“Maddie, can you please hold still! For one more murfnurt.”
Mom’s mouth is full of bobby pins, but I know she meant “minute.”
Standing on my toes is probably not the best way to hold still, but it’s the best way for Mom to get at my hair.
She jabs another bobby pin deep into my skull. “Ow, Mom.”
“Didn’t mean to, honey. Almost done.”
My best friend, Kiersten, who can do the yoga tree pose for ten minutes without falling over, says that the way to balance is to focus on one thing. If you can do that, you won’t fall over. Like that’s easy.
I try to find just one thing to stare at. It’s actually pretty hard since there are so many things covering my walls--posters, pictures of me and my friends, my bulletin board--and all of them jog my memory so that I turn my head a little and Mom tugs on my hair to hold me in place.
So instead, I look out the window. My neighbor Greta and her brother, Jeremy the Germ, are on their swing set. We call him the Germ because he gets every single stomach bug that goes around the school. I swear he must lick everyone; it’s the only explanation. Jeremy’s swinging so high I wonder if he’ll flip over the top. I’m pretty sure Ms. Kaufman, the science teacher, would say he couldn’t, but it sure looks like he could. That would make a cool science-fair project. Can a person swing hard and fast enough to go over the top of a swing set? I bet that’d get an A.
Greta is wearing a princess dress over her pajamas. I think she’s yelling something at Jeremy, but I can’t hear what because my window is closed.
Hank’s bell jingles as he enters the room, and I turn my head the tiniest bit to see him. He bounds over with a slobbery tennis ball in his mouth. It falls to the floor with a bounce and rolls under my bed. I reach out my foot to try and grab it.
“Madelyn Hope!” Mom yanks my head so I’m facing the window again.
“Sorry,” I whisper. “Are you done yet?” I try extra hard not to move my head while I ask the question.
Mom circles me, checking out my hair from all possible angles. Her face is squinty.
“Does it look okay?”
She reaches for the handheld mirror I keep on my bureau. “Take a look for yourself.”
My hair, which normally falls down my back in messy curls, is attached to my head in huge interlocking braids. Mom grabs another handheld mirror from the bathroom so I can see the back. We’re the only people I know who don’t have any mirrors on the walls. Last week, Mom took them all down. She said something about how we live in a looks-based society and she’s taking a stand. She’ll probably put them back up when she realizes her new great idea means Dad has toothpaste in his beard when he heads off for work.
“It looks so cool,” I say.
“You can learn anything on YouTube.”
I hand the mirror back to her. All I can think about is what Kiersten said earlier this week. That she overheard someone saying that Avery wants to dance with me. What will he think of my hair?
Mom wipes some sweat off her forehead and redoes her bun. “Is it just me or is it way too hot for June?” She opens my window.
I reach under the bed and roll the tennis ball back to Hank. He’s flopped out on the little spot of hardwood floor in my room that isn’t covered by the rug. His chin rests on his paws, and his golden-brown ears are splayed out on the floor. The ball bumps his nose, but he doesn’t even budge. He lifts his eyes up to me as if he’s saying, I can’t move one more inch. I don’t blame him; I wouldn’t want to be covered in fur on a day this hot either.
I open up my closet, where my dress has been hanging in plastic wrap ever since we got it at the mall three weeks ago. I try to step into it, but the fabric isn’t stretchy enough. But if I have to put it on over my head, then . . .
“How am I going to get this on with my hair?”
“Don’t worry, Mads.” Mom reminds me about the hidden zipper on the side of the dress.
She snips off the two little strings that hooked the dress onto the hanger. I’m glad she knew to cut those off. I don’t want to look like I have white strings shooting out of my armpits.
I do a twirl. “What do you think, Hank?” His ears perk up at the sound of his name.
“Hot dog,” Mom says in her Hank voice.
I sit on the living room couch, eating Goldfish graham crackers because Mom’s afraid if I eat anything colored or sticky or liquid, I’ll stain my dress.
“How come Maddie gets to go to the dance and I can’t?” Cameron’s sitting on the cushion next to me, but he wants Mom to hear all the way in the kitchen, so he whines extra loud.
