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Outside, the temperature in Far Hills topped ninety, but inside Madison Finn's bedroom, the air conditioning was on full blast. Mom had moved the TV into Madison's room for the night, and it cast a cool blue glow over the darkened room and everyone's faces. Everything about this night spelled the ultimate slumber-party setup: good snack food, great friends, and enough pillows for absolutely everyone. Phinnie lay across the top of the comforter gnawing on a rawhide bone, while Madison and her friends clustered together on the floor, gossiping, giggling, and munching away on a batch of Mom's cheddar popcorn.
"This is one of my all-time top ten favorites," Madison's BFF Lindsay Frost declared when the opening credits for the movie Freaky Friday came on screen.
"I still can't believe you've never seen this, Maddie," said Fiona Waters, another one of Madison's closest pals. "It's classic! Have you been living in a cave?"
"No one ever takes me to the movies," Madison grumbled, acting as if she were truly upset.
"As if!" Madison's buddy Aimee Gillespie cried, tossing a small pillow directly at Madison's head.
Madison chuckled, because, as everyone in the room (including Phin) knew, she had just gone to the movies last week—with none other than Hart Jones, her übercrush for as long as she could remember. It wasn't a solo date, of course. Almost every one of their friends had accompanied Hart and Madison to the movies. But she and Hart had walked into the theater together, sat in seats next to each other, and shared a package of sour gummy worms. Their knees had certainly touched more than once.
Unfortunately for Madison, however, she wasn't going to be going to any more movies with Hart, not for a few weeks, anyway. She was headed for Florida to join her dad and her stepmother, Stephanie, who had rented a condominium for the month of August. They had enrolled Madison in an environmental learning program at a place called Camp Sunshine. Madison wasn't sure she liked the super-cheery name of the camp, but if it had to do with animals, she was willing to give it a chance.
She wasn't the only one leaving Far Hills for part of the summer. Fiona and her parents were headed for California to visit friends, and Lindsay was flying to London with her father. The only one of the four staying close to home was Aimee. An important dance performance was scheduled at the ballet studio in just a few weeks.
Knowing they'd be separated for a long time, the BFFs had decided to throw a good-bye slumber party at Madison's house. Mom helped out with the refreshments and the movie rentals (three videos, for an all-night marathon). In between laughter and gossip, the foursome tried to hold back the tears. Madison felt the mushiest about the prospect of not seeing her closest friends for nearly two weeks.
"I—just—can't—stop—thinking ..." she sniffled at one sappy movie moment between two of the on-screen friends, "this reminds me of—when—we—"
"Maddie," Aimee groaned. "Get a hold of yourself."
Fiona passed a box of tissues to Madison while Lindsay gave Madison an over-the-shoulder squeeze to let her know that she would be missing everyone, too. Then Aimee joined in. It was hard not to cry.
"Is everyone okay in here?" Mom asked from the doorway. She'd passed by and heard the sniffling.
"Yup," Madison said, still hugging Aimee and Lindsay at the same time.
"We're just missing each other already," Fiona added.
Mom grinned. "So these are all good tears, huh?"
"Yeah," Lindsay sniffled. "Good-bye tears."
"Rowwrrooooooooooo!" Phinnie howled, as if on cue.
Then everyone had to laugh.
"Well," Mom said, turning away from the doorway, "I'll leave you girls to your Kleenex. Turn off the TV before you go to sleep. That is, if you go to sleep."
"Yeah," Madison giggled. She took a deep breath so that there would be no more tears. "Thanks again for everything, Mom."
"No problem, honey bear," Mom said, walking out of the room.
The movie wasn't over, but the four girls weren't as interested in watching its ending as they were in finding creative ways to stay awake all night. Aimee suggested that they log on to Madison's computer to see if there were anything interesting they could do online.
"Let's check TweenBlurt.com and find out what will happen on our summer vacations," Madison said.
"Great idea!" Fiona chimed in. "Maybe it'll predict my future with Egg, too."
Aimee pinched her nose, and Madison laughed.
They plugged in Madison's laptop and headed for TweenBlurt.com, making a beeline for the special fortune-telling section of the site: ASK THE BLOWFISH.
Madison asked the fish her question first.
Will Camp Sunshine be fun?
Before Madison could click the ANSWER button, Lindsay let out a loud laugh.
"I still can't believe you're going somewhere called Camp Sunshine," Lindsay chuckled. "I'm sorry, Maddie, but that sounds so dorky."
"Hey, sunshine is good," Fiona said. "I like sunshine. California is sunny...."
"Nah, it's dorky," Madison moaned. "And naturally, that makes me Queen Dork, right?"
"Only sometimes," Aimee joked.
The four friends looked up at the laptop screen expectantly as the Blowfish finally revealed the answer to Madison's question.
Will be yours for a long time.
"Huh?" Madison asked the screen. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"I think it should have said, will be dorky for a long time," Aimee cracked.
"Ha-ha," Madison sneered, poking Aimee in the shoulder.
