Authors: Jan Blazanin
“JUST IMAGINE IT, ASPEN.” LAUREL WALKS BESIDE ME WAVING
her arms. I feel like a football player, dodging her flapping hands and the lunatics rushing to their lockers. “It's Monday morning. Principal Hammond arrives at dawn with his briefcase in one hand and his thermos of coffee in the otherâ”
“I'm pretty sure Principal Hammond doesn't drink coffee.” I clutch my notebook tighter against my chest to protect my advanced chemistry take-home final. After sweating bullets over it for three precious hours last night, I'm not about to risk losing it. “Once when I was picking up copies from the office, I overheard the secretary kidding him about being addicted to Mountain Dew.”
Laurel gives me her freakish one-eye roll, and my neck hairs stand in frightened little rows. Something has to be wrong with a person who can roll her left eye sideways while the right one is staring straight ahead.
I smack her on the back of the head, not hard, just enough to make her focus both eyes on me. “Don't do that! You know it creeps me out!”
“Thanks for being so sensitive about my wandering eye, Skeleton Girl.” Laurel punctuates her insult with an elbow between my ribs.
I elbow her back. “You're just jealous because I can still wear my training bra from sixth grade, and you outgrew yours.”
She laughs and tosses her layered, strawberry-colored hair. Her normal color is a perfectly acceptable auburn, but Laurel shies away from anything resembling normal. “Okay, you got me there. Now stop interrupting while I'm running through my plan. Once you hear it, you'll be speechless. It's brilliant.”
Now it's my turn to roll my eyesâboth eyes at once like an ordinary person. Laurel and I have been friends since she and her dad moved into our development at the end of last summer. The first time I saw her toothy smile and spiky yellow hairâlast summer's colorâI was sure she'd add some much-needed sparkle to my basically drab life. And I was right, although sometimes Laurel's sparkle is more like a blinding glare.
Switching gears from Chicago to Cottonwood Creek, Iowa, hasn't been easy for Laurel. I've tried to give her the benefit of my experience as a lifetime resident, but she likes to make her own way and her own mistakes. Which is fine, as long as her mistakes don't include me.
We stop at our lockers in the section designated for juniors, and Laurel raises her voice to be heard over the din. “As I was saying, Principal Hammond enters the building at dawn. He walks down the darkened hallways to his office and inserts his key into the lockâ”
“The custodians come in at five thirty and turn the lights on. So it's not dark whenâ” The green fire shooting from Laurel's eyes cuts off the rest of my explanation.
“He inserts his key into the lock,” she repeats, “opens the door, and screams in terror as a flock of pigs comes squealing out!”
“Pigs? How do pigs get into Mr. Hammond's office?” Which is the world's stupidest question because I already know what Laurel is going to say.
Laurel lowers her voice to a loud stage whisper. “We wait until the night custodian goes off duty at eleven, sneak into the school with three or four pigs, and herd them right into Hammond's office.” She hooks her fingers into the belt loops of her ultra-tight jean shorts. “Is that the best prank ever or what?”
“Laurel, that is hands down the stupidest idea you've ever had!” I say it louder than I intend to, but nobody notices. The sad truth is that none of them would notice if I did a handstand in the middle of the hall. Okay, a few folks might give that a glance, but then they'd yawn and keep walking.
Laurel's jaw drops. “How can you say that? It's a brilliant plan. If hiding a flock of pigs in the principal's office doesn't get us noticed, nothing will.” Her eyes narrow suspiciously. “Or are you jealous because you didn't think of it?”
“Give me a break, Laurel. That isn't a plan. It's a sort-of-maybe idea.”
The corners of her mouth pull down, and I take pity on her. “I admit that hiding pigs in Principal Hammond's office would be hilarious, but you're ignoring a few logistical details.”
“Such as?” she demands.
“Such as, where do we find the herd of pigsâbirds flock, pigs don'tâand, once we do, how do we haul them into town? It's not like there's a pig farm on the next block, you know.” I slide my notebook in front of my midsection in case Laurel decides to slug me. “And even if we solved those two problems, how do we break in without setting off the alarm?”
“That's an easy one,” says a nasal voice from behind me. “When the alarm sensors zero in on your ugly-ass face, they'll explode into a million pieces.”
Looking over my shoulder, I see the source of this witticismâFerret Baumgarten, a senior with bug eyes and a pointed snout, whose IQ registers entirely to the right of the decimal point. He and my brother, Manny, have been classmates and sworn enemies since junior high. And today it looks like I'm the lucky recipient of one of Ferret's random acts of loathsomeness.
