Dear Miss Delaney...
"What's this?" I ask, picking up the letter that's lying in the middle of my plate and scooching my chair closer to the table.
"I guess you'll have to read it and find out, won't you?" my mother replies. There's a funny tone in her voice and she's smiling across the table at my dad. One of those mysterious we know something you don't kind of smiles.
Frowning, I start to read:
"Dear Miss Delaney,
Congratulations! We're delighted to inform you that you have been nominated for a Colonial Academy Founder's Award. Created in honor of Harriett Witherspoon, the illustrious educator and suffragette who established our school, this award for academic excellence is offered each year to an outstanding local eighth-grade girl. It is indeed an honor to be nominated for this scholarship, and we hope you will accept it. Once again, congratulations -- we look forward to welcoming you to our school!"
I toss the letter aside and start assembling my burger. "I don't want to go to Colonial Academy," I tell my parents matter-of-factly. "Pass the ketchup please, Dylan."
My little brother removes one sticky paw from the ear of corn he's busy gnawing and shoves the bottle over to me. I pick it up gingerly, trying to avoid the buttery smears where his fingers touched it. Out of the corner of my eye I see my parents exchange a glance.
"Honey, are you sure you understand?" says my mother. "They're offering you a full scholarship!"
"Shouldn't you at least think it over?"
"I did," I reply, slapping the top of the bun onto my burger. "I don't want to go."
My mother glances over at my dad again, her brow puckering with concern.
I sigh. "Look," I tell them. "I want to stay at Walden Middle School with my friends. I don't want to go to some dumb boarding school with a bunch of snobby rich kids."
Dylan and Ryan start to snicker.
"Hush!" My mother frowns at them, then turns her attention to me again. "Sweetheart, they're not snobby rich kids." She pauses. "Well, some of them are rich, that's true, but underneath they're just normal girls like you."
My mouth, which is open to take a bite of hamburger, gapes at her instead. "Normal? Mom, gimme a break! Have you been downtown and seen those kids? Some of them have chauffeurs! Their parents are movie stars and politicians and stuff like that."
"Moooovie stars!" chorus the twins.
"Boys!" my mother scolds again. "Jess, I think you're exaggerating just a tiny bit, don't you? There are plenty of wealthy people who are perfectly nice and normal. Just look at the Wongs. You'd never know they were -- "
"Bazillionaires?" my dad suggests.
"Michael! I'm trying to make a point here, and you're not helping."
"Sorry," my dad says cheerfully.
"At any rate," my mother continues, "I think you're being too hasty about this decision, Jess. It's an amazing opportunity. Besides, you already spend part of your day away from Walden -- I don't see how going to Colonial Academy would be all that different."
"True," says my father. "It's not like it's in China -- it's right here in town."
Great. Now he's ganging up on me too. How can I make them understand why I don't want to leave Walden Middle School? Especially after it's taken me so long to fit in. Sure, they're right, I'll be taking math and science classes at Alcott High again this year, but that's hardly the same as being away from my friends all day every day. What would I do without Emma and Cassidy and Megan? Where would I sit at lunch? And how could I leave Half Moon Farm, the one place on earth I feel completely happy and safe? I like sleeping in my own bed, in my own room. I don't want to have to sleep in a dormitory, and share a room with some girl I don't even know.
I set my hamburger down on my plate. My stomach is starting to tie itself in knots. "I just don't want to go," I say flatly.
My parents are silent. The only sound in the room is coming from my brothers, who are chomping loudly on their corn. I look out the window and spot a familiar figure on a bike, riding past our farmstand. It's Kevin Mullins. He's been doing this all summer. He'll ride by, and if he spots me in the front yard he makes a beeline in my direction, telling me he was "just in the neighborhood." Which is a big lie, because he lives way up on Ripley Hill Road and my house isn't on the way to anything.
"This really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," my father says. "Surely there must be some nice girls who go to Colonial Academy."
Nice? I think of the squadrons of students parading around downtown in their designer clothes, bragging to one another about their vacations to places like Nantucket and Palm Beach and Switzerland. The girls from Colonial Academy are like a whole fleet of Becca Chadwicks, only worse. At least Becca never called us "townies." I shake my head again.
But my mother isn't taking no for an answer. "Your father's right," she says. "You already know some of the students there. Lots of people here in town send their daughters to Colonial once they get to middle school and high school. There's Nicole Patterson, and that Bartlett boy's older sister -- what's her name?"
