Read an Excerpt
GLADYS GATSBY’S TWELFTH BIRTHDAY should have been her happiest one yet.
She was at a fabulous new restaurant in Manhattan on an outing she’d been planning for weeks. Back at home, a three-tiered, strawberry-lime birthday cake (which, of course, Gladys had baked herself) was waiting to be eaten. And best of all, Gladys’s parents had allowed her to invite her friends along for the festivities. A year ago, Gladys hadn’t had any friends to invite to a birthday party—but now she had three, and they were all here at Fusión Tapas with her.
Too bad they weren't speaking to one another.
Gladys glanced around the table. Parm Singh’s thick black eyebrows knit into an angry scrunch as she scowled alternately at Charissa Bentley and Sandy Anderson. Next to her, Charissa was flicking her high brown ponytail over her shoulder about ten times a minute, shooting sneers in Sandy’s or Parm’s direction each time. And Sandy—whose round cheeks were flushed almost as red as the bottle of spicy sauce in the middle of the table—had scooted his chair so far away from both girls that he was now practically sitting in Gladys’s dad’s lap.
All this bitterness, and they hadn’t even gotten their food yet!
The evening had started off much more smoothly, with the Gatsbys piling into their station wagon to drive into the city. “Hey, I don’t remember agreeing to throw a party like this,” Gladys’s dad had joked as he turned the key in the ignition. “Gladdy, I knew that hanging around with that Bentley girl was going to give you big ideas.”
Gladys smiled. It was true that she’d gotten the idea to spend her birthday at a restaurant in the city from Charissa, who’d brought Gladys into Manhattan on a birthday outing just three months earlier. But Gladys’s ulterior motive had nothing to do with wanting to be popular like Charissa.
It had everything to do with her top secret job as a restaurant critic for New York City’s biggest newspaper.
It wasn’t a job she had even meant to apply for, but a few months back, Gladys’s entry for the New York Standard sixth-grade essay contest had somehow ended up on the desk of Fiona Inglethorpe, chief editor of the Standard’s Dining section. Fiona must have liked what she read—and must have assumed that Gladys was a professional adult writer—because she had e-mailed Gladys with a reviewing assignment for the paper.
Almost overnight, Gladys had morphed from a regular sixth-grader into a sort of foodie secret agent. She couldn’t let her editor know her age, or she’d get in trouble for being too young. She couldn’t let the restaurants find out she was a critic, or they’d give her special treatment, trying to influence her reviews. And, most important, she couldn’t let her parents know about her new job. These days, they only let her indulge her love of cooking at home because they thought she spent the rest of her time being a “normal kid.” If they found out that she actually spent most of her free time writing about food for the country’s biggest newspaper . . . well, she could kiss those kitchen privileges good-bye forever.
So Gladys’s parents didn’t know that she’d chosen this restaurant for her birthday dinner because she needed to review it for next week’s Dining section. But Sandy did, and since he lived next door, he was the first of her friends to join them. Jogging up to their car, he looked different than usual: He wore pressed khaki pants instead of shorts, and his usually mussed-up blond hair had been sculpted with gel into a severe wave. But underneath all that was the same old Sandy.
“Happy birthday, Gatsby!” He fist-bumped her as he climbed into the car, then shoved a wrapped package into her lap. “Hey, Mr. and Mrs. Gatsby, thanks for having me. This is gonna be excellent—I can’t wait to try the tapas!”
He was overplaying things a little, Gladys thought, but her mom seemed to buy it. Swiveling around in her seat, she beamed at him. Gladys’s mom thought that having an active social life was very important, so she grinned at just about everything that came out of Gladys’s friends’ mouths—even if it was enthusiasm for tiny plates of Spanish-inspired cuisine.
“You’re very welcome, Sandy,” she said. “We’re just thrilled to have you along.”
“You’ve got your notebook?” Sandy whispered as the car turned onto Landfill View Road. Gladys gave him a tiny nod and patted her dress pocket. Inside were the materials she needed to carry off her secret mission: a tiny reviewing journal and two sharp golf pencils.
