CHAPTER ONE The Promise of Epic
Tonight is gonna be EPIC.
I smile to myself and work in a few hip wiggles in time to the song blaring (or at least nudged to the highest possible volume I can get away with without my mom appearing in my doorway with her arms crossed), as I toss my favorite polka-dot flannel pajama bottoms into my bag. I have to stop dancing to wrestle my pillow into my already jam-packed sleeping bag pouch, and then I jump in place to get the drawstring to close. Who knew packing for a sleepover could be such a workout?
My hand hovers over Hippy, my stuffed hippo, lying facedown on my comforter. Pack him. No, don’t. Yes, do. No, way too babyish. This might be my first sleepover, but I’m not actually that young. Depending on whether you consider twelve and three-quarters young. (FYI: I don’t.) And, well, it isn’t technically my first sleepover, but it is the first one where I fully and completely intend to make it to the actual sleeping-over
part. Let’s just say there was a little Could you please, please call my mom to pick me up? incident when it came to lights-out at my friend’s house when I was seven. It, um, might have happened again at age eight. And nine. We sort of skipped trying after that, but I’m (almost, in three months) thirteen now.
I can do this.
I pause with one hand on the zipper of my duffel bag. Then I reach across it, grab Hippy, wrap him in my West Oak Middle School sweatshirt, and nestle the bundle gently underneath the clothes I’ve packed to change into in the morning.
Epic is epic, but if we ever get around to actual sleeping at this sleepover, a girl might need her stuffed hippo. I’m just saying.
I shake my bag to clear space for a few extras.
Nail polish “borrowed” from Mom’s bathroom: check
Camera for maximum selfie-taking (even if I’ll have to connect it to a computer to put the pictures on Anna Marie’s Instagram since someone’s parents don’t approve of either smartphones or social media sites for not-yet-teenagers): check.
Girls’ Life magazine, latest issue: check.
I pull my iPod from its dock and tuck it on top before zipping my duffel closed. Done! Nope, not done. I open it again to slide three fair-trade organic carob bars (despite Mom’s claims, these are not “practically the next best thing to a candy bar”—don’t be fooled) along the side. Zzzzip!
There. I hoist the sleeping bag over my shoulder and try to ignore the fact that the strap is digging into my skin. You know what? I don’t even care. Nothing is going to ruin tonight!
Epic. It’s gonna be epic. I don’t know exactly what that means, but Paige and Anna Marie keep saying they want my first true sleepover to be epic and it sounds like a good thing and I’m just going to pretend I don’t have the teensy, tiniest, little belly-flip feeling when I try to picture the night. It might be true that I’ve never been an epic kind of person, but who’s to say I couldn’t be if I tried? And when better to try than tonight?
The doorbell rings out Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” in tinny ding-dong notes.
“Mom! Mo-ooom! Can you get that? It’s Paige!” I yell down to the first level. She hates when I yell between floors, but I know Paige, and she’ll be leaning on that doorbell again in 2.5 seconds. Mom will hate that even more, I’m positive.
I take the stairs from my attic bedroom two at a time and thud onto the second-floor landing. Leaning over the railing, I spot my mom in the downstairs hallway, one arm in a
cardigan sweater and the other grabbing at the air behind her for the empty sleeve. The doorbell chimes again, followed by three short bursts as Paige jabs the button.
“Someone needs to teach that girl some manners. She’s murdering Pachelbel,” Mom mutters loudly enough for me to hear as I reach the bottom stair. Tugging the door open, Mom raises an eyebrow at Paige, looking oh-so-Paige with her long blond hair in waves and wearing a fringed denim miniskirt and furry boots. She has her elbow propped on the doorframe.
“Mrs. A. What up?”
“Paige.” Just the one word, but I can hear all the disapproval it holds. I cringe and hope my friend doesn’t pick up on it. I hurry to cross the hallway, dragging my duffel behind me, and insert myself in front of my mom. Luckily, Paige just smiles her normal grin at me and blows her bangs out of her eyes.
“Girlfriend! You ready for an awesomesauce night?”
