"So you really think your dad's going to buy you a car for your birthday?" Mallory asked, and when I nodded, she sighed and rolled onto her back. "You're so lucky."
That was pure Mallory, that hint of hero worship. Each summer, I expected it to be gone, and each summer, Mallory came home from boarding school, an awkward girl becoming a teenager comfortable with herself, but still the adoration remained.
It was subtler, just a look in her eyes or an eager grin only partially hidden, but still there.
If I was really honest with myself, I loved to see it. There was something about someone thinking I was the most awesome person in the world which made me feel all warm and fuzzy.
I rearranged myself on my bed and looked down at her. She was grinning, and her eyes were squeezed shut behind her glasses. I liked that she still wore them most of the time instead of her contacts. These were different frames, thin and square and black. They fit her face well, and revealed her scholarly side.
She was growing up well. When she was eleven, we always promised her she would be gorgeous someday. Maybe she still would, but I didn't think she was ever going to be classically beautiful.
I hoped she no longer thought of herself as an ugly duckling. She was pretty because her personality was so vibrant, and she was dressing better -- at least in part under my influence, I'll have you know. She was quirky and cute, and she had truly gorgeous curly hair. She had grown it out some, and the color had settled into a dark red which almost looked fake.
(I was pretty sure it wasn't, that puberty had kicked in to change the color, but I didn't know for sure.)
She opened her eyes and they were penny bright as she grinned at me.
"What kind of car did you tell him you wanted?"
I shrugged. "Something sporty and fast," I said, and then laughed, "and shiny."
"Red, I think. It will show off my black outfits better. Black leather interior, though. I bet he and Sam will get me a Mustang. I'd like a Beemer, but Mom would flip."
"Oh!" Mallory sat up. "What time are we supposed to be at the boutique?"
"Shit." I twisted around to look at my alarm clock, and my shirt tightened. It was hot enough I was only wearing a tank top and shorts, and the straps pulled dangerously when I moved too much. "Oh, we've got plenty of time."
I frowned at her for getting me worked up. She bit her lower lip and looked away fast.
I slid off the bed. We had time, but I wasn't leaving the house looking so sloppy. I wouldn't have let just anyone see me before I was dressed, but Mallory had shown up right after breakfast and she was over so often in the summer I had grown used to not looking perfect around her.
"Hi Ms. Spencer."
"Maureen, Mallory." Mom smiled at her. "You can call me Maureen."
"I know." She rubbed the tip of her nose. "Habits are hard to break. Stacey still calls my mom Mrs. Pike."
"That's not true, I call her Dee."
"Half the time, at least."
"One out of three."
Mallory grinned at me, and I smiled back. It was impossible not to. I liked that she was confident enough to tease back. There was nothing more boring than a yes woman who agreed with everything you said.
"Look, who's the math genius here?"
"That's right, I forgot. Let me bow to your mathematic and sartorial mastery."
"If you kids are quite done, I have new clothes that need to be put out and Claudia dropped off another set of jewelry."
Oh, Claudia. I fought the urge to roll my eyes. Mom thought Claudia was one of the most talented jewelry makers in Stoneybrook. She was probably right; it was a small town after all.
She was just so out of it sometimes. Back when we graduated from eighth grade, she knew she had to pass science in summer school in order to, you know, actually graduate. Except she totally didn't put in the time or effort and so she got held back. Again. At least this time she knew people already.
I just don't understand her anymore. After that, when Kristy and Mary Anne and Abby and I all went off to high school, and Mallory went back to boarding school, and Jessi started taking special classes so she could spend all day dancing -- well, Claudia was left all alone at SMS and she just gave up.
She did graduate the next summer, but they never gave her another chance to catch up to us and nothing has been the same since she was left behind.
We still talk, once in awhile. I'm nice to her because she was a good friend to me once, and she's an important part of Mom's business, and because, really, she's a nice person. We just don't have much in common. Maybe we never did, except baby-sitting and a love for fashion.
That might have been enough back in middle school, but it's not anymore.
Mallory went to arrange the jewelry in the display cases Mom saves for Claudia, and I went to check out the clothes. Mom always had good taste. She says I get my fashion sense from her. She's probably right, but I'm not going to admit it.
I love back to school shopping. The colors are just more vibrant in the fall, and the fabrics are lush. Everything is made to layer, and pointy-toe boots look fantastic with everything from tight jeans to tailored trousers to little skirts.
