- 1 -
Claudia groaned as her phone rang. She had just reached her favourite part in The Secret in the Old Attic, and she was in no mood for interruption. She waited a beat before she sighed and reached for the receiver.
"Hi, Claudia. It's Stacey."
Claudia's heart lifted. "Oh, hi! What's up?"
"Nothing much." There was a long second or two of silence. "I just – I just wanted to thank you for inviting me to the Baby-sitters Club meeting today," Stacey said. "It'll be nice to make some new friends and have something to do."
Claudia smiled and rolled onto her back, resting her open book across her chest. "Don't mention it. Kristy and Mary Anne both seemed pretty impressed with you."
Stacey gave a small laugh. "Well, they're nice," she said.
Claudia waited for a 'but', but it didn't come. "You like them, right?" she asked anxiously. Kristy and Mary Anne didn't exactly seem like the type of friends Stacey might choose for herself, and Claudia was suddenly worried that introducing them might have been a mistake.
"Oh, I do like them!" Stacey said immediately. "I really do. It's just – it's obvious you guys all know each other really well. Like, you've known each other for a long time."
"Hey, don't worry about that," Claudia said, propping herself up on her elbows. "You're going to fit right in. I promise." She hesitated for a moment before she added, "To be honest, I've kind of... grown apart from Kristy and Mary Anne over the past year. Just because we're all in the Club doesn't mean we all have to hang out together all the time. Maybe we could go to the mall or something sometime? Me and you, I mean."
"That'd be great," Stacey said excitedly. "I mean, don't get me wrong, I do really like Kristy and Mary Anne, and I love the idea of the Club, but I'm really glad you and I are in it together. I don't think I would have said yes if Kristy had asked me instead of you."
Claudia felt a rush of pride and pleasure. "No problem," she said. "So, maybe we could go to the mall on Saturday?"
"Great!" Stacey cried. "I really need a new pair of jeans."
"I really liked the pair you had on today," Claudia said enviously.
"You can borrow them sometime, if you like," Stacey said generously.
"Wow, thanks!" Claudia exclaimed. She didn't really care if the jeans wouldn't fit – it was nice to receive an offer. "You can borrow any of my stuff, too."
"Thanks," Stacey said happily. "Anyway, I'd better go. I want to check over my math homework again."
Claudia wrinkled her nose. "Okay. I'll see you tomorrow."
"We're supposed to meet Kristy and Mary Anne at recess, remember?"
"I remember," Claudia said. "But I'll see you before then."
"Totally," Stacey agreed. "Anyway – thanks again, Claud. I think the Club is going to be a lot of fun. I'm glad you thought of me."
Claudia smiled and shrugged to herself. "No problem," she said. "I'm glad you said yes."
"Well – bye," Stacey said.
"Bye, Stace." Claudia hung up and flopped back in her pillow, hugging her book to her chest, no longer irritated about her favourite chapter being interrupted.
- 2 -
Claudia had been in the same position for so long she was starting to go numb. But no matter how long she stared at it, her math homework still wasn't making any sense.
She glanced at the clock guiltily. It was getting late, and it was Sunday night – her math test was going to start in like... However many hours.
She winced and shook her head before she reached for the phone.
She winced again and silently cursed her own bad luck. "Hi, Mrs. McGill. It's Claudia Kishi. I'm really sorry to call so late, but I have a question about my math homework, and I was hoping Stacey could help me."
"Just a moment, Claudia."
Claudia breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Mrs. McGill sounded pretty sympathetic. Claudia immediately made it a personal rule to never call and lie about needing help with homework when really all she wanted was advice on what to wear the next day.
"Hi, Stace," Claudia mumbled. "Have you finished your math homework?"
"Yeah. You need help?"
"What question are you up to?"
"Um..." Claudia wondered briefly if she should lie. "The first one," she admitted.
"Okay," Stacey said. "Just hang on a second."
Claudia could hear the flipping of pages and paper. She felt guilty and ashamed, but she'd tried. She really had. "It's probably really easy," she said softly.
"Don't worry about it, Claud," Stacey dismissed. "Okay, so – this one isn't too bad. There's a really easy rule to remember..."
"Everyone always says that," Claudia said, frustrated. "The rules never stay in my head."
"Well, let's just take it one step at a time," Stacey said patiently.
"Hey, Stace?" Claudia interrupted softly.
"Do you think I'll make it to eighth grade?"
"Of course you will!" Stacey said. "And I'm going to help you, so stop worrying and open your math book, okay?"
- 3 -
Claudia had just rolled herself out of bed when her phone rang. She reached for it sleepily, and her voice was husky when she spoke. "'Lo?" she asked.
"Did I wake you?" Stacey asked. "I thought you'd be getting ready for school."
"I am, I am." Claudia clutched the phone to her ear as she pulled her closet doors open.
"I need some wardrobe advice," Stacey admitted. "I want to wear the denim miniskirt I bought at the mall on Saturday –"
"Uh-huh," Claudia said, pulling a shirt off a hanger and holding it up. She wrinkled her nose and dropped it to the floor before she rummaged further.
"But I can't decide what to wear with it," Stacey said. "I was thinking maybe keeping it simple with a black turtleneck, but my skin looks so washed out lately. Maybe if I wear some lip gloss?"
"Hm..." Claudia leaned against her closet door for a second and tried to picture Stacey's (much neater) assortment of clothing. "You have a pink turtleneck, right?"
"You think pink would be better?" Stacey asked. "I dunno – it makes the whole thing seem kind of young. Black is more sophisticated."
"But black is making you look washed out," Claudia reminded her. "Pink will pick up the warmer undertones in your skin. Maybe you could wear the pink and pull your hair back? Work some severity into your hairstyle instead of your clothes."
