In China a red envelope meant the owner had good luck and protection from evil. At Brighton Junior Academy a red envelope meant the owner had half a brain and way too many pairs of shoes.
I never expected to be in that group, but somehow, on the first day of seventh grade, one of those envelopes found its way to my locker.
Across the front of the envelope my name, Delilah James, flowed in fancy gold script, complete with a sparkling rhinestone dotting the i. As a writer for the school paper, I’d seen my name dozens of times in the byline, but never printed with quite as much pizzazz. Most girls would have squealed, taken their picture with the envelope, and framed it, but I just stared.
“Come on, Delilah!” Someone jabbed me in the ribs. “School ended five minutes ago, and I’ve got to have some real food.” My best friend, Jenner, held up the candy necklace she’d been gnawing, now just a sticky elastic string holding some sugar loops. “I’m this close to cannibalism.”
“Well, can you stop picturing me as a giant pork chop and look at this?” I stepped aside, revealing the envelope.
Jenner sucked in her breath, along with a partially chewed bit of candy. She coughed until I smacked her on the back. “No … way,” she finally managed.
She bent and studied my locker door, as if it had somehow produced the envelope on its own. “She would never send this.”
“She hates you!”
“I …” I frowned. “Well, I don’t think she hates me. She just … mildly objects to my existence.” I shrugged. “And maybe we’re wrong. Maybe it’s from someone else who has a thing for red envelopes.”
“Oooh!” Jenner’s curly blond hair bounced as she leaned close and whispered, “It could be from a creepy Valentine killer who’s seven months behind. Or a creepy Christmas killer who’s getting a head start on the season. Or—” I glared at her and she backed away. “Or something not involving any form of creepy holiday killer.”
My best friend, queen of the macabre.
Jenner was overly fond of death, disease, and dismemberment. She’d once told me that if she couldn’t make a career out of surfing (her first passion), then she wanted to be a grave digger.
The two of us turned to face the envelope.
It was time to get serious.
I plucked the envelope free, and a supercharged whiff of Chanel No. 5 hit me. In that instant I knew we weren’t mistaken about the sender. Only one girl at Brighton Junior Academy wore that fragrance. Only one girl was allowed to wear that fragrance—Paige Sanders, president of the Debutantes.
And Jenner was right; Paige did hate me.
Of all the cliques that girls would push one another in front of a train to get into, the Debutantes had the longest line at the tracks. To be accepted meant instant popularity, but scoring the invite took an insane amount of brownnosing. The only exceptions to the admission process were the new president and her officers, who were chosen based on the number of girls they could crush beneath their wedge sandals.
I’d written an article on the whole affair, earning the wrath of the Debutantes, who didn’t like the bad press or the fact that I called them “Little Debbies” (like the desserts, they were flaky, artificial, and hard to stomach). But I’d won an award for the piece and impressed the new student editor, who promoted me to lead reporter.
To be honest, that hadn’t been half as surprising as the envelope in my hands.
“Open it.” Jenner nudged me.
I ripped into the paper, and it exploded in a shower of star-shaped confetti and iridescent glitter. “Wow. This must be what happens when unicorns throw up.”
“It’s probably some decorative version of anthrax that’ll make your lungs rupture and explode.” Jenner brushed the excess off my hand. “Don’t breathe too deep.”
The card inside the envelope had “You’re Invited !” written across the top in even more glitter, which clung to my fingertips and made the invitation sparkle. To add to all the shimmer and flair, the Little Debbies had jotted a personal note:
It is our pleasure to formally announce your consideration for the Debutantes. Please join us tomorrow during study hall in the student lounge to discuss your potentially exciting future.
Paige’s signature appeared at the bottom, followed by several names with various smiley faces and hearts dotting the i ’s.
Jenner read over my shoulder and snorted.
I scanned the note several times and felt reality slipping further and further away. “I could never be one of them.”
Jenner nodded in agreement. “You’re smart and you have a good personality. Where would you fit in?”
I laughed and reached into the locker for my Thought Box, filing the invitation behind a cardboard divider labeled Unexplained Phenomena. “Congratulations, Paige. You’ve earned a coveted spot in my weirdo file.”
“Shh. Listen.” Jenner cupped her hand around her ear. “You can almost hear the cries of all the girls who couldn’t score an invite.”
In that moment of mock silence I actually did hear something: a commanding voice growing closer and clearer, punctuated by the tap-tap-tap of heels hitting the floor.