The entire shipment was juniors back to school. There were sleek leather coats and button down shirts with funky patterns and t-shirts with shiny logos and so much more. I could spend hours looking at clothes -- days combing separate pieces into full outfits.
I lost most of the afternoon to doing just that, but by the time I was done, the fall display looked perfect. It needed signs, and a clever title, but someone else would come up with that. Mallory, maybe, even though she was less into clever titles and more into analyzing the presentation of women in the comic books her brothers read. That and writing children's books about talking animals which are very cute and sometimes witty, but not exactly advertisements.
Mom will figure out something. Right now, Mal and I have to go get ready for tonight's party, and that's going to take awhile. I just know she'd look great in tight jeans and a simple tank top -- she hasn't realized just how much she's grown, hips and breasts and all. She'll fight me for awhile, but she'll give in.
I always win.
"And who is this pretty thing?"
I really did roll my eyes. "Pete, you're drunk, as usual. Go away." His breath stank of smoke, and his eyes were glassy. There was a weird red mark on his cheek.
"Well, if you ever got to a party on time, you'd see me sober."
"All this," I gestured to my perfect hair, perfect make-up, perfect outfit, "takes time. You can't rush genius."
He slung one arm across my shoulder, and then did the same to Mallory with his other arm. "Beauty is worth waiting for." He wobbled a little, but squeezed us both in half hugs. I didn't think he was as drunk as he was acting; it was easy to drink a beer and pretend to be 'so wasted' and not have to take responsibility for any actions.
High schoolers were kind of stupid sometimes.
I shrugged him off and grabbed Mallory's hand. "We do look beautiful, I know." We exchanged bright smiles, and I led her away. "Don't get into too much trouble." I flashed him a grin over my shoulder, and he winked at me.
"How can I when you won't keep me company?"
"I'm sure you'll find someone to fill the void."
Mallory laughed a little once we were out of ear shot. "Boys are weird."
"Just as bad as gym, huh?" I nudged her with my elbow. "You still hate both?"
"I don't know." She bumped her shoulder against mine. "Gym isn't so bad I guess."
"Oh yeah? What about boys?"
"Boys are dumb."
"I thought they were weird."
"Can't they be both?"
I thought about that for a second. She had a good point. "Sure, why not."
The living room was full of people and food. All the alcohol was set up in the kitchen, which meant that's where my friends would be. Sure enough, Emily and Mary Anne were standing in the corner, each holding a half-empty wine cooler. They were talking pretty seriously, though, which was unusual for so early in the party. Usually the drama didn't show up until closer to midnight.
I angled my way over to them. "What's up?" I asked. Mallory stopped by the fridge to grab us a couple sodas -- diet for me -- and then joined us. She wasn't as close to Em and Mary Anne as I was, but we were all friends. They'd talk in front of her. She didn't spread gossip.
Of course, part of that was probably because she spent three quarters of the year living with people who had no clue who the hell we were, but I preferred to think she was loyal.
"Yeah, I know, already got the drunk Pete grope." I tapped the top of my soda can and then cracked it open and took a drink.
Emily's face fell. Oh, crap. She was drunk enough to be maudlin about him. I hated when she got like that. She picked at the label on her bottle; a sliver came up under her fingernail, and she began to pull it off the glass.
"So did we," Mary Anne explained. She gestured at Emily with her bottle. "He tried to kiss Ems."
God, not again. They were even worse than Mary Anne had been a couple years ago, when she and Logan were on again, off again all the freaking time.
"Did she let him?"
"No! She pushed him away and he called her a frigid tease and then she decked him."
"Good for her!"
"I know, right?" Mary Anne took a drink, made a face, and set it down. "I don't know how she drinks these things, they're way too sweet. Anyway, it was all well and good, rock on Emily, and we flounced off to the alcohol, and then she got all depressed and teary and I swear, if she tells me one more time how good he kisses, I'm gonna throw up."
"Hey!" Emily swatted at her. She had finished her drink, and ripped the entire label off in one slightly mangled piece. She put it on the counter and grabbed the one Mary Anne had abandoned. "I'm standing right here. Stop talking about me as if I'm deaf."
"We're not," I said, "we're talking about you as if you're crazy, because you have to be to still be hung up over Pete."
"He's your ex too!" she grumbled.
"Yeah, and do you see me all broken up over him? No, you do not, because I am not crazy."
"I'm not either!"
