"Well, this is a pretty kettle of fish."
-- Anne of Green Gables
"What are you girls up to out there?"
I swear all mothers have radar that doesn't quit.
"Nothing, Mom!" Jess calls back, motioning frantically to Emma and me.
Giggling, the two of us scoop up the evidence -- garlic powder, cinnamon, peppermint extract, and blue food coloring -- and hastily stuff it back into the spice cupboard.
"Doesn't sound like nothing to me." We hear Mrs. Delaney's chair scrape on the dining room floor as she pushes back from the table and comes to the kitchen to investigate.
Emma and I quickly wipe the grins off our faces. Jess leans back casually against the counter, blocking our concoction from view.
"Hmmm," says Mrs. Delaney, scanning the kitchen suspiciously. She spots the open spice cupboard and lifts an eyebrow.
"Uh, we were thinking of baking cookies," Jess explains, which isn't technically a lie even though we decided not to because the kitchen is sweltering.
Normally, any of our mothers would have seen through this in a flash, but Mrs. Delaney seems kind of distracted today. She shakes her head and sighs. "Please don't bake anything, girls, it's hot enough in here already without turning the oven on. We've got peppermint ice cream -- you can have some of that if you want a snack." She opens the freezer and sticks her head inside. "A day like today kind of makes you wish it was winter, doesn't it?"
"Or that we had air conditioning," says Jess mournfully.
Mrs. Delaney pulls her head out again and gives her a sympathetic smile. "Maybe someday, honey. Right now we have other priorities." She looks over at Emma. The smile disappears. "Emma Hawthorne, you must be roasting in that turtleneck! Didn't you offer her a T-shirt, Jess?"
Jess looks uncomfortable. "Uh -- "
"I forgot to bring something to change into after school, and nothing of Jess's fits me, Mrs. Delaney," Emma replies matter-of-factly, patting her stomach. Emma is a little on the plump side, and Jess is really petite.
"Well for Pete's sake, you should have said something," Mrs. Delaney tells her. "We have plenty of things around here that will work for you. Hang on a sec."
She trots upstairs. As soon as her mother is out of sight, Jess grabs the jar of blue liquid from the counter behind her and sticks it in her T-shirt pocket. I glance over at Emma. Emma is one of my best friends, but she's not exactly the fashion queen of Concord, Massachusetts. I mean, I like to dress up for the first day of school too, but a turtleneck on a day like this? You'd think she'd know by now that the beginning of September is pretty much still summer everywhere, except maybe Alaska. At least she picked a good color. Purple goes well with her brown eyes and curly brown hair. And it matches her new lavender glasses, too.
Mrs. Delaney reappears and tosses Emma a white T-shirt with a HeartBeats logo on it. "Try this," she says.
HeartBeats is the soap opera that Mrs. Delaney was on last year. You'd never guess by looking at her now that she's an actress. When we visited her in New York this past summer, she was all glamorous. Now -- well, now she looks the way she always did. Today, for instance, she's wearing jeans and a faded Red Sox T-shirt. She's still pretty and everything -- really pretty, just like Jess, with the same sparkly blue eyes, though Mrs. Delaney's hair is dark, not blond like Jess's -- but she looks ordinary, too. Like a mom. I wonder if she misses all the makeup and clothes and stuff from her acting job. I sure would. But Mrs. Delaney seems really happy to be back home at Half Moon Farm.
"How's your mom doing, Megan?" she asks me. "We missed her yesterday at yoga class."
"She just got elected to the board of the Concord Riverkeepers," I tell her. "Yesterday was their first meeting." My mother's kind of a nature freak. If something on the planet needs saving or protecting, you can bet Lily Wong is there on the front lines to make sure it gets done.
"Oh, that's right, she told us about that," Mrs. Delaney replies. "I guess I forgot." She spots the pile of mail on the counter where Jess left it. "Bills, bills, nothing but bills," she grumbles, flipping through the envelopes. Shaking her head, she disappears back into the dining room.
Jess gets three bowls from the cupboard and dishes up some ice cream for us. Crossing the kitchen, she beckons Emma and me to follow. One of her chickens -- Johnny Cash or Elvis or something, I can't keep their names straight -- darts in the minute she opens the screen door. Jess nabs it and it lets out a big squawk.
"You know the rules, Loretta," Jess tells it firmly. "No chickens in the house!"
Sometimes I still can't believe I'm friends with somebody who talks to chickens. Or somebody who even has chickens.
Emma and I follow Jess to the barn. Mr. Delaney let us fix up an old storage room in the hayloft for a secret hangout. Not that it's much of a secret, what with Jess's little brothers always sneaking around.