“And you’ve got the charts?” Gladys whispered back. She and Sandy had spent the last week—every day since summer vacation had begun—at his house, scouring the Fusión Tapas menu online and plotting who should order what. The menu featured eighteen different dishes, so if Gladys wanted to taste them all, every person in their party would have to order three different things. Luckily, “tapas” were small plates, so Gladys knew that the portions wouldn’t be huge.
Sandy nodded and slid two folded-up printouts out of his pocket. Gladys quickly stuffed them into her journal. She and Sandy already had their orders memorized, as did Parm, who also knew about Gladys’s secret work for the Standard. As for the other diners, Gladys had been dropping hints about what they should order all week and hoped she’d planted seeds in their minds: seeds that would grow into roasted asparagus for her mom, fried eggplant for her dad, and stuffed peppers for Charissa.
Soon the Gatsbys’ car pulled into the Singhs’ driveway. Parm stepped outside wearing a beautiful salwar kameez of green chiffon, but she kept her head tucked down as though she were embarrassed. When Sandy pushed open the back door, she grabbed a fistful of her fluttery scarf and nearly vaulted into the far backseat.
“Happy birthday, Gladys,” she said, handing over a small gift bag tied shut with a curl of ribbon. “And sorry about . . . this.” She glanced down at her outfit, which consisted of flowing pants and a matching top. “My mom looked at the restaurant’s website, and when she saw how fancy it is, she made me dress up.”
“That’s okay,” Gladys said, pointing to her own striped sundress. “Mine did, too, see? Anyway, you look really nice.”
“Yeah,” Sandy chimed in. “You look like a princess!”
Parm’s eyes narrowed. Uh-oh, Gladys thought. That was definitely the wrong thing to say to a girl who spent most of recess either kicking around a soccer ball or punching Owen Green.
Sandy, though, seemed oblivious to Parm’s glare. “I’m Sandy, by the way,” he said. “Sandy Anderson. Maybe your parents know my mom? She teaches at East Dumpsford Yoga, and she studied in India.”
“Well, if she studied there, then she must have met my parents,” Parm said witheringly. “It’s not like there’s over a billion people in India or anything.”
Sandy twisted to look at Gladys, a bewildered expression on his face. “I thought she was supposed to be the nice one,” he muttered.
Gladys couldn’t think of how to respond. Sandy went to a private school, so he had never met Gladys’s other friends. But if Sandy and Parm already weren’t getting along, then adding Charissa to the mix definitely wasn’t going to help.
And just as she suspected, Gladys heard both of her friends groan audibly as Charissa flounced down her front walk five minutes later. She wore an elaborate red dress trimmed in black lace with matching high heels, and carried an enormous present wrapped in shiny gold paper.
“Is she wearing gloves?” Parm asked incredulously. “It’s eighty degrees outside!”
Gladys looked closer and saw that Charissa was wearing gloves, though they were black lace ones with no fingertips, so she was pretty sure they were meant to be fashionable rather than warm.
“Maybe temperatures are cooler in The Seabreeze,” Sandy said. The Seabreeze—East Dumpsford’s most exclusive waterfront neighborhood—was where the Bentleys’ large house was located.
“Right—not like sweltering, overpopulated India,” Parm snapped.
“Dude, I didn’t say anything about India!”
“Cool it, you guys,” Gladys begged—but before she could say more, the car door flew open.
“Hola!” Charissa squealed. She dropped her huge gift on the floor, threw her arms around Gladys, and planted a lipsticky kiss on each of her cheeks. “That’s how they say hello in Spain,” she informed everyone as she climbed in. “And this is what they wear. Or what flamenco dancers wear, at least.” She smoothed the skirt of her dress with one of her gloves. “Since we’re going to a Spanish restaurant, I thought it would be the perfect outfit. I had Mommy order it specially for me from Madrid!”
