Such a Good Girl
“What was it like being the homecoming queen as a freshman?”
Sydnee Grace Hill, a first-semester reporter for the high school newspaper, smiles across from me at a cramped table at Hartsville High’s answer for a school café. She’s writing a student profile on me for the next issue. Each month, a senior is chosen. They asked me back in August, but I was really busy with a fund-raiser for a local no-kill animal shelter, so they scooted me back a few issues.
“Oh.” I smile at the reporter, a little impressed. She’s done her homework. Well, she’s tried, at least. “I wasn’t exactly the homecoming queen, Syd.”
Sydnee, a freshman herself, blushes at the nickname. “Yeah, but you got the most votes, didn’t you?”
“Sure, but votes didn’t matter. Freshmen didn’t qualify. I think Madison Corrigan ended up getting it that year,” I say, like I don’t remember the exact moment they told me that I wouldn’t be crowned homecoming queen and announced Maddie instead, a cold-hearted senior with white-blond hair who was known for publicly embarrassing freshmen in front of her senior posse. She made them hold her books outside the restroom and do her laundry (including panties and sweaty gym clothes) and even forced them to do her homework, like that was supposed to somehow increase their social standing.
It was definitely a travesty.
“You won this year, though,” Sydnee points out. “And you’ve made homecoming court every single year.”
I nod, smiling a little. It’s humbling, knowing everyone likes you that much, and that you haven’t intimidated your way into it. And scary. “It’s an honor,” I tell her, and I mean it. I really do.
She writes down my words verbatim. Her big red curls fall in her face and a couple of strands stick to her bubblegum-pink lip gloss.
“Can I fact-check a couple of things for the profile?” she asks. “Just to make sure I get everything right? I mean, if you have time?” Her voice wobbles.
I nod. “Sure.”
“You’ve been accepted to Yale, Stanford, and Harvard, correct?”
“Almost. Not Harvard. Brown, actually.”
I watch as she ticks off the names of the correct colleges and
scratches out Harvard. She clears her throat. “Right. And you’ve been captain of the cheerleading squad for . . . ?”
“Two years now. Ever since Ilana Giavanni tore her ACL.”
Sydnee nods and scribbles another note. I want to ask her to use her phone to record so the interview will move more quickly, but she seems so nervous I don’t want to make it worse. This is probably her first ever interview for the Harts High Beat (and yes, that is the worst name for a newspaper ever) and I don’t want her to think she’s doing a bad job. She’s actually doing pretty well. I once was interviewed by this boy who couldn’t even write because his hands were shaking so hard. Poor thing.
“And you’ve had a 4.0—since forever?”
I laugh. “I think I got a lackluster grade in handwriting once. But yeah, my grades have been pretty good since—just say high school, okay?”
Sydnee’s brow furrows. “Okay. Now, the fun stuff. Eye color, blue . . . height . . . five seven . . . hair color . . . blond?”
I fluff my hair. “Um, my hairstylist makes it look natural, doesn’t he?” I laugh. “I’m kind of a dirty blond. Or a lackluster brunette.”
She covers her mouth, like I told her some kind of dirty secret. “Am I allowed to publish that? That you’re not a real blonde?”
“You can publish where I get it done, for all I care. Maybe he’ll give me a discount for the free ad space.” I laugh again, and Sydnee giggles, high-pitched and eager.
“Is Hartsville your hometown?” she asks.
“Born and raised.”
“Okay. Now I need an embarrassing story.”
“Hmm.” I tap my lips. “I once got trapped in an elevator.”
Sydnee’s eyes widen. “What? How is that embarrassing? That sounds horrifying!”
“Well, it was. Except that I had just downed, like, an entire grande caramel brulée latte before getting on the elevator, and I was in there, alone, for almost four hours.”
Syndee’s eyes go super wide and round. “So what happened? Did you pee your pants?”
“Um, remember the empty Starbucks cup?”
I nod, and Sydnee covers her mouth.
“By the time I got rescued, I had a full coffee cup with me. I just pretended it was, like, leftover latte, but you could totally smell it. It was pretty gross. The guy who rescued me actually made a face.”
Sydnee chokes and then clears her throat. “Are you—are you sure you actually want this to be published in the paper, Riley?”
I laugh. “I don’t care. It’s funny, right?”
She nods. “Um, yeah. It’s just crazy.”
“You can’t take everything so seriously, Sydnee.”
Sydnee lifts a shoulder to her ear.
I stand up from the table. “I have to meet my family for dinner, but if you have any more questions, you can text me, okay?”
She blinks at me. “On your phone? I mean—you—are you sure?”
I smile. “Yeah, sure. Just let me know, okay?”
Sydnee unlocks her phone and hands it to me, and I enter my number as RILEY STONE !! . I try to hand it back to
her, but she’s just staring at me, all trembly and owl-eyed, like I’m sort of celebrity, so I swoop in and give her a hug and a pat on the shoulder and then I just leave her phone on her notepad.