"Lauren," I mutter.
"That's the one. And how about Ellery Watson? You used to play with her sometimes back in elementary school."
I can tell by the looks on their faces that my parents are really excited about this stupid Founder's Award, but accepting it is absolutely, positively out of the question. Goat Girl at a private school? I would so not fit in.
My mother places her hand on my father's arm. "Talk to her, Michael," she urges.
My dad reaches over and tugs on my braid. "At least think it over, okay? Colonial Academy is one of the best schools in the country."
"How'd they even get my name?" I grumble.
My mother reaches for a manila envelope on the sideboard behind her and pulls out a sheaf of pages. She riffles through them, then plucks one out. "Let's see here...award...Witherspoon...local eighth-grader. That's funny -- there's no mention of who nominated you."
"Don't you think that's kind of creepy? It's like somebody's been spying on me."
My father laughs. "It just means that someone observed your academic abilities, honey. Your principal, probably, or maybe one of the guidance counselors. It would be pretty hard not to notice the smartest kid at Walden."
"I'm not the smartest," I reply sullenly. "Kevin Mullins is way smarter than I am." My eyes stray to the window. By the entrance to our driveway, Kevin is still riding around in circles.
"He didn't get nominated," says my mother. "Colonial Academy is a girls' school."
Which is another really good reason not to go, in my opinion. But I keep that thought to myself, because it's obvious my parents have their minds made up already.
My mother pulls out another sheet of paper. "They sent us an invitation to tour the academy and its facilities, followed by lunch with the headmistress. New student orientation starts soon, so we'll have to hop on this if we're going to make it happen."
"But I don't want to make it happen!" I tell her, starting to feel a little desperate. "What about my chores? Who's going to help look after the goats and the chickens and everything? Half Moon Farm needs me!"
"We'll work something out," says my dad. "The boys are going into the third grade -- they're responsible enough to take over the morning milking. You did at their age."
I shoot my twin brothers a skeptical look. "Responsible" is not the first word that comes to mind when I think of Dylan and Ryan. They may be almost nine, but they act more like they're six most of the time.
My mother plucks a brochure from the pile of papers she's holding and slides it across the table to me. "Just look at this place, Jess! State-of-the-art science labs, a professional theater, a fabulous music department -- you could take voice lessons again! There's even an equestrian center."
I glance down at the brochure. I didn't know Colonial Academy had horses.
"It would be kind of like getting an early taste of college," my father coaxes.
"College?" I leap to my feet. "I'm not even fourteen yet! Why are you trying to get rid of me?"
I storm upstairs and fling myself on my bed. Sugar and Spice, our two Shetland sheepdogs, are close on my heels. They pace around my room anxiously, whining. The dogs hate it when I'm upset. But how could I not be? I can't believe my parents are even seriously considering this. Colonial Academy? No way. I grab the phone off my night table and dial the Hawthornes' number. I need to talk to my best friend.
Emma picks up on the first ring. "Hey," she says.
"Oh, it's you. Hi, Jess."
She sounds a little surprised, and I realize she was probably expecting Stewart Chadwick.
"Something awful happened," I blurt out, my voice quivering. "I got this letter from Colonial Academy and it turns out I've been nominated for some scholarship and my parents want me to go but I don't want to!"
"Whoa, hold on a sec. Run that by me again?"
I take a deep breath and repeat everything I just told her.
Emma is quiet for a long time. A really long time. So long, in fact, that I start to think maybe she's hung up on me.
"Are you still there?"
"Yeah," she replies. "I'm just thinking."
"What's there to think about? It's a horrible idea."
"I suppose," she says. "I mean, it would be horrible not to see you at school every day. But it's not like you'd be going to China or someplace."
My stomach lurches. Emma is sounding weirdly like my parents. She was the one person I thought I could count on to be on my side. "You mean you think I should go?"
My bedroom door opens a crack and my mother pokes her head in. I frown and point at the phone, but she tiptoes in anyway and places the Colonial Academy brochure at the foot of my bed, then sneaks out. She leaves it open to the picture of the stables. A beautiful chestnut mare stares at me from out of one of the stalls.
"You've got to admit it's an honor to be nominated for something like this," Emma continues. "Your mom and dad are right about that. I think you should at least go check it out. I mean, think about it -- boarding school! That's pretty cool."
