**So, I’ve done it. Sent the first few chapters to a publisher’s open house. EEEEEEEEEE! Hopefully they’ll slash it within an inch of its life, splattering red ink and making me cry. And then, I’ll pick up the pieces, explain to our resident detective that he is not, in fact, looking at blood spatter, and write it even better.**
Continued from Part 2
The doorbell rings three times fast, then twice more. Kevin is outside my door spraying “Ocean Breeze” freshener and I almost tackle him on my way to the stairs. That bell pattern means one thing. Grandpa.
Kevin races after me and we push past each other, slipping on the steps, grabbing at the shiny curved handrail, trying to be first to the door. I elbow his ribs and get ahead, but he snatches a handful of the back of my shirt and hauls me sideways.
We wrestle for the door, shoving each other away, and I hear my grandfather’s voice outside.
“Just open the door. This is heavy!” I yank it open. I know he’s smiling even though I can only see his twinkling blue eyes above the packages. Wrapped in newspaper paper and twine, as always. He says wrapping paper is a waste of money. Something about the Depression and if people would stop spending on frivolous items, we’d all be in a better place financially. I don’t care how he wraps it, honestly. I just want to know what’s inside.
Kevin lugs the hard, mint green suitcase to the spare bedroom as Grandpa and I carry the packages into the dining room. I stop, stunned. The room is exploding with decorations. Streamers, balloons, confetti, paper tablecloths—all in our favorite colors. When did mom have time to do this? Wow.
“Where do you want these?” I stare around the room. Poster boards full of pictures of Kevin and me plaster the walls. She must have been working on this for months.
Grandpa nods to the small table layered in shades of purple, handing me a shoebox-sized package.
“I assume that table is for you.” He deposits the rest of the packages on the blue camouflage tablecloth, a nod to Kevin’s secondary obsession with the Navy. I feel a little twinge, wondering why Kevin has more presents from Grandpa, but then I remember what dad said this Christmas. “When you get older, the gifts get smaller but more expensive.”
My present must be phenomenal.
Emma is the only friend who showed up for my party. Kevin and I were each allowed to invite six friends. Madison’s birthday is the week after mine, but she planned her party the same day. After I sent her my invitation, which I did two months in advance to make sure everyone could come.
We’ve all been in school together since first grade, when we moved here. Emma, Madison, Shamaia, Brooke, Karmin and I eat lunch together every day, even though seats aren’t assigned. I thought they’d all be here. Instead, Madison betrayed me, luring all the others to her house. They only went because she has a pool.
Madison said her mom told her if she wanted a party, she had to do it this weekend because they have too much going on this month. It’s just an excuse. She’s been trying to bait the rest of the girls away for months. She even had a sleepover a few weeks ago and didn’t invite me.
“It was a hard decision, but my mom said I could only have few friends over. I’ll ask you next time,” she promised.
Emma pokes me, harder than necessary. I yelp.
“OW! What was that for?”
“Your mom just called you. Twice. Are you feeling okay? You keep staring off into space, like this.” She tilts her head and crosses her eyes. “And then your face gets all scrunchy and—” she makes a monkey face.
I shove her with my shoulder.
“Whatever.” I grin, trying to make it look real. “I’m fine.”
“Are you mad that everyone else went to Madison’s?” She squints at me. “At least I’m here. I’ll never desert you. Except for chocolate.”
Geez. She’s got her emotional radar cranked to high velocity today.
“Nah. I’m just done with this situation. Do you think I can spend the night at your house? Please, get me out of here.”
She grins, flopping onto the couch pillows with the back of her hand pressed to her forehead.
“Dramatic goofball. Stop making fun of me. Seriously, get us a ride. Call your mom. Or your dad. Or your housekeeper.” Her smile falters and I realize she doesn’t think it’s funny. Before I can apologize, my mom calls again. I push myself off the couch, heading toward the sound of her screeching.
“Colleeeeeeeeeeeeeee—oh, hey.” Mom quirks an eyebrow at me as I slide around the corner. “Can you take these hot dogs to your dad? And also this platter. He’s got almost-burned hamburgers out there, and I can’t get to him fast enough.”
I grab the platter and dogs, then jog out the back door. Dad’s ability to burn meat nears legendary. He calls it “blackened,” but I tell him that’s not a thing unless you’re Jamaican. And he’s not.
We rescue the hamburgers. Most are okay; a couple are still medium-rare. Several are medium-charred. Banjo, our beagle-bassett mutt, will be thrilled. He considers anything less ashen than cinders to be edible.
When I get back to the family room, Emma is chatting up my grandfather. She loves his stories.
“So, after we built the plane, we covered it with fabric and painted it with dope,” he says.
