Chapter One: Freedom Week!
Chapter One Freedom Week!
It was almost spring break at Bellgrove Middle School.
The flowers were starting to bloom, the birds were showing off their springtime symphonies, and the whole town was smiling and enjoying spending time outdoors again.
This was when long pants started to fade away, sweaters went on vacay, and school hallways were suddenly sprinkled with tank tops, skirts, and shorts.
Normally these early days of spring would be my favorite time of year, but this year I was feeling a little annoyed by the change in weather.
I think it had to do with the fact that I was in middle school now.
Was it wrong for me to want to feel a little more grown-up in my clothes, and in my overall appearance?
And springtime at Bellgrove Middle School was also when it became abundantly clear to everyone who was allowed to shave their legs, and who wasn’t.
Can you guess which side of that fence I was stuck on?
My mom is the assistant principal of my school, and let’s just say that despite her stylish and modern clothes, she has some unfair ideas on stuff.
How she got the idea that her daughters shouldn’t start shaving their legs until they’re in high school is so unfair!
When I asked her why I had to wait until I was in high school, what she told me was pretty simple.
My mom’s mom, Grandma Rita, didn’t let her daughters shave their legs until they were in high school.
That’s it. That’s the only reason.
Leave it to my mom to carry on tradition, I guess….
As for my dad, he’s pretty protective of me and my older sister and isn’t exactly enthused about us looking too grown-up in any way, so he definitely had Mom’s back on this one, like always.
“Mom, who cares if I have hair on my legs or not?” I tried to reason with her once.
Mom looked at me and smiled, like a cat who had just caught its evening meal.
“Exactly my point,” she said. “So why go through all the trouble if no one cares? Who are you trying to impress anyway, Casey?”
“No one!” I said.
But that wasn’t 100 percent true, was it?
Mom got me thinking. I’d had hair on my legs for some time now. Why did I want to shave all of a sudden?
Was it because the other girls my age were doing it? Or did I want to shave my legs for another reason?
My older sister, Gabby, who’s now in her first year of community college, went through the same thing with this rule all through middle school.
By the time she got to high school, she was one of the last girls in her class with unshaved legs.
Lucky for her, Gabby refused to wait.
I love how Gabby tells the story about the morning she gracefully rebelled. She and Mom were out grocery shopping for family Saturday brunch.
This was a few years ago, right before Gabby was going to enter high school. They were doing self-checkout, the ones where you scan your own groceries.
Right in front of our mom’s face, Gabby took a packet of disposable razors. She then scanned it and put it into the bag, watching Mom the entire time she did so.
The way she tells it, Mom gave her this strange look she’d never seen before, or since, and never said another word about it.
Gabby’s had beautifully smooth legs ever since.
But that’s my sister Gabby for you. Being a straight-A student and a talented dancer means she can sometimes color outside the lines and know she’ll get away with it.
Being an average student and all, I just don’t see myself getting away with half the things Gabby does. I can’t see myself being bold enough to do what Gabby did.
I told Lindsay Mom would be all over me if I even glanced at a pack of razors.
Speaking of my BFF, what I looked forward to the most about spring break was getting to spend the whole week with Lindsay. We always plan out every day of our spring breaks, down to the last second.
It’s the one week we feel like we’re free to do what we want, when we want.
That’s how we came to call spring break our “Freedom Week.” Since we were little kids, we’ve spent as many of our spring breaks together as we possibly could.
We’ve even had our parents agree to a few sleepovers during Freedom Week.
Actually, this has been going on since we were babies, because of our moms.
Back then, our moms planned our spring breaks, since they both worked at the school and had off at the same time.
Then, the four of us would spend almost all our spring breaks together, every year. We would watch movies, do projects, and later, go on hikes. Fun times!
As soon as we got to decision-making age, whenever that was, our moms left it up to us to plan our spring breaks.
So that’s the long and short of how Freedom Week was born. Usually during Freedom Week we’ve kept up the tradition of doing fun art projects and geeking out on our favorite movies.
But this year, now that we were in middle school, I wanted to level up and do different stuff!
For instance, I wanted to incorporate some acting exercises that we did in camp last summer.
I couldn’t wait to tell Lindsay about my ideas for Freedom Week.
On the Friday before spring break, I walked into the school lunchroom and headed straight for our usual table in the center, close to where the girls’ soccer and field hockey teams sat.
Lindsay is no athlete and neither am I. She is a no-nonsense working girl, and I’m an artist.
