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The Mean Girl Apologies
By Stephanie Monahan, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Stephanie Monahan
All rights reserved.
I was in the middle of lying to my best friend when I heard the song.
We'd just gotten to the bridal shop, and Amber was checking us in for our fitting. Lori got distracted by a display of glittery headpieces, and Sarah and I wandered over to the window.
Outside, tourist season was upon us. Couples held hands and browsed the antique shop, groups of girls carrying giant-sized iced coffees walked down the street, laughing. Normally, you could get from one side of Stonebury to the other in about ten minutes. From June to August, it could take forty.
"Aren't you so excited to be back?" Sarah asked. She leaned into me, putting her arm around my shoulders and squeezing.
"Yeah," I said.
That was the lie.
And that was when I heard the song.
I didn't immediately recognize the voice as his. It was smoother than I remembered, all the gritty edges rounded out. But something about it made me stop and listen. Something familiar.
I'd caught the end of it, the chorus repeating and fading. I couldn't make out much of the words, just the catchy melody. It was a really, really good song.
The DJ came on next. "Thanks for listening to Sunny 101.5, Stonebury's station for all the hits! That was Stonebury's own Jack Moreland! Class of 2009. It's about time we had a local celebrity, don't you think? Coming up next, your traffic and weather report!"
Sarah turned to me, surprised. "Um, Natalie? Did they say Jack Moreland?"
So she'd heard it, too. This wasn't some sort of incredibly vivid dream. "Yeah. I — I think so."
"He graduated with us!"
I nodded, because I didn't trust myself to speak.
"This is crazy! Lori — did you hear that?"
Lori wandered over, her eyes growing wider as Sarah told her about the song. "I can't believe I didn't know about this," she said, pissed. Lori prided herself on knowing more about you than you did.
"What's going on?" Amber asked, and the story of the song started again. Was I acting naturally? Could they tell that my legs had gone rubbery, that I was in danger of falling into the tiara display?
Apparently not, because they went on talking like Jack was just some kid we used to know, which, I guess for them, was true. "Remember?" Lori was saying, while Amber looked puzzled. "The kid with the flannel shirts? He carried his guitar everywhere?"
Jack Moreland and his Traveling Guitar. That's what my friends had called him, a dumb nickname they thought was so funny.
"Hmm, I don't remember." Amber shrugged and flipped her braid to the other side. Then she smiled at me, rubbing her hands together. "All right, you're up first."
It was one of those foggy-headed moments when you know you're moving toward something, but not quite sure how you're moving, or how you're going to get there. Penny, the saleswoman who resembled an "after" photo in an advertisement for Botox, had me by the elbow. She led me into the depths of the store and into a tiny dressing room. This was the moment I'd been dreading all morning, being back in this exact room. In high school, I'd stood in the same claustrophobic space, trying on my prom gown. Prom. I'd been trying to forget about it for five years.
It'd been hard not to think about it all these years and was completely impossible now. Strangely fitting that Jack's song had been playing moments before. Almost like he was reminding me that even though time had passed, he still existed out there in the world.
"Come on out when you're done," Penny said. She closed the door, shutting me in.
It was hard to zip up a dress with shaky hands. I had nowhere to wipe my sweaty palms. The dressing room had mirrors on three of its walls, and so three of me stared back as I looked at myself in the dress. It was hideous — an overly ripe shade of yellow that completely washed out girls with pale skin and dark hair, like me.
I hesitated in the doorway, peeking around the corner to find my friends. "Oh, just come all the way out!" Amber called. She was standing with Lori and Sarah and Penny. All four of them were there, but I waited for only Amber's opinion.
After all these years, I still found myself craving her approval while simultaneously bracing myself for criticism. Maybe some things never changed, but I thought I had. Since I'd returned to my hometown, it'd been so easy to fall into the groove of our old relationship.
She was quiet for a second. "I think you look absolutely amazing!"
She nodded, and the others did, too.
"It fits perfectly," Penny said, coming closer to get a better look. "I think you're done." I was pretty sure she was smiling.
That was a relief. The last time we were here, a few weeks ago, the seamstress had stuck so many pins into the fabric, I didn't see how there could have been any left over. "You have a difficult shape," she'd told me, totally matter-of-factly and frowning. And you have a gift for tactfulness, I'd thought. I'd never had a problem filling out a dress. It took a long time before I'd stopped wishing to be perfectly straight up and down like my friends.
On the hanger the dress had resembled a banana, strapless and tapered at the top, then fanning out at the bottom. But it was surprisingly comfortable, as it should have been, considering the well-known name of the designer and the amount of money I'd had to drop on it.