“Don’t hesitate to text or whatever, okay, Syd?” I put my sunglasses on, sweep my (dyed) blond hair over my shoulder, and leave the freshman alone at the school café. “I can’t wait to see it in the paper. You’ll let me know when it runs, won’t you?”
“Next . . . next week. See you later, okay, Riley Stone?”
“See you, Sydnee.” I smile big at her, trying to communicate that we’re cool, and she’s cool, and maybe she doesn’t have to be so scared next time.
• • •
“This came for you,” Mom says, handing me a neat white envelope with Princeton University emblazoned on the corner. We’re all standing around in the kitchen, like we always do, but Dad’s the only one really cooking. Mom’s just getting things out of the refrigerator for him, setting them close by in case he needs them, like she’s actually part of the process or something. She’s pretty awful at it—cooking, baking, you name it. She can barely slap together a peanut butter sandwich without causing some serious damage. Dad has the talent, and right now he’s stirring his signature red sauce while it simmers on the stove top, filling the kitchen with a warm, rich, garlicky scent that would put most Italian restaurants to shame.
“Do you want to try it?” my dad asks absently, not really expecting anyone to take him up on it. He knows it’s good already. It’s always good.
“Um, Mom, did you see what’s on this envelope?” I wave it at her. Princeton. I didn’t get accepted early decision there, but I don’t really see any reason why I wouldn’t have been. I know what’s inside but I want her to just look at me, just for a second. “Mom.”
I ease my finger under the envelope.
“Just a minute, honey.” She’s turned away and already talking to Ethan, my brother, and smiling down on him with her hands on her svelte hips. He’s gotten into the garlic bread and has crumbs in the scraggly beard he’s trying to grow. He brushes at them with the back of his hand, and they fall into his lap.
“How is she?” my mom is asking in a low voice, like the whole family doesn’t already know that his girlfriend is six months knocked up.
With another man’s child.
I tear off a piece of the garlic bread for myself. “Yeah, how is she?” I ask, not because I’m being nasty or anything . . . but because I really want to know. His girlfriend’s name is Esther and she’s Mother Teresa, except six months pregnant, because she fell in love with the wrong guy, which was Not Ethan, before she fell in love with the right guy, which is Hopefully Ethan.
“She’s good,” Ethan says. “I’m going with her to her next doctor’s appointment.”
Mom glows at him. “That’s sweet of you, honey.”
I feel a little twinge beneath my breastbone. Here I am, getting greasy garlic-bread hands all over my letter from Princeton, and Mom doesn’t really care. But get my brother to go to his pregnant
girlfriend’s doctor’s appointment, and she’s practically a living, breathing parental seal of approval.
I bite back my disappointment. Maybe all I need for some attention is something growing in utero.
I sit down at the kitchen table across from my brother while Dad takes the sauce off the stove and pours it into a white serving bowl. I stuff the garlic bread in my mouth all at once—Sydnee and everyone at school would so disapprove—and open my Princeton letter.
“Dear Riley E. Stone,” I say through the mouthful of bread. I take a big drink of water and swallow it down. “We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted into Princeton University’s 2022 freshman class.”
Dad turns toward me and favors me with a smile. “That’s great, sweetie.” He turns back to his spaghetti, takes it off the burner, and begins to drain the noodles. The hot water hisses as it hits the stainless steel of the sink.
Mom pats me on the shoulder sort of halfheartedly and Ethan fist-bumps me.
“Is Esther coming over for dinner, Ethan darling?” Mom asks my brother.
“She can invite her family,” Dad says from the stove. “I’ve made plenty. Can you ask them to pick up wine, though, if her parents do come? I think a nice red could go well with this, but I haven’t bought any in ages.”
“Probably not. Her dad’s on a business trip,” Ethan says. “Dunno about her mom and sisters.” He gives me a little smile. I
think he feels bad. He’s always stealing my thunder a little bit, without even meaning to. He’s just that sort of person. Magnetic. Even when he’s doing something utterly without merit.
He’s the type of man who could lead an entire army into a meaningless battle and they’d fight with fervor.
In fact, in high school, he got suspended for two weeks when his Spanish teacher realized he was cutting class to host a twenty-man Call of Duty tournament (pay to play with a cash prize) in the school auditorium, and even after ten of the twenty players joined him (in less-serious punishments, obviously, as Ethan was found to be the ringleader) he still made out with, like, a thousand dollars. And then he just moved the tournaments to our basement when our parents weren’t home.
My father sets the noodles in the middle of the table and follows it with the bowl of rich sauce, steaming from the stove. “I hear Purdue is really great,” he tells me. “You’re very lucky to be accepted.”
I look down at the Princeton letter. I’ve left buttery yellow smudges all over it.
“Purdue is really great,” I repeat.
No one bothers to correct my father, but I’m not entirely sure they know he was wrong to start with. They start passing around the noodles. Mom wants Parmesan cheese, so I run to the refrigerator and grate a little into a tiny red bowl.
“Food’s perfect, Dad,” I tell him.