I’ve heard this one. The first time we heard that story, Kevin thought Grandpa covered his plane in drugs. Grandpa laughed, telling us that it might be where the word came from, but the dope he used was more like glue.
Sitting down to listen, I pick up my pencil and start sketching a princess dress. Lacy and jeweled. I wish I could wear it today, instead of my t-shirt and jeans. I suddenly realize I forgot to change for the party. I can’t believe Emma didn’t say anything, since we were planning to match.
“I have to run upstairs. Be right back.”
Emma nods, barely noticing me. She is rapt, listening to my grandfather. I dash up the stairs, slam my bedroom door and drop my clothes on the floor. I grab my cute new sundress and pull it over my head. As I slip back out of my room, Mom waddles down the hall. As she passes, she glances into my room.
“I know you’re not going to leave those clothes on the floor.”
“Seriously? Not only do I have to clean the bathroom, you’re making me clean my room on my birthday, too?” This is too much.
“Call me a horrible momster, but yes.” She shrugs and grins at her own joke. “Get it? Momster?”
I roll my eyes and snatch the clothes off the floor, dropping them in the laundry basket by the door. She smiles.
“Was that so difficult? It took, what, four seconds?”
“My favorite color is teal. Purple was last year.” I don’t know why I feel this need to bring her down off her high, but she’s driving me crazy. Her “happy happy” act is so annoying. No one is that cheerful. No one sane, anyway. I see the hurt flash in her eyes and for a moment, I regret my words.
Then she shrugs again.
“Well, honey, too late to change the decorations now. You’ll just have to enjoy the party anyway.”
I glare at her.
“Party? Party? What party?” I hear the pitch of my voice reaching unreasonable, but I can’t stop. “You made me clean a bathroom on my birthday, Kevin is doing his best to ruin my day, Dad is too tired, Grandpa is all buddy-buddy with Emma. She’s supposed to be my friend, but she’s hardly even talking to me. I might as well not have anyone here. She probably wishes she went to Madison’s party, but she knows we always have better cake. She can sniff out quality sugar anywhere.”
Mom’s eyes focus slightly over my shoulder. She’s not even listening. I try to draw her attention back to my words.
“You know it’s true. I don’t know how she stays so skinny, with the amount of sugar she eats. Your cookies are probably the only reason she comes over here. She didn’t even bring me a present,” I growl.
Her eyes widen slightly.
“What?” I ask, then realize someone is behind me. Emma.
I turn around, almost nose-to-nose with her freckles.
“I came to see if you had any cookies in your room,” she said, tone cool.
Grandpa puffs up the stairs behind her.
“Why are we stopping? I thought you were going to show me the gift.” He looks from Emma to me. “Uh-oh.”
Emma crosses her arms over her chest.
“Well, I was. But I think I’d rather sniff around for quality sugar.”
Grandpa squints at her.
She leans in toward me.
“I don’t know what your problem is. You’ve been crabby for weeks. You snap at me, at Madison, at our whole group. You’re rude to your mom and nasty to your brother. You crab about your life and how things would be better if both your parents worked so you could have more money. And I have to tell you, I just don’t get it. At least you have a sibling. At least your parents are home. Do you know who dropped me off today?”
I back up a step.
“No. The housekeeper drove my mom’s car. My mom is across the country at some big meeting for those stupid scarves she’s selling. They have pep rally meetings and then she comes home all brainwashed and pumped up about how this flowered scarf matches with that houndstooth jacket. It’s unnatural. And she ignores me most of the time, even if she is home. And dad is never around. At least you have a family. You should be thankful. And the reason no one showed up at your party today is because you’ve been such a jerk lately.”
Emma takes a deep breath. She’s not done yelling at me. Super.
“You’re my friend, my best friend, and no matter how you treat me, I’ll always love you. But you aren’t even happy I’m here. All you’ve done since I got here is mope about your life. Well, I’ve had enough for one day. I’m going to walk over to Madison’s. Your present is in your closet under a pile of clothes; I brought it over last week when you were at soccer practice. To surprise you. Happy birthday.”
She turns toward the steps, then walks over to my mom and grandpa, hugging each of them.
“I hope she gets herself together. It was great to see you both.”
And then, she leaves.
Continued from Chapter One.
First part of the second chapter. I’m submitting the book idea at the end of the month, so if you have editorial commentary, now’s your chance.
Summary: Colleen, adopted through foster care with her brother, dreams of finding her birth family and learning they are royalty. She hates chores and feels displaced by her adoptive parents’ pregnancy. She wishes her life were different, the life of a princess. A gift from her grandfather might make her wish reality.
Grandpa is late.
He’s never late.
Did he forget?
How could he forget my birthday?
My grandpa is amazing. We connect. He understands me. He’s always understood me.
