never going to believe it,” She said, opened the door with a grand sweep of her hand. I gasped.
“You got a…” I reached out to touch a delicate petal. “Gibraltar campion?” I swiveled around to gape at her. “But how?”
She grinned smugly. “My Dad pulled a few favors.”
Of course. Elona’s Dad was a world-renowned botanist. I had met him only once. He was constantly flying all over the world in search of rare flowers. This was some of the rarest.
Our science project this year was the breeding of rare and/or extinct flowers. We had until May to cultivate our own breed, and I had wanted a Gibraltar campion as part of the mix.
That was what I wanted to be. A botanist-slash-plant breeder. Elona was shooting for physics professor, but her Dad’s contacts would make for a very successful science project. Plus she knew all about the makeup of things and stuff. It was a perfect pairing, so I convinced her to come on board.
“And he let you bring it to school?” I asked, stepping away from the locker. .
“Well…he doesn’t exactly know about this, but it’s not going to hurt for a day.” She secured it with a padlock. “Do you want to come over after school to work on our plan?”
“Yeah, sure.” I hoisted my bag higher up on my shoulder. “What time?”
“You can just ride the bus home with me.”
“All right. See you.” I smiled. “We are so going to win.”
She raised her hand for a high-five. “We totally are!”
We started down the hall side-by-side, heading toward advanced math. We were both in all the honors classes together, except for physics. I was not great at physics.
“Do you like ice cream?” She asked after a moment.
“Yeah. Who doesn’t?”
“Good, because we have some at home we need to eat.”
This would be fun. I brightened considerably as we walked into math and took our seats. Planning the flower breeding. Eating ice cream. And maybe I would finally get her to admit she liked Peter. Then we could map out a makeover for her so he would ask her out. When I glanced over at Elona, I saw her admiring the back of his head.
Yep. We definitely needed to do something about that.
Math was a blur. We talked sine, cosine, and tangent. Pretty simple stuff, if you asked me. Or Hailey, for that matter. Hailey was so smart. I half wished she had applied for the scholarship to Havisham Kane when I did, but—
Oh no. Hailey. She was supposed to come over.
When the bell rang, I rushed over to Elona, who was procrastinating putting her notebooks in her bag so she could watch as Peter talked to some random girl. Beth, I think. I stepped in front of her, eliminating him from view, and she started.
“Sorry,” I apologized.
“It’s okay,” She said, zipping up her backpack slowly. “I was just…”
I arched my eyebrows.
“Thinking,” She decided at last. Her face was red.
“Right. Thinking. Anyway.” I leaned toward her. “Hey, I’m so, so sorry but I totally forgot my friend’s supposed to come to my house after school today.”
“Oh.” Her face fell a bit. “Okay.”
“I can’t really cancel because—”
She shook her head. “It’s fine. We’ll do it tomorrow.”
“Thank you so much, Elona. You’re amazing.” I patted her on the shoulder a bit awkwardly.
“No problem.” She shrugged. It was impossible to tell with Elona whether she was disappointed or not. I’d only really known her for a few months, when she transferred at the beginning of the year, so it was all still a bit vague. But she was nice. And my friend. I knew that much.
“See you later,” I said, ducking out of the classroom. This is where we parted ways for physics.
“Bye,” She replied, and ducked past me, tearing off down the hall.
- - -
I took the bus home that afternoon, but I didn’t mind. The Havisham Kane bus was really nice, almost elite. It had seatbelts, at least.
We got to my stop after forty-five minutes. I stood up and edged my way past Larkin, who hastily scooted to take my place at the window. He didn’t talk much, but he was nice. Cute. I thanked the driver and climbed down the steps carefully, doing my best to maneuver them. They were steep. When I hit the sidewalk I froze.
Hailey was casually sitting on my steps on the other side of the street, engrossed in her phone. I couldn’t move, more than a little surprised to see her there so early. The last few times Hailey said she was coming over, she showed up late. Just the sight of this—of a kept promise—made my spirits rise.
Today she was wearing her most figure-flattering skinny jeans, heeled combat boots, and a casually loose top. Her hair was pulled over one shoulder. The sun seemed to make it illuminate. I glanced down at my outfit, unable to help from comparing myself to her. I was wearing an old t-shirt and loose jeans. Nothing special.
It didn’t used to be this way. I didn’t feel like we were in a competition I had no way of winning. It wasn’t like it was her fault, particularly. I was the one who had set these standards.
She’s here, I told myself, taking a deep breath. She’s here, and that means something.
With that mantra replaying itself in my head, I started across the street. I was halfway up the walk to my house before Hailey looked up. She gave me a closed-lip smile and waved. “Hey! Just a sec. Let me finish this text.”
I got right up beside her and sat down on the next step. So subtly I wondered if it was intentional, she angled the phone away from my (okay, prying) eyes. Her stare flashed up briefly.
“Nothing. Who’re you texting?”
“Just a guy.”
“Just a guy?” I forced playfulness into my tone.
“Just a cute guy.” She grinned at something on the screen. Her thumbs flew.
“Do you have a picture?”