"Maybe I should call Cassidy and see what she thinks."
"She's still at her grandparents', remember?"
Cassidy's mother got married a couple of weeks ago and she and Stanley Kinkaid, Cassidy's new stepfather, are on their honeymoon. Cassidy and her older sister Courtney are staying with their grandparents at their condo in downtown Boston.
"I'll ask Megan, then."
"She went with the Chadwicks to Cape Cod."
It's Labor Day weekend, and most of the rest of the world is off someplace having a last blast of fun before school starts. Not us, of course. This time of year the Delaneys never budge from Half Moon Farm. Too much work to be done. The Hawthornes don't go away very often either. They're on kind of a tight budget, plus Emma's dad always says he hates fighting holiday traffic and who'd want to be anywhere but beautiful Concord this time of year anyway?
"Boarding school, Jess!" Emma repeats. "That's so awesome! Maybe I could come visit you sometime."
Perfect. Now Emma's sounding excited too. And even a little bit envious.
"Still," she adds quickly, "I'd really miss you."
"Don't worry," I tell her, shoving the brochure off the bed with my toe. "You won't have to miss me. There's no way on earth I'm ever going to Colonial Academy."
Copyright © 2009 by Heather Vogel Frederick
-- Just Patty
I'm standing in my bedroom staring at myself in the mirror. I turn to one side, then the other. So does Mirror Megan. I push the sleeves of my polo shirt up. I pull them back down. Mirror Megan pushes her sleeves up and down too. I make a face. Mirror Megan makes one back.
"It's hopeless," I tell her. "Completely and utterly hopeless."
Absolutely nothing is going to make this hideous outfit look any better. I still can't believe that the school board voted to make us wear uniforms at Walden.
My cell phone rings. It's Becca.
"Hey," I say glumly.
"Hey," she echoes, just as glumly. "So which one did you decide to go with?"
"Maroon," I tell her.
"Me too. The other one is awful." Becca heaves a sigh. "Remember when picking out clothes for the first day of school used to be fun?"
"Uh-huh. This totally stinks."
"No kidding. Oops -- my mom's calling. She's going to drop me off on her way to yoga. See you at school!"
I hang up and look in the mirror again. Mirror Megan sticks out her tongue at me. Maroon is so not our color. But my only other choice -- a yellow that's supposed to be gold but that's actually a revolting shade of mustard -- is even worse. If they're going to make us wear uniforms, why couldn't they at least have switched our school colors to something better? Even boring old navy and white would be better than this. I close my closet door with a sigh, leaving Mirror Megan on her own to face the sea of maroon and gold and khaki that's hanging inside.
My mother, of course, thinks school uniforms are the best idea in the history of the world.
"Kids are way too fashion-conscious these days," she says. "I've been doing some research online, and all the experts agree that wearing uniforms helps students focus on their studies."
Blah blah blah. Who cares what the experts say? Everybody I know thinks school uniforms are a horrible idea. I rummage through my jewelry chest and pull out the biggest hoop earrings I can find, then add a stack of bangle bracelets and thread a rhinestone-studded belt through the loops of my khaki pants. There's no rule -- yet -- about accessories. I checked. For the crowning touch, I pair black-and-white-and-pink-striped socks with my new black clogs. I don't care if the colors clash with the rest of me. At least my feet will look good.
I grab my backpack and stump out of my room. Not that anyone would hear me. The floors of our house are covered with thick white carpet that muffles everything. I don't care -- I stump down the hall anyway.
My parents are in the kitchen eating breakfast. My dad puts down his newspaper and smiles. "Don't you look sharp."
Sharp? Not exactly the look I'm going for here, even if it were the truth.
"Very nice, honey," agrees my mother.
I sigh. My parents totally don't get fashion. Particularly my mother. This morning she's decked out in a bright green sweatsuit that makes her look like a big peapod or something. I know she's got a yoga class later, but still. And who wears a beret unless they live in Paris, France? Nice look, Mom, I almost say, but the sad thing is, she'd believe me.
I sling my backpack onto the floor and slump into my seat at the table. There's something that looks suspiciously like a cinnamon roll on my plate. It smells suspiciously like a cinnamon roll too, but I poke at it cautiously with my fork, checking underneath for hidden tofu. My mother doesn't do cinnamon rolls. She doesn't believe in white sugar or flour, and she definitely doesn't believe in frosting. Especially not for breakfast.