“How thoughtful of you, Charissa!” Gladys’s mother exclaimed. It was no secret that Gladys’s mom liked Charissa the best of Gladys’s friends, possibly even more than Gladys liked her. Charissa loved to be the center of attention and tell everyone what to do—traits that made her pretty much Gladys’s opposite. But they had one important thing in common: They both loved good food, and could talk about it for hours on end. Gladys wasn’t sure yet that she could trust Charissa with her restaurant-reviewing secret, but if she was going to a fancy restaurant, she knew she wanted Charissa with her.
As the station wagon merged onto the highway, Sandy gawked at Charissa’s dress. Gladys couldn’t blame him; it gleamed like fluorescent strawberry juice, even in the low light of the car.
Charissa eyed Sandy coolly. “You know it’s rude to stare, right?”
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
Charissa pursed her brightly colored lips, and Gladys felt sure that she was about to chew him out. But instead she said, “That’s okay. You’re Gladys’s little friend—Sandy, right?” She shot him an indulgent smile. “I wouldn’t expect someone so much younger than the rest of us to know about proper manners.”
“I—what?” Sandy spluttered. “I’m only a year younger than you!”
“Yes,” Charissa continued, “but boys are less mature than girls to start. So an eleven-year-old boy is really the equivalent of, like, an eight-year-old girl. Don’t you think, Parm?”
“I’m staying out of this,” Parm said.
Gladys had to jump in. “Sandy’s very mature,” she assured Charissa. “Like an adult sometimes, really. You should see some of the computer games he’s designed!”
Sandy gave Gladys a small smile of thanks.
“Well, Gladys,” Charissa drawled, “it’s your birthday, and he’s your friend, so of course you’re right. I’ll say no more.”
And she didn’t. In fact, nobody did all the way into Manhattan—not even Gladys’s mom, though in her case it may have been due to nerves. Unlike Gladys’s dad, who took the train into Manhattan every day for work, her mom hardly ever ventured into New York City. She said that the tall buildings made her feel claustrophobic, and she worried about pickpockets. In fact, she had left her purse at home and insisted that Gladys’s dad take only his driver’s license and a single debit card on the birthday outing to help limit their losses in case of a violent holdup.
“This is completely unnecessary,” her dad had grumbled as he emptied his wallet onto the kitchen table. But he’d given in to avoid starting the night off with a fight.
As everyone lined up in the entryway to Fusión Tapas, Gladys hoped that her friends wouldn’t be fighting all night. She had a job to do, after all, and she was going to need them to work together to pull it off.
Sandy was standing closest to her, so she decided to check in with him first. “Which three tapas will you be ordering again?” she whispered.
“The calamari, the potato omelet, and whatever special number two is,” he whispered back. According to the restaurant’s website, it always served two specials in addition to the regular menu, so Gladys had planned to order one of them and have Sandy—her least finicky friend—order the other. “Don’t worry, Gatsby,” he assured her. “I’ve got this.”
She nodded; no matter what else happened, she knew she could rely on Sandy. Gladys turned to check in with Parm next, but found Charissa standing in her way.
“Gladys, do you know what you’re going to get?” she asked excitedly. “I’ve been studying the menu online all week! I have to get the smoked almonds; that’s a given.”
Gladys had assumed this—since she knew how much Charissa liked nuts—so it was already filled in on the ordering chart. And as for the other two slots next to Charissa’s name . . .
“How about the stuffed piquillo peppers,” Gladys suggested, “and maybe the goose kebabs?”
Charissa’s button nose wrinkled. “I don’t know,” she said. “Isn’t goose really greasy? I wouldn’t want to get stains on my dress.”
“Right,” Gladys said, doing some quick calculations in her head. Maybe she could order the goose and let Charissa have the griddled polenta cakes that were next to her own name on the chart. “Well, how about the—”
Just then, something slammed into Gladys’s shoulder—hard. It was Parm. “Stupid sandals,” she muttered. “I never trip in my cleats.”
