You can do it, Chandler! Jamie told herself as she cut between tables, tray hoisted above one shoulder the way her boss, Mr. Cross, had taught her. One funny comment. That’s all. Think! What would Bren say?
Country Western blared from the jukebox, twang and heartbreaks bouncing off the chrome decor of the Gnosh Pit, every high school kid’s favorite hangout. Jamie inhaled the stench of burned cheese and smoke that wafted from the kitchen. Morgan, the boss’s daughter, had been helping in the kitchen again.
Jamie could find Morgan blindfolded, just following the aroma of burned anything. And locating Bren’s table at the Gnosh wasn’t much harder. Jamie just walked toward the wisecracks that never failed to bring bursts of laughter from Bren’s groupies.
“Barf?” Even saying barf, Bren Mickler’s voice sounded musical. She’d been Jamie’s best friend since middle school.
But Bren had millions of friends. She couldn’t help it. Like tonight. She’d strutted into the Gnosh with Chad. But after two minutes, they’d had to pull tables together to make room for half of the cheerleading squad and a third of the Edgewood High football team.
Jamie stopped behind Bren’s chair. Okay, God, she prayed, taking a deep breath. All I’m asking for here is a great one-liner.
Still thinking, she shifted the tray. Nice night out? Check out those leaves? Why do they call it “fall”? Everything she thought of to say to these popular kids sounded lame.
“We have that one already, Chad!” Bren said. “Pay attention, big fella.”
“Yack!” Zandrea shouted. Zandrea’s straight navy skirt was shorter than her cheerleading uniform. Her long, black hair hung straight to her shoulders, like Bren’s.
“And how about ‘lose your lunch’?” Chad asked, leaning back in his chair.
Jamie cleared her throat. “Great for business, Bren. What are you doing anyway?”
“Jamie’s right, Chad,” Maya scolded. “You’re gross! Are you trying to put my dad out of business?” Maya, Morgan’s older sister, paused and retied her silk neck scarf. The wild snake-print fuchsia perfectly complemented her creamy dark skin.
“How about ‘toss your cookies’?” Maya suggested.
Bren laughed and twisted around to face Jamie. “Can you believe this? I’ll have more homonyms than anybody in our sophomore English class. Won’t Miss Roberts freak?”
“Synonyms, Bren,” Amber corrected. “Not homonyms.” It wasn’t a put-down. Amber Thomas wasn’t the put-down type. She’d been the one who had created the TodaysGirls.com Web site so her friends would have a safe place to chat online, free from the weirdoes who sometimes popped up in other teen chat rooms. Amber, a junior, had included Jamie, Bren, and even Maya’s little sister, Morgan and her best friend, Alex.
“Synonyms,” Amber continued. “Words that mean the same thing as your given word.”
“My given word was vomit,” Bren explained to Jamie and the customers grinning from surrounding tables. “What word did you get, Jamie?”
“Normal,” Jamie muttered, embarrassed at the irony. Miss Roberts had forced them to draw a word out of her lunchbox. Jamie had been staring out the window, wondering how many of the other students had to go to work after school, then race home to baby-sit and cook dinner for their family. And then she, the least normal person in the room, maybe in all Edgewood, had drawn normal.
Bren’s dark hair swished side-to-side as she laughed, staying perfectly turned under, a living shampoo commercial. As usual, Jamie had scooped her neglected blonde hair into a ponytail.
Still balancing the tray on one hand, Jamie reached up to brush a loose strand out of her face.
“So do we get our food or what?” Zandrea asked. “I could eat an entire Brazilian rain forest. I’m a vegetarian.”
“Sorry,” Jamie said. She lowered the tray but lost her balance. Plates slid across the tilted tray. Jamie grabbed to make the save. A glass toppled, crashing into the ice cream dish. Chocolate ice cream flipped off the tray and into Chad’s lap.
“Hey!” Chad stood up, knocking over his chair. Clumps of chocolate plopped from his baggy jeans to the floor.
Jamie plunked her tray onto the table and grabbed a handful of napkins. She started to wipe Chad’s jeans, stopped, then bent down to pick up the ice cream with her bare hands. “Man, I’m sorry, Chad. What an idiot!”