"What's this?" I ask.
My mother frowns and takes a bite of her oatmeal.
My dad winks at me. "A little treat for the first day of school. I was awake early, so I made a trip to the bakery."
When I was little, my father and I always used to sneak off on Saturday mornings for cinnamon rolls. They're still my favorite. "Thanks, Dad."
"Let me get you some real food," says my mother, pushing back from the table and crossing the kitchen to the refrigerator. "You need some protein to balance out all that sugar."
My father and I grin at each other.
"We've been wanting to talk to you," my mother adds, handing me a container of strawberry yogurt. Organic, of course.
I take a bite of cinnamon roll and eye her cautiously, mentally reviewing what I possibly could have done wrong now. But she's got something else on her mind besides me for once.
"We're going to be having a house guest for a while," she continues.
Uh-oh, I think. House guests are like cinnamon rolls. My mother doesn't do them. What is going on this morning?
"Who?" I ask.
"Your grandmother is coming for a visit."
I almost choke on my bite of roll. Gigi? My mother's mother lives in Hong Kong, and I don't think she's been to our house since I was a baby. I talk to her on the phone every few weeks or so, but the last time I saw her was when we flew over to China for a family reunion right before I started middle school.
My mother's lips are pursed as tight as a buttonhole. My father gives her a worried glance and clears his throat. "Yes, well, Gigi's getting along in years now," he says. "I feel -- your mother and I feel -- that she needs to be closer to family."
"Really?" I don't remember my grandmother seeming all that elderly last time I saw her, and she sure sounds fine on the phone when we talk, but maybe my parents know something I don't.
My mother starts clearing the table. She plunks the dishes into the sink with a little more oomph than usual and rattles them around noisily.
"So when's she coming?" I ask.
"Thanksgiving," my mother replies shortly. She and her mom don't get along that well. They're really different, for one thing. Actually, Gigi is different from just about every other grandmother that I've ever met.
"How long is she going to stay?"
The silverware in the sink clanks vigorously.
"Um, we're not sure," says my father, with another anxious glance at my mother's back. He takes one last sip of coffee, glances at his watch, and stands up. "If you're ready to leave, I can drop you at school on my way to work."
I'm quiet on the drive down Strawberry Hill toward town. My dad listens to the news on the radio and I look out the window, my thoughts a mixture of dread at having to show up in front of everybody at Walden wearing what I'm wearing and curiosity as to my grandmother's upcoming visit. Mostly dread. Having to wear a uniform is almost enough to make a person want to go to Colonial Academy. Jess got out just in time. It's going to be weird, though, not having her at school with us this year. None of us thought she'd go, but her parents really wanted her to and I guess they worked out a compromise. Jess will live in the dorm during the week, and on the weekends she'll get to come home to Half Moon Farm.
We pull up by the flagpole a few minutes later and I stare gloomily out the window at the swarm of students by the school's front door. If there's one consolation, at least I won't be the only one at Walden today who looks like a complete idiot.
My dad reaches over and pats me on the leg. "Have a great day, honey, and don't sweat the uniform too much. I had to wear one to school when I was growing up, and I survived."
I shoot him a look. He laughs. "Yeah, that was back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, right?"
It takes me a while to find Becca in the crowd. When the bell rings, the two of us line up along with everyone else. Our principal, Mrs. Hanford, and vice principal, Mr. Keller, are checking us all in this morning to make sure we're wearing our uniforms.
Sure enough, some kids forgot, or didn't get the information packet the school sent out a few weeks ago, or just plain didn't want to. They get sent to the office to call their parents. Mr. Keller's eyes narrow when he sees my belt and jewelry and socks, and he scans his clipboard. There's nothing in the rules against accessories, though, which I already know, so he has to let me in. Becca is right behind me.
"Hey, guys," calls Emma, spotting us in the hallway. "Nice rhinestones, Megs. Wish I'd thought of something like that."
"There's always tomorrow," I tell her.
"And the day after that, and the day after that," adds Becca, making a face. "We're stuck with these stupid uniforms until high school. See you two at lunch."
The three of us head off in different directions. No one from our book club is in the same homeroom this year, and hardly any of us have any of the same classes except social studies and math. Lunch will be the only chance for all of us to spend time together.