Right now, there's no sign of them. We scared them off after we caught them spying on us in Jess's room when we were changing out of our school clothes. They'll turn up eventually, though -- they always turn up -- and when they do we'll be ready for them, thanks to the concoction that's safely in Jess's pocket.
"I wish it could stay summer forever," sighs Emma, climbing up the hayloft ladder behind me.
"Me too," echoes Jess.
Not me, I think, but I don't say anything. I've always liked the first day of school. Mostly because I get to wear one of the new outfits that I spend all summer picking out. I can't help it -- I like clothes. I want to be a fashion designer when I grow up.
"Hey, did you guys see Zach Norton at assembly this morning?" I ask them. "He's so tall! He must have grown about a foot over the summer." I take a bite of ice cream and give Emma a sidelong glance. "He's cuter than ever too."
Emma shrugs, but her cheeks turn as pink as her ice cream. Lately she's been telling us that she doesn't have a crush on Zach anymore. Jess and Cassidy and I are pretty sure she still does, though. Not that I'd mind if she didn't -- the way I see it, the fewer girls lined up hoping Zach Norton will notice them, the better my chances are.
The fact that we both like Zach is one of the only things Emma and I have in common, when you come right down to it. Well, that and the mother-daughter book club our moms cooked up last year. We look different, for starters. I'm Asian American -- Emma's not. She's a bookworm -- I'm not. I love fashion and clothes -- she could care less. And although she's not off-the-charts smart like Jess, she's a good student. Me, I just scrape by, which drives my parents nuts. Somehow, despite our differences we're still good friends.
Emma sticks out her lower lip and puffs at her bangs, which are sticking to her forehead. It's even hotter out here in the barn than it was in the Delaneys' kitchen. Jess turns on the table fan and aims it straight at the old sofa where the three of us are sitting.
"Can you believe we're in seventh grade now?" she says. "Just think -- two more years and we'll be in high school."
We eat our ice cream for a while as we think this over.
"We're going to be teenagers this year," Emma adds. "We're practically grown-ups!"
Sometimes I feel like I've been looking forward to being a teenager forever. I can't wait until I'm old enough to drive. And have a summer job. And I especially can't wait until I'm old enough to date.
"So do either of you have any classes with Zach this year?" I ask, trying to sound casual.
"Zach! Zach! Ooooo, Zach Norton!" squeal a pair of voices behind us.
We whirl around to see Dylan and Ryan, Jess's twin brothers, emerge from under a pile of old horse blankets in the corner.
"I TOLD YOU TO QUIT SPYING ON US!" hollers Jess.
She launches off the sofa toward them, but they're too fast for her. Shrieking in alarm, they duck past her out the door. The three of us are close on their heels. The boys fling themselves over the edge of the loft and tumble into the pile of hay below. Jess dives after them. So does Emma. I hesitate. My friends all love doing this, but it always seems like a long way down to me.
I close my eyes and force myself to jump.
"Ouch!" I cry when I land, wishing I were wearing jeans and not shorts. The hay is stiff and prickly, and it jabs into my bare legs. I scramble off of it as quickly as I can and run after Emma and Jess.
We corner her brothers by the chicken coop.
"Pest Control 101," Jess whispers to Emma and me, taking the small jar from her T-shirt pocket. "Watch and learn." She holds it up. The blue liquid inside shimmers in the September sunlight. "Gee," she says, "too bad you guys are such little weasels -- I was going to share some of this with you."
"What is it?" one of them asks cautiously. Like the chickens, I can't tell Dylan and Ryan apart.
Jess glances around, like maybe somebody is listening, and her voice drops to a whisper. "It's an invisibility potion."
Her brothers' eyes widen.
"Really?" says one of them.
Jess nods. "If you drink it, you'll disappear just like that." She snaps her fingers and looks over at Emma and me. "Isn't that right?"
Emma nods. "Yup. You'll vanish right into thin air."
"Vaporize," I tell them.
"Dematerialize," adds Jess for good measure.
The three of us are smothering grins. Emma's family invented this thing called the synonym game. I used to think it was dumb -- actually, I still do -- but it's kind of addictive.
"Please, can't we try it?" one of the twins begs.
"C'mon, Jess!" says the other.
Jess shakes her head. "No way. You broke your promise. You said you wouldn't spy on us anymore."
The boys exchange a glance. With their blond curls and brown puppy-dog eyes, they look like angels, but there's hardly anything angelic about them. "Double trouble," Jess calls them. "Pests with a capital P," and she's right. I still think they're kind of cute, though. I wish I had a brother or sister, but my parents decided on just one child. Me. My mother tried to explain it to me once -- something about zero population growth. Another one of her schemes to save the world, as usual.
"We're sorry, Jess. Right, Dylan?"
"Yeah, really sorry," says Dylan. "We promise never to do it again."
