The Sister Solution ONE
The Ninth Ring of Saturn
“I SEE SATURN!” EDEN SQUINTS, and her cinna mon brown eyes disappear beneath lashes plumped to the max with glittery mascara. “I think.”
A second from biting into my taco, I freeze.
A chunk of salsa plops onto my plate. I can’t stand it any longer. “Well?”
“Yep. It’s her. Saturn is buying a salad with app—no, pear slices.”
A wave of fear—a tsunami of terror, actually—surges through me. Saturn is our code for Patrice
Houston, the most popular girl in the eighth grade. If she’s at the salad bar, it means I have less than thirty seconds to tame my lion’s mane of red hair, shrink four inches, get my ears pierced, buy some new clothes, and make over my entire personality.
Twenty-nine . . . twenty-eight . . .
Eden and I gave Patrice the name Saturn because she has rings of friends circling her. The closer friend you are, the closer you get to sit to her at lunch. Eden Tran and I are in one of the outer rings. Okay, the ninth and last ring. Sometimes, she’ll talk to us on her way to her table if we don’t have food in our mouths or are wearing something cute and if she hasn’t broken a nail, failed a test, or had a fight with the boy she likes. I know that’s a lot of “ifs,” but when you’ve been working your way toward the inner orbit for seven months the way Eden and I have, you take whatever you can get.
Once, when Eden was absent a few months ago, Patrice invited me to sit with her group at lunch. It was my first time in the first ring. I ended up right beside Saturn. We were so close Patrice nearly knocked over my apple juice. It was beyond epic. However, I hadn’t
been there more than a few minutes when I knew something was wrong. Patrice’s pretty face was all caved in. I watched her stab about a hundred holes into her baked chicken before, finally, getting up the nerve to ask, “Is everything okay?”
“I’m in a colossally bad mood,” she hissed.
“Anything I can do?”
“I doubt it. I have a dumb photography assignment due in Hargrove’s class. We’re supposed to do a study of humanity, whatever that means.”
I couldn’t believe it! Not only did I love photography, but I’d had Hargrove for art last semester. I knew what the assignment was, and what he was looking for, and what he was looking for were pictures with emotion. Was it possible that I, the ordinarily average Samantha Eleanor Tremayne, could help the supremely popular Patrice Houston? I whipped out my cell phone. I explained the assignment and started showing her pictures I’d taken so she’d understand what to do. Her face brightened. Scrolling through some of my best shots, Patrice said the nicest thing anybody has ever said to me. She said, “You’re a great photographer, Sammi.” I wish she would have said it loud enough for
the whole first ring to hear, but you can’t have everything. Patrice even let me snap a selfie of the two of us before lunch ended. I’ll never forget that as long as I live. Neither will Eden. She was bummed she’d missed the entire thing.
“Tanith is with her but I don’t see Cara anywhere,” Eden says as if she is broadcasting a golf tournament on TV. “Mercy is missing too. Maybe she came in the south entrance and is already in line.” Dark eyes scan the cafeteria. “No sign of SGB either.” SGB (super gorgeous boy) is our code for Noah Whitehall, Patrice’s on-again, off-again crush. Current status: off-again.
Twenty . . . Nineteen . . .
I chew on my lower lip. “Do you think they’re finished for good?”
“Amy said Desiree heard from Cara that Tanith said she was pretty sure they were, but that was first period and it’s been a whole three hours since then so who knows?” Eden flicks her long, silky, black hair over her shoulders. If I tried that move, my garnet-red tumbleweed hair would bounce forward and smother me to death. Hallelujah for gargantuan barrettes like
the big gold clip that’s holding my giant mass of hair back right now.
Eden strikes a pose. “Sammi, how do I look? Be honest.”
I don’t have to lie. “Stunning, as always.”
“The planet approaches.” Eden glues on a smile. “Look happy.”
Ten . . . nine . . .
I take a deep breath, and the smell of refried beans and onions burns my nostrils. I hold my taco casually in my left hand to make it look as if I am in no hurry to eat because my best friend and I are having the most fascinating conversation in the history of Tonasket Middle School.
“Get ready,” directs Eden between clenched teeth, “in five . . . four . . . three . . .”
We always finish the countdown silently so Saturn doesn’t hear.
Two . . . one . . .
“Ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.” I let out a chuckle and toss my head.
I feel a thump on the back of my skull. I turn my
head in time to see my gold Celtic-knot barrette catapult across the cafeteria. Shoot! I don’t know how far the metal missile streaks or where it lands because soon after, I am blinded by a woolen blanket of my own hair.
