Finally—finally!—all of Parker Nelson’s dreams were coming true.
The 102 on today’s math test hadn’t been a surprise, but getting paired up with the Cassandra DiVecchio for the big Language Arts project and then invited to her house to work on it? That was a huge score. Parker didn’t need any help with the project—she was the biggest poetry nerd in her class and already had ideas—but she had been trying to break into the popular clique since kindergarten.
Okay, maybe that was an understatement.
Parker had been trying to break into any friend group ever since people started declaring their besties and inviting each other to slumber parties. She’d lived in the same house in the same town her entire life, gone to the same schools with the same kids, and yet it felt as if all of the friend groups had been established without her knowledge, as if there were no seats left in the musical chairs of friendship.
Sure, she could get a little braggy about her grades and had been told by several adults that she had a tendency to talk too much, too fast, mostly about herself, and not really give other kids a chance to say anything. And, yes, she was proud to be a teacher’s pet and loved to spout weird facts whenever she could. But she thought she was, in general, a good person who would make a great friend, and she was trying harder to fit in. So far, she hadn’t been able to crack the code, but she’d really been studying Cassandra and her crew and was starting to see where she’d been going wrong. After a trip to the outlet mall for new sneakers and her first attempt at eyeliner after multiple YouTube tutorials, Parker felt as ready as she’d ever be.
Her mom watched anxiously from the car as Parker hitched her backpack up on her shoulder—the cool kids never wore both straps—and walked up the curved stone sidewalk to Cassandra’s house, or maybe mansion would be a better word. The house was so tall and white that it was almost blinding, and Parker wondered what it would be like to pack up everything she owned and pull up to a house like this, as Cassandra must have last year when she moved here from Tennessee and was immediately absorbed into KJ Worthington’s highly selective lunch table, forming a trio along with KJ’s second-in-command, Olivia Blanchard.
Giddy, her stomach full of butterflies, Parker rang the doorbell and glanced back at her mom, motioning for her to leave. Her mom gave her a thumbs-up, pointed at her cell phone, waved, and backed out of the driveway right as the big stained-glass door opened to reveal the third most popular girl in seventh grade.
Cassandra stood there looking a little uncertain, which was unusual for her. She had long, straight black hair and honey-gold eyes, and everything about her was pretty much perfect. Her style was careless—a big sweatshirt and ragged jean shorts, like everybody wore—but somehow, on her, it looked effortless and cool.
“Oh,” Cassandra said, looking Parker up and down. “You look cute.”
The hour Parker had spent with the straightening iron and her mom’s makeup drawer must’ve worked, to get a compliment like that. She was smiling so hard that her face hurt. Her sweatshirt was almost exactly the same as the one Cassandra wore, which had to be a sign. “Thanks! I love your house.”
“Come on in. You can leave your shoes here. My room’s upstairs.”
Cassandra’s house was decorated like something from a magazine or a movie, like someone had professionally tossed blankets around and karate-chopped pillows right before Parker walked in. She left her shoes at the door and followed Cassandra’s swinging ponytail, glad that she could ogle the house as much as she wanted behind Cassandra’s back. On the way up the perfectly white stairs, she longed to pause and study all the framed black-and-white pics of Cassandra and her older sister, starting from when they were super tiny. It was a big surprise, learning that even Cassandra DiVecchio had had an awkward phase that involved chipmunk cheeks, braces, glasses, and horrible bangs.
When they reached Cassandra’s room, Parker was again in awe. It was like the dressing room of a really fancy store, right down to the pink couch with furry white pillows. Parker tossed down her backpack and flopped onto the couch, grinning.
“So I was thinking we could do iambic pentameter,” she started. “Like one of Shakespeare’s poems, but—”
“Yeah, sure,” Cassandra agreed, eyes glued to her phone. “But, hey. I forgot—my mom ordered this gourmet ice cream. Want to go downstairs and get some?”
Parker’s jaw nearly dropped. Gourmet ice cream at Cassandra DiVecchio’s house? She wanted to pinch herself but knew that sort of thing just made girls like Cassandra roll their eyes.
“Sure!” she said, hopping up off the couch. “Ice cream is always good. I had gelato once, and that was good, too, but it came with this really tiny spoon, which was weird. And there were no chunks. So I probably like ice cream better, because human beings are wired to enjoy digging up chunks. It’s this anthropology thing—”
“Oh, totally. Come on.” Cassandra smiled and nodded, but she seemed almost . . . nervous. Not like Parker’s brand of loud, nervous energy—where she talked too much, too fast, and said weird things and made a fool of herself—but as if she was afraid of making someone mad. Maybe Cassandra’s parents were really strict. Maybe her mom didn’t want anyone to eat her gourmet ice cream. Parker hadn’t heard a single sound in the huge house, but then again, the carpet was so thick it was like walking in snow.
