"'It's so dreadful to be poor!' sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress."
"Nice skirt, Emma," calls Becca Chadwick, giving me the once-over as I head down the aisle of the school bus looking for a seat.
This is not a compliment and I know it and she knows it. Blushing, I slide into the first empty spot I find. My brother Darcy passes me, heading for the last few rows, which, by tradition, are reserved for eighth graders.
Behind me, I hear Becca whisper something to Ashley Sanborn. I hunch down and smooth a crease in my skirt, my stomach clenching in all-too-familiar anxiety. It's starting already. I'd hoped maybe sixth grade would be different.
"Must have been a big back-to-school sale at the thrift store," says Ashley, her lame attempt at sarcasm producing a burst of laughter from Becca.
As the bus doors whoosh shut and we lurch forward down Lowell Road, I force myself to ignore them both and look out the window instead. The familiar scenery is soothing, and I feel myself relax a little as we cross the quiet waters of the Concord River and pass stately old colonial houses and meadows hemmed by time-worn stone walls. In a few weeks the leaves on all the trees will start to turn, quilting the woods with New England's famous blaze of yellow and scarlet and orange.
Here and there amongst the thickets I spot fat clusters of wild Concord grapes. They'll be ripe soon, and just thinking about the way the thick purple skins burst when I bite down, releasing the sour juiciness inside, makes my mouth start to water.
As we turn onto Barnes Hill Road and begin our slow circle back toward town, I pull a notebook from my backpack and open to a fresh page. "Ode to September," I write across the top. I chew the eraser on my pencil, pondering my opening line. But instead of writing verse, I find myself stewing about how much I hate the first day of school.
I never used to. When I was little, I could hardly wait for it to start. I'd get all excited about my new lunchbox and pencils and stuff, and I'd wear my new shoes around for weeks to break them in.
Then a couple of years ago, in fourth grade, everything changed. Suddenly it was all about who's popular and who's not and if you're wearing the right thing. Which I never am. Ever.
The bus wheezes to a stop in front of the Bullet Hole House. It's called the Bullet Hole House even though the Anderson family owns it because two hundred and fifty years ago during the Revolutionary War, a retreating redcoat -- that's what they use to call British soldiers -- fired at it. Well, at Elisha Jones, who lived in the house back then. He was a minuteman and he'd accidentally slept through the skirmish across the street at the Old North Bridge. He was standing there in his doorway watching the British retreat when it happened. Sometimes I think about the Jones family, who were probably sitting at their breakfast table when wham! -- all of a sudden a bullet hits the house. I'd have been scared to death. At least it missed Elisha.
Anyway, the hole is still there and there's a little sign explaining all about it. The Bullet Hole House is on all the maps of Concord, and tourists are always stopping to take pictures of it. They take pictures of everything in our town. You can't turn around in Concord, Massachusetts, without bumping into history, my dad says, and I guess he's right.
The front door opens and someone runs out, but it isn't a minuteman and it isn't a redcoat, it's only Kyle Anderson. He swats me on the head as he passes my seat. It's more of a big brother swat than a mean swat, though. I've known Kyle since I was in diapers.
"Hey, Emma," he says.
Behind me, Becca and Ashley chorus their hellos too, but Kyle ignores them and takes a seat beside my brother. Kyle and Darcy are best friends.
The bus lumbers on, round white-steepled Monument Square and on past Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where all the famous people of Concord are buried, patriots and soldiers and writers like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott. As we swing onto Old Bedford Road, the final leg of the bus ride to Walden Middle School, I start to feel sick. The butterflies in my stomach feel more like a herd of buffalo, and I'm worried I might throw up like I did the first day of kindergarten. My mother loves to tell the story of how when she dropped me off in the classroom that day, my teacher leaned down to say hello, and I was so nervous I threw up all over her shoes. "Emma really made a splash," is my mother's punchline. It always gets a laugh.
I don't feel like laughing now, though. I close my eyes and breathe deeply, trying to calm the stampeding buffalo. I can only imagine the impression I'll make on my first day of middle school if I walk into the classroom and barf.
It doesn't help that I can hear Becca and Ashley whispering about my skirt again. I feel my face grow hot and I wish for the millionth time that my mother hadn't made me wear it. It's pretty and everything, and nearly brand-new, but still, it's a hand-me-down. My mother said it looked fine and that no one would ever know, but I knew better.
The bus slows as we reach Half Moon Farm, but there are no Delaneys at the bus stop except Jess's dog Sugar, looking mournful, so we keep going. Jess's mom always drives her and her brothers on the first day of school. Her dad must have decided to keep up the family tradition this year. I wish he hadn't. Not that Jess could make Becca and Ashley any nicer -- that would take complete personality transplants -- but it always makes me feel better having my best friend around.
Trying to block out their comments, I concentrate on my poem again. I'm working on finding a good rhyme for "grape" (ape? cape? tape?) when we pull up in front of the middle school.
