Emily Winters stood in front of her bedroom mirror, a fluffy white towel wrapped around her torso, as she tried to work a tangle from her dark, dripping hair.
The room was quiet, except for the radiator next to her closet—it made its trademark ticking sound, one that had kept her awake as a child. She always imagined an old witch trying to claw her way out of the wall. But she was used to it by now. Just like the tiny mole above her right eyebrow—she’d had it since birth, and the only time she ever noticed it was when someone else commented on it.
Someone like Zach McCord, for example. Last week in earth science, the class no one ever paid attention in, he’d leaned toward her to steal a peek at her quiz. Then he’d looked up into her eyes and touched the edge of her eyebrow. “Beauty mark,” he’d said. A shiver had run through her as he turned around, and that was that.
Out of the corner of her eye, Em saw something white flash by her window. As she whirled to look, she heard another heavy thump.
She cinched the towel tighter, her heart hammering and her mind immediately churning out visions of robbers and murderers. She waited a second, listening, but heard nothing more. Clutching her plastic comb, she approached the window to peer outside. The front porch light shone on the blanket of winter snow covering the brittle, dark yard and the driveway that sloped down to Em’s quiet street.
Of course someone hadn’t tried to break in, she told herself, lowering the comb with an embarrassed smile (and seriously, of all the weapons she could have picked—a comb?). Nobody got robbed in Ascension, and certainly not in this part of town. It must have been a clump of snow falling from the old oak tree next to the house.
No sooner had her heart stopped pounding when the bing of the chat messages began: first one, and then several more, in such rapid succession it sounded like an alarm clock.
Em sighed and went over to her laptop, which was sitting among books and papers on her bed. Em hated working at the desk in the corner of her room—she used it mostly for clothing storage. Currently, the desk chair was completely obscured by a mound of scarves, dresses, and vintage blazers.
Gabs357: Em? U there?
Gabs357: um hello?
Gabs357: K well I’m getting ready and I was wondering, hair up or hair down?
Gabs357: Emmmmmm! U promised to help! Also I’m torn between the blue sweater dress (w/short slvs) and new jeans w/pink ruffled top . . . what do u think? And where’s my black cardigan—do you have it?
Gabs357: Are you getting a ride from Chauffeur or should we come get you?
Gabs357: I think I’m going to go with the dress. Are you even alive????
“I’m wearing jeans and a black shirt, in case you’re wondering, Gabs,” Em muttered. Moving her favorite stuffed animal, a zebra named Cordy, out of the way, she slid onto the bed to type a response.
Zach McCord had won Cordy for her last summer, when Em and her best friend, Gabby, had gone to the county fair. He stopped at one of those freaky machines, the ones where you manipulate a giant claw in order to grab a plush animal from below. Zach, who was ridiculously talented at all things physical, had somehow clawed up two prizes: a pink bear and the zebra.
Zach had casually tossed Em the zebra. “It’s cute,” he’d said. “Different and cute. Like you.” For the rest of the day, his words had filled her with a warm glow, and ever since then, Em kept Cordy on her bed. Sometimes, she found the stuffed zebra offered a better set of ears than any of the humans around her.
Zach had given the pink bear to Gabby, of course, who had squealed and planted an enormous kiss on Zach’s cheek.
Which was as it should be. Because Zach was Gabby’s boyfriend.
Sorry, was in the shower, she typed to Gabby. Yeah, JD will give me a ride. I think you left the cardigan in your gym locker, right? Gabby was known for storing about a thousand spare outfits in there, “for emergencies.”
Em smirked and shook her head as she sent off another quick message: I think the dress is a good choice. And why not hair down. It’s a party, after all! In the time it took to turn away and grab underwear and a bra, Em heard a new volley of bings.
Oh phew, hi!!!!! Okay, so hair down, totally. It looks good today anyway.
I was thinking of wearing this new long necklace my mom got me—too much?
With a laugh that sounded a bit like a groan, Em typed, Gabs, I have to get ready too! Necklace sounds great. See you soon! Sometimes you had to pick your battles.
Pulling a black tank top from her bureau and skinny jeans from her closet, Em looked back to the mirror, which was lined with postcards, photos, and notes. Most of the photos were of Em and Gabby.