“So, Parm,” Charissa said, tossing her ponytail over her shoulder, “what are you going to order? I thought you didn’t eat anything other than, like, plain spaghetti.”
Gladys felt Parm’s body stiffen and hoped her friend remembered the answer they had practiced in case this question came up. In truth, Parm was the pickiest eater Gladys knew; she ate a couple of things besides spaghetti, but not much, and certainly nothing that would be found on the menu of a Spanish restaurant.
“In honor of Gladys’s birthday, I’m going to be adventurous,” Parm recited. “I’m going to try some new dishes and hope to be pleasantly surprised.”
Gladys gave Parm’s pinkie a grateful squeeze. She felt confident now that Parm remembered her role, too: keep track of what everyone else orders, and then order whatever is left on the menu. Gladys knew Parm had no intention of putting even one morsel of tapas into her mouth, so it really didn’t matter what she ordered in the end.
“Gladys Jane?” the maître d’ called out. “Party of six?”
Gladys’s hand shot into the air. “That’s us!” Thankfully, her parents had allowed her to make the dinner reservations, and she’d been careful not to give the restaurant her last name, since she published her reviews under the byline “G. Gatsby.” But as the maître d’ swept them off to their table in the middle of the loud, mirror-paneled dining room, Gladys couldn’t help but worry. There were still so many moving parts to her plan.
Soon they were all seated at a round table covered with a funky turquoise tablecloth. Ice clinked in their skinny water glasses as they perused the menu, and the waiter came by a few minutes later to recite the specials. “We have some lovely steamed lobsterrr claws today, serrrved with frrresh dill-infused butterrr sauce.” He rolled his r’s so forcefully that, next to Gladys, Sandy giggled. “And, forrr a second special, we have the chef’s homemade rrrabbit sausage, gently charrred and serrrrved atop a stew of fava beans.”
Sandy stopped laughing, and Gladys immediately knew why. He had two pet rabbits at home, Edward and Dennis Hopper, and rabbit meat was possibly the only food on earth he wouldn’t eat.
“Arrre we rrready to orrrderrr?” the waiter asked. “I hearrr we have a birrrthday girrrl?” He turned to Gladys, his grin wide beneath a pencil-thin mustache.
Gladys froze. Should she stick with the original plan and order the lobster, special number one? Or should she order the rabbit special for herself and hope that Sandy got the hint and switched with her? But would Sandy ever talk to her again if she ate rabbit right in front of him?
“Um . . . I . . .” Gladys looked frantically around the table, but that only added to her confusion. What was Charissa going to decide on—the goose or the polenta? And what about her parents?
“Perrrhaps you need anotherrr minute,” the waiter trilled, and relief washed over Gladys as he backed away. It would be easier if she could place her order near the end.
“Well, I know what I’d like,” Gladys’s mother said, and the waiter turned eagerly back toward their table. “The beef-filled baguette—that’s like a hamburger, right? I’ll try that. And these olive-oil-crisped potato wedges—that sounds sort of like French fries. Oh, and the ham-wrapped roasted asparagus.” She shot Gladys a wink. Gladys was pretty sure her mom had never tasted asparagus until the day Gladys had practically forced her to try a sample at Mr. Eng’s Gourmet Grocery. But now that she knew she liked it, she ate it all the time. Good job, Mom, Gladys thought. Maybe we’ll try Brussels sprouts next.
“Everything my wife mentioned sounds good,” Gladys’s dad said, shutting his menu with a decisive clap! “I’ll have the same.”
“No!” The word flew out of Gladys’s mouth before she could stop herself. In an instant, all the heads at her table—and several tables around them—swung in her direction.
Fudge, she thought. Rule number one of restaurant reviewing was not to make a spectacle of yourself. Staying unnoticed and anonymous was the best way to avoid exposing your identity.
But now everyone was staring at her, so she had to say something. “Remember how we talked about this, Dad?” she said. “About how we were all going to order different stuff tonight? That way, we can share and all get to try more new things!”