Lori had already gotten her final fitting at the beginning of the week, which left only Sarah. While we waited, Lori called me over to the hats. "Take some pictures of me — I want to update my profile."
I could see Penny hovering as Lori weeded through the display. Lori looked exactly the same as she had five years ago — tiny, barely meeting my shoulders, with wavy blond hair and her signature hoop earrings that could fit around her wrists — and most of the hats made her look like she was dressing up in her mom's clothes. She liked a couple of them, though, and I texted the pictures to her.
"Want me to take yours now?" she asked.
"No, I'm good."
"Don't you know she's part vampire?" Amber said, placing a wide pink hat on her head and assessing herself in the mirror. She was one of those people who looked good in everything.
"I'm strictly a behind-the-camera type of girl," I said.
Sarah came out of the dressing room. "All right, what do you guys think?" she asked, twirling.
Penny clasped her hands to her chest and sighed. "I love it. I really do. It was a wonderful choice."
Amber stood beside her, tilting her head as she studied Sarah. "It's nice," she said finally. "Do you think it's too tight right here?" She touched Sarah's waist, where the fabric bunched the tiniest bit.
"I could get the seamstress," said Penny.
The tip of Sarah's nose had gone bright red. "This one attorney in the office always brings in Munchkins ..."
Penny had already disappeared around the corner. Sarah stood there, looking like she was going to cry. I was about to assure her that it was all right when Amber hooked her arm in mine and turned me around toward the shoes. "I wanted to tell you how much Peter loved the engagement pictures. Thank you so much."
"Oh, that's great."
She'd commissioned me to take the photos and, even after I told her not to, insisted on paying for them. I couldn't deny it was a win-win. I'd been trying to get some freelance business around town, but it was hard to do without much experience. And yeah, I needed the money.
"One other thing," she said. "I really want to pay for your shoes."
She was referring to the sparkly high heels the three of us would be wearing as part of the bridal party. We were supposed to be picking them up today, and I'd been preparing all week to hand over my debit card. The shoes were gorgeous, but I didn't believe in footwear that cost more than my rent. I'd made a passing comment to Sarah, who had agreed. Had she told Amber what I'd said?
"You really don't have to do that," I said.
"I want to. I know the past year wasn't the easiest for you ... I want to help."
I got this weird feeling, the way I did back in high school when she would give me the clothes and makeup she didn't want, usually with the price tags still attached, and then later ask me to do her homework. I wondered what I'd have to do to repay her.
But still, it was another offer that was hard to refuse. It was demoralizing being the one in the group who needed to take a handout. Amber, a senator's daughter about to marry a med student and someday be a doctor's wife, never had to worry about money. Sarah was in law school and clerked full-time, while Lori operated her family's salon and spa on Main Street. "All right," I said weakly. "Thanks."
Amber slipped her arm through mine again, the way she used to do when we walked together through the halls of Stonebury High. I hated how, even now, when she did things like this, it made me feel important.
We wandered over to a jewelry case. Amber commented on what she liked and didn't like, and I nodded and agreed with her without really listening. I couldn't stop thinking about hearing Jack Moreland's voice again, about high school. "Amber," I tried to say, but my mouth was dry and nothing came out. I cleared my throat, said her name again. She turned slightly toward me, still focused on the jewelry. "Do you ever think about high school? I mean, the way we were back then?" The things we did to people.
She flipped her hair over her shoulder, considering, then finally made eye contact. "Sometimes I wish I could go back."
I almost let out a sigh of relief. So it wasn't only me wishing I could change things. Maybe she'd grown up during the past five years, too. Maybe we could even be friends — real friends.
"I mean, we had the life." She shook her head. Smiling. "All we had to do was make good enough grades to keep our parents off our backs. The rest of it was clothes and parties and boys. Never had to pay any bills. Didn't have a care in the world. The best times of our lives."
Just like that, the weight that had started to lift came crashing back down, heavier than before. This whole thing felt all wrong. Being back here in this boutique on Main Street, the fact that I was a part of Amber's wedding at all when we hadn't talked since I left for college.
Sarah appeared, walking toward us from across the shop, and Amber leaned into me. "I really thought we wouldn't need any more alterations at this point," she whispered.
"I know," I said.
The response was automatic; my old habit of readily agreeing with her, it seemed, hadn't been broken. But I was no longer that person who tried so hard to please and appease. At least, I hadn't been for the past five years. But now that I was back, I felt my grip on myself slipping. Now that I was back, who was I?