She hit the Home button on her iPhone and pulled up the gallery. “Yeah, of course. I stole it off of his Facebook. Let me…” Her tongue protruded from her mouth as she scrolled through.
Magazine cutouts were piled between us. Hailey concentrated extra hard on getting the edges perfectly round on a picture of one of the Harry Potter boys. Her tongue stuck out. I reached out to poke the end with my pencil. We dissolved into giggles, and she tossed the magazine at me. “You made me screw up!”
I cleared my throat. “Find anything?”
She shook her head. “No. Michaela deleted it, I bet.” She rolled her eyes theatrically. “She has a total crush on him but who is he texting right now? Not her.”
“He might be texting her too,” I suggested. “You just never know.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
There was an awkward, almost tense silence.
“You know I was joking?”
Hailey pulled her eyes away from her phone just long enough to brush across my apologetic face. “Huh?” My words must have registered, because she reached up to toy with a piece of her hair. “Oh, yeah. I knew.”
“Okay. Just checking.”
Her phone dinged.
“Is that him?”
“Noooo….” She drew the word out. Her tongue peeked back out.
“Why do you do that?” “Do what?” “Always stick your tongue out?” “Because…I’m cool.” I hit her with a pillow. “You are not cool. I’m cool.” “No you’re not. I’m the coolest.” She lurched forward to whack me with her own mini sleepover pillow. I laughed and grabbed it from her.
“Who is it, then?”
“Michaela. I asked her to send me a pic of him.”
“Oh. Well.” I stood up. The wind was cold, and my legs were freezing. “Do you want to go inside? How long have you been sitting here?”
A few seconds passed before she finally stood up, wedging the phone in the back pocket of her jeans. They were so skin tight, I wondered how she got them to fit. “Sure. But I can’t stay long.”
I unlocked the door and we let ourselves in. Hailey made a beeline for the kitchen. “Do you have hot chocolate packets?”
“Yeah.” I opened the cabinet and she sat down at the ancient island. “Do you want one?”
I busied myself with making our hot chocolates, adding a splash of peppermint extract and whipped cream, because I knew Hailey liked hers like that. When I turned around, grandly brandishing the two cups, it was to find her back on her phone again.
“Earth to Hailey?” I asked, with a tinge of annoyance in my voice. I set the mug down in front of her with a clatter. “Maid service.”
She stuck her tongue out and bent over to lick the top of the whipped cream. “Thank you, Maid Service.”
“You’re welcome.” I pulled up my seat across from her and plopped down, a bit heavily. “What’s up?”
“Nothing.” She turned off her phone and slid it aside, dipping her finger down into the whipped cream. “Michaela won’t send me a picture of him. She says she doesn’t have one but I know she does.”
I guess I could have been the supportive, sympathetic friend (That’s so mean! Why do you even hang out with her? Yikes, like, he would never go for that) but I didn’t want to talk about cute guy whatshisface anymore. I wanted to talk about me. About Hailey. About things that were going on in our lives unrelated to other people.
“So…” I pushed my cup around. “How’s school?”
“School?” She drew herself up like she was surprised I was even asking. “School’s...school. Why? Is there some important school thing I don’t even know about.”
“No. I was just asking. Is honors hard? Because even at Havisham—”
“Anna.” She laughed humorlessly. “I’m not in honors.”
“Oh.” I frowned in confusion. “You’re not?”
“No. I didn’t sign up for them this year.”
“Honors isn’t…” She paused. “You know. Cool.”
I tried to mask my expression, but she saw, and hurried to tack on, “at the high school. I know at Havisham it just means you’re really smart, which is awesome.”
“Please don’t be offended.”
“Good.” She put her hand on mine, practically beaming. “I love the hot chocolate. None of my friends can make it like you do. Actually, none of my friends can make anything.” She shook her head, looking back down at her phone. “They’re pretty much worthless.”
I laughed like this was meant to be taken as a joke, even if it wasn’t. It made me feel good, anyway. She hadn’t said a bad word about them to me yet, but hearing this only reiterated what I felt to be true: Hailey didn’t care about them. She cared about me. Her best friend of forever. Her bestest, as she liked to say.
“Hey, you know what?” I said, suddenly struck with a brilliant idea.
“What?” Hailey tucked a loose hair behind her ear, smiling beatifically.
“We should have t-shirts made that say best and bestest. You know. And wear them together.”
It faltered at the edges. “Yeah, maybe.”
Maybe? Why wasn’t she screaming YES? Like she would have a few months ago?
“What? Don’t you think so?”
She shrugged. “It just seems like a waste of money for something we’ll never wear.”
“But we will wear it. Around each other and at school and stuff.”
“Do you want me to get them made?”
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a ten. “Sure. Here’s my half.”
“Thanks.” I pocketed the money. I didn’t bother telling her that wouldn’t even begin to cover the price of expensive, special-order shirts. “Do you want to design them now?”
“Actually—” She scooted off the stool. “I’ve got to run.”
“Oh. Right.” When she said she couldn’t stay long, I didn’t think she meant she’d be here—I looked at the clock, slightly disbelieving. Wow. Ten minutes.