"Someone else, ask a question, please!" Fiona said.
"Okay, okay, I've got one," Lindsay spoke up. "Will I meet someone cool in London?"
Madison began to type Lindsay's question in.
"Someone cool?" Aimee asked. "Or someone cute?"
Lindsay began to giggle. "Both."
The Blowfish swam around in its onscreen bowl before releasing its answer in a giant bubble.
Put out your hand and reach for happiness.
The four girls stared blankly back at the answer on the screen.
"That sounds nice," Lindsay said. "But what does it mean?"
"Let me try a question," Aimee said. She exhaled deeply and typed her message on the keyboard. Will I get to perform the solo I want at the dance show?
Aimee pressed the Blowfish, but no answer appeared. Instead, Madison's laptop hissed, the screen flashed blue, and the power zapped off—just like that.
"Wow. That's not a good sign," Aimee sighed. She smiled. "I killed the Blowfish."
Everyone laughed—except Madison.
"My laptop keeps doing this," Madison groaned. She tried pressing the power button, but the machine wouldn't turn back on. "Let me see—if—I—can—fix it...."
Lindsay threw herself down across a pile of pillows. "You know, we should convince our parents to take a vacation together sometime," she said.
Aimee nodded. "That would be the best." She glanced over at Madison. After all, they'd spent a winter break together skiing—and it had been a special experience for both of them.
Phinnie nudged Lindsay's bare feet with his cold nose, and she let out a little yelp. Aimee grabbed Phin's paws and pretended to dance with him, twirling him around until he lost his balance and rolled on to his back. Phin cooed as Fiona scratched his bare pink belly. He was in doggy heaven with all the attention.
Meanwhile, Madison continued to poke at the keys on her laptop, hoping for some kind of result. It wouldn't turn on.
"Maddie, what's going on with Hart?" Aimee asked Madison all of a sudden. "Put down the laptop and fess up."
"Are you keeping secrets from us?" Fiona said. "Chet said he saw you guys walking the dogs in the park yesterday."
"What's the real deal?" Lindsay asked.
"There is no real deal," Madison replied. "You guys know everything."
"Did Hart say he was going to miss you this summer?" Aimee teased.
"No. We agreed to e-mail while I'm in Florida," Madison said, "but that doesn't mean anything."
"Sure it doesn't," Aimee cracked.
"Quit it, Aim." Madison shot her BFF a stern look. "Watch out, or I'll start talking about Ben Buckley."
Aimee picked up one of the pillows from the bed and hurled it right at Madison's head. "You wouldn't dare!" Aimee shrieked.
Madison threw the pillow back at Aimee. Then Lindsay and Fiona got in on the action, and they picked up their own pillows. Little goose-down feathers from inside a couple of the pillows flew into the air and back down on to the carpet. Fiona thumped Madison across the back. It was a full-blown pillow war.
"Gotcha," Aimee cried out, aiming her pillow at a new target.
Lindsay sideswiped Fiona, who fell to the floor, narrowly missing Phin. He quickly darted out of the way and hid underneath the bed.
The foursome broke into a chorus of laughter that had Madison snorting (in a funny way) and wiping tears of joy from her eyes. In no time, they collapsed on to each other, legs and arms intertwined on the blankets.
"Thanks for having a slumber party," Fiona said.
They clustered together for a group hug as Aimee grabbed her digital camera to take a photograph. Aimee held the camera out, and everyone squeezed together to get into the frame.
"BFFs forever!" Madison said.
"Um ... you know that means Best Friends Forever Forever, right?" Lindsay inquired.
"Really?" Madison said.
"Aw, who cares, Lindsay?" Aimee cried. She socked Lindsay in the shoulder with her free hand. "You are such a stickler for grammar. Geesh. No wonder our English teachers love you."
"Yeah," Madison smiled at Lindsay. "But I love you, too."
"'Forever forever' is better anyway," Fiona added, sticking her tongue out at Aimee.
Aimee snapped a picture of Fiona's funny face. Then she took at least ten other digital photos—each with different facial expressions, such as smiles, poked-out-tongues, frowns, kissy faces, and other funny poses. After the extended photo session, the girls collapsed backward again on to the pillows. It was getting late, and they were getting tired.
But none of the girls let herself get too relaxed. It was still too early to go to sleep. They had a whole night of adventure ahead of them.
Madison turned the radio on low so they could listen to tunes while they gave each other pedicures. She pulled out a plastic container that held different buffers, bottles of polish, and other tools. Fiona polished Aimee's toes, and Madison polished Lindsay's. They decided to paint all of their toes the same coral-pink color. After they'd switched partners and everyone's toes were painted, they turned the lights off completely and stretched out on their sleeping bags in the center of Madison's room, with toes in the air so the polish could dry. The girls took up all the floor space, while Phin slept by himself up on Madison's bed.