I start to bounce a little in excitement, but then I remember Mom just behind me.
“Um, yeah, it should be good.” I shrug and kick at the door threshold with my sneaker. With my shoulders angled so Mom can’t see my face, I catch Paige’s eyes and send her a silent plea to play it cool.
I turn to my mother with a small smile and see her eyes narrow slightly. “I fail to see what’s ‘awesomesauce’ about working on a science fair project. You have your biology textbook in there, right, Meghan Elizabeth?”
I shoot another desperate look at Paige, but I know she’ll catch on. She has two older brothers and an older sister, so she’s well schooled in the art of parental management. She doesn’t even miss a beat before she says, “No worries. She can use mine, Mrs. A. I only meant that plotting the nocturnal exercise patterns of Anna Marie’s hamster has the potential to be totally amazeballs when we take first place in the science fair, is all.”
My mother does not look convinced. It’s not that Mom wouldn’t let me go on a regular sleepover without the whole science fair story, but then I’d have to listen to all kinds of lectures on what to do . . . and what not to do. It’s not worth it. Plus, with my personal sleepover history, it’s really not worth it. Mom’s eyebrows do that meet-in-the-middle-like-a-V thing above her nose, and she shakes her head once.
“You have your retainer? And your Ladybug cell in case of an emergency? And please go to bed at a reasonable time, you hear me? We’re going right from picking you up tomorrow afternoon to handbell rehearsal at church, and I don’t want you yawning your way through it, or Reverend Robbins will be offended. And for heaven’s sake, Meghan, don’t forget to floss!”
Paige is one of my good friends, so she knows this is how it is, but yeah . . . my parents are pretty strict. (Well, mostly Mom, but Dad doesn’t like to “rock the boat” once Mom’s made up her mind about something.) You would think living under martial rule would have made me desperate to get away for all those other sleepovers, but the thing is, Mom’s also got a pretty overactive imagination, and I think maybe I inherited it. Usually what happens when she won’t let me walk to the park alone because of “stranger danger” or warns me against eating anything with Yellow 5 dye in it because she watched a talk show that said it could cause cancer, is that I end up not even really wanting to because who wants to be kidnapped or to get sick? Not me.
It’s just lately I’ve been starting to wonder if maybe Mom’s a little too overprotective.
I mean, I know she is (says the only girl on the soccer field wearing a bike helmet).
I guess maybe what I’m actually starting to wonder is if I’m still okay with it. Tonight’s kind of a test. If I can have fun and go a little bit crazy and nothing bad happens, maybe I need to work up the courage to talk to Mom about a few things. And, duh, what could ever go wrong at a simple sleepover at my best friend’s house, where I spend practically half my time anyway?
I give Mom a quick hug and say, “Sure thing. Floss.
Retainer. Call. Got it. Say good night to Dad for me.” I readjust my sleeping bag and drag my duffel around Mom’s planted legs. Paige backs off the step and onto the path, smiling angelically at my mother. With her pale blond waves, she really does look like an angel.
“Enjoy your evening, Mrs. A.” Under her breath as we walk away she mutters, “Dude, what is a Ladybug cell?”
I groan and whisper, “It’s a starter cell phone. With a total of two buttons: home and 9-1-1.”
Paige snorts a giggle and grabs the duffel out of my hands as we make our way toward her sister in the waiting car. I steal a glance behind me at Mom because I’m positive she won’t let me drive off with a college kid behind the wheel, but she’s already closed the door. Phew!
“Oh, my poor sheltered Meghan,” Paige says when she catches my worried look. “You’re not going to know what hit you. Mark my words, Megs. Tonight? Is gonna be EPIC.”
It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in our best-night-ever plans when the birthday girl can’t answer the door because she’s arguing with her mother. Maybe arguing isn’t the right word, but it’s definitely a Serious Discussion, and I feel totally weird ringing the doorbell in the middle of it. The door itself is propped open a few inches and, technically, we could just walk in, which Anna Marie’s mom always tells me I should
do since I’m here so much, but then we would be interrupting and it would be all awkward and . . .