Walden's hallways are awash in maroon and mustard -- excuse me, "gold." The girls mostly look disgusted or embarrassed or both, and the boys -- well, boys don't seem to care that much about clothes, so it's pretty much business as usual for them. They're pushing and shoving and teasing one another like they always do.
When I finally get to math class, I see that Cassidy is wearing the mustard-colored polo, which looks even worse on her than my maroon one does on me. I can't believe her mother let her out of the house in it. Cassidy's got that pale, freckled skin that lots of redheads have, and next to the shirt her face looks all yellow and sickly. It's like when Emma and I were little and used to play that game where we'd hold dandelions under each other's chins to see if we liked butter. From the looks of Cassidy Sloane this morning, butter is her favorite food. I know better than to say anything to her though.
At lunch, I get to our table just ahead of Becca and manage to snag a seat next to Zach Norton.
"Hey, Megan," he says.
"Hey back," I reply, trying to sound casual. My heart always beats a little faster when I sit next to Zach.
He's wearing a maroon polo, just like me, only on him it looks great. Of course, Zach Norton could show up at school in a garbage bag and still look great. He's tall and blond and has gray-blue eyes that Emma once called "the color of the wind" in a poem she wrote about him, which is the perfect description. Out of the corner of my eye I see Becca heading our way with her tray, and she does not look happy. I ignore her. Becca considers Zach her private property, but from what I can tell, he's not interested in her, so she might as well let one of us sit next to him now and then and have a chance to breathe the same air that he's breathing.
Becca would never admit it, but she's pretty thrilled that being in the Mother-Daughter Book Club gives her eating rights at our table. Jess used to call our table the hybrid, because there's such a weird assortment of kids at it. Besides all of the members of our book club, there's Ashley Sanborn, who's friends with Becca and me. Jen Webster was going to sit with us, too, but she moved to St. Louis with her family over the summer, which means the Fab Three are now the Fab Two, or Double Trouble, as Cassidy has renamed them. Zach, the most popular boy at Walden Middle School, sits at our table because he's on the baseball team with Cassidy, and his friends Ethan MacDonald and Third -- Cranfield Bartlett III -- sit with us because Ethan plays baseball too, and Third plays hockey with Cassidy. Cassidy is as big a jock as any guy I've ever met -- bigger even, maybe. She's good at just about every sport under the sun.
I sneak a peek at Ethan and Third, who both shot up over the summer. Ethan's trimmed down a lot, too. They both look, well, good. Nowhere near Zach Norton's league, but still, not bad, either.
From the looks of it our table is going to be stuck with Kevin Mullins again this year. Kevin is Walden's resident junior genius. He grew a teeny bit over the summer, but he's still pretty short. Mostly that's because he should really be in, like, fifth grade, but he got bumped up to middle school because he's so smart. Emma says he's like a stray puppy now that Jess, his human security blanket, is at Colonial Academy, and she's right, because today he's looking even more pathetic than usual.
"Move, dwarf," Becca commands, setting her tray down next to his.
Kevin slides hastily down to make room. Emma glares at Becca, who sighs. "Just kidding, Kevin," she tells him, but he keeps his distance anyway, eyeing her warily.
Cassidy is the last to arrive. She plunks down next to Emma and opens her lunch bag.
"So what's on the menu today?" Ethan asks, leaning closer. Like me, he has a plate of Walden Middle School spaghetti, which tastes pretty much like school cafeteria spaghetti anywhere on the planet, I'm willing to bet.
Our table's big daily ritual ever since Cassidy's mom got her own cooking show on TV is to see if we can talk Cassidy into sharing her lunch with the rest of us. My mother loves packing my lunch, but I hardly ever let her do it. I'd honestly rather eat cafeteria food. There's never anything normal about a Lily Wong lunch. Brown rice is often involved, along with unpronounceable things like arugula and tahini. Could she ever just send me with a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and a couple of store-bought cookies? No way.
But a Clementine Sloane lunch -- oops, make that a Clementine Sloane-Kinkaid lunch -- now that's something different. Cassidy's mother always packs leftovers from the show. Truly amazing leftovers.
Cassidy grins and makes a big show of looking into her lunch bag. "Oh, man, does that ever smell good," she says, inhaling whatever's inside.
"Dude, come on, quit playing around," whines Ethan.