Mom made Darcy promise to take care of me this morning, and he herds me confidently through the crowded lobby. Everybody's pushing and shoving as they crowd around the lists posted on the wall by the office. Darcy runs his finger down the sixth grade homerooms and jabs at my name when he spots it.
"Miss Morales, 6-C," he says. I must look panicked because he smiles at me and pats my shoulder. Darcy's pretty nice, for a brother. "Don't worry," he tells me. "You'll like her."
"How about Jess?"
He looks at the list again, then shakes his head. "Sorry, Em -- she's in 6-B with Mr. Flanagan. But he's a good dude too."
As Darcy steers me down the hall toward 6-C, I console myself with the thought that Jess and I will still probably see each other for most of our classes. We're both in all the advanced groups.
"Have fun!" my brother says, leaving me at my homeroom door.
I nod weakly, still feeling nauseous. No one pays me the slightest bit of attention as I walk in. They're all too busy looking for their name tags. I circle the desks nervously, hunting for mine. Great. Miss Morales put me right across from Megan Wong. I slip into my seat and slant a quick glance at her. Megan is flipping her perfect, shoulder-length black hair around and showing off her new earrings to Ashley and Becca. She must have gotten her ears pierced over summer vacation.
Jen Webster arrives and comes over to join them. The four of them travel in a pack, like wolves. The Fab Four, Darcy calls them. They like it when he says that. That's because they like my brother. Darcy's a jock, and the girls all think he's cute and call our house all the time to talk to him. Darcy and I both have the same short, curly brown hair and brown eyes, but so far, nobody thinks I'm cute.
"You're just a late bloomer," my mother tells me. "Be patient." This is mom-code for "My daughter is an ugly duckling and I'm hoping she'll turn out to be a swan," but still, it's comforting to hear. Especially when you don't see so much as a single swan feather yet when you look in the mirror.
I watch the Fab Four surreptitiously while I unpack my school supplies and organize my desk. Becca Chadwick is the queen bee. I learned this from a book my mother was reading over the summer about adolescent girls. She's a librarian and she's always reading books to try and understand me and my brother better.
Queen bees are the ones who end up being the boss. How this works, I have no idea, but every group has one. They're popular and stuck-up and they aren't generally very nice to the regular bees. That's certainly true for Becca Chadwick. And for Megan and Ashley and Jen, too. The three of them are like the queen bee's court -- "wannabees," Jess and I call them.
The sad thing is that Megan Wong used to be my friend. Almost as good a friend as Jess. We used to play Barbies for hours after school in her sunroom. Megan made the most amazing clothes for them. I still have some of the little dresses and hats and things that she sewed. Then in fourth grade I got glasses and Megan's father invented some computer gizmo and made a bazillion dollars, and that was the end of that. Now Megan's all rich and conceited. The sunroom is long gone -- her family traded the cozy condo it belonged to for a house that looks like a museum. Or an airplane hangar. And Megan traded me for Becca, Ashley, and Jen.
Someone slides into the seat beside me. I look over. It's Zach Norton. His hair is bleached streaky blond from the sun and he smells like summer. The buffalo start thundering in my stomach again.
"Hi," I manage to whisper.
"Hey, Emma," he replies casually, then turns away and starts throwing wadded up balls of paper at Ethan MacDonald. Ethan bats them back at him with a ruler. The Fab Four are practically shrieking with laughter at something Megan just said, trying to get Zach's attention, but he doesn't notice. He's too busy with his baseball game. Why is it that girls think boys will notice them if they're loud, anyway?
I stare at the back of Zach's neck. He obviously just got a haircut, because there's a slim line of white skin between where his tan stops and where the edge of his sun-bleached hair begins, like the curl of surf against a sandy beach. I contemplate it for a while, then look around the room feeling a little better. Even if he ignores me all year, I'm still sitting next to Zach Norton. Things could be a whole lot worse. I could have been stuck at a desk beside Cassidy Sloane, for instance. She's new -- she moved here from California at the end of fifth grade -- and her mom used to be a fashion model, but you'd never know it by looking at Cassidy. She has red hair she never combs and scabby knees, and all she thinks about is sports, sports, sports.
"How about those Red Sox!" Zach yells over at her, and Cassidy grins and gives him a thumbs-up. The two of them played together on the same Little League team over the summer. I know this because they used to practice right before my brother Darcy's team. Sometimes I'd ride my bike over early just so I could watch Zach. Not that anyone ever suspected, of course. They all thought I was there to watch Darcy.
I get up to sharpen my pencil and make a mental note to start following the Red Sox so I'll have something to talk about with Zach. On the way back to my desk, I notice Megan staring at my skirt.
"Nicole Patterson had a skirt just like that last year," she says. "I wonder what she did with it?"
