A Forever Friend
“HOW DOES DEEP-DISH PIZZA SOUND?” dad teased. “Or Chicago-style hot dogs dripping with relish, tomatoes, and onions?”
Willa Dunlap’s mouth watered buckets. Those were some of the yummiest foods they ate when they lived in Chicago. But they weren’t in Chicago anymore.
“How about cinnamon buns?” Dad tried again.
“I love cinnamon buns!” Willa exclaimed, then shook her head and said, “Nope, nope . . . and nope.”
It was still breakfast time at Misty Inn’s Family Farm Restaurant, but never too early for Willa’s dad to brainstorm his next meal.
“I don’t understand, Willa,” Dad said, pulling a pan of cranberry muffins from the oven. “Your best friend from Chicago is visiting for five days. Don’t you want some Chicago dishes to make her feel at home?”
Willa gave it a thought.
She remembered the first day she, her parents, and her younger brother, Ben, had arrived at Chincoteague Island. They were greeted by the salty fresh air, an old Victorian house, and a huge pan of fried oysters,
courtesy of a new friend and neighbor.
Just one crunch into the crispy golden delight made Willa almost forget about deep-dish pizza—even cinnamon buns.
“Chicago food is awesome, Dad,” Willa agreed. “But if Kate is going to live with us for almost a week, I want her to experience everything Chincoteague. That means seafood.”
“Someone say seafood?” Ben asked.
Willa hadn’t noticed Ben standing behind her. Her little brother was hungrily munching on a warm muffin.
“Or,” Ben said, before opening his mouth to show his crumby tongue, “see food.”
“Yuck,” Willa complained. “That’s gross, Ben.”
“What’s gross?” Mom asked as she walked into the kitchen from her home office. “Ben, did you roll your eyelids inside out again?”
Ben quickly shut his mouth and shook his head.
Willa was glad her little brother had started to come out of his shell since moving to Chincoteague. But what if he flashed his crumby tongue while Kate was there?
“Willa, did you finish your chores?” Mom asked. “They need to be done before Kate and her parents get here.”
Willa nodded yes and then pulled her latest
list from the pocket of her shorts: “Things to Do Before Kate Gets Here.” She loved lists. She also loved checking off each chore, like:
1. Make Kate’s bed.
2. Hang welcome sign on door.
3. Clear out two drawers for Kate’s clothes.
4. Clean the barn and groom the ponies.
Willa liked the last chore best. Even though taking care of her pony, Starbuck, and their boarder pony, Buttercup, wasn’t really a chore. To Willa it was fun.
“I’m sorry Kate’s parents can’t stay at Misty Inn,” Mom told Willa. “But it’s the first week of
summer and all the rooms were booked before you and Kate made plans.”
“It’s okay, Mom.” Willa smiled. “With Kate staying in my room, we’ll get to spend more time together.”
“I still can’t believe it,” Dad said, shaking his head. “We just opened Misty Inn for business in the spring. Who ever thought we’d be totally booked by summer?”
Willa couldn’t believe it either. But turning the house into a bed-and-breakfast had been her parents’ plan. Dad would be head chef. Mom would be “head honcho” of Misty Inn, as she liked to call herself sometimes.
It didn’t take long for Willa to make great new friends on Chincoteague Island, where her mom had grown up. New friends were awesome,
but Willa knew there was nothing like an old friend. And that was Kate.
Where was Kate already? “Weren’t Kate and parents supposed to be here last night?” she asked.
“It’s a long drive from Chicago,” Mom reminded a lot more patiently. “Mrs. Worthington e-mailed that they wanted to stop and do some sightseeing along the way.”
Stop? Willa did not like the sound of that.
“What if Kate’s parents forgot to set an alarm clock at their hotel?” Willa asked. “What if they’re so busy sightseeing they forget to visit me?”
“What if you go upstairs and make sure your room is extra tidy for Kate?” Dad asked with a smile. “That ought to keep you busy until she gets here.”
Willa looked at Ben and said, “Why don’t you clean your room too? Just in case Kate peeks inside and sees your pile of dirty socks and stacks of books?”
“Who has time to pick up socks?” Ben scoffed. “Chipper and I are in the middle of a super-important project.”
“What kind of project?” Willa asked, puzzled. It couldn’t be a school project. School had just ended for the summer.
“A top secret, none-of-your-concern project,” Ben replied with a mysterious grin. He held up the walkie-talkie he shared with his friend Chipper Starling. Pressing the switch, he spoke into the mouthpiece: “Ben to Chipper. Come in, Chipper. All systems go. Over and out.”
