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"Do you think I’m a failure?"
"Absolutely," replied Sybil Mulcahy, my best friend in the world since the eighth grade. Or should I say former best friend, considering her response was clearly not what I was looking for.
We were in my bedroom studying. Actually, we were pretending to study. For those of you out of the loop, studying is teen girl code for talking about boys, parents, siblings, fashion, life—anything but school.
Sybil noticed my brow wrinkling and immediately tried buying her response back. "Wait!" she said. "You fooled me. Usually when you ask me a question the answer is yes. Do I look good in capris? Should I wear pink lipstick? Do you think I’m smart? Am I losing weight? Do you think I’m pretty? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. So, you see? You lulled me into a false sense of yesness. I’m taking my answer back. Ask me again?"
"Forget about it, Syb. You answered truthfully." I rested the heel of my bare foot atop my French book lying on the bed. The books were there in case a parent happened to walk in on our study session. The current session involved painting our toenails.
"No. No, I didn’t. Ignore that silly, ludicrous, and ridiculous answer. Now that I’m hearing correctly, my answer is a definite no, of course not. You are in no way a failure. What would make you say that, anyway?"
She was sitting on the floor, her back against the bed, applying clear polish to her toes. Sybil rarely used color. She didn’t like standing out. She didn’t even like the idea of her toenails standing out—go figure.
"Remember this?" I waved the dog-eared sheet of loose-leaf paper I’d recently removed from my box of special things. The box was kept under my bed, away from prying eyes. By prying eyes I mean my little creep of a brother, Theo.
"What is it?" Sybil asked without looking up. She continued painting slowly, methodically.
"My high school manifesto," I said as I applied a coat of Fire house nail polish to my big toe.
I’d written the manifesto the night after middle school graduation. At the time, middle school seemed the low point of my existence. Each day for three long years I attended a school where I was constantly reminded of what a zero I was. I deemed it an experience never to be repeated. Boy, was I ever mistaken. My two years and two months at Salesian High made those middle school years seem like a Disney World vacation.
"I remember," said Sybil, her voice rising. "We were sitting right here, eating snickerdoodles and planning our fabulous high school careers. It was right after graduation, so we didn’t even have to pretend we were studying."
She laughed out loud. Normally I would have joined her, but today there was nothing to laugh about.
"Read it," she said. She stopped painting midtoe, and looked at me with anticipation.
I shook my head. "What’s the use? I’ve accomplished nothing on this list."
"Margot, that’s ridiculous. I’m sure you’ve accomplished something. Go on, read it. If you won’t, I will." She reached for the page. I yanked it away.
"All right already!" I sighed. I smoothed the wrinkles from the manifesto and read:
"Wow," said Sybil as I finished reading. "I didn’t realize how obsessed you were with Amanda Culpepper back then."
"What are you talking about? I wasn’t obsessed with Amanda Culpepper. I couldn’t care less about Amanda Culpepper."
She screwed the top back onto the nail polish bottle. "Not obsessed, huh?" she said, eyeing me skeptically.
"No. Of course not."
"Then how come her name is all over your manifesto?"
"I was using her as a benchmark, Syb. I could have used the name . . . oh, Kirsten Dunst, to make my point."
"Riiight," she said, although I’m quite sure she didn’t believe me. She changed the subject. "If it makes you feel any better, look at number one on the list. You are popular. Remember that time in gym class when we played dodgeball and all the girls, even Amanda, voted you the designated dodger? I do believe it was unanimous."
I stared at her. Was she being serious, or just trying to be nice? Sybil is the Queen of Nice. When I first met her she was standing in front of a bulldozer trying to keep it from plowing over an old tree. She clearly has a tendency to take niceness to unheard-of levels.
"Syb, being unanimously chosen as the person to throw balls at is not my idea of popularity."
"Oh? Okay, I guess I can see that." She again peered at the manifesto. "How about number three? We go to parties. My fifteenth birthday party. What a blast. We danced all night."
It was a slumber party whose exclusive guest list boasted three: me, Sybil, and her cat, Sebastian. We partied the night away to her grandmother’s ancient Tom Jones recordings. Didn’t she realize how utterly pathetic that sounded? She was obviously being nice. Again!
I read number six: "I will have a boyfriend." I shot her a look that had failure written all over it.
"I don’t remember that." She took the page from my hand and read it for herself, as if that was going to change things. She looked up at me. "Okay, so no boyfriends, yet. We still have almost two years of high school left. We’ll have boyfriends. And not just any boyfriends, Dirk Conrad even."