Bren held out the dish so Jamie could let go of the freezing fistful of ice cream. “I thought I was the spaz around here,” Bren said, laughing as if this were no more than nightly Gnosh entertainment.
Jamie shrugged. Great. I try to be more like Bren and end up with her only fault. Actually, even clumsiness worked for Bren. People thought of it as cute.
Jamie patted her hands with the paper napkins, but she couldn’t get all the stickiness off. The napkins stuck between her fingers instead. This was definitely not cute.
Assorted hands reached across the table and grabbed the hamburgers and fries until nothing remained on the tray except smushed ice cream. “I’ll get you a new bowl, Chad,” Jamie said.
“Not hand-dipped this time, if you don’t mind,” Chad called.
When Jamie returned with a generous ice cream replacement, Maya and Amber were really getting into Bren’s assignment.
“I know, I know!” Maya squealed. “Hurl!”
“Go, Maya!” Bren cried, adding “hurl” to her list.
“Sweet, Maya,” Amber said. “I’m sure your dad appreciates your vocabulary. Wait . . . regurgitate! Automatic reflex of the overstimulated vestibular apparatus.”
Jamie laughed along with everybody. But her mind ground through its gears trying to come up with even one word for Bren’s list. “Do you have puke?” she asked softly.
“Only about an hour ago,” Zandrea replied.
The tall, thin guy across from Bren cocked his head and narrowed huge green eyes at Jamie. “I know you,” he said.
Jamie knew him. David Early, starting quarterback. She risked a glance at him, then looked back at the overflowing bowl of ice cream and wished she had Bren’s wit. Or Bren’s hair. Or Bren’s anything.
“Got it!” David said. “You’re on the swim team, right?”
Zandrea laughed. Zandrea swam with Bren, Amber, Maya, and the other normal swimmers. “Nope. Jamie helps Coach Short at our practices.”
“Is Coach Short your dad?” David asked. “You kind of remind me of him.”
Jamie felt her cheeks on fire as Zandrea burst into giggles. Coach Harry Short was short . . . and bald. Jamie was 5’4”, 120 pounds, and she had hair! She loved Harry like a father, but looking like him was not on her wish list.
Amber spoke up for her. “Jamie does everything for the swim team. We couldn’t get along without her, and neither could Coach.”
“Do you know how to swim, Jamie?” Zandrea asked. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you suit up.” When Zandrea smiled, her teeth flashed a bluish whiteness that Jamie knew could only come from a deep wallet.
Jamie swallowed hard. I wanted them to notice me. But not like this.
“Actually,” she said, resting a worn tennis shoe on Bren’s chair leg and absently wadding the napkins, “I’m thinking of joining the swim team. You know, being a regular, normal type swimmer.”
The second she’d said it, her heart pounded. She hadn’t been thinking any such thing.
“Jamie!” Bren exclaimed, jumping out of her chair for a quick hug. “That rocks! You’re already a better swimmer than I am.”
“She sure makes more of the practices than you do,” Maya quipped. “Seriously, girl? We can use you.”
“Sweet! Have you told Coach yet?” Amber asked.
It was happening too fast. Jamie needed time to think. She couldn’t keep up. “I better get back to work before I get fired,” she said, backing away, trying to look casual.
Oomph! Jamie backed into someone. She turned to see Alex Diaz, the newest member of TodaysGirls.com.
“Watch where you’re going there, Jamie,” Alex said. “What’s up?” Alex looked like she always did—attractive grunge. If Jamie had worn those baggy jeans or that plaid flannel shirt, she’d have looked like a bag lady. But even with wild hair and no makeup, Alex’s fiery beauty made guys do double takes.
“Sorry, Alex,” Jamie said.
“Returning the mail?”
Alex frowned at Bren’s table. “Somebody want to clue me in?”
“Alex!” Bren cried, as if she hadn’t seen her for a year. “We need words and phrases for throwing up.”
Alex, not bothering to ask why, pulled over a chair from the next table, making it screech against the floor, and straddled it backwards. “Blowing chunks.”