I steal a glance at Paige, who just shrugs and plops down on the step. It takes a lot to make Paige uncomfortable, which probably mostly has to do with the older siblings thing. At Paige’s house, chaos and bickering are everyday occurrences, unlike at my house, which is always dust-free and orderly and church-quiet except for when Dad plays his cello.
“But it’s my birthday. Shouldn’t I get a say in this?” Anna Marie is saying, kind of high-pitched and pleadinglike.
“Bug, I know it’s not ideal,” her mom answers. “But your father asked a special favor, and I think it’s a reasonable request. You’re already skipping out on your annual sunrise birthday hike up Mount Ellis with him.”
Mrs. Guerrero’s voice is gentle, just like she is. I love, love, LOVE Anna Marie’s mom. She’s warm and soft and always just a little frazzled. It’s not like I don’t love my own parents most of all because—obviously—of course I do. I just wish sometimes they could relax a little more, especially my mother.
Okay, I’ve held out on something I’ve been dying to do for long enough. I can’t take it anymore! I steal the tiniest of peeks at the house next door, just like I do every time I’m at Anna Marie’s. I can’t even help it. It’s like there’s a magnet attached to my head and the other magnet is on Jake Ribano’s house.
It’s so not fair that Anna Marie gets to live next door
to Jake, the cutest guy in our grade and, also, kind of the scariest. Well, not scary exactly; it’s just that he’s a little bit of a rebel. Seeing as how I am the exact polar opposite of a rebel, it makes him sort of fascinating. At least that’s what I’m blaming my stalkerish tendencies on. Not the fact that he’s got this floppy blue-black hair he’s always pushing out of his eyes absentmindedly or anything shallow like that. Totally involuntarily, my heart speeds up a little at the thought of catching a glimpse of him.
His house is dark and quiet. My heartbeat slows and steadies.
Inside, Mrs. Guerrero says, “Besides, in a few months, Veronica’s going to be part of this family whether you like it or not. And I can promise you, your life will be a lot easier if you learn to deal with that.”
“Mom. Seriously. You’ve met Veronica. She’s a freak!” Anna Marie is practically shouting now, and I cringe and avoid looking at Paige. So mega-awkward. I feel extra bad for my best friend. I can’t even imagine having a stepsister forced on me, and Anna Marie already has her hands full with a bratty little brother, Max. I used to beg my parents for a baby brother or sister until I realized I could end up with a Max. No, thanks.
“Anna Marie! That’s no way to talk about someone who
will be family soon. You have to find a way past this, preferably before Dad’s wedding.”
Mrs. Guerrero’s voice gets quieter, and both Paige and I scoot our butts a little bit closer to the doorway, exchanging guilty glances as we do. “Look,” Mrs. G. says. “I’ll admit Veronica has some . . . oddities. But she seems like a sweet enough girl, and you’re the same age, so you have something in common right there. You can’t argue she hasn’t been doing her part to try to get to know you, and I just think you could meet her halfway.”
Anna Marie snorts loud enough that we can hear it. “I don’t consider charting my horoscope based on the latitude and longitude of my birth location ‘getting to know me.’?”
Paige stuffs her fist into her mouth to keep from laughing, and I elbow her. The only thing worse than interrupting would be getting busted eavesdropping. Paige rubs at her elbow and mouths, Ow!
I ignore her.
Inside, Anna Marie’s mom sounds sympathetic. “I know it’s your big sleepover party and this is getting sprung on you at the last minute. But I’m trying to be supportive of Dad’s decision to remarry, and I think allowing Veronica to be part of your birthday would be a really nice gesture. Okay, sweets?”
Anna Marie sighs. “Not really. But I’m guessing this is a rhetorical question.”
“She’ll be here in a half hour. I expect you to be inclusive. It means a lot to Dad and to me.”
It’s quiet then, and after about ten seconds Paige pops to her feet and puts her hand out to help me up. Together we lean on the doorbell and wait for Anna Marie to fling the door open the rest of the way.