Melted cheese is sliding over my fingers. This cannot be happening! Is that laughter? It is. And it is not coming from Eden. Using my unslimed hand, I do my best to push the hair from my eyes. Beside me stands a pair of slim legs wearing black tights with a cute flower pattern. I tip my head, eyes traveling upward over a short black skirt and black turtleneck with red trim. A red headband arcs over smooth, shiny wheat-colored hair. It perfectly matches the turtleneck trim and ten long fingernails. Five of those fingers hold a tray with a salad, while the other five tap her hip. Patrice Houston, however, isn’t interested in me. She is gazing at something or someone across the room—probably Noah. Tanith West is beside Patrice and she is looking down at me. Tanith’s mocha ponytail curls over one shoulder. Her shirt is tucked halfway into a new pair of three-hundred-dollar Bitterroot jeans I
would give a kidney to have in my own closet.
Holding her tray against her, Tanith coolly raises an eyebrow. “Defective taco, Sammi?”
I turn my wrist over, striking a pose. “It’s only a small—”
Crack! The taco shell collapses. An avalanche of beef, cheese, lettuce, and salsa spills over my hand and onto the tray. Eden’s eyes vanish into her forehead. I am blowing it for us big time. I start grabbing napkins.
“Bummer,” says Tanith in an unsympathetic tone.
“That’s why we never eat tacos,” says Patrice with a giggle. “So you guys want to sit with us?”
I gulp so loud everyone hears it. “Us? You? Now?”
“Yes. You. Us. Now.” Tanith snorts. “Cara is on a field trip and Mercy has some kind of wicked cold germ.”
“We’ll be right there,” Eden says, before I can sputter more nonsense.
“You know where to find us,” says Patrice. “Tanith, what are you waiting for? Go.”
“Forgive meee,” Tanith snaps, and leads the way down the aisle.
We wait until Patrice and Tanith are out of earshot
to do our victory cry. We hook pinkies and quietly say, “Skuh-wee!” Neither of us can remember why we started celebrating this way, but we have been doing it since the fifth grade. It’s pretty childish, I know, but it’s tradition and tradition tops maturity any day.
“Sammi, when we get over there you’ve got to keep it together,” says Eden, wrapping up her baked potato. “You can’t be breaking taco shells or getting lettuce stuck in your teeth. If we have another food catastrophe, we’ll get banished to the outer edge of the universe.”
We pause from packing to glance at Lauren Berring and Hanna Welch, eating together under the growling tiger mascot painted on the wall. Last fall the two of them were in Saturn’s first ring, meaning they sat at her table. By Christmas they were four tables away. Now, three months later, they float alone in the vast outer reaches of middle school space. Nobody knows what happened. Those of us trying to orbit closer to Saturn are too afraid to ask—too afraid that if we know, we might end up like Lauren and Hanna.
As we head toward Saturn, Eden hisses, “Do not do that thing with your face.”
thing you do when something’s bothering you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“This.” She scrunches her nose up. Eden looks as if she has caught a whiff of the boys locker room after a track meet.
“I don’t do that.”
“You do so.”
And we are here, so I can’t insist that my BFF is TCD (totally and completely delusional). At the moment we have a bigger problem than my face. There are no empty places at Patrice and Tanith’s table. The spots left by Cara and Mercy have been taken by India Martello and Desiree Pierce, who are much higher in the order of orbit than we are. I look at Eden. What are we supposed to do now? Tanith sees us and points a couple of tables over, where there are two open seats. It’s a ring farther out than we expected, but there’s not much we can do about it. We obey, setting our lunches next to Stella Nguyen and Bridget Forrester.
“Hi,” we say.
“Hi,” they say.
I’m nervous. It’s
been awhile since we last ate with Stella and Bridget. I don’t know them very well. I want to start a conversation, but I can’t think of anything cute or funny to say. My little sister, Jorgianna, always has some kind of crazy piece of trivia on the tip of her tongue. She is a genius. No kidding. Jorgianna is eleven, but tests at an eleventh-grade level. Everyone knows my sister will do something remarkable with her life. I, on the other hand, am not expected to do much with mine. I have a solid B average, am fourth-chair clarinet, and have never won anything. Not a photography contest. Not a spelling bee. Not even a dumb jar of honey at the county fair.
I am sculpting my applesauce into a four-leaf clover when Eden catches my eye. She shakes her head. I must be making The Face. I try to relax my jaw, but I can’t see myself. I have a feeling I look like I’ve got a bad sunburn.
“I love your sweater,” Bridget says to me. “Moss is my favorite color.”
“Mine too. My sister made it for my birthday.”
