Thank You and Goodnight | Teen Ink

Thank You and Goodnight

December 31, 2010
By eye543 BRONZE, Frederick, Maryland
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eye543 BRONZE, Frederick, Maryland
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Author's note: One day I decided I should write a book (sometime in the summer after 7th grade). I remembered the phrase "Thank You and Goodnight" and I thought that I'd really like for a character to say that. I started it June 27, 2009, and finished it July 5, 2010. Eighth grade was a year for procrastination.

Astronomy: n. scientific study of celestial bodies


- - - - -Star Guide: #1: First Impressions Are Everything
My name is Elaine Morris and I want to be a star. I don’t have any specifics in mind—anything would work for me, be it actress, pop star, leading fashion designer, et cetera. I want to be famous. I want to have everyone know my name. I just know I’ll overcome this small town some day. Get ready, world, I’d say, because Elaine Morris is.

I have been for my whole life. I just need a talent and I was set.

I like to sit by Lake Erie in my quiet time. There’s this place that, every once in a while, tourists come up the path to see the Benson Ford Shiphouse. I stand by it, close enough to see all the families with the cute little hyper kids. Close enough to hear the surprised yet calm gasp that comes when each tired, bickering group comes up and breathes in the fresh sea air. I’m also close enough to take pictures for the sightseers. And, unfortunately, hold a baby with a stinky diaper when needed. Sometimes you can be too close to something, which I’ve learned from my time doing just that.

I’ve hung around here so long that I know the history of the Benson Ford (as told by the tour guides) by heart.

The Benson Ford was built for the Ford Motor Company in 1924 to transport things like iron ore and metal across the Great Lakes because their auto business was booming. The Great Lakes Engineering in Ecorse, Michigan made it.

There was another ship, the Henry Ford II, built by the American Ship Building Company in Lorain, Ohio. It was supposed to be finished weeks before the Benson Ford, but, before it was done, a tornado hit Lorain and delayed the construction enough so that the Benson Ford sailed first.

The thing is, both ships were named after Henry Ford the First’s grandsons. They even got to launch their awesome ships themselves by remote control. Benson was born two years after his older brother. If you thought of the ships as people, then it could mean that Benson was capable of overcoming his brother, even though he didn’t have the name Henry. A type of rich kid underdog story.

The two ships sailed at 12.7 miles per hour (11 knots), powered by a single acting diesel engine built by the Sun Shipbuilding Co. in Chester, Pennsylvania.

From its maiden voyage on August 2nd, it was obvious the Benson Ford had flaws, but it still served well over 50 years. It was decommissioned in 1981 and renamed John Dykstra II so that another Ford ship could be named the Benson Ford.

Henry Ford II became co-president, chairman of board, and CEO of the company while he and his brothers’ ships still ran. Benson was co-vice president and one of the directors. When I was a little kid I always thought it was cool how the little brother’s ship ran first and how it would’ve probably made him more respected, but there are many perspectives on one story. Take, for instance, how Benson grew up when the family had a lot of money. Maybe Benson was slightly spoiled, no matter how hard his dad worked to keep him from acting that way. He was probably a pampered little whiner-baby and irritated his brother to the max. It changed my perception of him.

All usable parts were scrapped, then the ship was sold to Frank J. Sullivan. In 1984 he had it moved to Ontario Stone dock #4 on the Cuyahoga River. It was left there for two years because Sullivan had no idea what to do with it. Finally, Sullivan decided in 1986 to remove the whole front third of Dykstra II, and got the Thor 101 barge to transport it to certain part of South Bass Island, aka: Put-in-Bay. It was meant to be a summer home for he and his wife. In 1922 he tried to make it a bed and breakfast, but the Put-in-Bay Township Zoning Board made sure that didn’t happen. So he decided to sell it in an auction in 1999.

Although there were 128 different bids, Jerry and Bryan Kasper from the Kasper Auto Group in Sandusky, Ohio, won. At the time they had no idea of the history of the Benson Ford/John Dykstra II. They renovated it. Now it’s their family’s getaway house.

Fast forwarding to the more recent going-ons of Put-in-Bay, Ohio, population of 128. This is my sanctuary. Not many people know that this is where I like to be. You might think that because a ship house is a totally awesome thing everyone would want to see it every day, but no. To others, it gets old quick. In fact, only the tour guides know I come here all the time.

I brought my knees up to my chest and wrapped my arms tight around them. A cool breeze passed, strong enough to lift my short straw-like red-orange hair so that it scratched my face. Irritated, I brushed it back.

I would never have hair like Adrianne Brianna Clark. Not her silky and wavy red locks. I wouldn’t have her porcelain white skin. I would never have her perfectly angled and slighter darker eyebrows, almond-shaped sparkling blue eyes, or those beautiful lips curved in a perpetual smile. I was stuck with ugly pink freckled skin, thick eyebrows that were an almost-but-not-quite unibrow, and a perpetual frown. My eyes were hazel, but closer to gold. That was probably the only beautiful thing about me. My eyes were outstanding. I also see 20/20. They will be the stepping stone to my starry future.

I was staring into the lake, wondering just how we could be so different. It wasn’t that we were related or anything. I would kill to be related to Adrianne Clark, but her dorky sister didn’t seem to think that way.

Her sister was Aubrey Bentley Clark. She had the same porcelain skin and silky red hair, but that was only because they were identical twins. Albeit being twins, though, it was fairly easy to tell them apart.

Adrianne was the beautiful popular one. Aubrey was the oddball.

Everyone knew it. Even if it wasn’t for all the gossip and rumors, everything Adrianne said about her sister was true. And even without that, I knew she was creepy.

She was an idiot. Her grades were always in the B’s and C’s. Adrianne said she was a retard (in a loving, caring way of course) so she didn’t even try to study at home and rumor had it that every two weeks she would go into the girls’ bathroom after school with all the pink tutoring slips she got and flush it down the toilet. Someone had sworn to see her do it and flush down the whole roll of toilet paper with it. She’d watch all the paper clog the hole and smile in that creepy way of hers.

She was a slob. Since the first day of first grade Aubrey has never eaten lunch in the cafeteria like a normal person. Adrianne said it’s because she makes such a mess the schools makes her eat outside, even at home. She even kindly pointed out how much of a mess she’d made when she ate way back in first grade. She reminded everyone who would listen (which was everyone) that the spaghetti and tomato sauce went everywhere. My memory must be hazy because I don’t remember a mess like that or even remember ever having spaghetti for school lunch in elementary school. It’s to be expected, though, because lunch menus change by the day.

She had a terrible fashion sense. Each day I shivered to see how she would terribly style her beautiful hair. Her outfits were always at least five different colors and in every one at least something looked like she’d dunked it in mud. No one else in school wore mud on their clothes. Adrianne said she had a centipede suit in her closet. At least five times a week she would wear the same yellow flowery hippie hat and everyday she’d wear huge mirrored sunglasses. I’ve never seen her without them on. The teachers quickly took to not noticing her hat or sunglasses or any of her weird clothes.

She was quiet in a condescending kind of way. She never tried to talk to anyone. She kept by herself all day. She never looked bored even though she never did anything. She didn’t read or draw or write. She didn’t help anyone with anything. She’d just stare. She’d sit there in her horrible hat and sunglasses and look at people all day. She seemed to pick one person to watch every day, and she would keep her shielded eyes trained on that victim. It was an uncomfortable feeling. Whenever you looked at her, you would see yourself reflected in her glasses and you would wonder what Aubrey Clark was thinking about you. Her face never betrayed any emotion and she didn’t care when you caught her watching. Her face would be unreadable each day. Adrianne said she had lazy eyes. They stayed fixed in one spot the entire day.

And honestly, Aubrey Clark was weird. In the summer, just before sixth grade, I saw her outside playing in the mud by the playground. It had just rained and she was mixing puddles with dirt and tossing it up and down like a child. Her flowery yellow hat was spotted with mud, just like her tie-dyed bell bottom pants and plain yellow shirt. Adrianne often said she was crazy. That day, though, instead of being disgusted and leaving immediately, I stayed to watch, wondering if she could see from behind her mirrored sunglasses, which were totally covered with mud. I hoped she would take them off and clean them and let me see what she looked like without glasses; whether or not she had the same sparkling blue eyes as her sister.

I was planning on staying to see that, but then she started picking out worms and pillbugs and stink bugs from the wet ground, making a mud pie. I hightailed it out of there.

I don’t think she saw me.

Either way, Aubrey Clark is bad news. Her sister, Adrianne Clark, is the best news you could get.

The author's comments:
Zazou isn't real or based on anyone I know.

- - - - -Star Guide #2: Make Friends More Powerful Than Your Enemies

I woke up Monday morning feeling groggy. I stumbled to the bathroom and started slowly brushing my teeth. In our bathroom there’s an analog clock hanging on the wall. I looked at it, half-awake. Suddenly I became fully awake. I had slept in.

My brushing went quickly. I took a quick shower and rushed through dressing. I was glad that I always set out all my clothes the night before. I hurried downstairs to fix my cereal.

Every morning started with a bowl of Raisin Bran. I’ve learned that no other cereal keeps me awake during the day. I pour the cereal into a bowl, pick out all the raisins, add milk, and then eat it. I liked to eat Raisin Bran with the Bran first and Raisins later, while I’m walking to school.

I slipped on my shoes. “Goodbye!” I yelled. Sometimes my dad would answer, sometimes my mom. Strangely, it seemed that they switched stages of sleep. One day, my mother would be the one in deep, deep sleep and dead to the world, but the next day it might be my father playing the role of Sleeping Beauty.

“Bye, Elaine! Have fun at school!” she called back, half-asleep.

I rolled my eyes as I closed the door and locked it. School was never fun. My eighth grade class had eight people; Adrianne Clark, Aubrey Clark, Matthew Anderson, Penelope Sven, Luna Winter-Rose, Vince Rogers, Genevieve Cain, and me.

Adrianne Clark was the most popular in the whole school. Her two best friends, Matthew and Penelope (she called them Matt and Penny), were almost as cool as she was.

Luna had a pretty name. I’d always wanted to be a friend of hers, but she was always reading and spacing out. She didn’t seem to hear when you would call her name, and she read very quickly. She was very smart and, although she didn’t speak much, when she did people listened.

Vincent Rogers was an equally spacey boy. He always stared out the window, but he was really good friends with Adrianne’s gang. He seemed fun to hang out with, but he just didn’t seem to be in the present long enough to hold a decent conversation with.

Genevieve Cain was snooty. She was a pompous girl with a very rich daddy and a very loose mouth. She was always spreading rumors about people. She had dirt on everyone, even though she’d only moved here in the beginning of eighth grade. I guess it was hard to not know everything about everyone in a small town like Put-in-Bay.

The worst thing about Genevieve Cain is her loud mouth. It was the part of her that made everyone hate her instantly, even though she’s as pretty if not prettier than Adrianne, with her perfect hair and face.

It wasn’t really that she gossiped at all. It was more of what she gossiped. A week after she’d moved here and gotten over the initial shock of our small town, there was an assembly. She noticed Vince still by a window, looking out into the world and loudly announced: “I heard he’s always looking out the window trying to see if his parents will come back. They ran away, you know, and left him with his grandmother. What kind of parents are those? I’d say they’re rotten ones, just up and leaving him with someone who could die any minute. I wouldn’t wait up for creeps like that. In fact, I’d want them to be as far from me as possible.”

She’d gotten everyone’s attention; even the teachers and staff. Everyone had watched silently as Vince turned to look at her. I don’t think anyone could ever forget how his usually warm chocolate brown eyes suddenly looked freezing cold. “Excuse me,” he’d said as he left the room. He didn’t come back for the rest of the week.

Since then everyone’s made it a point to not talk to her. It made it tough for her to get help when she’s behind in class, not that she ever tries that hard anyway.

She looked up from her fashion magazine to sneer at me. For some reason, she doesn’t like me very much. It doesn’t matter, though, because I don’t like her much either.

I took my usual seat between Luna and Aubrey. We didn’t really have desks. We all just sat at one round big table (our teacher was a major fan of King Arthur). Mr. Clemons let us all use the big, soft chairs teachers got instead of the hard and cold ones. He also let us choose our seats. His seat was still much better than ours, though.

Every once in a while Mr. Clemons had a dozen doughnuts for us. He knew all our parents and was really good friends with them. He always treats us like people who would do something in the future, like any other teacher, but he also treats us like we would do something great now. He doesn’t think we’re incapable of thinking or taking care of ourselves and each other. Right now, he’s the only teacher for eighth grade. Mondays we would do math, Tuesdays we would be English, Wednesday social studies, Thursday science, and Friday was a ‘miscellaneous’ day when we learned things that weren’t really in our curriculum, like video game cheat codes and a sample of some foreign languages. Mr. Clemons didn’t believe in overloading our brains with too many different subjects in the same day. He was the reason every kid wanted to hurry up and be a eighth grader.

“Alright, class. Get out some scrap paper. I’d like you to solve these problems today. You need to use what we learned last week about polynomials.” He got up from his chair and wrote some questions on the board.

The cool thing about Mr. Clemons was that he’d either teach us a new concept, have us practice it, or just have a rest day of games and fun. He’d always let us talk. Free time was better than working, but sometimes I wondered about that. I didn’t really have anyone to talk to, even though I was with people I’d known for years. I didn’t speak much. I wasn’t a quiet person, though, and we all got along relatively well.

I finished the problems quickly and passed my paper across the table to Mr. Clemons. His face brightened. “Done already Elaine? I should’ve guessed.” His eyes skimmed my paper, comparing it with his answers. He pushed the doughnut box and his stack of napkins toward me.

Finishing first is very important in our class. If you finished first, you get all the doughnuts (but you still have to give everyone else one) and decide what to do if there’s extra time left over, or if it was a Friday. You could even pass out extra work to people who you thought needed them. Mr. Clemons never asked why you thought they needed them either, so it was an effective way of keeping someone occupied.

I took out a French Cruller and nibbled at it, looking around at everyone. Aubrey had her head held high as if she was looking at her person of the day, but her hand was writing down answers. It was a strange sight, with everyone else looking down at their work.

Whenever Penelope didn’t understand something, her nose would twitch. It’s strange to say, but the twitching nose was kind of cool. A day without Penelope twitching would be like a day without the sun. She’s not stupid, she just finds it’s somehow easier to learn if she takes out her compact mirror and reads the problem that way. I’m amazed at how easily she can read backwards. Penelope’s nose was twitching now, and she was already reaching into her pocket for her mirror.

