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If the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus is the Greatest Show on Earth, and Disneyland is the happiest place on earth, then the downtown mall has to be the most boring place on earth. And yet here you are outside the mall . . . again. This must be your five thousandth trip here, and considering you're only twelve, that's saying a lot. You know the layout like the back of your hand. And if you have to look at one more scrunchie at Claire's Accessories or if one more cell-phone guy comes up to you trying to sell you a Sidekick, even though you clearly already have one on your hip, you're gonna scream! If not for the Pinkberry shop, a few cool clothing stores, and the occasional Jake Gyllenhaal movie showing at the Cineplex, you'd go stark raving mad. Usually your friends Lena and Jessie have to drag you here kicking and screaming. But today you have a feeling things just might be different.
"So you're sure Shawna's going to be here, right?" Lena asks, pulling her long brown hair back into a ponytail the way she does when she's getting ready to race someone on the track.
"Yes!" Jessie insists. "Her Facebook page was very clear. She said she'd be here at ten a.m. with twenty tickets to her ginormous thirteenth-birthday party. It's going to be amazing!"
You haven't had a chance to check out Shawna's page, but you know that when Jessie starts making up hybrid words--fantabulous, ginormous, wondertastic--whatever she's talking about is not just good, it's gooooood. But to you, this sounds a little too good to be true. "So what's the catch?"
"There's a catch?" Lena asks, stopping in her tracks. "Nobody said anything about a catch."
Jessie huffs and puts her hands on her narrow hips, the stacks of silver bangles on her wrists jangling loudly. Now you've made her mad. She grabs one of your hands and one of Lena's and drags you both toward the mall. "Don't be such wimps. Of course there's a catch! I mean, sure, her family's doing all right, since her dad was smart enough to invest in solar panels. These days, you're nobody unless you've gone green, so all the celebs are buying those panels for their homes now. But she can't just give away tickets! The fact that her parents are splurging on this party is a big enough deal as it is, so she can only invite a certain number of people instead of the whole class. That's why we have just got to go. I doubt anyone else will even be having a birthday party this year, but Shawna's is going to make up for that big-time. Even Mona Winston is going. I hear she got Shawna to give her a ticket in advance somehow. I bet she'll be here today just to see who else scores a ticket."
"God, I hope not!" you exclaim. "That girl is toxic."
"No argument here," Lena adds, knowing how awful the new girl has been to you ever since she came to your school. "But anything that would even get Miss I'm So Much Better Than All of You to come here and mingle with the common folk must be worth checking out."
"Sounds like it has possibilities," you admit. "Even if it does mean wasting yet another day of our summer vacation at the mall. So what are the deets?"
Jessie takes an excited breath. "Well, the theme is going to be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory--the Johnny Depp version. Shawna is going to be hiding out in different spots in the mall, wearing disguises and stuff. If you find her, you have to answer a riddle or a trivia question or take a dare or something. If you get it right, you get a golden ticket to the party, just like in the movie."
"And the book," Lena is quick to point out without even looking up from her BlackBerry. The two of you share a love of books, which is one of the reasons you became friends in the first place. But Lena is one of those rare kids who prefer the book version of things to the movie version. She's never even seen the Harry Potter movies or Twilight. Freak!
"Right. Fine," Jessie says, rolling her eyes as she continues to tug on your arm. Any harder and your arm will come right out of your shoulder socket. "The book too."
"Thank you, kind madam. Now, please continue. What sayeth our good lady Shawna of what calamity will befall us should we fail in our endeavors?"
Jessie just knits her eyebrows at Lena. "Uh, would you mind saying that again--in English this time?"
Technically, it was English. Elizabethan English, that is. See, Lena is always falling in love with one author or another and then goes around sounding like his or her books for way too long. Right now she is in her Shakespeare phase, so she's been laying a lot of "forsooths" and "wherefores" on you and Jessie. (See above, re: Freak!) But Jessie can always count on you for a modern-day translation.