In one of my earliest memories, I hold the dash of his beat-up diesel truck as we bounce across the cow pastures to check on new calves. The afternoon wind pushes through the cab, warm and buffeting. I’m small enough that I can just see over the hood as I stand in the cab. Gold streaks the sky, edging the clouds, as we look for new babies.
Soon, in the blue dusk, we find the big girl with her fuzzy little clone tripping along behind. He coaxes her to follow us back to the paddock. I clamber up to watch out the back window as we drive slowly across the field. The calf follows his mother, head bobbing. The vinyl seat pattern creates basket-weave on my bare shins, the rolled seams pressing into my bones. Hours later, in my sleeping bag on the couch, I think I can still feel them.
Now that I’m grown, I realize all those cute little calves ended up as filet mignon on some rich guy’s plate in a fancy restaurant with napkins you can’t blow your nose on. Back then, though, I just knew I was helping Grandpa, and I loved it. His little sidekick.
Mom catches me peeking out the window. “Grandpa’s on his way. He called from a rest stop a few hours out. He had a flat and had to change it.” She sighs. “One of these days, we’ll talk him into getting a cell phone.”
I roll my eyes. This is a conversation Grandpa and I have often. He thinks cell phones are unnecessary. Last week, I said phones attached to a wall are constricting, clunky and old-fashioned. “Constricting” is one of my favorite words. Sounds like a snake, coiled up and squeezing me to death. Sort of like the curly phone cord. I told him we could talk almost face-to-face if he would agree to a phone with a screen.
“What? And then you’ll see how my hair sticks up. I need a haircut. You wouldn’t believe it. And what if I forget to wipe my mouth after dinner? You’ll see the food on my face. No. Besides, I’m almost eighty. This old-fashioned clanky phone is just fine for me.”
I consider correcting him, but he’s probably forgotten to replace his hearing aid battery again. It’s pointless. Mom says he doesn’t forget; he just decides it’s easier to ignore what he doesn’t want to hear if we think the hearing aids aren’t working.
Hovering over the snack table, I inhale the scent of vanilla cupcakes with buttercream icing. My favorite. Cupcakes used to be for little kids, but all my friends like this show about a cupcake shop in the city. The owners come up with unbelievable flavors and even group the cupcakes together to recreate famous paintings. Last week they did Starry Night and something by Monet.
My cupcakes aren’t that fabulous, but my mom did manage to talk the bakery into grouping them to look like a big daisy. It wasn’t that hard. Just put the yellow in the middle and white on the outside. A baby could do it. I talked her into buying some orange sprinkles, then shook them over the yellow cupcakes to make the flower look little more artistic. Kevin wanted a cake shaped like a torpedo, but it would have cost a fortune. Mom talked him into getting an ice cream cake with a picture of the Blue Angels flight squad instead.
Our weird doorbell has been ringing all morning. Kevin’s friends are all showing up early because he sent out a picture of the new prize Fender. If that thing duh-BONG-bongs one more time in the next ten minutes, I swear I’ll go tear it out of the wall. I don’t know why we have to have such a stupid sounding bell. All my friends’ houses have the regular ding-dong style, except Emma’s. Hers plays Bach or Beethoven or something because her dad’s a composer for the movies. It’s actually pretty cool. Not like duh-BONG-bong.
A loud crash sounds from upstairs. Mom heaves herself up to the third step, then stops, hanging on the stair railing and panting. “KEVIN!” she squalls, “GET DOWN HERE!” His face, topped by wild spikes of brown and purple hair, appears at the head of the stairs. She blinks at him.
“First, explain the crash. Second, what in the world did you do to your hair?”
He grins. “Sorry, mom. Robert fell out of the chair.”
She raises an eyebrow. “Fell?”
“Well,” he shrugs, “he was trying to see how many times he could spin in thirty seconds. We were timing him. I guess the centrifugal force knocked him out of the seat.”
“Ah, well, tell him to find some centripetal force or he’s going to find a place to science himself out of a chair outside.” Her foot hovered over the second step, then she turned back to him. “Wait. You didn’t answer my other question. What have you done to your hair? Please tell me it isn’t permanent.”
He grinned, that wide, half-cocked smile he uses on adults. He thinks it’s disarming. Most of the time, it works. “Oh, that. Uh, no, it’s not permanent. It’s going to turn clear pretty soon.”
I can almost see mom’s mental wheels spinning. “Turn clear…is that one of the glue sticks you’re using for the science project presentation?”
She bought him a bunch of different glue sticks that start out purple and turn clear as they dry. He wants to document the color change, drying time and explain the science behind stuff that dries a different color. Sounds stupid to me, but it’s his project.
His grin widens. “Yep. Pretty cool, right? We took it out of the tube and squished it around until we could use it for hair gel. So we can start a rock band in style. Isn’t it amazing? Can I get some real purple hair dye?”