I do a quick scan of the hallway to make sure Ferret's buddies Buster and Kong aren't with him. By himself, Ferret is nothing but a loud mouth attached to a wimpy body. Kong's the size of a semi, but it's hard to be scared of someone so stupid he needs a GPS to find the guys' bathroom. But when Buster orders the two of them around, bad things happen. He has dead eyes and a tight-lipped sneer, and he only smiles when he's hurting someone. I don't like to think about what makes him laugh.
Laurel puffs up like a kitten on the attack. “Nobody was talking to you, Ferret. As usual. Go slink into your ferret hole and chew on some crickets or whatever it is rodents eat.”
Sweat beads on Ferret's unibrow. Overactive sweat glands are one of his more attractive features. “My name is Mitchell,” he hisses. “Mr. Baumgarten to you, Oak Scab. Or are you Maple Fungus?”
“That so-called joke is so stale it's fossilized,” I say, not much louder than a whisper.
Laurel grins at me. “Nice one.”
The brown hairs sticking out of Ferret's nose twitch like whiskers. “And the only people pulling end-of-the-year pranks will be graduating seniors.”
“That's too bad.” Laurel's voice drips honey. “Then you'll be home all alone while the rest of the seniors are out pranking.”
Ferret's buggy eyes track toward the ceiling as he tries to process the insult. I can tell when he figures it out because his breath bursts out in a slobbery hiss. “Youâ¦Youâ¦stay out of my way, both of you, orâ”
“We'll be sorry?” Laurel finishes for him. “Too late for that. I've been sorry since the first time I saw you.”
With a tooth-baring snarl, Ferret skitters away, muttering angrily to himself.
“There goes your last best opportunity for a summer romance, Laurel,” I say as we watch him go.
Laurel grabs her French book and slams her locker shut. “What can I say, Aspen? In a war of wits, poor old Ferret is seriously low on ammunition.”
THE REST OF THE DAY PASSES PRETTY MUCH LIKE YOU'D
expect for the third-to-last Friday of the school year. Everyone is impatient for summer, and my mood swings between elation and depression. For me, elation is handing in my advanced chem final, which signals the end of suffering in that class. Depression is knowing I have to endure three finals next week. On the plus side, we don't have snow days to make up, which means school gets out the Thursday before Memorial Day.
After school I keep Laurel company while she waits to talk to Ms. Harcastle, the American lit teacher, about a paper she claims Ms. Harcastle lost. Knowing Laurel, the paper probably didn't get written, but that won't stop her from arguing the point to her grave. Somebody's mother has Ms. Harcastle's ear, so we're hanging out in the hall until they finish talking.
The building is deserted except for the custodians and a few stragglers like us. Laurel's practicing what she's going to say to Ms. Harcastle, and I'm gazing at the wall and picturing two months of freedom, relaxation, and wild make-out sessions with an as-yet-unknown hunky guy who worships me.
My daydreams are capsized by a chugging noise, sort of like the world's smallest tugboat towing an ocean liner. I look around and see Mrs. Noonbottom, the vocal music teacher, steaming toward me. Mrs. Noonbottom is a Cottonwood Creek institution. Nobody knows how old she is, but she taught my parents in middle school. Nana Rosie swears Mrs. Noonbottom directed the choir at her high school graduation fifty years ago, but I'm almost positive she's making that up.
Not only is Mrs. Noonbottom as ancient as the
, but her rear is the same size. As usual, she's wearing an out-of-style flowered dress that probably fit her a decade ago. It cuts into all the wrong places, and it's about a foot too short. So when she bends overâ¦Well, if you can't guess her nickname, you don't deserve to know.
I took choir my freshman and sophomore years, until I realized the only two cute guys in the class were a couple. So I dumped choir for advanced chem, where guys are plentiful and girls are few. By the time I discovered that their superior numbers didn't work to my advantage, it was too late to switch back.
Just as my choir experience ended, Laurel's began. She's too bubbly to be a serious-minded choir person, but she wasn't here for last spring's tryouts for Sound Wave, which is Cottonwood Creek's varsity show choir. Sound Wave's director, Mr. McNear, choreographs super-hot singing and dancing routines, and the members get lots of time out of class to perform in other schools. Last month Laurel tried out for next year's Sound Wave and nailed it. She wanted me to try out too, but since I dance like Kermit the Frog I took a pass.
I hope Mrs. Noonbottom will chug on by. Instead she stops and peers at us through her thick bifocals. “Good afternoon, girls.” The
whistles through her dentures. “If you're here for freshman orientation, I'm afraid it was last week.”
“Mrs. Noonbottom, I'm Aspen Parks. I sang in your choir last yearâand the year before that.”
“Really.” She slides her glasses to the tip of her nose. “You've certainly changed.”