"She means what happens if we turn out to be the biggest losers in Loserville and get the question wrong?"
"Oh. That's easy. Get it wrong and you're stuck at home watching Hannah Montana reruns. Simple as that."
Lena shudders. "All right, all right, no need to threaten us!" You share a smile with Lena. You both know how much Jessie loves Miley Cyrus. Jessie has let go of your arm and has crossed her own arms over her chest. You're sure she's about to launch into Miley defense mode, so you squeeze your eyes shut and brace yourself for a recounting of all her greatest hits. Instead, you are greeted by silence. When you sneak one eye open to find out what happened to the verbal attack, you see Jessie smirking at you with a knowing look in her eyes.
"What?" you ask.
Jessie smiles and cocks her head to the side. "Why are you even pretending Shawna's party is the only reason you agreed to go to the mall today--as if you don't know that a certain comic-book geek could be walking those very halls?"
Doh! You were kind of hoping your friends had forgotten all about your little crush on Jimmy Morehouse, aka the most perfect guy ever. Well, maybe not perfect, but definitely way interesting. You've never had what could pass for a real conversation with him, but you've gathered all his important stats: he gets decent grades (he's no boy genius, but he does well enough to pass muster with Lena); he has no brothers or sisters; he's twelve years old; like you, he's kind of a klutz; and (this is the important part) he is the best artist you've ever met in real life. True, he mostly draws what Jessie calls boy stuff, like cars and comic-book characters, but whenever there's a school play, the drama club always gets him to paint all the scenery, and for months before showtime, he walks around with splotches of paint on his cheeks and T-shirts. (One of your "conversations" with him consisted of your walking by one of his freshly painted scenery boards for your school's production of Grease and mumbling, "Cool." By the time he turned around to say thanks, you had already scampered away so he wouldn't see you turn beet red.) And he never goes anywhere without his sketch pad, which in your mind just screams "Serious Artist." Any girl with half a brain would like Jimmy.
But why did your friends have to choose now to remember that you have half a brain?
"And there is the little matter of what you promised to do today if we managed to get an extra ticket," Lena reminds you.
You mash both hands onto your face, dread creeping over you. You know exactly what she's talking about, but in situations like this, which could cause death via extreme humiliation, you've always found it's better to deny, deny, deny. "I'm sorry; I have no idea what you're talking about."
Jessie lets out a simple "Ha!" meaning Yeah, right. You look over at Lena, hoping for a bit more sympathy, but she just shakes her head sadly while typing some code into her BlackBerry and then slips on the glasses she wears only for reading. "Tsk, tsk, tsk . . . I was afraid you'd say that. Good thing I have a written record of our oral agreement on my blog."
"Your blog?" you screech. "Please, please tell me you haven't posted anything on the Internet about me."
"Relax," Lena says calmly as she presses a few keys, seemingly scrolling through various blog entries. "I've changed all the names to protect the innocent. Besides, I haven't taken the blog public . . . yet. I just started it because having created one at my age is going to look awesome on my college applications one day. Ah yes, here we are. Last Saturday at exactly nine-oh-two p.m. during a sleepover at Jessie's house, you said, and I quote, 'Fine. The next time I see him, I'll ask him if he wants to hang out with me, all right? Now can you please pass the nachos already?'" Lena peers at you over the top of her glasses. "I have to tell you I didn't care for your tone. Such hostility!"
Your eyes bug out of your head. "Are you for real? You actually expect me to follow through with something I said while drinking way too much soda and playing Truth or Dare? Obviously I wasn't in my right mind. No way would that hold up in court."
"Uh, sorry, but I have to disagree with you there," Jessie interjects. "The rules of Truth or Dare are pretty much written in stone. I heard Britney Spears even got married once because somebody dared her to, so, you know, this is serious business."
Leave it to Jessie to cite Britney as a reliable source.