Matthew, Vince, and Adrianne seemed to be finishing without many problems. Genevieve Cain worried me, though. Her handwriting wasn’t only hard to read (even her numbers were confusing) but her answers were clearly all wrong. And yet she had a peaceful expression on her face, obviously thinking everything was correct. I bit my bottom lip, wondering if I should tell her. She would get angry if I told her. She would be embarrassed because my voice would reach everyone else at the table. And yet, if I didn’t voice my concerns, she would make a racket later any way and resent me when I was forced to give her more and more practice worksheets.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Aubrey turn to Genevieve. “You got them all wrong,” she said simply and turned back to her own work. Genevieve was startled and already blushing. Although Aubrey had spoken softly, everyone had heard. Across from me I saw Adrianne whisper to Penelope. I couldn’t hear it even though we were all close together, but I knew it wasn’t anything good about Aubrey. For a nanosecond I wondered why she did that, then berated myself for being so stupid. Aubrey was weird. You didn’t need to justify anything pertaining to her.

~~~

After school I went straight to my favorite spot beside the Benson Ford and smiled. The day had gone very well. After Genevieve re-did her answers she had enough right to pass the assignment. I gave everyone a doughnut, remembering who liked what.

Luna liked strawberry. Vince liked chocolate. Genevieve never ate any. Matthew and Penelope liked Boston Creme. Adrianne liked French Crullers, same as me.

Aubrey used to tear her glazed doughnut into little bits, getting her hands all sticky, and eating it that way. Then she switched to liking the powdered jelly-filled ones. The way she ate these wasn’t much better. She would bite a little hole in the middle, squeeze out all the jelly onto the napkin, and tear apart bits of the doughnut, like she’d done with the glazed. She would then roll them into little balls, dip those pieces into the jelly, and pop them into her mouth.

It was very disturbing. And messy.

But not even Aubrey could ruin my good mood. When I’d given Adrianne her doughnut, she looked up at me and smiled. She thanked me! But that wasn’t the best part. She also talked to me! She’d said, “Thanks, Elaine. You know, there’s this band playing a few days from now. Maybe we’ll see you there.”

I’d smiled and nodded. I was so proud of myself for not showing my excitement! Then someone snickered. It was Aubrey, her head tilted towards me, a small smile on her face. I was immediately freaked out and didn’t want to sit by her again. Fortunately, Mr. Clemons decided to let us go early because he remembered he needed to get some materials for his next class. I’d gotten out of there so fast that I totally forgot about taking home the doughnuts.

I spent a long time just sitting by the edge of the cliff, admiring the lake. I could see many boats. There were people fishing and running around by the water. There was a group of people splashing around in the water, throwing around a big multi-colored beach ball. They were close to the shore, not afraid of the water snakes. People of all ages swam beside them, either horsing around or just swimming calmly.

In Put-in-Bay, most everyone knew to swim before they could walk. Here on South Bass Island, swimming was the world.

I sat in my special spot until the sun turned orange and started sinking down, past the horizon. I’ve seen this happen millions of times, but each time I love the beauty of it: when you look at the people by the shore, you would only see silhouettes and shadows, no matter how good your eyes are, like in a painting. How, how the sky turns so many different colors and everything takes on a different, orange hue. The sunset and the sunrise aren’t really very different. It’s like it’s all pictures on a Movie Maker and, to switch it from one to the other it flips everything. For the sunset, the blue skies gradually turn this pretty blackish purple color. For the sunrise, that night sky turns light blue.

I was always awed by the beauty of both. So I spent some time watching the sun go down before I realized what time it was.

When I got home it was already dark even though I’d run the whole way. My parents were perturbed. They weren’t worried or disappointed, they never were. They were always perturbed. It was the word they used all the time, for as long as I could remember. I;m pretty sure my first words were “Stop being so perturbed,” only in garbled baby speak so it sounded more like, “Thop eeing tho erburbed.” But I like to think the message was clear.

“Laney,” my dad said, using his pet name for me as soon as I opened the door. I’ve been considering making it my stage name for when I get famous. “We are a little bit perturbed that you missed dinner.”

My parents and I were really close. We liked to have all our meals together when we could. They believed meals were the best way to interact. It was the same concept as that old saying that stated the way to a person’s heart was through their stomach. My mom was originally from France and my dad was Irish, both nationalities that valued food. If any one of us wasn’t home, eating would not commence, no matter how delicious the food smelled. Breakfast didn’t count. It was easy for them because they owned a restaurant. They could come home whenever they wanted.

“I’m sorry. I tried to get home as soon as I could,” I said, closing and locking the door behind me. I took off my shoes and put them away neatly. It was a bit embellished, but I could tell they didn’t mind because they were smiling when I entered the kitchen and took a seat at the table. They’d made my favorite for dinner: fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. On the mashed potatoes were little flecks of a green plant Mom likes to use because it gives flavor. They didn’t make fried foods often because it was unhealthy. They only made it at all because they didn’t like to waste anything, not even the deep fryer Aunt Delaney had given them on their wedding day.

“Today school was…?” Mom prompted me. She still had a bit of an accent in her voice, but for the most part she spoke perfect English. She sometimes said things twice, in French, then English. Despite being with her for twelve years more or less, I knew almost no French. I was clumsy with languages. Sometimes I even messed up my English.

“It was fine,” I said calmly, trying on a reserved tone. I smiled, remembering my day.

My dad raised an eyebrow. “Really? You’ll have to give us more than that to go on.” Since he’d lived in America his whole life, not Ireland, and had only spoken Irish Gaelic at home, he had no accent. He almost never mixed Irish phrases into regular conversation.

“Oui, Elaine, spill it.” My mother added, using one of the few French words I know. I loved how she said my name—Elle-awn. It wasn’t really in a French accent but it wasn’t in an English accent, either. Belle was the French word for beautiful and “awn” seemed like it could change into “swan” any minute and no one would notice. Beautiful swan. It gave me hope that I was just an ugly duckling right now and would transform beautifully soon. Very, very soon.

“Hmm,” I said, as if deciding whether or not to tell them. All of a sudden, I burst out, “Adrianne Clark invited me to see that band that’s playing on the boardwalk Friday!”

“That’s great!” My parents exclaimed at the same time. I would have winced if I wasn’t so excited, a little bit perturbed by how happy they were. Sure, I hadn’t had anything to do with another person since the time Mrs. Finks had paired up Luna and I for our third grade science project, but they didn’t have to be so…enthusiastic about it.

“She’s such a nice girl. You should invite her over some time,” Dad said. Mom nodded, slicing her fried chicken with gusto. She ate mostly everything with a fork, knife, or spoon but never a spork because she detested sporks. Pizza, sandwiches, and popcorn chicken were only a few things she ate with cutlery. She had an aversion to eating with her hands. She was fine with other people doing it, she just couldn’t bring herself to do it. Sometimes, when she’s extremely depressed, like the time we were almost forced to sell her restaurant, she would eat with her hands. I liked to think of her habits on a scale. It went from zero to one hundred and a sometimes solid, sometimes hazy, bright red line would go to a number. I measured her happiness that way, pretending her mood was charted on a thermometer. The line was usually in the 80’s or the 90’s, because my mom was usually happy. If it ever dropped to fifty, she was not happy. If it ever went below twenty, she would abandon all her pet peeves and become someone totally different than the mom I was used to.

“No,” I said hurriedly. “I don’t think she’ll be able to any time soon. She’s really busy. How was work for you guys?” I tried to steer the topic away from me.

“Ah! J’oublie! I forgot! Mrs. Forbes gave me some tips on how to get a stain out of the tablecloth!” Mom said, surprised. She cut into her chicken faster, trying to finish up quickly so that she could get up and cook. Whenever someone’s nice to her, she feels obligated to make food. Usually, she sends it to them through me, the messenger. “And,” she added, her voice changing, “we had some interesting people come in today.”

“What rude customers!” Dad said. “From the start I knew they were trouble! They walked in like they’d never seen a restaurant before even though their clothes looked so expensive! First, they waited at the door for a waiter or waitress to come and seat them! They can walk over and sit down themselves! They waited so long that no seats were open by the time they called for me! If Erick hadn’t been there to ask one of our regulars to give up their seat, they would’ve left in a huff. You know how good he is with everyone. Sometimes I think he should be manager instead! Then I wouldn’t have to deal with how they spent twenty minutes looking at the menu, then called me over again saying, ‘Is this all?’ like it wasn’t completely rude and inappropriate!”

“Oui!” Mom cried indignantly, already washing her plate and preparing to cook. “The whole time they were there they refused to speak with any of the waiters and waitresses and treated them like dirt! Always calling us over to complain loudly! Sometimes even just to brag!”

Dad said, “Apparently they were here in Put-in-Bay to see their daughter. They bragged about her while they ordered everything on the menu, in between complaints of how long it was taking to prepare it, as if they were the only ones there.”

I smiled, at the story. It went on like this: For about three hours the couple had been a nuisance. They’d made Dad stay with them and chat while Mom, the main cook, toiled in the kitchen as fast as she could so they’d leave quickly. Dad, being his friendly self, kept trying to make friends with them, but they got angry at the slightest things. When he asked them how old their daughter was, they’d gotten angry and said it wasn’t his business. This answer was used a lot, like when he asked for their daughter’s name. It was obvious that they didn’t know anything about her. My parents extremely disliked people like that, people who were too important to spend time with their children. They considered it a felony not to know all about your child, and their friends, too. For them not to even know her name was unthinkable. Once they’d said that they didn’t remember if she was even a she at all. I almost laughed at this, but not because I thought it was funny. It was absurd because from what they’d said, it was their biological child. How would they not know?

“Let’s call her The It Baby,” I suggested. Mom and dad laughed. Soon dinner was over, the dishes were done, and I was in my room.

Whenever I lie on my bed, I see a poster. It’s a poster of Zazou, a model. She was my role model and had an epic past. She’d been born out of an affair her Nigerian birth mother had. Once she’d been noticed, her mother wanted to get an abortion, but it was too late. So her mother had her in secret and gave her to the midwife immediately. The midwife took care of her lovingly, as she couldn’t have children herself. Everyone congratulated her and thanked the Lord when they saw her with Zazou. She never named Zazou, though, and waited until she was five years old to tell her the story of her birth. She then told Zazou to pick her own name. The name she chose was Na’Zyia Jaja, which means “a mother’s love”, and “God’s gift”. I love how spiteful she was, even at the tender age of five, when she learned her mother didn’t want her. Her mother had overhead this exchange and kicked them out so she wouldn’t have to look at them anymore. She grew up in poverty with her foster mother, the midwife.

My favorite quote of hers is, “Gifts cannot be returned.”

Every night I admire her picture. She isn’t pretty like Adrianne. She’s beautiful. Her real, natural hair is jet-black and straight, but she wears it in thin, beaded braids. It reaches her knees, but I heard she was going to cut it soon. She has beautiful grey eyes, not gray, but grey, the sophisticated and elegant form of the word. Her eyes seem to pierce into you, even when she’s smiling. I always smile when I picture her as a five year old, growing up with ancient eyes that betrayed her real age and went so well with her rich dark skin. She was my role model, hands-down. I wanted to be just like her.

- - - - -Star Guide #3: Once Insults Are Given, It’s War

When I woke up in the morning, I was so happy that I sang in the shower. I sang loudly, not caring who heard.

I can’t sing well. I can’t act well. I can’t dance well. I have almost no talents whatsoever. I’m determined, though. Once I get an idea, as my mom says, I hold it tight and never let go. There are plenty of celebrities that had a hard or unusual road to fame and fortune. I bet they didn’t complain. I bet they’d always keep up hope. Maybe I’d be famous for such horrible acting it makes everything funny. Maybe I’d be famous for singing songs that deafen some ears. Maybe I’d be famous for wrecking everything whenever I try to help, like some television characters do, only in real life and completely on accident. Either way, I will never lose hope.

I got dressed for school and headed down the stairs. A wonderful scent came from the kitchen. My mom had cooked bacon and eggs. I loved them. I headed straight for the cabinet we keep our cereal in. I made myself a bowl of Raisin Bran, taking out the raisins like I always do before pouring the milk in.

Breakfast foods I liked were always eaten as an after school snack, if they hadn’t been eaten already by Mom or Dad.

“Bye!” I told my parents. This time my dad replied.

“Remember to come right home after school!” he said. At first I didn’t get it, but then I remembered Mrs. Forbes.

“I will!” I called back.

At school, Aubrey finished first. I think English is very easy for her, even though on this particular day we’d gotten a worksheet on prepositional phrases, which had always eluded me somehow since we’d first learned them in second grade.

At the end of class, Aubrey passed out the doughnuts. She always passes them out in a strangely weird way. She would go around the circle holding open the box so people could take their own, but for Penelope and her sister, Adrianne, she would take out the doughnut with her own hands and pass it to them. There was no way that she didn’t notice the looks of disgust that came on their faces when they took them from her, even holding them as if they were contaminated and pretending to almost barf after every bite whenever Mr. Clemons wasn’t looking. Every time this happened Aubrey would just watch blankly, her sunglasses reflecting the cruelty. I guess that even she wanted to be popular, even though she was only similar to her sister in blood, really. Sometimes. When I saw this exchange: her sister and her friends directly making fun of her and she just watching like that, I almost pitied her. It showed that she was only human, and that she would have probably cried if she wasn’t so weird.

I stayed in the classroom a bit longer, hoping that Adrianne would want to talk to me again. She just passed me, though, laughing with Matthew and Penelope and seeming not to see me. I didn’t bother to call her name out, too afraid that she would just ignore me.

Luna was the last person out. I followed after her. We both said goodbye to Mr. Clemons. Luna even read while she walked.

“Hey, Luna,” I said. To my surprise, she looked up from her book immediately and smiled at me. “Hi Elaine,” she said back.

We lived close to each other so we walked most of the way back together, chatting about things. I was kind of disappointed when we reached the street where we had to go in opposite directions, but as we said our goodbyes, Luna said “See you tomorrow.”

I was extremely happy when I got home. I’d made a friend! Everyone in the eighth grade were people I’d known all my life, and still we hadn’t had actual talks in years. I was ecstatic by this small friendship. I was getting popular!

“Elaine!” My mom called. I ran into the kitchen, still excited. “Oh? Qu’est-ce que c’est? What is it? Why are you so happy?” she smiled, handing me a heavy glass baking pan. It was the big blue one and even through the foil I smelled Mom’s delicious lasagna.

“Oh, nothing!” I hummed, hurrying back out the door. I looked up at the sky, wondering how the dark gray rain clouds got there. In the morning it had been a clear blue sky.

I liked being my mom’s messenger. I liked to go across town, ring the doorbells, and hand them whatever delectable food my mom had made for them. Usually, they would invite me in to share a bit of it, which was something I really liked. The people my mom sent me to were always nice. There’s this one couple, the Goodwins, that let me play with their cute little son, Jack, whenever I came. Sometimes, if Mom had made something that wasn’t too hard to eat, they would let me feed him myself.

There was also Mr. Moore, an old man who’s wife had died just a year before. I’d always thought they were a great couple. They would always have something to say and teach me something. I remembered the talks I used to have with Mrs. Moore when she was still alive. I would always help her bake something to give my mom in return because Mrs. Moore liked to give more than receive while Mr. Moore played the piano. Without her, the house seemed empty, but Mr. Moore tried hard to be happy and didn’t think too much about her. Sometimes he faked Alzheimer’s so that people would think he forgot he even had a wife. Everyone seemed to buy it easily, saying that ignorance was bliss, but I never fell for it.

One day I’d told my parents that he was just pretending to forget her and they’d gotten quiet. They’d replied, “We know. Everyone does.” That was when I thought I understood. It was much, much easier to think of things the way they did—never truly forgetting Mrs. Moore but also trying to put her in the back of their minds. And yet, I really didn’t get it. It would’ve been much simpler to just get therapy and fix everything instead of dragging it out like they were. Ah, well. Adults always operated on their own terms.

I reached Mrs. Forbes house. Some people referred to her as ‘The Widow’. Her husband wasn’t dead, though. About eleven years ago, when I was still a toddler, Mr. Forbes had left. It was a silly story if you think about it. He’d gone out for milk one night because they’d run out and never came back. A few days later she got a letter about it. It said that in the grocery store he saw a little girl with her mother and father. They reminded him of tens of years ago, when he and Mrs. Forbes were supposed to have a baby girl. The girl had died from some disease that could only be passed maternally and, even though Mr. Forbes had tried to forgive her, he still kind of considered it her fault. He couldn’t get over it, so he’d suppressed it for twenty years. When he saw that little girl, something snapped. He couldn’t stay with Mrs. Forbes anymore. Beside the letter he’d placed a gallon of milk. Then he left Put-in-Bay.

Whenever I’d heard that story it always made me wonder who that little girl was but no one knew. That was probably for the better, though, because I didn’t like her much. She had caused someone too much pain. My parents were forgiving about it but I just couldn’t do that. Although she wasn’t the full reason why he left, she was a major part of it. Mrs. Forbes was a nice woman, even if she was a little strange now, but that’s only because of the trauma of losing a child and a then a husband. I think that, if Mr. Forbes had left right after their baby’s death she wouldn’t be in quite so much pain. Prolonging his leave was much, much worse. No one deserved to be hurt that much. Mrs. Forbes had secretly also blamed herself for the death, she told people. Then she chased them out of her front yard.

I rang the doorbell. “Mrs. Forbes?” I called out after a while. I felt a few rain drops start to fall.

“I’m coming,” I heard her say. She unlocked the door and let me in. “Oh, it’s you Elaine. Is that lasagna for me? Come on in and let’s share it. Wipe your feet on the mat first.” She didn’t sound happy to see me, but she didn’t seem angry either. I followed her into her dark house. A light rain had already began.

The reason people think Mrs. Forbes is strange is because ever since her husband left she never leaves the house except to go and sit in Mom and Dad’s restaurant for hours about three times a week. She always wears black, as if she’s attending a non-stop funeral. She has her groceries delivered to her. I think she’s just unsocial, like me, except she was much, much sadder. It doesn’t help that she has sunken black eyes and corpselike pale skin.

“Could you get us some plates Elaine? They’re in that cupboard over there.” I was surprised to see her house so clean, practically spotless, even though she was in her seventies or something. I couldn’t find a speck of dirt anywhere. I placed the two plates on the table beside the baking pan. Mrs. Forbes had already peeled back the foil and was cutting into them with a butter knife. It sliced easily because the lasagna was still pretty warm, but when she raised the knife to cut out a full square, I noticed that it wasn’t a regular butter knife. It looked like she sharpened it regularly and it looked as sharp as the knives we keep at home.

Mrs. Forbes raised the slice, balancing it on the knife and touching it lightly with her fingers to support it. She slid it onto the first plate and started working on the next piece. She noticed me just standing there. “Well?” she growled. It didn’t seem like she felt bitter towards me, just a bit annoyed, but I still jumped about an inch. “Are you going to get us some forks? In that drawer.”

I nodded and walked over to the drawer she tilted her head to. I opened it and almost gasped. Inside was a regular cutlery tray that was filled with the regular utensils. All the butter knives, though, were very sharp. The tines of the forks looked deadly and even the spoons had this evil-looking glint to them. I was cautiously picking out forks, one at a time, when the doorbell rang three times. Mrs. Forbes went to answer it, looking much more pleased than when it was me at the door. The smile on her face made her look pretty and I wondered if she’d been an actress when she was younger. As I placed the forks on the plates next to the lasagna I wondered what would make her so chipper.

“Get in and dry yourself up,” I heard her say. “Elaine, could you get another plate and fork for our guest here?” she called. I obediently set out another plate. I even cut out a slice about the same size as the two Mrs. Forbes had cut out, admiring how perfect the squares looked. It got me over my distrust of the knife.

Mrs. Forbes appeared just as I was putting down the dish, smiling at someone behind her. I sat down and waited, already digging into the food. “Who’s that?” I asked with my mouth full, trying to peer behind her. When the person came into view, my mouth dropped open in shock. It was Aubrey!

“Close your mouth,” said Mrs. Forbes distractedly, “it’s disgusting.”

I swallowed. “Aubrey?” I asked. It was definitely her. She was wearing red and yellow striped overalls over a green shirt. She had on her trademark tam hat and mirrored sunglasses. Her clothes were soaked.

She turned her head to me. “Elaine?” she said in a flat voice. I could tell she didn’t want me to be there. To prove it, she added, “Why are you here?”

“M-M-My mom made lasagna,” I said in a rush. “For Mrs. F-F-F-Forbes.”

She nodded, as uncaring as ever. She took the only seat left, which was next to me. She turned to Mrs. Forbes immediately, her back to me. I ate my lasagna quickly as they talked.

“I’m getting better. I can make sweaters now. You should see the one I just finished—it’s perfect! Later today I’m going to tie-dye it. It’s going to look awesome!” I was a bit startled to hear so much emotion in her voice.

“That’s good. I hope you’ll use that brand I told you about. Nothing else works so well. It can go through so many washings without dyeing everything else or fading!” Mrs. Forbes was speaking in an unusually bright tone as well. She noticed me watching them and said, “Oh yes. This is Elaine, but I guess you two know each other already. You’re in the same grade aren’t you?”

“Yeah, we are,” Aubrey said.

“Are you good friends?” Mrs. Forbes asked. Before either of us could answer, she said, “You’ve still got on your glasses. Do I have to tell you this every day? Sunglasses shouldn’t be worn inside.” She had a stern, motherly tone.

Aubrey smiled a bit, bringing her hands to the earpieces, but then she must have remembered I was there because her smile was gone as suddenly as it’d come and her arms dropped.

“Aubrey,” Mrs. Forbes said in a warning tone. Aubrey sighed and took off her sunglasses slowly. I was surprised that she’d even take them off because an old lady told her to when she‘d ignore any other person. I was even more surprised, though, at her eyes. They were the same beautiful blue as Adrianne’s, which was startling just by itself, but they also moved about easily. She didn’t have a lazy eye. Was Adrianne wrong? Maybe it was a guess because she never saw her sister without the glasses. I smiled, thinking of the babies Aubrey and Adrianne lying next to each other, Aubrey wearing mirrored sunglasses that were too big for her face.

“What?!” Aubrey snapped, forcing me out of my daydream. “What’s so funny?” She looked angry.

“I-I-I wasn’t l-laughing a-a-a-at you. I-I-I was th-thinking of something f-f-funny.” I disliked my stammer greatly. What was so scary about Aubrey Clark?

Aubrey snorted. “Right.” She didn’t believe me. Mrs. Forbes watched us in silence. I finished my lasagna quickly and placed my plate in the sink. I’d just begun to wash it when Mrs. Forbes said, “Leave it. I’ll get to it later.”

I couldn’t get out of that house fast enough. “I’ll be back tomorrow to get the pan!” I called back, racing outside. The rain had gone back to falling lightly.

I heard Mrs. Forbes say, “So I guess you aren’t friends?” Aubrey bluntly replied, “No. We’re not and never have been and never will be.” She said it in such a closing tone that it made my skin crawl. “About my sweater…” I was out of earshot by the time they’d closed the door and gone back inside. Once I got home, I dashed to my room and stayed there for the rest of the day, refusing to come out for dinner. I stared at Zazou until I fell asleep, tired.

- - - - -Star Guide #4: Dazzle, Don’t Be Dazzled

I didn’t want to wake up the next morning. All I could think about was how yesterday had gone, with Mrs. Forbes and lasagna and Aubrey looking so much like Adrianne and how she didn’t ever want to be my friend.

It wasn’t like I really wanted to be Aubrey’s friend or anything, but it hurt to know someone hated me. I didn’t know how I would get up, get dressed, and sit next to her at school like normal knowing she hated my guts. I’d always thought I had this not-quite-friends-but-closer-than-acquaintances friendship with all the other kids at school. What if they all hated me instead and I’d just been too stupid to know for the past seven years?

It was my grumbling stomach that got me out of bed in the end. My parents were already asleep since they only got up in the mornings to make breakfast. None of us were morning people. Eating my cereal led me to put on my shoes and leave the house. It was a routine I’d fallen into after years of school. This time no one was awake, which didn’t boost my self-esteem. It made me think I was really alone.

As I walked to school eating raisins I thought more about my problems. It wasn’t really all that weird to be hated. It actually made me feel better, in fact, to think that people didn’t speak to me because they had no interest in me, that they just didn’t like me instead. This could even be thought of as a practice run because when I get to my celebrity status I’d have to deal with a lot of jealousy. It would be good to know how to recognize it now. This was the first step to stardom!

I entered the classroom grinning so much Genevieve, the only one there, had to speak. “What’s made you so happy, worm?” she sneered. I kept grinning, which I knew irritated her.

“Oh, nothing,” I said in a sing-song voice. She scoffed and went back to ignoring me. I watched her for a while as she read magazines. The rich, prissy way she behaved suddenly reminded me of the couple my parents had met Monday. “A couple came to my parent’s restaurant the other day.” I don’t know why I said it. It was on impulse. My tendency to do that was probably the reason why I had so many haters.

Genevieve didn’t even grace me with an uninterested remark, just flipped through her magazine.

“They seemed really rich, maybe even richer than you. They had everyone rushing to feed them since they ordered everything on the menu. They were rude and didn’t even like my mom’s food. My dad was forced to stay by them since they wouldn’t talk to any of the waiters or waitresses and bragged a lot. They said they were here to see their daughter. They also seemed stupid, though, because they knew nothing about their daughter. Not even her name. I think that’s messed up. They shouldn’t be parents. They should just leave and never come back a-”

“Shut up!” Genevieve warned. I shut up. I’d been rambling and probably disturbing her blank staring at the glossy pages. She didn’t look at me but she seemed really angry. I was afraid she’d look up and yell at me some more.

Babbling wasn’t a good trait for a star-in-training, especially babbling while standing up. If you had to speak too much and too loudly, it should at least be while you sat down and looked dignified. I had to work on that, I thought, taking my seat. If I babbled in front of the camera everyone watching (which would most likely be the whole world) would think I was stupid, and, before I knew it, I’d be Stupid Swan, or whatever I’d choose as my stage name.

I was worrying about this when Luna came in, her nose in a book as always. How could she read so much? Whenever I tried to read, my mind would start wandering and wandering and when I got back to Earth I’d forget mostly everything and have to read it all again. It was a grueling process, more frustrating than “two steps forward and one step back.” It was more like “fourteen steps forward and thirteen steps back” with about a hundred more steps to go. It took a lot of steps to finish a book.

“Hi, Luna!” I waved. She smiled at me, sitting down. She used a bookmark to mark the page and closed it. I beamed. Making friends was easy.

“Good morning, class,” Mr. Clemons said. Luna and I stopped chatting, surprised, and looked around. Everyone else had already come in. Aubrey had silently taken her seat next to me. When I looked in Adrianne’s direction, she smiled and waved at me. I waved back.

“Today we’ll be doing social studies. There’s a test next week on what we’ve learned so far. It’ll last for most of the class. I‘m sure you’ll all ace it,” Mr. Clemons said. Our class started at seven in the morning and ended at noon. Then Mr. Clemons’s eighth grade class started at one o’clock and ended at five.

Tests weren’t a problem. Except for Aubrey, everyone in the eighth grade class was very smart (although Mr. Clemons believed Aubrey just wasn’t trying). The tests Mr. Clemons gave were always extra easy. It wasn’t hard for anyone to pass. Once, though, our strict principal sat in on our class and saw the tests we were taking. He wasn’t pleased. Now we all need to take tests he makes once a month. If anyone fails they need to be tutored. No one has even come close to failing yet, so two months ago he said if anyone got lower than and eighty, that was failing. The worst part was that he sprung them on us at random times and there were no telltale signs that he’d have us take a quiz.

“Do we have to?” Penelope still asked. Matthew made a funny face, pointing at her. Adrianne giggled. I didn’t really get it but I smiled too. Was he making fun of her? Weren’t they friends?

“Of course you do.” Mr. Clemons’s answer was very blunt. He was used to complaints from Penelope. Everyone was. She complained a lot. Mr. Clemons has taken to not seriously thinking about what she says, which was pretty much ignoring her if you asked me.

Today I was the Queen again. Class went uneventfully, until the end. I was passing out the doughnuts like usual (everyone even wanted the same flavors) but, when I reached Adrianne, she wanted to talk to me. I, of course, being my suave self, tripped over the flat surface that is the floor and fell on the leftovers.

“Are you okay?!” asked Adrianne. Matthew and Penelope stood behind her, looking a little worried for me, too. Everyone else but Luna had left, and now she also got up from her book to see my fall. Adrianne stuck out her hand. “Seriously, are you? Yesterday my mom fell like that and today she woke up with a huge bump on her head!”

I grimaced. “I’m okay. What did you want to talk about?” Although I said this to her, I looked at Luna. She immediately understood. “I’ll wait outside,” she said. I grinned at her.

“So.” Adrianne’s tone was simple. “Tomorrow’s the concert. Are you going?”

“Of course I am,” I said in an airy voice, like I went places with people all the time. It was a rather good try, if I do say so myself. Now I just had to work on my British and I’d be all set!

“Oh, okay. Because we…” she started to say. A cell phone rang. “Hold on, let me get this call.” And with that, she started a conversation. I was awed by her phone. No one in my family had one because my parents figured that the best way to talk to someone was face-to-face. And in a small town like ours, faces were never too far away. I guess part of the reason is because I never wanted one. Basically, there’d be no use for it. With a phone at home, it wasn’t really needed. In just our class probably only Matthew, Adrianne, Vince, and Genevieve had mobile phones. Wait a second…that was just about half.

I couldn’t help but eavesdrop. At first glance, Adrianne seemed to be speaking English mixed with French, but, as I was proud to discover, none of the French words she used sounded real. Some of them, I could tell, were real but horribly pronounced. I was surprised I even caught her bilingual moment. I’d thought all my years with my mother were wasted. It was kind of sad, though, when I realized that she was speaking too fast and with too much fake French that I couldn’t understand the English.

No one else seemed to notice it, though. Matthew and Penelope were looking at her with surprise on their faces. I wondered about that, but pretty soon my mind wandered to the topic of who she was speaking to. It was probably not my mother. She was horrible with phones. She could never hear what people were saying through the static, although her ears seemed perfect otherwise. (I, sadly, had the same problem. It’s a slight blemish on my amazing future status.) So my mother wouldn’t possibly be able to hear Adrianne’s faulty French. Before I could think any further, the call ended and Adrianne was smiling at me again. This time, though, her smile look strained.

“What was I saying? Oh yeah! Well we hope to see you there! We’ll be on the shore.” She left. Matthew and Penelope smiled at me, too. “Bye,” Matthew said. “See you later.” The three of them went out the door in such a cool, easy way that I watched their backs until they turned the corner. I wanted to be like that someday. Finally, I gathered my shoulder bag and my squashed doughnuts and headed out the door. Luna was waiting just outside, reading her book, but she closed it when she saw me.

“I heard some of that. Was she speaking another language?” she asked. I laughed.

“I think it was supposed to be French,” I replied. “My mom’s French and she speaks it at home a lot.”

“Wow, that’s so cool,” she beamed, not a trace of sarcasm in her voice. “So I guess whatever Adrianne was attempting didn’t come close?” We both already knew the answer, and it was enough to keep us in a jovial mood until we parted ways.


“I’m back!” I called out as I opened the door. My parents greeted me from different parts of the house. Mom, I think, was watching TV in the living room while Dad was upstairs, probably trying to sleep. I decided to go the living room.


“Mom, I’m going to Mrs. Forbes’s house for the bowl now,” I told her.


“Okay,” she said. She was watching the sitcom that she liked, the one with the name I always forgot. I left.


I was really hoping Aubrey wouldn’t be there today. All the way there I was wishing for that not to happen. The whole way there I practically begged any Higher Power out there to keep her away. So, when I ring the doorbell, it was only fitting that Aubrey Clark answered it.


“It’s you,” she said. She didn’t make any faces or twist her voice. It was flat, like she really didn’t care. I was slightly offended. Now I couldn’t even be cared about? Was hate this insulting?


“Um…A-A-Are you done with the lasagna?” I asked. I’d planned to speak in a smooth, enviable way. An uncaring tone to match hers. But I blew it.


“I don’t know.” She turned and left for the kitchen. Since she left the door open, I took this to mean to follow. I hesitantly entered, closing the door behind me, and trailed after her.


Seeing Aubrey reminded me of her strange eyes. I made a mental note to myself to ask Adrianne about that at the concert on Thursday.


“Oh, it’s you,” Mrs. Forbes said when she saw me. She was sitting at her table and she seemed pleased. I wondered what had made her suddenly like me.


The first time I’d been there, I was too awkward to look around. Now I did. Mrs. Forbes had a big house. In her kitchen (all over her house) were glass showcases of knick-knacks. Some of them looked very expensive, and others looked cheap. Just in her kitchen there was a glass swan and lots of fancy jewelry. She had some things hanging on nails, like a few lockets and medals. I’d noticed that just inside the kitchen by the hallway (where there were showcases and creepy portraits of people whose eyes had a tendency to seem to follow you) there was a glass cabinet dedicated to crystals. The light hit them in a way that made rainbows cover some of the windows in a beautiful way. I didn’t know how I hadn’t noticed it before. Even the table and six chairs were posh. I bet the fridge and cabinets (which I assumed had food in them) were stocked.


“Are you done with the lasagna?” I asked her. She pointed to the counter by her sink. There sat the blue glass baking pan. I moved toward it.


“I’m leaving now. Bye.” I hadn’t noticed Aubrey, who was standing in a far corner. She passed me quickly, the plastic bag she was carrying swishing as she hurried out.


“Goodbye,” Mrs. Forbes called after her. She turned to see me standing by the sink holding the baking pan. “While you’re waiting, would you please get me something?” she asked. I blushed, knowing my whole face was turning redder than a tomato. How had she known I’d been waiting for Aubrey to get so far ahead I wouldn’t have to walk beside her?


“Sure. What did you want?”


“Down in the basement there’s a book about planting strawberries. Actually, there are lots of books about it. Pick one and bring it back here. I was thinking of planting something outside. The weather is so nice today.”


I nodded and left before she could say any more. It wasn’t all that hard to find the basement. It didn’t have a door, just a doorway and stairs. There was no light so I kept the door open. The stairs were wooden and creaky, but not dusty. I was afraid of falling through them so I took trying, tentative steps. I kept one hand on the railing and one hand against the wall. I noticed that it got darker the farther I descended. After a long while I reached a landing that had one of those light bulbs (the light bulb was compact fluorescent though, so it was new) with a long piece of string to turn it on with. I pulled it gently, hoping it wouldn’t break. Blazing light filled the landing. I was startled. In the semidarkness I hadn’t seen a door. Still, though, there was another set of stairs leading even farther downward. There was a sign taped on the plain wooden door. It read Basement #1: Nonfiction in handwriting that was probably Mrs. Forbes’s.


It took me a moment to understand. Common logic was, if this door led to nonfiction books, then the other stairs led to fiction books. I quickly thought about my topic. Planting strawberries. Which was it? Nonfiction or…?


I slapped myself. Since it wasn’t a mental slap, there was both a loud sound and actual pain. I think I gave myself a headache. Opening the door, I told myself (mentally) to hit myself a little more feebly. My whole mind blanked, though, when I saw the room beyond the door.


It was huge. It was basically a huge library, with tall bookshelves that touched the far ceiling. The bookshelves were stuffed with books. On either side of them were Dewey Decimal System numbers. On the wall were a bunch of huge signs that explained what subjects the numbers represented. There was even a towering ladder on wheels! The kind of rolling ladder I’d only ever seen in movies! And there were two in every aisle!


The library wasn’t just books and shelves and ladders. There were comfortable looking sofas and armchairs strewn around, and then you‘d come to this little area with matching furniture. It was basically a sort of sitting room, even with a refrigerator. It wasn’t even a mini-fridge, but an actual, full-size refrigerator in the amazing sitting area. Also, there weren’t just books on the shelves. There were DVDs, CDs, VHS—everything you could think of! It all made me completely forget my mission and start exploring. I soon lost track of time.


“I thought you wouldn’t have an interest in all this stuff.”


I looked. It was Mrs. Forbes. I fumbled and closed the book I was skimming through. It was on the topic of spiders, a child’s book with lots of pictures. I put it back in its place. “U-U-Uh, it’s kind of hard to not be interested when it’s like this.” So much for my goal of acting cool at all times.


“Huh.” She shuffled over and looked around at the shelves. “It’s all stupid. I don’t know why I keep adding to this mess.” Without any words from me, she continued. “It’s all something Harvey started. Mr. Forbes. He was really into reading. Read all the time. He read everywhere and at any time. It didn’t matter whether he was doing something else, like watching television or something or other. A book was either open and in his hands or closed and nearby.”


I was reminded of Luna.


“When he built this place he got the builders to make such a grandiose sanctuary with built-in shelves. No, it wasn’t really a sanctuary. It was his habitat. He spent all his time here. I’d wager that, when he left, he missed the basements more than he missed me. I have no idea why I still add to it regularly.”


She was now speaking harshly. Her bitterness caught me off-guard and I lost my relatively calm face. I knew I had a stupid look on my face. I really needed to stop doing that. It was unbecoming of a star; it was unbecoming of anyone! She caught sight of my wide doe eyes and chuckled. “Sorry,” she said,


“N-No! I should be sorry. You wanted a book on…strawberries, right?” I hurried to the wall of signs, but Mrs. Forbes stopped me.


“I already got it.”


“Oh.” My face flushed.


“Would you like to go upstairs with me to plant the seeds? Or would you rather stay here?” I nodded my head, knowing it wasn’t really an answer. She just sighed and said, “Come on, then.”


On the way up, she tried to make small talk. “Do you like to read?” she asked me.


“N-N-Not really. I try to but I always start thinking about other things.”


“I do that, too. I just can’t keep my mind on any type of writing with no color or pictures. Novels aren’t for me.”


“My friend, Luna Winter-Rose, she reads all the time. I don’t know how she does it.”


“I know who you’re talking about. That nice girl who lives across the street. She’d always walk home reading. For the past few days, though, she’s been smiling while she’s reading and walking. She’s a real multi-tasker, that one. Just like Harvey.”


“Yeah. She’s really nice. She reads just about everything and always gets a perfect score. She‘ll probably be a scientist when she grows up. Maybe she‘ll be a prodigy.”


“What do you want to be when you grow up?”


“I want to be famous,” I said proudly. She waited a while, thinking I was going to say more.


“Well?” she urged. “How will you become famous?”


“I don’t know.”


There was a silence as she turned off the light using a switch I hadn’t noticed that was by the basement doorway.


“Any particular talents?” she inquired.


“Nope.”


“Singing? Dancing? Acting? Modeling?”


“People say I sing like a strangled rooster, to use one of the many similes. I have two left feet of which, when in action, cannot be called ‘cool’ or ‘stylish’. My mom once thought I was crying when I was acting happy. And have you seen my face? Modeling is out of the question.”


“Hmm.” Mrs. Forbes looked at my face. “You’re right. Your eyes are lovely, though.” It was kind of insulting. “No talents at all? How will you be a celebrity?”


“I don’t know,” I repeated, clever as ever.


“Interesting,” she murmured. She led me through her impressive house to the colossal backyard. It was pretty much empty, except for a single rusting shed and a winding dirt path. Weeds riddled the whole lot.


“Whoa. My mom would hate you forever if she knew how you let such a big place go to waste. She’d make you plant much more than just strawberries.”


“Ah?” she was intrigued. “So you’re well-versed in matters of agriculture?”


“If you’re asking whether or not I’ve planted a few things before, it’s a yes. Mom used to have a garden that she grew her own fruits and vegetables in. Where do you want the strawberries?”


She fished in the pocket of her jeans for the seeds. When she found them, she handed them to me. “I don’t really care. I want a bunch of them. There are a lot of seeds in there. It should fill this whole place up, right?” She pointed at a small section.


I laughed. “No.”


“No?” Her face twisted in confusion. “But there are a bunch of seeds in there! Probably over fifty. That’s fifty whole plants!”


I couldn’t help it. I cracked up. “No, no. Do you even know how big a strawberry seed is?” She looked dumbfounded, which made me laugh even harder. “The seeds are the white bits on the outside. You need more than just one per strawberry plant. Besides, you shouldn’t even be thinking about planting now. Look at all these weeds! We’ve got to uproot all of those first.”


She sighed. “There are gardening gloves in the shed. I think we have a few pairs. Some other tools, too.” I started for the shed. “What are you doing? We can’t start today. Look how late it is already.”


I looked up at the sky, alarmed. The sun had already began to set. “I guess I’ll just have to come back tomorrow.”


“No, you can’t,” Mrs. Forbes said, turning to go back inside. For a moment, my face fell. Mrs. Forbes had turned out to be all right. She wasn’t boring like I thought she’d be. Did she hate me now too? Or had she hated me all along because of what Aubrey had said? Did I do something to make her not want to invite me back over?


“Because I won’t be here.” I blinked.


“What?”


“You can’t come over tomorrow because I won’t be here on Thursday or Friday. I’m going to my granddaughter’s for the rest of the week since I was supposed to be there all of this week. She’s the daughter of the son of Harvey’s first wife. She makes me go all the way over to Cleveland even though she knows I hate the city just so she can make sure I’m fine and haven’t dropped into a deadly sickness yet. I keep telling her it’s useless, but she insists. She doesn’t believe me when I tell her I’m a tough cookie. Honestly, I think she’d have me in diapers eating mashed carrots and peas all day long. She still thinks I wear dentures! Whenever I’m there, she never feeds me any real food.”


While Mrs. Forbes stewed over her relative’s hospitality (I think she referred to it as hostility more than once), I grinned. She didn’t hate me, then. “See you on Saturday then. I’ll probably be over around noon or so. I got doughnuts in school today. They‘re a bit mashed, but you could probably sneak them into your granddaughter‘s house. I’ll leave them when I go get the baking pan.”

“Bless you. At least someone thinks with a clear mind. Bye now.”

I raced to the kitchen to get Mom’s pan and left. Mrs. Forbes’s house wasn’t that far from mine. It was a twenty minute walk and probably a fifteen minute run.

- - - - -Star Guide #5: Cut Off Any Loose Ends


I woke up ecstatic. No, not just ecstatic. Elated. Exulted. Thursdays for me were usually as uneventful as any other day, but this one tickled me pink. Today was the day I got to hang out with Adrianne, Matthew, and Penelope! Contrary to Wednesday morning, I couldn’t get out of bed fast enough. It seemed like I was in Super mode. I brushed and showered quickly. I dressed so fast I couldn’t see the clothes I put on (thank goodness I’d picked out all my clothes the night before). I dumped my bowl of Raisin Bran on the counter so it’d be easier to extract the raisins. I left the house so fast I couldn’t tell which one of my parents bid me farewell. This was definitely one of the few days that I couldn’t wait to get to school.


Going to school early means that no one is there once you actually arrive. That was actually kind of cool. Since I’d come a full twenty minutes earlier than I usually do, I had some quiet time.


I was just so excited! This would be the turning point in my dull pre-teen life. The part that made all the other things I’ve seen and done pale in comparison. Wait, they didn’t pale. They completely and utterly blanched! Nothing before this could even think to succeed the awesomeness of my near future, my acceptance into the popular crowd. I could picture myself ten years from now, taking a bubble bath in a bathtub as big as a room (in a bathroom as big as two rooms), thinking back on this moment and scoffing. I’d be ashamed to think of this as amazing because, as a star, I’d have done things that were much, much cooler.


Sometime while I was fantasizing, someone had come up behind me. I turned, ready to tell Genevieve off. What was her problem? But, thankfully, I recognized the person before I started flapping my mouth. It was Penelope.


“Hey, Penelope,” I said, trying to be impressive. I’d debated over whether or not to inform her of my presence, as she’d been too busy filing her nails.


“Hey, um, what did you say your name was?” She looked up from her filing!


“I never said.” It was to console her for forgetting my name after being in the same grade (and class) for the past seven years or so. “I’m Elaine. You‘re Penelope, right?”


She snickered. “Elaine? That sounds like an old lady’s name.” The response shocked me into silence.


“I like it. And you do, too.”


I looked at the door in time to see Adrianne walking over. I turned back to face Penelope. Penelope stared at her for a moment, then looked at me and smiled.


“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I like it. And don’t call me Penelope. All my friends call me Penny.” Adrianne sat next to me, in Luna’s seat, and Penelope sat next to her.


I beamed at her. Later, I would probably slam my head against something until it either bled or I got a headache. I knew I looked like an idiot. For now, though, I had to suck it up and act as normal as I could. Normal with huge traces of the kind of nonchalance that made everyone want to befriend you, of course.


“Okay, Penny.”


“Let’s get to know each other better. What’s your favorite color, Laney? Can I call you Laney?” Adrianne asked.


“Sure. I like green. It‘s the color of grass, and I love the smell of freshly cut grass. I love pictures of grass with morning dew. Especially when the sun‘s just coming up. It makes it all so beautiful! It looks like the grass is twinkling and sparkling, like a green night sky of stars. It makes me think that there are stars on the ground here with us so we don‘t have to make wishes on the stars above. I‘ve always thought that wishing using the morning dew as your stars would make something come true. They‘re completely different, you know. Night sky stars and the grass. One shows up at night and one shows up at morning. From dawn to dusk, right?” I giggled a bit. Adrianne and Penny were staring at me blankly. I could feel my cheeks start to turn red. When I blushed, even slightly, I knew my whole head turned into a tomato. My red hair did little to change that. I was ranting again.


“…What?” asked Penny. I didn’t trust myself to open my mouth. Thankfully, it was at this time that Luna came in. She was walking and reading again, going for her seat. She almost bumped into Adrianne before she realized that it was occupied.


“That’s my seat,” she said. I envied how easily she could just say that, but also hoped that she wouldn’t look at me. She did. I avoided her eyes and stared at the table, sneaking peeks at what was going on.


“Is your name written on it or something? It’s school property. Besides, we can pick our own seats. Mr. Clemons said so.” Adrianne’s tone sounded a bit pompous and controlling. Luna looked at me again, ready to share a can-you-believe-her eye roll, but I glanced away, embarrassed. Realizing what she might have thought about me avoiding her, I quickly looked back. By then it was too late and I saw her back retreating to Adrianne’s old seat, as far away from me as possible.


I felt extremely bad. I wanted to be both her and Adrianne’s friend, but they seemed to want me to choose. And, honestly, between Luna and Adrianne, I’d have to choose…Was I being mean? I mean, Luna and I had only been friends for about two days. This wasn’t anything like betraying a friend of two years. Wow. Did I say betray? Was I betraying her? That cut me deep. Then Adrianne and Penny started talking to me, Matthew (Matt) joined us, and the pain was forgotten.

~~~Star Guide #6: Never Show Fear


I obviously couldn’t go to the concert in the clothes I wore to school. Previously, I’d thought that, but not when Penny scoffed and said, “Are you wearing that? Tonight?”


Penelope, I know, will be the key component of my success. She was already teaching me lots. I don’t know how I’ve gotten this far in life without her help.


After an half an hour or so of sifting through my closet, I finally decided on a simple shirt and skirt. I tried to be excited about it, but, to tell the truth, I couldn’t be especially happy about clothes. I just hoped that in the future when I modeled for top designers this aversion to the mindset that clothes were everything wouldn’t be too obvious. Impartiality to anything that important (to some people) in the real world was a death sentence.


“I’m leaving now Mom and Dad!” I hollered, slamming the heavy door. I knew that if I’d stayed they would have persuaded me somehow to make me spend another half hour taking pictures to remember my first concert with friends outside the family. Sometimes my parents could be very annoying.


The concert would be outside. It started at eight. I would’ve gotten there on time if I didn’t waste time deciding whether or not to show up. I was glad I did, though. The band had already started playing some kind of alternative rock song and they sounded good. A main crowd huddled at the stage of the band shell. Mini groups were scattered around the field: behind the band shell, by a tree so far away from the band shell that I wondered if they even heard the music, or by the large refreshment table, to name a few hot spots. I was certain that Adrianne, Matt, and Penny would be in one of those mini groups. They seemed too cool to be a part of the people by the stage. I took a deep breath, then calmly walked toward the one by the tree. They seemed so uncaring and cool they must know Adrianne.


I came up to them, already extremely nervous. I would have pinched or slapped myself to prepare my mind because, frankly, it would have looked a little strange to the group. Anyway, I was already twitching uncontrollably. I could feel it.


“Um—” twitch “—d-do you—” twitch “—ha-have you—” twitch “—ssseen—” twitch “m-m-m-m-my—” twitch “friends?”

Although it was horribly embarrassing, I could tell the twitching played a main part in getting them to look at me. At first, they hadn’t spared me a glance, but then when one of them looked and—twitch—they stared. This staring caused the others to look, also.

“Do they have names?” One said slowly. I wondered if she thought I was strange.

“Adrianne—” twitch “—Clark.” I didn’t dare say any more. My eye twitch was obstructing my ability to speak.

“I haven’t seen her…” She was still speaking slowly. She looked around at her friends. “Have you guys?” They all either shook their heads or said no. I was still twitching. “Maybe she’s still around here.”

“Th—” twitch “—thank you.” I quickly shuffled away to check the other groups.

After a long while of fruitless searching I finally accepted that Adrianne, Matt, and Penny weren’t there. I’d even checked the crowd by the stage. I’d tapped on nearly every shoulder, and none of the faces who turned to look at me were theirs. So I decided to call it quits. My eye was still twitching and now it was aching. I think I pulled an eye muscle.

I ran home, hoping the wind would stop my eye. I went straight to my room, ignoring what Mom and Dad said. I fell facedown onto my bed so that I couldn’t see Zazou. Like that, I fell asleep.

~~~Star Guide #7: Mysteries Are Only Worthwhile When You’re The Mysterious One

I groggily picked my head up from my pillow. I didn’t want to get up. I knew that, if I did, I would go to school. Once I got to school, I would see either Adrianne, Penny, or Matt. If I saw one of them, I would talk to them. The first thing out of my mouth would be Where were you last night?! like I was their mother.

Did celebrities care when people didn’t show up? Did they feel lonely? Probably not. They’re famous. They have so many friends. They would never feel alone. They would always be great. They’d always be social. Social flutter flies. That’s what they were. Besides, since everyone wanted to be their friend, they’d never get stood up.

Stood up. Was that what had happened? Had my new friends stood me up?

“Mom!” I called. “Can I skip school today?” I waited a while, but Mom didn’t answer. “Dad!” I called. “Can I skip school today?”

“Sure, whatever,” I heard him mumble, then he went back to sleep. I did, too.

I woke up again about three minutes later. I immediately went downstairs for food. As I was opening the fridge for milk, I noticed a note that hadn’t been there before. It was from mom and dad saying they’d gone to work. This was strange. We’d never left notes for each other before, mainly because we didn’t need them. Everything we had to say, we said it face to face. I guess they’d figured that I needed to sleep and cool my head.

Once I was done with the bran half, I gathered all the raisins in my hand. I stared at it blankly. Usually, I would be eating them while walking to school, but I would’ve done that earlier. It would be weird to eat them at the same place I ate my cereal. To solve this, I got up and started pacing around the kitchen.

I think my main problem was that it was a weekday and I knew it. On the weekends, there was a major difference. I always woke up late, no matter how early I went to bed. On the weekdays, I had to go to bed early or wake up almost late, leaving me to rush and dash. If there was no school on a weekday, or school or some other early event on a weekend, my whole anatomy got messed up and I’d wake up at the crack of dawn, get out of bed, brush, shower, dress, and eat. The weirdest thing about this is that I did it all half-asleep, so, after I ate my last raisin, I would wake up like I’d been under some kind of spell with no memory of how I’d gotten to where I was. If there wasn’t any more Raisin Bran, I would not wake up until noon.

I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d never had so much time alone before. Should I eat everything? We always had something good to eat. A stomachache could result from that, though, and barfing out food wasn’t very high on my to-do list. I could play video games…except we had none. It seemed like the only thing to do was to watch mind-numbing television for five hours. I went to the den to do just that.

When you’re in front of a television, time goes by very fast. In matters of hours, ten thirty-minute shows can go by in a blink. Five hour-long specials can go just as fast. And movies are over before you know it. I watched a Beyond Beliefs marathon. Before long, it was almost eleven. School was almost over and my parents were almost home. They came home early on Fridays. I felt that I couldn’t spend the whole day in my house, so I made myself a sandwich and left.

I was going to the Benson Ford. I hadn’t been there in days. It was weird to go so long without walking or running there when it used to be my base of operations. My secret hideout. I was actually kind of afraid to go back. In a way, I kind of betrayed it. Would it take me back?

It’s silly to worry about thing like that. Was I going crazy? When I got there I had a baby in one arm and a camera in the other very quickly. I stayed there for a bit before I went home. I got there minutes before Mom burst in, annoyed.

“Oh, la vache!” she said. I knew then and there that her day had not gone very well. Whenever she started talking about cows (which is what la vache is), she was not happy. It didn’t get much better.

“Mon Dieu! My God!” She went to the den. Dad came in behind her looking equally angry. I followed them.

“What happened?” I asked.

“They came back!” shouted Mom. “That rich couple!”

“They asked us to cater their formal meeting with their daughter.” He could keep calm longer than Mom could.

“What’s so bad about that?”

“We do not cater! We do not cater to people who request in such a rude way!”

“How did they ask you?”

“Quote: with such a mediocre business such as this, you must have enough free time to cater to the banquet we will be holding in three weeks to formally reintroduce our daughter to us. Unquote,” Dad said. Mom screeched like a banshee. I could tell it angered her even to hear it a second time. She prided herself on her successful restaurant.

“…Did you accept?”

“Bien sûr! Of course!” exclaimed my mother sarcastically. “At the time, your father thought the best choice was to accept!” She threw her hands up in the air, furious.

“If they even see the feast you’ll whip up for them, their minds would change and they’d be worshipping the ground you walk on,” Dad replied soothingly. “You love to cook. And you’re the best at it. They’ll be blown away.”

“Mom, I could help. I don’t mind catering. It sounds cool. It’ll be new. You and Dad could crash the party and sneer at them once they taste a bit of heaven.” That cracked a smile on my mom’s face.

“I guess this could work,” she reasoned.

“No, you know this will work.” I would beat myself up over that motivational speaker line later.

“Oui. And I also know that it’s way past lunchtime. Did you eat anything? I can hear your growling from here. I’ll go make something.” She got up to leave.

It was just me and Dad. I turned on the television.

“What will she do next week when you’re cooking everything?” I pondered out loud. Dad smiled at me.

“She would relax. Which is just what she needs. There’s no way I’m going to cook for that party. They’ll all probably die of food poisoning or something later. Cooking at home is the best I can do,” he exaggerated.

Mom and Dad like to cook. The difference is, Mom is very good at it. Beyond Beliefs was over and now the Twilight Zone was on.

~~~

At six o’clock I left the house. Mom had already simmered down a lot by then and, since Dad was asleep, we both decided it would be better if I left the house so her creative juices could flow freely. She wanted some quiet time to go over her game plan. I was happy to go.

It was getting dark quickly and I didn’t really have any destination in mind. I just wanted to walk around. So that’s what I did. I just walked around aimlessly.

All of a sudden, I found myself in Mrs. Forbes yard. I looked up at her house. It looked huge and foreboding. It looked even bigger compared to the noticeably smaller houses around it. I wondered how Mrs. Forbes had spent such a long time living there. Everyone thought she would give up the large house for a smaller, quaint cottage or one story house tomorrow. When tomorrow came and she was still in that mansion, they bet on the next day. It wasn’t that everyone wanted her to leave, it was just that she was losing them a lot of money. In spite of all the losses, much more than half the town kept up that idea. I hoped she wouldn’t leave any time soon.

Surprisingly, I was not the only person out for a walk. I noticed another person walking, but they were ahead of me and getting further and further away. I watched them go, not eager to follow any time soon. Suddenly, the person turned and started walking towards me. Naturally, I did what any normal person would do. I jumped into the bushes.

Fortunately, the late night walker didn’t see or hear me. There was a light on in a nearby house that illuminated a part of the street. When the person passed it, I realized it was a girl. She looked around my age, except she wore this explosive dress. It was all poofy and striped with pink, red, purple, and white. She had a ridiculous huge yellow bow on the back of her head. Her white-blonde hair cascaded down her back.

It all looked very strange to me. She looked very familiar and I felt like I should know her, but she walked out of the light when I thought I almost remembered her. I couldn’t help but stare. No one I knew dressed so ridiculously. And yet the feeling that I knew her didn’t go away. As I watched her disappear, I tried to remember.

No luck. My interest in this local stranger left a few seconds after I couldn’t see her anymore. I soon forgot all about her and set I off a-wandering once more. This time my feet led me back home through a long, winding route.

I was shocked to see my walk had taken two hours. Mother was not happy, but she kept it to herself for the most part.

“I’m a little bit perturbed at you right now,” was what she’d told me when she heard me close the door. I was a little bit creeped out because I heard her voice but she wasn’t there. She was in the kitchen cooking dinner.

“I’m sorry,” I answered. “I’ll get Dad.”

“No need. He said he’s not hungry. It’ll be just us tonight.”

Mom asked me how my day had gone. I said it was fine. I told her about the known stranger I’d seen. She seemed interested but not worried. There weren’t many people we didn’t know. Those that we didn’t know, someone else knew. No one could go undetected for long.

We ate dinner and I went upstairs to sleep. Life was looking pretty good. Then I remembered what had happened on Thursday and couldn’t sleep until midnight.

- - - - -Star Guide #8: Avoid All Unfortunate Encounters

Six o’clock A.M.

That was when I woke up. I sat up in my bed at exactly that time. This happened every day. I like to think of it as a strong inner clock that would never make me late to appointments or press conferences or late night appearances on shows that would no doubt be begging me to show up to.