"You don't have to get all worked up about it," Cassidy tells him. "It's just a ham sandwich, an apple, and some chips." She pulls out a plastic container, lifts up one of the corners, and pretends to look surprised. "Oh, and I almost forgot. A chocolate volcano cupcake."
Ethan groans. In fact, we all groan. Mrs. Sloane-Kinkaid's chocolate volcano cupcakes are legendary, as Emma would say.
"I especially like them after they've cooled off," Cassidy continues, obviously enjoying torturing us. "You know, when all the gooey stuff in the middle gets kind of fudgy."
The bidding for the cupcake is fast and furious, and in the end Kevin wins by offering to help Cassidy with her math homework for an entire month. Jess used to do that, and now that she's gone, Cassidy's going to need all the help she can get. So am I, for that matter. Neither of us is very good at math, and this year we're taking pre-algebra.
The rest of the day passes quickly. After the final bell, I head out to the flagpole where the buses are lined up. Mrs. Chadwick is waiting in the parking lot for Becca and Ashley, who are heading to a dance class. They invited me to take lessons with them, too, but dance just isn't my thing. Besides, I have a stack of fashion magazines waiting for me at home. I've been saving them up because I knew the first day of school was going to be a tough one, what with the uniforms and everything, and I figured I'd probably need some cheering up. Plus, there are leftover cinnamon rolls, too.
"Megan!" Emma runs up behind me, her round face flushed with excitement. "I've got a great idea -- let's go surprise Jess!"
I think longingly of what's waiting at home -- including the latest issue of Flashlite -- but the chance to finally get a peek at Colonial Academy is too tempting.
"Sounds fun. Should we invite Cassidy to come too?"
Emma shakes her head. "Fall ball started today and she's at practice."
I fish my cell phone out of my backpack and call my mom to see if I can go. She says okay, and then I pass the phone to Emma, who calls her father for permission too. Mr. Hawthorne says that our plan sounds fine, and that he'll call Mrs. Delaney so she can let Jess's school know we're coming.
"Be sure and tell her to keep it a surprise," Emma says. She hangs up and passes me back my phone. "He said I should invite you and Jess to our house for dinner. He's making his famous first-day-of-school meat loaf."
Mr. Hawthorne is a writer. He works from home, and he's in charge of all the cooking at Emma's house, which is a good thing since her mom hates to cook and is almost as bad at it as my mom. My mouth starts to water just thinking about Emma's dad's meat loaf. It sure beats the heck out of the organic eggplant-and-edamame surprise that my mother is probably whipping up for our family right now, but I don't mention that when I call home again to let her know about the invitation.
When everything is settled, we head for Emma's bus, which is the only one that stops downtown. After we find a seat, I tell Emma about Gigi.
"That is so awesome, Megan!" she says, then sighs. "My grandparents live in Seattle, which isn't Hong Kong but it might as well be. They don't get to come see us very often."
A few minutes later, the bus stops by the library and the two of us get off.
"We should have gone to your house first to change," I grumble to Emma, plucking at my maroon polo shirt with its dumb Walden Middle School logo. "I can only imagine what the Colonial Academy girls will have to say when they see these stupid uniforms."
"Too hot to walk that far," says Emma. "We'll just have to brave it."
We cross Main Street and head toward the private school's fancy iron gates. As we pass under them, I glance around curiously. Emma's been over to the campus a couple of times already to see Jess, but this is my very first visit. My mother tried to get me to take a tour back in fifth grade, and would have been thrilled if I'd wanted to go, but I said no way.
"This is the quad," Emma tells me as I follow her across a big square of green lawn surrounded by stately buildings. "And those are the dorms." She points to a row of white houses that line the far edge. "Jess lives in Witherspoon, with the other eighth graders."
It's cool and dark inside the entry hall. There are oriental rugs on the hardwood floors, and off to one side is a huge living room with a grand piano in front of a stone fireplace. On the other side of the entry hall is a small office, where a youngish woman is sitting with a baby in her lap.
"Hello, girls," she says cheerfully. "I'm Kate Crandall, the housemother here at Witherspoon. Can I help you?"
"We'd like to see Jess Delaney," Emma replies politely. "I'm Emma Hawthorne, and this is Megan Wong."
Jess's housemother smiles. "Oh, yes, of course. You've been here before, haven't you, Emma? Mrs. Delaney just called to tell me that you two would be stopping by."
Emma waggles her fingers at the baby on Mrs. Crandall's lap. "Hi, Maggie!"