Becca and Ashley and Jen all snicker, right on cue. They're like one another's own personal laugh track. I feel my face turning hot with humiliation. The Pattersons go to our church. Nicole is an eighth grader like my brother, and her parents are always loading bags of her hand-me-downs into our station wagon after Sunday School. My mother says it's wonderfully generous of them and a big help to our family budget, but I'd give anything not to have to wear Nicole's rejects.
The rest of the day goes pretty much downhill from there, with the Fab Four needling me every opportunity they get. I'm close to tears by the time the last class rolls around. Thankfully, none of them are in the advanced group for science.
Science is okay. Nobody I know really loves it except Jess and Kevin Mullins, who skipped about four grades and is, like, eight, and will probably be accepted at Harvard before the rest of us even start high school. Jess loves it, of course. She would -- she's a total brainiac. I'm smart enough, especially at reading and writing, but Jess is a genius. And if truth be told, a bit of a nerd. She took the math part of the SAT last spring -- for fun. Who takes the SAT for fun? When they're not even twelve yet?
Our science teacher, Mr. Reed, passes around a bunch of handouts and then launches into a speech about the joys of middle school science.
"This year one of the exciting things we'll be doing is dissecting cow eyes," he tells us in the kind of voice usually reserved for telling your family you're taking them to Disney World.
I tug on Jess's braid to get her to look over her shoulder at me -- she has the most amazingly gorgeous thick blonde hair, which she wears in a braid down her back -- and when she does I roll my eyes and moo quietly. Jess giggles. Mr. Reed drones on, and I'm yawning like crazy when the bell finally rings and school is over.
Outside, Mr. Delaney is waiting in the pickup to take us home. Mrs. Delaney always used to do this, but she's away right now. We stop for ice cream to celebrate (celebrate what? not barfing at school? not crying in front of the Fab Four?), then head back to Half Moon Farm. Jess's dad drops us at the end of the driveway.
"I'll be back in a bit," he tells us. "I have to pick up the twins." Dylan and Ryan, Jess's little brothers, are first graders at Emerson Elementary. "Don't forget, you have a voice lesson in an hour, Jess."
Jess makes a face as her father drives away. "I hate voice lessons," she grumbles.
"Why?" I ask. Jess adores music, and she has the voice of an angel.
She lifts a shoulder in a half shrug. "I don't know, I just do."
Jess never used to take voice lessons before her mother went away. A luxury farmers can't afford, Mr. Delaney always said. I guess organic farming isn't exactly the best-paying job in the world. Delaneys have owned Half Moon Farm for generations, but it was Jess's dad who decided to make it all-organic. He plows the fields with a pair of big Belgian draft horses named Led and Zep -- after his favorite rock group, Led Zeppelin.
The Delaneys have chickens for fresh eggs and goats for milk and cheese and an apple orchard for fruit and pies, and depending on the season they sell all kinds of fresh herbs and berries and vegetables. Jess and I always help out at the farm stand in the summer. It's fun.
Anyway, now that Mrs. Delaney has this new job as an actress, I guess she's making lots of money and sending some of it home for luxuries like voice lessons.
Inside the house, we each grab an apple off the kitchen counter. Jess shoos Dolly Parton back outside. Not the country singer -- a chicken. Mrs. Delaney loves country music, and she named all of the hens after her favorite stars. Sometimes they sneak into the house if somebody forgets to latch the back screen door. It's pretty funny to see them wandering around. Once Patsy Cline hopped up on the sofa beside us and laid an egg. Jess and I about died laughing.
"Hey, it's three thirty," I tell Jess, glancing at the clock over the stove.
We take our backpacks up to her room. Sugar, Jess's Shetland sheepdog, is close on our heels. Jess flips on the TV.
"Hi, Mom!" she says, as her mother's face appears on the screen.
I wave. "Hi, Mrs. Delaney!"
Jess's mom is on a soap opera called HeartBeats. She went to New York out of the blue last month to audition, and she got the part. She found an apartment and she's living there for now. I'm not really sure when she's planning to come back home. Jess doesn't like to talk about it much, but she watches her mother's show every day.
"Her hair looks good like that," I say.
Jess nods and takes a bite of her apple.
Sugar barks at the TV screen again as Jess's mother starts talking to the actress who plays her best friend. Sugar misses Mrs. Delaney too. And her sister. The Delaneys actually have two shelties -- Sugar and Spice. Mr. Delaney got them for Jess and her mother for Valentine's Day a couple of years ago. They were the most adorable puppies I've ever seen. Mrs. Delaney took Spice to New York with her to keep her from getting lonely.
After a while we turn the volume down. The dialogue on HeartBeats is unbelievably lame. I don't know how Jess's mother can keep her face straight when she says her lines. Honestly, I could write better stuff than that.
"Help me with my math homework?" I ask Jess.
"Sure," she replies. Jess has skipped ahead to algebra this year, with Darcy and Kyle. I'm in regular sixth grade math. I'm terrible at it. Jess has been my tutor since, like, kindergarten.
