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Sadie Harris kicked back on her bed, stretching her long legs up against the wooden headboard. She pitched a pink rubber ball against the wall, catching it effortlessly in her baseball glove, over and over.
"Quit the bouncing," her big brother Tyler shouted. His bedroom was on the other side. "I'm trying to study."
Sadie sighed. She needed to study, too. But she'd been wrestling with her math homework for more than an hour and it just refused to click.
She sat up and flipped open her math notebook. There it was, the still unsolved story problem: "Ms. Erikka had 420 pencils and 112 erasers. She kept 15 pencils and 5 erasers for herself, and now she needs to divide the rest evenly among 30 students. Write an equation and solve."
She stared at the question and it stared back at her, daring her to start writing. She had no clue where to begin. Why does Ms. Erikka have so many pencils and erasers? And honestly, couldn't each student just take one and leave the extras in the supply basket? Did they have to make things so complicated?
Sadie hated math. She hated it more than getting a cavity filled at the dentist. She hated it more than missing a jump shot in a basketball game. She couldn't explain it, but math made her feel all topsy-turvy inside. The bigger the equation, the more she panicked-and in fifth grade, the equations were humongous! As if that wasn't bad enough, her dyslexia often flipped the numbers around, so she had to really concentrate and check her answers two or three times to make sure she hadn't misread the numbers in the problem.
Her teacher, Ms. Erikka, was very patient with her. She gave Sadie extra time on tests and worked with her privately after class. But nothing seemed to help. "Math-phobia" is what Tyler called it. He had it in fifth grade, too.
"I couldn't add two plus two," he said, illustrating his point with four chocolate-chip cookies plucked out of the jar onto the kitchen counter.
"So how did you learn?" Sadie asked.
"I'm not sure," he replied. "One day in high school, we started learning geometry, and it all made sense to me. Like magic or something."
"Or something." Sadie chuckled.
"No, I'm serious. It was like someone flipped a switch in my brain and the numbers all made sense!"
Sadie nodded. It sounded crazy, but Ty had gotten a 97 on his last calculus test. She could see it tacked to the fridge with big red letters scribbled on top of the sheet that read, "Good job!"
Sadie doubted her math tests would ever have those happy red letters on them.
"You'll see," her mom assured her. "One day you'll just get it and you'll love math."
Love math? She seriously doubted it. There were things she was definitely good at, and math wasn't one of them. Sink a jump shot from the foul line...not a prob! Hit a home run with the bases loaded...piece of cake.
She'd even become an expert at baking, thanks to the cupcake club she and her friends Kylie Carson, Jenna Medina, and Lexi Poole had started the year before in fourth grade. In the beginning, she could barely read a recipe. Now she knew how to whip up a chocolate ganache from scratch and what the difference was between baking powder and baking soda.
"Some people are just born geniuses," her brother Corey bragged. Sadie had to admit things did come fairly easily to him. Not only had he been the captain of his middle school basketball team, but now-in just the first few weeks of high school-he had managed to land a spot on the football squad.
"When ya got it...ya got it," Corey teased. "And I got it big-time!"
"Yeah, and that matches those big feet!" Tyler countered, pointing to Corey's size 13EEE high-tops.
"Shaquille O'Neal wears a size twenty-two shoe," Corey replied.
"Does that mean you have more growing to do?" Mrs. Harris sighed. "I just bought you new Nikes!"
Sadie giggled. Her brothers reminded her of one of those old-time comedy duos-Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello. Or maybe even Phineas and Ferb? They were always trying to one-up each other. But if there was one thing she topped both of her brothers at, it was height.
At ten years old, she stood five feet, five inches tall-head and shoulders above her classmates at Blakely Elementary. When Corey and Tyler were her age, they barely measured five feet. Sadie loved to look at the lines the Harris siblings had made on the basement wall, marking their height at every birthday. She was clearly the height champion for her age.
"You just sprung up like a beanstalk!" her mom told her. "Your brothers didn't have their growth spurts 'til middle school."
