Fiona’s plane is late, so I play Hangman on Dad’s phone. It’s getting close to dinnertime, and Baggage Claim is packed. Mom gets up to check the arrivals board while Sebastian, my small and very pokable brother, tries to sneak crackers into my sweatshirt pocket. The whole time, we keep losing Hangman because I’m choosing letters that spell PLANE, HURRY UP and FIONA, I HOPE YOU LIKE LASAGNA.
When she finally comes down the escalator, I feel like flushing myself down a toilet. I knew she was going to be pretty, but not that pretty. People standing around the baggage carousel follow her with their eyes like flowers turning toward the sun.
“Look how tall she is,” says Mom. “Can you believe we’re related?”
“I can’t believe we belong to the same species,” I answer, pulling on the bottom of my sweatshirt and discovering a cheese cracker. I flick it at Sebastian while Fiona disappears behind a family collecting their luggage. When she appears again, she’s taller than my dad and twice as tan. “Here I am!” she calls, throwing open her arms. Mom and Dad reach her first. While they hug, I see the whole airport curved and reflected in the sunglasses on the top of her head.
I have just enough time to think this spells trouble before she lets go of Mom and smothers me in a hug. “Piper! It’s so nice to finally meet you!”
I should say “Nice to meet you too,” which is what a normal person would say. But I’m not normal, and neither is Fiona. She’s too pretty. Instead, I stare at her shirt. It’s dark purple—the color of a frog’s heart. I know because we dissected a frog last summer at Port Jefferson Smart Camp, and its heart was dark purple and shimmering. Usually animals are iridescent on the outside to attract mates, but frogs have it the other way around. What I end up saying out loud is, “I like your shirt.”
“Thanks!” says Fiona. “I like yours too!” She tilts her head and reads the words New York State Science Olympiad: First Place, Grades 6-7.
“I just got it,” I say, but she doesn’t hear me. Sebastian, who’s four, pulls on her sleeve and asks, “Are you a grown up or a kid?” Fiona grabs her purple wheelie suitcase from the carousel, leaving Dad to grab the others she points to, and leads our whole family through the sliding airport doors.
It’s hot outside, even for June. The sun is setting and little bugs pop up around the headlights of the taxicabs. I swat at them while Fiona tells Sebastian that she’s more of a grown up than a kid. Meanwhile, Mom and Dad walk behind us, watching Fiona like an animal at the zoo. I wonder if they’ll decide she’s too fancy for our family, like the class Cockatoo I almost got to keep at the end of fourth grade. But when she buckles Sebastian into his booster seat in the back of our car, I hear Dad whisper to Mom, “BINGO.”
Fiona is here because she wanted a job for the summer, and Mom wanted a babysitter for Sebastian and me. In my opinion, girls going into seventh grade don’t need babysitters; we are babysitters. Unfortunately, Mom doesn’t think so.
On the drive home from the airport, Fiona tells us about her high school in California, where all the teachers go by their first names and the cafeteria is called “The Café.” In September, for her junior year, she’s going to get to drive herself to school. Her life sounds so perfect, I throw up in my mouth just a little.
Even though it’s summer, Mom and Dad keep asking her about school. They want to know what subjects she likes, and where she wants to go to college, and how it feels to be a straight A student. Fiona answers each of their questions like she’s practicing for a college interview, and Mom and Dad keep smiling at each other in the front seat like they can’t wait for this amazing person to rub off on Sebastian and me.
I’m not fooled. I’ve met people like Fiona before, and they usually treat me like I’m a piece of gum on their shoe. I need to make sure she knows she can’t outsmart me.
“Congratulations on winning your school’s math-a-lon,” I tell her as we cross the bridge into Manhattan. Mom told me about it on the way to the airport. She thinks Fiona and I will get along just because we’re both good at math. She doesn’t understand that people as pretty as Fiona don’t even need numbers.
“Thanks!” says Fiona.
“Of course, I won the statewide Science Olympiad,” I tell her. “Much bigger than a single school. Not to brag or anything.”