“I have homework and stuff,” She added. “I’m sorry. But than you for having me.” She took one last gulp of her hot chocolate. “I had so much fun.”
“Yeah. It was fun.”
“Maybe we can do it again next week.”
“Or…” I followed her to the door, wondering how to approach this. And slightly afraid to. “Or this weekend? Since you didn’t get to stay the night Saturday?”
She nodded enthusiastically. “I don’t think I have anything going on! Awesome!”
“Should I come to your house?”
“Actually…I would love to, you know, come here. Get away. I’m always at my house.”
So was I, but I wasn’t about to argue. “All right.”
“Great. Thanks, Anna.” She hugged me tight. “Love you.”
I wandered back into the kitchen to wash out our cups. Mine was completely emptied, aside from the usual traces of chocolate that coated the bottom and never could be stirred in.
Hailey’s was completely full. All she’d eaten of it was the whipped cream.
- - -
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
I leaned forward to snap a picture of the Gibraltar campion with my camera. “Gorgeous.”
Elona brandished a notebook and scribbled something down. “So I did some research last night, and I called my Dad. He said a more common flower would be best. I mean, technically it’s really odd for us to do this at all. We should be breeding pure Gibraltar because they’re just so rare…” She trailed off. “But I think we should maybe try a similar flower. Same size.”
“Right. Which would be?”
She pointed to me with her pen. “You’re the expert.”
“I think…” I leaned away from the exquisite plant, racking my brain for the right flowers. “I think…”
Elona smiled encouragingly.
“I think it’s time for an ice cream break.”
“Me too,” She agreed. “Let’s come back to this.”
We sat down with our bowls a moment later, on a really comfortable couch. We were up in Elona’s room, which was sprawling and filled with expensive gadgets and indulgent furniture. Her house carried on the theme—they had an intercom, and state-of-the-art computers and a library filled with an expansive collection of plant books. This was my third or fourth time here (all school related visits) and I was still in awe. I guess this is what your house was like when you were a rich, well-respected botanist.
“Is your Dad here?” I asked, taking a tentative bite of vanilla. “We could ask him.”
She shook her head. “He’s in Mali somewhere right now for a conservation project.”
“Oh.” I deflated a bit. “Well, we can surely figure it out on our own.”
She set her ice cream down. “Do you know anything about clothes?”
I could barely keep myself from laughing at her abrupt change in subject. What Elona lacked in social skills she more than made up for in niceness, but still. I would have to work on her not being so blunt. “Not really. Why?”
“I need a second opinion.” She got up and walked over to her closet, reaching in to pull out a shimmery dress. “I got this from my Second Cousin’s Aunt in Madrid. A hand-me-down. I want to know if it’s cute. She says it is, but her aunt is forty-something.”
I stared at the dress. What in the world determined if it was cute? I mean, it was shiny. Silvery. A bit on the short side. I pulled out my phone with sudden confidence. I would text it to Hailey and ask her. She would know.
“Can I take a picture?”
“Um…yeah. Should I…” She set it down on the couch beside me, smoothing it out. Then she stepped back. Leaned forward to pat away one last crease. “Why?”
I snapped a shot. “To send to my friend Hailey. She’ll know. If it’s cute, or whatever.” I typed her a quick message explaining and hit send. There! “She should get back right away.”
“Thank you.” Elona picked it up and took it back to the closet. “I was actually asking because I was...you know...thinking of wearing it to the dance.”
“Awesome.” I smiled. “And are you going to be asking Peter to the dance, perhaps?”
She swallowed. “Maybe.”
“You should! He’ll totally say yes.”
“But…” She let out a whine of frustration, clapping her hands together. “He always always always talks to that girl Kate! What if he likes her?”
“They’re not going out, right?”
“Well…no. Because I’m kind of friends with his sister’s friend and—”
“Then you have insider information?”
She smiled reluctantly. “I’m not spying on him.”
“Oh, I know. It’s just awesome you have insider information.”
My phone beeped and I reached for it. “That’s Hailey. I’ll tell you what she—” I stared at the screen. “Oh. Nevermind. It’s my Mom.”
Elona folded her hands and studied the room politely like she was the guest while I responded to Mom’s message. “I’m really sorry. I’m not one of these texting people, I swear.”
She laughed. “I know. I’ve spent enough time around you to know that.”
“She was just freaking out about me being gone,” I said, laying the phone back down gingerly. “She’s gone about ninety percent of the time, but occasionally she resumes Mom duties and acts on them.”
Elona nodded. “What does she do?”
“Writes textbooks for people. It’s a pretty boring job, if you ask me, but she has a whole company built on it so she’s gone a lot of the time.”
“Kind of like Dad.”
I grinned. “Except not in Mali. Just the next town over.”
“Oh. Right.” She reached for the ice cream and resumed eating. “I sometimes forget that not everyone’s Dad travels all over the world to save plants.”
“But who could blame you?” I deadpanned. “It’s such a typical day job.”
She smiled through her next bite of ice cream. “Yeah. It’s pretty standard.”
I grabbed my ice cream, too. And so we just sat there. Eating ice cream and smiling at each other.