I woke up for a second time sitting at the table, my hand cupped as if it had held something. Yes, this happened every weekend.

Now it was 6:45. In a spur of the moment, I decided it would be a great idea to go jogging, so I okayed it with my parents via loud shouting and left. I jogged out of the house and down the street. I jogged up the road and down the road. I kept jogging until I came to a forest area. There were all kinds of dirt paths for hikers.

I half expected the girl from last night to pop out of the bushes. Each time leaves started rustling I stopped and listened. Perhaps I was stressed. At every pause (and there were a lot of them) I recalled what I’d seen. Only, each time I remembered it she seemed to change. She got scarier and scarier. Instead of thick golden locks, her hair became stringy and dingy and dragged behind her. Instead of a ridiculous dress, she wore a torn dirty brown dress. When the bow in her hair transformed into a skull, I gave up jogging all together. I turned around and ran back home. I think I was handling this all very well.

When I got home I realized I’d been out for twenty minutes. Mom and Dad had left for the restaurant. They didn’t leave a note this time, which was fine with me. Rather than waste time worrying about what to do, I walked out the door and went straight to the Benson Ford without a second thought.

It was peaceful because almost no one was there. The people that were stood or sat a ways off, under a tree or further into the hikers’ paths, out of sight if I sat so the trees made them disappear. It was very peaceful to just sit in my special spot that overlooked the lake. It made me happy when my life was taking me for a roller coaster ride. Sometimes I was happy, then I was sad, then I was happy again. I wished my life would get stuck on happy.

The thought occurred to me that, if I was always happy, I would be horrifying. I would be that type of perky person that scares everyone. During earthquakes, I smile and grin. During fires, I smile and grin. When the sky falls, I smile and I grin. They were all pretty chilling scenes. I laughed.

I’d been watching the waters for a while before I remembered Mrs. Forbes. Once I remembered her, I jumped up. Bad idea.

The jump unsteadied me. I immediately lost my balance and I started waving back and forth uneasily. This terrified me. If I fell forward, I would crash below. Although I was only about three feet up, there were rocks down there, and rocks of any kind hurt. Boulders, pebbles, gravel…even sand could hurt if accurately aimed to the eye. But sand was so not the most important thing here.

Note that all this happened in half a second, and considering that took half a second off from my already short time to consider what to do. I started tilting forward. I wasn’t rocking back anymore. This wasn’t good.

Then I got an idea and knew exactly what to do. I almost smacked myself in the forehead for not thinking of it earlier but that would either propel me backward and make me slide down or just give me a headache. Also, the movement could make me fall faster. I took a quick breath and bent my knees slightly because I was afraid of falling headfirst. I jumped back, throwing my heels out in front of me.

This didn’t work exactly how I’d planned. Instead of landing on my feet calm and composed, I fell backwards and hit my head.

“Ow!” I cried, sitting up slowly and touching the growing bump. I heard laughter behind me. Confused, I turned to see who it was.

It was Aubrey. She stood behind me, laughing. She had on her trademark hat and mirrored sunglasses, but her face looked different. Her face, though, was very emotional. She was laughing so hard she doubled over.

Watching her, at first I was shocked she could smile, much less laugh. Then it sunk in that she was laughing at me and that made me a little bit perturbed. Scratch that. It made me a big bit perturbed. God forbid, I got angry.

“Are you done yet?” I asked sarcastically. The annoyance in my tone was clear.

She kept laughing, but held up a finger to say “in a minute”. I turned toward her (relatively far from the edge), arms crossed. Finally, she stopped. When she did, the grin dropped off her face and it was suddenly as blank as I’d always seen her. It went so smoothly I decided it must be practiced. I snickered, wondering if she practiced in front of the mirror each day.

“What are you laughing at?” she snapped. Her mouth barely moved and the anger was only in her eyes. I fell back but caught myself just in time. I was a little bit more perturbed and slightly uneasy when one of the hands I was leaning on almost touched the edge. I quickly stood up and walked further from the end. I noticed that Aubrey didn’t once offer me her hand to help me up.

“N-N-Nothing,” I replied. I did not like my stammer. I would be a little bit perturbed by it, too, if all this perturbing wasn’t irritating me. “What did you come here for? How did you know I was here?”

“Mrs. Forbes was wondering where you were.” That said, she spun her heel and was walking in the opposite direction in one smooth, cool motion. I couldn’t help it. I sulked for a while after she left. How could Aubrey Clark, probably the weirdest person in the whole world, be cooler than me? Did that mean I was the weirdest?

Thinking that way was depressing. I shook my head briefly to shake the bad mojo out and started off after her.

~~~

Mrs. Forbes was happy to see me. Aubrey must have ran all the way because she was there long before I came to the door. She’d been standing in the doorway, tapping her foot impatiently. When I finally appeared she reached out and grabbed me. After pulling me in, she shut the door and disappeared upstairs.

“I’m so glad you’re here! I bought more seeds in the city.” Like an overexcited kid, she held up packets of seeds. There were tons of them. I was puzzled. Why would she buy so much? We hadn’t even started weeding. But I smiled at her and let her lead me to the backyard.

I headed for the tool shed without her having to ask me. I wanted to see what was still in there. Astonishingly, nothing was particularly ancient-looking. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising, though, given that the tool shed was bigger than my room.

Everything was nice and neat. A pile of shovels were stacked on top of each other lay beside a pile of rakes stacked in the same fashion. Smaller items like gardening spades and gardening forks had their own shelves. There were only two lawn mowers, one having the rusty look I’d expected everything to have while the other being bright red yet dusty.

I stopped looking around and found the gardening gloves very quickly. There were ten pairs of the same, tough brand that my mother liked. I picked out two pairs. A minor dust cloud engulfed me. I was so jumpy today that I nearly ran out screaming, but I was too busy coughing. I hurried out of there nonetheless.

“I’ve got them,” I called to Mrs. Forbes, holding out a pair in each hand. She smiled at me. We looked at the yard together. I could tell that there was a lot of work to be done. Mrs. Forbes didn‘t seem to mind. I think it had to do with something Dad had once said about how once you‘re old you‘re in no hurry. “Well, where do we start?”

We ended up starting by the backyard door and working our way out. It was slow work. Mrs. Forbes didn’t know that the best way to pull out weeds was by the roots, at the bottom and not the top. Once that fact had been established, I realized that my mom used hand rakes or gardening forks to loosen up the roots so the job would get done faster. So I stopped work to get some. Mrs. Forbes stopped to rest. It was really sunny.

It must’ve taken a long time to weed her huge yard but it felt like it was all done too soon. And yet, when I looked up after we were done, the sun was remarkably lower in the sky. When we’d started out it was close to its highest point.

“So much time has passed,” Mrs. Forbes said, exhausted. “Come on in. I’ll get you something to drink.” We went inside.

Mrs. Forbes poured me a glass of Hawaiian Punch and gave me a cookie. She actually had a cookie jar. I’d thought it was just a beautiful decorative tortoise and hare, but I found out it held cookies soon enough. She brought it to the kitchen table and opened it. Immediately upon her lifting the tortoise’s shell steam came out.

There used to be a cookie jar at my house, but then my parents had realized that nothing could stop a vertically challenged three year old from retrieving cookies. According to them, I’d had a nose like a bloodhound, eyes like a bird’s, and ears like a bat’s when sweets were involved. No matter where they kept the jar I’d seek it out after lulling them into a false sense of security and feast on the contents. I dimly recall listening to adults speak when they thought I didn’t understand them. This history of spy training would have looked good on my Hollywood résumé but, sadly, my sleuthing skills had disappeared as I grew older.

To summarize, we used to have a cookie jar. We do not now.

The sugar cookies had that just-out-of-the-oven moistness. They were warm and tasty. I ate more than one. Mrs. Forbes finally just got a large dinner plate and stacked some onto it. Since they were individually wrapped in plastic, this was more or less hygienic. Neither of us thought to rinse our sweaty hands. I just wiped mine on my shirt. Mrs. Forbes, being the aristocratic lady she was, elegantly wiped hers off with a towel.

She chuckled. “Do you like them?” She returned the cookie jar to the counter.

“Yes I do!” I exclaimed, uncovering half of my fifth cookie and stuffing it into my mouth.

“Aubrey makes them. She makes a lot of things. She’s very creative.”

I almost spit out the mouthful. It was a waste to spit out perfectly good food. “Aubrey did this?” I croaked out after swallowing.

“Of course she did,” Mrs. Forbes took a sip of her drink. “She’s quite the cook, that one. She’s quite a lot of things. She takes an interest in just about everything. Sewing, knitting, crocheting—”

“She likes to make clothes?” I asked, quite disinterested.

“Oh, yes!” Mrs. Forbes denied. “She makes some of her own clothes. Like that hat she wears, she made it herself. I taught her how. That is, me and the books in the basement. She’s always learning something from all those how-to books. I guess it’s good for her. It’s better than letting them lie there catching dust. She’s learned lots of things, like how to start a fire and how digital cameras work.”

Perhaps I should have been jealous, but I wasn’t. I reckon that was because with all the free time on her hands it would’ve been strange if Aubrey hadn’t done anything productive. It sounded to me like she read encyclopedias. That sounded about right. Sure, what she learned was fascinating, but I wouldn’t read an encyclopedia for anything. Besides, my schedule was booked between eating, sleeping, and visiting the Benson Ford.

“In fact, let’s not just talk about her. Invite her up. Or down. She’ll either be in one of the basements or upstairs working a machine.”

I really didn’t want to have to go and retrieve Aubrey. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to (though I didn’t) but why would she talk to me? She herself had said that she hated me. Why would she come to the kitchen just so we could pester her about her skills?

I voiced my thoughts. “I don’t think she’ll want to,” I said.

“Nonsense. She’ll be wanting to make a new friend. You‘re perfect material. You‘ll be best friends in no time at all.”

My response to that was silence. At least, that was my outer response. Inside, I was worried Mrs. Forbes was getting Alzheimer’s or going senile. Was she going deaf? She had been right there next to Aubrey when Aubrey Clark said she hated me. If I heard it, why hadn’t she?

I refused to let my worries cloud my face. If there was something wrong with Mrs. Forbes, it would be rude to point it out so obviously. The fact that I would be perfect material to be in the running of NOT being Aubrey Clark’s best friend would have to stay between Aubrey Clark and I. Mrs. Forbes shouldn’t have to think of such trivial details.

I, Elaine Morris, do solemnly swear to aide the Mrs. Forbes in question without alerting her of Aubrey Clark’s difficulties.

And solemnly, I left the kitchen and ran up the stairs.

~~~

Mrs. Forbes had four floors above ground, and two floors that I know of below. The house was bigger than I thought, each enormous bedroom with its own bathroom, each storage room themed. It seemed the whole mansion was decorated and each room in general had a theme. It was hard to believe that they were all in one place. They made it seem so much like each room was an alternate universe.

For starters, the first room I opened was pink. It had many stuffed animals lying around on the canopy bed and against the wallpaper with the white crowns on a pink background. The doors were plain and pink. The pillows looked soft. They were white, like regular pillows are, but wore pillow covers with the same design as the walls, but inversed so they were pink crowns on a white background. Three French windows were scattered about the room: by the head of the bed and in-between the bathroom and closet doors. There was even a pink vanity that stood on elegant, pale pink legs.

As expected, I shut it abruptly. After that first room I was wary of any other I opened. The next one turned out to be very plain. The main colors were tan and white. There was a bed decorated only in white sheets. Only one completely white pillow was on it. The bed sat on a white frame without a head board. From where I stood in the doorway I could see the closet wasn’t the average closet but a closet organizer, with different shelves and hooks and drawers for different things.

I closed this door more calmly. In this calm, I noticed there was a sign on the door. It read, SIMPLE. I found my way back to the pink room and there was actually a sign on it, too. It read, PINK PRINCESS.

This discovery was remarkable. Now I passed each room, looking at the sign and wondering what was behind it. I saw titles like GOTHIC FASHION, WILD WEST, and IN SPACE. There was only one room, though, that I stared at for five minutes. The sign on its door said, CELEBRITY. That caught my attention right away. I longed to open it, but I’d already spent a lot of time wandering the second floor. Mrs. Forbes would be getting impatient. And yet, no matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t move my feet. My eyes stayed trained on that sign. My mind kept wondering about what the room would be like.

“Hey.” It was Aubrey’s voice. It snapped me out of my trance. I turned to her, wide-eyed.

“Y-Y-Y-Y-Yes?” I answered.

“What are you doing up here?”

“M-M-Mrs. Forbes t-t-told me to g-g-get you. S-S-S-So we c-could talk.”

Aubrey didn’t answer. She looked past me, at the CELEBRITY room. I didn’t look back. I was afraid that I’d open it. Opening all the doors was invading privacy. In someone else’s house their personal bubble was the whole building.

“She would tell you that she likes to decorate if you asked about her house.” Aubrey suddenly smiled. “But the truth is that she’s a witch. A good witch. When I first knocked on her door a few years ago that’s what she told me. This house is magic and so is she.”

“Okay,” I said. I could see why people avoided Aubrey. She seemed to notice my noticing and stopped talking. She silently led me back to the stairs that went down to the first floor. As soon as we got there she headed for the basement stairwell. I froze, wondering if I should follow or if I should go back to Mrs. Forbes. Finally, against my better judgment, I went down after her.

The walk down was just as dark and eerie as the first time I went down, partly because I couldn’t find the light switch Mrs. Forbes had used, partly because Aubrey was somewhere down there. I didn’t know which one I was scared of more; the basement or Aubrey Clark?

Once I got to the landing I got confused. Had she gone into the nonfiction room? Or had she continued down? I heard footsteps. That was not cool. It was still very dim and creepy. Footsteps in dark places, even though they were down the stairs, frightened me. Even though it was obviously Aubrey. I headed down the stairs after her.

It seemed to take as long to get to the second basement from the first basement as it took to get to the first basement from the first floor. Actually, it seemed to take longer. By the time I reached the bottom I was slightly out of breath. Now fear wasn’t a problem because Aubrey had kindly left open the door. Light poured in from the room into the stairway. When I stepped through the doorway, I wasn’t surprised to see it looked exactly like the room above except instead of numbers the bookshelves had letters on the sides, for the authors.

I found Aubrey on a couch in one of the resting areas. She had a stack of books laid out on the table in front of them and was reading one of them. Apparently she saw me because she raised the book up so I could see the cover. Or maybe she did it so she didn’t have to look at me. It was a beautiful painting or oil pastel drawing. It showed a little boy and a little girl sitting in a sandbox playing with shovels and pails. The background was a regular playground. But the picture was split so that you could see underneath. Underground there were two rats, one with a bow on its head. They looked harmless and kind of cute. They sat in a sandbox, too, except sand didn’t fill it up. It looked like gravel. The background was dark but you could make out a tire swing. I spent so much time admiring the cover that I didn’t read the title before Aubrey marked her place with a bookmark and set it down on the table beside the stack of books. She picked up a book from the top of the pile and started sifting through it.

I waited. She didn’t pay any attention to me. I waited some more. She was still flipping the pages. It felt like I’d been waiting forever, but when I looked at the analog clock on the wall I could tell only a few minutes had passed. I waited until a few more minutes had passed before speaking.

“Can I ask you something?” I asked, delighted to find my stutter gone.

“You just did.” She stared at the pages.

“Then can I ask you another question after this one?”

I saw her smile briefly. “Knock yourself out.”

I paused to think of a question to ask. I found that there was really only one thing I wanted to say. “Why are you so weird?”

She didn’t answer for a while. I looked at the clock. One minute passed. Two. Three. Four. “Why are you so abnormal?”

“I’m normal!” I protested.

“Oh yeah? As normal as Adrianne? She’s not normal either. No one’s normal. Everyone’s so different it’s near impossible to pin one common trait.”

I thought about that. Of the people in the class, who was the same? Really, only Adrianne, Matt, and Penny. They were only similar in the way that they were friends and they were popular. Adrianne was a leader. Matt was a joker. Penny was a whiner. Vince was spacey. Genevieve was a snob. Luna was a bookworm, for lack of a better word. And I…What was I?

“A wannabe,” said Aubrey, as if finishing my thought. She was looking at me now. “You want to be just like Adrianne. You want to be popular. You want to be beautiful. You want friends, don’t you? That’s how you’re a wannabe. You want to be so much but you’re only you.”

Despite the fact that I knew these were all lies, I felt hurt. She didn’t even know me. She had no reason to insult me. I was better than that. Some other part of my mind viewed this all as training. Some day, when I became rich and famous, I would have to deal with people who either I didn’t like or didn’t like me for whatever reason. It would be a struggle with challenges that would make many people give up, but I would prevail and they would end up adoring me like my thousands of fans. This was the moment that I decided to make Aubrey Bentley Clark my friend.

“No. I don’t want to be like Adrianne. I want to be better. I don’t want friends. I want fans. I want drama and excitement! I want to get out of this small town for new heights!” I twirled around the couch she sat on. I admit I got slightly carried away. On my eighth or ninth full circle my foot caught the edge of the couch and I fell into the soft and comfy seat.

My ankle throbbed but it didn’t really matter much to me. What got most of my attention was Aubrey. She was laughing again, like she’d laughed when I had almost fell by the Benson Ford. It was very strange. She laughed so hard that the book in her lap dropped to the floor.

“You’re pretty interesting,” she choked out.

“That’s what Mrs. Forbes said,” I replied. I started laughing too.

We laughed together for awhile. I guess we were there so long Mrs. Forbes decided to come looking for us herself. She smiled as she set down the tray of cookies and juice she was carrying.

“I see you two have become great friends,” she said, pouring Hawaiian Punch into three cups. The plate of cookies was stacked high. She sat on the couch opposite the one Aubrey and I sat in. It occurred to me that these little areas could be tea rooms. Was there a difference between a sitting room and a tea room? I mean, the British do love their tea. So why were we drinking juice?

Aubrey and I glanced at each other. Actually, I glanced at my reflection in her mirrored sunglasses. I have no idea what she was looking at, but she was turned towards me so I guess it was okay to assume. “No,” Aubrey said. “Not really.” It was understandable and expected. It would be hard for her to not hate me just because we laughed together. I wouldn’t give up. Mrs. Forbes smiled at me. We made small talk as we ate cookies and drank juice until it was time for me to go. Aubrey stayed behind with Mrs. Forbes. She seemed in no hurry.

That night Mom and Dad came home after I fell asleep. They called me to say that they would stay late at the restaurant. It didn’t bother me. They would need to. Mom only had two weeks to wow that snooty rich couple.

- - - - -Star Guide #9: Keep All Your Lies Straight

Yesterday I was over at Mrs. Forbes’s again. Aubrey was, too. We’d progressed to semi-friendly almost-friends, and so I woke up in high spirits. Aubrey was interesting. She even helped us plant the seeds Mrs. Forbes had bought. While we worked, we learned more about each other, like Aubrey actually did make her own clothes. Something really odd, though, was that Mrs. Forbes was a major metal fan. She listened to screamo music through headphones most of the time we were planting and fertilizing.

I was in high spirits. I had so many friends now! There was Adrianne, Matt, Penny, Luna, Mrs. Forbes, and Aubrey! And to think just two weeks ago I was only “acquaintances” with everyone. Last week, I’d made lots of them. First Luna after starting to befriend Adrianne and them. Then Adrianne and her friends. It was a little mean how they’d ignored Luna, but I’m sure that all my friends would get used to each other. I was excited to have an elderly friend. Mrs. Forbes was someone who had lived a long life. She looked around sixty or seventy. She was bound to be chop full of wisdom and advice. My life would be so cool! I could just picture sitting in her kitchen after school and telling her about my fabulous day. She would berate me for being carefree and advise me on life or death situations, like whether or not I should dye my hair green.

In my fantasies, Aubrey was excluded. As soon as I started thinking about how she wasn’t there, I started thinking about her. Friend or no, she was still weird. I couldn’t be seen with her. Adrianne probably felt very uncomfortable around her. There was no way Adrianne could ever warm up to her if she couldn’t do it before. They were twin sisters. They’d spent at least twelve years in the same household.

Frankly, I realized, there was no way Adrianne could know I was friends with Aubrey. I stopped chewing my cereal so I could think better. The sudden epiphany made me understand that I couldn’t be friends with Aubrey, or at least not 24/7. I was too proud of my pride to give up my intention of becoming best friends. I concluded that I would be friends with Aubrey whenever Adrianne was not around. This plan was foolproof. Aubrey barely talked to me in class anyway.

I reached school assured that my life from now on was set. My spirits soared even higher to see that no one was in the classroom again. I had time to think. Happily, I skipped to my seat. I hummed the lullaby I think my mom used to sing to me, Frère Jacques. Or maybe I was being biased, assuming all French people sang it. It was possibly a front, just like French fries and fortune cookies. I didn’t remember most of my childhood.

“So you’re not sick,” I heard someone say. I turned to see Genevieve at the door. “What’s that horrible noise? Is it you singing? Could you please stop that insufferable racket? Some of us still require our eardrums in perfect condition.”

“Oh, har har Genevieve. When I get my Grammy award, you will not be on the list of people to thank,” I retorted.

“Why thank you. I’d love to be spared the horror of a world where you can get ahead with such a terrible voice.”

“Enough wisecracks. You’re bringing me down.”

“Because pigs will fly the day someone drags the drama queen of the century off her high horse,” she answered satirically.

“Very funny. Cain, what’s wrong with you today? You’re worse than usual,” I commented, annoyed. Genevieve Cain was always a bother, but you quickly learn to read your enemy like a book. Or magazine. She was never this crabby.

Genevieve looked at me. I mean, she really looked. She stared at me for some time, sizing me up like how a broncobuster scrutinizes horses or cattle. It made me regret my inquiry. Now she would actually tell me. Everyone knew questions like “how are you” were always to be answered with a yes even if it was a no. No one wanted to hear your life story. The question was just to be polite, although I didn’t know why I’d ever want to be polite to Genevieve Cain when she was never polite to me. Her mood was genuinely bringing me down. It was so depressing I was feeling a little glum.

“Well, if you must know,” she began. She looked away, staring into space for a while and probably considering whether or not to tell me. I honestly wanted to blurt out, “No I don’t” but I wasn’t so heartless as to kick an animal as horrible as Genevieve (if there even is one) when it’s down.

“If I must know…” I prompted her.

“If you must know, it’s because my parents are back.”

“What?” I was dumbfounded. Genevieve didn’t live with her parents? Who had been her guardian all this time, buying her extravagant clothing and signing permission slips? She wasn’t old enough to live by herself. Besides, it would be very unfair. If she did happen to live all alone I would have to pass that idea by my parents. It was unlikely that they would agree, but…

“They’re never here. In fact, they sent me here because it’s kind of like a boarding school. It’s an island. I’d need an adult’s permission to get on a ferry or plane because there’s no way I’ll swim all the way to the mainland. They’ll always know where I am. There’s also no way that Gramps will let me leave…anyway, it’s but better than staying with them,” she declared, interrupting my thoughts.

“So your parents left you here with your grandparents—”

“Grandpa. Grandma’s been dead since before I was born.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said awkwardly.

“No. I never knew her. It doesn’t matter much to me.”

“Well, as I was saying, your parents left you here with your grandpa because they didn’t want to deal with you?” It was atrocious; so rotten that I could barely even imagine it. Never in my wildest nightmares had my parents or anyone else’s given up on their children. It was wicked beyond belief. It was appalling! Detestable! And it was…familiar.

“Doesn’t that make you kind of like Vince?” I asked, dumbfounded by my own question.

“Huh?” Genevieve was just as puzzled.

“For starters, your parents left you here with your grandpa. His parents left him here with his grandma. The only difference is that he wants them back and you…” I trailed off. When I thought about it, it was kind of selfish of Genevieve to act like this. Vince hadn’t seen his parents in years and he always seemed to be waiting for them to come back. It was really sad how everyone, even him, knew that they wouldn’t return. Genevieve had parents. She had rich ones that cared enough to visit her but she didn’t care for them. I could tell she saw the connection too.

“I guess they left because I’ve never really been a model child. Or citizen for that matter. In the last six places I’ve lived in, we’ve moved because I torched at least one house of someone I hated in every one of those cities. I always got all Fs on my report cards. I messed with the 4th of July fireworks. I bullied everyone! Students, teachers, principals, vice-principals, infants…the list goes on.” She appeared to be in the memories of the past. There was a small smile on her face, remembering the old days. It didn’t fool me. She was dodging my discovery. I didn’t ask about it.

“I bet it does,” I muttered. She gave me the stink-eye. It cheered me up to see that we weren’t buddies yet. It amused me greatly to have an enemy. “So why did they send you to your grandpa? Did they want him to die early from a heart attack or something?” I added, considerably louder.

She looked shocked. “No! Of course not!” she exclaimed as if it was preposterous to think like that. “It’s because when I was a baby I would always stop crying when he would hold me.”

“Maybe he does have a calming effect on you. You haven’t torched my house.”

“Yet.”

That worried me. I opened my mouth to coax out of her exactly what she meant by that, but Adrianne walked in. All my attention immediately went to her, Genevieve forgotten. She didn’t care. She went back to reading her magazine.

“Adrianne, hi!” I called.

“Hello Laney. Are you feeling better?” She sat next to me. Adrianne never yelled or hollered. She always spoke in either a whisper, an inside voice, or a raised voice.

“What?”

“You weren’t here last Friday. You were sick, right?” she smiled gently. I was reminded of the girl from Thursday who’d spoken to me like I was an idiot. “There must be a stomach bug going around. If you still have it, I can’t sit by you today. I can’t afford to get sick.”

“Oh, no, no,” I assured her “I’m not sick.” I never was, I added in my head.

“Okay then.”

“I didn’t see you Thursday.”

“That’s because we weren’t there.” Adrianne immediately covered her mouth with her hand. She didn’t actually touch her face though. She was too graceful for that. It still seemed very fishy. Matt came into the classroom, laughing with Vince. As he almost passed her she grabbed his arm (daintily) and pulled him into the seat beside her.

“Tell her why we weren’t at the concert on Thursday, Matt.”

He glanced at her briefly, then peered at me. “We, um, weren’t at the concert Thursday because, uh…” Penelope and Luna arrived. Luna was reading. I saw Aubrey walking behind her.

“Penny knows. Don’t you? Refresh my memory. Why exactly weren’t we at the concert on Thursday night?”

“Matt, you have a really short memory. Don’t you pay attention at all in life? Your cousin, Zack, got tickets to that place with him and Vince.” She pronounced it as if it wasn’t worth her time explaining. “You called Annie and told her to tell Laney that you couldn’t pass it up. I was over at her house. Annie’s mom asked us to clean her room and we forgot about it. By the time we remembered the concert was over.”

“My room was sparkling clean,” added Adrianne.

It sounded a bit like Penny was a practiced liar. I didn’t believe them completely but I knew I would try. There was no reason for them to ditch me. Mr. Clemons showed up and class started.

“Ah, Elaine!” He smiled at me. “I see you’re back. Were you sick?”

“No, I wasn’t sick. Thanks for worrying,” I replied, exasperated. I’d only missed one day and everyone noticed it. It was because there were so little of us that any one absentee’s empty chair was painfully obvious.

In math, we reviewed how to find the surface areas of 3D objects like cubes and cylinders. Solving for surface area is a kind of complicated method. I find it calming, in a way. Or maybe it was the silence of the room while everyone was working that calmed me. If I really considered the problems, my head was filled with it. There was no room for excessive information, like how the morning had gone. It was on the days that my head could be cleared so easily that I usually finished first. Thus, I was alarmed when Genevieve slid her work across the table to Mr. Clemons before anyone else.

Mr. Clemons didn’t react much to who’d finished. I think he noticed but just didn’t show it. He probably didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Genevieve had only finished first once the whole school year. That one time was on Take Your Kid to Work Day. Only she, Luna, and Aubrey had showed up. It was known that on that day Luna read until class was almost over, then started working. Aubrey stared at someone or something without even touching her paper. Genevieve had to re-do the worksheet three times before it was passable.

“It’s all correct. Good job, Genevieve.” Mr. Clemons handed her the doughnut box. A quick glimpse at all the faces at the round table showed that no one seemed to care, which amazed me. It was like I was the one and only person in the room who thought there was something wrong. I chose to not say anything. If they wanted to act as if this happened everyday, I wouldn’t be the odd one out and begrudge them the peace of mind.

Genevieve smiled at the box, though. Her smile proved that this was an aberrant reality. I still didn’t say anything. This time it was because I didn’t want to ruin her satisfaction. My mind brought up the crazy idea that maybe she finished first because she gave all her attention to the assignment in an effort to ignore what she’d told me earlier. However, even though I didn’t think it was true, if it was accurate in any small way, it made me want to let her smile even more. Who was I to wreck joy?

At the end of class Genevieve passed out the doughnuts. She gave everyone something different than what they routinely ate. She gave Luna and Vince Boston Crème. Penny received a French cruller. Matt was given a glazed doughnut. Aubrey and I got apple cinnamon. Everyone remained calm and impartial up until the moment she presented a powdered jelly-filled one to Adrianne.

She held it out to her. Adrianne glanced at it fleetingly. They made eye contact. They stared at each other unblinking for such a long time Mr. Clemons noticed it. He looked up from sorting his papers and watched, as silent as us. I spotted the distress on his face. I watched the clock. Adrianne and Genevieve smiled at each other. They were fake smiles, which added to the creepy fact that it happened in unison, the moment the hour hand reached the twelve. Class was over. Adrianne took the doughnut.

“Thank you, Genevieve. How did you know I loved jelly?”

“Oh, just a guess. I thought you‘d like it. Your sister seems to, and you are twins after all.”

“Maybe tomorrow I should do some guesswork too and get you something nice.”

“I’ll be looking forward to it.”

The threat was obvious but Adrianne and Genevieve subsequently linked arms like you’d do in a square dance and left the classroom in jerky moves. It was as if they were robots. At the door they made a show of saying goodbye. They went in opposite directions. Adrianne went left and Genevieve went right. I’d venture that even if there wasn’t eventually an exit on either side, they would still part that way and the one who chose the dead end would double back as soon as the other was gone.

“See you tomorrow!” Matt exclaimed, giving us all a start. He left with Vince ambling along behind him. Penny left soon after, saying she had an appointment. Luna left without saying anything. When it was only Aubrey, Mr. Clemons, and I in the room, I shifted my gaze to see her. She was smiling at the door. I realized she was smiling at Adrianne and Genevieve’s episode earlier.

~~~

I didn’t go to Mrs. Forbes that afternoon because I didn’t really feel like it. Before Aubrey left I’d asked her to remind Mrs. Forbes to water her garden. I didn’t go to the Benson Ford, either. I don’t know if I’ll go back now that someone else knows I like to be there. Instead, I went straight home, quietly, so that Mom and Dad didn’t notice. They weren’t in anyway. I went to my room and sat on my bed. There’s no television in my room. I only have a closet, my bed, the dresser by my bed, and the poster of Zazou. It’s soothingly empty. I don’t know why I wanted to be in my room but I don’t care. Maybe it’s because life’s been going so fast and I need to rest before I get carried away by it.

- - - - -Star Guide #10: Your Connections Are Your Everything

In Mr. Clemons’s class today, a project was brought up. For the past two weeks I haven’t spoken to Aubrey. Luna hasn’t spoken to me. I haven’t really noticed. Genevieve hasn’t continued our talk from before. I haven’t cared for that. I’ve had fun being friends with Adrianne, Penny, Matt, and Vince. Penny likes to prattle on and on, as I’ve noticed. It’s okay because much of her chatter has helped me. She’d warned me that the old wool sweater I’d worn on Wednesday, the one my aunt in Wisconsin sent me, was completely uncool. I used to like it, but now I know better. A fashion sense like hers is the key component to greatness. Vince seems to be her opposite. He almost never speaks.

Matt’s a joker. He told me about this prank he played on a ninth grader recently. He’d sent him a very business-like letter that informed the ninth grader that he was the secretary of Mr. John Smith, who had just died. Before he died, “Mr. Smith” had given him a list of a hundred or more people that he felt were important to him. I thought it was a great joke. The funny part was that, to inherit the millions Mr. Smith had made, the people on the list would have to contact a member of Mr. John Smith’s immediate family within 48 hours. And of course, to do that, they would have to look up “Smith, John” in the phone book and call them. The guy went online to find them because the only hint Matt had given him was that they lived in America. So he tried to locate all the Smiths in North and South America, thinking he was so smart. He called so many people that the phone bill sky-rocketed and his parents grounded him for “acting like a nincompoop.”

Adrianne was reserved, like she usually is. She never spoke too much or too little and yet everything she said was important. She had a pompous attitude that made you think she was belittling you, but she was too nice for that. All week she always sat on either side of me. She had probably become my very best friend!

“Because we’ve been learning about communication skills I think it would be nice to go deeper,” Mr. Clemons announced after he took out the tape of the movie we’d been watching. He turned on the lights. “This weekend I want you to try and persuade someone to do something. It can vary between picking a fast food restaurant to eat at or convincing someone that a fortune is wrong. It has to be someone outside of this classroom. I’ll be expecting you all to turn in reports about what you tried to persuade your person to do, how you did it, and whether or not they eventually agree.”

Penny raised her hand. “Can our project be in partners?” I was surprised. She would usually whine about how projects were an infringement upon the child labor laws, except in not so many words. She’d be more likely to say, “I don’t want to do work on the weekends” and do it anyway when told it was a major part of her grade.

“That would be fine, but I would prefer you work by yourself.” He called on Matt next.

“Can the project be in the form of a practical joke?” Matt asked, grinning.

Mr. Clemons looked at him, considering. I guess he decided that Matt wouldn’t do anything too dangerous because he eventually answered, “It can.”

Matt gave Vince a high five. They would probably be partners.

“Since that’s all, I—” Mr. Clemons began.

“Oh! Mr. Clemons! You should say ‘Class dismissed’. It sounds so cool!” I interrupted. He sighed as if impatient with us. But that was impossible. We’d been worse than this all year.

“Alright then. Class dismissed.”

In the hallway, Adrianne confronted me.

“Do you want to be my partner?” she queried.

A stupid grin came on my face. “M-M-Me? I thought you’d be partners with Penny. You know, since you’ve been friends longer. And you’re best friends.”

“I can have multiple best friends. The people I sit with in class are my close circle of friendship…ugh.” We both grimaced at her use of the English language, then laughed at each other. “Besides, I thought it’d be nice to work with you.”

I was so happy! She didn’t only consider me a friend, but a best friend!

“Then I guess I can be your partner.” I tried to not let the joy show in my voice but it was hard, seeing Penny glaring at me from behind Adrianne on the other side of the room.

“Great! Come to my house on Saturday. We’ll get some work done there.” And with that, we said our goodbyes and left. I was officially partners with Adrianne Clark by mutual consent.

~~~

Of course, I went straight to Mrs. Forbes to tell her all about it. When I showed up at her door she wasn’t surprised, but expectant. As if she’d known I’d show up today when I hadn’t come on any other days this week. I’d been afraid she’d reject me for abandoning her, like I’d been with the Benson Ford (I haven’t been there all week either), but she accepted me like I’d been on a trip away for a few days.

“Elaine! Delighted to see you!”

“Hey Mrs. Forbes.”

We went to the garden. I didn’t think any of them would have even sprouted yet but there was a patch of green leaves in the strawberry section. I asked Mrs. Forbes about it.

“That? Well, the plants weren’t blooming. I thought maybe it would be better if I bought the grown plants from the store and planted them here with Aubrey just yesterday. We planned to replace the rest of them during the weekend.” She sounded almost guilty. I laughed. “What is it?”

“It’s not like it’ll be fully grown in a week! It takes longer, like two or three months,” I said, amazed that anyone could be ignorant of that fact. Mr. Forbes started laughing too.