Maggie gives her a toothless grin and kicks her feet happily.
"Hey, look -- she matches my socks." I point at Maggie's black-and-pink-and-white-striped T-shirt and black corduroy jumper, then pull up one of my pant legs and stick out my foot.
Mrs. Crandall inspects my ankle. "You two look like you belong together."
She holds Maggie out to me and I take her carefully. I don't have much experience with babies. Maggie is heavier than she looks, and wiggly. I hold her close, worried that she might slip out of my grasp. She smells good, like shampoo and soap. "She's a really cute baby," I say, leaning down to sniff her hair. Maggie reaches up a chubby hand and tugs on one of my hoop earrings.
"Oops, I should have warned you," says Jess's housemother, quickly disentangling us and taking her back again. "Maggie has a thing for jewelry."
"She's pretty stylish, for a baby," I tell her. "I like her outfit."
"Why, thank you," says Mrs. Crandall. "I'll take that as a real compliment, coming from you. You're pretty stylish yourself."
I make a face and Mrs. Crandall laughs. "Ah yes, the controversial school uniforms. I read about them in the local paper."
Maggie bounces up and down in her mother's arms again, and watching her, I find myself suddenly itching to pull out my sketchbook. Would it be really weird if I added baby clothes to my future fashion line?
"Have fun tonight," Mrs. Crandall tells us, and Emma and I say good-bye to Maggie, who waves her plump fist at us in response.
"Mrs. Crandall is really nice," I whisper to Emma as we start up the stairs.
"I know," Emma whispers back. "Her husband is Jess's math teacher."
"Their baby is cute too."
Emma nods. "Jess babysits for them a lot."
I feel a pang of envy. I've never babysat for anybody. Not once. Nobody's ever asked me to. Maybe since I'm an only child, people figure I wouldn't know what to do with a baby. Which is probably true. Emma and Jess both babysit. They took a training class together at our local rec center, but that was back in sixth grade when the three of us weren't getting along, so I wouldn't have gone with them even if they had invited me to.
I wonder if maybe Jess would let me babysit with her sometime. I really wish I wasn't an only child, but my parents -- well, my mother anyway; I've never really talked to my dad about it -- only wanted one kid. My mother says the planet is overpopulated. She is really determined to help save the earth, so it will probably always just be Mirror Megan and me.
At the top of the stairs, there's a long hallway stretching in both directions. Emma turns left, and I follow her down to the last room at the very end. She flings open the door without knocking, startling Jess, who is sitting at her desk.
"Surprise!" we both cry.
Jess takes one look at our uniforms and bursts out laughing.
"Thanks a bunch," I say crossly. Even though Jess isn't dressed in anything special, just shorts and flip-flops and an old T-shirt she got when our book club went to see Little Women on Broadway, she looks as pretty as always. She has deep blue eyes and this amazingly thick blond hair that she's worn in a braid down her back forever. I'd love to have hair like Jess's, but then she always says that about mine. I don't know why she thinks my straight black hair is anything special, but she told me once it's as shiny as anthracite. Of course I had to ask what that was, and she explained that it's a kind of glossy black coal. I know she was trying to pay me a compliment, but coal? Oh well, that's Jess. She loves rocks and minerals and anything to do with science.
"This is the first time I've been happy that I'm here instead of Walden," Jess tells us with a grin. "I am so glad Colonial doesn't make us wear uniforms!"
Emma looks around the room. "Where's Savannah?"
"Downtown shopping with a friend."
"Good," says Emma, relaxing visibly. "We've come to rescue you from her clutches. Dinner is at my house tonight. It's all arranged. You just have to be back by eight for study hall."
"Awesome." Jess closes the textbook on her desk.
"What classes will be you be taking?" I ask. School hasn't started yet at Colonial Academy, but Jess has been here for a few days already for new student orientation.
"Civics -- that's what they call social studies here. Plus I have Honors English, Algebra II, Environmental Studies, Latin, and Chorus. You know, the usual stuff."
Usual for a brainiac like Jess, maybe. I'm not in honors anything, and there's no way I could do high school math and science yet, let alone Latin.
"So how's it going?" I ask, looking around the room, which seems really nice. It's a big corner room with windows on both sides, and there are two twin beds, two desks, two dressers, and two closets. You can tell which side of the room belongs to Jess, because she has posters of animals on the walls.