- - -
It got all the way to Thursday before I broke down and called Hailey. I needed to know if we had plans or not for the weekend, and also why she never bothered to respond to my text. In fact, I was kind of angry. She was always on her phone, so I knew she must have seen it.
“Hello?” She answered airily.
“Oh, hey!” Her voice rose a couple octaves. “What’s up?”
“Nothing. I was calling—”
“Just a sec.” There was some scratchy sounds, and then the line went dead.
Had we been disconnected?
I sat there for a full two minutes with the phone in my hand, waiting for her to call back. Then I dialed her number.
“Anna?” She answered readily. “I’m sorry. I’m in the car. I went through a bad area.”
“Oh. Where are you going?”
“Um,” She clicked her tongue. “Doctor’s appointment.”
“Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, sorry. I was just concentrating. Let me…let me pull over.”
There was another click. Unbelievable.
“Are you doing this on purpose?” I demanded into the phone a moment later.
“No! Of course not. That time I accidentally hit the end button. I’m so sorry!” And she did sound sorry; she sounded like her old Hailey self when she was caught doing something she wasn’t supposed to.
“Look, Anna, I’m super duper sorry. A bazillion times with ten of your favorite cherries on top.” I grabbed my diary back from her, face flushed. “Why would you read this?” “I was—” “That is so rude!” “Anna! I didn’t think you were going to actually catch me.” “And that makes it okay?” Her face was insanely apologetic, almost puppy-dog like. She knew I couldn’t stay mad at her. “Just—” I held my hand up to stop her, trying my best to hold onto the tiny bit of betrayal I still felt. “But—” I waved it in the air. She let out a frustrated breath. “Come on! Let me talk.” I dropped my arm begrudgingly. “Fine.” “I mean…” She licked her lips. “It’s not like we don’t know everything about each other already. Think of it as me brushing up on my history homework.” After that I couldn’t stay mad at her any more. She did have a point after all. And plus, she was smiling at me so hopefully—
“Are you there?” She asked. “Hello? Anna?”
“I’m here,” I managed, feeling anything but.
“Good. I was afraid that you’d hung up on me.”
“Yeah. That’s an idea.”
“I’m really sorry.” She sniffed. “Like, so sorry I’m going to cry and my makeup will run and I’ll look like a raccoon and it’ll be all your fault and I’ll have to wear a sign saying I’m sorry, I’m not a racoon—”
I cut her off with a laugh. “Fine. You’re forgiven.”
“Horray! So what did you call for?”
“To talk. And also I sent you a text a few days ago. Did you get it?”
“Did I…” She trailed off. “Oh! Yep. I did.”
“Why didn’t you ever respond?”
“I’m so sorry! I thought I had!”
“Well, what were you going to say? I told my friend Elona you would know.”
“If the dress was cute,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Oh, yeah. It was from Milan, right?”
“Well, then it’s cool. Definitely.”
“I’ll tell her. There’s this guy she wants to ask to our dance—”
“Hey, I better go. I’m going to be late to my appointment.”
I clamped my mouth closed. We’d been speaking for all of two minutes. For the first time in days. How could she just brush me off like this?
“Okay,” I said at last.
She hesitated. “Are you sure? You sound funny. Is everything okay?”
It’s not. I wanted to tell you about Peter and then I wanted you to ask me who I was going to ask and when I said nobody I wanted you to tell me we’d look on the Facebook group for the school and you’d pick out a cute guy and we’d do my hair and then you’d coach me on how to ask him out because there was no way I was going to the dance alone. And then I wanted to say awesome let’s do it this weekend and you would say yes and spend two nights
“Are you sure?”
“I’m positive. Why?”
She went back to sounding blase. “Oh, no reason. I better go. I have to make the appointment in ten minutes and I still have a few miles to go.”
“Bye.” She hung up. I felt a slight thickening in my throat, and I wasn’t sure why.
She’d talked to me, after all. It wasn’t like she’d brushed me off or anything.
The door opened downstairs and Mom’s voice rang out, clear as a bell. “Anna?”
I hadn’t bothered to shut my door, since she wasn’t home. When she was, she spied on me like crazy to make up for not knowing stuff about seventy-five percent of the time. Thank God I’d already gotten my call with Hailey out of the way. If Mom had been here, she would’ve asked me to repeat the whole, painful conversation to her.
“I’m up here,” I yelled back. Her flat shoes clicked up the stairs and she appeared in my doorway a moment later. Her slightly frizzy brown hair was pulled back in a low ponytail. She wore her usual uniform of dress pants and a boxy blouse.
“How are you?” She asked as she leaned her hip against the doorway, slightly breathless.
“I got the opportunity to come home early so I did. I thought we could have dinner.”
“Let’s go out.” She smacked the doorway and straightened back up. “Five minutes, all right?”
She bustled around the house and I changed into a slightly nicer shirt and put on my brown real leather boots from Grandma. She always bought me expensive, pretty things for Christmas.
Mom met me by the entryway, jingling the keys in her hand. “Ready?”
We traipsed outside, where the wind from earlier in the week had intensified to a new kind of cold. It would be winter before too long. Actually, I’d have a present from Grandma due in the mail any day.