“That was a nice idea, Gladdy,” her dad started, “but I’m afraid that there just aren’t many other things on this menu that appeal—”
“Excuse me.” Charissa was now rising from her seat. “If Gladys wants everyone to order different things, then that’s what we should do. A girl’s birthday is not the time to say no to her. Is it, Mr. Gatsby?” Charissa flashed her teeth at him in a way that seemed to be half smiling, half threatening to eat him alive.
Gladys’s dad’s eyes widened, and for a second, it looked like he might tell Charissa that he could say no to his daughter anytime he darn well chose. But then his hands betrayed him by slipping the menu back open across his plate.
“Well, I . . . I guess I could try the fried eggplant . . . and, um, the chorizo sausage . . . and the gazpacho. Please,” he added meekly.
Charissa retook her seat, and Sandy leaned over toward Gladys’s ear. “Okay,” he whispered. “I guess I can see why you brought her.”
Things got a little easier after that. Sandy placed his order, substituting the lobster special for the rabbit, and gave Gladys a look that made it clear that her ordering rabbit would not be okay with him. Charissa picked the polenta over the goose, so Gladys got the goose, the octopus, and the sliced pork loin. That meant that when Parm’s turn came, there were only two items left on the regular menu that hadn’t been mentioned yet. She dutifully ordered them from the waiter, then glanced over toward Gladys. “Should I get that other special, too?”
“No, that’s okay,” Gladys said—she would just have to leave the rabbit out of her review. She turned to the waiter again and said, “But would it be possible to get a small bowl of plain pasta for my friend, too? No sauce or anything—in fact, the clumpier the better.”
The waiter said he would see what he could do, and Parm beamed. Maybeit won’t be such a bad dinner after all, Gladys thought.
THE TAPAS BEGAN TO APPEAR WITHIN A few minutes: first, bowls of olives and smoked almonds, then more and more of the cooked dishes. Shifting her journal quietly out of her pocket and into her lap, Gladys unfolded the second chart Sandy had made her: one that listed every dish on the menu with a blank space for comments. Each time she tried a bite of something—creamy eggplant, salty potatoes, crunchy octopus legs—she made a quick note in her lap, thankful that her parents and Charissa were all on the other side of the table and couldn’t see what she was doing.
“So, what are everyone’s plans for the summer?” Gladys’s dad asked.
Charissa, not surprisingly, piped up first. “Camp Bentley, of course,” she said. “My parents say it’s going to be our best summer yet!” Charissa’s parents owned the local day camp, and most of Gladys’s classmates went there every summer. “This year, we’re even getting a celebrity camper,” she continued.
“A celebrity?” Gladys’s mom exclaimed. “How exciting! Who is it?”
“Oh, I’m not allowed to tell,” Charissa said. “Really, I shouldn’t have even mentioned it.” She giggled, and Parm rolled her eyes.
Gladys’s mom looked a little disappointed, but she turned to Sandy next. “And what about you, Sandy?” she asked. “I think your mother mentioned you’re going to camp as well?”
Sandy, who was busy trying to pick up an olive with a lobster claw, didn’t respond, and Gladys had to nudge him under the table with the edge of her sandal.
“Huh?” He looked up, and the olive once again rolled out of his claw’s grasp. “Oh, um, yeah—Mom’s shipping me off to karate camp.”
“Shipping you off?” Gladys’s dad frowned. “That doesn’t seem like a very nice way to put it. Sleepaway camp isn’t exactly cheap.”
“Yeah, I know,” Sandy said. “I’m just not sure this place is gonna be worth it. My mom’s been talking to the head of the camp, and I think he may be a little . . .” Sandy twirled his lobster claw around next to his ear. “But I guess you’d have to be crazy to want to run a summer camp, huh?”
Charissa’s expression turned absolutely murderous.
“And how about you, Parm?” Gladys’s mom asked quickly. “Any exciting summer plans?”