Keeping an occasional eye on the TV screen, we do our homework together, and by the time we're finished Mr. Delaney is back and ready to take Jess to her voice lesson. He drops me off at home on the way.
"See you tomorrow!" Jess calls out the window.
"See you!" I call back, and go inside.
My dad is just putting dinner on the table. He does all the cooking in our family. He says it's easier this way because he works at home, but I think it's self-defense. My mother is a terrible cook. She admits it, too. She says she can't even boil water.
"So, how was your first day back at school?" my father asks as we take our seats.
"Great!" says Darcy.
"Okay, I guess," I mumble.
My mother looks at me sharply. "Just okay?"
"Maybe some comfort food will help," says my father, passing me a plate heaped with his special homemade meat loaf and mashed potatoes.
"Better give me some of that too," says my mother. "I had a meeting with the head of the library board this afternoon."
"Calliope Chadwick?" my father replies, serving her up an extra-generous helping. "And how is the wasp and her colossal bottom?"
"Nicholas Hawthorne!" my mother scolds. "Little pitchers!"
That's little pitchers as in "Little pitchers have big ears." In other words, Darcy and me. My father looks over at us. He grins. We grin back. Calliope Chadwick's sharp tongue and extra-large backside are well-known around Concord.
"You object to my use of the word 'colossal'?" my dad says to my mother, the picture of innocence. "You would prefer, perhaps, 'gargantuan'?"
"How about 'enormous'?" offers Darcy.
"'Vast'?" I suggest, feeling a twinge of guilt for poking fun at Mrs. Chadwick. I'm short, but I'm not exactly what you'd call petite myself.
"'Immense'?" counters my brother.
"Enough!" cries my mother, trying to suppress her laughter. The synonym game is a time-honored Hawthorne family tradition. She looks around the table at us, shaking her head. "Honestly, what am I going to do with you three? You are incorrigible. And, Nicholas, you're the worst offender. We're supposed to be teaching our children to respect their elders!"
"We are teaching them to respect their elders," my dad says cheerfully. "Those that are worthy of respect. It's no secret that Calliope Chadwick has a shrewish temper, and there's no point pretending we can't all see her massive -- "
My mother holds up both hands. "Cease and desist!"
My father smoothly changes the subject. "Did I tell you that the Boston Post sent me a new Austen biography to review?"
All thoughts of the Chadwick posterior fly instantly out of my mother's head. "Is it any good?" she replies, her eyes lighting up with excitement. "Can I read it when you're done? Can I read it first?"
Books are my parents' life. My mom is a librarian at the Concord Public Library, and my dad's a freelance writer. Not surprisingly, books are a frequent topic of discussion around our house.
Particularly books by Jane Austen. My mother is an Austen nut. She even named my brother and me after characters in her favorite Jane Austen novels. It's a good thing my brother is as popular as he is, because a name like Darcy could get him in a whole lot of trouble otherwise. But nobody at school teases my brother about much of anything. First of all, everybody likes him, and second of all, he's six feet tall already and a lineman on the football team. And captain of the middle school hockey team two years in a row now, and as if that weren't enough, he's an All-Star baseball pitcher to boot. The high school coaches are practically drooling at the thought of getting him on their teams next year.
It's not until dessert (chocolate pudding -- more "comfort food") that the subject of Mrs. Chadwick comes up again.
"So tonight's the big night for you two girls, right?" my dad asks, gazing at my mother and me.
I give him a blank look. My mother smiles that smile she pulls out when she's up to something. The one that makes her look just like Melville our cat after he's made a successful raid on the bird feeder.
"That's right," she says. "Although if Calliope has her way, it may not get off the ground."
My dad takes a bite of pudding. "How did she find out? Is she in your yoga class?"
"No, though it would doubtless do her some good." My mother bites her lip at this uncharitable slip, then continues primly, "She's objecting on the grounds that the library charter forbids private clubs from meeting on public property, but I think it's because she's miffed at the member list."
My eyes are bouncing from one of them to the other like a spectator at a tennis match. I'm completely clueless here.
"Well, don't let it spoil your big night," my father says.
"What big night?" I ask suspiciously.
My mother turns to me. "I have a little surprise for you," she tells me. "After yoga class, some of the other mothers and I were talking -- "
"Uh-oh," I say. I can't help it. "Some of the other mothers and I were talking" is mom-code for "You're not going to like what's coming next."
My mother sighs. "Don't look at me like that, Emma," she says. "You haven't even heard what I'm going to say."
It doesn't matter. Whatever it is, I know for sure I won't like it. Last time my mother started a sentence that way, I ended up in ballet class. Talk about total humiliation. People built like me are not meant to wear leotards. We're maybe meant to bring in the harvest or something. The time before that, I got to volunteer at a local animal shelter, which wasn't so bad until that windbag of a parrot nearly bit off my finger. I could go on -- the list is endless.
