Dear Pen Pal
“When you get accustomed to people or places or ways of living, and then have them suddenly snatched away, it does leave an awfully empty, gnawing sort of sensation.”
Dear Miss Delaney . . .
“What’s this?” I ask, picking up the letter that’s lying in the middle of my plate and scooching my chair closer to the table.
“I guess you’ll have to read it and find out, won’t you?” my mother replies. There’s a funny tone in her voice and she’s smiling across the table at my dad. One of those mysterious we know something you don’t kind of smiles.
Frowning, I start to read:
“Dear Miss Delaney,
Congratulations! We’re delighted to inform you that you have been nominated for a Colonial Academy Founder’s Award. Created in honor of Harriett Witherspoon, the illustrious educator and suffragette who established our school, this award for academic excellence is offered each
year to an outstanding local eighth-grade girl. It is indeed an honor to be nominated for this scholarship, and we hope you will accept it. Once again, congratulations—we look forward to welcoming you to our school!”
I toss the letter aside and start assembling my burger. “I don’t want to go to Colonial Academy,” I tell my parents matter-of-factly. “Pass the ketchup please, Dylan.”
My little brother removes one sticky paw from the ear of corn he’s busy gnawing and shoves the bottle over to me. I pick it up gingerly, trying to avoid the buttery smears where his fingers touched it. Out of the corner of my eye I see my parents exchange a glance.
“Honey, are you sure you understand?” says my mother. “They’re offering you a full scholarship!”
“Shouldn’t you at least think it over?”
“I did,” I reply, slapping the top of the bun onto my burger. “I don’t want to go.”
My mother glances over at my dad again, her brow puckering with concern.
I sigh. “Look,” I tell them. “I want to stay at Walden Middle School with my friends. I don’t want to go to some dumb boarding school with a bunch of snobby rich kids.”
Dylan and Ryan start to snicker.
“Hush!” My mother frowns at them, then turns her attention to
me again. “Sweetheart, they’re not snobby rich kids.” She pauses. “Well, some of them are rich, that’s true, but underneath they’re just normal girls like you.”
My mouth, which is open to take a bite of hamburger, gapes at her instead. “Normal? Mom, gimme a break! Have you been downtown and seen those kids? Some of them have chauffeurs! Their parents are movie stars and politicians and stuff like that.”
“Moooovie stars!” chorus the twins.
“Boys!” my mother scolds again. “Jess, I think you’re exaggerating just a tiny bit, don’t you? There are plenty of wealthy people who are perfectly nice and normal. Just look at the Wongs. You’d never know they were—”
“Bazillionaires?” my dad suggests.
“Michael! I’m trying to make a point here, and you’re not helping.”
“Sorry,” my dad says cheerfully.
“At any rate,” my mother continues, “I think you’re being too hasty about this decision, Jess. It’s an amazing opportunity. Besides, you already spend part of your day away from Walden—I don’t see how going to Colonial Academy would be all that different.”
“True,” says my father. “It’s not like it’s in China—it’s right here in town.”
Great. Now he’s ganging up on me too. How can I make them understand why I don’t want to leave Walden Middle School? Especially after it’s taken me so long to fit in. Sure, they’re right, I’ll be taking math and science classes at Alcott High again this year, but that’s hardly the same as
being away from my friends all day every day. What would I do without Emma and Cassidy and Megan? Where would I sit at lunch? And how could I leave Half Moon Farm, the one place on earth I feel completely happy and safe? I like sleeping in my own bed, in my own room. I don’t want to have to sleep in a dormitory, and share a room with some girl I don’t even know.
I set my hamburger down on my plate. My stomach is starting to tie itself in knots. “I just don’t want to go,” I say flatly.
My parents are silent. The only sound in the room is coming from my brothers, who are chomping loudly on their corn. I look out the window and spot a familiar figure on a bike, riding past our farm-stand. It’s Kevin Mullins. He’s been doing this all summer. He’ll ride by, and if he spots me in the front yard he makes a beeline in my direction, telling me he was “just in the neighborhood.” Which is a big lie, because he lives way up on Ripley Hill Road and my house isn’t on the way to anything.
“This really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” my father says. “Surely there must be some nice girls who go to Colonial Academy.”
Nice? I think of the squadrons of students parading around downtown in their designer clothes, bragging to one another about their vacations to places like Nantucket and Palm Beach and Switzerland. The girls from Colonial Academy are like a whole fleet of Becca Chadwicks, only worse. At least Becca never called us “townies.” I shake my head again.
But my mother isn’t taking no for an answer. “Your father’s right,”
she says. “You already know some of the students there. Lots of people here in town send their daughters to Colonial once they get to middle school and high school. There’s Nicole Patterson, and that Bartlett boy’s older sister—what’s her name?”
“Lauren,” I mutter.
“That’s the one. And how about Ellery Watson? You used to play with her sometimes back in elementary school.”
I can tell by the looks on their faces that my parents are really excited about this stupid Founder’s Award, but accepting it is absolutely, positively out of the question. Goat Girl at a private school? I would so not fit in.
My mother places her hand on my father’s arm. “Talk to her, Michael,” she urges.
My dad reaches over and tugs on my braid. “At least think it over, okay? Colonial Academy is one of the best schools in the country.”