We fertilized and watered the garden. While doing that, I told her about my week. She responded in all the right places with all the right interjections, like “wow” when I told her that Penny had offered to take me shopping with her next Saturday and laughing when I told her some of Matt’s jokes. Time passed too quickly. It was soon time for me dash home.

~~~

When I got home, no one was even a little bit perturbed with me. My parents were too busy fussing about, like they’d been all of both this week and last week. They were nervous and jittery about the fast-approaching banquet. I had no idea why they were so agitated. The big event wouldn’t happen for another week. It was scheduled on Friday. Not this Friday, but next Friday. A whole seven days away, six if you get technical about it. Last week, when they’d been slightly less chaotic, I still couldn’t understand their tension. Last week the party wouldn’t happen for fourteen days. Practically half a month away. Sometimes grown-ups truly astonished me, what with their dramatizing. They exaggerated everything!

“Elaine! How can you be so calm? It’s so close! A minute, really! Un petit minute!” She was speaking in a very loud voice, practically yelling. Although she sat on the couch she seemed very violent. Her hand, the one that was drawing the designs for the food at the feast, was quivering disturbingly. The lines of the sketch showed no errors, though. It was drawn as if with a steady hand, when the hand that held it was most definitely not. That coupled with the fact that I was sure her extra pointy pencil was glinting sharply as if it saw me had me stand a few feet away from her.

Dad was the one running around. He alternated from sitting beside her to standing up and doing something. He cleaned the dishes, but once those were done he had nothing to do. For a while he tried to coerce me to eat again but I wasn’t hungry. With that failure, he did the laundry, which was okay because it was almost the end of the week anyway. He vacuumed the house. He scrubbed the bathrooms. He even went outside to sweep the walk that led to the house steps. All the while he tried to bribe me to make a mess, even offering me money at one point.

As it was, it was very entertaining to see my parents like this.

- - - - -Star Guide #11: Be Unforgettable

Before I regained consciousness, I was already dressed, fed, and on the way to Adrianne’s house. I left my parents at home, quick to leave them in their disquieting state.

Once I reached my destination, I forgot about the situation at home. I stared at the doorbell. Should I ring it? Or should I knock on the door? Would she be home? It was somewhere around seven in the morning, just like a weekday. She wouldn’t be expecting me so early. She’d think I was weird for coming so soon. I stood there, my hand hovering about the doorbell. I was frozen in both mind and body. Then the door opened.

“Laney! I was waiting for you! I’m glad you’re here. I was worried you’d come around in the afternoon.” Adrianne smiled at me. “Come in, come in.”

Compared to Mrs. Forbes’s house, Adrianne’s wasn’t that great. But Mrs. Forbes’s house had an unreal quality, partly because of the size, partly because of the rooms on the upper floors. Adrianne’s house had a more majestic feel, with glass chandeliers and bay windows. Most of the furniture was either white or creamy. I found it strange that the wooden floor wasn’t carpeted in the same color.

“Do I take off my shoes?” I asked.

“I think my mom would like it better if you do. She’s a neat freak. She’ll work herself to death one day cleaning,” Adrianne said sarcastically. She laughed.

“My dad’s a neat freak too. Kind of. He cleans in a frenzy whenever he’s nervous.” I could relate, given how well last night had gone.

“Your parents own that restaurant, right?” she observed, going up the stairs.

“Yeah,” I replied. I knew what she was talking about. For the most part. Her question could be morphed into an inquiry of whether or not my parents owned a restaurant, whereas as that restaurant was completely unknown to me. But I wasn’t going to let her know that.

“Annie?” I heard a woman’s voice call out before we reached the second floor. “Is that your friend?” Soon the woman came from the direction of what was probably the kitchen. I assumed she was Adrianne’s mom. I remembered her from the annual picnics. She was pretty even with the wrinkles on her face. Though her brownish hair was graying, you could still see that it used to be the same red as Adrianne and Aubrey’s. It looked just as silky. Her skin was even the same delicate color as theirs, much different from Mrs. Forbes’s. Her eyes, though, were brown. Adrianne’s and Aubrey’s were blue. She wiped her fragile-looking hands on a dishcloth. I guessed that she’d been cleaning the dishes.

“Yes, mom,” Adrianne answered, sounding a bit exasperated. It wasn’t like her mom annoyed her. It sounded more like she didn’t want her mother to embarrass her and so she was trying to avoid her.

“That’s wonderful!” her mom turned her attention to me, looking me over. When she saw my eyes, she sucked in her breath. A little gasp. It was common to anyone who met me for the first time, although this wasn’t our first time meeting. She’d probably forgotten me, but my eyes reminded her. My eyes were my redeeming quality. Golden eyes aren’t very common, especially when my parents’ eyes were hazel and green.

“You’re the Morris’ kid. Elaine! I remember you!”

“It’s nice to see you again, Mrs. Clark,” I politely responded.

“It’s a pleasure to see you again, too. Go on upstairs. I’ll bring up some snacks later.”

Adrianne led me to her room. Once the door was shut, she spoke, sure that her mom couldn’t hear her.

“She’ll bring up a tray of that instant lemonade. The powdered kind where you just have to add water. The snack will definitely be the chocolate chip muffins we bought in the store. She’ll stick them in the microwave and bring it upstairs on a plate as if she made them. She’s always doing that. She’s no-good as a cook. Sit down wherever.”

I was startled by the indifference on her face. I wondered if she was apathetic toward her mother. At that moment she looked exactly like Aubrey, which was due to them being identical twins. Even though I knew this, her uncanny resemblance to her sister awed me. With her sarcastic comments about their mom (I bet Aubrey would say the same things since she’s the satirical one) and her expression of disdain, it was like I was with Aubrey, except she had better hair. I happened to mention this to her.

Adrianne’s expression grew cold. It wasn’t anything I’d ever even seen on Aubrey’s face. Where Aubrey was always impassive and impartial, at the moment Adrianne was chilling. Her glare was murderous. If looks could kill I knew I’d be dismembered by now. I heard a low animalistic snarl.

“A-A-Adrianne?” I attempted to bring her back from whatever la-la land she was in.

“Yes?” In a blink, her whole countenance changed. She adopted a look of innocence and I could hardly believe that, just a second before, she’d appeared so rapacious any word that probably came from her throat would’ve been growled.

“Why don’t we get to work. Did you choose anyone?” I tried to forget what I’d seen.

“Yeah. Unless you’ve chosen someone else, I decided on my mother. I’ve already printed out an outline. You’ll just have to observe our chat.” She handed me a piece of paper. It had been printed out from a computer. There were neat questions on it. At the top, under the title ‘Communication Skills’, she’d typed ‘written by Elaine Morris’ and below that, ‘executed by Adrianne Clark’.

I shook my head. I had actually thought of many people but Adrianne’s mom was right there with us. We wouldn’t have to leave the house. “What’s it going to be about?” I asked her, taking a pencil from her desk. Adrianne’s room resembled the princess room in Mrs. Forbes’s mansion, or at least what it would look like if it was adapted for a student.

“You’ll see.” She picked up the remote and clicked on the TV.

We watched television mindlessly for however long it took Mrs. Clark to create something edible. Neither of us could concentrate on the program because we were both thinking about our project. We finally heard her footsteps coming up the stairs after the thirty minute show was done. I looked at Adrianne in confusion.

“She probably ruined the first batch of muffins in the microwave. She always manages to burn something. She burnt water once. And I bet she spilled lemonade all over the floor. She always tries to make it in cups first, and then pitchers when it overflows. But it always overflows,” she whispered to me.

“Knock, knock,” Mrs. Clark said in a cheerful voice while rapping her knuckles against the wood.

“Come in.”

Adrianne’s mother came in backwards so she wouldn’t spill anything. I gasped when her tray came into view. Just as Adrianne had said, there was a plate of chocolate chip muffins, a pitcher of lemonade, and two glasses. She set it down on Adrianne’s desk, smiling at me. A suspiciously smoky smell came from the plate. The pitcher was so yellow she’d probably dumped half the powder into it.

“Hey, mom?” Adrianne asked, looking at me. I started writing down every word.

Mrs. Clark appeared shocked but pleased, as if she’d never been called that before. “Yes, dear?”

“Can we watch a horror movie?”

Her mother’s face outwardly winced. For a moment, she adopted my twitch. “What kind of horror movie, sweetheart?”

“Child‘s Play.”

Mrs. Clark froze, obviously at a loss of words. “Oh, uh, um,” she stuttered. “Darling, are you sure you’d want to watch that? It’s just so scary. I can’t let you get nightmares—”

“Elaine’s parents let her watch it.”

Instantly, Mrs. Clark’s face turned contemplative. She was actually considering it. I watched silently.

“Well, if her parents let her, honey, I’m sure I could let you. Just don’t tell your father.” She gave Adrianne a kiss on the forehead and started to leave.

“Can we watch other horror movies, too?” Adrianne called. “Suicide Club, Wolf Creek, Salvage; stuff like that?”

Without a pause in her step, Mrs. Clark replied, “Of course, sweetheart.”

“Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Prom Night? Shutter? Orphan? The Grudge?”

“Whatever you want. If Elaine’s parents let her, it can’t be too bad. They’re a nice family.” She closed the door behind her.

“Even if I have nightmares for the rest of my life,” Adrianne muttered under her breath, almost too low for me to hear. Her mom heard nothing.

There was some really bad mojo in the room after that. I took a deep breath and glanced at Adrianne’s face. Just as I’d presumed, her face was contorted with disgust.

“See?” she said, forgetting to put on a fake smile. “I did it. I convinced her. End of demonstration.”

I wrote down her words. I attempted to grin at her. It probably came out crooked. “Let’s eat.” To encourage her, I lifted a warm muffin from the plate. I dropped it immediately. It was very hot. I blew on my fingers then tried to pick up the muffin again, blowing on it. I bit into it. The very noticeable taste of soot made me wary and want to spit it out, but I kept my mouth closed. I kept chewing. For some reason, this muffin was very chewy. In a rubbery sort of way.

To wash out the muffin taste, I poured myself a glass of lemonade. I was extremely gratified to find it was cold and not lukewarm or hot, like the muffins. How much could Mrs. Clark mess up lemonade? I took a sip and tried to swallow. It was very, very sweet. The taste almost deterred me from taking another sip, but after taking another bite of the muffin, I had to. The cool sweetness dampened the smoky aftertaste of the muffin.

Adrianne watched me. She cracked up eventually.

“What? What is it?” I asked her.

“Your face,” she laughed. “You keep making weird faces.”

I beamed. I ate more of the muffin so my expression would change some more. After that first muffin, the plate went untouched. I spent the afternoon at Adrianne’s house watching TV and chatting. When I got up to leave sometime around six, I looked nervously at the food we’d left.

“Oh, don’t worry. She’ll just give them to someone else,” Adrianne reassured me in a disinterested way.

“Okay, then. Goodbye.”

“Wait. Come back tomorrow? Let’s print it on the computer. I love your handwriting, but let’s make it more official. It’s kind of scribbled, too, because we were talking too fast.”

“Sure,” I replied, grinning. I went to sleep that night happy.

- - - - -Star Guide #12: Be Careful Who You’re Seen With

This time, Penny was at Adrianne’s house as well. So was Aubrey. I hadn’t thought of the possibility of either of them accompanying us.

When I rung the doorbell, Aubrey answered it, decked out in her trademark sunglasses and her tam hat. After she saw it was me, she pointed behind her, up the stairs, and walked away silently into what I assumed to be the living room. I took it to mean that Adrianne was in her room. I headed up the stairs. I hesitated before knocking on the door.

“Ugh. She’s such a geek. So ugly.” It was Penny’s voice. I halted.

“You think so? She isn’t all that bad, actually.” Adrianne remarked
in a thoughtful voice.

“Don’t tell me you’ve changed your mind about her.”

There was silence.

“Oh come on! You’re the one who told me we should do this! You said we should mess around with her head a little.”

“Did I?”

“Of course you did! And you told me to skip out of the concert. You told me not to tell Matt that we were even going to a concert!”

“Really?”

“Do you want to anger me?!”

“Don’t worry. Nothing’s changed. Sorry. I lost my head for a second.”

I chose this moment to lightly knock on the door. Penny and Adrianne instantly hushed up.

“Are you expecting someone?”

“It must be Laney,” Adrianne answered. “Either that or it’s my mom.” A second later she held the door open and was smiling at me. “Hey, Laney,” she greeted me.

“Hi.” My answer was short. I couldn’t prolong it. I tried to attach a smile to it, but I knew it looked fake. They were fooled by it nonetheless.

“Come in, come in,” she told me, waving me inside. I followed her inside. My legs had become stiff and yet they seemed to be made of jelly. It was hard walking because at certain steps my knees wouldn’t bend and at others I almost completely folded over. Penny noticed this awkward gait but, to her credit, she didn’t say anything about it.

“Penny came over. She’s already done with her project,” Adrianne explained, plopping down on her soft mattress. I sat on the floor. A while passed without anyone saying anything. Adrianne and Penelope were looking at me. With a start I found out that I’d been staring blankly at the wall.

“B-Ble-Bleh?” I warbled. My tongue felt like lead. I tried again. “Yeah?”

“It’s so cool!” emphasized Penelope. “My mom took me to the salon yesterday. I convinced them to give me a free haircut!” She continued speaking, but by then I’d tuned out again. I think she was talking about how she’d gotten a freebie. I didn’t care. I was too busy wondering about who they’d been talking about before I’d came in.

It described me. The concert? As far as I knew, I was the only one they’d asked to go to the concert. But could they have asked someone else? Another girl? What were the chances that there was another girl in school or not that wasn’t the prettiest color in the crayon box?

Pretty high, actually, I realized.

There were just a little under a hundred and thirty people registered on South Bass Island. I knew most of them, but not all. My agenda didn’t cover seeing many of them per day. I’d never been very interested in the people who weren’t in my life. In a way I knew that if Adrianne wasn’t in my grade, I wouldn’t even notice her. So maybe there was another person in Put-in-Bay who was like me. I wondered what color her eyes were.

“Laney? Elaine?” Adrianne called. I gave a little jump. She wasn’t sitting on her bed anymore. She was sitting in front of me, waving her hand in my face to get my attention.

“Yeah?”

“I said, we’re going downstairs to the computer room. Are you coming?” She pointed to the door. Penny was already outside. She peered in at me, looking cross.

“Oh? Yeah, I’m coming.” I clumsily got up.

Adrianne had only one computer in her house. It was in the den, where there’s a big-screen TV and a foosball table. Penny sat down on the couch to watch TV. Adrianne sat at the computer chair. I stood beside her. She looked around for a spare seat, but couldn’t find one.

“Sorry about this,” she apologized.

“I don’t mind,” I told her. We started working on the project. I ended up sitting in the chair, anyway, to type up my transcript. Apparently I’d made typos that only I could decipher, and even then just barely. The conversation hadn’t been long, but typing it out seemed to take forever. I didn’t have a computer at home. I wasn’t a fast typer, so the work took longer than it would have been if someone else had been typing. Time passed quickly, though, with all of us either talking or watching television, or both.

Aubrey walked in when I had almost finished typing up the paper. We weren’t done. Later, Adrianne and I would go over it and see that it was passable. I don’t know why she came in. She must’ve known we were in there. I looked at the clock on the computer. The three of us had been in the den for a few hours.

When she walked in, Penny, Adrianne, and I all turned to look at her. Actually, Penny sneered, Adrianne’s face took on that blank face, and I simply looked like an idiot.

“Look what the cat dragged in,” Penny said sarcastically. Aubrey didn’t react. Even though she was wearing her mirrored sunglasses, I knew she wasn’t even looking at Penny. She was staring at Adrianne and Adrianne stared back. There should’ve been silence—this was the perfect time for a moment of silence with the tension so thick it could shatter a knife—but Penny couldn’t keep her mouth shut.

“Are you here because you wanted to see what it’s like to have friends?” she teased and taunted. I glanced at Aubrey. She didn’t seem affected in the slightest. Penny didn’t notice.

“Curious of a social life before death?” There was no response. Penny still wasn’t deterred.

“Well, I’ve got news for you. Oh wait, you should know this already. No one likes you. You’re a waste of air. Get out of my sight.”

Aubrey still didn’t react. I didn’t know whether or not she was glaring. Maybe she’d been reacting to every word Penny had said. For some reason, this angered me. I was a surprised to find Adrianne glaring. I was completely shocked when I noticed I was also glaring at Penny. Finally, she was disturbed by all the glowering. No one spoke. Now there was a true silence, the tension even thicker. Forget the knife; a chainsaw would be beyond repair.

To avoid the scorn, Penny looked down at her wrist with intense scrutiny. “How time flies!” she exclaimed. She kept observing the nonexistent watch on her arm. “I’m supposed to be home in five minutes. I’ll see you tomorrow!” She hurried out of the den, humiliated. Pretty soon we heard a door slam from upstairs.

The mood didn’t get better. In fact, it got worse. Aubrey and Adrianne directed their evil eyes to each other. I was forgotten, sitting in the computer chair. I think a few minutes passed before I shifted to face the monitor and started typing.

Click. Clack. Click. Clack. Click.

The sound of the keyboard acted as a lullaby. It reminded me of that saying, that music tamed the savage beast. The twins calmed down. Still no one spoke. Perhaps I should sing for them?

“My goodness, Aubrey!” Mrs. Clark’s voice called out in a huff. I could tell she was coming down to the den. “Can’t you get one thing right? I asked you for tape a long time ago! And was that Penny who just left? She’s such a nice girl. You should learn from her. I bet she wouldn’t keep her mother waiting for this long! And where’s Adrianne and her friend, Elaine? I know I heard her come in. Call them for me, would you? I need them for something. I’d need Penny, too, but I bet you made her leave, didn’t you? You are such a hassle! Can’t you keep your mouth shut and stop glaring at everyone? You know you intimidate them! Try being friendlier for a change, like your sister! Take off those stupid glasses! Wear normal clothes!” She prattled on and on as she descended the stairs.

“I mean, honestly!” She abruptly shut up as soon as she could see into the room and noticed us. Instantly her angry tone became sugar-coated. “Oh, is that you Elaine? I’m happy you’re back. You see, I was thinking maybe we—Adrianne, you, and I—could—”

“No.” Adrianne’s answer was firm.

“Then how about—”

“No.”

“Not even—”

“No.”

Mrs. Clark looked defeated for a few moments, but she quickly regained her cheerful attitude. “Maybe next time,” she beamed. Then she glared at Aubrey, saying, “Well? The tape?” Silently Aubrey handed her a roll of duct tape. I hadn’t seen her get it. She must have done it the instant Mrs. Clark came in.

“You know what I should do? I should make you fix the rip in that packet! No, you should rewrite the whole thing and print out a new one. Then I want you to go down to the store and buy paper to replace the paper you used.”

“Hey, I don’t really think this is necessary,” I blurted. I covered my mouth, but by then everyone had turned to look at me. I didn’t trust myself to bring my hands down. I would say something that wasn’t any of my beeswax.

“Laney’s parents don’t believe in strict punishment like that,” Adrianne carefully said after a while. “They just ignore her and it’s settled like that because eventually she apologizes for acting out. It must work since she’s never disobeyed them before.” What was she doing? That wasn’t true.

Mrs. Clark stared at her daughter. Her expression instantly softened, but only slightly. “So?”

“They’ve recommended it to their friends. They tried it on their children and it worked great,” she coyly persuaded. I could see the inner conflict on Mrs. Clark’s face. Did it really work? Should she punish Aubrey her way, or should she opt for the one with the phony results?

“Ah, well.” She cleared her throat and put on a bright smile. “I guess I should try that. Aubrey.” She turned to her daughter. I noticed that once she saw her her face dropped considerably. She actually pretended to zip her lips shut. Then she left. On the way out she snatched Aubrey’s sunglasses off her face. In my opinion, she wasn’t doing a very good job of ignoring her. I predicted she would give up all together and go ape on Aubrey again in a couple of hours.

“I think that went well.” My sad attempt to brighten up the room went unnoticed. Adrianne and Aubrey were glaring at each other again. This time I could be sure they were both giving and receiving glowers and scowls because Aubrey’s mirrored sunglasses were gone.

“Uh, guys?”

“Don’t think I did this for you,” Adrianne said through gritted teeth.

“I wasn’t,” snarled Aubrey.

“Good,” Adrianne replied curtly.

“It is good.” Aubrey wore a sardonic grin.

“Isn’t it?” Adrianne did the same.

“I just said so, didn’t I?”

“Did you?”

“Did you?”

“I don’t believe I did.”

“Then perhaps I did.”

Watching this civilized exchange was strangely disturbing. It was like they pretended to like each other. I have no idea why they did that when it was obvious that there was some supreme hate between them. Again, I turned back to the computer and continued typing.

- - - - -Star Guide #13: Pay Attention

I woke up the next morning tired. Dealing with Adrianne and Aubrey had worn me out. After that elaborate discussion, they kept quiet. I could feel them glowering at each other behind me. It made the room so uncomfortable it took longer for me to finish. When I was finally done, I asked Adrianne to look it over. Aubrey had already left. Suddenly, all hospitality was back.

Mrs. Clark is a single mother. She was never married. She was probably a good mother. Her explosion on Sunday had probably been pent-up stress finally being let out. She was a proud woman afterall. Instead of taking up my parents’ offer of working at the restaurant, she gets up at four each morning so she can ride the ferry to Port Clinton and back almost every day. She seemed so dignified, I bet she kept everything in. It made sense that she could hide her feelings so well, when her daughters were experts at it. She must need to put aside some quiet time each day.

This thought ends the whole thought process and I stop thinking altogether. My mind is blank on the way to school, just the way I like it best. Completely devoid of any other assumptions and impossibilities.

I was happy to find that Luna was there first. She was in her new seat, one right next to Mr. Clemons’s comfy chair, almost directly across from mine. I was glad she was there because it felt like we hadn’t spoken to each other in forever.

“Hi, Luna,” I grinned. She didn’t look up from her book. “Luna. Hey, Luna.” She didn’t seem to notice me. So, frowning, I made my way over to her.

“Hey, Luna,” I repeated. She still wasn’t responding. I waved my hand just under her face, in the space between her eyes and her open book. Finally, she slapped my hand away. It was one swift motion. Her hand returned back to holding down the page of what she was reading just as quickly, but I was already in hysterics.

She had heard me. She had seen me. Why didn’t she answer me? Was she ignoring me? I’d given her no reason to ignore me. Was she just ticked that I hadn’t spoken to her in forever? It had only been a few weeks. I didn’t understand how a couple of weeks could ruin a great friendship. The calm mind from before dissipated and I found myself missing it soon after.

“Lu—” I started. I was going to ask her why she was ignoring me. I wanted to know if she was angry about something I did, but at that moment, Matt came in.

“Hey!” he greeted. He always greeted everyone with the big grin he always wore. He was nice like that.

“Hi, Matt.”

“Guess what I did yesterday!” He was so excited that his question didn‘t even sound like a question. His eyes sparkled brightly.

“Your project?” I asked, a small, confused, smile on my face.

“No—I mean, well, yeah, but guess what it’s about!” In his enthusiasm he stumbled over his words. He used a lot of body language. His movements were erratic. He was more than excited; he was ecstatic. My smile grew bigger.

“A practical joke. You and Vince played a prank on someone,” I said with instant clarity.

“Of course! It was awesome, too!”

And he proceeded to clue me in on his project. It was long and complicated, but never boring. He was glowing with pride. He tried his best to slow down enough to recite what had happened in a way I could understand. From what I could tell, it was a very epic practical joke. I just wasn’t paying attention to it.

I humored him, though, and pretended to. All the while I was smiling and nodding I peered over his shoulder at the door. I waited for Adrianne to come in. To my disappointment, she wasn’t the next to come in. Penny was. And as soon as she saw me, she started gushing over me as if she hadn’t seen me in years.

“How have you been, Laney?” she cooed. She emphasized every word, pronouncing everything she said in a clear tone. “I was worried you would’ve gotten hurt by Adrianne’s sister’s repulsiveness. You stayed, after all. I mean, her sister is so creepy! It’s like she doesn’t even try to make friends or anything!” By this time Matt had stopped talking and wandered over to talk to Vince. Penny kept chattering, going on and on about how horrible Aubrey was and pausing long enough for me to form a coherent sentence. I noticed that she never said Aubrey’s name. She called her by pronouns or by “Adrianne’s sister”. The way Penny kept talking made me wonder if she knew Aubrey was a human being, just like her. Since she didn’t seem to notice that I wasn’t listening, it gave me a lot of time to think.

“I’m okay,” I finally interjected when she stopped to breathe. She smiled at me, breathless. I smiled back. My smile began to fall when she opened her mouth to speak again.

“Adrianne! Hey!” I gladly interrupted her the second Adrianne came into view. She must not’ve minded, though, because she turned to greet Adrianne, too, without missing a beat.

“Hi,” she said softly. It was more of an echo, really, because she wasn’t looking at us. I could tell that she was lost in thought. Penny either couldn’t or didn’t take the time to look close enough to see Adrianne didn’t want to be disturbed. She started talking to her about nonsense I’d given up on listening to earlier. We went on like that, not listening to Penny, until Mr. Clemons came in and class started. Penny had to shut up for that.

“Everyone, please get out your projects. When it’s your turn to share, I want you to stand up and tell us what happened. If you performed the plan and you’re working in partners I want the other person to read it. You both still need to stand,” Mr. Clemons directed us. “Who would like to go first?” He looked around the room. Only Matt had his hand up. He was also trying to force up the hand of a rather unenthusiastic Vince. Luna was reading a book, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Mr. Clemons had even spoke. Genevieve was flipping through a magazine that was badly disguised as an English textbook. Penny was peering at her reflection via her compact mirror, and Adrianne still looked a little out of touch with the world.

Mr. Clemons sighed. “What did you do, Matt?” he asked.

Matt stood, his huge grin growing even wider. He dragged Vince up with him. He proclaimed in an exuberant tone, “Our project—” And that was as much as I heard before I tuned out yet again.

My eyes unfocused and Matt’s voice grew distant. I stared at the table. It was blue. Such a blue, blue table. I wondered what kind of shade of blue it could be called. That idea amused me so much I decided to start a game for myself, counting how many different kinds of blue I could think of. I set a goal for twenty and started brainstorming.

Aquamarine. Sapphire. Turquoise. Cerulean. Azure. Periwinkle. Sky blue. Dark blue. Light blue—wait, wasn’t that the same as sky blue? Cyan. Teal. Cornflower. Indigo. Steel Blue. Denim. Was that a color or just another word for jeans? Or maybe it—

“Ahem.” The sound of someone clearing their throat reminded me that it was time to pay attention. When I looked up, I noticed almost everyone’s eyes were on me.

“It’s our turn,” Adrianne whispered to me. She was already standing. She held out the paper she’d printed out after I left. I jumped up. My chair fell down. I awkwardly tried to pick it up, but Mr. Clemons shook his head, saying “Leave it.” So I stood up. Because I was so tense I was standing very straight and almost completely still.

“Now,” our teacher said slowly. “Who’s going to be reading?”

Adrianne looked at me expectantly. I started panicking, wondering why I was being stared at so much. She cleared her throat again. “Elaine is.” She waved the paper at me, prompting me to take it.

As if I didn’t already feel like an idiot. I took the transcript and started reading. “For our project, Adrianne and I decided to…” As I read my sentences gradually became coherent and my confidence grew. I finished the presentation feeling proud of myself. The class clapped politely.

“Any questions?” I ventured.

“Um—” Mr. Clemons started.

“—That seemed way too easy. Did you make it up?” exclaimed Genevieve (very haughtily, if I might add). I tensed up again. If the doughnut incident the other day was anything to go on, I could presume that Genevieve and Adrianne were not the most compatible people in the room.

“No. It was spontaneous.” Like the angel in disguise everyone knew she was, Adrianne responded in a very patient manner.

“Really?” Genevieve persisted, extremely doubtful. “Because my…parental guardian would never let me do something just because someone else can.” Since I was watching her carefully, I noticed how she avoided just saying “parents.” I turned to face Adrianne.

“Oh?” Because I was also watching her pretty closely, her reaction was observed too. It wasn’t anything you could spot right on, but she changed. She smiled. To me, the smile looked fake. When she smiled, it was like a switch had been flipped and I realized that the second Genevieve had even opened her mouth Adrianne had gotten annoyed. She was just hiding it well. So well, in fact, that no one else in the room seemed to notice.

My newfound talent of reading people is very useful, I mused silently. I let a small smile creep onto my face as I envisioned a future as a glamorous detective, invading the personal bubbles of all the suspects I interrogated. My seriousness would intimidate them, and what my demeaning demeanor didn’t uncover, my sharp eyes would. Pretentious criminals wouldn’t even have a chance, what with the awkwardness and all. It would…

“This needs to stop,” Mr. Clemons announced timidly but firmly. It was so uncharacteristic of him that it shocked me out of my daydream. I was startled to find that Genevieve had stood up and leaned across the table toward Adrianne. How much had I missed?

“No, she needs to stop! Where does she get off saying my…parental units are idiots?” Genevieve spluttered.

Obviously, a lot.

Adrianne remained calm as ever. I looked to Aubrey who, in her mirrored sunglasses, was completely unreadable. From what I could see, though, I knew she was wearing the exact same expression as her sister.

“Well, they must be,” Adrianne said. “Because you are definitely not the child of some braniac. And ‘parental units’? Please. Are you a robot or something?”

Genevieve’s face flushed red with anger. She straightened so that she wasn‘t leaning over the table anymore. Her hands balled up into fists at her sides. “What did you say?” she roared.

“You heard me. Otherwise you wouldn’t react like that.”

Genevieve slammed her fist down on the table, alarming us. Almost everyone jumped, me included. Aubrey and Adrianne were the only two to take it in stride. Looking at their indifferent faces, I could see why Genevieve got so angry. It was irritating, in a way, how neither responded the way a normal person would. Aubrey was an exception. She was naturally strange. But it was easy to see the reason behind Genevieve’s frustration.

“This ends now,” Mr. Clemons said. All traces of uncertainty had disappeared from his tone. The girls kept staring at each other. Eventually, a glaring Genevieve slowly sat back in her seat, plopping down in the chair and immediately folding her arms across her chest. She never broke contact with Adrianne. She stayed glaring. Adrianne and Aubrey kept their watchful gazes.

The conflict truly ended, though, when the sisters noticed each other. I think it was the fact that they looked so similar that made them glare at each other. Aubrey even lifted her upper lip in a snarl. Adrianne was too dignified for that. I wondered why one of them didn’t react with the infuriating looks they’d given Genevieve. That would totally hit hard. But seeing as neither pulled off that trick, I was left to ponder whether or not they seriously hated each other.

“Class is over,” our teacher sighed, sinking into his chair and rubbing his temples. He looked gratefully at the clock above the doorway.

- - - - -Star Guide #14: Spend At Least Two Hours Getting Ready For A Party

“Can you come?” Matt asked me. I shifted around on my bed so that I was hanging upside-down. I grinned like an idiot, glad that he couldn’t see me.

“Can’t,” I told him. My voice had this high-pitched sound that I didn’t like, so I deepened it. “I-I mean, I can’t. My ‘rents have this thing.” There. Nice and smooth.

“Alright. Maybe next time.” He hung up.

If this had happened weeks earlier, I probably would have screamed, preferably into my pillow as to muffle the sound. But this had happened many times before. I’d already talked to my new friends on the phone many times. It was surprising how much time could be spent talking, how time would just fly by.

This wasn’t a few weeks ago, though. This was now. And now I had a cool, conditioned response. I just looked at Zazou and cracked a crooked smile, pleased by my social life but too cool to seriously show it. I knew I was smiling like that because for the past few days I’d practiced in front of the bathroom mirror for hours.

Tomorrow would be the banquet. I ambled down the stairs to find that my mom was cooking up a storm and my dad was trying too hard to help. Returning the phone to its place on the kitchen wall, I watched as my dad burned cookies and Mom dipped them in a bowl of warm white chocolate to cover up the taste. They’d done a bit of cooking for the banquet days earlier, but this was the big day. My parents were the type that tried to squeeze everything in last minute, not because they’d forgotten, but because it forced them to do their best.

“Elaine, ma puce. Give me the phone. I must call the maître d’ and ask her to bring the car.” Dutifully I hand her the phone.

Numerous platters and dishes of cakes, buns, and other pastries cluttered the countertops. Among them were crêpes and éclairs, courtesy of Mom. They would go into the coolers that were kept in the restaurant’s official van. Tomorrow morning everything that needed to be warmed up was warmed up was popped into the stove for a few minutes, since Mom hated microwaves with a passion.

My mom cooks backwards. First, she whipped up dessert, then cooked the main meal, made the entrée, and finally prepared the hors d’oeuvres, if there were any. She does it this way because she says it keeps the hot meals hot and the cold meals cold.

Dad, on the other hand, cooks in the exact opposite way. I think it was the fact that they were mostly working on completely different things that made things so hectic and yet they always seemed to get the job done right on time.

Beatrice arrived with the car pretty quickly. She could be described as the manager, but technically that was my dad. She did so much manager-like work, though, that we either call her the assistant manager or the maître d’. I think she’s got OCD. For Beatrice, everything has got to be perfect. The napkins must be folded with a straight-edge. The colors must be either complimentary or similar. The light on this table must be just right. The picture on this wall is crooked. The salt and pepper shakers must be side-by-side with exactly the same level of spice in each glass container at all times—you get the picture. Beatrice is someone who cares about the specifics that no one else would look twice at. Her personality, though, has improved the place greatly. Since she came to work for us we’ve gotten more customers.

She was wearing a pretty blue and white party dress for some reason. She’d put on an apron to protect it.

The adults filled the car with the desserts. The main dishes that wouldn’t congeal in the chill would go in next, and then everything else that would taste better cold. My parents would get up early in the morning and create the food that had to be either hot or warm then.

I helped load the van. I sat at the table watching them, my parents cook and Beatrice help out. Beatrice was a lousy cook, much worse than my dad, so they only let her stir and taste-test, and even then only sometimes. At times I looked at the appetizing assortment of chaos that was deposited on every available surface. I couldn’t wait until I could eat some. When I wasn’t thinking about the food I was smiling at my parents. I felt genuine pride as they bustled about the room, cooking. They were doing what they loved, and they were great at it. Even better, they were doing this to show up a snobby couple. I was happy that they were my parents and that every now and then there were moments like this when I truly appreciated what I had.

- - - - -Star Guide #15: Know Your Frenemy (Friend + Enemy = Status)

This was it. The big day. The was the day we’d been waiting for. I could feel a rush of emotions building up inside me the minute I opened my eyes that morning, and I was certain it wasn’t caused by the burritos Dad had ordered in secret once Mom was completely immersed in her cooking that she didn’t notice much of anything else.

My stomach couldn’t seem to decide whether I was rolling down a hill or butterflies had invaded my personal space. One moment it would feel tingly and a-flutter, as if at any point those butterflies would try and carry me into the air, and the next it would be shifting uncomfortably, sloshing around whatever was in there. I was nervous, I knew, but also excited, because I was eager to see the rich people speechless. Ecstatic, but also wary, because maybe my mom’s cooking wouldn’t be praised. And then the world would cease to exist.

The first thing I noticed (after the whole stomach thing) was that I’d slept in the living room, on the couch. I looked around me slowly. I must’ve been better at sleepwalking than everyone else because my parents were crashed on the floor, snoring obstinately as if they had something to prove with their loudness.

Beatrice was on the armchair. I silently screamed, my eyes widening, the second I saw her. Her eyes were open. They weren’t a pretty sight, mainly because they were so bloodshot. For a short while (okay, a long while), I was scared that there was a killer in the house. It didn’t occur to me that she slept with her eyes open until later.

When I thought about it, Beatrice sleeping like that wouldn’t be very out-of-character. She always seemed to be watching you, so why wouldn’t she train herself to watch people even when she was asleep, to scare them into doing things exactly how she wanted? Besides, it turned out that I didn’t even need to worry about the assistant manager because the scene that followed was much, much more nerve-racking.

My parents got up. Normally, that wouldn’t be such a big deal, done with some complaining about back pains, but this time it was strange. Their eyes opened. They were still snoring. So, since neither of them would voluntarily snore in public, I deduced that they were still awake. They stood up in eerily slow and precise movements. Zombie Dad even helped Zombie Mom up. Once they were both on their feet, they headed straight for the kitchen. Soon I could smell and hear food being made. Was this how I acted all those weekends before I had my Raisin Bran?

I hesitated, waiting until they’d gone into the kitchen, to follow them so I could get my cereal. I had to wrestle a bowl away from Zombie Dad’s iron grip. Zombie Mom gave me what seemed to be a reproachful look as I took a spoon and poured in the ingredients for a healthy me: cereal and milk. I couldn’t help but smile. Even in this state they were so aware, so alert. It was obvious that they didn’t want me eating up valuable parts of their career. Though I was smiling, I finished my breakfast quickly and cleaned the bowl and spoon for them to use. I hurried out of there because they were creeping me out.

I trudged up to my room, passing by a snoozing Beatrice. I brushed my teeth in a daze. Once I stepped into the shower, though, I woke up completely because extremely hot water kind of does that to people.

While I got dressed I stared at the clock. I knew that I was looking straight at it, but I couldn’t see it. My mind was racing ahead, thinking of what was to come. Eventually my eyes focused and I saw the time. It was nine. I went downstairs to check on my parents. About halfway down the realization hit me that school started at eight, and once my feet touched the floor I realized that I was late.

First, I panicked. What if today was a special day? What if today Mr. Clemons would introduce a new game or something else? What if my friends planned to do something big today, like prank someone? I wouldn’t wanna miss that. I paced in front of the refrigerator, sidestepping my undead parents and ducking under the heavy plates they carried. Later, I realized I could have just ran to school. As I was thinking, my eye caught a paper stuck to fridge. It was held there neatly by fruit-shaped magnets. In fancy script it read,

You and whomsoever you choose to bring with you are invited to attend the reunion of the members of the Genovard family. Formal attire is required to enter and let it be known beforehand that misbehaved guests will be escorted out.
WHEN IT WILL TAKE PLACE: The first of May in the year 2009. The event will officially begin at eleven and end at one in the afternoon.
WHERE IT WILL TAKE PLACE: The banquet for which you were given this invitation will be held at the Genovard family estate, and that is located at:

I was shocked. How had I not noticed this before? For two weeks I’d been (more or less) on the panic scale with my parents and now I find out that they probably hadn’t meant for me to go with them anyway! Otherwise, they would have definitely told me earlier.

My surprise quickly changed to resentment. They had probably planned for me to go to school like any other day and miss most of the party? I knew that I would have missed it all if I hadn’t seen the note on the fridge. I couldn’t believe that my own parents had expected me to (more or less) spend precious weeks of my lifetime helping them out so that they could go without me! Did they think I had done all that out of the kindness of my heart, not wanting anything in return? Didn’t they know me at all?

I decided that I wouldn’t go to school.

“I’m leaving!” I shouted after I’d eaten my cereal. Popping raisins into my mouth, I opened the door and then slammed it shut. I silently ascended the stairs, trying hard to be light-footed. I got to my room without making much noise, but I suspect it wouldn’t have mattered either way. This banquet was important to everyone. It was so important that I don’t think anything would’ve hindered them.

Once I opened my bedroom door, I felt stupid. There was nothing in there that could keep me occupied for hours on end. All the board games were downstairs. So was the TV. This revelation forced me to do my spy-creep down to the living room. The way I dashed from corner to corner was so convincing that I considered playing ninja roles in all the movies I was no doubt going to be begged to act in.

The television, as I soon learned, made noise. It was also right by the kitchen. That however, didn’t seem to matter. Zombie Mom and Dad were totally oblivious, no matter how loud I turned up the sound. Because Beatrice stirred when the volume was up, though, I turned it back down quickly. I couldn’t be sure that she would be as simple as my parents and not notice me.

After about an hour of staring blankly at the screen I realized there was a problem. I tried to regain my attention by channel surfing, but that just led me to pressing the “UP” button after a second or two, like a robot, and there was nothing exciting about that. I couldn’t concentrate on anything but the party! It didn’t help that the clattering of pots and pans distracted me even more.

Sometime in my distressing, Beatrice woke up and apparently noticed me, because pretty soon I was interrupted by her clearing her throat. She was standing in front of me with her hands on her hips and giving me the evil eye.

I would handle this coolly, I decided. I would be totally persuasive and uncaring even if she found a way to make sure I’d miss the banquet. I wouldn’t let anything she said get to me.

“Please don’t tell my parents!” I pleaded desperately (and appallingly).

“Tell them what? That you’re not at school like you should be? There’s no time for you to be worming out of the education Mr. and Mrs. Morris got you. There are hundreds of kids out there who can‘t go to school! And here you are abusing your privilege! ” She wore a stern expression. She was being very serious.

“I’m sorry! But it’s Friday so we’re not doing anything that important—I hope—but I’m not skipping! I promise! I’m just retaliating! I woke up late anyway!”

She raised an eyebrow. I made a note to ask her how she did that later, when she wasn’t ready to kill me. “Retaliating?” she repeated.

“Yes!” I shouted. She winced. “Yes,” I repeated in a quieter, calmer voice. “I saw the invitation on the fridge and it said the banquet started at eleven and I get out of school at twelve and I knew that Mom and Dad would just leave without me and I’d come home to an empty house and not even notice they were gone until they came back and I’d that I’d just missed the most important thing for the past three weeks and—and—and—” I gasped for air. As I rambled on I’d started sounding more and more hysterical and words ran together so that, finally, my tongue just seemed to tie up in a knot and quit working altogether.

“Wait, wait,” Beatrice said, holding up a hand to stop me. There was no worry there, as I was still catching up on my breathing in important oxygen. “Leave you behind? We planned to take you with us. Last week we told your teacher that you’d leave early today. There’s no way Mr. and Mrs. Morris would make you miss it. They said you’d be hysterical, which,” she looked at me and rolled her eyes “you’re being right now.”

“So…so I was going to go all along?” I said slowly. Beatrice nodded, annoyed. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

She gave me a look of disbelief. “Oh, I don’t know; maybe because they had WORK to do unlike some people!” I started to worry for her. I blamed her voice-raising-in-anger on PMS so as to not hurt her feelings. “It was on the fridge. They expected you to see that,” she stressed.

“Oh.”

Beatrice sighed. She looked at the clock. It was ten fifteen. “Now are you gonna help or will you just be a bother?” she asked me halfheartedly as she made her way to join my parents in the kitchen. I followed her.