“Just a trip to Arizona to visit my cousins,” Parm said. “Though I’m not sure how long we’ll stay there.” She flicked her long braid over her shoulder and stabbed a clump of noodles with her fork. “I suppose it’ll depend on how much weight I lose.”
This was clearly not the response Gladys’s parents had expected, and even Sandy and Charissa stared at Parm now in confusion. Sandy, though, was the only one brave enough to blurt out what the others were thinking. “But you don’t need to lose any weight,” he said.
Across the table, Charissa nodded. “He’s right,” she said, “and I should know. My mom always has me trying some stupid diet or another.”
An exasperated noise escaped Parm’s lips. “Of course I won’t be trying to lose weight,” she said. “It just tends to happen when my family travels. I don’t enjoy the spicy flavors of Southwestern food.”
Gladys sighed. She’d been working on Parm for weeks, pointing out some of the tamer regional specialties (fresh corn tortillas! cactus-flower honey!) that she could try in Arizona. But her campaign hadn’t been successful. Parm only lamented that she and Gladys didn’t look alike; otherwise, they could have pulled off a Parent Trap–style switcheroo, sending Gladys off to Arizona to eat in Parm’s place.
But Gladys would be spending the summer at home in East Dumpsford like she did every year—and that was okay with her. Three months had passed since she’d paid off the damages from the crème brûlée–triggered fire she’d accidentally started at Christmas, so she’d had her kitchen privileges restored for a while. But between school, writing her first restaurant review, and planning the second, she’d hardly had time to cook anything lately. Now that school was out, she was looking forward to a long summer of trying new recipes, broken up only by bike rides to Mr. Eng’s for more ingredients or the library for more cookbooks.
“You are a wrrriterrr?”
Gladys slapped her journal shut in her lap, but it was too late. The waiter, who was reaching over her shoulder, had seen it.
Gladys looked around the table, but her parents and Charissa were deeply absorbed in a conversation about Camp Bentley and apparently hadn’t heard him.
“Oh, yeah,” she said, thinking fast. “I want to be a poet when I grow up.”
The waiter’s lips curved into a weary smile. “Ah, so do I, mi niña.”
He strode away with the dishes, and Gladys exhaled. That had been close—too close. It would be better if she could go somewhere more private to finish taking her notes, where she could write even more without worrying about anyone noticing.
“I need to go to the ladies’ room,” she announced, pushing back her chair.
A minute later, she was locked safely in a stall. Leaning against the wall, she took her notebook out again, turned to a clean page, and began writing the full sentences her brain had been craving to get down all through dinner.
While, at first bite, the potatoes may seem too crispy to some diners, once they’re dunked in Fusión’s homemade garlic aioli, the texture hits just the right note. And those who prefer their root vegetables in a creamier form will want to order the golden beet puree, which comes whipped into a mountain that is almost too perfectly sculpted to eat.
Less attractively presented, however, are the oily goose kebabs. These morsels might look more tempting if served on a bed of greens rather than directly on the plate, where their grease pools unappetizingly . . .
Gladys had filled nearly a page with her observations when the door to the bathroom creaked open and voices spilled into the room.
“Chef’s in a real tizzy,” one voice said. “He’s sure the Standard’s going to send a critic this month, and he doesn’t think it’s going to be that Gilbert Gadfly, either. Apparently, Gadfly’s getting very picky about what restaurants he’ll try these days. So Chef thinks they may send that new critic, Gatsby.”
Gladys’s pencil froze in the middle of a word.
“Okay,” the second voice said. “So what do we know about Gatsby?”
“Almost nothing,” said the first voice. “That’s the problem!”
Gladys peeked through the crack in the stall’s door. Two women in the restaurant’s black-and-gold waitress uniforms stood fixing their hair in the mirrors over the sinks.
The owner of the first voice, whose blond hair was pulled back in a tight bun, continued. “For starters, we don’t even know if it’s a man or a woman. ‘G. Gatsby’ is what the byline said on the Classy Cakes review.”
“At least it was a good review,” said the second waitress, who was patting her thick, dark curls.