“Since when did he get so mysterious?” Dad
chuckled after Ben slipped out of the kitchen.
Willa didn’t have time to guess what her brother was up to. She hadn’t seen Kate in almost a year and was getting butterflies in her stomach. What Kate thought of Misty Inn and Chincoteague meant a lot to her—so everything had to be perfect.
“Let me know the second Kate gets here,” Willa told her parents. “Promise?”
“Promise,” Mom and Dad chorused.
Willa grabbed a muffin on her way up the stairs, careful not to drop crumbs. Not that Misty Inn had mice, thanks to New Cat.
As she swung the door open, the WELCOME, KATE sign taped to it fluttered. As she stepped into her room, she was greeted by New Cat himself, lazing on a sleeping bag that Willa
would use that week. Kate would sleep in Willa’s bed.
“You know I’m crazy about you, New Cat,” Willa said, gently nudging the cat off, “but we can’t have cat hairs on any beds.”
As if he understood, New Cat scurried out of the room. He hadn’t left any hairs, but Willa brushed her hand over the sleeping bag just to be sure.
Mom had already made Kate’s bed with Willa’s pink unicorn-design comforter.
What if Kate thinks unicorns are babyish? Willa worried to herself as she crossed the room. We are both a year older now.
But as Willa straightened their favorite friendship picture on her bulletin board, she chased the thought out of her head.
I’m not any different since I left Chicago—so Kate probably isn’t either.
Giving her room one last look-over, Willa nodded approvingly. Her room passed her strict inspection. Next up—the ponies.
Willa raced outside to the barn. She had groomed and fed Starbuck and Buttercup early that morning but wanted them to be extra ready for Kate.
From their stalls both ponies seemed happy to see Willa again. Buttercup greeted Willa with a friendly snort. Starbuck nickered softly.
Also there to greet Willa was Amos. The frisky little puppy was Buttercup’s best friend and could almost always be found in the barn.
After petting Amos, Willa turned to Starbuck. “We’re getting a visitor today,” she said, stroking the gentle mare’s butterscotch-colored forehead. “And I want you to be on your best behavior for her. Okay, girl?”
Starbuck answered with a puff of breath from her nostrils. To Willa it sounded more like a purr than a snort.
Willa knew Starbuck was special the moment she was delivered to Miller Farm, her grandma Edna’s pet sanctuary. Willa and Ben nursed
Starbuck’s injured leg until she was well enough to ride—then she walked all the way to the Dunlaps’ house, where she knew she belonged.
Now Willa had her own pony, but not just any pony. Starbuck was born on Assateague Island across the bay, world famous for its two herds of wild ponies.
Buttercup let out a confident whinny as if to say, What about me? Willa turned to pat Buttercup’s velvety muzzle. The chestnut mare with the star between her eyes belonged to her friend Sarah’s family, the Starlings. For now Buttercup was an honored guest at Misty Inn, just like Kate would be.
As Willa flicked a piece of hay from Buttercup’s mane, she thought again about Kate. Back in Chicago they’d done almost
everything together: gymnastics, ice-skating, even horseback-riding lessons.
Willa wished Kate could meet her new friends on Chincoteague Island. But Sarah had just left for wilderness camp on Assateague, where she would learn about the wild ponies there. As for Lena, she cared more about music than horses, so it was piano camp for her.
“Maybe Kate and I will get to ride together,” Willa told the ponies excitedly. “How cool would that be?”
Starbuck stomped a hoof on the mud-packed ground. Willa liked to think that meant, Way cool.
Stepping back, Willa inspected the barn. Both saddles were oiled and neatly hung on the double saddle rack. The brushes and currycombs were hung too. Everything looked perfect until—
“Oh my gosh,” Willa gasped, noticing a green-stained bucket on the ground. “I forgot to scrub out the feed bucket.”
She grabbed and turned on the hose. As she began rinsing out the bucket, she thought she heard wheels on the gravelly driveway outside. Willa’s heart did a triple flip.
Was it Kate?
Turning off the water and dropping the hose, Willa charged out of the barn. When she saw Kate and her parents, she screamed at the top of her lungs, “You’re here!”
Willa ran at jet speed to her friend. As they hugged tightly, Willa wondered if she smelled sweaty from working in the barn. Kate smelled like strawberry shampoo and vanilla shower gel—just as Willa remembered.
“Willa,” Kate said after breaking their hug. As she opened her mouth to smile, something silver glinted in the sun. To Willa that could mean only one thing. . . .
“Oh my gosh,” Willa gasped. “Kate, you got braces.”