~~~

By a quarter to eleven, we were set, even though it seemed to take us every single second. It turned out to be a good thing that Beatrice had stayed over, because the desserts were still in the van. It was much easier to drive straight to the party without stopping at the restaurant to pick them up. We were able to spend the time it would have taken to finish making Dad’s specialties, which was traditional Irish food, dishes he’d eaten when he was a kid, like colcannon (potatoes and cabbage) and crubeens (pig feet). And, of course, we had to get dressed up!

As we got into the car I was afraid we would crash, since Dad was driving. Lucky for us, Mom and Dad had completely woken up by then, and Mom, in the passenger seat, was wringing her hands with absolute anxiety, which meant she felt anxiety, which meant she was capable of feeling anxiety, which meant she was fully awake.

“How come I’ve never heard of a Genovard estate?” I asked my parents. Beatrice was napping in the seat beside me.

“You’ve probably never cared,” Dad told me. “It’s a bit out there, anyway, a bit further from the other houses. Besides, the Genovards don’t even live there.”

“Who does?” I looked out the window at the scenery I’d seen millions of times before.

“Who does what?” He turned right.

“Who lives there?”

“Their daughter. And her grandparents, I think. That couple, the Genovards, didn’t seem to like them very much. The grandparents, I mean.”

“Oh. How old is she?”

“How old is who?”

“Their daughter.”

“Fermez la bouche! Be quiet!” Mom roared suddenly. She was rubbing her temples now.

“Do you have a headache?” I asked her, lowering my voice. I didn’t want her to yell at me again.

“No,” she answered, “but I would like it very much if you two would be silent. My head is already plaguing me with what may or may not happen!”

“Don’t worry. You’ll do great,” I assured her, and leaned back in my seat. I remained quiet for the rest of the ride. I think that surprised my parents; that I could go a whole five minutes without speaking. I smiled smugly (and silently).

~~~

The whole assortment was set on the tables the minute after eleven. To the Genovards, this lateness was intolerable. They lectured my parents, complaining on how they shouldn’t be late to things. They were angry because the fact that the food was there after eleven implied that they’d lied, and the party really started later.

“How could you be this impertinent?!” Mr. Genovard howled. They used big words like children trying out new toys. I think they wanted people to praise their literacy or ask them the meanings to words so that they could belittle them with the answer.

“Do you take us for contemptible ignoramuses?” hollered Mrs. Genovard. “Do you wish to make us appear as nincompoops in the eyes of our most valued companions?!” She swept her arm out to indicate the one or two people who’d come early. They were wandering around the big backyard that rivaled Mrs. Forbes’s and not at all looking in our direction. Steadily, though, people were arriving.

The couple, in addition to having loud voices, wore equally loud clothes. Mrs. Genovard was wearing an ugly pink dress that flared out like a ballerina’s tutu. It probably would’ve looked good if it didn’t have so many fluttery layers—some white and yellow—that she looked like a chicken. She also wore a pink scarf. She’d wrapped it around her neck once, and then stretched the ends so that they went through her gloves. It was long enough. Her gloves were probably originally clear, but she’d wrapped the scarf around her arms so it looked like her skin was pink. It didn’t help that the scarf was also wide. It hung down behind her back like wings. If that wasn’t bad enough, she also had on a ridiculously tiny hat.

Standing next to his bird-wife, Mr. Genovard looked only slightly better. You wouldn’t think it was all that hard, actually, since all he had to do was wear a black tux like Dad and the other men there. Apparently it was very hard for him, because instead he wore a bright orange tuxedo with ruffles. The pants and coat were orange, at least. His shirt was a shade of yellow so bright that it made me want to shield my eyes. His shoes, however, were the same shiny black dress shoes my Dad was wearing, which didn’t go well with orange. He wore a top hat! And it was striped orange and black, which would look good on a dress or something for Halloween, but not when his entire outfit was plain! When we’d first gotten out of the car he’d stood with his back to us. Then he turned and I could see his ridiculous monocle.

It was hard to resist laughing. Mom must have noticed the look on my face (as if I was about to burst out in giggles) because she reached into her black purse (which went well with her simple but elegant crimson evening dress) and took out her wallet. She slipped me a twenty when the Genovards weren’t looking. That shut me up fairly quickly. It did cause me to wander over to Dad and make a similar face when Mom wasn’t looking. I think he meant to only slip me a twenty, but folded inside was a ten-dollar bill. I’d made fifty bucks in less than five minutes. I slipped my money into my pocket.

I was wearing a fabulous dress that had thick black, yellow, and purple stripes. They were soft colors, though, and they ruffled at the collar like a blouse. It was sleeveless and went to my knees. The pockets were big and hidden by the colors. I also wore red and white pinstripe socks, like the pattern on baseball uniforms, but only because Mom, even in her undead state, wouldn’t let me wear heels. So I wore yellow buckled dress shoes.

I’d ordered them earlier this week when Penny and I were in Adrianne’s room looking at clothes catalogs. I knew it’d look good on me when I’d said aloud that I liked it, because Penny only nodded. Before, she would point out tons of faults about whatever I liked. She had a really good eye and wasn’t afraid to say anything truthful to me, even if it might hurt. She was amazing! To show that it wouldn’t look good on me and make sure I wouldn’t get it, she would say only how my body type wouldn’t go well with it. She analyzed the whole thing just by examining it a while!

Now I knew why Beatrice had shown up in the nice dress. That way, she wouldn’t have to change and could get more done. There was a reason why she was such a good employee.

For the next half hour, people came in. Soon it was full of rich-looking folks. There were no other people from Put-in-Bay, which I thought was more ridiculous than Mrs. Genovard’s dress. When I brought it up (the scarcity of locals, not the dress), Beatrice said it was to be expected with people like the Genovards and that I should be pleased I was even allowed to go.

Pretty soon I started to regret ever wanting to come to the party. Everyone there was either an adult or an extremely small child. The children chased each other around, and the adults discussed mostly boring topics or played croquet. It seemed that there were people from one to one hundred years old. There were some extremely old-looking people.

I stayed by one of the refreshment tables, which were actually these gorgeous huge gazebos that the Genovards called “mosaic garden pavillions.” The food was divided among the gazebos. A couple of them held desserts, and another few held the entreés. With so many tables, Mom hadn’t wanted to place a main dish on the same surface as a dessert. It would be easier this way, she said, and it would make the blue bloods walk more.

There were plenty of comments about the food, all about it being marvelous. There was a crowd of people around a pair of confused Genovards wanting to ask who the caterers were so they could book them for their own snooty parties. I smiled. There would definitely be a lot more days like this.

But I was bored. Watching people being astounded and gushing comments of such surprise (that were a little bit perturbing) got old quick. So, that’s why when I caught a glimpse of a familiar explosive dress through the huge French windows, I left my post and entered the house. I didn’t do it so quickly, though. At first it took me a while to remember why the dress was so familiar, and then once I remembered that I started questioning whether or not it was right to go inside. Would it be rude? I quickly shook off that thought and headed inside. If they hadn’t meant for us to prawl around their house as well, they wouldn’t have put the party in their backyard where there were so many French windows and sliding doors that showed most of the house anyway.

Even as I was sliding the door closed behind me I was staring at the house. It was so big! It was humongous. There was a major difference between this house and Mrs. Forbes’s. Mrs. Forbes decorated her house with the kind of stuff you’d see in most homes: clocks, knick knacks, display cabinets and drawers. They was she decorated it, everything was squished together and almost messy. That made it look smaller. But the Genovard family estate was sparkly, with around five glass chandeliers to every huge room and fine china everywhere.

The pictures on the walls were all of Mr. and Mrs. Genovard and their friends. I could recognize the faces of almost everyone from outside. I stared at their smiles. It was fake. It looked to me like they were aggressive smiles, as if the people in the pictures were trying to outdo each other. It made a sickening, ghost-like result, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from it.

The outside door started opening. I panicked, looking for a place to hide. I eventually settled under a nearby table, which was big like the rest of the house. The tablecloth was long, but it stopped a few inches short of the floor. This worried me because if the Genovards looked down, they would see me and ask me uncomfortable questions, like why was I there in the first place. They never looked down. They passed me, heading for a separate room. I don’t know what possessed me to get out from underneath the table and follow them, but I did.

They never noticed me, walking loudly down the carpeted hallways. They stared straight ahead, at times loudly praising their wealth.

“Oh, Aldridge, may I inquire of you if you have ever witnessed such a glorious wall?” purred Mrs. Genovard.

“Why yes you may, Rowena my dear. And might I ponder that you’ve the knowledge that all this time we have been in the possession of such delightfully sophisticated trinkets?” replied Mr. Genovard.

“In addition to our breathtaking display of corresponding effigies of domestic fowl in adroitly elaborate ceramic form?” added Mrs. Genovard, tilting her head slightly to a glass cabinet of ceramic ducks, trying to make sure her hat wouldn’t fall off. I was beginning to think that they would stay this way for a long time. Their house was surely big enough for them to spend an eternity drowning it in compliments.

At the distant sound of shattering glass, their pace quickened considerably and they wasted no breath on admiring their lives. A few yards behind them, I sped up too. I trailed behind them, speed-walking along endless corridors. When they finally reached a room, I was overjoyed. I was getting tired. Mr. and Mrs. Genovard paused, patting down their clothes, and then turning the knob carefully. From around the corner I could see that they’d put on huge grins, look at each other for support, nodded as if to toughen up, and then they entered the room. I waited a while to see if they’d leave.

“Salutations, daughter!” I heard Mr. Genovard say, greeting whoever was in there.

“Yes, we hope you receive our love and worry from being parted for an extended amount of time!”

“Shut up.” I knew the second I heard her that it was Genevieve who was speaking. I crawled closer to the door. There was a small key hole. I sat down, leaning into it. For a few moments all I could see was Mrs. Genovard’s butt, but, gratefully, she moved.

The walls were blue. That was the first thing I noticed about the room. The next thing I noticed was that I was staring at a rectangular table that was also blue although it looked like it was decorated with either real gold or gold paint. The six oriental chairs around it were the same. The table’s centerpiece was a vase full of flowers.

Genevieve was sitting in one. She was turned toward me, so I could see that she was wearing the dress of the mystery girl I’d spotted. I gaped, dumbstruck, until it occurred to me that Genevieve was the mystery girl. She was glaring at the Genovards, her arms folded. She had moved the chair so that she could lean back on it and had her legs across the seat of the other one.

The Genovards bravely strode forward. I couldn’t see their faces but I didn’t need too. They were wearing smiles, probably dimmed by Genevieve’s malice. Mr. Genovard, in the lead, looked from Genevieve to her feet, silently asking her to move them so he could sit there. She hissed at him. He let out a small cry of surprise and scurried behind his wife like a mouse. She took a seat at the head, next to her daughter’s feet so that she could look right at Genevieve. Mr. Genovard took the seat beside her, blocking my view.

I twisted around, trying to see more. I caught a glimpse of a pant leg. Whoever it belonged to was standing off to the part of the room that I couldn’t see into. It was growing increasingly frustrating.

“We have been constantly pondering your well-being since we left you with…him,” said Mrs. Genovard seriously, shooting a glare in the direction of the pant leg. Seeing this, Genevieve stopped rocking her chair back and forth and unfolded her arms. She leaned forward (it looked like it was difficult in that dress) instead, glaring murderously at her parents, her mother specifically. At least, I think she was glaring. Mr. Genovard’s big head was still there.

“Do that again. I dare you,” she growled.

“I must say, I just cannot even hope to perceive how you hold that old man in such high regards, over even your parents, those that birthed you,” Mr. Genovard tried to say firmly. His head twitched then. I assumed that Genevieve’s glare got worse.

She swung back into the chair, tipping it dangerously. I saw her sneering. “Ha! You actually need to wonder? Isn’t it obvious? While you two were out gallivanting to who-knows-where, Grandpa’s been here with me. After you ditched me, he took care of me. And now you expect to just be able to come back into my life like nothing’s happened? Are you that stupid?” she scoffed.

“What latent disrespect you are showing to us, your biological parents! Is your brain so lilliputian as to be completely brainwashed by the senile elder?” her mother suddenly snapped. Being a lady, though, her raised voice was still said in a hushed whisper. She stood up in her chair for dramatic affect and looked down at Genevieve with a condescending gaze.

Genevieve didn’t look up. She didn’t jump, either, like Mr. Genovard did, because she seemed used to Mrs. Genovard’s dramatics. She just silently rose from her seat. When she did I saw her solemn face. I was surprised. I’d been sure that this encounter would end with her storming out of the room in a rage and causing a subsequent riot outdoors. It’d seemed like it would go that way earlier, but I think her mother’s comment changed everything.

“Ah, eh, um—” Mrs. Genovard started, realizing too late the effect her words had.

“No need for any other words, Mrs. Genovard,” Genevieve said stiffly. “I understand that it is impossible for you loquacious creepazoids to fully comprehend the fact that, in etiquette, family is always more important. To you, Mrs. Genovard, Grandpa is the only family you have living, and he is not even required to be your father. It is to my knowledge that your father ran off and your mother died in childbirth and it was Grandpa, her friend, who took care of you since then. I find it very inconsiderate that you seem to dislike him after all he’s done for you. Is it due to the fact that he is not your biological parent? Disrespect holds no bounds. If I may, I will now take my leave.”

Her calm voice made her parents restless. From the door, I grinned at their dumbstruck faces. I couldn’t grin for long because although Genevieve was walking slowly and calmly, she would reach the door very quickly. I quickly stood and stretched. The position I’d sat in for so long had my muscles aching and I couldn’t feel my toes. Somehow I managed to crawl across the floor to a grand window nearby. I forced myself to stand behind the dark blue silky curtains, glad that they weren’t the kind that you could see through. I hoped I wouldn’t be spotted.

The door opened, and someone came out. I figured that it was Genevieve but I couldn’t be sure through the thick fabric. Whoever it was, they stepped out of the room and stayed there. I couldn’t imagine why they didn’t keep moving. It was already getting stuffy behind the curtain and if I didn’t know better, I’d say that my air was running out and soon there’d be no more air and it’d get even more hot and stuffy and I’d die of asphyxiation and rigor mortis would set in so I’d die standing up and stay there until someone wondered about the reek of my rotting corpse and find me and everyone would be so sad and I’d be known as The Poor Girl Who Met Her End Through Curtains By Whose Maker Must Have Been Rather Irresponsible To Create A Fabric That Any Little Girl Could Hide Behind And Meet An Untimely Death Because Someone Hadn’t Thought Of Putting In Air-Holes And Thus Inadvertently Murdering A Poor Helpless—

“You know, I can see you, so you might as well get out from there,” I heard Genevieve say. Sheepishly, I stepped out from behind the deadly curtains.

“W-W-What gave me away?” I asked her, a nervous smile on my face. My eye twitch was coming back.

“It was definitely how your feet stuck out at the bottom. Your shoes are yellow. Totally noticeable. Anyway, haven’t you noticed it’s such a bright day outside? I could see your shadow. I hope you never plan to be a spy because your stealth is nonexistent. Why is your eye twitching?”

“I-It’s nothing,” I replied. “It just happens every once in a while.”

“Well, it’s weird,” Genevieve said, looking at me strangely. Then we heard the murmuring voices coming from the room behind her. “Let’s go.” She grabbed my hand and pulled me along after her. She hurried through the corridors and, when we reached the door, I realized that I could’ve never found my way out by myself. There were so many twists and turns it was a wonder that Mr. and Mrs. Genovard still remembered how to get anywhere after their long time away.

Genevieve dragged me to a spot by a huge tree. She started climbing it. It was so unladylike and crude, but I knew better than to say that out loud. Surprisingly, she made it to a very high branch very quickly. She sat sturdily on it, then looked down at me like she wanted me to climb too.

“I can’t.”

“Yeah you can. You’ve got two legs and two arms don’t you? It’s easy.”

“My dress will be ruined.”

“Who cares?” At this point I realized that Genevieve’s dress was dirty. Probably from the tree, hence my reluctance to climb up and ruin my dress.

“I do.”

“Well I don’t. Now hurry up and climb or I’ll come down and make you.”

I scrunched up my face. “You’re such a bully,” I muttered, but I started climbing anyway.

As much as it pained me to admit it, Genevieve was right. Climbing the tree was easy. Every branch was easy to reach and the bark was so rough it held my shoes in place so I didn’t slip and break my bones, but smooth enough to not cut my hands each time I grabbed a branch. I made my way up quickly. I was disappointed when I reached Genevieve’s perch because it had been fun climbing up.

Genevieve wasn’t looking at me. She had her head turned away and was looking off in the direction of the party, my parents, Beatrice, and her parents’ guests were attending. She had a solemn look on her face. It irritated me how dramatic she was being, like there was some kind of painful feelings hidden underneath her icy exterior. It was annoying because it was so obvious she was trying to look like someone who should be commended for how strong she must be to live such a hard life without complaining. Pshaw.

“So you heard everything?” she asked in a cool, easy voice. It must’ve been practiced in front of a mirror for the day when she’d finally get to make a big deal of her simple life. I know that’s how I’d do it, but it was so irritating that she made such a big deal of herself.

“Yeah, I did.” In my annoyance both my stutter and my twitch left.

There was a silence. Genevieve kept watching the partygoers with such a serious (-ly phony) look on her face that made me certain she was dying to have some of the food my parents had prepared. I was just about to offer to fetch some for her, just so I could climb the tree again, but she spoke first.

“Thanks,” she said. I was confused. I hadn’t even offered to do anything yet. Or had I only thought I was thinking it, when in reality I was saying everything out loud. It happened sometimes. “For not asking any questions,” Genevieve clarified. This didn’t help me any. What hadn’t I asked her about that would make her thank me? Or was my not asking the point of her thanking me for not asking?

She turned to look at me. I immediately adopted a stoic expression. I didn’t want her to think her dramatics had gotten to me. She was probably trying to mess with my head. My indifference, though, was broken when she gave me a small smile.

“You must think I’m crazy,” she told me, “to act like I did. Or…maybe you don’t. Maybe you side with me and realize how annoying my parents are. Maybe you think they’re in the wrong and you think that they should just disappear, too.” Her hopeful attitude surprised me. It was the kind that couldn’t be faked. Maybe she was using a trick similar to that sad puppy thing some people used to make themselves cry.

She looked away again. “Gramps doesn’t believe me. He says they’re just going through an awkward phase, where they don’t know how to differentiate between the people that love them unconditionally and those who love them for their money. As if they were the kids. They’re old. People that old have nothing serious to worry about. I don’t see how he can forgive her after she abandoned him like that.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I choked out, determined to not give in to her sob story. She was so convincing.

She sat with her face turned away from me. She either hadn’t heard my question or she didn’t want to answer it. I was just about to repeat it, thinking that she hadn’t heard me, but after a pause that was apparently sufficient for her extravagant tale, she answered me with a shrug.

“Enemies are the ones who you’re closest to, I guess,” she finally said. “You can tell them anything because you already hate them and the respectable ones, the ones you can call rivals, aren’t so stupid that they’d reveal your secrets to the world. They know it’s between you and them and anything else just complicates things.”

“So the people you hate stay in your heart the longest,” I said, just to say it. Maybe she wasn’t telling a tale. She was confusing me so much. I didn’t want to deal with her anymore, so I said “Talk to Vincent.” His was the first name that came to my mind. I only remembered later how I’d said he was just like her.

I climbed back down the tree. It wasn’t as fun as it had been going up, but I think that was because of how I glanced at Genevieve once while I was going down and found out she was glaring at me. It wasn’t a nice feeling, so I stared at straight ahead at the tree trunk. I headed back to the party and took my place by the snack table, where I stayed until it was time to go.

- - - - -Star Guide #16: Clean Breaks Are Preferred

My weekend was uneventful, unless you count constant high-fives and laughing and smiling at how well the banquet turned out as eventful.

Genevieve wasn’t at school on Monday. It was easy to notice; in a class of only eight people an absentee would be hard to be forgotten. But, strangely, Vince was out too. Those two usually came before anyone else.

Naturally, this caused all sorts of nervousness to stir up inside me. What if Genevieve was so ticked off at me for speaking to her that way so she took a chainsaw to Vince under the pretense of talking to him and killed him? She could do that, no doubt. She probably would. Or maybe she poisoned his food! She probably snuck into his room at night, locked his doors and windows, and put laughing gas in it until he suffocated! Or she could’ve pushed him from a flight of stairs! At the very least, she would’ve had him eat bad oysters and have diarrhea for a few months. My anxiety, obviously, wasn’t quelled by these feelings of my fault, my fault, my fault!

“Stop biting your nails. It makes you look like a beggar,” Penny said. I looked up at her. She had her fists on her hips and was glaring at me. She reminded me of a no-nonsense kind of mother. “And what’s your fault?”

“Huh?” I replied, dumbfounded. My cheeks reddened. I must’ve been muttering to myself out loud, making myself even more of a clown.

“You kept saying ‘my fault’ all over again. It’s creeping me out. What’s your fault? What did you do?”

“I, uh, I,” my feeble mind scrambled to find an answer that she’d buy. “I wrecked my mom’s expensive flower pot. It was from her mother, who died before I was born, so you wouldn’t know her. And she, uh, lived somewhere else, too. Anyway, the flowers were gardenias, my grandma’s favorite flower. Every year mom plants a ton of them. On grandma’s birthday she puts them on her grave, puts some in the vase, and sells them at the store.” It was semi-true. We always have gardenias, but Mom’s mother left her to grow up all alone with her dad. She never really knew her. And my mom definitely doesn’t have a green thumb. That’s Dad’s area of expertise. He loves to garden.

Penny’s eyes narrowed to thin slits. “I thought your mother was a cook,” she said slowly.

“Oh! Well, she is, except she likes to do a little gardening on the side. Y’know, to…reacquaint herself with, uh, to reacquaint herself with the earth! She thinks energy goes in a cycle from there, and to work with the earth a bit gives her more energy to cook delicious foods.”

“What do you—”

“Oh look! Mr. Clemons is here!” I shouted, pointing at the door. It was a good thing he actually was, because I was prepared to hide under the table. I was glad I didn’t have to, but a part of me was a bit downfallen. It would’ve been fun.

“Morning class! Today we’ll be doing some—wait, is someone missing?” He did a double take.

“I don’t know, is there? Why ask us when you already know?” Penny muttered very loudly.

There was an audible gasp from our because they all heard it, even Luna, and if they heard it, then Mr. Clemons must have or else he’d be extremely deaf. Since my teacher didn’t seem to have any hearing troubles in the past, I opted for the former. He heard it, too, which was bad news for anyone named Penelope Sven, no matter how cool the teacher.

But Mr. Clemons, being the cool teacher that he was, took it all in stride.

“Whoa, Penny,” he laughed (note how he called her by her nickname). “Someone needs to take their morning chill pill.” The class laughed meekly, more in way of being happy we’ve got Mr. Clemons as our teacher than by how (un)funny his joke was.

“So,” he said, but he had to repeat it to get us to quit our nervous laughter. “So. Does anyone know why Genevieve’s out?”

“She’s sick,” I blurted out. I had no idea why. Neither did my friends, because Penny and Mike looked at me in puzzlement.

“Is she?” Mr. Clemons said, concerned.

“Yup,” I told him, continuing with my lie. “Completely sick. Honestly sick. Sick as a horse that’s, uh, sick.”

I got more than a few strange looks from the class because of my brilliant way of phrasing my words. I could feel my cheeks turning red, but I tried to cover it up with a huge smile.

“Okay, then, but that only accounts for Genevieve. What about Adrianne and Aubrey? And Vince? What’s happened to all of them?” Mr. Clemons brought these astonishing facts to my attention in the same worried tone he’d used when he found out Genevieve was “sick” (or currently being arrested by the police for attempting to flee a murder scene she committed). I figured he only did it so everyone would feel equal, but he was probably sure we all knew certain people were much more fun to be around than others.

I looked around the table, noticing that three chairs were empty. I wondered how I’d missed it before, then remembered how nervous I’d been when Penny was drilling me earlier. I hadn’t had the time to keep track of all the comings and goings.

“I can’t believe she didn’t tell me she was gonna ditch today,” Penny muttered, this time in a voice that almost no one else could hear. Since I was sitting so close, I heard every word. “We always ditch together.”

My eyes widened. So this was what popular people did. In addition to having the run of the mill at school, they also played hooky and had fun outside of school while everyone else was still at school. I’d never skipped school a day in my life, and I had a sneaking suspicion that this was the reason why I hadn’t become so popular earlier. My stupid sense of duty had been holding me back all along. If I’d skipped school, even once, I probably would’ve met them in town, struck a conversation, and become friends much quicker than how my life actually played out. The way I figured it, consciences were so overrated.

“Excuse me,” Penny said. It took me a while to realize that she had noticed the sneaky-obvious way of leaning way close and cupping my hands around my ears so I could hear better. When I did, I scrambled to get back in proper posture. In the scramble, my chair fell. Not only did it make a noticeable noise, but it also hurt me in the process. The impact was jarring and my shoulders started to ache.

When I fell, everyone stood up to stare at me. Under such painful circumstances, I wanted to say something witty, something that everyone would always remember as “The Day Our Hero, Elaine Morris, Underwent a Severe Injury And Still Came Out On Top.”

“Ow.” That didn’t seem witty enough, so after considering a bit, I added “Ouch,” for good measure.

“Are you okay?” Mike asked. As I looked at all the faces, I was touched. Everyone appeared concerned (except of course Penny, who looked annoyed mixed with guilt mixed with concern, and Luna, who was reading her book). Wait (I counted heads). That only meant Mr. Clemons and Mike cared. Bummer.

“Yeah, I guess. My shoulders hurt.”

“How about your head?” They asked. I waited a while before answering for dramatic effect.

“Not so good,” I admitted. “I think I hit it pretty hard, but I’ll be okay. I’ve got a hard head.”

“Well, that’s good,” the same person said, “because we wouldn’t want you losing any of your brain cells. But I guess you’ve got plenty to spare. After all, it’s not like you use them or anything.”

The malice in the tone was evident. I sat up and craned my neck, trying to see who dared interrupt my fifteen minutes of fame. When I saw who it was, I let out an involuntary gasp (they’re overrated, too). Adrianne Clark strode up to me, pushing people out of the way. Her eyes flashed in anger. Something about the look she gave me kept me from standing up and meeting her gaze.

“You think you’re so cool, huh? I talk to you a couple of times, and suddenly you’re such a hotshot? I guess actually having a friend brought out your true colors. But you don’t do this to me, of all people. How dare you? We’ve been nice to you all this time, and now you do this?” She glared down at me.

My mouth grew dry and I could only stutter “I-I-I” again and again. I was confused, and my I later realized that my reaction did nothing to prove my innocence. If anything, it practically screamed I was guilty and, unfortunately, that’s what everyone else took my tongue-tied moment the same way. Adrianne reared back in surprise; it was as if she’d just been spouting her mouth earlier on unknown truths, or maybe someone had told her something that wasn’t so concrete and she’d come just to see if it was true or not. It occurred to me that she could’ve done it in a nicer way and just asked in a straight-forward way, but she had to take the offensive. I couldn’t be irritated at the moment, though, because I was too busy being speechless. My brain stopped working (partly because if it’d stopped altogether I’d be dead, but then that would probably be better than what came next).

The eyes of my classmates, the ones that had once been concerned at my fall (population of two), turned cold. Luna looked up from her book and stared at me. The look she gave me wasn’t as accusing as Mike and Penny’s, but it seemed worse. It was a blank look, but the fact that she’d turned her attention from her book just to give me that stare was what made it worse.

“What did I do?” I finally asked. I was scared that Genevieve had really killed Vince and I didn’t want a death on my shoulders just ‘cause I gave someone poor advice. “And who’s this ‘we’?”

“Oh, don’t pretend you don’t know! What you did was inexcusable! Totally not needed! You know, I was actually considering being your friend but then you sprung this on me! How could you?” she screamed. The effect her words had on everyone was instantly apparent.

Penelope was looking angry, and I knew what she was angry about. Michael had this stupid, sheepish expression, like he was embarrassed to even be associated with Adrianne and Penelope. He was looking at me with that face, trying to say sorry and explain, even though he’d previously been accusing me of whatever Adrianne thought I’d done. Penelope, however, glared at Adrianne. It was expected. She’d let the cat out of the bag.

I hadn’t really planned on what emotion I’d show at a time like this. I’d always wondered why they would like me all of a sudden, when I’d been ignored for practically the whole decade we’d known each other. I’d tried to put it at the back of my mind, tried to think of an alternate reason, a better one that I could believe and make everything alright. But I wasn’t so dumb as to not notice there had to be a hidden agenda somewhere. Of course, I still didn’t know why, but I didn’t have the time to ask questions anyway.

I finally decided on a shocked, hurt look. It made Michael wince. I knew that he felt even guiltier now. Penelope didn’t look at me. She only glared at Adrianne, and I realized that she wasn’t glaring at me because she couldn’t. She felt the same as Michael. Besides, she probably figured that she didn’t even need to shoot the evil eye when Adrianne was already doing it.

No one held out a hand to help me up, so I got up myself. “Mr. Clemons…I really think I should go now.” I ran out of the room and out of the building. I ran straight to the Benson Ford.

As soon as I slumped into my favorite spot the tears started flowing. I was smiling as I shed them. It wasn’t a bittersweet smile, like those weird people on TV sometimes do when something extremely bad happens to them and all they can do is laugh in a very unhappy way. I was smiling because of how cool I’d been back there, how I’d held back my tears, how I’d kept a cool head, but most importantly I praised myself for expecting it. After this, nothing could keep me from being the greatest celeb ever.

- - - - -Star Guide #17: It Pays To Be Multi-Talented

It turned out that Genevieve did get really angry at me and went around town telling everyone that I’d told her nasty things about Adrianne. Because of her personality, no one thought she was lying. Gossips, or, at least gossips like her, don’t lie. They probably embellish, but they don’t lie. They only pass on what they hear. Through the grapevine and all that.

Judging from what I knew of Genevieve, the things I’d “told” her were very, very bad, and I decided to not go to school for the rest of the week.

It wasn’t hard. Mom and Dad never checked my room if I yelled, “Bye!” really loud, opened the front door, and slammed it shut. They just woke up and got ready for work, never once coming by my room. While I waited for them to wake I stayed in my room (after, of course, filching some snacks from the kitchen).

That first day, I left the house a couple of minutes after my parents did, quickly, so that if they came back they wouldn’t get a good look at me and figure I was just another hooligan causing a ruckus. I went walking and ended up at Mrs. Forbes’s door again. Confused, I knocked on the door but before I could, a smiling Mrs. Forbes answered.

“Elaine! You’ve come back!” she said. I smiled back at her, wondering how she’d known I was coming. I decided that she looked out the window.

“Yeah. I’m sorry I haven’t been to see you in a while,” I replied as she ushered me inside. She took me through the house to the garden.

The garden had completely transformed. The strawberry plants had already grown the strawberries, and there were tons of them in places I was sure we hadn’t planted them in.

“How did they grow so quickly?” I asked, amazed.

“Uh..they didn’t, actually. They took so long to grow again that I just bought some from the store.”

I turned to look at her. I was sure that Mrs. Forbes would’ve remembered what I’d said the last time she’d done that. She wasn’t stupid enough to repeat her mistakes. But what other reason could I come up with? I had to believe her.

“Go on, dear, pick some and let’s bake a strawberry shortcake.”

My grin grew wider. Since my destructive toddler days, my parents had never allowed me to do any kind of help in the kitchen other than carefully adding ingredients they’d already measured, and even then they never let me do a dash of anything on account of that time I tried to add a dash of salt and our marmalade was completely ruined. So I was eager to have an adult finally trust me enough to let me use her stove without the danger of the house burning down (totally not my fault; how was I supposed to know that that was a lighter?).

“Now tell me about this gossip I’ve been hearing. Did you really say all that mean stuff about your friend? Who was it, ah, Aubrey’s twin sister?” Mrs. Forbes said, getting out the ingredients.

It sounded weird to hear Adrianne being referred to “Aubrey’s twin sister,” because everyone usually referred to Aubrey as “Adrianne’s sister” or, just plainly “that weird kid.” But Mrs. Forbes was really nice, I realized, and her house was probably the only place Aubrey could go where she knew she wouldn’t be made fun of. And I was ruining it for her by coming over so often.

“Yeah. Adrianne. Well, I mean no, not yeah. I didn’t say those things, not really, not at all! I didn’t say anything bad about Adrianne! Genevieve just said them because I got her really angry at me by going to her rich parents’ welcome home party and telling her to talk to Vince and when she didn’t come to school the next day I got scared because Vince wasn’t there either and what if she’d snuck into his house at night to murder him and wouldn’t that be sad, leaving his poor grandmother all alone when Genevieve’s in nearly the same situation with her parents and her grandpa—hey, did you know that the day she said those bad things about Vince before she was really referring to herself only saying it in a mean way?”

“Slow down! I can’t understand you.” Mrs. Forbes laughed. “You’re the daughter of the great chefs, can you tell me if this is okay or are we missing something?” She gestured to the ingredients spread out on the table. I peered at them.

“I don’t think you’ve got any butter, or the strawberries. Where are the strawberries?” I observed.

“Oh! How could I forget? Could you go and pick some strawberries from outside while I get the butter? Use this bowl here, I’m sure that’ll be enough. Fill it up to here.” She handed me a big red plastic bowl with one hand, holding her other hand up about twice the bowl’s height.

“No, Mrs. Forbes, that’d be way too much. We can’t put so many in it.”

“I know that. But we’re going to want to eat some strawberries ourselves aren’t we? There’s no way we can work on a strawberry cake without sneaking some for ourselves.” I nodded and went outside to pick the berries.

I picked all the berries from one plant before moving on to the next. There were so many on each plant that it seemed to take a few minutes before I could even see the brown soil it was growing on. Then, as I got up to leave, carefully balancing the strawberry bowl, I noticed an odd thing. All the plants I’d just picked clean were completely full again. I looked to the bowl I was holding to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me, but all the berries were in there. I shook my head and went back inside. I seriously needed some rest.

Mrs. Forbes had already started mixing the ingredients, so I went over to the sink and started washing the strawberries. After that was done, I stayed there and stared at the bowl. I couldn’t remember what to do next.

“What do I, uh, do now?” I asked her. She looked at me.

“Hull the strawberries, of course.”

“And, um, how exactly would I go about doing that?”

She came over and showed me how to hull a strawberry, but when my attempt ended with a cut-up mush (spoons are extremely dangerous, sporks even more so), she took over.

“Why don’t you just put together the ingredients for now? Here, I’ll jot down how much to put in. I’ve already got the flour in there,” she said kindly, grabbing a scrap of paper and a pen.

“Where was I?” I wondered aloud to myself.

“I think you were referring to how you feared Genevieve would become a mass murderer…or something?” Mrs. Forbes added.

“Yeah. So there in the classroom I was all concerned, and then my chair fell over. Adrianne came in and yelled at me. I left the classroom. At least, that’s the short version,” I said, concentrating on cutting the butter.

“Don’t worry, I think we’ve got more than enough time for the long version,” chuckled Mrs. Forbes.

“We do? Huh. I guess so. So Penny—that’s Penelope Sven—she was bugging me before class started about my…habits.” I didn’t want to elaborate. “Then Mr. Clemons came in and he was like, ‘Is someone missing?’ and Penelope was like ‘Duh, isn’t it obvious?’ and the class was like ‘Oooooo, Penelope’s gonna get it’ only not out loud but you could tell they were thinking it because the class—which was really just Luna Winter-Rose and Michael Anderson—looked at her with these surprised faces and Luna never looks up from her book. But, anyway, we were all wrong because Mr. Clemons was like, ‘chilly pills’ or something and—”

“I’m sorry to interrupt, but do you mean to say ‘Take a chill pill,’ or something along those lines? And where was Aubrey?” Mrs. Forbes asked. I nodded at her. As I mixed the ingredients I squinted at the piece of paper. Something wasn’t right. I shook it off and started on the dough.

“Yeah. That’s it. Aubrey was absent but the thing is I didn’t notice how many were absent till Mr. Clemons said it aloud. Vince, Aubrey, Adrianne, and Genevieve were all gone. Then Penelope made this comment about ditching while I was…lying back in my chair. I know, I know, ‘four on the floor’ and all that but I forgot and suddenly I was lying on the ground and my shoulder was really hurting. Then Adrianne and Aubrey walked in and Adrianne started yelling at me, and everyone stopped being worried at me and glared at me because I was so slow answering that people thought I’d really done those things, although she never said exactly what she heard I’d said.”

I walked over to the oven. I noticed that Mrs. Forbes had already preheated it, probably while I was out picking the berries. I didn’t blame her for not letting me touch the oven. I started to put in the bowl.

“And then—”

“Wait! Put that in a pan first!” Mrs. Forbes yelled. “If you do it like that, it’ll melt and get my oven all gooey and the cake won’t cook.”

“Oh, okay,” I said, closing the oven door and noticing she’d left a pan out for me on the counter. I poured the batter in, careful to not let one drop fall onto the floor. I placed the pan in the oven and closed the door. Mrs. Forbes had finished with the strawberries. She took some from the pile and made us both strawberry slushies. She stuck a straw in them.

“Then she said something that made me know then and there that I’d guessed right all these weeks, that she, Penelope, and Matthew had all been pretending to be my friend—”

“Don’t tell me this is Adrianne, that girl, Aubrey’s sister. Aubrey’s so sweet. There’s no way her sister could be so nasty.”

“Oh, there is,” I assured her, sipping my slushie. “The looks they gave me were the best part. Matt—Matthew—was looking all guilty and Penelope was glaring at Adrianne, because she couldn’t bring herself to glare at me, probably because I’m just so loveable, but Adrianne was still glaring at me so I guess that evens it out. But the best part, the VERY best part of my day, was how I reacted. I didn’t cry or yell or scream or anything! I didn’t even stutter, I just got up and said some cool line, like ‘I’ll be taking my leave now’ or something and I left! I didn’t cry until I was out of there and at my secret hide-out, and even then I was crying silently and with a smile. You wouldn’t believe it, Mrs. Forbes. I was so awesome!”

“I’m sure you were,” the old lady told me, smiling into her glass.

We made small talk for the time it took for the cake to bake. When we’d been talking for a little over half an hour, Mrs. Forbes got worried.

“It was supposed to be done in no more than fifteen minutes,” she explained. “I’ll go check on it again.”

I got up to peer at the cake with her. The cake looked more done than before, but still not quite done. It had looked that way for a long time. Finally, Mrs. Forbes just took it out and cut it up.

“It’s been in there long enough,” she said. “It’ll be okay enough to eat.”

But when the knife sliced through it we could hear a small tearing sound and it was instantly revealed that the inside of the cake was full of frothy white bubbles. As we both looked down at it, I decided that it would most definitely not be okay to eat.

“How much baking powder did you use?” Mrs. Forbes asked me after a moment of silence.

“W-Well, I used what you gave me. No, wait. As I was measuring it, an eensy weensy bit more fell out. I figured it didn’t matter. After all, baking powder helps the cake be delicious, right? The more the merrier, I always say,” and I gave a short little nervous laugh that she didn’t join in on.

“In this case,” she started in a soothing tone, more is not better. “You see, you only need a little baking powder to make a delicious cake. Why don’t you go down to the basement and get us a cookbook so we can do this without any more, erm, accidents.”

“Okay,” I mumbled and started trudging to the basement door.

“It’s not your fault, Elaine! Almost anyone could’ve made that mistake!” she called after me.

I took care to realize that she said “almost” anyone. This depressed me even more.

I opened Basement #1 and entered, taking a moment to be amazed at all the furniture again. I knew Luna would love it. It would be like a haven to her. But she still wasn’t speaking to me anymore for some strange reason…I shook my head, determined to forget my troubles. I carefully read the subjects of books row after row, hoping that the cook-books were on a high shelf so I’d be able to use the cool ladders.

Alas, they weren’t. They started at somewhere around my height and continued down, which was where they ended; at my feet. I was still happy, though, because I figured each row to be about a foot tall, and since there were five of them, I could determine that I was taller than five feet!

Ecstatic, I scanned the recipe books. Most of them were vague, like they’d say “COOKBOOK,” or “ALL-TIME RECIPES,” but some were pretty down to the point, like “MEAT TACTICS,” and “DESSERTS.” I was hoping that cakes would have their very own cook-book so that I’d know exactly which book to pick out. I didn’t want to pull out each and every book and read them, looking for the cake section.

I was lucky to not have to do that. Just as I was losing hope (for both not leaving the library hours after I’d gone in, and for the intelligence of the person who organized the books) I found them, somewhere by my feet. There were only two, so I had to make a choice.

I pulled them both out and looked at the covers. One featured a wedding cake, while the other had a picture of a fruitcake on it. I stared blankly from one to the other several times before I remembered which cake we were making; a strawberry shortcake. Weddings don’t usually have those kinds of cakes, and strawberries belong in the fruit category.

I would’ve stayed longer to praise my amazing logical abilities, but I was afraid I’d taken too long already and Mrs. Forbes, being a regular person, had gone to sleep, tired of waiting for me. I also heard that old people were very similar to newborns, and those little critters slept eighteen hours a day, sensibly choosing to wake up for six hours a night when they had all the attention to themselves and there were no other factors to get in the way.

The point is that I got up and left really quickly. I hurried up the steps, careful to not trip and fall and break an arm or leg.

By the time I was back upstairs and in the kitchen, Mrs. Forbes was already setting out a plate for our failed cake. I watched, confused, as she cut a decorated slice and placed it on the plate, wondering if she was the type of person that hated wasting. I really didn’t want to eat a cake that tasted as nasty as it had looked.

“Elaine, you’re back?” she asked. I nodded and held up the book. “Well come on then and let’s eat!”

“I don’t think it’s completely edible,” I mumbled.

There was some kind of twinkle in Mrs. Forbes eye. “That was then and this is now,” she said. I looked at her in confusion. What did she mean? Cakes didn’t go through transformations like caterpillars and Ebenezer Scrooge from that book, A Christmas Story. I was sure that cakes couldn’t just decide they wanted to be eaten without all the extra baking powder.

Mrs. Forbes must’ve noticed the suspicious look in my eye because she laughed. “Go on and eat it. It’s not going to kill you.”

That phrase didn’t help any; it only made me start thinking about dying. Nevertheless, my heroic tendencies wouldn’t let me run home, and my manners wouldn’t let me refuse. So I sat down by Mrs. Forbes and stared at my plate.

I’m sure that I would have started eating a lot sooner if Mrs. Forbes ate too, but she just watched me, as if she was waiting for me to take that poisonous bite and keel over and—

All this talk of death was making me hungry, so I started eating.

The cake was delicious! It was the kind of melt-in-your-mouth dessert and it tasted amazing! The flavors blended together in so many good ways. It made me proud. It was the first time I ever thought I had my parents’ blood in me. I never thought I could cook so well! And I bet that it was my cooking skill that made the extra baking powder add to the cake instead of ruining it like it’d do for people worse at baking than me. I knew that because, when I cut it, no frothing bubbles came up.

“Do you like it?” Mrs. Forbes said.

“Mmm-hmm!” If I opened my mouth, the scrumptious cake would fall out, but still I stuffed bite after bite, saving the strawberries for last. I asked for seconds, then thirds. I would’ve gotten fourths but I knew if I did I’d barf up that tasty cake and no one wanted that. Wait…I got up to go to the bathroom.

“Don’t you dare,” Mrs. Forbes suddenly snapped. “Don’t you dare vomit so you can eat more.”

I wanted to say No, Mrs. Forbes, that wasn’t what I had in mind at all, because if I sat down it’d seem like she was right, that I had really gotten up to barf just so I could eat more cake. I couldn’t say the words I thought up, though, so I did sit down.

I ate the strawberries, disappointed. Normally I loved strawberries, but their taste paled in comparison to what I’d been eating earlier.

Mrs. Forbes set a glass of lemonade on the table in front of me. I hadn’t seen her making it, but it was ice-cold and tasted like it’d been made from fresh lemons, not the powder.

Drinking that delightful beverage reminded me of a drink I’d been given before. I wondered how I’d survived the deathtrap (codename: snack) that Mrs. Clark had offered me. The lemonade from then was so sweet, so powdery!

“Why aren’t you eating?” I asked Mrs. Forbes. I wasn’t curious or concerned; I figured it’d be a nice way to go, by eating something delicious, if the cake really had been poisoned. And I didn’t really care about Mrs. Forbes’s answer, as I was currently licking my fingers and looking longingly as the cake. There was a lot left…

“Oh, no reason,” Mrs. Forbes replied in a surprisingly quiet voice. “Just a little tired.”

I had to forcefully close my eyes, turn my head to her, and open them again. The pull of the cake was so strong!

I quickly found out she was right. She looked extremely tired. Dark purple bags had somehow appeared under her eyes where none had been before, and her posture was unnervingly terrible. She usually sat with perfect posture.

“Oh. Then, I guess I should go…” I started and made as if to leave. I didn’t walk away from the table though and chose to stand there staring meaningfully at the remains of the cake. Mrs. Forbes, though, wasn’t even looking at me. She was looking straight ahead with that blank expression. Obviously I needed to be more obvious.

“Could I—”

“No.”

Okay. I guess I was obvious enough.

With one last, wistful glance at the cake, I left Mrs. Forbes’ house and trudged back to mine. I could tell that only an hour or so had passed so I had no trouble getting home before my parents.

I dragged my feet as I walked, lost in my thoughts (of which, though largely dominated by that cake, had a little concern for Mrs. Forbes mixed in). I had my head down and stared at my feet, so I almost didn’t notice the surprise visitor at my door until I was at the porch steps.

A hunched figure was sitting on the porch beside the door, hugging her knees to her chest. Her head was tilted forward so that her long, silky red locks of hair covered her face. I was glad. I didn’t want to see it.

I hesitated at the bottom of the steps, but only long enough to see her and be disgusted with her. I took long, quick strides to the door and pulled out my keys in a hurry to get inside. I unlocked the door successfully and strode into my house.

“I guess I deserve it…” I heard her say before I heard the reassuring sound of the lock clicking into place.

I raced up the stairs to my room and stared at Zazou.

Why did she come to my house? I silently asked her, staring hard. Why did she say that? Why did I leave her outside without talking to her or even asking what was wrong? Aren’t I nicer than that?

There was no reply. I decided to ask some easier questions.

Why didn’t Mrs. Forbes let me bring home the cake? Why is there school today? Why is the sky blue? Why is the earth green? Is it possible to make a new color? Is creativity something you’re born with? Does a cracked mirror really bring seven years of bad luck? How come color pencils are harder to erase than other lead pencils? Why won’t anyone make an eraser that erases color pencil? And how about erasers for pen? I heard bread erases charcoal pretty well.

I started losing patience with that poster. She wasn’t answering any of my questions. She wasn’t responding at all. What was the point of even having the poster if it didn’t share its wisdom with me, or at least give me a fortune cookie each time I ask for wisdom? Even frustrating lines like “You will come across great wealth” or “Family is everything” would be better than being ignored.

Zazou, I tried, What is two plus two?”

There was still no answer.

To my surprise, my stare had become a glare. For some reason I was angry at that stupid poster. I didn’t admire the knowing smile of the person on it anymore. I didn’t think it even had any wisdom to start with. It had been a waste of money. A stupid thing to buy.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” I found myself saying. I got out bed and looked at the poster closely. “Stupid.” Zazou smiled back. She obviously had no intention of responding. My hand shot out and grabbed a corner. I ripped the poster off the wall. It wasn’t a laminated poster, so an inevitable RIIIIPing sound filled the room. I ripped up the paper into smaller pieces, and made those even smaller. Soon I had fistfuls of confetti and my floor was dotted with the poster.

“Stupid.” I walked over to the window and opened it. I immediately threw the bits of paper out onto the street below and sat back to watch them fly gracefully down. I glared at them until my eyes became slits, angry that, even in this state, Zazou could still be so elegant.

Stupid.

I picked up the bits and pieces that were strewn around on the floor and threw them out too. I sat by the window sill and watched them hit the road.

I felt stupid.

Stupid for believing they’d wanted to be my friends in the first place. Stupid for going along with whatever they said. Stupid for thinking I was in a position to mock others. Stupid for hurting former friends, people who probably wanted nothing to do with me now. Stupid for not noticing any of the signs. Stupid for noticing them and ignoring them. Stupid for making empty promises. Stupid for being such a hypocrite. Stupid for only caring about myself. Stupid for wanting to be something different. Stupid for ever thinking I could be something different. Stupid for wanting to change. Stupid for ever thinking I could be a star. Stupid for wishing for the impossible.

I started crying.

- - - - -Star Guide #18: There Is No Such Thing As Bad Publicity

“Elaine?” my mother called from outside. “Will you come down to eat?” I didn’t reply. “D’accord,” she said. “I will leave it outside your door.” I heard her walk away.

Once I was sure she’d left, I opened my door and pulled in my tray. I started eating very enthusiastically, which was to be expected. I’d stayed in my room for about a week now, leaving only to go to the bathroom and sneak some midnight munchies. A girl had to eat.

I spent much of my delinquent hours staring at the empty wall where Zazou used to be, wishing I hadn’t ripped up the only decoration in my room. There wasn’t much else to look at. My walls were dull and boring; my ceiling even more so. I wondered how I’d gotten on through all my years without a television in my room. Adrianne had a TV in her room. I bet Aubrey did too. Mrs. Forbes had dozens of them in those third and fourth floor rooms of hers. Maybe even a hundred TVs. I made a note to myself to ask her about giving me one next time I went over.

When I finished my meal like the hungry animal I was, the only traces of food ever being in my room was the applesauce I’d spilled on my shirt, the bread crumbs on the floor, and the actual tray I was holding. I pulled out my handy-dandy brush and dustpan set, the one I’d taken from downstairs during one of my midnight snacks.

I swept up the bread crumbs, glad that my room didn’t have a carpet. I put the tray on my dresser. In a couple of hours I would place it back outside so my parents would think I’d picked at my food for a long time; that I wasn’t in the mood for eating.

I didn’t bother changing my clothes. It wasn’t like I’d be leaving my room anytime soon. Instead, I laid my head down to rest.