Before I can see the expression on her face, Dad turns around in the front seat and says, “How about that toothpaste commercial, Fiona? Was it fun to be on TV?”
Not this again. He’s been talking about the toothpaste commercial all week. We were watching Nickelodeon last Saturday when all of a sudden he looked over at the TV and said, “I don’t believe it. That’s your cousin!” Mom made us rewind the commercial and watch it six times. I’m telling you—they’re obsessed.
“The commercial was fun,” says Fiona, flashing Dad her best Honor Roll smile. “But winning the math-a-lon was even more fun.”
It isn’t fair. A person shouldn’t be allowed to be smart and beautiful at the same time—it ruins the odds for the rest of us. I almost blurt, “It must be nice to be perfect,” but close my mouth just in time. I don’t want to sound jealous.
Mom speaks up from the front seat. “Piper, tell Fiona about your Science Olympiad project.” She acts like every person I meet is a private school admissions officer.
I roll my eyes at my reflection in the window. “Mom, Fiona doesn’t care about mirror neurons. Trust me.”
“Mirror-what?” Fiona looks up from her purse. In her hand is a small, foldable hairbrush with a mirror on the back.
“Mirror neurons,” I sigh. “They’re the reason smiles are contagious.”
Fiona uses the brush to check her hair, and I tell her what I wrote on my poster—how the human brain is such a party animal, it celebrates when someone else is happy. If she were to enjoy an ice cream cone right there in the car, my mouth might water. If she were to yawn, I’d feel tired. This is because, on some creepy level, your brain doesn’t know the difference between you and anybody else.
Fiona looks fascinated. “Are you saying you know what it’s like to be me?”
“I wish,” I say. “Then I’d know what it’s like to have everything.”
She laughs her big movie star laugh, only I’m not joking. I do wish I knew what it was like to be this beautiful with hair the color of sunlight. Probably whenever she looks in the mirror, she has to squint at herself.
Speaking of the sun, it’s setting. Orange light floods the car and shimmers on Fiona’s tank top. Part of me wants to tell her about the shimmery frog heart at Port Jefferson Smart Camp, but I wouldn’t be able to explain it. I’ve thought about that heart a lot, and how there’s no scientific reason why something on the inside should be so pretty.
WELCOME TO MANHATTAN
When we get to the Upper West Side, Dad drops us in front of our building and leaves to look for a parking spot. “Hello, Ivan?” Mom calls as she leads us through the revolving door. Ivan, our mushy-faced doorman, looks up from behind his desk. He’s a million years old and completely bald except for the hair coming out of his ears.
“Ivan, I’d like you to meet my niece,” says Mom, all business. “She’s going to be living with us this summer, so she’ll need a key to our apartment.”
Ivan’s cheeks turn pink as Fiona beams at him. With a small, dopey smile, he stands up, hurries around the desk, and carries her suitcase to the elevator.
“He’s not a real doorman,” I whisper to Fiona. “We have a revolving door, so he doesn’t even have to open it. Don’t you think he looks like a naked mole rat?”
“A naked what?” she asks.
“Mole rat,” I say. “Because his head’s so bald.”
Fiona wrinkles her nose as she watches him load her luggage into the elevator, but by the time we catch up, she flashes him a big thank-you smile. Even his ears turn pink.
Upstairs, Mom apologizes for not vacuuming the apartment. “I love it!” Fiona says as we walk through the small, cluttered living room, down the small, cluttered hallway toward the three cluttered bedrooms. I start to tell her it isn’t as big as most of the apartments in the building, but Mom gives me a warning look, and by then we are in front of Fiona’s room, a tiny office with walls the color of a banana. I have to stand in the hallway for a few minutes because the room can’t fit all of us at the same time with Fiona’s luggage in it.
“Welcome to Manhattan,” Mom says from inside, twiddling the blinds. “Sorry about the view.” Through the window, another window on the opposite brick wall stares back at us.