Sarah was sheepish. "No one told me about the law school fifteen."
"It really didn't look bad," I said.
"There's only a month and a half to go. Just don't eat any more of those Munchkins, okay?" Amber laughed her husky laugh. She normally followed up one of her zingers with a laugh, so you were never really sure if she was kidding or not. God, the sound of it brought me right back to being seventeen. I could've been wearing my itchy polyester cheerleading uniform, wondering if anyone else noticed how badly I sucked at cheerleading.
Penny called Amber over to the register, leaving Sarah and me alone. "I can't believe it," she said under her breath. "I'm so embarrassed. Was she flipping out?"
"No, no. It was fine."
She gave me a look like she didn't believe me but let it go. We joined Lori by the hats, and I clicked some pictures of them posing together until Amber returned. She put her arm around me, and I did my best not to show how much I wanted to squirm away. "See you later for the big party!"
Amber was insisting on hosting a welcome home party for me, even though I didn't want it, even though I specifically asked not to have it. I'd been back for three months, and in that time, I'd seen some of my old friends around town, but Amber said that an event like this deserved an official celebration. She declared that she would host the party after she and Peter moved into the house they bought together, and tonight was the party.
It took tremendous effort to pull the muscles in my face into a smile, but I did my best to act carefree. "Can't wait," I said.
Sarah and I split from the group and walked back to the apartment we shared in Stonebury Heights. I was surprised upon my return to see how narrow the streets were, how the houses were so small and close together. Had it always been this way, or did everything look smaller now that I was older? Maybe it had something to do with being back in my hometown without my parents. They'd moved to Iowa, where my dad had been transferred my freshman year of college. During breaks from school, I'd always flown out there. Without them here, things felt different, as if I'd made up the first eighteen years of my life. A young family lived in our old Colonial, toys strewn all over the front yard, the lawn overgrown. It looked nothing like what I remembered.
Back at our apartment, we retreated to our separate bedrooms. As soon as I shut the door, I grabbed my laptop and sat on my bed. In the internet browser, I typed Jack Moreland.
It was a game I'd played with myself a couple of times over the years — Where is He Now? — but up until today, the only hits that came up were an animal trainer in Minneapolis and a guy who blogged about his home projects in upstate New York. This time, though, his name brought me directly to his website, www.jackmoreland.com.
Home. News. About. Listen. And underneath, a picture.
When I'd known him, he had caramel-colored hair to his shoulders, a hoop through his eyebrow, a soft jaw, and long eyelashes. The eyelashes were the same. Everything else, though ... his hair was short, no piercings, his face thinner and angled. The guitar around his shoulder remained — the one thing I rarely saw him without.
Funny how you could get used to the absence of someone from your life. There were some days over the past half decade when I wondered if I'd made up his entire existence. But here he was, staring at me through my computer. I looked at the picture for a long time. There used to be an emptiness in my life where he once was, but I guess I'd learned to live with it. Now, though, the empty space began to hurt, an old wound reopened.
I clicked on News. Coming soon! was all it said. I moved on to About.
Jack Moreland grew up in a tiny seaside town in northeastern Massachusetts, but he now calls the bright lights of New York City his home. All his life, he has been singing and playing guitar. He wrote his first song at the age of six. His high school band, The Kerouacs, won several local awards, and it was during his time with the band that Jack began to branch out from performing mostly covers to writing his own material. As soon as the ink on his high school diploma had dried, he moved to New York City, where he played tiny clubs and bars, eventually forming a loyal following of dedicated fans. It was during a show at Kelly's Music Club in the East Village when he captured the attention of Mind's Eye label executive, Bruno Hayes. Haynes signed him on the spot, and Jack's debut album, Good Enough, was released one year to the day of that meeting.
Back on the homepage, I clicked on the last link, Listen. Click here to listen to Jack's smash hit, "Good Enough"!
I hesitated, my finger twitching for a second before I clicked. Soon, Jack's voice filled my sunlit apartment.
From the start I knew there was no going back
Jumping off cliffs had nothing on you
But it wasn't good enough
I told you the things no one else knew
You told me you weren't the girl
All the others see
I thought you were different
I guess that's on me
And I wasn't good enough for you, no
Not good enough for you
I listened to it five more times.
I thought you were different. I guess that's on me, he sang. Once, he had said almost the exact same thing to me.
Slowly, I closed my laptop. It hurt to breathe. I backed away from my computer as if it had morphed into something that might hurt me.
Excerpted from The Mean Girl Apologies by Stephanie Monahan, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2014 Stephanie Monahan. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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