I wish. Except for clean socks and underwear, I haven't changed since eighth grade.
“And I'm Laurel Piedmont.” When Laurel sees Mrs. Noonbottom's confused expression, she adds, “I sang a solo at last month's concert.”
“Yes, of course. You have a lovely voice,” Mrs. Noonbottom says absently. “It was lovely chatting with you girls. Now I must go home and feed my lovely parakeets, Mozart and Chopin.” With a wiggle of her fingers she motors on.
“Did you hear that?” Laurel demands as soon as Mrs. Noonbottom is out of earshot. “âFreshman orientation was last week, you lovely, lovely girls.'” Her imitation of Mrs. Noonbottom is perfect, right down to the whistling dentures. “I was in her class less than an hour ago, and she doesn't even recognize me!”
“Who cares?” Although I'm more rattled than I'll admit that a teacher I had for two classes doesn't recall my existence. “She's a thousand years old. I'd be surprised if she recognized Mr. Noonbottom.”
“That's not the point.” Laurel frowns. “I've done everything possible to get noticed in this school. I wear cute clothes, I'm friendly, I don't smell bad.” She sniffs her armpit to be sure. “Even before Dad and I moved here last summer I sent Facebook friend requests to every person in the Cottonwood Creek High network. And all of them accepted.”
“So that's why you're Facebook buddies with Buster and Ferret.” Another of life's mysteries solved.
Laurel tugs on one of her silver hoop earrings so hard I wince. “Also not the point, but yeah.”
“Now that you know what jerks they are, why don't youâ”
“It's for our own protection. If I unfriend them, I won't know what twisted stuff they're into.” Laurel lets go of the earring and crosses her arms over her chest. “As I was saying before you interrupted, I've been knocking myself out all year to become popular, but I'm still a nobody.”
I've lived here forever. What does that say about me?
“Not true,” I say. “This morning Ferret made a special effort to tell you hello.”
The parent who was talking to Ms. Harcastle stalks out and slams the door, which doesn't bode well for Laurel.
“I'm not joking,” Laurel says with her hand on the doorknob. “We're going to make our mark on Cottonwood Creek this summer, no matter what it takes.”
Despite my romantic daydreams, this is going to be like every other dateless, boring weekend of my high school career. Which is what you'd expect for a girl with limp brown hair and a chest like an ironing board. While guys might not mind me as a lab partner, anything beyond that is out of the question. On the plus side, not dating gives me time for important things like doing homework, cleaning my room, and bleaching the hair on my arms. Other girls drag into class Monday morning worn out from partying all weekend, but I have the satisfaction of knowing my room is clean and my arm hair is pale and silky.
I quickly discover that my boring weekend won't be relaxing, either. Mom is crazed about Manny's graduation and open house next weekend. She rousts Manny and me out of bed on Saturday morning at the ungodly hour of seven to “spiff the place up,” as she puts it. By the time we shuffle downstairs, Dad is outdoors on a ladder, painting the trim on the windows.
“Jeez, Mom, why did you get us up in the middle of the night? Graduation isn't for another week,” Manny grumbles as he steps over Carmine, our hairy brown-and-white dog, who is crashed in front of the refrigerator door, as usual. Manny slides Carmine out of the way with his foot and pulls out a carton of grapefruit juice. He's wearing baggy athletic shorts and a threadbare T-shirt, and I'm disgusted to see that he already has a golden tan and blond highlights from working at the golf course. The sun turns my hair to straw and my skin watermelon red. “If we clean today, we'll have to do it over again next weekend.”
As a matter of principle, I try not to agree with Manny, but this time he's right. “Yeah, Mom. Why don't we wait until next Friday?”
Mom looks up from scrubbing the stovetop. Her grayish brown hair is squashed flat from the ugly hat she wears on her morning walk. Sweat is trailing down her cheeks, and there's a smudge of grease under her nose. “I'm the luckiest woman in the world. Look at my considerate children volunteering to pitch in on the chores! As long as it's not today.”
The way I look at it, parents should be banned from using sarcasm because of the psychological damage it does to their children. I'm one of the lucky few who turned out okay, but I doubt that Manny will ever be normal.
Manny throws up his hands. “Fine, Mom, but I can only help you until eleven because I have to be at work by noon.” He dumps half a box of strawberry-flavored cereal into a bowl. The sound of crinkling paper rouses Carmine, who groans to his feet, shakes loose hair and fleas all over the kitchen, and lumbers to the table to beg. “And I'm tied up all day tomorrow, mowing greens in the morning and caddying until dark.”