“Where do you want to go?” Mom asked as we got into the car.
I buckled my seatbelt. “What sounds good to you?”
She put the car into gear and turned the key. “Have you got your permit yet?”
“Yeah, I did a few weeks ago. Remember?”
“Kind of. We need to go driving, don’t we?”
“Most sixteen-year-olds have their licenses.”
“It’s okay. I don’t mind.”
“We can drive after dinner, if you want.”
I nodded toward the sky, which was already darkening. Daylight savings and all. “It’ll be night.”
“Oh. Duh. I keep forgetting. Well, this weekend, maybe.”
“Are you going to take off?”
“Like I said: maybe.”
We drove along in silence for a while. Mom turned on the radio to Crosby Stills and Nash. They, Simon and Garfunkle, and The Doors were the only bands she ever listened to. Her CD player was crammed with all their greatest hits, and a bunch of flops that she lamented were better than the all the number ones combined.
“Let’s go to Perfetto,” She said, pointing to an Italian place.
“Okay,” I agreed. We didn’t go out much, so I hadn’t ever been before. Just read the announcement in the paper when it opened, a few months back.
We struggled to find parking in the busy lot and walked in. It was packed full of people—a lot of them, I noticed, part of the teenage crowd. I shuffled along behind Mom, a bit embarrassed, as my kids my own age turned their eyes to me, probably wondering why my harried mother was present. There were zero adults in sight. Even the hostess couldn’t have been more than nineteen.
“Can I get you a table?” She asked Mom.
“Just me and my daugher.”
“Okay! Fantastic!” She grabbed a couple menus. “Follow me, please.”
We wound our way through the dining room. It was excruciating. All the eyes of the cool, trendy kids lighted upon me as I passed. They were laughing with their friends and sipping diet coke and pretending to eat slices of pizza. Their expressions weren’t unfriendly, exactly, as they registered my presence. Just unwelcoming.
I fell behind a bit when a waiter stepped between Mom and I carrying a tray full of waters with lemon. When he moved aside, I searched the room for her. And instead met the surprised stare of Hailey.
Oh, no way. She was here! Sitting a few tables away from where I saw Mom was being shown a table. Awesome! Maybe she would come sit with us. Maybe—
Wait. Hailey was supposed to be at a Doctor’s appointment. And she wasn’t alone, either. I swallowed as I saw all the other kids sitting with her. A round-faced girl with pecan hair and perfect highlights who must have been Makayla. A cute guy with spiky black hair and an easy smile. Another gorgeous girl with dark skin and bombshell eyes.
I was stuck, unable to move forward. Surely she would stand up and come over and explain herself. Invite me to sit with them. Then the highlights girl noticed Hailey staring and followed her gaze to me. She leaned over to whisper something in her ear. Hailey shook her head. Then she looked down.
She kept eating.
She kept eating her pasta like I wasn’t even here.
“Mom,” I said a moment later, hovering at the edge of the table. “Can we go?”
“What? We just got here.”
“I feel like I’m going to be sick.”
“I don’t know. I just…” I waved my hands frantically in the air. I was going to cry, and she was going to ask why since she was off-duty and feeling like a Responsible Mother and then Hailey and all her shiny friends would see. Maybe they’d even laugh at me.
“Okay, okay,” Mom said, sensing my distress. She grabbed her coat and my wrist, but gently. “But you’re going to explain in the car.”
I kept my head down on the way out, studiously ignoring Hailey’s glaring presence. Mom didn’t spot her, either. She was more preoccupied with navigating her way past a big throng of kids who had just come in.
We were halfway through the parking lot when I heard my name. I kept walking, knowing very well who it was. But Mom turned. She pulled me to a stop.
“Is that Hailey?”
“No. Come on, let’s go—”
“Anna!” The voice was unmistakable, and much closer. Hailey came up to us, slightly panting. “Anna, hi.”
I pressed my lips together in cold response.
“Anna.” Mom nudged me.
“Hi, Miss Sharon,” Anna said, turning to her.
“It’s April, hon. Anna—”
“Yes, Mom. I know.” I faced Hailey, keeping my eyes right below her chin. “Hi.”
“Do you girls want a minute?”
Hailey nodded. “That would be great.”
“I’ll start the car. It’s cold.”
The door shut. Everything was quiet.
“I’m sorry,” Hailey said. “You took me by surprise, that’s all. I was...surprised.”
I bit my lip. “Why aren’t you at the Doctor’s?”
“The doctor’s?” Recognition dawned on her face. “Oh—that.”
“Yeah. That.” I raised my chin a fraction of an inch. “You lied.”
“No I didn’t. I was supposed to have an appointment but then Michaela called so I turned around and went back. I rescheduled for tomorrow.”
“You don’t believe me?”
My eyes stung. It was the wind, that’s all. The wind. “Not really.”
“I’m telling the truth. You can ask my Mom.”
“It’s okay, Hailey. I don’t—”
She brandished her phone. “Seriously. You can.”
I shook my head. “It’s okay.”
She reached out and grabbed my hand. “Come back inside and eat with us. I’d love to introduce you! I talk about you all the time. The guys will love you.”
I tugged it away. “I don’t think so.”