Mom rolls her eyes and slithers back down the railing until she stands on the hardwood floor of
the hall. She sucks in a breath, then hisses. I don’t know how she’s going to survive until her due date. I don’t even know what they were thinking. They already have us.
She looks back up at my brother, still hovering at the top of the steps. “If you pull your Spanish grade up to a B, I’ll consider it.”
Kevin could ace Spanish if he turned in his homework. He actually does it, then leaves it at home. I don’t know what his problem is. I’ve never told mom, though. It’s not my business. And he doesn’t tell her that sometimes I wear eye shadow at school, so. Fair’s fair.
Five minutes later, the doorbell sounds again. Six boys tumble down the staircase, trying to be the first to open it. When Robert pulls the door back and gapes at the front porch, I realize they must have been looking out the upstairs window. I see a sleek white sedan backing out of our driveway. It’s the car Emma’s mom drives. I guess she’s not staying.
Sure enough, my beautiful friend waits on the porch. Empty-handed. I wonder why she didn’t bring me a present. I push Robert out of the way and pull the door wide.
“Finally! I have no one to talk to. You wouldn’t believe the morning I had. Mom made me get up and clean the bathroom. On my birthday,” I emphasize, grabbing her hand and dragging her past the group of ogling trolls.
“Did your mom make cookies? Or put out any pre-birthday cupcakes?” Emma asks, always ready for sugar. Flashing her perfect, pearly teeth, she waves at Robert as we head to my room. I think people expect rich, beautiful Emma to be a snob, but she’s nice to everyone, even nerdy boys.
If only I had her life…
Among all the other ways her life is better than mine, Emma already had her teeth fixed. She said her dad paid “out of pocket” so she could get braces early, and they weren’t the silver metal-mouth things the rest of us have. Or will have. Mom said our insurance won’t pay for the braces yet because I still have baby molars that refuse to fall out. Emma’s parents didn’t wait for insurance. She had extractions and a bunch of stuff done as soon as the orthodontist said it was okay. Then they gave her the braces you could barely see.
My teeth stick out like a donkey’s. Mom says it’s not that bad, but she doesn’t spend hours in the mirror looking at them. And one of my teeth is turned sideways. It’s horrible.
The orthodontist told me it’s no big deal, but he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I know everyone can see it. I don’t smile for pictures anymore unless Mom forces me with threats of dismemberment.
“Is your grandfather here yet?” Emma loves my Grandpa. We all do. He tells amazing stories and always brings interesting gifts. The last time he visited, he gave me a book of princess tales. This might not sound that great to you, but I love to read AND the book was almost a hundred years old. It belonged to my great grandmother, the one who gave me my name. She died a year after Kevin and I arrived.
Inside the front cover, she’d written her name in perfect cursive. My grandmother’s name appears below it. He never gave it to my mother, even after my grandmother died. I’m not exactly sure why, but it makes sense to me. He probably recognized she has no imagination. I wrote my name under their names, and now the cover says, “Colleen Elizabeth” three times, in three different girls’ handwriting, because it was also my grandmother’s name. Three times, like a magic spell.
“Colleen.” Emma is wrinkling her nose. “What is that smell?”
Floating under the surface of my memories, I hadn’t even noticed. Now, a definite odor permeated my room. I narrowed my eyes at the tendrils of smoke reaching under my door. “Hold your breath.” I pull on the handle to find one of my brother’s homemade stink bombs smoldering by my door.
“Mommmmmm!” I can’t believe he did this. Again.
“MOMMMMMMM!” no answer.
Dad pokes his head out of their doorway, blinking. He must have worked late last night. “What are you screaming about, Colleen—” he stops, staring at the stink bomb. “Oh.”
Pulling his old green terrycloth robe on over his t-shirt and plaid pajama pants, he staggers to Kevin’s door. The room is empty.
“I’ll be back,” he says, “with air freshener. Close your door and stuff a towel under the crack. I might also kill your brother. If your mom asks about his body, you know nothing.” He winks and saunters down the hall.
Emma stares at me, wide-eyed. “Plaid. Is your dad okay?”
She’s spent the night enough to know that his pajama pants tend to correspond with his mood. Flannels sporting happy faces, penguins or a square sponge in short pants mean he’s had a really good day. He even has a pair with CELEBRATE! plastered all over them. He saves those for birthdays and work promotions.
“I think he’s just tired. He’s been working a lot lately,” I say, a little annoyed that she noticed before I did. Come to think of it, he’s been wearing plaid a lot lately.
I think I’ll start doing it, too. Then maybe they’ll realize how unhappy I am. I could just get a bunch of black pajamas and wait for mom to ask how I’m feeling. If she even sees them. She’s so obsessed with this new baby growing in her belly, she barely notices me.