"But look at us now!" Tyler pointed out. "I'm six feet, two inches!"
"I hope Sadie doesn't get taller than that!" her mom fretted. "We'll need higher ceilings!"
Some of the kids at Blakely teased her about being so tall. Meredith Mitchell (Blakely's resident bully) loved to call her "Big Foot" and "Gigantua."
"How's the weather up there?" Meredith taunted her when they lined up to go to recess. Jack Yu cracked up: "Yeah, Sadie always has her head in the clouds!"
"Doesn't that bother you?" Kylie once asked her.
"Nope. I just think of Meredith as this teeny, tiny mosquito," Sadie told her. "Buzz...buzz...SPLAT!" She swatted the air and made Kylie crack up. "Besides, I kick her butt every time we're in P.E. She's all mouth...no game."
Even her coach had a "tall" nickname for Sadie: "Hey, Stretch! Let me see that defense!" The fact that people noticed her height never bothered Sadie. She was proud to be "Stretch Harris." Her brothers were tall. Her mom and dad were tall. In fact, almost everyone in the Harris family had the tall gene.
"Your grandpa Willie was six feet, five inches," her mother told her. "He would bump his head whenever he came through our door."
Sadie remembered her Papa Willie as a kind, gentle man, and she loved to look up to him when she was a little girl. It never bothered him if he had to duck while getting out of a car, and it never bothered her if she had to hug her knees when she sat in a crowded row in the movies.
But algebra was another story. That bothered Sadie big-time! Especially when Ms. Erikka called on her in class.
"Sadie, if 2 times n equals 96, what is n?" her teacher asked.
Sadie stared at the SMART Board, hoping for a number to magically materialize. No such luck. Couldn't she have a fairy godmother with a Magic Marker wand to give her a hint?
"Um...uh...I don't know," Sadie sighed.
"Well, take a guess!" Ms. Erikka encouraged her.
"Um, 18? 24? 36?" The class erupted in giggles.
"Can you tell us how you got those answers?" her teacher asked.
"Well, you told me to guess..." Sadie replied.
"A mathematical guess," Ms. Erikka corrected her. "One that's based on mathematical reasoning. Like what number doubled would give you 96?"
Sadie was still stumped. She had no idea what her teacher was talking about.
"Ooh, ooh! I know! It's 48!" Meredith waved her hand wildly in the air.
"No calling out, but, yes, thank you, Meredith, the answer is 48. Sadie, do you see how we got that?"
Sadie smiled and nodded, but what she was really thinking was, "I have no idea!"
She also had no clue how to solve this math homework problem about the pencils and erasers. She flopped back down on her bed and buried her head in her basketball pillow. If she failed math, the coach would kick her off the Blakely Bears. His rule was simple: no pass, no play.
Her teammates would never forgive her because she was the best chance they had for making the state championships this year. They knew it, and she knew it, so why wouldn't her brain cooperate? Why couldn't she just make those multiplication and division tables stick?
Suddenly, her cell phone rang and she dove for it on her desk. She recognized the number instantly. It was Kylie.
"What's the answer to question number 4?" she blurted out.
"What ever happened to ‘Hey, girl? What's up?'" Kylie teased. "Is that how you talk to all the members of our cupcake club?"
"Nope...just the one who got a ninety-nine on the last math test. Seriously, Kylie, I'm stuck. I really need your help!"
"No sweat! I can come over-I wanted to try out a new recipe for white chocolate cupcakes anyway."
Her friend had a one-track brain, and it always led straight to cupcakes. That's why Kylie was president of their business, Peace, Love, and Cupcakes. She kept Sadie, Jenna, and Lexi up to their ears in flour and frosting every week.
"I dunno, Kylie," Sadie groaned. She glanced over at the dozens of trophies lined up on the shelf over her desk: basketball, track, soccer, softball. Her dad called it her "Wall of Fame." But the one prize she really wanted she hadn't won yet: the Elementary School Basketball State Championship cup. If it was up to Kylie, she'd have Sadie baking all afternoon-and they'd get so wrapped up in cupcakes that Sadie would forget all about her math quiz.