Short and spunky, with perfectly curled blond hair (thanks to her obsessive morning engagements with the curling iron), Gabby ruled the school with a giggle and a wink. Like her weather-reporter mom, there was something polished, pristine, and optimistic about her at all times. Her football-star brothers had paved the way to popularity with their sports trophies and prom-king crowns—and Em had benefited too. As freshmen, Gabby and Em were quickly and seamlessly woven into Ascension High School’s social tapestry, invited to senior parties and allowed to flirt with upperclassmen.
That year Gabby had been voted onto homecoming court, an honor ostensibly open to the whole school but (until two years ago) tacitly reserved for juniors and seniors. And last year, Em had managed to put the yearbook committee back on the map of acceptably cool after-school activities by collecting artifacts—notes, ticket stubs, receipts, candid photos, snippets of class essays—and turning the yearbook into an Ascension scrapbook. Gabby did the layout and Em wrote all the witty captions and pasted in quotes.
Now they were floating through their junior year as they’d always planned to: going to parties without feeling like they needed personal invitations, studying for the SATs, working hard and playing hard (with Em sometimes reminding Gabby about the work, and Gabby sometimes reminding Em to play). They sat at the Gazebo—the good end of the cafeteria, and they parked their cars in the highly coveted front lot.
In this year’s yearbook, it was almost certain that Gabby would be voted Cutest in the Junior Class, while Em was a good bet for Most Likely to Succeed. (Succeed at what, Em sometimes wondered.) There were other girls in their circle, like Fiona Marcus and Lauren Hobart, whom they’d known forever, and Jenna Berg, who’d moved to Ascension in eighth grade and somehow fit in perfectly. But everyone knew that the Gab-Em bond was the glue that held everything together. They were kind of like fireworks. They soared as one: Gabby erupting with a loud, colorful BANG! and Em creating a different kind of light, the ethereal, sparkling, postexplosion chandelier.
But lately, Em had been feeling more like a sidekick or a personal style assistant than a kindred spirit. Over the past few weeks, Gabby’s preferred topics of conversation had not veered from the subjects of her wardrobe, Zach, or the Valentine’s Day dance (which was still well over a month away). Just this morning, Gabby had asked Em if she could “please consult with Zach about what he should get me for Christmas” and proceeded to list five acceptable gifts that spanned the spectrum of realism: (1) the delicate blue scarf she’d seen on the website for Maintenance, her absolute favorite store in Boston; (2) an engraved iPod Nano for when she went running; (3) tickets to see Cirque du Soleil when it came to Portland this spring; (4) a puppy; (5) a romantic secret overnight at his stepdad’s cabin down the coast.
Gabby didn’t always seem to understand that not everyone’s life was as perfect as hers.
Of course, there were amazing things about Gabby too. She was the only person Em wanted to be around when she was in a crappy mood. She was the best accomplice to have at every party, every prank, every midnight adventure. And she was a great friend. Like the time in sixth grade when Em had told Adam Dunn that she liked him on the playground and he’d told her to get a life. Gabby had baked frosted brownies with Skittles on top that spelled out D-DAY. They’d laughed and eaten the entire pan of brownies and successfully turned Dunn Day into a holiday. Gabby was just like that. She was like a sunny day, strawberry shortcake, and a snowball fight all rolled into one.
But sometimes it was exhausting, too.
Em stared at her knobby knees and long, almost-black, wavy hair and felt more like Morticia than America’s Next Top Model. Some days she was able to appreciate her dancer’s build, but tonight she just wished she owned a padded bra.
Bing. . . bing. . . bing. What now?
Emmmm. I made you something—going to share the file now.
Em watched the blue bar stretch as the file loaded, then saw Em’s Getting Ready Music pop up in her media player.
In case you need some motivation, I put together some songs, Gabby wrote. But you have to promise to leave as soon as the playlist is over.
Em scanned the song titles. Perfect. Some old-school Britney and Beyoncé, plus some punkish covers of show tunes that Gabby knew Em loved.
As she buttoned her jeans and surveyed her shoe options, singing “Cabaret” quietly under her breath, Em’s parents’ voices drifted upstairs. That was another feature of the old-school radiators: somehow, they seemed to pipe voices through the house more successfully than they did heat. She couldn’t really understand what they were saying, but she could pick out a few words.
Her parents started dating when they were sixteen—a fact that made Em cringe. She was the same age now as her parents were when they met. Em couldn’t imagine conversing with the same person for twenty years, but her mom and dad never seemed to get sick of each other. They’d met on a ski trip that brought together young people from area schools. That day, Em’s mom had been wearing a purple knit hat with two blue pom-poms on top. (Em loved to tease her mom about her apparently awesome teenage fashion sense.) Over the course of the afternoon, one of the pom-poms had gone missing. And though half the guys on the mountain had been searching for the missing fuzzball, only one had found it—stuck to the inside of his hood. Em’s dad had taken off his coat inside the lodge and her mom had spied the blue ball.