I turn up the volume on the TV.
“Maddie, that’s too loud.” Mom pops her head into the living room. “Cammie, this dance is a special treat for the sixth graders before they go on to junior high. This is the last time it’ll be just Maddie and all the kids from our town. Next year, there will be four other towns of kids going to school with your sister.”
“How long till I’m in sixth grade, again?”
“I thought Mrs. Kenary taught subtraction this year,” I say.
Cam shakes his head, still waiting for his answer.
“Five, Cammie. Five. I felt the same way you do every year until now. You’ll get your turn.”
Cam sighs and refocuses on his TV show.
Dad comes in through the front door with two huge pizza boxes. Cam runs to meet him. “Daddy! Maddie’s all dressed up!”
Dad undoes the top button of his shirt. “I thought I was going to roast on the car ride home.” He rests the pizzas on the entry table and takes off his suit jacket. “Hey, Cam. Hey, Mads! Can you put on the weather? They said something about thunderstorms. Wouldn’t that be a godsend. I swear, the garden’s not going to make it with the water ban and--”
“Dad!” He stops as I stand up and twirl around in my dress so he can see my hair and the dangly earrings I borrowed from Mom.
“Don’t you look fancy-pants? You sure you’re not the latest contestant on Dancing with the Stars? You psyched for the dance?”
I nod like crazy. I’ve only been picturing it in my head all week. It’s a good thing there aren’t any tests in the very last week of school. The teachers must know everybody would flunk them.
“Did you feed Hank yet?”
I shake my head. “Mom let him out.”
“Even fancy-pants almost-seventh-graders have to do their chores.” Dad gives me that look.
I head out into the backyard. The air is thick and muggy, like the upstairs bathroom when we all take showers in a row. “Hank! Suppertime!” I listen for the jingle of his collar bell. After checking his usual spots--his under-the-porch sleeping hideout and his favorite tree--I walk over to Greta and Jeremy’s swing set.
Greta flies off the swing, landing firmly on her feet. “You look pretty, Maddie.”
“Pretty stinky,” the Germ says. He pokes his head out of the wooden tower attached to the swing set.
“If you see Hank, can you drag him over? I’ve got to leave for the dance and it’s time for his dinner.”
“Maybe he’s someone else’s dinner.” Jeremy snorts. “We learned about the food chain in science today.”
“Gross.” I want to say that no animal would stand a chance against Hank, but we all know that’s not true. He may be the biggest dog in the neighborhood, but he’s also the wimpiest.
“Maddie! Time to go!” Dad calls out to me from the front yard. He’s changed into shorts and a T-shirt. “Don’t want to keep the fellas waiting.”
“Nobody calls them ‘fellas,’ Dad.” I roll my eyes. “It’s not that kind of dance, anyway.”
Dad hands me my dress shoes, the ones I had to beg and beg Mom to buy for me. She says I’ll have to do extra chores for the whole summer to pay her back, but oh, it’s worth it. They shimmer when I move my feet and they’ve got two-inch heels. I slide my feet into them and take a few wobbly steps.
“Almost as tall as me,” Dad says. Even with these shoes on, I barely reach Dad’s shoulder. “Come on, kiddo.”
Dad backs the car onto the road and changes the radio station to the Red Sox game. After a few minutes, a loud beep interrupts the game. A man’s voice comes on and says there’s a severe thunderstorm warning and lists all the counties.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Get back to the game,” Dad says.
I reach my hand around the back of my head and touch my hair. It’s perfect, if a little sticky. Even the breeze can’t mess with it. Mom used what seemed like an entire container of hair spray to make sure of that.
I roll down the window and rest my arm on the ledge.
At the end of the inning, the radio switches to a commercial. Dad lowers the volume. “You found Hank and gave him his supper, right?”
“He didn’t come when I called.”
“Mads, why didn’t you say anything?”
I stare down at my sparkly shoes. “Sorry.” I just can’t think about anything besides Avery and what it’s going to be like to dance with him.