~~~
I’m sure that I’d been sleeping a while, because the next thing I knew, the door burst open (really, it swung open, but whatever). Being the sensible person that I was, I sat up quickly, my eyes searching for an escape route. I’m sad to say that they lingered on the window far too long for my taste.

It turned out that aliens weren’t invading. No, it was just my Aunt Marie. I was a bit relieved, glad that I wouldn’t have to bravely leap out the window anytime soon, but I was a bit—a teensy-weensy itsy-bitsy little bit—disappointed. I knew it was odd, but I’d kind of hoped for something outrageous to happen. Like being on the front page of a newspaper for stopping an alien invasion.

“How’s my favorite niece?” my auntie asked me really loudly.

“I’m…fine,” I answered. I’d learned that, in order to successfully pull the wool over everyone’s eyes, I needed to sound completely unattached to everything and everyone, like I’d expect a truly depressed person would be. It usually succeeded, but Aunt Marie doesn’t believe in things like depression.

“Nonsense!” she exclaimed. “Let’s try this one more time.” She backtracked out the door and shut it behind her.

I laid back down in bed and waited.

The door swung open. I made myself sit up, feigning surprise. “How’s my favorite niece?” my Aunt Marie asked me.

“Gee Wilikers, Auntie Marie! I’m feeling dandy!” I answered, smiling brightly.

“Now that’s more like it,” she said. She came and sat down next to me on the bed. “Now tell me what the matter is. You’ve got your parents all worried.”

I sagged. “Nothing’s the matter, Auntie. I’m alright. Why does everyone need an answer?”

“Look here, Elaine. I know you’re a little under the weather being as how your best friend’s mother’s been diagnosed with cancer, but—”

“WHAT?!” I cried. “What best friend? Whose mother?!”

My aunt looked startled. “Didn’t you know? Those girls—Adrianne and Aubrey Clark I think their names were—their mom, Mrs. Clark, is in the hospital with cancer.” She looked at me, confused. “Didn’t you know? Wasn’t that why you’ve been cooped up in here for a week?”

“No!” I wailed. “I didn’t know anything! I just…I pretended to be sick so I wouldn’t have to go to school and see her face.”

“Whose face?”

“Adrianne Clark’s! I hate her!”

“That poor girl? My God, Elaine, I heard she’s been crying her eyes out ever since her mom was admitted!”

I kept quiet. I could never picture Adrianne or Aubrey crying. I could picture them cooped up in their rooms, unresponsive to knocks on their door. I could believe that they were sad, or at least feeling a little down, but I could never picture them crying. They never showed enough emotion to do that.

“Anyway,” my aunt said, watching me carefully, “you’ve been in here too long. Don’t think your parents haven’t noticed that you’re sneaking around at night to get food. Why don’t we go out to eat somewhere to eat something warm and fresh?”

“I’d rather eat ice cream,” I told her.

“Well I’d rather be in Fiji on vacation. Guess we all can’t get what we want can we?” she grinned at me and stood up. “Get dressed. We’re leaving in five minutes. I’m timing you.” She tapped her wristwatch meaningfully before she walked out the door.

I got dressed quickly and hurried down the stairs even though I didn’t really want to go out. I guess it was because I’d been cooped up in my room for forever; even when my parents had gone out, I’d stayed inside. The only outside I ever saw was through my window and it’s boring to watch cars all day. I usually just slept. But now Aunt Marie was there and we were going to go out for food.

“You’re late,” my aunt said. I found her standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking at her watch.

“Your clock’s too fast,” I argued, but quietly. I figured my parents were asleep and I didn’t want to wake them. I knew how it’d go; first they’d be so excited to see me out of my room, next I’m grounded for life and have to go back to my room and stay until I graduate from an online college.

“Quit whining, you whiner-baby,” she replied, opening the door.

“Hey!” I cried out, but then she looked back at me and I could see her smiling. I followed her out to her sedan. I climbed in. As soon as I closed my door, she raced out the driveway.

My auntie Marie has never been what most would call a “safe driver,” because she isn’t safe. She’s not a “bad driver,” not exactly, but if you called her a “good driver,” I’d have to question your suicidal tendencies. You see, my auntie Marie never has—and probably never will—abided by the common law enforcement we see on the street, the signs on the road we call speed limits. My aunt has never been limited by anything, for the common good or otherwise.

So you can imagine how we got to the breakfast diner in under eight minutes (I was counting. I always do that with auntie).

I was tempted to fall on the ground and cry “Land! Land!” like they do in some movies, but Aunt Marie gave me no time for that. She was already striding along the path to the door by the time I got steady on my wobbly legs. I hurried after her.

“What would you like to eat? Pick anything. Your parents aren’t here to stop you.” My aunt smiled, taking a seat at a table.

I picked up the menu, going straight to the dessert section. My parents never let me order desserts, even at a party. They don’t seem to like my sugar rushes very much, though I have no idea why not.

I spent some time drooling over the tasty-looking pastries before Auntie Marie got tired of it and told me I could order more than just one since, afterall, this was my first time out in the real world in quite a while and maybe the reintroduction of sweets would keep me here.

Waiting for my first course, a slice of banana cream pie, I heard whispers. I noticed for the first time that there were people sitting at other tables, and they were talking. I instantly shrunk a little in my chair, wondering if they whispers were about me, but they weren’t. I listened to them for a while and caught Adrianne Clark’s name. I would’ve thought more into it, but by then my pie and my aunt’s pancakes were on the table.

My aunt watched me eat in silence for a while. “Elaine,” she finally said. “You know and I know that this isn’t your only meal in all the time you’ve been cooped up in that room of yours. Couldn’t you act more reserved, at least a little bit? You don’t have to eat that way.”

“What way?” I asked, but since my mouth was full of pie it came out more like, “Muh mwah?” I swallowed and tried again. This time it came out comprehensible. I wiped off the crumbs and filling that had somehow gotten all over my face.

“Nevermind,” Auntie Marie answered, shaking her head. “Go on. Eat to your heart’s content.” She gave me a smile, but it suddenly dropped as if something else had occurred to her. “Just not at the expense of my whole life savings, okay?” she added quickly. She started dividing her pancake into small triangles with her fork and knife, the way she always ate pancakes. She picked up the maple syrup container on the table and completely drowned it all with the sweet goop.

“Come on, auntie. I would never…” I couldn’t finish my own sentence because, like Founding Fathers George Washington and Honest Abe, I could not tell a lie. Or, at least, not when my mouth was full of pie (Would you look at that! I’m a poet and I know it).

We talked for a while about what’d been going on in each other’s lives since the last time she’d visited, around four months ago. I made my way through a slice of chocolate pound cake and some sort of delicious ice cream dessert while my aunt was still methodically slicing and eating. She kept adding more and more syrup, which, to some people would be disgusting, but my aunt had a major sweet tooth.

Somewhere around my fourth serving a group of old ladies walked in and sat at the table next to us. Auntie and I greeted them, but after that I didn’t pay much mind to them, preferring to deal with my cupcake. Even though I wasn’t focusing on them, not even in the slightest, I could hear their chatter very easily. And when a sore subject came up in their conversation, I found myself trying to hear every word.

“Isn’t it such a shame that she’s in the hospital?” one of the old ladies, Mrs. Winterbourne, lamented, her hand pressed to her cheek in a sorrowful way. “Her poor children. Those twins, Adrianne and the other one…what was her name?”

“Audrey I think,” Mrs. Finnegan answered.

“No, it was Aubrey. I remember since it reminds me of the chestnut horse I used to ride when I was younger,” Mrs. Winterbourne corrected herself.

“Who’s in the hospital? I never heard anything like that,” a third lady, Mrs. Drake, pouted.

“Your head’s been in the gutter, then, Ida!” said the last woman, Mrs. Fornesby.

“It’s not my fault that I’ve been sewing for the whole week, since I can sew, unlike some, Eileen,” Mrs. Drake muttered.

“This happened almost three weeks ago!” argued Mrs. Fornesby.

“Well—” Mrs. Drake started.

“Girls, girls! Quit quibbling! You’re acting like a bunch of schoolgirls, and those days are long past. We’ll just have to recount the events for Ida here now so she can get caught up,” Mrs. Winterbourne sternly interrupted.

“First tell me who’s in the hospital.”

“It’s Mrs. Clark of course,” Mrs. Finnegan said.

“Mrs. Clark?” Mrs. Drake exclaimed. “Why?”

“Apparently she’s got breast cancer. The lump’s been growing for months I hear, but that’s not why she’s in the hospital now, though I do suppose it’s a topic of interest that would keep her there for—”

“Cancer! Oh, what a sad thing! It seems like troubles just keep piling up for that woman!”

“Yes, cancer,” Mrs. Winterbourne replied, angry at being interrupted. “But, as I said, it’s not why she’s in there now. She cut herself, nicked a spot on her wrist near one of her main arteries.”

“I heard it wasn’t really that bad or anything, it’s just the blood wouldn’t stop flowing and she took herself to the emergency room straightaway to fix it up,” Mrs. Finnegan commented.

“And you know how she always wears long-sleeved shirts?” Mrs. Fornesby grudgingly added, getting caught in the excitement too. “By that time she got to a nurse she’d lost so much blood. She started feeling faint. They changed her into one of those dreadful hospital dresses. You know how the sleeves are always so short on those? Well, let’s just say they found more than one cut, and not just on that wrist but all over both of her arms!”

“Wow!” Mrs. Drake said. “Imagine that! And I thought only those youngsters nowadays were foolish enough to cut open their flesh like that. The ones going by the name Elmo or something like that. It seems they’ve got more than one of those weird groups you just fall into. There’s one called Goth, another’s punk…oh! And something called “seen”! Would you believe the spelling mistakes and grammar mutations kids do now? And on purpose, too! Why, when I was younger—”

“We’re not talking about prehistoric days, Ida. We’re talking about the Clarks!” Mrs. Fornesby sneered. I could tell Mrs. Drake didn’t like that much but she didn’t say anything since she was interested in the going-ons of the Clarks, too.

“Will she die?” Mrs. Drake asked. Her voice sounded melancholic but it still had an undertone of enthusiasm that made me wonder. She sounded excited, not about the fact that a person might die, but about the fact that there was something happening, some big event that was different from the dreary days of our town.

“No one knows for sure but it sure looks that way, doesn’t it?” Mrs. Winterbourne laughed.

Still, I grimaced. How could someone sound so happy when talking about death? I could tell my aunt noticed the look on my face, but she said nothing. I went back to eating but not with as much gusto as before.

I was thinking about the Clarks, about Adrianne and Aubrey and their mom. I’d never thought about it before, but what about Mr. Clark? What about their father? Was he dead? Just the notion that he might be dead made me feel worse about the cancer and the old ladies. I made a mental note to avoid them.

“What about Mr. Clark? Will he be visiting? It’d be best for the children, I think,” Mrs. Drake said aloud.

“Hah! That Clark. If he steps foot on this island in a million years, it’d be too soon. He’s far away and that’s where he should stay!” Mrs. Finnegan growled. My ears twitched (they can’t perk up like a dog’s, unfortunately) and I stopped eating again to hear this interesting bit.

“Oh! There’s a Mister?!” Mrs. Fornesby cried out. She’d probably been thinking the same thing I had, that Mr. Clark was dead.

“Now who’s kept her head in the gutter?” sneered Mrs. Drake. Mrs. Fornesby sneered right back. They made stuck their tongues out at each other and made funny faces and taunting noises. I stared, dumbfounded. Who knew old people could still remind you of six-year-olds?

“What matters is,” Mrs. Winterbourne said firmly, her voice raised. The two old women stopped arguing, giving each other a couple of final dirty looks. She cleared her throat. “What matter is that her question is answered. Yes, there was a Mr. Clark, but they weren’t married. They were going to around twelve years ago but—”

“The wedding suddenly got called off! He left the next morning on a ferry boat. It was because she was insufferable. Always nagging about something,” Mrs. Drake interrupted, “and then the twins were born a couple of months later and everyone thought she’d force him to come back and help her take care of them but she didn’t and I was awfully proud of her, finally growing a backbone!” She paused for breath.

“But she—” Mrs. Winterbourne started again.

“But she wouldn’t go by her maiden name, no siree, she wouldn’t let anyone call her Ms. Walters anymore. She told everyone she was Mrs. Clark! And would you believe it if I told you that’s her almost-husband’s last name? Clark! She even named her kids after his initials: A, B, and C. We all thought she’d gone bonkers, but that’s what happened. It wouldn’t do to deny a woman who’d been left at the altar anything. You know that.”

“Really!” Mrs. Fornesby exclaimed.

“Really!” Mrs. Finnegan and Mrs. Drake replied together.

“That remind me of…” and the ladies moved onto another topic, all except Mrs. Winterbourne who sat with her arms crossed. Her face looked extremely unfriendly. The women around her didn’t seem to notice, preferring to discuss the downfall of contemporary society.

“Let’s go,” Auntie Marie said, looking at me with a gentle expression. She’d finished her plate of pancakes.

“Yeah,” I answered numbly.

- - - - -Star Guide #19: Watch Your Back

We didn’t speak at all in the car. My aunt could tell I wasn’t up to any conversation. While she drove us home I stared out the window, lost in my thoughts. A lot had happened during the time I’d shut myself up in my room.

We rolled up to the driveway (Six and a half minutes; a new record). As soon as the car stopped I jumped out and started walking away from the house. My aunt came out, too, and watched me.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“To the lake.”

“Okay. When you come home, I won’t be there,” seeing my crest-fallen face, she continued. “Remember, I only came in the first place to get you out of your room. Things at work are getting so hectic I practically had to beg my agent to let me have today off.”

I awkwardly waved goodbye. My aunt Marie was a budding artist. She did a bunch of freelance jobs but recently she’d gotten an offer from a popular graphic designing company that might turn into a long-term job. She wouldn’t want to lose that chance. It would’ve been selfish of me to keep her from that.