My mother ignores my expression. "We've decided to start a mother-daughter book club," she says in her best Mrs. Hawthorne-the-librarian voice, "and tonight's our first meeting. Won't that be fun?"
Darcy groans. He looks over at my father. "Man, Dad, am I glad you don't do yoga."
I stare at my mother. I must look like she's just informed me that she's planning to shave both our heads, because she bursts out laughing.
"Come on, Emma, it's not that bad," she says.
"Who else is going to be there?" I demand, suddenly putting two and two together and getting four, for once. "Did Mrs. Chadwick make you invite Becca?"
My mother smiles her sly, catlike smile again. "You'll have to wait and see," she tells me loftily. "Don't worry -- it's going to be great, I promise."
But I know better. It's just like Nicole Patterson's hand-me-downs. It's not going to be great at all. It's going to be a disaster.
"Conceit spoils the finest genius."
"You can go shopping anytime," my mother tells me.
I don't answer. Instead, I pull my cell phone out of my purse and take a picture of my face -- mad -- and send it to Becca. Then I text her: CAN U BELIEVE IT?
NO, she texts back. I CAN'T!
Becca's mother was going to drive us to the mall tonight to celebrate our first day of middle school, but now I can't go. My stupid mother's signed us up for some stupid book club without even asking me!
"By the way, honey, that catalogue came today," she says, turning into the parking lot across the street from the library. "Remember? The one I told you about? For the science-and-math camp in New Hampshire next summer?" She reaches over and pats my hand. I pull it away. I have no interest in going to science-and-math camp, and she knows it.
"High school is just around the corner for you now, Megan," she continues blithely. "Your skills could definitely use a boost, especially if you want to get into Colonial Academy."
I glance past the library at the line of stately white buildings that house our town's famous private school. I have even less interest in attending Colonial Academy than I do in going to science-and-math camp. "Forget it, Mom. I don't want -- "
She pats my hand again. "You're too young to know what you want, sweetie. That's what your father and I are here for. We only want what's best for you."
What's best for me? My parents don't know what's best for me -- they don't even see me! Especially my mother. She's too busy with all her causes and charities. "Why do we even have to talk about this now?" I grumble. "I'm only in the sixth grade, for Pete's sake."
"It's never too soon to think about your future," my mother replies. "You're going to make a difference in this world, Megan. You'll do something unselfish and grand -- study environmental law, maybe. And this mother-daughter book club will look great on your application to the academy."
I give her a withering look, which she ignores.
As usual, my mother hears what she wants to hear, and sees what she wants to see. When she looks at me, she must see some other girl she wishes she had for a daughter -- one that's more like the stereotype. You know, studious Chinese-American girl who's a whiz at math and science. Instead, she's stuck with just plain me, Megan Rose Wong. Who likes to hang out at the mall and shop and who wants to be a fashion designer someday, not go to MIT like she and Dad did.
My mother and I are like night and day. The only thing we have in common is our hair color. But she wears hers cut short, in a no-nonsense style that isn't very flattering. She never wears makeup, and her clothes -- it's not like she can't afford nice things, for Pete's sake! But no, it's yoga pants and T-shirts with slogans like "Save the Rain Forest" on them, made only of natural fibers of course. My mother's life is dedicated to improving the world.
The Hawthornes pull into the parking space beside us. They're driving the same tin can they've had since Emma and I were in kindergarten. I'll bet it still smells like moldy french fries. Emma and I used to sit in the backseat after swim lessons at Walden Pond and stuff them down into the seatbelt slots, until her mom caught us and threatened not to buy us any more kids' meals at the drive-thru if we didn't quit it.
Just then Zach and Ethan and Third -- his real name is Cranfield Bartlett III, but everybody calls him Third -- swoosh by on their bikes. I open my door quickly and hop out so they'll see me, glad that I wore my yellow sundress and even more glad that we're not driving the Hawthornes' old beater. I would be embarrassed to death to be seen in that thing.
The boys spot me and loop around the parking lot once to show off. I wave casually, like I don't care. They all grin and wave back, then pedal furiously away. Zach glances back over his shoulder one last time before they disappear out of the parking lot. I think he likes me.
Beside me, Emma has gotten out of her car too, and I see her staring after Zach. Fat chance. Emma Hawthorne doesn't understand the first thing about boys. The outfits she wears! She's worse than my mother. Tonight, for instance, she's wearing shorts, which at her weight are not flattering, and ratty flip-flops, and her T-shirt, which I'm sure used to be Nicole Patterson's, has some sort of stain on it. Chocolate pudding, maybe?
"Hi, Megan!" says Mrs. Hawthorne, all cheery.
I grunt in reply, not cheery at all.
My mother clamps her hand down on my shoulder. "Manners," she whispers through teeth tightly clenched in a smile.