“Guess you’ll be doing Cammie’s chores tomorrow to make up for it.”
“Fine,” I say.
Who cares about tomorrow? All I can think about is tonight and how we waited the whole year for this. Me and Kiersten and the entire sixth grade are going to have the best night ever. No--not the best night ever. That’s so fifth grade. Epic. That’s what Kiersten’s older brother, Bryant, would say. Tonight is going to be epic.
When I step into the school gym, I can’t believe we ever played volleyball and badminton in here. The overhead lights are off, but Christmas lights are strung across the walls, and there’s a disco ball turning above the center of the room, making the floor sparkle. Red and white streamers--Hitchcock Elementary’s colors--stretch from the bleachers up to the ceiling. How did they even get them up there?
Over by the snacks, Kiersten is waving at me. She’s standing with the new girl, Gabriella, but she looks so dressed up, so different from how she looks in school, that I have to do a double take. My shoes won’t let me run, so instead I walk over, very ladylike.
“I love your dress,” I say. Kiersten is wearing a sparkly green dress that stops at her knees, and her long blond hair is up in a bun. It looks like her mom let her wear makeup. Thick mascara, blush, and lipstick. I rub my lips together. All I have on is ChapStick.
Gabriella’s wearing a short black skirt, a tank top, a jean jacket, a really cool jade-and-orange necklace. Didn’t she know we were getting dressed up for this dance? That it’s something special? I feel almost bad for her, but she doesn’t seem freaked out about us all being fancier than her.
“Your hair looks pretty,” Gabriella says.
I touch it to make sure it’s all still up. “Can you believe my mom did this?”
Kiersten shakes her head. “I’m surprised she let you get dressed up. Didn’t she say you weren’t supposed to care about how you look?”
“Well, at least she didn’t try to have a talk with you about the dance,” Kiersten says.
“What kind of talk?” Gabriella asks, munching on a potato chip.
“My mom said that I need to stay an arm’s length away from whoever I dance with.” Kiersten reaches out her arm to demonstrate. “A whole arm? Come on, Mom. You get closer than that dancing in a group.”
“I’m definitely planning to get a lot closer than an arm.” Gabriella nods.
A hand, then? I still don’t know Gabriella that well and I don’t want to sound dumb by asking. I wonder who she wants to dance with. Maybe Kiersten knows.
“Me too,” Kiersten says. “Anyway, it’s not like my mom sent someone here to spy on me. She’ll never know.”
I nibble on a cookie while Kiersten tells us all about this tiny vintage shop in Northampton where her mom helped her find her dress.
The wall behind the snack table is lined with photos from every year we’ve been at the elementary school. There’s one of me and Kiersten from kindergarten. She’s missing her two front teeth, and I’m rocking some seriously curly pigtails and an Elmo shirt. And another of me and Kiersten in the third-grade holiday concert in our matching red sequined sweaters. Man, were we dorky.
One picture looks like it was tacked on at the last minute. Like they realized they didn’t have any picture of Gabby and didn’t want her to feel left out. Gabriella, Kiersten, and the other kids from Kiersten’s street waiting for the bus together. Probably taken a week ago.
I spot a picture of me and Avery as cows in the school play in third grade. Gregg kept trying to milk him, and Avery told Mrs. Whitman that a guy cow isn’t supposed to have udders, and then Mrs. Whitman got flustered and said all cows have udders, even bulls. Turns out she was wrong. Avery’s always been so smart, even in third grade. He’s been the smartest one in our grade for as long as I can remember.
It’s hard to believe that Avery and I were in day care together at the house of that one lady whose name I can’t remember who had bedsheets covering her sofas. Or that two years ago, Kiersten and I would play around in the woods behind Avery’s house, trying to spy on him and Gregg in their fort. He was just Avery then. Just my neighbor Avery. And now he isn’t.
Now he’s the one whose head I stare at the back of during social studies when I’m supposed to be writing my essay about Roanoke Colony, but instead I’m imagining what it would be like to kiss him. The one who I try to sit near--but not next to--on the bus every day. The one who I write about a little--okay, a lot--in my diary.