“No.” I shook my head. “I should stay with my Mom.”
“She won’t mind!”
“You know she barely ever has time off.”
Everything seemed darker. She was gone all the time, but Hailey was there to fill the space when things were hard. I cried into her shoulder and she patted my back. “You can share my Mom, if you want.” And I knew how much that cost her, even if she only meant it in a halfhearted way. Her mother was special, she was important. She baked and she bought Hailey all the clothes she wanted and sometimes she bought me clothes, too. And when she did Hailey’s face would go hard. When Mrs. Landers sent Hailey over with a special pan of brownies just for me, she wouldn’t share them. She’d say she didn’t like them, even if they were her favorite. “I really don’t mind,” She lied then, and I saw in her face nothing but pure sincerity.
Right now she looked sincere. “Come sit with us. Please.”
I knew better.
“No thanks. I better go.”
“Anna—” She reached forward, grasping the air. “Please don’t be mad. I can’t have you mad at me.”
“I’m not...mad.” Just sad. Upset. Feeling used.
“If you’re not can I come over this weekend? Like we talked about?”
“Please? I really want to hang out this time, for real. We can watch movies and I’ll make the popcorn.”
She faltered a bit. “Yours?”
Take it or leave it. Take it or leave it.
“Fine.” I said. “See you Saturday.”
Hailey smiled and flipped her hair over her shoulder. She hugged me tight for a minute and then went back in to sit with highlights, with bombshell eyes, with cute spiky-hair.
But not with me.
- - -
Elona turned in our plan for the Science Project to Mr. Tate on Friday morning. She sat down at the desk next to mine and leaned over to whisper.
“It’s genius. He’ll love our project.”
“Absolutely. We’re going to win.”
“I can’t wait.” And she truly looked like she couldn’t. Her auburn hair was cut into its usual blunt bob but her green eyes were shining, and it really made her beautiful. So much so that I decided then and there she had to ask Pete to the dance today. I told her, and she immediately shook her head.
“No. Not yet. I need to feel confident.”
“You look confident!”
“But I don’t feel confident.”
“Come on! You’re a girl who’s going to win five hundred dollars and a recommendation letter to any college of your choice at the end of the year. You’re totally—”
“So are you! If we win the science fair.”
“We already decided we were!” I protested. “Ask Pete!”
“But I can’t.” It came out so meek and so small, I didn’t press the issue any further.
“By the way,” I told her when the bell rang forty-five minutes later, “Hailey finally got back with me. The dress is definitely cute. Especially because it comes from Madrid.”
She smiled widely. “Great.”
“You know what?” We started for the door, together, and I squeezed my bag to my side. “We should get ready for the dance together before we go.”
“Okay,” She agreed. “Yeah. Sounds fun.”
“Do you want to come to my house?” I offered, hoping she’d say no. Hers was so pretty. I wanted a reason to go back.
“That or my house,” She said. “I have lots of free makeup from my other third cousin’s second cousin’s mother who’s a consultant for Covergirl or something.”
“Oh, sure! Sounds great.”
“But first we’re going to have to, you know, ask people to go with us.”
“Or guys could ask us.”
I sighed. “The guys here will never do that. They’re too wrapped up in their schoolwork.”
She grimaced. “You’re right.”
“So perhaps…” I grabbed her elbow, steering her toward a blonde head poking out of the crowd. Pete was tall, “perhaps you should get that out of the way.”
“No!” She exclaimed, planting her feet. “No.”
I raced to come up with a way to convince her. Elona had to do this. She deserved it. And Pete would say yes for sure. She was pretty, and funny, and smart.
She was my friend, I realized. Like, a real, true friend. A friend to me like Hailey had friends.
Haha! I felt like laughing. I had friends. I mean, I knew I had, but this was a genuine, there-for-me, joke-around-and-eat-ice-cream-at-each-others-houses friend!
“If you ask him,” I said, scrambling for a way. “I’ll…” I glanced around the hallway until I registered a semi-cute boy. “I’ll ask him.”
“Roger?” She asked. “Why Roger?”
“You know him? I don’t know. He’s good-looking!”
Elona giggled. “Okay…um…if you want.”
“Does he have a girlfriend?”
She shook her head. “He’s single. Really academic.”
“So is it a deal?”
She stared at Pete, drawing a deep breath. “It’s—”
“—a deal,” I finished for her, and pushed her toward him.
I touched Roger on the shoulder. He was talking to a big kid wearing hipster glasses. He turned, eyes wide.
“Hi,” I said in a rush, glancing behind me to make sure Elona had approached Pete. He was waving at her. Yes! “Um…hi, Roger.”
“Hi,” He said. Then, “Can I help you? Or something?”
“Not really. I just wanted to um…” I craned my neck to get a good look. She was talking. Was she asking him? He was smiling. That was a good sign, right? “So the dance is next month.”
“Yep. I’m on the committee,” He volunteered. “The Theme is Smarts Are Smart.”