The sparks flew instantly, they always said, with a wink. You know what we mean.
But of course, Em didn’t. She had never felt electric passion or the sense of fate unfolding for her. All she had experienced was awkward kissing with boys who didn’t know what to do with their hands. She’d certainly never looked into a boy’s eyes and “just known.”
At least, not with any boy it was actually possible to be with. In fact, that was the reason behind the poem she’d won the regional Blue Pen Award for: “Impossible.”
Bang! Em’s heart practically stopped for a second before she realized the sound was caused by a snowball hitting her bedroom window. Another one hit and jolted Em back into party-prep mode. That was her ride—lately snowballs were his not-so-charming way of announcing he was waiting outside.
She slammed shut her laptop, wrestled her shirt over her head, and hopped to the window again as she tried to jam her right foot into one tall lace-up boot.
“Five minutes,” she mouthed, holding up five fingers to JD Fount, who stood in the yard below her window sporting a goofy grin and moving a tree branch out of his face. JD had always been supertall—so much so that in fourth grade, Mrs. Milliken, the school nurse, had sharply poked his back and barked, “Posture Police!” because he’d been slouching to try to make the other kids feel less short.
Now he stood normally, at six-foot-three, and didn’t worry about what anyone thought.
As if to prove exactly that, JD pulled open his peacoat to reveal his latest outfit choice: slacks, a vest, and a purple shirt underneath. Em involuntarily smiled and shook her head, wondering at JD’s bold fashion choices, which were a combination of iconoclasm and artistry. He’d been known to get on his soapbox to point out how unfair it was that girls could have fun with fashion while boys were left with jeans and T-shirts. Over the last year, Gabby had taken to referring to him as “Chauffeur”—behind his back, of course—because he was the perfect designated driver. He didn’t get invited to most of the parties, but he was always willing to drive Em to them. Em could tell he secretly liked having an excuse to go out on the weekends, and even though he was a huge dork she’d known since they were both in diapers, she had to admit that she didn’t mind spending time with him.
When he saw Em’s hand signal, JD responded with a wave and a thumbs-up. He was used to waiting. The Fount family had lived next door forever and it was a running joke that the Winters would keep the Founts waiting at their own funeral. Before Em got her license, JD used to take her to school; after they missed first period four days in a row, he’d threatened to make her walk.
JD danced toward his car, knowing Em was watching. Then he hopped into his beat-up Volvo. Still, Em stood at the window, mesmerized by snowflakes that were just starting to fall. Despite the fact that Em had always lived in Maine, she never got tired of the winter. She loved the way her neighborhood looked during a snowstorm, all the houses capped under white drifts, like meringue crowning a pie. She watched for a moment as one flake faded into another, until faint sirens in the distance jolted her back to reality.
With her boots laced up, Em dabbed on some lip gloss, tucked her hair behind her ears (she rarely did anything more than let it air dry), and grabbed her bag from where she’d last thrown it. She gave herself a final once-over in the mirror, knowing full well she was primping for one person only.
As Em made her way downstairs, her parents’ voices grew more distinct. They were debating work stuff again: whether or not caffeine leads to coronaries. For two people who wouldn’t know if their own daughter was heartbroken, they sure did care a lot about what happened to other people’s hearts.
“I’m going to a party,” Em said, popping her head around the kitchen door. The two of them were hunched over the marble kitchen island with glasses of red wine in their hands and a plate of cheese between them, looked vaguely startled to see her there. “It’s at Ian Minster’s. JD is driving.”
“Okay, hon,” her mom responded.
“Be careful, sweetie,” her dad echoed. He was standing at the stove with his back to her, his ID from the hospital tossed on the island in the kitchen. Em’s mom was leaning next to him, wineglass in hand. Their hips were just touching.
“And then you have to wonder about the viability of all of the red wine research . . . ,” Em’s mom said abruptly. Just like that, they were back to their conversation.
Rolling her eyes, Em slipped into her winter coat and walked out the door and toward JD’s Volvo. She wondered if her parents had actually heard what she’d said. She wondered if anyone would ever look at her and really see her.
© 2011 Paper Lantern Lit