"I'll make you a deal," she bargained with Kylie. "You help me with my homework, and then we'll hit the mixer."
"Yay! I'll send Lexi and Jenna a text and tell them to come to your house," Kylie replied.
"I better make sure it's cool with my mom-hang on!" Sadie opened her bedroom door and shouted, "Hey, Mom! Is it okay if the cupcake club holds a taste test in our kitchen?"
She heard her mom's voice, but she couldn't make out what she was saying.
"What? I can't hear you!" Sadie called.
She climbed down a few steps on the staircase to get a better listen-and then realized her mom was talking to her dad, not to her.
"Ty needed new jeans, and Sadie's sneakers are too small! And Corey...well, he's growing out of everything..."
"You charged $300 on the Am Ex?" her father yelled. "We have to tighten the purse strings, Bria, not spend every cent we have on things we don't need."
"What would you like me to do, Gabe? Send your kids to school barefoot?"
Sadie gulped. They both sounded so angry at each other. She tiptoed back to her room and picked up her phone.
"I don't know if it's a good time," she told Kylie.
"What do you mean? It's always a good time to bake cupcakes!" Kylie insisted.
"It's just my parents...they're having a fight."
"Oh," Kylie said softly. "What about?"
"Money, I guess," Sadie sighed. "My dad's contracting business is pretty slow. He says it's because the economy is bad right now. No one is building or redecorating, so he doesn't have much work."
"Well, do you want to come over here instead?" Kylie offered.
Through her open door, Sadie could still hear her parents arguing. Getting out of the house sounded really good at the moment. She hated to think of her mom and dad fighting. But it was happening more and more lately-and it made Sadie worry. Her mom and dad couldn't seem to speak to each other anymore without getting angry.
Last night's disagreement had been one of the worst, and there wasn't any arguing involved. Over dinner, her father had announced there was no money to go on a ski trip over winter break this year.
"Aw, you're kidding me!" Corey moaned. "We always go skiing in Colorado."
"Well, not this year. Sorry," her dad replied. Sadie noticed that her mother was looking down at her dinner plate, not saying a word.
"Can't we go for just a few days?" Tyler whined. "I was really looking forward to skiing the back bowls this year."
"This discussion is over," her dad snapped. "Next year."
"So what will we do over winter break?" Sadie asked. She knew most of her friends would be away for the holidays. Kylie's parents were taking her to Florida to visit her cousins, and Lexi had tickets to see the Radio City Christmas show with her Aunt Dee in New York.
"I was thinking you could visit Gram and Pops in Poughkeepsie," her dad said.
"Poughkeepsie?" Corey gasped. "What the heck do you do in Poughkeepsie for a week?"
Her mom finally spoke up. "There are some lovely museums."
Tyler made a face. "Yeah, that sounds like a whole lotta fun..."
"Pops is like a hundred years old," Corey groaned. "He only wants to watch old kung fu movies on TV. They don't even speak English in them. It's torture!"
"Hah-yah!" Sadie giggled, pretending to karate-chop her brother.
Just then, her mother rose from the table, slamming her plate into the sink. She was just as disappointed as they were. Sadie could feel it.
"I don't want to cancel our trip, but I have no choice," her dad tried to explain. "The airfare, the hotel, the meals, the ski rentals. How could we possibly afford it?"
Her mom stormed out of the kitchen and refused to say another word to her father all night. "The silent treatment" was what Tyler called it. "It's when she's super mad, so mad she can't even talk," he whispered. "This is baaad."
It was bad. Very bad. And Sadie didn't know how to explain all of this to Kylie. Her mom and dad argued once in a while-usually over silly things, like who forgot to close the garage door. It was nothing like this.
"Kylie, do you think my parents will get divorced?" Sadie asked softly. She knew her friend would give her a straight answer.
"Um, I don't know, Sadie. How bad are they fighting?"
Sadie filled Kylie in on yesterday's and today's fireworks.
