**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.