“Yeah, well, that hasn’t put the chef at ease. He’s been fussing so much over every plate that it’s a wonder I can get anything out of the kitchen while it’s still hot.” The blond waitress pushed a loose tendril of hair behind her ear, then turned on the tap.
The dark-haired waitress groaned. “If he keeps that up, we’ll start losing tips. People don’t like cold food!”
“Well, it might be worth the loss in tips if you can ID the critic. Chef’s posted a sign on the board: a thousand dollars to anyone who can find ‘G. Gatsby.’”
Gladys’s breath caught in her throat.
“A thousand dollars?” the dark-haired waitress squeaked. “But . . . what if you ID them at the end of the meal? Then it’ll be too late for Chef to serve them something special!”
“True,” said the blond waitress, “but it won’t be too late for him to sell a description to other chefs around town. Apparently, some will pay plenty more than a grand for that kind of info.”
Gladys could hardly believe it. She’d only published one review in the Standard so far, and already there was a bounty on her head?
The blond waitress continued as she pulled a paper towel off the stack on the sink. “We’re pretty much out of luck, though, unless this Gatsby charges the meal on his or her own card.”
Her friend sighed. “No critic for the Standard would be stupid enough to do that.”
The bathroom door creaked again as the two waitresses exited . . . and the moment it clicked behind them, Gladys shot out of her stall. She didn’t have a card, of course, but her dad did—a shiny plastic Super Dump-Mart rewards debit card with the name GATSBY plastered across it in raised letters! If their waiter was already on the lookout for a Gatsby, then that card might lead him to wonder whether the critic might be sitting at their table. And he had even seen her writing in her notebook!
Gladys burst out of the bathroom and set off across the dining room at a brisk pace. When she spotted her table, she was momentarily distracted by the sight of a burning candle sticking out of a small dish of flan—the waiter must have brought her a birthday dessert. But when she looked at her father, her fears were confirmed. The waiter had also brought the check, and her dad was examining it . . . reaching into his pocket . . . pulling out his debit card . . .
Gladys broke into a run, but before she could reach her table, a busboy cut in front of her carrying a full pitcher of ice water. She couldn’t have stopped what happened next if she'd tried.
Time seemed to slow down as she barreled into him, sending the pitcher flying in an almost-perfect arc. An arc that landed right on her table, showering it with water and ice cubes and snuffing out Gladys’s birthday candle.
“EEEE-YAH!” her dad shrieked, shoving his chair back and leaping to his feet. The water poured onto the floor like a waterfall, and her dad’s shocked fingers released their grip on the debit card.
“Oh, sir, I’m sorry—I’m so sorry!” the busboy cried. “I’ll go get some towels from the kitchen.” He hurried away, leaving the path between Gladys and the table clear.
Her friends—and much of the restaurant—were gaping at her, but for once Gladys didn’t care. The “Don’t make a spectacle of yourself” rule of restaurant reviewing had just gone out the window, having been replaced by a more important rule: “Don’t let the servers see a debit card with your name on it!”
Still, she hadn’t meant to turn her own father into a casualty. “Dad, are you okay?” she asked. “I’m sorry—that busboy just showed up out of nowhere!”
“It’s all right, Gladdy,” her dad said, gently swatting his wife away as she attempted to wring out his tie. “It’s just water.”
“That’s a great attitude!” Gladys said brightly, sidling up close to the table. In one deft motion, she swept the fallen debit card off the tablecloth and onto the floor. “I’ll help him clean up when he gets back with the towels. Oh, look, here he is.”
The busboy had raced back with a pile of paper towels, and as he got to work mopping up the table, Gladys grabbed a towel and dropped down to work on the puddle on the floor.
Or so she made it seem. The moment she ducked under the table, she grabbed the debit card. But then a thought struck her. Her mother had specifically insisted that they not bring any cash into the city. If her dad couldn’t use his card, then how were they going to pay for the meal? She needed a new plan.