"Oh, I hadn't thought about that," Stacey breathed. She sounded impressed, and Claudia allowed herself to feel smug for a moment. "What are you wearing today?" Stacey asked.
"I haven't decided yet," Claudia answered. She tilted her head and frowned. "If I wear pink too, it might be awkward, right?"
"Maybe," Stacey admitted. "It might look like we're trying to dress similarly."
"I'll figure something out," Claudia dismissed. "I think I'll wear some beaded necklaces today – maybe I'll build an outfit around those."
"Can't wait to see it," Stacey said. "I'd better get going, anyway. I don't want to be late. I'll see you at school."
"Okay," Claudia agreed. "Bye."
- 4 -
Claudia thought for a moment about letting her answering machine take the call for her, but she knew, somehow, that it would be Stacey – even though she'd only left ten minutes ago.
Claudia fell back onto her pillow and blinked back tears. "Hey."
"I don't know what to do," Stacey said helplessly, and Claudia knew she was crying again. "I don't think I have any choice but to go back to New York with my parents."
"Maybe we can figure something out," Claudia said tearfully. "I mean, I'm probably not clever enough, but maybe you'll come up with something. Or I could ask Janine – she might know things about this that we don't."
"Maybe," Stacey answered, but she didn't sound excited or hopeful anymore. "I wish you could come with me."
"Me too," Claudia said wistfully. "But not as much as I wish you were just staying here."
"Yeah," Stacey whispered. "And – Claud?"
"When you were saying all that stuff before – about best friends, and..." Stacey drew an audible breath. "You're my best friend, too. Of course you are. And I mean – I mean, more than Laine."
Claudia felt her heart beat a little faster, and it was wonderful and terrible at the same time. "I am?"
"Of course you are. I've never had a best friend like you." Stacey sniffed. "When I found out about my diabetes – Laine changed. Things between us changed. So I need to ask you something."
"Anything," Claudia said, smearing tears across her cheek with her fingers.
"If I move back to New York," Stacey said, "promise me things won't change too much. Not more than they have to. Promise you'll still be my best friend."
"I promise," Claudia said. She let out a sob she'd been trying to smother. "No amount of distance between us will ever change the fact that you were my first best friend – and you will always be my best friend."
"I hope so," Stacey said, her voice trembling. "I don't know how I'm going to get through school tomorrow."
"Me either," Claudia said. "School sucks enough already."
Stacey managed a laugh. "It's not so bad."
"If you're a brain," Claudia muttered. "Who's going to help me with my math homework now?"
"I can still help you," Stacey said immediately. "And Claud, you're really smart. Just because your brain doesn't hold numbers so well doesn't mean you're not. I mean, I don't know a thing about art."
Claudia managed a smile. "You know more about it now that you know me, right?"
"Right," Stacey agreed. She laughed again and breathed a sigh. "Listen," she said tiredly, "I'd better go. I'll see you tomorrow. Maybe a solution will come to one of us in a dream."
"Maybe," Claudia answered, but she had to admit she was fast running out of any hope. "I'd give up junk food if it meant you could stay," she said.
Stacey started to laugh again. "Now I really know you're going to miss me."
Claudia laughed too. She rolled over and pressed the phone to her ear, giggling, listening to Stacey's laughter on the other end of the line.
- 5 -
Claudia had long since cried herself out. All that was left now was a horrible, hollow sort of a feeling and a vague headache.
When her phone rang, she pulled her pillow over her head and listened to the machine pick up.
"Hey, Claud," Stacey's voice said softly. "It's just me. I thought you might want to talk, but... Anyway. I guess I just wanted to say I'm here, if you want to talk for a while."
Claudia reached for the phone before Stacey could hang up, letting her pillow fall to the floor. "I'm here."
"Hey," Stacey said warmly. "You okay?"
"No," Claudia answered. She rolled onto her side, facing the wall.
"No, of course not," Stacey said. "Sorry. That was a stupid question. I guess it's just habit."
"It's all right," Claudia assured her quietly. She closed her eyes and curled into a ball. "The house is really quiet," she whispered. "Like, I don't think it's ever really loud, but it seems so quiet right now."
"Where is everyone?"
"Mom and Dad are downstairs. I think Janine is in her room, but I'm not sure. Maybe I should go and see if she's okay."
"Hey, this might sound strange," Stacey said hesitantly, "but I think Mimi would have liked today, Claud. I mean, everyone talking about her, and remembering her. Everyone I spoke to today had really lovely memories of her."
Claudia smiled and felt her eyes ache again. "Yeah."
"So, are you going to school on Monday?"
"I guess so," Claudia answered. "To be honest, it might be kind of nice to have a distraction."
Stacey mock-gasped. "You're looking forward to school?"
Claudia actually laughed. "I never said that."
Stacey giggled. "I know what you mean. I bet everyone's looking forward to having you back."
Claudia smiled a little. "Maybe." She rubbed a hand across her brow and tried to will her headache away. "Thanks for staying so long today."
"That's okay," Stacey said immediately. "Any time. Just – I mean, if you need anything at all, just ask."
"Thanks," Claudia said softly. She drew a deep, slow breath. "Listen," she sighed, "I think I'm going to try to sleep for a bit. I feel really tired."
"Oh, sure," Stacey said. "Call me tomorrow?"
"I promise," Claudia answered swiftly. "Even when I don't feel like talking – it's always different with you." She smiled and rolled over again to stare up at her ceiling. She didn't want to say goodbye, so instead she said, "I'll talk to you tomorrow, Stace."
"Talk to you tomorrow, Claud."