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"It's a book," says Claudia, doubtfully. Janine is generally pretty good about presents, even when her parents think that what she really wants for her birthday is a computer program that teaches her to spell. So she's kind of disappointed when she unwraps her gift from Janine and finds it's the world's thickest book.

"Yes, heaven forbid you do anything to expand your cerebral intellect," Janine says, pushing her glasses up her nose. She sounds irritated, and Claudia realises that she hasn't sounded very grateful. So she gives Janine a hasty hug and thanks her. Janine looks at her a moment, and then says cryptically, "I know it's not what you think you want, Claudia, but I think it may be something you need." She returns to her own room, looking pleased with herself.

The copy of War and Peace sits, untouched, on Claudia's bed while she waits for her friends to arrive.

***

They really are the best friends in the world.

Everyone turns up 15 minutes before the meeting, even Jessi, who's had to leave her ballet lesson early to be there, which she practically never does. From Jessi and Mal, Claudia receives more art supplies than she knows what to do with, pens and paints and paper in all the colors of the rainbow. Dawn has baked her a cake - it's made entirely from organic produce and sweetened with locally-made honey instead of sugar, but it's delicious all the same. Mary Anne gives her some teeny tiny earring shaped like butterflies, and Kristy gives her a plain white visor. "I know it's not your style," she explains, "but I thought you'd probably decorate it enough so it would be." The only person missing is Stacey, and Claudia could hardly expect her to come all the way from New York City just for a meeting of the BSC. Besides, a present arrived from her this morning in the mail - six bottles of nail polish, each a slightly different shade of red.

Kristy calls the meeting to order at 5, of course, and they're immediately kept busy answering the phone. And when the meeting's finished everyone cheerfully tells Claudia that they're planning a proper party for her that weekend, although they refuse to give any more details, and then they all leave again.

Except for Mal, that is, who lingers a moment behind, looking a little embarrassed. "Um," she starts, hesitantly.

"Mal?" Claudia asks, wondering what the younger girl wants.

"Why do you have a copy of War and Peace on your bed?" she blurts out, and promptly blushes a deep red. "I mean, I know you're not exactly a big reader - I mean, you're not that interested in, you know, classics - I mean..." her voice trails off and she looks mortified.

Claudia shrugs. "Janine gave it to me," she says. "She said something about expanding my cervix."

"Your cervix?" Mal repeats, doubtfully. "Well - it is supposed to be one of the greatest works of literature. I thought it was more of an adult's book, though, which is why I wanted to ask..." she trails off again. "Oh, well. Janine's probably already read it five times. If you decide to give it a go, let me know if you like it, won't you?"

Claudia agrees, and Mal disappears downstairs. Now Claudia is really confused. Mal is a reader - no, she's a Reader. If she thinks it's an odd choice in presents then it must be a really odd choice in presents. Greatly wondering, Claudia decides to at least try and read the first page.

There is no first page. There aren't any pages at all, in face. The book has been completely hollowed out, somehow, so that from the outside it looks like all the pages are there, but on the inside there's - well, at the moment there's a packet of Milk Duds, two Nancy Drew books and a small, folded piece of paper covered in Janine's small, tidy handwriting.

My dear sister,

At the moment our parents are still hoping you'll turn into someone you're not. I know you're still trying hard to please them, but I hope you'll always remember that all you really need to do to make them happy is to be happy with yourself.

You are a beautiful, creative person, and I want you to know that I'll always be here for you.

Janine.

Claudia reads it twice, then folds it back up and places it gently back inside the empty book. It wasn't what she'd wanted, but perhaps it's exactly what she needs.