Fiona grins. “If this were a TV show, a cute guy would live there.”
“I’m afraid it’s just Mrs. & Mr. Finkelstein,” says Mom. Then she gives Fiona some sheets and a pillow and leaves to give Sebastian a bath before dinner.
“Sorry the room’s so small,” I say, lingering by the door. I can’t tell yet whether Fiona will be nice to me once Mom and Dad are gone.
“No worries!” she says, so I take a few steps inside.
“There are some hooks over the desk,” I point out. “You can hang necklaces off them.” At the top of Fiona’s suitcase I can see a whole Ziploc bag of colorful jewelry.
“Good idea,” says Fiona, looking around the tiny room.
I stand awkwardly by the bed, wondering if she wants me to leave. But before I can step out, she looks over and says, “How crazy is it that we’ve never met until now?”
Something in my stomach unclenches. “I know,” I say. “Crazy.”
“Why don’t you guys ever visit California?” Fiona bends over her suitcase to pull out the bag of jewelry, and underneath I see dozens of tiny tank tops rolled up into balls, like socks.
“Because my parents work all the time,” I answer, sitting down on the edge of her bed. “Mom’s idea of a family vacation is going to see a movie.”
“Mine work a lot too.” She reaches for her second suitcase, so I tilt it onto its back and push it toward her with my feet. “Thanks,” she says. “Any hotties in your life, Piper?”
I drop the edge of the suitcase on my foot. “What?”
Fiona comes over and sits cross-legged on the bed. “Don’t tell anyone, but today I had a crush on the male flight attendant on my plane. Ever had a boyfriend?”
Is she serious, or making fun of me? I can’t tell.
“Well?” She raises her eyebrows. “Have you?”
“Once,” I admit. “But just for ten minutes.”
“I mean, not really.” My cheeks heat up. “I was actually helping him make Boris Klompus for President signs.”
A grin spreads across her face. “Boris Klompus?”
“Don’t make fun of his name,” I say. “That’s how it all got started.” I explain how one day at lunch Boris decided to throw food at anyone who teased him about his name. For some reason—possibly because I loaned him a pack of chocolate pudding—everybody started saying we were going out. It was one of my top-ten most humiliating lunches. Boris had to break up with me in public, just to stop the rumor.
“So you were going out?” asks Fiona.
“No!” I feel desperate all over again to set the record straight. “I was just helping him run for class president. That’s why I was sitting at his table.”
“Ooooh!” Her eyes light up. “I was the class secretary in eighth grade.”
“Congratulations,” I say, even more depressed. “Boris lost.”
In truth, he got creamed. Our opponent was a popular dyslexic kid named Michael Spence who got on stage the morning of the election and said, “I’ve worked hard to overcome my disability—but not as hard as I’ll work for you.” Boris went up after him in loafers and a Ghostbusters tee-shirt and said he had a disability of his own: In kindergarten there was a puzzle of the United States on a table in the middle of his classroom, and for some reason, he got into the habit of standing on the Canada side while doing the puzzle. Now whenever he sees a map of the United States, he has to mentally flip it over so that Texas is on top, pointing upward, otherwise it’s discombobulating. And that was only one of the reasons he lost.
“Well, not everybody can be a winner,” says Fiona, unearthing a mountain of shoes from her suitcase and lining them up along the wall. “What about the girls? What are they like?” She begins pulling socks out of the boots and handing them to me to put in the sock drawer. I have the weirdest urge to sniff them.
“What girls?” I ask. “The ones in my class?”
“No, the ones you hang out with,” says Fiona.
My stomach does a flip. Why would she ask that? Has Mom told her about my situation? Then I have a terrible thought: maybe she can tell just from looking at me.
“Most of my friends aren’t from school,” I say carefully.
“Oh.” Fiona is busy lifting some jeans out of her suitcase. “Why not?”
I pause before answering. “Because they’re older than me.”
She looks up, surprised.
“I skipped fourth grade,” I tell her. “So I’m a year younger than everyone in my class.” I hate revealing this to people. It’s like ripping off a band-aid.