We didn’t really fit into one particular group, so our table was a hodgepodge of girls with some different and overlapping interests: our friend Michelle, who’s a photographer, Lindsay’s new friend Maria, whose family opened a cool Puerto Rican bakery in town; and Melanie Fox, a friend of Lindsay’s from her art class.
Overall, lunch was a pretty cool scene.
Today, Lindsay was the first one at our lunch table. Perfect timing!
I liked when we could grab some moments alone before the other girls swooped in with their raucous laughter and hilarious dramas.
“Hey, tuna on rye,” I said, sitting down.
“What’s up, leftover lasagna,” she answered back.
Lindsay had tuna on rye and I had, well, leftover lasagna.
We smiled knowingly at each other, because it was a comfort to know someone and be known so well. We always knew what the other was having based on the day of the week.
I noticed Lindsay was jotting something on a piece of paper. When she finished, she raised her catlike green eyes to me and smiled.
“I’ve been brainstorming a list of movies that we can watch this week,” she said.
“About Freedom Week,” I said. “I was thinking we could watch movies along a certain theme.”
“What do you think of anime?” I asked.
Lindsay’s eyes slid back down to her paper.
“I have a couple animes on here, but not a week’s worth,” she said. “Maybe we can have an anime… day.
“Oh, how about this… each day we have a different movie theme? We can even have a scary movie night!” she added excitedly.
“Great idea, Linds,” I said. “I don’t know when I became such an anime fan anyhow.”
“Yeah, what’s up with that?” Lindsay asked.
When I didn’t say anything right away, she filled in the blanks.
“Let me guess… Matt Machado?” Lindsay asked in a syrupy, singsong voice.
It had taken me a while to admit it, but Matt Machado was legit my first crush.
I had met him at sleepaway camp last summer, and we became the best of friends.
We weren’t old enough to be anything more than that, but if we were allowed to date, I wonder if we would be something more.
I wasn’t exactly sure how Matt or even I felt about that.
“Okay, Matt loves anime and now I’m hooked,” I admitted, holding my head in my hands and groaning.
“Hooked on anime… or Matt?” she asked.
I blushed, and Lindsay waved it off.
“You’re hopeless. Anyhow, let me know which animes you want to watch this week to add to the list,” she said.
“You’re the best, Linds,” I told her. “I can’t wait for our glorious week of freedom.”
“Same here. It’s my favorite time of year because of you,” Lindsay said. “I also love how we’re carrying on something that our moms started.”
A moment of silence followed. I knew it was because we were both thinking about Lindsay’s mom, Amy Cooper, who had joined the angels.
I also thought about how much we could use this quality time.
Middle school had been hard on our friendship, especially since I came back from camp all boy crazy and artsy—two sides of me Lindsay had never seen before.
It put us in a sort of funky space for a while, but we’d worked through things.
Still, we didn’t exactly have the same level of comfort that we’d had before, and I was hoping that Freedom Week would help us to get it back.
I was also looking forward to taking my mind off Matt. He lives five hours away in a town called Hardwick.
I thought of him constantly… the memories we shared at camp, his handsome face burned into my mind, all the laughter we’d shared.
From what Matt’s mom told me (I talked to her a few times on the phone), Matt sounded pretty into me, too.
She said they talk about me all the time.
As I rattled off some anime titles for Lindsay to write down, I gazed at my oldest friend in the world.
Lindsay knew almost everything about me.
While she wrote, I admired the river of reddish-brown hair flowing down her shoulders.
When I say Lindsay’s my oldest friend, that’s real talk. We were born a day apart and first met in the hospital nursery.
Our moms were work friends before we came along, but having babies at the same time formed a bond between them that has outlasted Amy Cooper’s death.
Somehow, my mom still feels really connected to Lindsay’s mom, even though she’s no longer here. My mom says she can still feel her friend’s gentle, loving presence in the hallways at school.
Something that Lindsay and I used to have in common was our take on boys.
After all, Bellgrove boys had been grossing us out on the regular since kindergarten. Our vibe was to hate their guts until further notice.
Then I experienced something different at camp when I met Matt. He was different from any other boy I’d ever met.
First of all, he looked and smelled really good.
Also, he wasn’t some undercover or outright video-game addict. Instead he had this black notebook that he took with him everywhere, because he was always writing stuff down that he saw, thought, and experienced.
He was really interested in a bunch of stuff, and all the adults at camp adored him because he could talk about anything.
He looked up subjects he wanted to learn about and didn’t try to act dumb or tough to fit in like other boys.
Matt was also in touch with his feelings.
I remember him getting pretty emotional when he talked about his mom marrying his stepdad years back.
That was when his last name was legally changed to Machado.
