Girlfriends. The mall. Clothes shopping.
Life doesn't get much better.
The food court is noisy and echoey. A ribbon of sun streams in from the skylight and bounces off the plastic lid of my soda. My elbow brushes against the mountain of shopping bags piled on the plastic seat next to me.
"Who has money left?" Brianna swishes a fry through a puddle of ketchup.
Junie wrinkles her nose to push up her glasses. "Probably only Sherry. She's the best shopper."
"Like twenty dollars," I say. I'm an expert bargain hunter. I have to be, given that I probably get the measliest allowance of any thirteen-year-old in Phoenix. "But I'm really tempted to go back to Trendy's for that red swimsuit cover-up. It's only the end of July, and I could definitely use it around the pool."
"I wish I could wear red." Junie sighs. "But with this hair"--she hooks a few carroty strands behind her ear--"and these freckles"--she points to her face--"my color options are severely limited."
Junie's always been fixated on math and science and earning large quantities of As. She even got the award for the highest GPA last month at our seventh-grade end-of-the-year assembly. Recently, though, she branched out to my world of makeup, clothes and guys. Yay!
"At least you're not stuck with an oblong-shaped face. The next thing I spend money on is a haircut. Up to here." Brianna holds her hands flat at the level of her chin. "Saguaro Middle School counts on the eighth-grade girls to set the standard for fashion and beauty. No way I'm showing up looking like a horse."
"I'm growing my hair out," Junie says. "I'm totally broke."
"Too bad you two don't have a regular summer babysitting job like me." Brianna tilts the fries container in my direction. "I always have money coming in."
I grab a fry and peek at Junie, whose lips turn up in the teeniest smile. Because we've been best friends since beginner swimming lessons years ago, we can pretty much read each other's minds. Yes, we're polar opposites in that she's all studious and grade-oriented, while I'm a social butterfly and middle-school fashionista. But I still know exactly what that little smile means: You may have money, Brianna Barnes, but we have love. And it's true. The bulk of the bags perched next to me are evidence of Brianna's steady income. But no height of shopping bags equals the amount of fun Junie and I are having chilling with Nick and Josh.
Josh Morton. Just thinking that name warms up my insides like a bowl of my stepmother's (aka The Ruler's) spicy lentil soup. Josh and I have been together for a little over four glorious months. He's a water polo player with the cutest chlorine-bleached hair and Lake Havasu blue eyes. He's crazy for music and video games and me. Josh goes to McDowell High School in the fall, which makes me frown because we won't be passing each other on campus anymore. Still, I'll be dating a high school guy!
Junie and Nick are newer to the couples scene. I've always had a bit of a problem with Nick and his nerdiness and sarcasm, but we're getting along better now.
My cell phone rings. A number I don't recognize is on the screen. My index finger hovers over the keypad. My dad and The Ruler limit my phone minutes, and they're super strict about it.
Brianna rolls her eyes. "Just answer it."
"Hello," I say.
"Hi," says a female voice. "I'm looking for Sherlock Holmes Baldwin."
"This is Dear Elle from Hollywood Girl magazine."
My heart stops. Dear Elle? The love advice columnist who knows anything and everything about relationships? From the magazine I read without fail every month?
"Hello? Are you there?" Dear Elle asks.
My heart is still in jammed mode, but my vocal cords kick into gear. "I am," I say in a raspy, nervous voice.
"Well, Sherlock, I'm calling to say congratulations! Your essay on true love won first place in the Hollywood Girl contest."
Emotion bubbles from the tips of my fuchsia-painted toenails through my legs, swirls around my stomach and my chest, then rushes up my throat to my mouth, where it bursts forth in a big scream.
Both Junie and Brianna jump up from their side of the table and dash to me. "What is it? What's going on?"
My hands flutter and flap in the air. "I won. I won. I won."
"That's right," Dear Elle says. "You won a week in Hollywood for you, your legal guardian and a friend. All paid for by the magazine. Also, there will be a special dinner at the Roosevelt Hotel, honoring you and various magazine employees."
"I won. I won. I won." I can't seem to turn myself off.
"I'll need to go over the details with your legal guardian," Dear Elle says.
I take a deep breath and manage to give her my home phone number. Before disconnecting, Dear Elle compliments me on my essay and my understanding of true love. She explains that the essay and my photo will be in the next issue and posted even sooner on the magazine's website.
"I'm looking forward to meeting you!" she says, clicking off.
"My essay on true love won first place in the Hollywood Girl contest!" I blurt out to my friends.
"Awesome!" Junie says.
"I can't believe I was just talking to Dear Elle. I just can't believe it." My hands are a flapping blur.
The people at the table next to us pick up their trays and move.
"So, you're like a love expert?" Brianna says. "Tell me something from your essay."
"Like what? It's five hundred words long." I chew on my lip. "How about this?" I clear my throat. " 'Love shows up when you least expect it. Like a pop quiz.' "
"Ooooh, that's heavy," Brianna says.
From the Hardcover edition.