“Wow.” Fiona puts down the pair of jeans. “You are super smart.”
“You are too,” I say, trying not to sound too bitter about it.
She rolls her eyes. “I just study hard. You have to be naturally smart to skip a grade.”
“I guess,” I say. It’s not all that hard to skip a grade in elementary school, but I don’t want to get into it. Even back when I was the same age as everyone in my class, I still didn’t fit in. I used to call myself a platypus, because nobody knew how to classify me. A mammal? A bird? A reptile? Platypuses are mammals, but they’re duck-billed and they lay eggs. Eight-year-olds who love science are sort of like that. When some kids in my third grade class made a popularity chart, I wasn’t even on it. They put my name outside the box and wrote, “Too weird to tell.” I cried a lot that year.
“If your friends aren’t from your class, then where are they from?” Fiona asks.
“Camp,” I say. It’s the same lie I tell people at school.
“Camp!” Her eyes brighten. “Are you going to see them this summer?”
My stomach twists around like a sock in a washing machine. “Maybe,” I say, trying to ignore it. “In August, after you leave.”
“Oh.” Her face falls. “Where do they live?”
“All of them?”
A little voice in my head is telling to shut up, but I ignore it. “Can I be honest about something?”
She looks up from her suitcase. “Sure.”
“I don’t really have friends from camp,” I say. “I mean, I used to, but I haven’t gone there in two years.”
I wait for her to look at me like I’m a moldy slice of bread, but she just pulls some underwear out of a boot and says, “Well, who cares? I’m your friend now.”
A weird, prickly sensation shoots through my arms and legs. She’s just being polite, right? She has to be.
Just then, the door bursts open. It’s Sebastian, fresh out of his bath and hyper as a puppy. Wearing nothing but an enormous brown towel, he hops into the room and head-butts me four times in the leg. “It’s, time, for, dinner,” he says, one word per bump.
“Sebastian!” Fiona scolds, “Is that a nice way to treat your sister?” But she sounds so harmless and cheerful that Sebastian only grins and shakes his head. Fiona laughs and pulls him onto the bed so she can comb his wet hair with her fingers.
“You have such handsome eyes!” she says, looking down at his face. “I bet they’re made of chocolate, aren’t they?”
“No,” says Sebastian.
“Yes they are,” I tell him. I love messing with his head. “They come from a chocolate chip cookie. And mine come from an oatmeal raisin cookie.”
Fiona laughs. She probably thinks I’m joking, but I actually kind of mean it. Chocolate chip cookies are like the cute child everyone wants to gobble up. That’s Sebastian. Oatmeal-raisin cookies are like the unpopular child with the better personality. That’s me.
“Eyes aren’t food!” Sebastian climbs off the bed, forgetting his towel, and walks stark naked toward the full-length mirror on the back of the bedroom door.
Thwack. No sooner has he leaned forward to inspect his eyeballs than the door swings open from the other side and bops him in the face. Reeling backward, he bumps into Fiona’s legs and lets out a howl.
Fiona knows what to do. She grabs the brown towel off the bed and wraps him in it. “You’re OK, cutie pie,” she says, stroking his hair. “You’re a tough cookie.”
Sebastian stops crying instantly and sucks in a long sniffle.
“Wow!” Mom looks amazed. “You have a magic touch, Fiona.” Then, holding up Sebastian’s dinosaur underpants, she adds, “Come, I’ll show you his room.”
As Sebastian wipes the long rope of snot hanging from his nostril, the three of them file out of the door and Mom calls over her shoulder, “Piper, dinner will be ready in five minutes.”
“Oh joy,” I say to the empty room. Now I get to watch them drool over Fiona and their food.
ORANGELLO + LEMONGELLO
In the dining room, Dad clenches five plates under his left armpit as he sets the silverware on the table with his right hand. “Piper, can you—?” he calls as I hurry forward to grab the plates. If there’s one thing my dad can’t stand, it’s going back to make a second trip.
