Beth was in love, and it was positively sickening, Caroline thought.
Beth drew little hearts on the corners of her notebook, with the initials B plus J. She lingered at the end of the footbridge each morning on the way to school, hoping that the Hatford boys would be leaving about the same time and she could walk to school with Josh. Worst of all, Beth acted as though she'd rather be with Josh Hatford than with her own sisters.
Caroline, age nine, was the youngest of Coach Malloy's three daughters. Eddie, the oldest, couldn't be bothered. At eleven, all she wanted was, number one, to think up a really good experiment for the sixth-grade science fair, and number two, to make the Buckman Elementary baseball team when tryouts were held the following month. If Beth, a year younger, wanted to act like a lovesick idiot, that was her problem.
"But, Eddie, it ruins everything! We were having such a wonderful time annoying the guys! We weren't supposed to fall in love with them!" Caroline protested as they ate their cereal and watched the sun trying to rise in a gray February sky.
Fog cut the West Virginia hills around Buckman in half, hiding the tops completely. It covered sections of the valley as well. From the kitchen window, the girls could see the swinging footbridge over the Buckman River, but they couldn't see the Hatfords' house on the other side.
"What do you mean, 'we'? I haven't fallen in love with anyone," Eddie told her, shaking the last of the Cheerios into her bowl.
"Good!" said their father, who had coached the college football team the previous fall and helped it make the playoffs. Now he was teaching chemistry. "Because I won't know till summer whether I'm leaving Buckman or staying. And if we move back to Ohio, I don't want a bunch of weeping daughters crying over leaving their boyfriends."
"Ha!" said Eddie. "Not on your life!"
Beth entered the kitchen at that moment. She had pulled her blond hair up on either side of her head, fashioned the top into curls, and fastened it using a large comb with daisies.
"Oh, brother!" Eddie said when she saw her. "Who are you supposed to be? Miss America?"
"Eddie, don't make fun of your sister," Mrs. Malloy said sharply as she set a plate of toast on the table. "Beth spent a lot of time on her hair, and I think she looks lovely."
"All for Josh," Caroline remarked.
"Pardon me while I gag," said Eddie.
"For your information, I just wanted a new look," Beth said, avoiding their eyes and quickly reaching for the butter.
"Yeah, a new look in nail polish too," Caroline said, grabbing one of Beth's hands to look at her nails, which Beth had painted purple to match her sweater. Each nail had a little J painted on it with sparkling silver.
"That's enough!" said Mrs. Malloy. "Everyone's entitled to a little privacy. Caroline, finish your toast, please."
All because Beth and Josh were in that play together where they had to hold hands! Caroline thought later as she brushed her teeth. But she had to admit what was really bothering her. It wasn't that Beth liked Josh Hatford. Of the four Hatford brothers--Jake, Josh, Wally, and Peter--Josh was one of the nicest. It was the fact that by falling in love, Beth, not Caroline, was in the spotlight these days, and Caroline herself was used to being the center of attention.
If she were falling in love, she would make up a whole story to go with it. She would act out her own scenes, write her own love letters, and have secret meetings with her beloved down by the footbridge. Since she wanted to be a Broadway actress, she needed all the life experiences she could get, and falling in love was one of them. Beth's falling in love didn't count.
When it was time to leave for school, Caroline and Eddie left together because, these days, Beth always found excuses to lag behind. The Buckman River flowed into town on one side of Island Avenue, looped around the end, and came flowing back on the other side. A road bridge connected the end of Island Avenue to the business district, but a swinging footbridge on one side provided a shortcut for the girls to College Avenue and to Buckman Elementary.
This morning, as Caroline and Eddie were crossing the footbridge, looking down on the river's patches of ice heaped with snow like meringue on a pudding, they saw the Hatford boys already leaving their house, heading up the street toward school.
Eddie snickered. "Won't that put Beth in a snit," she said. "She purposely dawdled just so she could walk to school with Josh, and Josh started off early without her."
But Jake, Josh's twin, was first in line, plodding through the snow with seven-year-old Peter at his heels. Behind him came Wally, and Josh seemed to be hanging back. Every now and then he glanced over toward the Malloys' house, then quickly faced forward again.
In the next instant Beth's footsteps came tripping over the boards of the footbridge behind Caroline.
"Excuse me," Beth said, hurrying past, and caught up with Josh on the sidewalk, where he was pretending to tie his boot.
Caroline stopped walking and surveyed them from the bridge, hands on her hips.
"They aren't any good at all at falling in love," she declared. "When you fall in love, violins are supposed to play and bells are supposed to ring. A girl is supposed to rush across a bridge and into the arms of her boyfriend. She's not supposed to pretend she just happened to meet up with him, and he's not supposed to pretend he stopped to tie his boot."
"I wouldn't know," said Eddie. "And the last thing I want making noise around me is violins."
But following along behind Beth and Josh, seeing how the sleeves of their jackets hardly even touched, much less their hands, Caroline made a decision: if she was ever going to know what it felt like to fall in love, she'd have to do it herself--so if she was ever asked to play the part of a woman in love, she could do it from the heart.
She would simply have to choose a boy and fall in love with him, and since the only boy who sat close to her in school was Wally Hatford--who sat directly in front of her, in fact--Wally Hatford it would be.
From the Trade Paperback edition.