“And make sure the area’s secure,” said the voice, which I recognized as Paige’s. She spoke in a nasal tone, as if she were pinching her nostrils to block out the smell of commoners. “I don’t want any rejects trying to sneak in.”
“Oh, that won’t be an issue. We’ve got Aaron and Travis
on freak patrol.” Another voice giggled, slightly out of breath.
“Good.” There was no matching joy in Paige’s voice. “And the pledge packets?”
A third voice chimed in, speaking at a rapid clip. “We’ve got pens, pins, forms, folders—”
“I didn’t ask for a complete inventory,” Paige cut in. “I just need to know if the packets are ready.”
“Yes, totally” was the rapid response.
By this point, Paige and friends were passing the locker bay, and I realized the other voices I’d heard were Friend 1 and Friend 2, speed-walking to keep up with Paige’s brisk pace.
Suddenly Paige paused mid-march and swiveled in my direction. Her blond hair swung around her shoulders like a shining silk curtain, and her eyes, one shade from violet, fixed on me.
“Delilah James.” Her tone was neutral, devoid of the invite’s glitter and confetti, and I wondered if one of her officers had sent it as a joke. But then Paige’s lips parted into a smile broad enough for me to count every one of her perfect white teeth. “I’m so glad we ran into you!”
I looked to her friends, half expecting one of them to offer me a juicy, poisoned apple. Instead, they clutched at their clipboards and mirrored Paige’s expression, toothy grins and all. “Um. Okay.”
Paige waved just her fingertips at Jenner. “And good to see you, too …” She trailed off until one of her companions whispered in her ear. “Beatrice.”
“I go by my last name, actually,” said Jenner. “Beatrice is more for prune poppers.”
Paige nodded while her companion whispered in her ear again. “Well, then, Jenner, it’s good to see you, too, but you might want to rethink that fashion statement.” She pointed to the lone piece of blue candy still hanging around Jenner’s neck.
“Sorry. Let me get rid of it.” Jenner brought the necklace to her mouth and crunched on it until the candy disappeared.
“And … now you’re just wearing a piece of spit-soaked elastic.” Paige’s lip curled. “Even better.”
Jenner winked at her. “I aim to please.” To me, she waved and stepped back. “I’ll see you in the courtyard.”
“Strange girl … but cute,” Paige commented, watching her go. “Too bad we didn’t invite her to join the Debutantes.”
“She’s a surfer,” commented one of Paige’s friends. “And you’re allergic to seaweed.”
“Oh.” Paige wrinkled her nose. “Never mind, then.” She turned back to me. “So, you got our invitation.”
I was still trying to make sense of their bizarre reason for excluding Jenner. “Um … yeah. I did not see that coming.”
Paige smiled and nodded at the confetti littering the ground. “Are you excited or what?” She held her arms open, as if expecting applause or a bouquet of roses.
“You made a mistake,” I said.
Paige’s arms snapped back to cross over her chest. “Interesting. I never make mistakes … but go on.”
“Don’t you remember that article I wrote last year? The one where I said less than stellar things about the Little Debbies?”
A flicker of annoyance crossed her face, but Paige smiled and relaxed. “Of course the Debutantes remember. That’s exactly the reason we want you to join.”
I glanced at her friends again, but they still stood with clipboards in hand, awaiting her next instruction. “I don’t get it.”
“Let me explain.” Paige smiled sympathetically and plucked a stray hair off my blouse. “Jesus once said, ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em—’”
I wrinkled my forehead. “Jesus didn’t say that.”
Paige rolled her eyes. “Confucius, then. Whatever.” She gripped my shoulders. “The point is, Delilah, you have the power of the pen, and if you want to continue spreading horrible lies about us”—I opened my mouth to object, but she held up a palm—“we’re powerless. So, since we can’t beat you, we ask you to join us.”
I frowned. “But that quote means you should join me … since you can’t beat me.”
Paige’s expression darkened for a moment, but she forced a smile. “That’s another reason you’d be an asset. You’re so clever … and bold. You don’t mind pointing out people’s mistakes in front of others, even if it embarrasses them!”
Not even a machete could have hacked through the sarcasm hanging in the air. “Well, sorry, but I can’t join,” I said.
A clipboard hit the floor with a loud smack, and its pink-cheeked owner bent to pick it up. Paige scowled at the girl, then looked at me with an amused smile. “I … don’t think I heard you correctly. Can you repeat that?”
I knew she’d heard the first time. This was just her way of offering me a second chance to keep from executing the biggest blunder in Brighton Junior Academy history.