As soon as I set down the plates, I head for the kitchen. Mom is stirring salad at the counter while Fiona gathers napkins for the table.
“What should I do?” I ask. “Pour water?
A cherry tomato escapes Mom’s salad prongs and rolls onto the floor. “Just stand out of the way while I check on the lasagna,” she tells me, stepping on the tomato. “Oop—”
“I’ll get it,” says Fiona. Handing me the napkins, she sweeps her hair into a ponytail and ties it with a blue elastic. The gesture has all the grace of an ice skater in the middle of a pirouette.
I wander out of the kitchen and into the living room, where I pull a yellow elastic off the remote control and try to tie my hair in a high ponytail like Fiona’s. It’s not easy in the fuzzy reflection of the TV, but I manage. When I get back to the dining room, everyone is sitting down, and the back of my neck feels strange and breezy.
“We’re counting on you to prepare dinner on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Mom is telling Fiona. “Those are the days I work late. You’ll pick Sebastian up from daycare and take him to his swim lessons.”
“No problem,” says Fiona, lifting the silverware off her napkin. She places the napkin in her lap, which I bet Mom loves. She’s crazy about table manners.
I can tell right away that dinner is going to be different than usual. Normally the conversation goes something like this:
Mom: How was everybody’s day?
Dad: I had a client blah blah blah in the disposition blah blah over the rights to blah.
Mom: I had a client blah blah blah in the disposition blah blah
over the rights to blah.
Me: My day was weird. Some aliens abducted me and took me to their lab because they wanted to know what a spleen was for.
Mom: Did these aliens require you to sign any official documents or put a lease on the spleen in question?
At this dinner, there is not a single moment of lawyer-speak. “Did I tell you about the baby I saw on the plane?” Fiona asks while we eat our lasagna. “Her name was ‘Orangello.’”
“Orangello?” repeats Dad.
“Weird, right?” Fiona takes a sip of water. “Well, I asked the mother how she thought of such a unique name, and guess what she told me?”
“I don’t know,” says Mom. “What?”
“Well, she had the munchies, so she went to the kitchen and opened her pantry. There, on the side of a box of Jell-O, were the perfect names for her new twin girls.” Fiona looks around at us, grinning. “Orangello and Lemongello!’”
Mom and Dad smile at each other so sweetly, I feel like barfing all over my plate. It’s obvious what they’re thinking: Not only is Fiona a straight-A student with good table manners, but she’s also funny—a perfect babysitter for Sebastian and me. I can barely stop myself from digging my fingernails into my fists. I’m old enough to baby-sit my brother myself, but they aren’t going to pay me $100 a week, are they? I’m not perfect enough.
Fiona doesn’t notice Mom and Dad exchanging nauseating smiles. She just keeps laughing long and loud, like a movie star. It annoys me even though I knew she’s just being friendly.
I’m about to ask to be excused from the table, but Mom has other ideas. “It’s time to go over the house rules,” she announces, pulling a piece of paper from her pocket.
“Oh, goody,” says Fiona, setting down her napkin. “I love rules.”
This time I do actually roll my eyes.
Mom gives me a look as though to say, “You could learn something from this, missy.” Then she lays the piece of paper on the table, and I recognize the writing at once. The page has been posted on our refrigerator under a cow magnet for years. It says:
- No flushing broccoli down the toilet. IT’S GOOD FOR YOU.
- No friends over without permission.
- No eating in the bedrooms. Except for broccoli, which is GOOD FOR YOU.
- No phone calls after ten o’clock.
- No dessert unless you EAT YOUR BROCCOLI.
“This list is a little outdated,” Dad tells Fiona. “When Piper was little, she hated broccoli.”
“That’s not true,” I say. Everyone in my family is always remembering my childhood wrong. I had nothing against broccoli.
“Anyway.” Mom waves a hand. “Ignore the stuff about broccoli—”
“I thought they were small trees!” I put my fork down. “I didn’t hate them.”