Gladys crawled out from under the table and rose back to her feet. “There’s still a lot of water down there,” she said. “I’ll go get some more towels from the bathroom.” Then, before her parents could protest, Gladys took off across the dining room again.
She didn’t head for the bathroom, though; she went straight for the cash machine she had spotted earlier in the restaurant’s foyer. Shoving the debit card into the slot, Gladys thanked her lucky star fruits for all the times her parents had let her push the buttons at the East Dumpsford Credit Union ATM. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have known the PIN or been able to operate the machine so quickly. But as it was, it only took a few seconds for her to withdraw three hundred dollars from her parents’ bank account.
Gladys’s mind raced as she stopped in the ladies’ room to throw the receipt away and grab some extra towels. She had the money now, but how could she use it to pay the bill? Her parents knew she didn’t have that kind of cash lying around.
“Let me prrrint you a new check,” the waiter was saying when Gladys returned to her group. He peeled the sodden one up off the table in front of Gladys’s dad. “With a bit of a discount for yourrr trrroubles.”
“Why, thank you,” Gladys’s dad said. “How thoughtful.”
“Sandy,” Gladys said loudly once the waiter had wheeled away, “could you help me finish drying up, please?”
Sandy barely had time to say “Uh . . . okay” before Gladys had grabbed his arm and pulled him down to the floor.
“Dude,” he said as she shoved him under the table, “it doesn’t even really feel wet any—”
Gladys reached into her pocket, retrieved the wad of cash, and thrust it at Sandy.
His eyes grew wide. “Gatsby,” he whispered. “What the heck is going on?”
“I need you to volunteer to pay for dinner,” she said. “I’ll explain later!”
When they crawled out from under the table, the waiter was just arriving with the new bill. As Gladys expected, her father couldn’t find his debit card—and, as she predicted, this upset him.
“It was right here!” he insisted, pawing at the damp tablecloth. He crouched down to look under the table, but of course, it wasn’t there, either.
“Thieves, George,” Gladys’s mom whimpered. “I knew this would happen if we came to New York City!” Her breathing was growing shallow. “How on earth will we pay the bill?”
Gladys nudged Sandy.
“Uh, hey, Mr. Gatsby,” Sandy said. “Just let me pay for dinner. You know, as an extra birthday present for Gladys.” He held the bundle of cash out to Gladys’s dad, who stared down at it in disbelief.
“Good gracious!” Gladys’s mother exclaimed, still sounding fairly hysterical. “Sandy Anderson, why do you have that kind of money with you?”
Gladys quickly realized her mistake. She should have slipped the money to Charissa, who everyone at the table knew was rich, or at least to Parm, whose family Gladys’s parents didn’t know very well. But they knew that Mrs. Anderson was a single mother who worked two jobs to support herself and Sandy. Of course it was suspicious for him to offer to pay.
But Sandy didn’t miss a beat. “My grandparents,” he said with a shrug. “They’re always giving me money. They actually pay for my private school, too.”
Gladys could have kissed him. Her mom, meanwhile, blinked rapidly, and her dad harrumphed. “Well,” he said, “I guess it’s this or wash dishes all night. Thanks, Sandy—I’ll pay you back as soon as the bank sends me a new card.”
Gladys, trying not to grin too hard, shoved a bite of birthday flan into her mouth. (A bit watery, she thought, though that isn’t exactly the chef’s fault.) Then she offered it around to her friends. Parm passed; Sandy cried, “It’s alive!” and jiggled his forkful around for at least thirty seconds before eating it; and Charissa scarfed down far more than her fair portion before their change arrived.
Happy birthday to me, Gladys thought as they all left the restaurant. Her secret identity was intact, and her notebook was full of notes for her next review; she couldn’t have asked for better birthday gifts. And as she climbed into the family station wagon, she made a mental note to give her parents a present, too: her dad’s stolen debit card, returned to his wallet that night after he had gone to sleep.
Excerpted from "The Stars of Summer"
Copyright © 2016 Tara Dairman.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Young Readers Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.