You sigh, feeling outnumbered. You're not even sure Jimmy will be at the mall today and already you can feel your palms sweating. "Okay, okay, but what if I . . . I mean, what if he . . . ?" you stammer, picturing all the horrible possibilities.
Lena squeezes your shoulder reassuringly. "Hey, you've liked him for a long time, right?"
You shrug one shoulder while staring at your shoelaces.
"You think he's nice and you two might have some stuff in common, right?"
"So it wouldn't hurt to at least try to get to know him better as friends, right?"
"Dang it, Lena, can you please stop making so much sense?"
She smiles and puts her BlackBerry into her backpack, then slings the bag over her shoulder. "Now all you have to decide is where you want to ask him to go."
"Duuuh!" Jessie says loudly. "Isn't it obvious? If you win a ticket, you can ask him to go with you to the party. It would be perfect!"
"Would they really let you bring someone?" asks Lena.
"I'm not sure," Jessie answers quickly. "But there's only one way to find out. So if we can get past this very touching Tyra Show moment, can we please go inside now and get in the game?"
"I'm in!" Lena chimes, a competitive gleam in her eye.
And with that, the three of you file into the mall through the revolving door.
"Well, at least it looks like we're the only ones here so far, so we'll have Shawna and her golden tickets all to our . . ." You trail off as your eyes adjust to the fluorescent lights. Whoa! Half the kids from your grade are here, milling around the hallway.
You see Charlie Daniels sitting on a bench, studying a large color-coded map of the mall. Everybody knows that Charlie is a businessman in the making, so it doesn't surprise you at all that he took the time to download a map off the Internet and is now no doubt marking what he thinks will be the most efficient route. He's even wearing a tie. You've always thought he and Lena would be the perfect partners in crime. And something about the way Lena is nodding approvingly at his businesslike charts tells you she might think so too. But since flirting with boys isn't something she can add to her future college applications, it's not exactly high on her list.
Meanwhile, Lizette Tores and her two cousins, Delia and Celia, are looking through a rack of clothes in front of the Aéropostale store. Delia and Celia are arguing about a red pullover. You can hear them bickering from here. "I saw it first!" they're crying in unison.
"No, I did! Why do you always have to be such a copycat?" Poor Lizette just moves to another rack, trying her best to ignore the shouting, which seems to be in surround sound. Being a year older than the twins has made her their automatic babysitter, so wherever she goes, they're never far behind.
You glance over at Jessie and you can tell by her narrowed eyes that she's sizing up the rest of your competition. There's Mark Bukowski, surrounded by his baseball-team buddies, taking bets on who will find Shawna first.
There's Jasmine Viera, teacher's pet and all-around know-it-all. She could be big competition, because she's a well of useless information. But she just got her braces off a couple of days ago and is too busy staring at her own teeth in a compact mirror to focus on Shawna.
Eli Santini might be a bit more of a problem. He's way taller than the average sixth grader, so that could help him see over crowds of people, allowing him to spot the birthday girl before anybody else does. And everybody knows that Shawna has a crush on him. If he finds her, even if he gets his answer wrong, Shawna will probably give him a ticket anyway.
Then there are the Grain brothers, Nick and Andy. If you had to vote on which two kids in your school would be most likely to win on Survivor, you would pick those two. They're built like linebackers and willing to eat anything, no matter how gross it is, and as far as you know, they have never, ever turned down a dare.
"So much for us being the first ones here," you say with a sigh. But you still have faith in your three-person crew: Lena Saldano, track star extraordinaire, bookworm, and certified tomboy; Jessie Miller, goddess of all things popular and fashionista-in-training; and you, the glue that holds it all together. You're sure that between the three of you, you've got this thing in the bag.
Just then, Amy Choi, the biggest gossip in the school, comes running up to you and your friends. "Oh. My. God!" she cries. "You guys are here too! Today is going to be so crazy. I heard Shawna's been here for hours already and that she has secret cameras set up all over the mall!"