“You’re free to talk quietly on your cell phone whenever you like,” Mom continues, ignoring me. “Just ask one of us before you invite over a friend. OK?”
But instead of nodding, Fiona turns and gives me a look like I just said something brilliant. “You are so right, Piper! They do look like trees!”
I flash Mom an I-told-you-so look. At least Fiona is sucking up to me too—not just Mom and Dad. You only suck up to people you want to impress.
“Fiona?” asks Mom. “Did you hear me?”
“Of course!” Fiona snaps back to life and smiles at her and Dad. “No friends over without permission. I wouldn’t dare.”
Mom looks like a puppy in love as she folds up the list of rules and slips it into her pocket.
HOW TO DOMESTICATE A STINK BUG
After dinner, I follow Fiona to her room. I want to know why she’s sucking up to everyone in our family; plus she’s not even halfway unpacked.
“Want some help?” I ask from the hallway. Offering to help is the best way to find out what somebody is up to.
“Sure!” she says, untangling a string of paper lanterns from her suitcase. This time I don’t hesitate before stepping through the door.
“Do you have any thumbtacks?” she asks, looking up from the lanterns.
“They’re in the desk drawer,” I answer. “Why? Are you going to hang those up?”
“Yep,” she says. “Once I empty them.” There are clothes balled up inside the mouths of the lanterns, and as she pulls them out I see a lot of fancy underwear. One pair, I know from TV, is called a thong—it has a string on one side instead of fabric—but whether that string goes in the back or front, I’ve never been sure.
Averting my eyes, I climb up onto the bed with the box of thumbtacks and push one into the wall about two feet below the ceiling. “Is this a good height?” I ask. I might as well be useful while I gather information.
She hands me one of the lanterns, which I loop over the thumbtack. There’s silence as I try to think of the best question to ask her other than what’s your deal? Why are you being so nice to me? Finally I ask, “Do you have a boyfriend?” It seems like the kind of thing Fiona would like to talk about.
“Nope!” she answers a little too brightly.
I hop off the bed, kind of relieved. Maybe we’re not so different after all. But then she laughs and adds in a sing-song voice, “Devon Moore—not any more!”
“Who’s Devon Moore?” I ask.
“He was my boyfriend,” she says. “Until he cheated on me.”
It’s hard to believe anyone would cheat on someone as beautiful as Fiona, but she doesn’t seem too upset about it. She just laughs. “Don’t worry. I’m in love with someone else.” Then she reaches into her duffel bag and pulls out a half-rolled up poster of Jonah Blue, the lead singer of the band Blue Tomb. Probably a million other girls in America are in love with him too.
I grab two more thumbtacks and stand up on the bed again, rising to my tiptoes to help her hang the poster. Jonah’s famous pale grey eyes stare down at me like wolf eyes.
“Did you know that Jonah and I are the same age?” Fiona asks. “And that we both live in Los Angeles and have divorced parents?”
“So do a lot of people,” I point out, but she doesn’t seem to hear me.
“If I was lucky enough to date Jonah, I wouldn’t even care if he cheated on me,” she goes on. “Too bad he doesn’t know I exist.”
“There are plenty of other guys in New York,” I tell her. “And plenty of date spots.”
Fiona raises her perfect eyebrows. “Are you telling me you went on a date during the ten minutes you had a boyfriend?”
I meant that hypothetically New York has a lot of good date spots, but I don’t want sound like a baby. “Um, we went on a date later,” I say. “A different time.” I don’t mention that it was technically a campaign meeting, or that it took place at Dunkin Donuts.
Fiona looks impressed. “Was it fun?”
“Oh yeah,” I lie. “It was a blast.”
“What did you guys talk about?”
I open my mouth to make something up, but nothing comes out. What do people talk about on dates? Homework? Sports?
The embarrassing truth pops out. “Bugs.”
I have no choice but to explain myself. “Do you know how to domesticate a stink bug?”