“I decline your invitation to join the Debutantes,” I said in my most formal tone.
Paige took a step back, as if I’d spat on her. “Seriously.”
“Seriously,” I said.
“But nobody declines!” exclaimed the girl who’d dropped her clipboard. She jabbed at it with her finger. “Out of thirty girls, you’re the only one!”
“Cool.” I peered at the clipboard. “Do I get a special trophy for that?”
Paige jerked the clipboard out of the other girl’s hands and tucked it under one arm. “You don’t want to turn this down, Delilah. You’d benefit as much as we would.”
“How?” I asked. “By getting to call myself a Little Debbie?”
“Most people are grateful just to be called Debutantes,” said Paige, stressing the last word so hard, I thought she might pull a muscle. “But we can help you achieve your heart’s desire.” She reached into her backpack and held up a teen magazine.
I read the headlines. “Well, I would like clearer skin in five days … but that’s not my heart’s desire.”
The magazine crinkled under Paige’s fingers, and she pressed her lips together before speaking in a quiet, girl-on-the-edge tone. “I’m talking about being a journalist, Delilah. That’s your big dream, isn’t it? To write long, boring articles about world affairs and the grayhouse effect someday?”
“Greenhouse,” I corrected. “Your point?”
“You have to start somewhere,” said Paige. “And we have access to information that would make US Weekly jealous.”
I tried to appear uninterested, but Paige had a point. If anyone knew what was happening at Brighton, it was the Little Debbies … and they didn’t share their secrets with just anyone.
I cleared my throat. “Out of curiosity … what sort of information are we talking about?”
Paige shrugged, but the corners of her mouth curved upward. “I guess you won’t know unless you become a Debutante.” She leaned closer to me. “But I can tell you this. One of our classmates is about to be spending a little time in juvie for her sticky fingers.”
“Shoplifting,” translated Friend 1. She immediately quieted after a look from Paige.
“And not even good shoplifting,” continued Paige. “In a roomful of Coach, the girl went for Nine West!”
I bit my lip and fought for calm. “Oh. Is that all?”
A lead-in like that almost wrote its own story, and I had no doubt Paige already knew who the girl was. If my first article as lead reporter could be about preteen shoplifting and its consequences from an actual offender …
Daydreaming wasn’t my thing, but I allowed myself a hypothetical. In it I was holding the Junior Global Journalist Award, thanking my mom for her support and my late father for his inspiration.
My dad had died when I was still in grade school. He’d been one of the best journalists in the country, always praised for his original stories and attention to detail in his research. He was my idol; I wouldn’t exactly be following in his footsteps if the Little Debbies fed me all my information.
I sighed and shook my head. “It’s tempting, but I’d rather do this on my own.”
Paige stared at me for a moment before nodding. “I understand.” She gestured to Friend 1 and Friend 2. “We’ll see you in the lounge during study hall tomorrow.”
“Wait.” I waved my hands. “Didn’t you hear me? I’m not interested.” I thrust the invite at her, and she regarded it with an amused smile.
“Keep it. I’ve seen your future.” She arched one eyebrow and turned to walk away. “By tomorrow afternoon you’ll be holding on to that invitation for dear life.”
© 2010 Jo Whittemore
Paige has seen your future? She can’t even see her own future as a Macy’s perfume spritzer.” Jenner let out her trademark laugh that was part hyena, part mule, and altogether terrifying to children and woodland creatures.
We were walking home from school, and I’d just filled her in on my discussion with Paige, including the mysterious shoplifter, but Jenner was focused on one thing.
“Wait!” She grabbed my arm and gazed at me with wide, dramatic eyes. “I’ll bet the Little Debbies have a time machine!”
I did crack a smile at that. “Man, the rich kids get all the best stuff.”
Jenner unwrapped a lollipop ring and slid it on her finger. “You should have Major build one for you,” she said as she popped the ring into her mouth.
Major was Major Paulsen, my soon-to-be-stepfather, a tall man with perfect posture and a salt-and-pepper buzz cut. When he wasn’t caught up in nauseating romance with my mom, he worked on government defense technology.
“With the projects his team handles, they probably could build me a time machine,” I said. “Then at least I’d know what was coming.”
The candy ring popped out of Jenner’s mouth. “Don’t tell me you actually believe Paige.”
I pointed to a group of squealing girls ahead of us, one of whom was clutching a familiar red envelope. “They all want to be Little Debbies, and if they think it’ll help their chances, they’ll give up any secret they know.”
“But about you?” Jenner cast me a dubious look. “No offense, but you’re not that interesting.”