“Oh...awesome. Well, anyway, I don’t have a date—”
“And you don’t have a date—”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I—” Pete was nodding. Elona was smiling. And then he was saying something and—
“Oh!” I turned back to him. “Sorry. I’m just—I’m nervous,” I fibbed. “Um…anyway…”
“Are you asking me to the dance?” He asked, fidgeting a bit. His buddy was trying not to laugh.
“Yes,” I said, with an air of confidence. “Yes, I am.”
“Then…” He paused, considering. Nodded. “Okay.”
“Yeah.” He smiled faintly. “Why not? No one else has asked me.”
“Great! Oh, and I’m Anna, by the way.” We awkwardly shook hands. The bell rang.
“Roger. And I better go.”
“I’ll catch you Monday,” I said as he backed away. “We can exchange numbers.”
“Okay. Bye, Anna.”
They walked off, laughing to themselves. I didn’t care. This was great! He’d said yes!
I whirled around in search of Elona, but she was gone. So was Pete. The girl couldn’t even wait for me to ask what he had said before she left. That was yet another thing we’d have to discuss.
But apparently we’d have time to, now. Since we were friends and all.
- - -
Hailey texted me the next morning saying she’d be over later and she couldn’t wait. Quite honestly, I was looking forward to seeing her. I’d never flat-out asked a guy to a dance before, and I knew she would be proud.
Pete had said yes to Elona, too, which was awesome. We made plans to meet up at her house, get ready, go to the dance, then come back for a sleepover. She said her mom wouldn’t mind—her older brother was constantly having his band friends over. They were a lot louder than us.
Mom didn’t take off after all, saying she had a last-minute bonus chapter she had to write on the countenance of animals or some other boring material. Yawn. I didn’t mind. Hailey was going to be here.
And she was around four o’clock, heading up the walk slowly, already on her phone. I watched her out the window. She stopped suddenly to grin at something. I saw her mouth move as she laughed aloud.
When was the last time she’d laughed at something I’d said?
Or I laughed at something she said?
But I would this weekend, surely. I’d say something funny, and then we’d be hysterical. Like always.
“Hi!” I said brightly, opening the door. “What’s up?”
She put the phone away, already grinning. “The sky! It’s so good to see you!” She clambered up the concrete steps in her heels. “I bought movies! Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club…”
“All John Hughes?”
“Yes! Should we start one right now?”
“I was actually thinking—” I took her bag from her. “Maybe we could talk first.”
“Oh. Okay.” She went and sank down onto the couch. “What about?”
“Well…whatever happened with the cute guy?”
“Zach? Nothing. He has a girlfriend.”
“No.” She snorted. “Some other girl.”
“And he wasn’t that cute, anyway. So it doesn’t even matter.”
I could tell by her tone she was hurt. Apparently he rejected her. I waited for her to elaborate, like she had many times before, but the silence stretched on.
“Is everything okay?” She asked finally.
“Um. Yeah. So—”
She scribbled his name in a heart on my wall, which was more than a little annoying. I took the pen from her and tossed it down on the bed, craning my neck to get a good look. “Who’s T.G?” Her eyes strayed away from my face. “Um...nobody.” “Oh my gosh! It’s Timothy Goodwin, isn’t it?” “Well…” “Haha! I knew it! I knew you liked him! But I wasn’t sure. How long?” “Awhile.” “I bet he likes you too!” “Oh, no way. He’s way too cute.” “Come on, Hailey! He definitely likes you! Have you guys talked yet?” “A little. He’s really nice. He likes soccer.” “Did you tell him you do, too?” “I don’t.” “Yeah but you did that before with Holden. Remember?” “Oh, yeah. I can’t believe that! No, I didn’t. I just said, you know, cool.” “Oh my god, you guys are going to get married and have kids!”
She giggled. “No we’re not!” “Yes you are! You totally are!”
“That’s great,” She said when I was done filling her in on Roger. “So you gave him your number?”
“Not yet. Monday.”
“Perfect. You’ll have to send me pictures. Actually—” She perked up. “Do you want to come over to my house? I can help you get ready.”
“I don’t think I have anything going on.”
“I already told Elona I would go to her house,” I said, kind of wishing I hadn’t.
“The girl whose second cousin’s aunt gave her the dress from Madrid.”
“You know…” I pointed to her phone. “We talked about it.”
She shook her head. “I don’t remember.”
“It’s not important. Any way.”
Hailey ran her tongue over her lower lip. “Wouldn’t you rather hang out with me, though? At my house?”
I opened my mouth. I wanted to say yes. So badly. “Well—”
“Can’t you cancel? We’d have more fun.” She smiled encouragingly. “Come on, Anna.”
“I can’t, Hail. I’m sorry.”
“Are you positive? Wouldn’t you rather spend the time with me?”
Wow, now she was guilt tripping me? “But I promised Elona.”
She grabbed a movie from her backpack. “Fine. You know what, now that I think about it, I think I had plans anyway. I’m sure I do. What day is it?”
I opened my mouth. “Um…”
“Oh, I can’t. Michaela and I have something going on.”
“Okay. Then it works out.”
“Then it does.” She emerged with Sixteen Candles. “Here we go! Want to watch?”
“Don’t you want to talk more?”
She laughed in disbelief. “What else about?”