“Good one!” Bren squealed.
Even Alex fits in better than I do, Jamie thought as she turned toward the kitchen. And she doesn’t even try.
“Jamie?” Bren called after her. “Where are you going?”
“Some of us have to work,” Jamie said, forcing a chuckle.
“Take your break with us, OK?” Bren asked. “I need you!”
“And, hey,” Alex added. “Will you bring me a shake then?”
Jamie nodded. As she walked away, she heard Maya tell Alex about Jamie’s trying out for the swim team. Jamie hadn’t planned to say that. The words had just come out—no brain involved. Maybe it’s meant to be, she thought, heading for the kitchen. Maybe joining the swim team will be the first step to an all-new, all-normal life for Jamie Chandler.
Jamie had just ripped off an order and passed it to Morgan when she heard her mother’s voice. She pivoted in time to see Mom and Jessica, her little sister, gawking around for an empty table.
“Mom?” Jamie said, hurrying up to them. “Why are you here?”
Mom shouted above the Gnosh noise, “Do you greet all your customers like this?”
“Sorry.” Jamie reached down and hugged Jess. She liked the way her sister’s coal black hair always smelled like peaches. Jamie loved both of her sisters—Jordan, age 12, and Jessica, 9. But Jessica felt like a physical part of her, a second heart.
“So, are you here for ice cream because you aced a test?” Jamie asked, helping Jess wriggle out of her backpack.
“Hardly,” Mom said. “See if you can take your break now, will you, Jamie? I want you in on this.”
There goes my normal break, Jamie thought.
Mr. Cross gave her fifteen minutes, and Jamie grabbed a back booth, sliding in next to Jess. Mom looked worn out. Jamie thought her mother was pretty, for a mom. But dark circles weighed down her usually bright, blue eyes. Jamie knew Janet Chandler’s life wasn’t any more normal than her daughter’s. She had to raise three kids on her own, working full time as a paralegal and studying law on the side.
“Your sister,” Mom began, the familiar hint of controlled anger edging every word, “is in trouble at school.”
Jamie laughed. “This sister?” Jordan was the one who got in trouble. Not Jessica. “What for? Giving away her jelly beans? Saving a place in line?”
“It’s not funny,” Mom said, eyes fixed on Jessica, who hadn’t said a word.
Morgan set a pitcher of Coke on the table. “Dad said you guys looked thirsty.” She winked at Jessica and got a huge grin back.
“That’s sweet of you—and your father, Morgan,” Mom said. “Tell him thanks for us.”
Jamie poured while Mom listed Jessica’s crimes. “Your sister hasn’t been completing her assignments. Her teacher says she’s stopped paying attention in class. She doesn’t listen.”
Jamie turned in the booth to face her sister. “Jessica, that doesn’t sound like you.”
Jess shrugged and sipped her Coke.
Mom leaned across the table, her hands gripping the chrome edge. “And I got a call from the principal tonight. Do you want to tell your sister about it, Jess?”
Still silent, Jessica stirred her Coke with a straw.
“Fine.” Mom’s voice grew sharper. “Jessica got hauled into the office for hiding out during recess. She didn’t come in when the whistle blew. They had to go out and get her. She was sitting behind that spirea bush, reading as if she hadn’t a care in the world!”
Jamie couldn’t help laughing. “No way! Jessica? Our Jess?”
“It’s not funny, Jamie!” Mom insisted. “The principal didn’t think it was funny.”
Jamie swallowed the giggles that wanted to bubble out. “Jess,” she said, gaining control, “what’s up with you, kid?”
Jessica shrugged again.
Mom slumped back in her seat. “See? I can’t get her to talk to me, Jamie! That’s why I brought her to you.” She glanced at her watch. “Rats! I have to go back to the office. It’s Ms. Reynolds again, the new partner. Can I leave Jessica? Maybe she’ll talk to you when you get off.”
“Sure,” Jamie said. “No sweat, Mom. I’ll talk to her. You know Jess. She’ll be fine.” Jess smiled at her sister.