Cassandra led her back downstairs and to the kitchen, where she pulled several pints of ice cream out of a huge freezer. Parker tried not to babble at her while they made sundaes in glass dishes, adding whipped cream and maraschino cherries.
“I didn’t know you could just buy these at the store,” Parker said, contemplating how many of the cherries she could reasonably dig out of the jar with her fork before it got weird.
“You can buy anything if you know where to get it.” Cassandra hadn’t taken as much ice cream, but then again, she could help herself any time she wanted while Parker might never have a chance like this again. “I have this weird uncle in Florida who once bought an eight-foot-long stuffed alligator.”
“Like, a stuffed animal or an animal that’s been stuffed? I mean, soft and fluffy or scaly and hard?”
“Big difference, right?” Cassandra laughed. “Scaly and hard. He still has his teeth. His name is Gerald.” Before Parker could ask, she added, “The alligator is Gerald. My uncle is Robert.”
“Also a big difference. Hopefully Robert also still has teeth, too.”
When they laughed together, Parker had the realization that this might be the best moment of her life: laughing over weird facts with Cassandra DiVecchio while eating gourmet ice cream. Surely this project would make Cassandra see what a cool person Parker was, and maybe she’d get a coveted invite to the lunch table she shared with KJ and Olivia, and—
There was a thump from overhead, and Cassandra’s eyes darted to the stairs before she turned back to Parker with a grin. “My dad was the chef of this really big hotel, and once a movie star ordered an ostrich egg, and they had to go find one at, like, midnight. And then he had to make the world’s biggest omelet.”
“Did he taste it? Because I read somewhere that ostrich eggs taste about the same as chicken eggs, although it depends on what they eat, because sometimes ostriches eat chicken feed and sometimes they eat bugs and lizards.”
“Oh, he totally tasted it. Good chefs don’t send out anything without tasting it. He said it tasted about the same, but they made him put salsa and all these veggies in it, so it kind of blurred the taste. What’s the point, right? Just use twenty-four normal eggs if you’re going to drench it in hot sauce.”
“I always wondered what weird eggs tasted like.”
Cassandra swirled her ice cream together. “I’ve had duck and quail. Duck eggs are very rich, and quail eggs are really teeny. We had them raw on sushi.”
“You shouldn’t eat raw eggs—” Parker started.
“Because salmonella, right? But most people who get sick from cookie dough actually get sick from the flour.”
Parker was really getting excited, talking to Cassandra. They seemed to find the same sorts of things interesting. “I know! My dad and I play tons of trivia games, and that was one of the questions. Wait, how did you know that?”
“Like I said—my dad’s a chef. And I watch Jeopardy! with my oma sometimes.”
Parker took another bite of her sundae, wondering what made gourmet ice cream different from regular ice cream. Cassandra just nibbled at hers and definitely didn’t eat with Parker’s enthusiasm. She’d seemed really in tune with the conversation, but now she was acting distracted. When her phone buzzed in her back pocket, she startled and dropped her spoon, checking her text with a frown before cleaning up the mess.
“Everything okay?” Parker asked, because something was definitely wrong.
“Yeah, it’s fine.” Cassandra shook her head at the phone and put it in her pocket, where it continued to buzz. She poked at her ice cream, just moving it around listlessly until it was grayish soup.
“If, um, something’s bothering you, uh, you can tell me if you want. I’m really good at keeping secrets,” Parker said, well aware that this was only an assumption, as no one had ever told her a secret before.
Cassandra snorted and dumped her ice cream into the sink, running the faucet over it until it had disintegrated, which seemed like a waste of perfectly good ice cream. “No, it’s fine. I mean, whatever.”
Things became super awkward as Parker ate ice cream by herself in front of one of the most popular girls in school. It was as if a wall had come down and Cassandra was no longer paying any attention to her. She must’ve messed up somehow, as she always did. She ate faster, knowing full well she’d get an ice cream headache, and ended up dribbling a huge glop of chocolate sauce down the front of her new sweatshirt. Utterly dismayed, she scrounged up her cherries and put the empty dish in the sink, running water into it until it was mostly clean.
“Okay,” she said, “so are you ready to get down to business? If you don’t like Shakespeare, we could do Emily Dickinson. She’s one of my favorites.” When Cassandra grimaced, Parker added, “I mean, it’s okay. Like, for poetry.”