He tosses a few cereal clusters to Carmine and empties a carton of milk into the bowl, except for the pint or so that splashes onto the floor. “So even though this morning is my only free time all weekend and I have to change the oil in my car, flush the cooling system, and rotate the tires, I'll help you instead.” He shoves a spoonful of cereal into his mouth and proceeds to talk around it. “The oil light has only been flashing since Tuesday, so it's probably good for another week or so until the engine blows up.”
Mom stops in mid-scrub. “It certainly is not! As soon as you finish eating, you will march right out there and take care of your car. And before you drive anywhere, your father is going to double-check that it's in proper working order.”
When Mom goes back to scouring, Manny breaks into a grin. He treats that old black car of his better than he treats Cynthia, his girlfriend. I'm positive no lights were flashing when he gave Laurel and me a ride home from school Thursday. But if I mention it, that's my last ride of the summer. Mom and Dad are stingy with their car keys, and I can't afford my own car, so I have to stay on what passes for Manny's good side.
“What about you, Aspen?” Mom throws over her shoulder. “Any reason you can't pull weeds and trim the bushes?”
Before answering, I take a moment to show Manny the new pink polish on my right middle finger. “None that I can think of.”
“Good. Then hurry up and eat so you can get started.”
Except for food and water breaksâand monitored trips to the bathroomâMom has Dad and me laboring like indentured servants all day Saturday and Sunday. Late Saturday afternoon it occurs to me that I might get out of Sunday's chores by reminding Mom I have three finals next week. My excuse almost works until she checks the Cottonwood Creek High Web site and discovers my first final isn't until Wednesday. I should have known showing her how to access the site would come back to haunt me.
My back throbs from pulling weeds in the flowerbeds and spreading at least fifty bags of mulch. My neck and shoulders ache from steadying the electric hedge trimmers. My shins are bruised from leaning against the ladder when I washed the upstairs windows. And those jobs pale in comparison to scrubbing the grout between the tiles in the guest bathroom. I hope I got all the cleanser rinsed out of the toothbrush I used, or Manny's going to be really pissed.
The worst part of putting in all this work for Manny's graduation party is that he'll be away at college next year when mine rolls around. So guess who gets to do all the manual labor again?
Mom doesn't unshackle me until almost dark on Sunday. By then I barely have the strength to shower, change into my sleep tee, and crawl into bed. Carmine, who's exhausted from being under my feet every second for the past two days, is snoring on the rug. It's a good thing I have Laurel's number on speed dial because my fingers are too sore to push more than one button.
Laurel answers on the first ring. “It's about time you called! I've left you, like, a hundred messages. I thought you were coming over this afternoon.” Her guilt-inducing moan works great on her dad, but it's wasted on me.
Laurel's parents divorced when she was nine. They had joint custody, but she mostly lived with her mother until her mom married a widowed guy with twin eleven-year-old boys. After a few months of coping with her prepubescent stepbrothers, Laurel was losing it. So when her dad moved here to be branch manager of the First Bank of Iowa, Laurel held her nose and jumped in. Cottonwood Creek lacks the excitement of Chicago, but her dad is way more easygoing than my parents. And he hires people to clean and mow the lawn. Compared to me, she has it easy.
I slide an extra pillow under my head. “Sorry. Mom had Dad and me working our butts off all weekend getting ready for Manny's graduation party. This is the first chance I've had to call you.”
“Your parents are really into the whole child labor thing. Did you at least earn enough to buy a new outfit?”
“Almost.” Laurel gets $50 a week from her dad for simply existing. I'm too embarrassed to admit that Mom and Dad don't believe in paying for chores. “But I'll make more when I work at the Sub Stop this summer.”
“Maybe I'll get a summer job, too. If I don't, I'll drop dead of boredom.”
“I'm just glad you're not spending the summer with your mom in Chicago.” My spirits perk up. At least I won't have to endure another deadly boring Cottonwood Creek summer by myself.
“Ten weeks with the twin terrors? God, no!” There's a pause so long I wonder if Laurel has fainted from horror. “Sorry, I had to plug my iPod into the charger,” she says. “This is my first summer in Cottonwood Creek and our last summer in high school. We're going to soar from the depths of anonymity to the peak of notoriety. By September, Aspen Parks and Laurel Piedmont will own this town.”
I'm too tired to think of soaring anywhere. “But stashing pigs in the school building is out, right? Because aside from the complications I mentioned, that stunt would put us on the fast track to expulsion.”
“Definitely out. Not classy enough for us.”
Laurel actually took my advice!
“We need something with more flash,” she continues, “like painting our names across the water tower in the school colors. You can be navy and I'll be gold. See, I was thinkingâ”
“Good-bye, Laurel. See you at school tomorrow.”
I snap my phone shut and lie back on my pillows. Where does Laurel get her ideas?