There was silence on the other end of the phone. Sadie knew Kylie was thinking hard before she gave an answer.
"Well, lots of kids at Blakely Elementary have divorced parents," she finally replied. Sadie thought that was her nice way of saying, "Yeah, it's a definite possibility."
"But I don't want mine to be divorced. It's awful! You live in two houses and have two rooms. You're always going back and forth..."
"Hey, don't frost the cupcake before it's cooled!" Kylie interrupted.
Sadie scratched her head. "What does that mean?"
"It means ‘Don't think too fast.' Your parents haven't told you they're getting divorced!"
Sadie shook the ugly idea of divorce out of her head and tried to focus instead on happier thoughts-like spending the afternoon with the cupcake club and finishing her math homework in time to watch the Giants game on TV tonight. "Okay, I'll come over."
"Awesome!" Kylie cheered. Then she added gently, "Whatever happens, Sadie, you know we're all here for you, right?"
Sadie did know Kylie, Jenna, and Lexi would always stand by her. She remembered the time last year when she sprained her ankle and was on crutches for two weeks. She thought it was the end of the world, but the girls assured her it was only a temporary setback. She'd be back in the game in no time.
"It's like in The Mummy Returns," Kylie explained. "They think the mummy is gone for good...but no! He wakes up again to terrorize Brendan Fraser!"
Sadie rolled her eyes. "This is basketball, Kylie, not a monster movie."
"Kylie has a point," Lexi insisted. "The doctor said you'd be fine in two weeks."
"Two weeks!" Sadie moaned, gently touching her bandaged ankle. "I have to walk around on crutches! How am I supposed to go up and down the stairs at school?"
"Piggyback ride?" Jenna joked. "Or we could tie a rope around your waist and pull you up the side of the building through the science lab window..."
Sadie was moping for two days straight until the girls showed up at her doorstep with a plan to cheer her up.
"Cupcake delivery!" they announced when Mrs. Harris answered the door.
"Oh, my...come right in, girls. She's in the living room. Just be careful: she's not in a great mood and she bites!"
When Sadie turned around, she couldn't believe her eyes. There were Kylie, Jenna, and Lexi, all dressed like giant cupcakes with silver foil wrappers around their hips and red "cherry" balloons tied to their heads. Each girl was wearing a white T-shirt "sprinkled" with multicolored specks of paint.
"Special delivery for Sadie Harris!" Jenna giggled. "A singing cupcake-gram!"
Kylie hit the Play button on her iPod touch, and hip-hop music filled the living room. The trio began to rap:
"Sadie, Sadie, don't be blue!
We've got a cupcake-gram for you!
What's tall and cool and super sweet?
Can you guess who'll be back on her feet?
Sadie, Sadie, give a cheer!
You'll get well soon, we have no fear!"
At the end of the rap, Kylie and Jenna got down on their hands and knees, and Lexi climbed on their backs, forming a pyramid. She wobbled but managed to stand up and toss confetti in the air. "Hugs and sprinkles from PLC!" all three shouted, showering the couch-and Sadie-with glittering shreds of paper.
Sadie and her mom applauded wildly. "That was amazing, girls," her mother said. "Love the costumes!"
Lexi climbed down. "Aren't they cool? It was my idea to do the cherries on top." She took off the balloon and handed it to Sadie. "At least we got you to smile!"
Sadie had to admit that she did feel better. They'd even baked her get-well cupcakes with cute little fondant crutches on top.
"This is really nice of you," she said, licking the chocolate buttercream off her fingers.
"You didn't think we'd let you sit around feeling sorry for yourself, did you?" Kylie asked. "If you can't come to the cupcakes, the cupcakes will come to you!"
Sadie would never forget how the girls had managed to take her mind off her troubles. But divorce wasn't as simple to fix as a sprained ankle. And no amount of cupcakes could help her pass fifth-grade math if she failed her quiz this week. What would she do? What could she do?
Kylie read her mind. "We'll work it out," she assured Sadie.