Jess shrugs. "It's okay. I really, really miss you guys, though."
"Have you made any new friends yet?"
Jess is a whole lot less shy than she used to be, but I can imagine how hard it must be for her, starting over at a new school. It would be hard for me, and I'm not shy at all. Plus, from what Emma has told us, her roommate is not exactly friend material.
"I want to hear more about Savannah Sinclair," I say. "Is her dad really a senator?"
Jess nods. "Uh-huh. From Georgia."
"So what's she like?"
"Um, she's new this year, like me," she replies, a little cautiously.
"And?" I prod. "Emma tells us she's kind of a pain, right?"
Jess nods again.
"C'mon, tell her what you heard yesterday at lunch," Emma urges.
Jess sighs. "Look, you guys, I'm really trying to make the best of this. I don't know why on earth the school decided to stick the two of us together -- Savannah is...she's, well, she's like Becca Chadwick used to be, only worse."
"A whole lot worse," adds Emma.
"Yeah," Jess agrees unhappily. "Anyway, yesterday I heard some of the other girls talking, and apparently she got kicked out of her last school. I guess she flunked out. She's here on academic probation."
"Wow." My grades aren't fantastic, but even I've never flunked anything. Digesting this news, I cross the room to the dresser on the far side and inspect the collection of silver-framed photos displayed on it. "Is this her?" I ask, pointing to one of them.
"Yeah," says Jess.
I pick up the picture and study it for a moment. It's a black-and-white close-up that looks like a professional photographer took it. "Nice clothes, but she totally has a fivehead."
Emma stares at me, shocked, then starts to laugh. "Megan, that is so mean!"
I grin. "You know I'm right, though."
"What's a fivehead?" asks Jess, puzzled.
I point to the picture, which shows Savannah wearing her hair swept back off her face. "Bigger than a forehead."
Jess starts to giggle too. I pick up another picture, this one of a distinguished-looking silver-haired man and an ultra-chic blond woman. There's something scrawled across the bottom of it, and I peer at it more closely. For our darling Savannah, from Daddy and Poppy with all our love.
"Her parents?" I ask, and Jess nods.
Across the room, the door opens and I turn to see two girls standing there. "Don't touch my things," commands one of them in a steely Southern accent.
I quickly set the photos back down on the dresser. Savannah Sinclair is tall, almost as tall as Cassidy, with a long mane of chestnut brown hair. She's wearing designer jeans and the exact same dove gray T-shirt the model on the cover of the new Flashlite that's waiting for me at home is wearing, plus really expensive boots -- I know, because I saw some just like them at the mall last weekend. It's a little too early in the season for boots, but something tells me I shouldn't point that out to her.
"So are these the friends you've been telling me about, Jessica?" drawls Savannah. "From your mommy-daughter book club?" She gives Emma and me a scornful glance. "Which one is Clementine's daughter?"
Cassidy's mother used to be a supermodel, the kind that everybody knows just by their first name.
"Uh, Cassidy didn't come," Jess replies. "She's at baseball practice. You've met Emma before, though, and this is Megan Wong."
Savannah flicks her eyes up and down my uniform. "I thought you said Megan was a fashion designer."
I feel my face flush with embarrassment.
"We came straight from school," says Emma defensively. "We didn't have time to change."
"I would die before I'd go to a school that made me wear something like that," says Savannah, folding her arms across her chest and leaning against the doorway. "Wouldn't you, Peyton?"
"Absolutely," agrees her friend.
The five of us stand there, glaring at one another, until Emma grabs her backpack. "Time to go," she tells Jess and me, and we grab our things and stalk out of the room behind her.
"Fivehead," I whisper, but only when we're safely out of earshot. It's hard to hurl a good comeback at someone like Savannah when you're wearing something as ridiculous as I am. "Sheesh, Jess, how can you stand her?"
"I don't have a choice," Jess says gloomily. "We're stuck with the roommate they assign us for the whole year. Some stupid school philosophy about learning to get along with others."
"With Savannah Sinclair?" I reply. "Good luck."
"Too bad Becca and Cassidy aren't here," Emma says. "They'd have cut her down to size."
We cheer up at this thought, and, laughing about what our friends might have said or done, the three of us head across town toward Lowell Road, and Mr. Hawthorne's waiting meat loaf.
Copyright © 2009 by Heather Vogel Frederick