Long after the toenails had dried and Phin had fallen asleep (and started his deep, doggy snoring), the girls shared secrets in the half-darkness. The full moon outside Madison's room was like a permanent night-light, and they could see the silhouettes of one another's faces as they talked.
"I wonder what it will be like to see all of my old friends in Los Gatos," Fiona mused. "I mean, I don't remember ever feeling as close to them as I feel to you guys right now."
"You'll have a great time," Madison whispered. "I promise."
"I wish I was seeing old friends," Lindsay said. "But no. I'll be stuck with my dad in London the entire time."
"We really should keep in touch when we're away," Aimee said.
"I'll send a postcard from California," Fiona said.
"I will, too," Lindsay said.
"No, we should keep in touch every day," Madison said. "Like we do now. We should e-mail every day. We can pick a chat room and a time to talk."
"But we can't," Fiona said. "Can we? I mean, when it's six here it'll be three in California and some other time in the middle of the morning in England."
"Oh," Madison said. "Well, we could try."
"We could try," Lindsay seconded her.
Aimee was about to say something, but yawned instead. "I'm so tired all of a sudden," she said. She rested her head on the pillow inside her sleeping bag. Fiona curled up in her own sleeping bag under one of her mother's warm quilts. She needed a blanket, because the air conditioner in Madison's room was still turned to the high setting.
The radio played an old Kelly Clarkson song. At first, Lindsay and Fiona quietly hummed along. No one was really talking anymore. Madison felt her own eyelids droop. Then, no one was humming, either.
"I don't want to say good night," Madison whispered in the dark.
No one said anything back. Madison glanced around the room and saw that no one's eyes were open anymore. Everyone had dozed off for real, even though it was only midnight.
Madison leaned over, clicked off the radio, and scrunched down inside her fluffy sleeping bag. She felt something hard inside the bottom but realized it was just one of Phin's squeaky toys.
"Good night, everyone," she whispered aloud.
Then, just like that, she headed off to dreamland with everyone else.
And although this was the first stop on the long road to each of their summer vacations, Madison knew that her real journey had scarcely begun.CHAPTER 2
The cursor blinked on the screen of Madison's laptop, and she breathed a huge sigh of relief.
It was finally working again.
She'd spent the morning with Aimee, Fiona, and Lindsay—getting dressed, tidying up the bedroom, and then invading the kitchen where Mom had made plates of hot scrambled eggs and peanut-buttered whole-wheat toast for everyone (except Fiona, who took her toast with jam only, no peanut butter, ever). The morning had flown by, and soon the girls had been standing on the front porch, eyes wet, going through yet another round of "Goodbye, I love you, I miss you, I can't believe I won't see you" tears. It was all pretty exhausting, Madison told herself when the last good-bye had finally been said and she stood all alone in her living room again. Of course, she wasn't exactly alone. Mom was there—somewhere in the house—working on the outline for her latest project with Budge Films. And Phin was there, too, sniffing at his now-empty dish of kibble. He'd had a few eggs and peanut-butter-and-toast crusts, but was still hungry for more.
Madison didn't let her alone-time get her down. Instead, she took it as a perfect opportunity to get her laptop working again. Was the battery dying? Was her hard drive sick? Had she contracted some kind of shutdown virus—maybe from hours spent trolling around the Internet? She needed to find out.
Phin turned out to be good company as Madison performed the umpteenth computer checkup. He nuzzled her ankles, making noises only occasionally, when he wanted a quick scratch behind the ears or on the snout.
In the end, the laptop started up, without problems this time, which meant that it had no clearly identifiable ailment. This fact only made Madison more frustrated. How could she be sure the thing wouldn't black out again?
"Everyone's gone already?" Mom cried as she dashed into the kitchen to refresh her mug of green tea.
Madison shot her a funny look. "An hour ago, Mom. Where have you been?"
"Oh," Mom said, her eyes looking a bit glazed. "Sorry, honey bear. I've been preoccupied with some work this morning."
Mom took her cup and sat on a pile of cushions atop a sofa.
"So?" Mom asked expectantly. "What are you working on now? Shouldn't you be packing?"
"I have to deal with the laptop first. It crashed again," Madison explained.
"Again?" Mom cried. "Aw, Maddie, you should just leave it at home. Do you really have to bring it to Florida? I could have one of the tech guys from work check it out."
"No way, Mom. I need my files with me at all times," Madison said, aghast at her mom's suggestion. "Especially since I'm going away."
"Of course," Mom said, trying to sound soothing. She changed the subject and sipped her tea. "Maddie, your dad is right. This camp seems made for you. It's just the spot for a budding environmentalist and scientist. You know, I saw nesting turtles once, and it was quite exciting."
"Yeah, but you saw turtles in the Galapagos Islands," Madison said. "I'm just going to Florida. That isn't nearly as cool."
Mom grinned. "Turtles are turtles, Maddie," she said. "Nature is beautiful everywhere. Remember that."
Excerpted from Hit the Beach by Laura Dower. Copyright © 2006 Laura Dower. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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