"Mom!" I protest, trying to squirm out of her death grip, then give up and turn back toward Mrs. Hawthorne. "Hi, Mrs. H."
"Glad you two could come," Emma's mom replies, winking at my mom. "New car, Lily?"
My mother nods proudly. "It's a hybrid. Environmentally friendly, you know, and great on the gas mileage."
I feel her death grip relax, and she prods me forward across the street. Inside, we stop at the main desk to say hello to the library staff. They all know my mother. Everybody in town knows my mother. She's on the library's board of trustees, and on the board of just about everything else in Concord. My mother, the charity queen. Ever since my dad sold his invention, she's been on some kind of campaign to give his money away. It's like she feels guilty about it or something.
Mrs. Hawthorne leads us into a conference room. A window at the far end overlooks the children's section. Emma and I exchange a hasty glance. We used to go there every week for story hour when we were little. I remember how much I used to look forward to it. But that was a long time ago.
I take a seat at the table beside my mother and wonder who else is coming tonight. A second later, the door bangs open and I get my answer as Cassidy Sloane stumps into the room. She glares at us and slams herself into a chair. I'm guessing she doesn't want to be here either.
Her mother is right behind her. "Hi, everybody," she says with a weary smile.
My mother smiles back. She's probably happy to see that there's somebody in this world with worse manners than mine. "Hi, Clementine!"
Mrs. Sloane is gorgeous. She used to be a fashion model -- a really famous one, the kind who's known just by her first name. Her face was on the cover of all the top magazines. She still looks like a model. She's tall and slender with long blonde hair, and she wears the most amazing clothes. I try not to stare, but I can't help it. Her short skirt and T-shirt look casual but I know they're both designer and probably cost a fortune. Her high-heeled sandals show off a perfect pedicure, and she's accessorized with big hoop earrings and a jangle of silver bracelets.
I'm tempted to take out my sketchbook and draw her, but I don't. My mother would have a cow if she saw my sketchbook, especially after our argument in the car. She hates my sketchbook. She thinks fashion is selfish and stupid. "Frivolous," she calls it. Now if I designed outfits for the homeless, she'd probably think it was okay. An acceptable hobby to pursue in my spare time, after I go to MIT and Harvard Law School and become Super Megan and help save the planet.
"We'll wait just a few more minutes before we start," says Mrs. Hawthorne, with a nod at the last two empty chairs.
We're all quiet for a bit. Cassidy scuffs her feet on the floor, back and forth, back and forth, like an angry metronome. I look at her and her mother curiously. How does a knockout like Clementine Sloane produce a freak like Cassidy? At least my mother and I look similar on the outside. Except for the fact that they're both tall, Cassidy and her mother look like they come from different planets. Why doesn't Mrs. Sloane at least fix her up a little? Cassidy is plain as a broomstick, with long skinny legs and ratty red hair whose bangs look like she cut them herself with nail scissors. In the dark. And her fashion sense is even more hopeless than Emma's. I stare at her gym shorts and faded Red Sox T-shirt. I can't believe she shares the same DNA with the world-famous Clementine.
Apparently, neither can her mother. Every time Mrs. Sloane looks at Cassidy a pleat of wrinkles appears between her eyebrows.
The door opens again and Emma's face lights up. I look over and practically fall out of my chair when I see Jessica Delaney and her father. They invited Goat Girl to join this club? The faint odor of manure wafts in with the Delaneys, and there is an honest-to-gosh piece of hay stuck in Jess's long blonde braid. Unbelievable!
Mr. Delaney hands my mother an egg carton and she slips him some money. The Delaneys own an organic farm on the edge of town and my mother buys all our produce from them. Anything organic, my mother will buy it. The environment thing again.
Goat Girl gives us all a shy glance and sits down beside Emma. Jess Delaney is about the weirdest person I know. She's been weird forever. In kindergarten she brought her bug collection for show-and-tell, and she knew all their Latin names and everything. And she actually likes math and science. Maybe my mother can send her to that camp in New Hampshire instead of me.
"Welcome, Jess," Mrs. Hawthorne says warmly.
Jess doesn't reply, of course. She just looks down at the table. She hardly ever says a word. It's like she's mute or something. About the only person she talks to is Emma. She's gotten even quieter since her mother left for New York. Not that anyone could blame Mrs. Delaney -- that farm they live on is disgusting. We stopped by to pick up some eggs once and there were actual live chickens walking around in the kitchen. Jess's mother probably got tired of having to share her house with livestock.
"There's a chair for you, too, Michael," says Mrs. Hawthorne, gesturing to the seat beside Jess.
Jess's father has a kind of dazed expression on his face, like he was abducted by aliens. My mother says that everyone who has twins looks like that. Jess has two little five-year-old brothers who are even more repulsive than she is. Mr. Delaney shoves his hands (grimy) into the pockets of his jeans (also grimy). "The boys are waiting in the truck," he says, adding awkwardly, "Besides, I thought this was girls-only."