Parker was actually really, really into poetry, but she was pretty certain that Cassandra was not. Parker usually ended up pulling the full weight in group projects, but this time she didn’t mind. Maybe if Cassandra got to know her, she’d see that Parker was cool in her own way.
“I kind of like Poe,” Cassandra said, soft and a little hopeful. “Like, ‘The Raven’?”
“Yeah, that could work!” Ideas swirled through Parker’s mind like a cloud of black birds around a tower as she imagined the ways they could combine poetry, art, and maybe a skit? The poetry project was for a big grade, and while she knew she’d have an A in the class, she loved any excuse to show off.
Parker bolted for the stairs, fingers twitching for her journal and pen.
“Where are you going?” Cassandra asked, hurrying behind her.
“To get my stuff.” Parker pounded up the stairs, excited about the directions this project could go. “We could make a papier-mâché raven, maybe a bust of Athena. I’ve got a big piece of cardboard that could be a door—”
“We could wear togas!” Parker called back to her, humming with possibilities. “Like, we could be statues. We could be statues of Athena! Pallid busts of Pallas!”
The door to Cassandra’s room was closed, which was weird, as it had been open when they left, but Parker assumed other people lived in the house, or maybe they had one of those cats that could open and close doors.
Parker did not stop. She couldn’t. She threw open the door and—
The whole world froze, one gigantic pause button.
KJ and Olivia were there, using their phones to take pictures of—
Oh, please no.
It was on the floor, open to a poem she’d written, one she never wanted anyone to see.
The contents of her backpack were strewn around, but of course they’d gone for the most personal thing, the thing Parker had never actually shown to another living person. She wanted to throw up, ice cream creeping up her throat. She wanted to punch the wall. She wanted to sink into the soft white carpet.
KJ Worthington looked up at her, blue eyes sparkling, perfect red hair dangling over Parker’s most private and personal thoughts. “Oh, Parker, hi,” she cooed, like they were just passing in a hallway. “Your poetry is soooooo good.”
Olivia flicked through her phone and stood, mockingly reciting words that made Parker see red: “I’m Nobody! Not like you. / You’re so cool you forget other people exist, too. / There’s more of us than there are of you. / I’m telling you this because it’s true.”
KJ and Olivia howled with laughter, and KJ waved her phone where Parker could see it open to a social media site that her mother wouldn’t let her use. “It’s already got five hundred likes, and it’s only been up for two minutes!” KJ screeched.
Parker turned to glare at Cassandra, who stood behind her on the stairs, her arms crossed as if she was trying to disappear.
“You did this on purpose,” Parker said, the words rushing out. She felt sick.
Cassandra angrily waved at her room. “C’mon, Parker. Why would you just carry something like that with you where anyone could find it?”
“That’s like asking someone who just got burglarized why they just have a house out in the open,” Parker shot back.
KJ was taking more pics of the journal—of some original characters Parker had designed—so Parker lunged into the room and snatched the book from her hand. KJ and Olivia laughed as Parker stuffed it into her backpack, then awkwardly rammed all her other books and binders on top, wrinkling up everything and probably ruining all sorts of important work.
“Give me the phone,” she said, shoving her open hand in KJ’s face.
“Uh, no thanks.” Instead, KJ used her phone to take a pic of Parker that had to be unflattering.
“Then delete the pictures.”
Olivia crossed her arms. “Or what?”
There was no “or what.” Short of attacking them, there wasn’t anything Parker could do, and they all knew it.
“Did you guys plan this?” Parker asked, looking from KJ to Olivia to Cassandra. “Did you just . . . wake up today and decide to ruin my life?”
“Oh, you do that perfectly well on your own,” KJ said with an eye roll.
“Cassandra said you were coming over, and we wanted to have some fun,” Olivia added with an annoying little shrug, as if that made it okay.
Cassandra said nothing, just stared straight ahead, face red and arms crossed.
“Thanks for the ice cream,” Parker snapped, pushing past Cassandra and running down the stairs.
“But what about your group project?” KJ called with the faux sweetness for which she was known. “Aren’t you going to overdo it as usual and have, like, dancing poodles and fireworks?”
“Just because you do the bare minimum and get Cs doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with caring, you ignoramus!” Parker shouted back. “Not that you even know what that word means!”
The only response was laughter.
Parker had trouble getting the front door unlocked but no trouble slamming it. Outside, she marched to a bench by the driveway and slumped beside her lumpy backpack as she texted her mom, asking for an immediate pickup.
Parker had thought all her dreams were coming true, but really, it was just the beginning of a nightmare.
Copyright © 2022 by Delilah S. Dawson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.