Dirk Conrad was a six-foot-two se nior, with a great body and glacier-blue eyes that made every girl at school ache in her loins. Okay, so maybe nobody got a loin-ache, but you know what I mean. Dirk was hot.
"We can’t both go out with Dirk Conrad, Syb."
"I know, silly. I’m using him as a benchmark."
She had to know that the Dirk Conrads of the world wouldn’t be caught dead dating my type. And if you’re wondering what my type is, let’s just say I’m not the type to wind up on the cover of a fashion magazine. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not fat. I’m just not skinny. I’m what I like to call an in-betweener.
"I appreciate the sentiment. But I don’t think I’m Dirk’s type."
"Why not?" She stared at me all wide-eyed and innocent. It was as if Sybil had moved here from Mars three years ago instead of Monrovia, California. She had no idea about high school protocol. A jock like Dirk Conrad, a se nior, would never date me. Aside from not being Heidi Klum, I wasn’t a member of the pool of girls that jocks at our school normally went out with. Unfortunately, Amanda—gag!—Culpepper was. Not that I cared.
I did appreciate that Sybil saw me as this amazing person who could run in any circle, fit in anywhere, and do almost anything. But she shouldn’t get delusional about it.
"I think you should ask him to go to the carnival Thursday night," she suddenly said.
"Huh? Ask who?"
"Why, Dirk Conrad, of course."
And the delusion continues.
"Are we talking about the real Dirk Conrad or the benchmark Dirk Conrad? Because the real Dirk Conrad doesn’t even know I exist."
"He doesn’t know you exist yet. But he will." She smiled and leaned in. There was conspiracy in her eyes. "The carnival is a Sadie Hawkins event."
"That means girls can ask boys."
"His Facebook page says he doesn’t have a date yet."
"I know!" Panic was beginning to rise in the pit of my stomach as I realized where the conversation was headed.
"The worst he can say is no."
"Uh-uh! No way!"
Didn’t she get what a no from Dirk Conrad could mean? "No is a powerful word and not to be taken lightly, Syb. If Amanda and her Twigettes found out Dirk declined my invitation I’d be a laughingstock."
"I thought you weren’t obsessed with Amanda."
"I’m not. But there’s no sense in inviting ridicule."
"Margot, if we’re ever going to make the manifesto a reality we have to start somewhere."
She was right about that. If I was going to keep from being a total high school washout I needed to accomplish something on the list.
"I could get a car," I suddenly said. "That’s on the list."
"You crossed it out. I think it was because of how hysterically your father laughed when you ran the idea past him."
"True. He laughed himself into an asthma attack. But now that I’m thinking about it, a car is way more realistic than dating Dirk." I erased the cross-out mark.
"There. Now we’ve got something to shoot for," I said, brushing eraser crumbs from the manifesto. "You know, I think we should sign up for driver’s ed next semester. If I get a car, one of us should know how to drive it."
"What if I ask him for you?"
Instinctively I stiffened. Was I hearing correctly? "Why would you do that?"
"We’re best friends, Margot. And I know you’d like to go out with him."
"Well . . . yeah." I swallowed hard.
"There you have it. What are best friends for if not to do cool stuff for each other?"
Some days it seemed as if Sybil really was from Mars. Best friends rarely do cool stuff for each other at our age. High school is where best friends sometimes stab each other in the back.
"What do you think?" she asked, smiling up at me.
What I thought was, No Earth girl can be this naive. But of course, I didn’t say that. At first, I was going to remind her that she was as shy as I was when it came to boys—shyer even. But all of a sudden, I was finding it hard to concentrate. The idea of going to the carnival with Dirk had invaded my thoughts. And I have to admit, I liked the invasion.
"And you don’t have to worry about any embarrassment," she continued. "If he says no, he’ll be saying no to me."
"But why would he say yes? He doesn’t even know me."
"Dirk is so cute, I’ll bet every girl at school is afraid to ask him out. They’re probably all thinking, He’ll never go to the carnival with me."
"That’s pretty much what I was thinking."
"I know, but don’t you see? Poor Dirk will probably spend Thursday night home alone because everyone is too chicken to ask him out. . . . Everyone, but you."
Her argument was making sense. Still, I had my doubts. "I don’t know, Syb. . . ."
"Imagine the look on Amanda Culpepper’s face when you show up at the carnival with Dirk."
And just like that, I didn’t have so many doubts.
"Amanda and her twigs will be sooo jealous," she sang.
Amanda Culpepper jealous of me?
This was worth considering.
Excerpted from Never Slow Dance with a Zombie by E. Van Lowe.
Copyright 2009 by E. Van Lowe.
Published in September 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.