"Cross your hearts and hope to die?" Jess demands.
They both nod.
"Well, I guess in that case..." Slowly, tantalizingly, she unscrews the lid and passes the jar to Dylan.
He sniffs it cautiously. "P-U!" he cries, and hands it to his brother. "You first."
Ryan takes a sip and makes a face.
"You have to drink more than that or it won't work," Jess tells him.
Grimacing, her brother gulps down half the liquid, then passes the jar to his brother, coughing.
"Yuck! That is gross!" Dylan sputters after he finishes off the rest.
I have to bite my lip to keep from laughing. Beside me, Emma is doing the same. The twins crowd around us. "Is it working?" they demand.
We pretend to examine them.
"You're fading at the edges," Emma says.
"It probably takes a minute or two," I explain.
Suddenly, Jess jumps back, her eyes wide in mock disbelief. "Wow, guys, look! It worked! They're gone!"
Emma shades her eyes with her hand and scans the backyard. "Where are they? Where did Dylan and Ryan go? Do you see them anywhere, Megan?"
I shake my head, still trying not to burst out laughing. Was I this gullible when I was seven?
Dancing around us, Dylan and Ryan chant, "Nyah, nyah! We're invisible!"
They stop and stare at each other.
"Hey, how come I can see Ryan?" says Dylan.
"Yeah, and how come I can see Dylan?" says Ryan.
"It's because you're both invisible," Jess explains, making it sound perfectly logical. "Invisible people can always see each other. It's the people who aren't invisible who can't see you."
Just then there's a crunch of gravel behind us. We turn around to see Cassidy Sloane flying up the driveway on her bike. She skids to a stop right in front of us.
"Hi guys," she says.
Dylan and Ryan poke their heads out from behind Jess. Dylan sticks out his tongue.
"Hey dude," says Cassidy. "What's up?"
His eyes narrow. "How come Cassidy can see me? She's not invisible."
"Uh, it's because she has special powers," Jess replies. "Right, Cassidy?"
"I guess so," mutters Cassidy, not really paying attention. She must have ridden over straight from baseball, because she's still wearing her practice jersey. It's the same one she had on at school today. No back-to-school outfits for Cassidy Sloane. She cares even less about fashion than Emma does. Cassidy is a jock and proud of the fact that she's the only girl at Walden Middle School good enough to make the boys' fall baseball team. I notice that her face is streaked with dirt and sweat.
"You tricked us!" shrieks Ryan. "I'm going to tell Mom!"
The boys head for the house, howling for Mrs. Delaney. A minute later Jess's mother sticks her head out the dining room window. "Jessica Delaney! You are too old to be teasing your brothers!"
"But they've been spying on us again!" Jess protests.
"I don't care what they've been doing! You quit it this instant, do you hear?"
"Yes, Mom," Jess calls back meekly.
Beside me, Emma is staring at Cassidy. "Are you okay?"
Cassidy wipes her nose on the sleeve of her jersey. I look at her face more closely. What I thought were streaks of sweat in the dirt are actually tears. I stare at her, dumbfounded. Cassidy Sloane is crying.
"Emergency session of the Mother-Daughter Book Club," Emma announces crisply. "Well, the daughter half." She tugs Cassidy toward the barn.
"Hurry, before my brothers spot us," Jess urges.
We pick up our pace to a trot. Once safely inside and out of sight, Jess leads the way back to the hayloft, then pulls the ladder up behind us so the boys can't follow this time.
"What's going on?" Emma asks, as Cassidy flings herself face-first into the pile of blankets.
"Nothing." Cassidy's voice is muffled.
"Doesn't sound like nothing," says Emma.
She and Jess sit down beside her. Jess reaches out and pats Cassidy on the back, the way I've seen her do with Sugar and Spice, the Delaneys' Shetland sheepdogs. "C'mon, Cassidy," she coaxes. "You can tell us."
I sit down too. The blankets smell good. In fact, the whole barn smells good -- like hay and horses and leather and old wood and other stuff all mixed together. Eau de Barn. I make a mental note to jot it down in my sketchbook later. It might make an interesting men's cologne.
"It's my mom," Cassidy says finally in a low voice.
Emma and Jess and I exchange a worried glance. Cassidy's dad died a couple of years ago. What if something's wrong with her mother?
"Is she okay?" asks Emma gently. "She's not sick or anything, is she?"
Cassidy sits up. "No, it's not that," she says. She draws her legs in close to her chest and rests her chin on her knees. "She's not sick," she repeats, plucking at the blankets. "It's just that she . . she..." Her sentence trails off.
"She what?" I prod.
Cassidy looks up, and tears start to spill from her eyes again. She swipes at them angrily. "My mother's started dating again."
Copyright © 2008 by Heather Vogel Frederick