Mrs. Hawthorne laughs. "In your case, we'd be happy to make an exception. The main point of the club is for parents and daughters to share some quality time together."
Mr. Delaney nods. "I'll think about it," he says. "But I don't know if it's my cup of tea."
"Well, the door is always open," Mrs. Hawthorne tells him. "Feel free to join us any time."
Mr. Delaney leaves and Jess looks anxiously at the empty chair beside her. Mrs. Hawthorne gets up and whisks it away.
"As you know, girls," she says brightly, taking her seat again, "we moms got to talking after yoga class a few weeks ago and decided that we wanted to do something special with you this year. Something more grown-up, now that you're in middle school. Mrs. Sloane came up with the idea of a mother-daughter book club, and we all agreed that it was the perfect thing."
She and Mrs. Sloane and my mother all beam at us like they've just won the Nobel Prize or something. None of us beam back.
Mrs. Sloane rummages in her big leather bag, which is the exact same pink as her fingernails and toenails and very expensive-looking. I automatically reach for my sketchbook again, but stop myself just in time. Instead, I try and memorize the bag's design and make a mental note to myself to add purses to my first fashion line.
Mrs. Sloane pulls out a paperback and holds it up. "The first book we're going to read together is Little Women by Louisa May Alcott."
Cassidy groans. I start to groan too, but stop because my mother is giving me the look. The one that says don't you dare, not if you want to live. The evil-witch-mother eye of death, my dad calls it.
I pull out my cell phone instead and text Becca again: LAME LAME LAME! GOAT GIRL IS HERE. P-U. WE HAVE TO READ LITTLE WOMEN. I think about snapping a picture of Jess but add a frowny face instead and press send.
My mother reaches over and plucks the phone out of my hand. I start to protest, but she gives me the look again.
Mrs. Sloane continues, "We thought that since Louisa lived right here in town and wrote the book at Orchard House and is such a famous Concord author and everything, Little Women would be the perfect choice to kick off our new club."
"You've got to be joking!" Cassidy takes the book from her mother and hefts it like a dumbbell. "This sucker is huge!" She riffles through the pages and looks up in disbelief. "It's over seven hundred pages long!"
Mrs. Hawthorne laughs. "It is a long book, Cassidy, you're right. But I think you'll find it's a good one. And don't worry, we've got all year to read it."
My mouth drops open. A whole year? I turn and stare at my mother. I shake my head, No way. She nods and smiles, Yes way. We communicate like this sometimes, without words.
"How am I supposed to have time to read this thing plus do my homework plus skate?" Cassidy demands.
"I didn't know you were a skater, Cassidy!" gushes my mother, flicking me a glance. "Figure skating is such a lovely sport."
Yet another of my mother's major disappointments in life is that I quit figure skating. For a while there, before she decided I should become an environmental lawyer, she had plans for me to be the next Michelle Kwan.
"Are you taking lessons with Eva Bergson?" my mother continues. Eva Bergson is one of Concord's most famous residents. Almost as famous as Louisa May Alcott. She won a gold medal in the Olympics about a hundred years ago, and now she runs a skating school.
"I play hockey," Cassidy says flatly.
"There's no need to be rude," scolds Mrs. Sloane. She turns to my mother. "You'll have to excuse her, Lily," she says apologetically. "Cassidy played on a girls' team in California, and I'm afraid she was terribly disappointed to find that there isn't one at the middle school here in Concord."
"What about the Merrimac League?" asks Mrs. Hawthorne.
Mrs. Sloane shakes her head ruefully. "I looked into it but the commitment is way too intense for a single mother like me -- all those practices, national tournaments, travel. There's no way I could swing that."
Cassidy shoots her a sour look.
"And classes with Eva?"
"Cassidy's not interested, and Eva's all booked up anyway," Mrs. Sloane tells her.
My mother whips her planner out of her purse and jots down a note to herself. "I'm co-chairing the new rec center fundraiser with Eva," she tells Mrs. Sloane. "I'll put in a good word for you, if you'd like. She's a marvelous teacher." She smiles at Cassidy, who folds her arms defiantly across her chest.
"I play hockey," she repeats.
"Well," says Mrs. Hawthorne smoothly. "Let's get started, shall we? Since we obviously haven't read any of the book yet, I thought that tonight we'd talk about the club rules and learn a few fun facts about Louisa, then go out for ice cream."
I slouch down in my chair. This is getting worse by the minute. Ice cream? What if someone from school sees all of us together? They'll think we're friends. What if Zach Norton is there?
The door to the conference room flies open and Becca Chadwick's mother barges in. She has brown hair like Mrs. Hawthorne, but unlike Emma's mother, who wears hers in a ponytail, Mrs. Chadwick's is styled into one of those poufy bouffants that looks sort of like a football helmet. Her eyes are blue, like Becca's, but much paler. Pale as robins' eggs, but piercing, which is a weird combination.