She stares at me, which I take as a no. So I explain how you scrape their butts against the pavement so they can’t spray stink. Then you paint their backs with nail polish to tell them apart. “And that’s pretty much all we talked about,” I say. “Until Boris got a call from his mom and talked to her in Russian for ten minutes while I ate my donut.”
I wait for her to give me the you-poor-weirdo look, but instead she laughs. “You’re funny, Piper. Let’s change into our PJs and meet back here in a few minutes.”
“OK.” I get to my feet, wondering if I’ve just passed some kind of test.
Out in the hallway, Mom passes me carrying a heaping basket of laundry. “Going to bed?” she asks. I tell her yes, which is true if you add the phrase “at some point tonight” to the end of the question. Then I slip into my room, right next door to Fiona’s.
The first thing I notice is my stupid ponytail. I can see it in the mirror on my wall, and it looks nothing like Fiona’s. For one thing, mine is shorter. For another, it’s a wimpy shade of brown. Before I can look at it for another second, I tear out the elastic and stare at my reflection. My cheeks are too big. They make the bottom of my face look heavier than the top.
Getting into my pajamas, I try not to look at my body. Only it’s literally impossible without tripping. In my peripheral vision, I see light brown hair dusting my arms and legs. Am I supposed to shave my arms? Do people do that? I’ve never thought to look.
Back in Fiona’s room, I find her wearing silk pajamas. When I step inside, she plugs in the lantern chain and the room becomes dark and purply, like we’re sitting inside a kaleidoscope.
“It’s so romantic in here,” I blurt because the lights remind me of a fancy restaurant in Central Park where Dad once grabbed Mom by the arm and twirled her while we waited for our food. Immediately, I want to cover my mouth with duct-tape.
To my surprise, Fiona nods. “Totally. I used to keep these lights in my basement, and I’d turn them on when certain people came over.”
“Certain people,” I repeat. “You mean like Devon Moore?”
Fiona laughs. “You’re older than you look, Piper!”
“Never mind.” My cheeks flood with warmth.
“No, it’s OK.” She undoes her ponytail and the hair slides out smoothly around her shoulders. “It’s funny because it’s true.”
I cross my legs on the bed and wait for her to continue. It’s almost too much to hope that we’ll be friends, but maybe she’ll talk to me like a normal person. It’s more than I can expect from people at school.
“Don’t get the wrong idea,” Fiona says, leaning back against the wall. “It was all perfectly innocent…until it wasn’t. You know what I mean?”
“Yeah,” I lie. “Totally.” When you skip a grade, you learn a lot of tricks to make yourself sound older. One of them is pretending you know exactly what people mean.
It’s working. Fiona relaxes her shoulders. “See, here’s the thing. I think the relationship worked better when I was playing hard-to-get. Does that sound crazy?”
“Not at all,” I say. “It’s actually built into our biology.”
“Playing hard-to-get.” I tell her what I read in National Geographic—how human females play hard-to-get if they think a guy likes them, which isn’t all that different than what emperor penguins do. First the male penguin does a song and dance while the female penguin pretends to look the other way. Then the female penguin lies flat on the ground while the male penguin presses his cloaca onto hers and passes the sperm through.
“That’s disgusting!” says Fiona.
“Never mind.” For the millionth time since third grade, I feel like taping my mouth shut.
“It’s OK,” she sighs. “We should go to sleep, anyway.”
I wonder if she’s going to brush her teeth first, but she just pulls back her covers and climbs into bed. So I head for the bathroom by myself, gather a lot of foam in my mouth, spit, wipe my face, and go to bed.
It’s hard to sleep. Questions ping around in my head like little bumper cars. Is it possible that Fiona actually wants to be my friend? Was she born with eyebrows like that? Does the string part of the thong go in the back or front?
When the clock strikes eleven, I’m so wide-awake I can’t stand it. I flip on my lamp, reach under my bed for my spiral notebook, and write: REMEMBER TO ASK ABOUT ARM HAIR. Then I tear out the page, place it on my nightstand, and go to sleep.