“How’d they even get my name?” I grumble.
My mother reaches for a manila envelope on the sideboard behind her and pulls out a sheaf of pages. She riffles through them, then plucks one out. “Let’s see here . . . award . . . Witherspoon . . . local eighth-grader. That’s funny—there’s no mention of who nominated you.”
“Don’t you think that’s kind of creepy? It’s like somebody’s been spying on me.”
My father laughs. “It just means that someone observed your academic abilities, honey. Your principal, probably, or maybe one of the
guidance counselors. It would be pretty hard not to notice the smartest kid at Walden.”
“I’m not the smartest,” I reply sullenly. “Kevin Mullins is way smarter than I am.” My eyes stray to the window. By the entrance to our driveway, Kevin is still riding around in circles.
“He didn’t get nominated,” says my mother. “Colonial Academy is a girls’ school.”
Which is another really good reason not to go, in my opinion. But I keep that thought to myself, because it’s obvious my parents have their minds made up already.
My mother pulls out another sheet of paper. “They sent us an invitation to tour the academy and its facilities, followed by lunch with the headmistress. New student orientation starts soon, so we’ll have to hop on this if we’re going to make it happen.”
“But I don’t want to make it happen!” I tell her, starting to feel a little desperate. “What about my chores? Who’s going to help look after the goats and the chickens and everything? Half Moon Farm needs me!”
“We’ll work something out,” says my dad. “The boys are going into the third grade—they’re responsible enough to take over the morning milking. You did at their age.”
I shoot my twin brothers a skeptical look. “Responsible” is not the first word that comes to mind when I think of Dylan and Ryan. They may be almost nine, but they act more like they’re six most of the time.
My mother plucks a brochure from the pile of papers she’s holding and slides it across the table to me. “Just look at this place, Jess! State-of-the-art science labs, a professional theater, a fabulous music department—you could take voice lessons again! There’s even an equestrian center.”
I glance down at the brochure. I didn’t know Colonial Academy had horses.
“It would be kind of like getting an early taste of college,” my father coaxes.
“College?” I leap to my feet. “I’m not even fourteen yet! Why are you trying to get rid of me?”
I storm upstairs and fling myself on my bed. Sugar and Spice, our two Shetland sheepdogs, are close on my heels. They pace around my room anxiously, whining. The dogs hate it when I’m upset. But how could I not be? I can’t believe my parents are even seriously considering this. Colonial Academy? No way. I grab the phone off my night table and dial the Hawthornes’ number. I need to talk to my best friend.
Emma picks up on the first ring. “Hey,” she says.
“Oh, it’s you. Hi, Jess.”
She sounds a little surprised, and I realize she was probably expecting Stewart Chadwick.
“Something awful happened,” I blurt out, my voice quivering. “I got this letter from Colonial Academy and it turns out I’ve been
nominated for some scholarship and my parents want me to go but I don’t want to!”
“Whoa, hold on a sec. Run that by me again?”
I take a deep breath and repeat everything I just told her.
Emma is quiet for a long time. A really long time. So long, in fact, that I start to think maybe she’s hung up on me.
“Are you still there?”
“Yeah,” she replies. “I’m just thinking.”
“What’s there to think about? It’s a horrible idea.”
“I suppose,” she says. “I mean, it would be horrible not to see you at school every day. But it’s not like you’d be going to China or someplace.”
My stomach lurches. Emma is sounding weirdly like my parents. She was the one person I thought I could count on to be on my side. “You mean you think I should go?”
My bedroom door opens a crack and my mother pokes her head in. I frown and point at the phone, but she tiptoes in anyway and places the Colonial Academy brochure at the foot of my bed, then sneaks out. She leaves it open to the picture of the stables. A beautiful chestnut mare stares at me from out of one of the stalls.
“You’ve got to admit it’s an honor to be nominated for something like this,” Emma continues. “Your mom and dad are right about that. I think you should at least go check it out. I mean, think about it—boarding school! That’s pretty cool.”
“Maybe I should call Cassidy and see what she thinks.”
“She’s still at her grandparents’, remember?”
Cassidy’s mother got married a couple of weeks ago and she and Stanley Kinkaid, Cassidy’s new stepfather, are on their honeymoon. Cassidy and her older sister Courtney are staying with their grandparents at their condo in downtown Boston.
“I’ll ask Megan, then.”
“She went with the Chadwicks to Cape Cod.”
It’s Labor Day weekend, and most of the rest of the world is off someplace having a last blast of fun before school starts. Not us, of course. This time of year the Delaneys never budge from Half Moon Farm. Too much work to be done. The Hawthornes don’t go away very often either. They’re on kind of a tight budget, plus Emma’s dad always says he hates fighting holiday traffic and who’d want to be anywhere but beautiful Concord this time of year anyway?
“Boarding school, Jess!” Emma repeats. “That’s so awesome! Maybe I could come visit you sometime.”
Perfect. Now Emma’s sounding excited too. And even a little bit envious.
“Still,” she adds quickly, “I’d really miss you.”
“Don’t worry,” I tell her, shoving the brochure off the bed with my toe. “You won’t have to miss me. There’s no way on earth I’m ever going to Colonial Academy.”