"Aha!" she says, looking at Mrs. Hawthorne accusingly. "Caught you! I thought I made myself quite clear this afternoon, Phoebe. No exclusive clubs are allowed to meet on public property."
Mrs. Hawthorne sighs. "Calliope, for one thing, we're not exclusive, just private. And for another, I couldn't change our meeting place on such short notice. We were just about to take a vote on a new location and then we'll be leaving, I promise you."
Mrs. Chadwick's sour expression softens when she spots me. "So sorry you can't join the girls and me tonight, Megan. I know Becca is disappointed." She glares at my mother. "But apparently SOME people prefer to let their daughters join EXCLUSIVE CLUBS instead of engaging in wholesome recreational activities with their dearest FRIENDS!"
She looks around the table dismissively at Emma and Jess and Cassidy, who she clearly feels don't fall into this category. I can't say I disagree.
My mother presses her lips together firmly and doesn't reply. My mother doesn't like Mrs. Chadwick. Actually, most people in Concord don't like Mrs. Chadwick, on account of her temper. My father calls her "the snapping turtle."
With a final sniff of disapproval, Mrs. Chadwick waddles out.
My mother looks ruefully at Mrs. Hawthorne. "Maybe we should have invited -- "
"No," Emma's mother says firmly. "We have every right to form a group of our own choosing. And Calliope has no right to try and make us feel guilty."
"Should we vote about where we want to meet?" asks Mrs. Sloane.
How about nowhere, I want to say, but don't.
"We could take turns hosting the meetings at our homes," says Mrs. Hawthorne. "Or if you'd all prefer, I can reserve a room at the Arts Center."
"No, let's meet in our homes," says Cassidy's mother. "It's cozier that way."
The mothers all nod in agreement.
"Girls?" asks Mrs. Hawthorne.
None of us say a word. Emma gives a half shrug.
"I'll take that as a yes," her mother says briskly. "It's settled. We'll take turns hosting."
Jess Delaney gets that anxious look on her face again. Mrs. Hawthorne gives her shoulder an encouraging pat. "Of course, if someone is unable to host for any reason, that's not a problem."
"I volunteer for next month," says Mrs. Sloane.
Cassidy glares at her. Mrs. Hawthorne passes out rose-patterned folders. "THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER BOOK CLUB" is written on each one in fancy calligraphy. Cassidy holds hers gingerly between her thumb and forefinger. She looks like she's been handed a dead cat.
"This is to keep your handouts in," explains Mrs. Hawthorne. "And here's your first one."
At the top is printed "RULES FOR THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER BOOK CLUB," followed by a long list. We go over it quickly. Finish each month's assigned reading. Come prepared to discuss the questions. Respect your fellow club members. Don't interrupt. Be positive and supportive of one another's ideas. Blah, blah, blah.
Mrs. Hawthorne passes out two more sheets of paper. "This is your assignment for October's meeting, plus a little information about the author."
I scan the assignment. Six chapters a month? Forget it! I stuff it inside my folder along with the club rules and look at the next sheet.
FUN FACTS ABOUT LOUISA
1. Louisa May Alcott was born in 1832.
2. She had three sisters, and loosely based Little Women on her own family. Bronson and Abba Alcott, her parents, became Mr. and Mrs. March. Her older sister Anna became the character Meg, Louisa herself was Jo, May was Amy, and Elizabeth ("Lizzie") was Beth.
3. Little Women was originally written as two books, but over the years the volumes were combined. It's been translated into many languages around the world and has also been performed as a stage play and a musical. At least six movie versions of the story have been made.
"Why don't we just watch one of the movies instead?" suggests Cassidy. "This dumb book is way too long."
"The whole point is to spend time reading together, honey," says her mother with a pained smile. "It wouldn't hurt you to do something cultured once in a while, something ladylike."
Cassidy gives a very unladylike grunt in reply.
Mrs. Hawthorne stands up. "So, are we ready to go to Kimball Farm?"
Beside me, Emma perks up. "Likes to eat" would be at the top of any "Fun Facts About Emma Hawthorne" list. Not that I mind a trip to Kimball Farm. They have the best strawberry ice cream in the world. But the idea of going there with this group is enough to make anyone lose their appetite.
Out in the car, my mother fastens her seatbelt, humming happily to herself. "Such nice girls," she says. "This is going to be fun. Don't you think so?"
I look over at her and shake my head. Fun? She's got to be kidding. Going to the mall with Becca and Ashley and Jen would have been fun. But I don't say a word. Instead, I promise myself I will find a way out. There's no way I'm staying in a book club with Emma Hawthorne and Cassidy Sloane and Goat Girl. No way at all.
Copyright © 2007 by Heather Vogel Frederick