Anyway, it was off to the boat for me. I was in need of some major spiritual guidance.

~~~
I’m pretty sure I looked very serene sitting so still, looking out at the water while the sun blazed down on me. In fact, I was certain I looked cool. No mothers asked me to hold their little kids. No one disturbed me.

That was fine and all—it was great, actually, but a girl can only sit still for so long y’know?

Before long my legs started cramping up and I longed to stretch them. I didn’t, though, since I knew that someone was watching me. I could feel it (a good ability for an idol to have, in case of paparazzi and all that). I knew I’d just have to tough it up and deal with the discomfort. It wouldn’t do for me to lose my cool now.

I could tell whoever was watching me wasn’t going to leave anytime soon. I tried my best to keep my ultra-cool position, but it just fell apart. I tried to stand up and started shaking the dreaded pins-and-needles feeling out of my legs.

It turned out that my legs weren’t the only parts of me feeling bad. I could feel my stomach churning and felt my breakfast coming up and out. It had all tasted fine and dandy in the diner but out here the tastes were blended, mixed in with my stomach acid, and falling out of my mouth and into the water below.

The person started laughing. I turned my head to see her and sighed. It wasn’t anyone important; I hadn’t gained my first stalker or a journalist out to get me. It was just a Clark, and that family was really getting on my nerves now.

“Well?” I asked her. “Why are you here?”

“Because I was wondering why you aren’t there.” With that mysterious tidbit, Aubrey turned away from me. She left as silently as she’d come.

I whipped back to face the lake. I was ready to scream, I was so angry. I could feel the tears start at the corner of my eyes and collapsed onto the ground, pounding my fists again and again. I stopped, though, when they started to hurt, but just because I wasn’t hitting anything didn’t mean I wasn’t angry.

There was no way her retreating form could look cooler than I was!

- - - - -Star Guide #20: Learn to Restrain Yourself At All Times; Wigging Out=NOT Cool

I wanted to stay at the boathouse until sunset, or at least until night fell. It wasn’t because it would’ve been awesome to come home late and slip into the house oh-so-mysteriously. Actually, no…it was more like that wasn’t the only reason.

I liked the sunset. I liked the calming effect it had on me while I was at the boathouse by Lake Erie and watching the sun, wondering how time could go by so quickly. I liked the feeling it gave me, that everything wasn’t absolute. The beauty of the setting sun always seemed to go much too quickly and the sky would be dark and I’d get home and my parents would be a little bit perturbed with me. It always reminded me that nothing lasted forever, and I liked that. I loved that.

Alas, I couldn’t stay. Sometime in the afternoon I just felt fed up with everything. Not just Aubrey’s faux coolness, but everything. It wasn’t anger or sadness or both like the time I ripped up Zazou’s picture, or even the horrible feeling I got that time a few years ago when, after I’d finally persuaded my parents to get me an ice cream cone with five scoops, I set it on the ground so I could climb up the playground slide and lick it and it fell and my mom and dad dragged me away since they said it was unsanitary to eat ice cream off the dirty playground floor and the five second rule really did not apply to things on actually dirt infested with worms and beetles and blood-sucking mosquitoes—who knew where they’d been?

I was just fed up with everything, as I said. Not really any strong feelings, just a kind of annoyance. I didn’t like the me who locked herself up in her room for such a long time, or the me who abandoned Adrianne when she showed up on my doorstep. I didn’t like Adrianne and Penny and Max for being so mean to me. I didn’t like Aubrey for being weird, and I didn’t like Genevieve for being so well-off but hating her parents. At that moment, I wasn’t really liking anyone, but hate is a strong word.

I went home quickly. I made sure to make a lot of noise so everyone could hear me come in. I wanted them to know I was there and hug me and make me remember that there were people I liked and that I was just being a drama queen.

There were no lights on at my house. After turning them all on, I stomped to the fridge and found a note:

Taking Marie home. Back later. If you have hunger (which you shouldn’t after all Marie let you order), there is casserole in the oven. Will talk to you about foolish eating choices later.
-Your mom
P.S. Don’t worry. I’m sure everything will be okay. Certainement!
^That means definitely! -Dad

The note made me smile. It was nice to know my parents were looking out for me. I opened the oven and started spooning out the casserole. I was hungry since I’d emptied my stomach earlier.

As I was stuffing myself like a turkey, the doorbell rang. I sat there, irritated, with a forkful of delicious cassoulet chicken casserole just an inch from my mouth. I decided to eat it and go answer the door, but the doorbell rang again and again. Whoever was at the door seemed to know exactly when I was about to eat and kept interrupting. I started getting really angry. Finally, I dropped my fork on the plate and stomped to the door.

“What is it!?” I yelled as I swung the door open. The police officer standing there didn’t seem to appreciate it much.

- - - - -Star Guide #21: Say Nothing That Can Be Used Against You

“Remember to tell your parents what I said now, alright dearie? And lock the doors and windows tight,” the kindly old Mr. Finnegan told me.

“Don’t worry, I will!” I called after him. “Goodbye!” I waved. I shut the door and locked it tight just as he told me to. I found myself thinking after he left, What a nice man!

Then I went to take a nap.

I think my parents came home sometime just before midnight. I was probably sleepwalking since they claim I’d unlocked the door for them (Dad forgot his keys like always). I spent a few moments praising my unconscious brilliance before I remembered what Mr. Finnegan had told me.

“Oh yeah,” I brilliantly began, “Mr. Finnegan dropped by earlier.”

“He did? Why?” Dad asked, reaching for something in the fridge. They hadn’t had dinner yet.

“Oh, nothing. Just came to tell me the restaurant was broken into this morning.”

“WHAT!?” my parents exclaimed at the same time. I couldn’t suppress a grin; it was actually really funny, once you thought about it. First someone vandalized our restaurant, then the officer came to tell me, who told my parents, who totally freaked out—

“She’s kidding,” my mom said, sighing with relief.

“She better be,” Dad added, a glare starting to daunt his features.

My face grew serious again. “Oh, definitely not,” I informed them. “We were totally and completely broken into. No doubt about it.”

The hilarious expressions reappeared on my parents’ faces but this time I didn’t laugh. I knew better than that.

“Really?”

“Yes, really. Would I lie to you?” Silence. “Don’t answer that.”

“And what else? Who did it? Why did they do it? Did they take anything? Oh la la, why does this happen in such unfortunate times?” Mom wailed.

I shrugged. Dad gave me a sharp look. “Officer Finnegan told us to see him tomorrow morning at six or something. He figured you wouldn’t be back till late, and look, he was right! Isn’t that interesting?” I smiled at them.

They most definitely did not smile back. In fact, my parents slowly trailed out of the kitchen. My dad had his hand on his forehead as if he had a headache, but that couldn’t have been the case. No one gets headaches so quickly.

“Hey! You didn’t eat yet!” I called after them. My parents ignored me, which I thought was very rude.

I felt bad then, so I tried to think of why skipping meals is unhealthy to make me feel better about it. Not eating could be seen as anorexia, which always eventually led to the body consuming its own organs. I didn’t want my parents to be literally heartless. But then I remembered that the organ-eating came after a long time of starving yourself and felt better. I went back to bed smiling.

I fell asleep listening to my parents on the phone yelling at whomever was on the other end, telling them something along the lines of “You better do the very best you can…Mon Dieu!...I’d…see how they felt if they…my gosh…if not…understand?”

I slept very well that night.

- - - - - -Star Guide #22: When You’ve Got A Job To Do, Give It Your All
“So you’re saying nothing was damaged or stolen?” My dad asked Mr. Finnegan the next day at the restaurant.

Officer Finnegan looked carefully at the inventory list we’d given him. He looked back at the restaurant, which had obviously been tampered with, but nothing was missing.

“Yes, I’m certain everything’s here.” He frowned. “I’m not sure about the damaged part, though. We found a cake in the trashcan. Maybe they got hungry.”

“Un gateau?” my mom yelled. “What kind of cake?” When my mother grew anxious, she used more French words.

“We’re not exactly sure, but it was very large. We could make out pink, white, and red frosting. There was one of those sugar figure thingamajigs, but it was broken. We suspect some parts were either eaten or disposed of elsewhere, as the heads of the man and woman were gone and the bodies were cracked or completely destroyed in various areas. There was one, though, a small girl, that wasn’t damaged at all, just covered in frosting. Run that under hot water a while and it’ll be good as new.” Officer Finnegan smiled at my parents.

Unfortunately, my parents were not in a very good mood. I’d never seen them this…frantic. Even for the banquet there’d been a kind of easygoing mojo that going hand in hand with the hectic situation. I could tell they weren’t just a little bit perturbed. They even seemed almost…angry.

“Water?!” My mom said in a scarily quiet voice. “If I run it under water, HOT water especially, it will dissolve. It takes one hours to create even one of those figures, with all the precision and care that went into the making. The celebration—la fête—was going to be tomorrow. We have no time to be making more.”

“Is that so…,” Mr. Finnegan answered, his voice getting quiet too, but in nervousness. “I’m sorry for your…loss. I’ll have every officer I can to try and find the culprits,” he told us. I could tell he was already feeling sorry for whoever had done the breaking and entering.

“Culprits? There are more than one?” my dad asked, coming closer to stand by my mother. He made a move as if to drape his arm on her shoulders, but he thought better of it. He probably didn’t want to be humiliated in public.

“Yes. We found traces of two different kinds of fingerprints in numerous parts of the cake after we sent it in for testing after…that phone call.” At this, my dad’s cheeks turned a pale red. My mom was unaffected though, and stayed stern. I wondered what the nice old man was talking about. Had the vandals placed a threatening call?

“If it had been that alone, we never would’ve had enough information to determine who it was, as over half the nation fits into the rough prints we’d managed to retrieve. We’re lucky the lawbreakers thought to taste the cake. I guess no one can resist anything made by the famous Morris family cooks after all.” He tried another smile.

I smiled weakly back. I liked to humor people whenever they mentioned the good aspects of my family, which were a lot. They didn’t need to know that most of those traits had completely skipped my generation; it was none of their beeswax, and, besides, no one had ever asked me directly if I knew how to cook well.

“And? Who did it?” My mom asked him. I noticed a dangerous glint in her eye. No one else seemed to see it, but they felt the tension.

“Ah…um…,” Mr. Finnegan mumbled. “It’ll take a while to match the DNA with our existing files.”

My mother sighed heavily. She didn’t bother to try to hide her impatience. Although the population of our little Put-in-Bay was so small, the police department always had a hard time doing anything with stuff like this. Actually, everyone did; the DMV people, the bankers, the fast food restaurants…everyone who used a computer experienced problems like this. It’s like the Internet connection to Put-in-Bay is the weakest on the planet. Even with this, though, the police’s computer was by far the slowest. That’s why my mother sighed.

“Well, please work hard,” she relented. “Faire un effort!”

“Will do, ma’am.” He tipped his hat off to us while we were leaving before turning back to listen to what one officer was saying. Unsurprisingly, I was longing for a hat so I could do the same. But I was quickly reminded of more important things.

“What celebration?” I asked my parents sternly.

“The Genovards, that prétentieux—snooty—family, has recently hired us to host the celebration they’re having for the reunion of them and their daughter,” my mother said glumly.

“Normally we wouldn’t take jobs from such awful people, but we never saw their daughter even once at the banquet. We got to thinking; she must be very lonely and feeling very abandoned. They were gone for most of her life you know,” Dad added.

“We want them to meet in here, where we can watch what those fools say to her and intervene whenever possible. If we allow them to ruin the life of their daughter further—which they undoubtedly will try their very best to—we’d be just as bad as them. We wanted it to be magnifique, but now…” Both parents went off into some other world, probably to escape the worry.

“She probably wouldn’t go anyway,” I muttered absently, thinking of the daughter they were talking about. From what I knew, Genevieve Cain didn’t like her parents very much at all.

“What did you say?” My dad chose this moment to return to Earth.

“N-Nothing,” I quickly replied. They didn’t know I knew who the mysterious It Baby was. If they had, I was sure they wouldn’t go to such lengths to make her comfortable, unless they thought the Genovards were a real piece of work. Everyone knew of Genevieve’s attitude. Her infamous remark about Vince’s parents was exactly that: well-known.

Luckily for me, my dad quickly forgot what I’d said, going back to his happy place. I felt kinda bad for them, but really it was all becoming very depressing. I quietly excused myself and walked home. I knew I wouldn’t wanna drive back home with this unsettling duo.

Walking home gave me time to think about a lot of things. I couldn’t help but wonder things like what was happening at school, what was up with the Clark family, and whether or not Genevieve and Vince had formed a sort of a criminal crime duo like Bonnie and Clyde. I really hoped that didn’t happen. It made me think about the vandalism at the restaurant my parents were probably still in, still fuming.

Could they have done it?

- - - - -Astronomy #23: If You Can’t Make It, Fake It

My parents made me go to school the next day. This morning, they were up and active before I left. So active, in fact, in re-creating that cake and all its sugar figurines, that they forced me out of bed to get rid of my “potentially distractive self.” Honestly, those people…They were tempted to make me leave before my bowl of Raisin Bran! Luckily, since I was already half asleep, they knew that idea wouldn’t have gone over very well.

I was a little nervous seeing people I hadn’t seen in so long, being cooped up in the house like I was, but even so I felt kind of excited at having something to do each weekday. Being underage, I wasn’t able to drive or live on my own or go to many things and places by myself, so without school my life was kind of boring. Also, it’d have been embarrassing if I had to repeat the year just because of a silly thing like trying out the career of a hermit crab and staying home all day.

So, I was both psyched and nervous, as if it were the first day of school and I’d be put in a whole new setting with new people and a new grade plan.

Thinking about all this made me eat slowly. Unlike all the times I’d walked to school before, I still had a couple of raisins left over by the time I reached the front door. I hesitated, then shoved them in my mouth. I figured I’d chew on the way to class. I opened the door and entered school, still feeling a mixture of fear and excitement, only now that I was so close the fear was taking over. I considered turning and going back home. It’d be a cowardly move, I knew, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to even see my classmates again. Even if I had to repeat the year, there were some faces I didn’t want to see. I stopped walking and stood in the hallway. I could hear some classes going on, but tuned them out as I was thinking.

My dilemma was abruptly solved when I heard the sound of someone running. A boy had just turned the corner, coming from the direction of the main office. I knew him; Gregory Bundt, a sixth grader. He didn’t notice me as he barreled past and raced to my classroom door. He had a weird look on his face. I couldn’t tell if he was scared or excited.

Gregory flung open the door and spoke loudly. “Mr. Clemons? Is this…Mr. Clemons’…class?” He was breathing heavily, though I knew it wasn’t from the short run. I started to wonder, though. I’d heard he had asthma…

“Yes, what is it, Gregory?” I heard Mr. Clemons ask, a hint of concern in his voice.

“It’s…Adrianne and…Aubrey Bentley. They need…to go…to the hospital right now. Their mother…their mom…” He pulled his inhaler out from his pocket and took deep breaths. “She stopped breathing.”

Instantly I heard a clatter and then the two girls pushed past Gregory and hurried out the door. They saw me as they passed (or at least Adrianne did. Aubrey was wearing her sunglasses, so who knew?), but they took no notice of my wide eyes and shocked expression. I turned and watched as they dashed away. They soon turned and were out of sight.

“Elaine?” Mr. Clemons said. I turned to see him peering out the door with a worried expression. He’d probably been watching Adrianne and Aubrey too.

“Uh, yeah. Hi, Mr. Clemons. Good morning.”

“Good morning. I’m glad you decided to show up today.” It wasn’t said in a snooty voice like you’d expect, but with genuine care. He tried to crack a smile. “Come on. We’re reviewing for the state assessment.”

I went in and took my seat as Mr. Clemons thanked Gregory and sent him on his way. My classmates, the ones that were there, looked up and stared at me. Penny sneered and looked like she was going to say something, but then Mr. Clemons came in, closing the door behind him. No one else bothered to try to speak to me, or even to each other.

It was a very important lesson but all us kids could tell no one was paying attention to it. Mr. Clemons noticed, but he kept going. While he was talking about logos, pathos, and ethos, we were watching the two empty seats at the table. Even so, I was glad he continued. If we had to spend the next few hours in complete silence, no one would’ve been able to stand it. Also, his talking prevented anyone else from speaking. I didn’t want to hear any gossip or snide comments about anyone from anyone, even if there was only one person who’d do that (Penelope). It was more comforting to have everyone pretend than to face the reality of the situation and what might happen afterward.

I think at this moment I understood why everyone “believed” Mr. Moore had Alzheimer’s. Sometimes make-believe things really were the easiest to go through, no matter how truthful you wanted to be.

- - - - -Star Guide #24: Knowledge is Power


I’m pretty sure I was the only person who didn’t go to the hospital right after class. The hordes of people going there looked like a funeral procession, and I’m sure many of them thought it was one. They thought Mrs. Clark was dead, or going to die soon, and they wanted to pay their respects. They all acted all solemn, but I knew the second they were out they’d gossip about how she looked and who’d get her possessions. Even if not all of them would do that, I knew some (like some old ladies I knew…) would. I glared at my feet and angrily kicked a rock. Why would they even bother going if they didn’t care at all?


I got home still steamed up. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, so I went straight up to my room. As expected, my parents weren’t home. They were probably renegotiating the whole thing about the It Baby’s party. I smiled a small smile. With the news about Mrs. Clark, the Genovards would definitely agree to postpone. They wouldn’t want it to seem as if they were celebrating someone’s bad health.


Lying on my bed, I turned to look at my blank wall, the space where Zazou had been. Looking at her for inspiration had been a habit and now that she wasn’t there anymore I was at a loss of what to do. Suddenly feeling very uncomfortable, I got off my bed and went downstairs. I didn’t want to watch TV, so I just left the house and headed for Mrs. Forbes.


Thankfully, she wasn’t on her way to see Mrs. Clark like everyone else. She looked concerned, though, when she opened the door, and I could see the bags under her eyes clearly even as she gave me a cheery greeting.


“How are you doing, Elaine?” she asked me in a tired voice after we’d moved to the kitchen.



“Fine,” I answered noncommittally. I couldn’t bring myself to sit down, and instead walked around the kitchen. We spent several minutes in silence with me pacing restlessly and Mrs. Forbes sitting quietly until I couldn’t take it anymore.


“Let’s go the basement.” I didn’t specify which one, and Mrs. Forbes didn’t ask. She simply nodded her head and stood, following me to the door. I wanted the steps to creak as we went down because that would’ve made some sound, even if it was eerie, but they made no noise. In a way, that seemed even creepier.


“Mrs. Forbes,” I said curiously. “Are these stairs wooden?”


Even in the dark I could see her mischievous smile. “No. Harvey painted them to look like wood. It’s really stone. He was always such a kidder.”


I looked down at the steps more carefully, but it was no use. I couldn’t see the difference. When we got to the landing I reached up and pulled the light switch to help me. Now that I knew what I was looking for, I really did see something a bit off about the steps. I reached out to touch them and was surprised to find that they had the rough touch of paint.


“Wow,” I told her. “Your husband was some kind of artist huh?”


“Actually, we used to own a general store, but yes he always had a careful eye.”


I pushed open the door to the basement and started looking at the nonfiction books. I came across a Dewey Decimal System list and pondered over it, considering where my topic would be categorized.


Finally, I decided on a stack of books and went to sit down with them. Mrs. Forbes was sitting there too. Her eyes twinkled as she read the spines of the books I’d picked out.


“Interesting choice,” she murmured, then pulled out her knitting stuff out of what seemed to be nowhere. I wasn’t too concerned, though, because my mind was on the books. I had to read them and understand them. I wanted to know all about it.

I couldn’t say how much time had passed before I looked at the clock on the wall and realized it was time to go home. I looked at Mrs. Forbes, who was almost done with the shirt she was making.

“Do you think Aubrey will be by today?” I asked her. She looked at me.

“Who knows,” she answered. “She’s been by almost every day since her mother was first admitted but now…I think she’ll be staying at the hospital. Her sister needs her, and she needs her sister.” She went back to knitting. “I think that, even as horrible as it is, this is a good experience for them. They finally have a chance to act like normal sisters and forget that awful feud.”

“Feud?”

“You know, the way they always act around each other. Always so careful and condescending. Now they can comfort each other, since there’s no reason to be condescending at a time like this.”

I realized that she was right. Adrianne and Aubrey had been like that for years, as if they were walking on glass, only it wasn’t just around each other. It was around everyone. They always seemed to be distant, no matter where they were or who they were talking to. Especially to their mother.

I got up. “I need to go home now, Mrs. Forbes. It was nice talking to you. I’ll probably be back tomorrow.”

“Come whenever you feel like it,” the old woman assured me. “Old bats like me enjoy the company.”

I left her house and went to mine, refusing to think anymore on what had become the most popular gossip in town. That family had so many problems…Hadn’t I wanted to be just like them?

When I got home, my mom was taking out the garbage. It was already getting kind of dark.

“Ah, Elaine,” she said when she spotted me, pronouncing my name in that way I liked. She smiled. “Alors, how was your day?” I rushed forward and gave my mom a big hug, happier than ever that we were nothing like the Clarks.

“It was great, Mom. How was yours?”

“Bien. Now let’s go in and eat dinner. I’m a little bit perturbed with you that you weren’t here earlier...”

“Well, Mom,” I started.

“…Because I have such great news! Come, let us discuss it at the table. Viens!” She led me inside.

Dad had already finished setting the table and doling out the food when we entered the dining room. My mom and I took our seats.

“Well, mom?” I asked, dipping some bread into the stew.

“You will not believe this! C’est incrédule—it’s unbelievable—especially considering how that pair is.”

Dad was smiling broadly as he ate. He knew exactly what she was so happy about.

“The Genovards? What won’t I believe?”

“They not only agreed to postpone the event, but they left all the planning to us! All the details will be ours to make! Tout les choses!” My mom burst out.

I made a face. “They’re not going to make you pay for it all, right? ‘Cause that’d be very rude.”

“That’s the best part, Elaine! They’re giving us a budget, a very large sum of money. They want this to be perfect, absolument parfait!”

“And they know your mom’s the one who’ll be sure to make it that way,” Dad grinned.

“B-But why?” I spluttered, a grin appearing on my own face.

“We think it’s because they decided to turn all their attention to persuading the It Baby to come,” Dad said. We all laughed.

Dinner that night was great, and not just because of the food. Still, even though I was laughing happily with my family I couldn’t help but wonder if Adrianne and Aubrey had ever had such fun times with their mother.

- - - - -Star Guide #25: Never Say Sorry First (Unless There’s A Camera Nearby)


The Bentley sisters weren’t in school the next day. It was to be expected. We reviewed some more for the state assessment and I took care to actually pay attention. I didn’t want what was going on to affect my grade.


The others seemed to realize how useless it was staring at empty chairs all day too, and pretty soon we all got into the habit of actually learning and looking at the furniture as little as possible.


When school was over I went straight to Mrs. Forbes. She opened the door as soon as I was on the front porch. She’d probably been watching for me, since I told her I’d be back.


I went to the basement and got more books on my chosen topic. After a while Mrs. Forbes came down with a tray of tea and cookies. I ate while I read, careful not to get any crumbs on the pages or spill anything. Mrs. Forbes took out her knitting needles and started making something.


“Guess what?” I said, setting down the book I’d been skimming through. The tiny print was giving me headaches.


“Yes?” Mrs. Forbes replied.


“The Genovards, this rich family, gave my parents the job of designing and decorating everything for this big party they’re having for their reunion with their daughter. Actually, they had one before that my parents just catered to, but that didn’t work out so well. I bet they loved my parents so much they just left the details to them, which is good because that pair have no fashion sense individually and less than one when put together. They’d ruin it. So, even though they’re so stuck-up and snooty they gave this job to my parents and all.” I took a breath.


“That sounds nice,” Mrs. Forbes said brightly. She smiled. We went back to what we’d been doing before she suddenly stopped. “Why don’t we have it here?” she suggested.


“Have what here?” I asked, setting down the book again, grateful for the interruption. It was seriously annoying me, but it was necessary for…yeah. I just had to learn everything I could.


“The party. This house is more than big enough and it should be used for something more than just little old me could do with it. Please, invite your parents over tomorrow and let’s see if it’s good enough, that is, if they don’t mind. If they’ve already decided on something, feel free to just forget this.”


“Oh, no!” I told her. “They’d love it! This house is perfect, especially for their daughter. But would you be fine with it? I’m almost certain they’d be inviting anyone who wants to come.”


But Mrs. Forbes waved a hand. “Nonsense, it would do good for me to socialize a little.”


“Alright!” I grinned. “I’ll go home right now and tell them!” I put the books away, more than eager to put the one that’d been giving me headaches back on its shelf and reminding myself to not repeat the mistake of picking it up. I went home to tell my parents the great news.


“Really!” they shrieked. “That’s great! We’ll definitely go.”



Just like I’d thought.

~~~


The next two weeks passed by without any commotion. Mrs. Clark had been hooked onto a respiratory machine that did her breathing for her. The cancer was spreading, and there was a bunch of tension in everyone.


In class, no one talked to me, which was fine with me. I wasn’t in the mood for chats. I don’t think anyone was. Even Mr. Clemons wasn’t as cheery as he usually was. Two chairs were still empty.


After class I went to Mrs. Forbes, where I usually found my parents, discussing the party. I’d disappear into the basement and then the three of us would walk home and eat dinner and go to sleep. Our days became very predictable.


On the day of the state assessment, Mr. Clemons looked around nervously. We all knew he was thinking about the absent students and the makeup test he’d have to give them. I bet he was wondering about whether they’d come to school to take them or have to be monitored at home and take them there.


The hours passed by as silent as usual. We turned in the tests and got free time. Luna read her book, as always, while Genevieve read a magazine. Vince and Matt were playing Monopoly. Penelope leaned back in her seat, texting on her cellphone, trying to hide it from the teacher. I’m sure he noticed it, but he said nothing. I sat at the table, alternating from watching the clock, my classmates, and out the window. I felt content and wondered if that was how Aubrey felt, since this was probably what she did all the time.


Today, unlike the other days, I stood up before it was time to leave and proclaimed, “I have an announcement to make.” I smiled.


Penelope rolled her eyes, but everyone else just looked at me.


“One week from now there’ll be a party at Mrs. Forbes house for the Genovards. My parents are organizing it, and they want everyone to come. You should tell everyone you know. Mrs. Forbes’ house is huge! It’ll be cool.” There was more silence, and I started to feel awkward standing up there all alone.


“I’ll go,” Penelope said. “I mean, it’s gotta be an awesome party if it’s in a mansion like that. And I like the food your parents make, but there’s gotta be some junk food too. Sodas, chips, you know.” She looked around, her eyes showing she was surprised she’d spoken up, too. “A-And granola bars, since that’s all I’m going to eat. The good kind.”


I beamed at her. “Deal!”


“I’ll go too,” Genevieve announced. “If they don’t have any weird rules, like a dress code or something.”


“I bet they won’t. My parents are pretty laid back.”


Matt looked at Vince, who nodded. “We’ll go too then,” he told us.


“That’s great!”


“I hope you all won’t be terrible embarrassed if your teacher’s there, too,” Mr. Clemons added. He gave us a smile.


“You, too Luna. You should come too. It’ll be really fun, and you can even explore her house. There’s something there you’ll love.”


Luna looked up from her book and stared at me.


“I said—” I started again, thinking she’d been too immersed in her book to understand what we’d been talking about.


“I heard what you said. I’ll be there.” I smiled at everyone. This was turning out to be great!


They acknowledged me and filed out of the room. Mr. Clemons said goodbye to everyone and started sorting papers on his desk. For some reason, the atmosphere seemed a bit more friendly. Penelope was already on her phone talking to her friends about the party. Since there were some names I didn’t recognize, I guessed she was calling some people that didn’t even live in Put-in-Bay. I was so excited!


Of course, I told Mrs. Forbes and my parents all about it over an afterschool snack of juice and muffins. They were just as excited as I was and we were all talking about ideas for what to go where and bringing up suggestions the people we’d told had about it.


When the muffins were gone, Mrs. Forbes stood up and took them to the sink.



“Well,” she said. “Let’s go.”


“Go where?” I asked, looking at my parents. Dad smiled at me.


“To visit Mrs. Clark of course.”


“What?!” I shrieked. “B-B-B-But she’s in the hospital.”


“Oui, we know,” Mom said, a puzzled smile on her face.


“Th-That means she’s sick,”


“Very sick.”


“S-S-So why are we going to v-visit?” I asked.


Mrs. Forbes looked at me. “I can’t understand young people these days. Haven’t you been wanting to visit her since you first heard she was in the hospital? Isn’t that why every day you’re down there reading books on cancer and herbal remedies and modern medicine and who knows what else? I’m sure you’re not planning to be a doctor, and definitely not a botanist. What other reason is there?”


I turned beet red. “Y-y-you noticed?”


“Of course I did,” she smiled. “Your parents did too. It’s hard not to. So, come on and let’s finally see her. Maybe your two weeks of medical training will help you discover a cure that no one’s heard of yet. They need you.”


I looked down at my feet. “I doubt it. I don’t want to go and then have her die when I’m there, and I have a feeling she will. I’m just bad luck. And there’ll be tons of people there that are also visiting. They’ll be asking why we hadn’t come earlier and boasting that for all this time they’ve visited the poor, sick woman in the hospital bringing flowers and chocolates and we’ve none of either and they’ll call us cheapskates and accuse us of coming just to look good, while they’re always overdressed in case a reporter comes, even though it’ll only make a listing in the obituaries because it’s not like she was a star or anything and not many people even talked to her much before all this happened.”


“Calm down, Elaine,” my mother said soothingly. “D’accord, it’ll be okay.”


And so I found myself in a car with them, driving to the hospital. To help me calm down they’d bought some flavorless, sugarless gum, on the basis that if she were allergic to the fur on stuffed animals it’d hurt her more than comfort her. If she were sick of flowers it’d do no good to get her some daffodils, with her sense of smell probably already haywire because of the too-sweet fragrance. Chocolates were highly poisonous and who knew what would happen if the cancer cells had changed her cell structure so she could only tolerate foods canines could consume? The way I saw it, the tasteless gum was a win-win situation. She couldn’t be opposed to it if it had no taste. If she’d also contracted diabetes, it wouldn’t affect her, meaning any diabetic attack would become null and void as a result of my gift.

I was feeling very pleased with myself until we went to the nurses’ station and asked for Mrs. Clark. Before we’d even specified anything, the nurse told us where she was and exactly how to get there.

“I think it’s great that so many people are coming to see here. You’ve come a bit late, though, and everyone else has gone.” I sighed with relief. “Oh? What’s that you’ve got there?” the nurse asked, noticing the package in my hands.

“The present we got for Mrs. Clark. It’s—”

“Flavorless…tasteless…gum?” she asked. I beamed.

“You see, it’s because this way there’s no way she can be sick from it. If she’s got diabetes—”

“She doesn’t,” the nurse assured me.

“Yeah, I know that know,” I told her, “but I’m saying if she had diabetes or maybe if she got it in the near future—”

“Alors!” my mom said loudly. “Let us go, ma puce.” And she pulled me along quite rudely, waving benevolently to the frazzled nurse. “Merci beaucoup, madame.”

“Ah…bye?” she called out after us.

I would’ve told Mom how I felt about being interrupted but I soon realized that with every step we were getting closer and closer to Mrs. Clark’s room. There were so many things that could go wrong…

My mother squeezed my hand reassuringly. Mrs. Forbes and Dad were ahead of us, and entered the room first.

She looked sick.

Her brown hair hung limply on her pillow. Her skin didn’t have the same fair color as before; now it was ghostly, even paler than Mrs. Forbes’s at this point. My stomach clenched. I noticed the big machine that helped her breathe. It was almost impossible not to. There were two red-haired people sitting beside her, their backs to the door. I was getting a stomachache.

“Is she okay?” I asked. Adrianne and Aubrey turned to us, surprised. We hadn’t been noticed until I’d spoken.

“I’m…fine,” Mrs. Clark said weakly. I looked at her. She gave a faint smile, but she didn’t open her eyes.

“You girls look tired,” Mrs. Forbes proclaimed. “You should go home and get some rest.” I saw the bags under their puffy eyes and wondered how long they’d been awake. And how long they’d been crying.

“No,” Adrianne refused. “We can stay.”

“Then go outside while we watch over your mother.” Mrs. Forbes commanded sternly. “Chat about the weather or something, I want you girls out of here. You don’t need to see this.”

“But…”

“Go,” Mrs. Clark murmured. “It’s…embarrassing…to have…my kids…take care of me.”

They turned away slowly and left. Mrs. Forbes looked at me until I got the message. I followed the sisters out the door.

We sat in comfy chairs outside the room. There were some magazines but neither Clark reached for one. They seemed content to close their eyes and try to sleep. I reached for a magazine.

After a while, Aubrey cracked an eye open. I realized she wasn’t wearing her mirrored sunglasses; they were in her pocket. I knew if I hadn’t seen them I would’ve gotten them mixed up, since right now they both looked like exhausted blue-eyed redheads.

“What’s that?” she asked slowly. Adrianne opened her puffy eyes to see what she meant. I saw Aubrey was looking at my present.

“It’s gum I got for your mom. As a get-well present. It’s sugarless and tasteless, so she can enjoy even if she can’t taste her food anymore and has diabetes.”

Aubrey’s other eye opened. “My mom doesn’t have diabetes,” she said.

“I know,” I told her, “but I like to be careful.” They both smiled.

“You’re weird,” Adrianne stated bluntly.

“N-No I’m not,” I protested.

“Yes you are,” they said in unison. They looked at each other, then laughed. It was really loud and felt like a burst of energy, as if they hadn’t been laughing in a while.

“Weirdoes don’t care for the little details,” I muttered.

“Why didn’t you just get chocolate?” suggested Aubrey.

“Chocolate is poisonous,” I replied haughtily.

“To dogs.”

“And what if this cancer turned into some kind of werewolf disease? Those do exist, you know. Diseases that make you grow hair and be aggressive, like a werewolf. It’s very likely your mother’s visited remote countries and contracted the disease.”

While I’d been speaking (very seriously!) they were laughing. I glared at them. “What’s so funny?” I asked.

“You’re just so ridiculous!” Aubrey giggled.

“This is all just so ridiculous!” Adrianne added.

The mood changed from lightening to solemn very quickly. “So ridiculous,” Adrianne repeated. Four eyes started to well up with tears.

“Why are you crying?” I asked them, startled.

“Imagine!” Adrianne cried bitterly. “Your mother in the hospital with cancer and getting worse by the minute.”

“The locals visiting to say caring heartfelt words that don’t help any. Some of them even vying for the camera 24/7,” Aubrey added quietly.

“All your relatives—except the father who’s always been heard of, not seen, not even heard from—coming to see you since now you’re in you’re in a time of need.”

“Everyone coming to pay respects to a person they never knew, just trying to say good things in their d-d-death so they comfort the rest of the family with lies.”

“And you know, you honestly know that she won’t make it through and you’ll need to make living arrangements with strangers you’ve only met once, and that’s now.”

“Knowing you’ll never get along with them, will always be that poor kid with a dead mother and a no-good father, and will probably even be separated.” Having said this, Aubrey looked at her sister.

Wow. Their words really hit me. Until now it hadn’t sunk in what the Clarks themselves must’ve been feeling. They had no idea what was going to happen after all. All these people they didn’t know were coming to see them and tell them lies and pretend in a way that, in this kind of situation, the truth really was the best way to go. I started to think in the way they described, and my throat immediately clenched and grew hot. My eyes filled with tears, but I wiped them away. Just the notion of my parents dead was too hard to believe.

“Well, look at it this way,” I blurted out, to loosen up my throat. “You guys are much closer now. All three of you. Before you’d always look at each other so harshly and speak too politely and give fake smiles. You all had some kind of a bone to pick with each other. But now that your mom’s like…this, you get along so much easier. I guess you never know the love you have for someone until they’re almost gone. But don’t worry. I’m sure your mom will make it through, and then you guys can be just like this forever.” I smiled. “I give you my word. What’s a little cancer?” Although, even as I said it my mind went to the information I’d gained over the weeks and I started to regret making such an unrealistic promise.

They looked at me, dumbfounded, for a moment. Then they broke into smiles.

“That is so cheesy,” Adrianne told me. “Not just what you said, but that this is cancer of all things. Couldn’t it be some rare disease, like you said earlier?”

“It’s very corny,” Aubrey said bitterly. She smiled and looked at me, lightening the mood with “Where’d you get that one from? The dump?”

“Hey! I thought long and hard on that. It sounded very cool in my head a while ago. You can’t be so mean!”

But they were. For the next few minutes they teased me about my heartfelt observation. I fumed, my face reddening. “I like corn. I like cheese, too,” I muttered defensively. There was no reaction. I wondered if they’d even heard me. Then all of a sudden they laughed and looked at each other.

“You knew the smiles were fake?” Adrianne said softly. I nodded. “Since when?”

“Since I started noticing,” I confessed, and even as I was saying it I began realizing it. “When you asked me to go to that concert I started noticing a lot of things. I noticed how you were spreading lies about Aubrey and how everyone believed you because you were Adrianne Clark, the beauty, and she was Aubrey, the weirdo. I noticed you’re always insulting people, Adrianne. You give fake smiles to almost everyone you meet, especially your mom. There seems to be something about her. She does whatever someone else’s parents let them do, since she doesn’t trust her own skills as a parent.

“She wants to make you happy, so she does things that she’s sure will do that. She loves you because your popularity gives her something to boast about and be proud for, but she’s frustrated at how Aubrey’s always been different. Because of that, she’s very harsh. She almost acts like a real mother with her, but a maid with you. That’s why you don’t like Aubrey. And Aubrey can sense it, so she stays away from you and enjoys her weirdness a little too much. She’s carefree because she thinks no one cares. But you do, don’t you Adrianne? And so does your mother. She admires you both, but she knows she’ll never be able to measure up to you so why even try? But now you’re all closer. Now your mom treats everyone the same and her complex is fading away since she’d rather be without if she doesn’t have long to live.

“And…And…” I noticed they were both staring at me, and I blushed. “I-I was rambling wasn’t I?”

“You were,” Aubrey agreed.

Adrianne looked down. “And you made our whole life sound like some kind of soap operas. How you know exactly what the actors are doing right or wrong and can see where their lives took a turn for the worst even if they’re being whiny about it and won’t admit to doing anything wrong.”