Also, Matt’s biracial, just like me.
This was something we had in common at camp, so it drew us closer together right away.
His biological dad, who left when Matt was two, was white, and his mom is black and from the Caribbean.
My parents, however, are the reverse: my dad’s black and my mom’s white.
Besides my sister, Matt’s the only person who I know totally gets me for me.
The lunchroom was beginning to fill up. I knew we wouldn’t be alone at this table for much longer.
Lindsay had to raise her voice in order for me to hear her.
“Matt sounds like a pretty cool guy. I’d love to meet him someday,” she said.
“Yessss! That would be fire! We should call him on video chat sometime,” I said.
I was excited at the thought.
I wanted Lindsay to understand just what I saw in Matt, and I wanted Matt to put a face and a voice to the BFF I’d so often spoken about back at camp.
“Cool!” Lindsay agreed.
Even though I was just about the only thing Lindsay and Matt had in common, I pictured them totally hitting it off.
Lindsay loves meeting new people.
Unlike me, she’s the type of small-town girl who wants to someday leave Bellgrove for big-city life and melt into the crowd and make a name for herself doing some awesome and unpredictable things.
It took Lindsay a little while to adjust to my changes.
Even though she’s accepted Matt’s place in my life, I still caught her giving me these looks when I did certain things or when I brought him up a lot.
Like when my phone lit up with a text message, and I would grab it like it was my favorite candy bar that suddenly appeared out of thin air.
I never used to do that before last summer, so it was always pretty obvious to Lindsay that it had to do with Matt.
I guess to her I had to look pretty obsessed. But I didn’t think I was that bad.
It was also kind of embarrassing to be honest because Matt hardly texted me anyhow.
That was another thing…. Matt and I were so connected at camp, but as soon as we were back into our regular lives, he went dark.
At first I thought it was because he had lost interest in me, but that turned out to be some fiction I created in my mind.
After weeks of not knowing what was up with this boy and his late one-word responses to all my texts, I finally caught up with him one night and we texted for a good while.
That was when I found out that he was thinking about me every day too.
He was just super busy and was always getting his phone taken away by his mom for disciplinary reasons.
So it wasn’t what I had thought at all!
The only thing that was really keeping us apart besides geography were my own doubts about myself.
Those silly voices in my head that whispered harsh nothings that I began to believe: that last summer, to Matt, was just a fluke, a friendship that meant nothing to him.
Hanging out with me was just a way to pass the time before he could return to his more exciting, regularly scheduled life.
The morning after we’d texted, Matt and his mom called during our Saturday brunch. It was fun but super awkward at points.
Dad learned just how much I hadn’t been hanging out with only girls at sleepaway camp. And I learned just how much his mom knew about me, like my intense love of cat memes! And my mom learned how much she was dying to have a new friend her age just to chop it up with.
Matt’s mom and mine got along so famously that they ended up exchanging numbers soon after.
Matt’s mom looked like an actual queen, with her mocha skin, braids, and long neck.
However, I didn’t let that warm, glowing smile of hers fool me.
I happened to know from Matt that she was a super disciplinarian and was no-nonsense about his education.
The way he described her made my mom seem like Mary Poppins. With his mom always over his shoulder, he had no time for much outside of school and extracurricular activities.
When I found out that his mom took his phone from him for days at a time so he could focus on school, I felt so stupid for feeling all rejected and in my feelings for no reason.
I’d immediately assumed that he’d stopped caring about me, when he was actually phoneless and slaving over his schoolwork.
I swear, the next time that sneaky negative voice worms its way into my brain, that voice that says I’m not good enough, or not likeable, or not this, or not that, I’m going to face it head-on and tell it to go away!
After that first chat at brunch, Matt and I started talking more on video chat.
And each time we did, it felt like no time had passed since we were last together. It was like he was right there with me. It was kind of weird and cool at the same time.
Now that Matt and I had come to a better understanding and I’d been reminded of his amazingness, I began to miss my friend more than I had in the first place. I guess that was when he officially became my crush.
The rest of our friends showed up to our table, so it was too late to spill my guts to Lindsay.
I was hooked on Matt more than I wanted to be, and I needed some advice on how to cure myself of this boy disease.
It was no use bringing this stuff up to any of my friends, who all saw boys as annoying creatures.
My sister was the only one who would really understand.
Even though I tried not to run to Gabby for every single thing, she was basically my personal guru about life matters, and she always taught me so much.
I hadn’t gone to her in a while about anything, and this conversation was long overdue.
I made a mental note to go see her when I came home from school.
I couldn’t wait until the school day was over.