“I don’t know…”
Her phone chimed. Hailey pulled it out and scanned the screen. She typed something and set it back down. “I’ve got to go to the bathroom. Will you put this in?”
She passed me the movie on her way out. I went to the DVD player and set it up, flicking the TV on. I guess you could never have enough Sixteen Candles, even though we’d both seen it a million times.
I turned toward the noise, confused, until her phone did it again.
Argh. Of course.
I grabbed it and started toward the bathroom to give it to her, but my eyes were drawn to the screen, where a simple You too was written under the contact name Michaela.
You too what? I imagined all the glorious scenarios: I don’t like you—you too, You’re boring—you too, I have a glorious friend named Anna who is way better than you—you too. Although that didn’t make any sense.
I slid my thumb across the screen to unlock it. A string of texts popped up, but it was one word that called for my attention. One word that was so bold and wrong and didn’t fit, and I couldn’t look away.
You’re the bestest.
My heart sank. My blood went cold. My hands froze. My throat thickened. My eyes stung. My fingers burned. My stomach twisted. My legs wobbled.
Heels clicked on the wood floor. They stopped.
“What are you doing?”
I couldn’t move. Couldn’t speak. Couldn’t breathe.
“Give that to me!” Hailey pulled it from my hand. “What were you doing?”
I gulped down some air. I was a fish out of water. I was a girl who wasn’t her friend’s bestest anymore.
“I was going to give you your phone,” I managed at last.
Our eyes met. Hers were guilty.
“What?” She said. “What’s wrong? Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Because…” I squeezed my fists at my side. “I’m not anymore? Am I?”
“Are you what?”
She swallowed. “Stop it. That sounds ridiculous.”
“You always say that to me. You’ve always said that to me.”
“Uh-huh. And it’s just a silly phrase.”
“You’re embarrassed of me,” I said. My voice broke. “You’re just embarrassed of me.”
“No I’m not.”
“Hailey, I know you snuck off to meet them last Saturday. I know. And I know you lied to me about the Doctor’s, and I know you didn’t really want me to meet your friends at the pizza place. Okay? I know.”
“How did you…”
“I heard. At the door.”
“Why were you listening?” She yelled. “You shouldn’t have been listening!”
“Why have you given up on me?”
“I haven’t!” She pointed an accusing finger around the room. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
“But you just don’t speak to me anymore! It’s not like it used to be. You won’t even introduce me.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do? I mean, you don’t care about clothes and you’re in honors and you want to be a botanist! They won’t understand that like I do!”
“So what if they don’t? Don’t you want to spend time with me?”
“Of course I do.”
The tears I’d been holding in for days finally broke free in a gush. “All you do when you’re with me is text them! All you want to do when you’re with me is watch movies or…or talk about things but only tell me half the story.” I wiped at my eyes. “And when I see you out in public with them you won’t even look at me.”
“That’s not true.” She stomped her boot. “Stop it.”
“Yes it is…” The words hurt on their way out. “Yes it is. I mean, look at you, Hailey.” I stepped back with an air of mocking grandeur, sweeping my arms toward her. “You’re beautiful and you wear the best clothes and have cool friends and who am I?”
She didn’t say anything.
I shuddered a little as a new sob escaped. “It’s over, isn’t it? It’s over.”
Her eyes closed tight. “Don’t say that.”
“But it is! If you think you want to hang out with me you’re just lying to yourself.”
“I do, Anna. I really do.”
“Hailey, I’ve known you for five years. I can tell when you’re lying.”
Our eyes met. She sniffed. “Please.”
“Take it back. It’s not over.” She grabbed for my hand. “You’re still my best friend.”
“There’s never been anyone I can tell all my stuff to like you. Don’t worry.” “But she’s always trying to be your friend. What if—” “Come on, Hailey. You know me better than that. You’re still my best friend.”
“I’m not,” I said. “I’m just not anymore.”
“I think you should cut Taylor Lautner out.” “What?” “Yeah, he’s cute.” “Not really.” “Oh, please. He’s really cute.” “I disagree.” “Gosh! Then we can’t be friends anymore.” I laughed. “Yeah, right.” “No, I’m serious.” “What?” Her face broke into a smile. “I’m joking.”
“Stop messing with me,” She begged. “Stop it.”
I held onto her for dear life because I needed her. She was the only one who could calm me down and convince me I was loved when Mom didn’t show up. When Dad didn’t send a birthday card. She patted my back soothingly and told me you know what, I could share her Mom and her Dad and her brothers and her aunts and her uncles and her grandparents. She told me I had a whole family with her.
I couldn’t stop crying. Her face was completely blurry in front of me, the tears just wouldn’t stop. “I’m not playing around, Hailey. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t keep judging...judging myself with you.”
She was breathing heavier now. “Don’t say that. Stop saying all this.”
I had a whole family with her, yeah, but I really only needed her.
“I can’t stop,” I said. “I can’t do this anymore.”
She looked at me. Really, truly looked at me. More than she had in weeks. She grabbed onto my hands and squeezed them harder than she ever had before.
There were honest tears in her eyes.
“Anna, you’re still my bestest.”
And you know what?
I didn’t believe her.