Mom thanked Jamie and kissed Jessica’s head before she rushed out the door. Jamie watched her mom through the window as she crossed the parking lot to their aging car. They waved goodbye, then Jamie put in a special order of chili-cheese fries, Jessica’s favorite.
Jamie wasn’t too worried. Of all the Chandlers, Jessica had the best shot at having a normal life. Their dad had left them before Jess was even born, so she had that one Chandler strike against her. But Jess was gorgeous and popular. Jamie felt sure her little sister had what it took to be another Bren.
When Jamie returned with Jessica’s fries, Bren was sitting across from Jess, who was giggling so hard her eyes watered. Jamie suspected that Bren was Jess’s favorite human.
Bren stretched across the table. “There she is, Jess,” she said. “You want to tell her, or should I?”
“You!” Jess cried, grinning back at Bren.
“OK. Jamie, Jess and I are volunteering you to help with Special Olympics swimming.”
“Bren—” Jamie started.
“Sorry. You’ve been volunteered,” Bren said. “You’ll love it! Dad’s sponsoring the team. I picked out these awesome purple team shirts with dragons on the front. And the kids are so great!”
Jamie felt her stomach twitch. “I can’t, Bren.”
“Jamie!” Jess pleaded. “Please? My friend from church is on the team! You know Eddy.”
“Come on, Jamie!” Bren said. “It’ll be a blast!” She tapped her pink nails on the table impatiently.
“I’m not like you, Bren,” Jamie protested. “I wouldn’t know what to say to them. I can hardly talk to normal kids.”
Jamie couldn’t help feeling sorry for handicapped kids. I’d like to help, but I’d make things worse. I’d probably cry.
“You’ll do great!” Bren insisted. “We’ll teach them starts, strokes, turns, etcetera, etcetera.”
Jessica sat up on her knees and put her hand on Bren’s forehead. “I’m sorry, Bren. Does it hurt bad?”
Jamie and Bren exchanged puzzled glances.
“Does what hurt?” Bren asked.
“Your head,” Jess answered.
“My head’s fine.”
“Then why do you need Excedrin?” Jessica asked.
Bren looked confused then burst into laughter. “Etcetera, Jess! Not Excedrin.” She ruffled Jess’s hair. “I wish I could take you home with me,” she said, sliding out of the booth.
“As for you, Jamie Chandler.” Bren tugged at her Capris and pulled down her jewel-studded denim jacket. “Special Olympics practice is at the YMCA, Saturday mornings.”
Bren headed for her table of waiting fans. Then she called over her shoulder. “And if you can come up with one more throw-up expression, I’ll have fifty!”
Jamie turned to Jess. “You wait right here. Don’t go home without me.”
Jamie kept busy until the end of her shift. In between orders, she racked her brain for one measly vomit synonym.
Finally, Maya came back to the kitchen. “I’ll help with finish up. Mom kidnapped Dad and drove home early.” Maya grabbed a big box of toilet paper and headed to the restrooms to restock for Jamie.
Then it came to her. Jamie got it. “Driving the porcelain bus!” she cried. She ran back to Bren’s table to give them #50 on the vomit list, but it was too late. They’d all gone home.
Jamie trudged back to the booth to tell Jessica to get ready to leave. But Jess wasn’t in her seat.
Jamie glanced around the empty Gnosh. “Jess?” she yelled. She checked the bathroom. “Jessica! You in here?”
“Not in here,” Maya answered from a stall.
“What’s going on?” Morgan shrieked, rushing through the door with a broom still in hand.
“Have you seen Jess? She was supposed to wait for me. I told her to stay right there.”
“She wouldn’t walk home alone,” Maya offered. “Not this late.” Jamie dashed back into the dining room, her friends close behind her.
Jamie couldn’t speak. What if Jess had left a long time ago? Jamie hadn’t bothered to check on her. What if somebody stopped and picked her up? Or kidnapped her?
Maya hollered, “Jessica!”
The name echoed in the empty Gnosh like a hollow, lonely chant.
Jamie felt as if somebody had poured cold water inside her bones, where it froze solid. “Jess,” she whispered, “where are you?”