“She made that?”
is super crafty. She taught herself from a book she got at the library. Tried to teach me, too, but I never got the hang of it.”
“Me neither,” says Stella. “My aunt got me started, but forgot to show me how to finish off. I have a scarf that’s ten feet long—so far.”
We laugh, and pretty soon the four of us are talking about all kinds of things, like the new blue-raspberry gum in the vending machine that always steals your money, and Principal Ostrum’s love of hand sanitizer.
The bell rings.
“See you guys tomorrow?” asks Stella.
Eden and I nod. We aren’t sure Patrice will approve the idea, but we hope so. Boy, do we hope so.
“You know what this means,” says Eden, once we dump our trash.
Of course I do! We are now in Saturn’s fourth ring. Maybe this time it will stick.
We grab pinkies again. “Skuh-wee!”
There is a tap on my shoulder. Thinking it’s Bridget or Stella, I spin quickly on my heel. Too quickly. I topple forward, crushing the toes of—oh no!—my secret crush,
a.k.a. SGB, a.k.a. Noah Whitehall. “Sorry.” I regain my balance. “You okay?”
“No damage,” says Noah. “You?”
“Fine.” I sound like a squeaky violin.
I look into Noah’s eyes. I have grown four inches in the past eight months and am now taller than two-thirds of the boys in the eighth grade. But today, here and now, Noah and I are eye to eye. And his eyes, I must remember to tell Eden, are nice. Really, really nice. Unusual. The lightest of greens with gold flecks and not a trace of the sarcasm you typically see in a boy’s eyes. A million thoughts storm my brain. I never noticed that little dimple in the middle of his chin and he smells like whipped cream and he sure does look good in that heather gray long-sleeve tee with the sleeves pushed up. I feel dizzy. It could be because we are standing next to the soup and it’s French onion soup day (heavy on the onions). Or it could be him.
Noah opens his hand to reveal my gold Celtic-knot barrette. “Yours?”
Shoot! Did I just say “yuh-huh” to the cutest boy in the universe?
I take the clip. My fingers brush his hand, and all the blood in my body rushes up to play connect the dots with the freckles on my cheeks and nose. I can feel tiny beads of sweat on my forehead.
Why am I getting all flustered? Boys never notice me, especially with Eden around. We are both thirteen, but she looks fifteen. Eden is slim, yet athletic, with toned olive arms and legs in perfect proportion to the rest of her body. My body, on the other hand, is in rebellion. It likes to surprise me with random growth spurts. One day my arms are too long for my sleeves and the next my feet are bursting out of my boots—my practically new Daisy Chain hunter-green ankle boots I’d wanted forever and had been so careful not to scuff, scratch, or get even one itty bitty smudge on. I ended up giving them to my little sister, Jorgianna, whose fashion style can best be described as Triple G (ghastly, gaudy, and gross). My sister has a huge vocabulary, but the word subtle is not in it. Jorgianna paired my heavenly boots with a gold-fringed top, a red-and-white gingham overhaul-style jumper, and neon-yellow tights. She looked like a picnic basket exploded on her.
Noah sweeps aside long, dark bangs. “That thing is pretty aerodynamic.”
“Please don’t tell me it hit you.”
“Okay, I won’t, but . . .” He rubs his shoulder.
“I am so, so sorry.”
Could this day get any worse?
“Seriously,” Noah rushes to say, “I barely felt it. Well . . . see ya, Sammi.” He said my name! My secret crush, a.k.a. SGB, a.k.a. Noah Whitehall actually said my name! For several seconds I hear our flute section playing my favorite section of the Mozart Flute Concerto No. 1, but without Tanith, who is always out of tune and one beat behind everyone else.
“See ya . . .” I let the sentence hang in the air. If I say Noah’s name, I’m afraid he’ll know by the tone of my voice that I like him. So I don’t. I can’t. What if he doesn’t like me back? Of course he doesn’t like me back. He likes Patrice. I scan the cafeteria for Saturn. There she is! Tanith is orbiting her. They are heading toward the exit at the opposite end of the long room, yet looking—more like glaring—in our direction.
“Be careful, you don’t
want Patrice to see you flirting with SGB,” says Eden.
“I wasn’t flirting.”
“Of course you weren’t. And he was definitely not flirting back.” My best friend gives me a sideways smile.
I roll my eyes, but can’t help returning the grin. SGB flirting with me? That’s a laugh and a half. He barely knows I exist. Well, that’s not completely true. He knows my name. Plus, of all the kids in the cafeteria, my barrette hit Noah. That has to mean something. As my sister would say, it’s serendipity.
It was meant to be.