"I know." I patted her on the arm. "You're just upset. Over an idiot."
"All boys are idiots," Mallory said. "He's probably not worth it."
"He's not," Emily agreed, but then wailed, "so why can't I forget about him?"
"Because males are the bane of our existence."
"That sounds like lesbian boarding school talk," Mary Anne said. "You know, the way all the guys assume you're sleeping with your roommate or whatever."
Mal shrugged. "Maybe. Doesn't change the fact boys are bad news and break your hearts."
Emily started crying at that, and Mary Anne turned to comfort her. It was definitely time to cut Ems off from the alcohol. She never drank much unless she was reeling from a break up. This thing with Pete had been going on for months, though, and she showed no sign of getting over it.
I was distracted. With anyone else, I would assume they didn't realize the multiple layers to what they'd just said, but Mallory loved words, and understood them, and chose them with care.
I glanced sideways at her, and found her watching me. She sipped her soda, and then smiled a little before she leaned over to pat Emily's shoulder.
"Want to spend the night?" I asked Mal when we got back to my place. The house was dark, Mom was still out on her date, I guess. Good for her. The party had broken up early, which was probably good since the drama kicked in early, too.
"Yes, please." She sounded truly grateful. "Claire's having a slumber party, and I am just not up to six giggling girls staying up all night."
"What, you don't have giggling girls at slumber parties at school?" I teased, and dug my keys out of my bag.
"Not six of them," she said, and smiled at me, but there was something new in it, or maybe I just hadn't been looking at her the right way before. "Usually just the two of us."
My cheeks heated. I wasn't even sure why. I was Anastasia McGill, native New Yorker. I didn't blush at a little lesbian innuendo. Except I was.
I turned to unlock the door. It gave me an excuse to hide my face for a second.
Mallory touched my back and I jumped. I tried to laugh it off, but it came out sounding stuttery and high pitched.
"Stace, it's okay, you don't have to pretend you don't know."
I spun around to face her.
"Know what?" I asked, even though I had a hunch. I wanted to be sure. I liked facts.
"That I'm gay." She laughed. "That I'm a big old man hating lesbian." She shoved her glasses back up her nose where they had slipped down. The street light behind her haloed her hair and brought out the gold in it. I loved those tiny little strands, and the way one side of her mouth curled up more than the other, and how she let me dress her.
"You're beautiful, Stace," she said. Her voice was a little breathy, and then she giggled self-consciously. Lots of people have told me I'm beautiful. I'm the first person who will tell me I'm beautiful.
It meant so much to hear it from her right then, all lovely in the streetlight and the shadows.
I wanted to say thank you. I wanted to tell her it didn't matter to me if she liked girls, or boys, or purple people eaters. I wanted to tell her I was proud of her, for the way she was growing into a woman, and I was so lucky to be her friend.
Words aren't my thing, so I leaned forward and kissed her.
Mallory was a great kisser. We tumbled into my bed, and she slid her hands up under my shirt, not all the way to my breasts, just so she could draw patterns on my stomach. She sucked hard on my lower lip, and then planted kisses along my jaw until she could nip at my ear lobe and bite the side of my neck.
It was so hot. I was so hot, my skin ached and felt too tight and every time she touched me I thought I was going to burst like a piece of overripe fruit. She licked the hollow of my throat and then bit down hard enough I knew it would be marked the next day. I cried out and arched up off the mattress.
Normally I don't like love bites, but as long as she kept sweeping her hands back and forth higher and higher until her knuckles brushed the underside of my breasts, until she slipped her fingers up inside my bra, she could bite me anywhere.
Her knee nudged my legs apart. My skirt rode up my thighs and she pressed into me, rubbed the rough denim against my skin. I gasped when she put pressure between my thighs, rocked her body against mine.
"You look so perfect," she whispered, and made her way down my body. She had barely touched my breasts, but she didn't stop there, she went straight for my underwear, pulled it down, and then held me open. I'd had a couple different guys down there, I loved oral sex, but no one had ever taken time to just look at me, or breathe on me softly, or put her lips to me just one kiss at a time.
After, I couldn't really move, I just sprawled on my bed and slowly released the sheets where I'd grabbed them in my fists while I came. She wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and moved up to lay next to me, grinning at me.
"What?" I asked when she didn't stop staring.
"You're even beautiful when you're a sweaty, languid mess," she said and right then, at that moment, it was the greatest compliment in the world.