“Ah…well. No, that’s not it. I guess it’s because I was an observer. It actually was like watching one of those soaps since you guys all seemed so otherworldly, inviting me to be your friend when I’m just a no one and you,” I fidgeted. “But I guess it was too good to be true. I knew it at first, just decided to ignore that. Because I wanted to be just like you guys. Now I don’t.”

Adrianne wouldn’t meet my eyes. “I’m sorry about that.”

“I don’t forgive you.”

Startled, she looked at me. “Made you look,” I grinned. She smiled back. Aubrey was smiling too. “Let’s put all this behind. Why don’t we start over?”

“No way. That’d be like ending a videogame in the middle, right after the hardest levels. Without saving,” Aubrey said seriously.

“And besides,” Adrianne agreed. “If we met again I wouldn’t be able to tell you how you should be a therapist, since I’m sure you’ll just be your usual idiotic self and be in awe of my awesomeness.”

I laughed. “You’re so conceited.”

Mrs. Forbes opened the door to our laughter. “I see you girls are friends again,” she said, smiling.

I started fidgeting again, remembering something. “No,” I answered her. “We’re not friends. They still hate me.”

“What made you think I hated you?” Aubrey and Adrianne asked me.

This time I looked away. “Because that time I went to Mrs. Forbes’s house to give her lasagna, you said you hated me,” I twiddled my fingers, “and when you thought I was saying bad things about you, you said it, too.”

“No I didn’t,” Aubrey said after thinking for a few seconds. “I said we were never friends and never would be, since it didn’t seem like we’d ever be friends.”

“And I don’t remember what I said,” Adrianne told me slowly, “but I’m sure I never said I hated you. That would’ve been too much.”

“Oh.” I felt very, very stupid now. It was the worst thing to do, especially when we were finally becoming friends. Why did I say that? I wanted very much to go in a corner and hide, or melt into a puddle like the wicked witch of the west (or was it east?), or maybe go into spontaneous combustion, or get a really big bill from the phone company that would make me go into hiding and become a hobo, hitchhiking across the world with my bindle on my shoulder and my lucky—

“That’s good, isn’t it?” Mrs. Forbes said, interrupting my thoughts. I looked up at her and found she was smiling at us. “You all like each other now.” She took a deep breath before turning a stern eye to the twins. “Now, this is something I know you two wouldn’t like to hear.” I saw their faces tense immediately, probably thinking it was something about their mother. I got serious too when I remembered how she’d looked earlier.

“So I’m only going to say this once,” she continued. There was a hint of a smile on her face as she spoke that made me certain Mrs. Clark was okay. Aubrey and Adrianne though, in their current frame of mind, didn’t notice, even as I let out a sigh of relief. “You two need to go home and rest. We talked it over with your mother and she says she doesn’t want you hanging around her. She’s already embarrassed enough as it is, being the talk of the town and all. She doesn’t want you guys to worry so much.”

“Even if she says that, we’re still going to worry,” Aubrey muttered under her breath. Mrs. Forbes gave her the evil eye.

“Now, Aubrey,” she warned. Aubrey sighed. She looked at Adrianne, who nodded silently, agreeing to some unspoken decision.

“We’ll go and rest, but not at home,” Adrianne told Mrs. Forbes. “Can we stay at your house? Ours is too crowded.”

Mrs. Forbes looked surprised, which, being the only time I’d ever seen her startled, surprised me as well. “What? My house? Why would you want to stay with a complete stranger instead of with your loving family?”

Aubrey grimaced. “Loving? They don’t know us that well.” Mrs. Forbes gave them both careful looks until she gave an almost imperceptible nod.

“Alright. I’ll talk it over with your mother,” at this, she suddenly turned to me, smiling, “if I can take her away from your parents. They’re taunting her with promises of delicious food when she gets better.” I grinned. Mrs. Forbes ducked back into the room.

“Well, that’s it, then,” Adrianne said, smiling. I stared blankly at her. There was something in the back of my mind, something I was sure I needed to do, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

“You’re going to love Mrs. Forbes’s house. It’s huge! There are so many rooms, she’s a great cook, and she even has two huge basements full of books, almost any book you can think of!” Aubrey informed her.

“Is that where you always go off to?” her sister asked. Aubrey nodded and started talking excitedly about the mansion and recounting funny stories. I just watched, not really listening. I was still trying to remember what it was I had to tell them.

“Elaine? It’s time to go,” I heard my mother say. I looked at the clock, surprised to find that a lot of time had passed. I jumped up, quickly standing, and then I had to close my eyes for a bit because I’d gotten up so quickly my vision was getting cloudy. It probably would’ve been best if I stopped walking as I did this but it so happened that I didn’t and crashed into the wall.

“Elaine?” my dad said, looking at me strangely. My face felt flushed.

“I know, I know. I’m not going to walk into any more walls,” and began heading for the elevator.

“No, that’s not it. Aren’t you going to say goodbye?”

I stopped and looked back. Everyone was standing up, hovering by the waiting area outside Mrs. Clark’s door.

“Oh, bye,” I said. I started to turn again before I finally remembered what it was I’d been trying to remember. “Oh yeah! Adrianne! Aubrey!” I told them, grinning. “There’s going to be a party at Mrs. Forbes’ house next week. Do you want to go?” To my surprise, they burst out laughing. “What?” I asked, hurt.


“We’ll be living with Mrs. Forbes by then. A party can’t happen right under our noses like that,” Aubrey explained.


“It’s still nice to be invited,” I muttered haughtily.


“Sorry,” Adrianne apologized, trying to stop laughing. “Thanks for the invite. We’ll be there.”


“Literally!” Aubrey’s outburst made everyone start laughing, even my parents!


I sniffed angrily and turned away. Why was everyone laughing? It wasn’t even that funny. How come it seemed like everyone was always laughing at me when I was such an angel I was never that rude? Why couldn’t everyone be like me.


“Bye Elaine!”


“See you!”


I waved a hand dismissively at them, refusing to look back. I figured the elevator wouldn’t be very good for my dramatic exit, as I’d have to stand there and look at them before the doors closed and I descended. Also, I felt kind of selfish taking a whole elevator for myself when there were probably dozens of people in wheelchairs or in those wheelie beds—gurneys—that needed surgery or whose dying wish was to see their grandchildren for the last time so—

I took the stairs.


Even though I walked very slowly down the stairs so I wouldn’t be standing by the car like a loser by the time the adults got down in the elevator, I still reached the first floor before them. I had to stand there by the elevator, looking very uncool, until I saw them rounding the corner.



“Let’s go home,” I said. They laughed again as I led the way to the car.

- - - - -Star Guide #26: Find Someone To Hold Your Earrings


The party came sooner than I thought. I mean, I knew exactly when it was going to be, but it still came as a surprise when one day after school I went to Mrs. Forbes’s house, like usual, and saw party decorations all over the place.


“Wow,” I breathed.


“Do you like it?” Dad asked, stepping down from a ladder after he had put the last streamer in place.


“It’s great,” I answered truthfully.


Dad smiled at me. “Wait until you see the kitchen. They’ve been cooking up a storm in there.” I took his advice and headed for the kitchen, where I was amazed once more. There was food everywhere (except on the floor) and every single little bit looked delicious.


“Good afternoon, Elaine,” Mrs. Forbes greeted, going back to cracking an egg into a bowl. My mother either hadn’t noticed me yet or didn’t feel she needed to say anything. She was busy doing what looked like a hundred jobs at once: checking on the soup, poking muffins with a toothpick, and pouring heavy cream into a plastic bowl underneath the whisk of a mixer. She did every job right after the other, looking like she knew exactly what she was doing and making it look easy even though, seeing her carry a mountain of plates that reached above her head without wobbling, you knew it was very difficult.


“Where are Aubrey and Adrianne?” I asked, looking around. They’d arrive a couple of days ago, and they should’ve been there like they always were, exploring the house.


“Oh, you’ll see. Would you like a cupcake?” Mrs. Forbes asked me, gesturing to a row of chocolate frosted delicacies.


“Don’t mind if I do,” I grinned, reaching for one.


“Non! I mind!” Mom said, her hand coming out of nowhere to slap mine away. I started to protest but she was already elsewhere turning on the blender.


Mrs. Forbes laughed. “Don’t worry,” she said mischievously, slowly reaching out for it. She held it low and tucked it into my hand. “You’ll get some when the party starts.”


I backed away, careful to be very sneaky. “Alright,” I moaned regrettably. “I guess I’ll just have to wait.” As soon as I reached the door I turned and dashed out, heading for the basement.


As I was leaving, I heard my mom say conversationally, “You’re spoiling her.” That made me hurry.


This time I went to the second basement. I didn’t think the nonfiction section had anything more to offer me, especially since now I wasn’t so scared of seeing Mrs. Clark anymore.


I’d been expecting to just be able to look through books until the doorbell rang, but that idea was quickly thrown away when I realized there were comic books and some of my favorite picture books. Very nostalgic. All of a sudden my mind was on cartoon caterpillars and angry ladybugs.


It was when I was reading “The cow jumped over the moon,” that I realized I hadn’t heard anything for a long time. Curious, I headed upstairs (it wasn’t just curiosity. I admit my stomach was grumbling). I hadn’t expected to hear music when I got to the step just before the door. I hesitantly opened it and stepped out.


The party was going on. There were a bunch of people I noticed as I wandered around but some were completely unknown to me. I was glad to see a bunch of people by the numerous food tables and each comment praising the food made me feel like laughing airily, even though most of them had no idea who had made it, and those that did never said my name. Basically, I was being prideful for delicious creations that weren’t mine. But I could still take the credit. I began looking for my parents and Mrs. Forbes to tell them how well my—their—food went over with the general public.


I wasn’t very surprised to spot the three of them with a cluster of overdressed people. I pushed through to see the Genovards, the most flamboyantly dressed of all their rich and snooty friends (and that was saying something) talking to Genevieve. My parents were standing next to her, my mom’s hand on her shoulder in a way that looked comforting, but with my knowledge of her I actually knew she was holding Genevieve back, while Mrs. Forbes was off to the side chatting gaily with Genevieve’s grandpa and an old lady who looked like Vince. I guessed that she was Vince’s grandma. As I got closer I could hear what the Genovards were saying.


“Do you assume we are so piteously impertinent that we would be willing to overlook your absurdly overdue arrival, young lady?” Mrs. Genovard asked, her nose in the air. She wasn’t looking at anyone; her eyes were closed, but her face was turned to Genevieve.


“Do you really need to ask whether or not I think you’re stupid?” Genevieve snarled. Mr. Genovard had an offended expression on his face, but that didn’t change the fact that he was standing more than a little ways behind his wife.


“Respond to the inquiry, if you will!” Mrs. Genovard spluttered.


“Does it matter that I’m late? You should be glad I’m even here.”


“You cannot address your mother in such a way!” Mr. Genovard snapped. Genevieve growled at him and he let out a little Eep! before hiding behind his wife again.


“Arrêtez-vous!” My mother cried. “Stop this nonsense!”


Mrs. Genovard gave her a dirty look. “Please refrain from interrupting the time I share with my family, Mrs. Morris. This is none of your concern.”


It turned into a shouting match that was very amusing. I could hear the chuckles of various rich people in the crowd and found I was laughing pretty loudly myself. We were all waiting for some kind of fistfight to break out, since Genevieve was stepping menacingly in Mr. Genovard’s direction, and the man in question was squealing like a pig, telling my father he should get her on a leash. My dad was laughing, just like me. Mrs. Forbes and the other two were still talking, acting as if they didn’t notice the brawl that was about to happen. The other partygoers had started noticing, though, which was obvious when all of a sudden there was a big crowd and you could hear dozens of voices chanting “Fi-ight, fi-ight, fi-ight!”


Then the cops came in.

- - - - -Star Guide #27: Bad News Comes In Threes


The officer turned out to be very pleasant. He was holding a clipboard that had some kind of paper on it and asked for my parents. When they came, he told them they’d discovered who’d vandalized the restaurant.


“It took you this long?” My dad said with disdain.


“Yes, we’re very sorry. We had other things to take care of,” he apologized profusely.


“Things more significant than a vandalism occurring in your own neighborhood?” Mrs. Genovard sneered, patting down her hair.


“He said he was sorry. Let him be,” I interjected. The policeman smiled a thanks at me. He looked down at his clipboard.


By now most of the crowd had dissipated and gone back to whatever they’d been doing earlier, disappointed that there was no fight. Some, though, had stayed and were watching silently.


“Merci, but—” My mom started.


The man looked up sharply, right at a very angry-looking Genevieve. “It says here the culprits were a Miss Genevieve Cain and a Mister Vincent Rogers.”


My mom looked up to Genevieve, whose face was red, but I couldn’t tell if it was from anger or embarrassment. My mom’s was a mask of indifference. My father and I could tell she was really feeling worse than she’d ever let anyone know, especially in such a public place.


“C’est vrai?” she asked quietly. “Is it true that you did this?”


“Mrs. Morris, I really didn’t mean—” Genevieve began.


“Oh! Are you accusing my daughter of participating in this heinous crime?” Mrs. Genovard shouted. Genevieve looked at her, surprised. She continued in a softer voice, all trace of her haughty personality gone. “There is no way she would. My little Genevieve is an angel. An angel, I say. She would never.”


“Mom,” Genevieve said, a word that, for some reason, made the Genovards’ eyes widen in astonishment. Genevieve took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, mother, father.” She looked at them in turn, then met my mom’s eyes. “I’m sorry. I made him help me get in. But we only looked around the place, I swear!” She remembered something. “…And we threw out the cake. But throwing it out and breaking the little statuettes was something totally on my part.”

“Pourquoi?” Mom asked. “Why would you ruin our hard work?”


Genevieve shrugged. “You guys were making something for this party. I really didn’t want to go. I figured it’d be canceled if I did that, I guess.” She smiled suddenly. “It was a good cake. Really good.”


My mom stared at her for a long while, her face unreadable. Then she suddenly broke into a smile, too. “It was, wasn’t it? It was a waste to throw it out. If you liked it, you should have eaten it all.”


Mrs. Genovard looked at her daughter. “So you did break and enter?”


“Yep,” she replied.


“Did you want to miss this party that badly?” Mrs. Genovard asked.


“Yeah. I really hate how you guys keep doing this stuff that’s supposedly for me when both you and I know it’s just to make your rep look good. You don’t even know me; it’s hard to be away for years and know everything when you never call or write back. You guys always expect me to go along with whatever absurd idea you come home with and I don’t like it.”


Mr. Genovard and his wife shared a look. “I never knew you felt that way,” he said, stepping forward. “You’re always so…tempermental, for lack of a better word, when you see us.”


“That’s because I don’t think of you as parents. When I was small I usually called Gramps ‘Dad’, even though he always corrected me, and I called you two my aunt and uncle. Remember? You haven’t been in my life enough to bother me like this.”


“I speculate that we haven’t,” Mrs. Genovard said, and I winced. Her airy tone was back. “But let’s try now, shall we?”


A massive Awwwwwww rippled through the crowd even as they broke into wild applause. The Genovards instantly stiffened and cleared their throats.


“Um, well, let’s continue this party. To our daughter!” Mr. Genovard said, raising his glass. The toast was returned by everyone with a drink in their hands. Then the crowd started leaving. I noticed the policeman had wandered off to a refreshment table. I left the circle. It was boring now. People were going back to praising my parents.


Cruising along, I spotted my classmates having fun. Matt was at the top of the stairs shouting something to Vince, who was on the bottom. There was a fishing pole with something small and dark hanging from it from a reel of almost invisible fishing wire. I guessed it was a spider. Penny was leaning on the wall, talking to a group of friends. Even Mr. Clemons had shown up, talking to other people his age.


I smiled when I saw Luna sitting in a corner, reading a book. She was reaching for a cupcake. “Hey Luna!” She looked up and smiled when she saw me. “I wanna show you something. You should get a biiiiig plate of food and come on.” Puzzled, she got a plate and followed me.


“This is the basement,” I announced at the door.


“The basement?” she said, sounding bored.


“Yes, the basement.” I opened the door and started down the steps. She had no choice but to follow. As we walked, she tried asking me what was going on, but I shushed her each time. Finally, we arrived at the first landing.


“Nonfiction? What’s that supposed to mean?” Luna asked, confused. I opened the door and she walked in before me. I heard her gasp when she saw what was inside. She almost dropped her plate, but strengthened her grip just in time. I was glad. I wouldn’t have wanted to see the food wasted.


“So this is nonfiction,” she deadpanned.


“Yup,” I confirmed.


“Does that mean there’s a fiction section?”


“Yup.”


“I saw more stairs leading down. Do I take those?”


“Yup.”


Luna rushed by me, out the door and down the second set of stairs. I started laughing. “Luna!” I called.


“I’ll see you later,” her voice echoed back. Still laughing, I went up the stairs and back into the party area just in time to hear the doorbell ring. It reminded me of how I hadn’t heard it earlier, which made me sure I’d probably been too low, under all that stone, to hear anything. I smiled. It was an even better sanctuary for Luna than I thought since she’d have complete peace, no interruptions.


All thoughts of the basement left my mind, however, when I opened the door and saw people I hadn’t been expecting to see: the Clarks. Mrs. Clark was in a wheelchair with Aubrey and Adrianne on either side of her. All three were smiling.


“Mrs. Clark?” I asked dumbly. “Why are you in a wheelchair?”


“That doctor wouldn’t let me leave without one,” she sniffed. “Seriously, you’d think I’d be allowed to go somewhere, but sitting in this isn’t worse than lying on that bed all day. I can walk a little.” To prove her point, she stood up and trotted, albeit shakily, up the porch steps and into the house. Her daughters followed, carrying the wheelchair between them. “Hey Elaine,” they greeted before moving on.


Mrs. Clark soon became the life of the party; so many people wanted to know her exact state of health. She brushed off rude comments easily and charmed even the worst of the gossips.


Her arrival made the party great, although the Genovards were peeved because she’d taken the spotlight away from them and their daughter, who they felt deserved all the attention, it being her party and all. Genevieve didn’t care. Everyone had a great time.


Three days later, though, Mrs. Clark died.

- - - - -Star Guide #28: The Magic’s In You, Make It Work


I was hanging around at home when the phone rang. Since I was just watching TV, I picked it up. I heard Adrianne’s voice on the other end and I thought she sounded weird, like she had a sore throat.


“Elaine?” she told me. “My mom’s…gone.” She hung up.


I immediately started running in circles (kind of like a chicken does), coiling the phone cord around me. I was so freaked! Mrs. Clark was…whoa. My dad, hearing the clatter, came into the room yawning.


“What’s wrong?” he asked me.


“Mrs. Clark is dead!” I wailed. His eyes widened. He started stammering, trying to say something…then he laughed.


“WHY ARE YOU LAUGHING WHEN SOMEONE HAS JUST DIED?!” I screamed at him, a little bit perturbed with his behavior.


“You’re kidding, right?” he replied. “You saw her a few days ago. She was just fine. She was so lively, there’s no way she could be dead.”


“There must be, because she is!” I yelled.


“Calm down, calm down. What kind of prankster told you this anyway?”


“Adrianne!” His calm demeanor grew worried. He knew how odd it would have been for her to call and say what she said.


“What did she say exactly?” he said carefully. I was glad he was finally becoming serious.


“She said her mom was gone.” The way his easygoing attitude returned just like that made me more than a little perturbed this time. I glared.


“Well, maybe she went out for a walk. Or she ran away from the hospital. Tell her to check home. I bet her mom’s there acting perfectly normal.”


“You don’t know how she said it,” I muttered darkly. “She sounded scared and hurt and like she was crying.”


“You’re making too big a deal out of this.” We heard the door open. “That must be your mom. She should know what’s going on.” She’d gone to the hospital to deliver some flowers to Mrs. Clark, no matter how much I’d protested that it was no good, nothing could top my gum.


We went to meet her, my dad still laughing a bit. I was also still glaring, but stopped when I saw the expression on my mother’s ashen face.


“Mrs. Clark, she’s…she’s dead.”


“Told you!” I couldn’t refrain from yelling in my father’s face, even as it quickly lost its color, becoming just as pale as Mom’s.


“Elaine, could you please go out and do something? Your mom and I need to talk.”


“I don’t mind hearing it, Dad. I’m not a baby anymore,” I proudly proclaimed.


“Please,” he pleaded. The expression on his face was just like Mom’s, one I’d never seen on either of them before.


“Fine,” I muttered and hurried to Mrs. Forbes, eager to get away from them.
~~~

“Oh, hello Elaine,” the old woman said, opening the door. “Would you like something to eat? Even though people were practically inhaling that food, there’s still enough left over that I haven’t finished yet.


“Mrs. Clark is dead,” I blurted out. Her face clouded.


“Come in. I’ll warm them up.” I followed her in.


Soon we were in the kitchen with a plate of treats on the table. Neither one of us touched it. Mrs. Forbes remained quiet for a long time, lost in thought. She picked up a newspaper that was folded to the crossword puzzle. She began working on it.


“You’re not hungry, dear?” she asked absently, noticing that I hadn’t eaten.


“No,” I said edgily. “I’ve got no appetite.”


We were quiet for a while longer until I just couldn’t take it anymore.


“Why aren’t you reacting?” I asked her loudly. “I tell you Mrs. Clark’s dead and all you do is find a six-letter word for fear!”


“Mm-hmm. Have you any idea what it is?”


I thought about it. “Terror?” She shook her head. “Horror?” Another shake. I thought some more, contemplating. A six-letter word for fear. “Phobia?” I asked, thinking fear of.


“That’s it! You’re a genius, Elaine!” she wrote it in.


“Why, thank you,” I blushed sheepishly, pleased. I didn’t get that very often. My smile quickly dropped off my face, though, as I remembered what was going on. “Terror, as in poor Aubrey and Adrianne must be terrified! Their mom’s dead!”


“What do you want me to do about it?” Mrs. Forbes snapped.


“I don’t know. Mourn. Take a moment of silence. Feel something!” Someone’s dead and all you do is a puzzle!”


“Do you think that’ll bring her back? It won’t. It’s useless to do any of that, and wasteful to. Why should I take time out of my life to be sad for the loss of someone else’s? I’m still here, living. If I mourned for every dearly departed soul out there I’d be a barrel of tears every second of every day!”


Hearing her speak, I recalled something. “But aren’t you a witch?”


She reared back in surprise…or was it fear? “A witch?”


“Yeah. Aubrey told me weeks ago. If you’re a witch, why don’t you just bring her back?” I’d meant to say it indifferently, but it came out somewhat accusing.


“You don’t know anything,” Mrs. Forbes said. “I’m not a witch.”


“Then what are you?” I asked her calmly. “Because you’re certainly not human. Your house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. The strawberries grew oddly; too fast, too big. As soon as I picked one, another grew back. When we were making the strawberry shortcake. That cake…” I thought some more. “I ruined it. I put too much baking powder or baking soda—too much of something—into it and it was ruined. You asked me to leave, and when I came back it was perfect. And there was way too much of it to have been there when we made it.”


Mrs. Forbes was looking at me oddly. “You…how much have you been paying attention? Do you always do this? You make it seem like you’re just an i—a regular person, but you’ve been watching everything all this time haven’t you? Are you human?”


“Of course I am,” I told her, pretending not to notice that she’d almost called me an idiot to my face. “I’ve just been noticing a lot of things lately. Right now I’m noticing that you’re trying to get me off-topic again. Please answer the question. I asked you first.”


She eyed me warily. “I’m not a witch,” she said slowly. “But I’m not what you’d call ‘normal’ either.”


I snorted. “Who is anymore?” She gave me an exasperated look. “Sorry. Go on.”


“I inherited this house from my mother, who in turn got it from her mother. It’s been passed maternally for generations. It’s a strange house; no one in my family ever had any idea what this plot of land is exactly, or where it came from. It just appeared, and we’re living in it. It does whatever you ask of it.”


“So you asked it to grow strawberries,” I deduced. She nodded. “So you only have power from this place? What if you moved? Would you still be able to use magic?”


Her eyes widened a bit at my word choice. “Magic…hmm. Yes, I would, although it would drain me very easily. I’m old, you see. I don’t use it much. If I moved…I’m kind of certain this house would move with me. I don’t know why, but it seems to favor my family.”


I broke out in a grin, considering. “Can you teach me?”


“It doesn’t work for everyone. Harvey tried very hard to learn, and he found he couldn’t.”



My eyes widened. “The house worked for him too?”


“Yes. How do you think we got those basements? He requested them.”


“So cool!” I smiled. “When can I start!”


“I told you, not everyone—”she cut herself off.


“What? What is it?”


“Your eyes just flashed.”


“That’s impossible. Maybe they caught the light in a flattering way.”


“No, I’m certain they flashed. It’s afternoon. The light isn’t so bright.”


“Okay, whatever. Now, let’s get back on topic. You said it’s been in your family for generations. That probably means the girls in your family can do it, BUT your daughter died so you could probably choose someone else, right? Why not make it me?” I grinned, pleased at my genius.


“I’m not so sure it works that way.” She pursed her lips, thoughtful. “You know the child Harvey saw that made him leave?” I nodded, remembering that unpleasant history. I still felt the child should feel terrible, breaking up a family like that. “She had peculiar eyes. They were the same color as our daughter’s has been.”


“What color was her eyes?”


“Gold.”


“B-B-But that would mean I w-w-was—”


“Yes.”


“That can’t be. I’m not in your family. And I wouldn’t do that to a person.”


Mrs. Forbes smiled at me. “It’s okay, you know. It’s not your fault you look like her.”


“What? Look like her?”


“Yes. I’m sure she would’ve looked exactly like you, had she lived. You look like I did when I was younger, too.”


“But you look so…unlike me,” I told her, self-consciously touching my straw-like red hair. Mrs. Forbes chuckled.


“Yes, I know. I was like that too, once. My hair wasn’t red, though.”


I grinned as another thought occurred to me. “Then that means you can teach me magic after all! Yay! I’m going to be a wizard!” I was so happy!


“Not a wizard. Just a person who can use…magic. You’re still human, and so am I.”


“At least I’m different now,” I beamed. Nothing could wipe the grin off my face. “Now I can tell Aubrey that I’m definitely not a wannabe!”


“I don’t mind you telling anyone this. It’s not a secret, after all,” she said, “but are you sure you want to share this news right after her mother has died?”


I gasped, remembering. “Oh yeah!” I turned to her. “So when are you gonna bring her back to life? I can help you.”


“No. You can’t bring someone back to life, no matter how much you try. Playing with human life is a dangerous business. Even if you do everything perfectly, you won’t get that person back like they were before.”


“…So you can’t do anything.”


“Nope.”


“Then what’s the point of learning any of this?” I shouted, as surprised at my tone of voice as Mrs. Forbes was. I grabbed biscotti from the plate and stood up quickly. Luckily, this time there was no dizzy spell. I hurried out of Mrs. Forbes’ place and went to the Benson Ford shiphouse, what used to be my favorite hangout, to sulk.

- - - - -Star Guide #29: The Life of the Party NEEDS To Be Y-O-U


Not many people went to the funeral. It was just a select few, which was just the class, their parents, and relatives of the deceased. It was kept hush-hush, but almost nothing is truly hush-hush around here. Sure, people knew about it. They just didn’t come. I was glad they didn’t, and I could tell most of the people that were there, though nervous-looking, also preferred having only a few people attend. It would’ve felt weird hearing people pretend they knew Mrs. Clark when everyone knew they were lying. Mrs. Forbes didn’t show up.


It was an open casket funeral, held indoors. Even though it was a funeral, the body wasn’t going to be buried in Put-in-Bay. It was going to be sent over to Mrs. Clark’s actual homeland, where she was born. When it was my turn to go up I felt weird, looking at her pallid skin and smile (a real one. She’d died smiling). I was glad I wasn’t the person who’d have to drive a car or boat with a dead person onboard.


Not everyone spoke when they reached the coffin. It wasn’t required. Some of the people that did, though, said something about how nice Mrs. Clark was and how sorry they were for the loss. Others made everyone laugh or smile by recounting some hilarious tale about Mrs. Clark. Still others didn’t even talk about her. The rest of us just looked at her, though, and the only one to touch her was her brother, Mr. Walters. He’d touched her face and mumbled something that was probably a memory from the old days, but since I don’t speak mumble I had no idea what he was saying (honestly! Speak clearly!).


Aubrey and Adrianne went up together. They both looked down at their mom with unreadable looks on their faces.


“I guess promises don’t come true,” Aubrey said softly.


“Goodbye, Mom,” Adrianne told the corpse.


Everyone else in the room was probably thinking their mom had made some sort of promise that she wouldn’t die, but I knew better. I knew the promise I’d made them only two weeks earlier. It hadn’t come true. I knew then that I shouldn’t have sworn that their mom would be okay, and I was paying for it now with the dreadfully mourning looks on their faces.


“No,” I spoke up. Everyone looked at me, surprised. You don’t disturb someone during a funeral. It just wasn’t done. “It didn’t last forever, but it might as well have been. I bet you’ve felt the most connected to her in the past few days than ever. If she’d made it through it would’ve been reassuring but you would’ve eventually lost the moments, wouldn’t you? This way it’ll have lasted forever in your hearts, right?”


All the people in attendance stared at me for a while. Then they all broke out into laughter. I felt my face redden and glared at them all. Why were they laughing at my earnest, heartfelt words?


“That’s so corny,” Adrianne said.


“So cheesy,” Aubrey agreed, “especially since it’s cancer. Why couldn’t it be some rare disease?”


“I like cheese. Corn’s good too. In fact, we should all go to the restaurant after this and eat some.” This time I laughed with them.


“That’s a good idea,” my dad said.


“Oui, c’est très bonne idée, Elaine,” my mother added, saying my name in that way that I loved.


Since it was a kind of an inside joke between Aubrey, Adrianne, and I, no one else really got what was so funny, meaning they were just laughing at me. Of course, that made me more than just a little bit perturbed, but in the spirit of the moment I was willing to overlook that fact.


After the funeral we all headed to the restaurant where my parents made cheesecake (it’s got cornstarch, they promised), lasagna surrounded by a sea of corn (made separately), and cornbread with melted cheese that actually tasted good. Everyone was fine with it, even the people who’d been crying, because it was free food. Free delicious food. We even had it all to ourselves because the restaurant was closed that day.


It ended up being a kind of after-party filled with both tears and laughter. It was fun. I think it was what everyone needed: the memories of that time to get through the trauma.


Why do people die? It’s so selfish, eternally taking yourself away from the people who care for you.


A nervous, bespectacled young man walked into the restaurant, one who hadn’t been with the original group of people. He held out a big map of the island in front of him as he walked. My parents saw him come in too and they nodded at me. I went to tell him to leave.


“Excuse me, sir,” I said politely, “but the whole restaurant’s been booked for this group.”


“It is?” he replied. “Well, I’m sorry then.” He turned to leave, but then turned back with a hopeful look in his eye. “I’m sorry to trouble you further, but is there a Ms. Walters living here? I’m Mr. Clark.”


“MR.CLARK?!” I shouted. That got the attention of everyone else. I, on the other hand, used the time before they crowded around him to check the street behind him. So many people were deciding all of a sudden to visit their kids, like Genevieve’s parents had (they hadn’t come to the funeral, Grandpa Cain was with her). I was wondering if, just maybe, Vince’s parents had come too. It felt right, being as how he was the one who’s always been waiting for them, who’s wanted them there more than anything.


Alas, there was no one on the street behind Mr. Clark. I quickly scanned the crowd for Vince’s face and was not only surprised that he and his grandma were standing by Genevieve and her grandpa, but that the spacey look in his eyes was also gone. He’d been talking to Genevieve with no trace of it on his face, then he turned to Mr. Clark like everyone else did. I was amazed, but then turned back to Mr. Clark (all of this happened in the span of a few seconds).


“Are you looking for Aubrey and Adrianne Clark?” I asked him.


“Huh? Um, no,” he said, stunned by the crowd. “Clark?” Everyone groaned, extremely disappointed.


I sighed, exasperated. “If you’re looking for Mrs. Walters, she has twins that go by the names Aubrey Bentley Clark and Adrianne Brianna Clark.”


“T-T-Twins?” His eyes bulged in a comical way. Aubrey and Adrianne stepped forward, giving me weird looks that I knew meant How did you know our middle names? I looked away.


“Yep.” He caught sight of them.


“Oh…oh wow. You look just like me,” he said dumbly, absently touching his red hair while he spoke. I noticed he had blue eyes, just like them. “But…but that’s weird. Your names are just like mine. A-Arthur Benjamin Clark.”


“Really?” I said sarcastically, earning evil eyes from the twins.


“She had t-t-twins? Why didn’t she tell me?” he mumbled to himself. It was a wonder that I understood him, being an outsider to the Mumble language and all (he and Mr. Walters would get along just fine).


“You look a little too young to be a father. Just how old are you?” I asked suspiciously. This guy couldn’t be a day over twenty-five. Maybe the Mr. Clark that Aubrey and Adrianne’s mother had been so obsessed with was really in his fifties and this was his son…or he could be a completely unrelated stranger who just happened to be looking for a Ms. Walters in Put-in-Bay, an island off Ohio that wasn’t exactly the most popular place in the world.


“I’m thirty-five,” he told me, still muttering words like, “really,” “twins,” and “why,” under his breath. My eyes widened in surprise. So did many others, I noted. I was glad to not have been the only one who had extremely misjudged his age.


“What cream do you use?” I joked. “I’d like to shave ten years off my life!” He stared blankly at me, either not getting it or not finding it funny. The rest of the group seemed to think the exact same way and soon my face was beet red again. I don’t like it when people laugh at me, but I find it even worse when I tell a joke and they don’t laugh, not even a little bit.


“Anyway,” Aubrey said, pulling her mirrored sunglasses out of her pocket and putting them on, “this means you’re our father.” The crowd cheered, happy for them.


Mr. Clark was grinning. “Great! Let’s go see your mother. I came back to apologize for leaving earlier. I hope she won’t kick me out or anything. All this time I could only think about her. I’m dying to see her again.” Ignoring my frantic gesturing for him to stop, he said the worst speech he could have ever said in the situation. It all went back to silence.


“She wouldn’t kick you out,” Adrianne said bitterly. “She was always waiting for you to come back.”


“Then let’s…go see her?” the poor man said, looking around, confused.


“Mr. Clark,” I interrupted. “This is a party for a funeral.”


It was pure torture watching his face change from confusion to anxiety, to knowing, to doubt, and then finally to bitter acceptance.


“I’ll never see her again will I?” he asked in a small voice. He burst into tears, wailing like a baby. No one said anything, then the twins stepped forward.



“Come on, Mr. Clark. Let’s go see Mom,” Adrianne smiled. “After all, she always wanted to see you. They each took an arm and a sniffling Mr. Clark out the door. The rest of the funeral procession could hear his wails getting softer as he walked farther away.


The party was over after that.

The author's comments:
This is where it ends.

- - - - -Star Guide #30: Endings Are So Yesterday


My name is Elaine Morris. I’ve always wanted to be a star. But now I don’t know anymore. Sitting here at the Benson Ford shiphouse I’m wondering if I should choose a different career path.


It’s probably because my life is changing a lot right now. Adrianne and Aubrey Clark will be leaving the island with their dad in a couple hours. We’ve already had the going-away party. It seems like there’s been a bunch of parties in the past few days, but nothing really big to celebrate. For every good turn that I’ve had, there’s been a worse one.


But I don’t want to end on this note. Mrs. Forbes has been training me to be a wizard, though she still refuses to call it sorcery and magic. Now I’ve cast a spell that makes all those who feel like approaching me second-guess themselves and go bug someone else. It’s been working perfectly; I haven’t been asked to take a picture or hold a baby yet.


I’m gonna be just fine, wizard or actress or singer or therapist. It’s all going to be alright. Get ready world, because Elaine Morris is. This ugly duckling will become a swan one way or another. Thanks for listening. Goodnight (or good morning, depending on which part of the world you live in. My parents don’t know I’m out this late). Hey! I like that. Thank you. Goodnight. Thank you. And. Goodnight!


Thank you and goodnight.



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