I shoved her playfully. “It doesn’t have to be about me, dummy. It just has to affect me.”
Jenner sucked on her ring and looked thoughtful. “Something with the newspaper?”
I nodded. “Paige knows it’s the only thing at school I care about.”
“Well, she’s crazy if she thinks that’ll go wrong.” Jenner smiled around her emerald-colored candy. “Not while the editor’s smooching your sneakers, anyway.”
I gave a modest shrug, but I knew she was right.
Ben Hines, the student editor, had been crushing on me since I’d saved him from the Swirlie Bandit in sixth grade. He was the shortest kid in our class and let his mom wipe his face with saliva-soaked Kleenex. Naturally that made him a prime target for attack.
At the time, I’d been trying to unmask the Swirlie Bandit, but nobody in the boy’s bathroom would say anything to me except “Get out!” When I finally managed to sneak in, the Swirlie Bandit showed up to dunk Ben, and I exposed him in person and in the paper. The boy had been smart enough to hide his face … but not his jersey with the name “Marcus” on it. Nowadays he was probably serving time in juvie with kids named Knuckles and the Impaler.
“I should try and find Marcus for a follow-up article,” I said.
Jenner snorted. “Somehow I doubt he’d talk to you.” She tugged my hair. “Weren’t his last words ‘I hate you, crazy redhead’?”
“Yes, but the Little Debbies hate me too,” I reminded her, “and look how that turned out.”
Jenner shuddered. “Geez, what a freaky cult. I’m so glad you didn’t join.”
“Having their info would have rocked,” I admitted, “but I can come up with stories on my own.”
“Exactly.” Jenner nodded. “Because you are a future Junior Global Journalist.”
“Speaking of which”—I rubbed my hands together—“it’s time for the debut edition of the paper! Which article is more award-worthy? X-ray machines for frogs or desperate dating behavior?”
“X-rays, definitely.” Jenner held up a hand. “Unless the desperate dating involves sending someone a severed thumb.”
“No, but almost as gross.” I stepped closer to whisper. “Two weeks ago at the mall, I saw Renee Mercer wearing dark sunglasses and a wig.”
Jenner’s eyebrows furrowed. “Okay …”
“She was hiding behind this big pillar in the food court, watching her ex-boyfriend eat an ice-cream cone. He couldn’t finish it, so he threw it away. As soon as he left, Renee ran over to the waste bin and pulled out the ice-cream cone.”
Jenner’s jaw dropped. “She didn’t—”
I nodded. “She ate it.”
Jenner flinched. “That’s an entirely different kind of creepy.”
I pulled a spiral notepad from my back pocket and read aloud. “Gobbling his garbage? It’s time to move on.”
“Uh … no.” Jenner took my notepad and ripped off the top page. “You’re not writing an article about people who can’t let go. Especially Renee. She’ll pound you into oblivion!”
“She wouldn’t be the focus of the article,” I explained. “Just an example.”
Jenner raised an eyebrow.
“An anonymous example.”
Jenner refused to blink, and I groaned. “Come on! People care more about dating than frogs.”
“Yeah, that’s a good quote for your tombstone,” she said. “We should order now so it’ll be ready when Renee’s done ripping your head off.”
“Fine. Why don’t we stop by Ben’s house and ask him which he thinks is better?”
Jenner smirked at me. “You just want a chance to hear him say you’re the lead reporter again.”
“Well, I didn’t see him all summer,” I said. “He went to France for the first half and then Major made us go to Yosemite for most of the second.”
“Fine.” Jenner sighed. “I have time to kill.”
“Great! Let me just drop off my stuff and tell Major.” Mom was out of the country on business for two weeks, and she’d invited Major over to “bond” with me. … A nice way of saying she’d found a free babysitter.
We reached my house, and Jenner followed me into the hallway. “Major?” I called.
“In the kitchen!” bellowed a gravelly voice. “Come tell me what you want for dinner.”
Jenner poked me. “He cooks? When it’s just me and my dad, he never cooks.”
I rolled my eyes. “Don’t be impressed. Everything he makes comes from a box with ‘Just add water!’ on the outside.”
“Yeah, but …” Jenner sniffed the air. “At least he makes cake.”
When I walked into the kitchen, Major had an assortment of boxes and bags lined up on the counter. It was a little weird to see him wearing an apron over his military fatigues, but Major liked to stay professional at all times. Even his pajamas were government issue.
“Girls, hello!” he boomed. “How was school?”
“Are you baking cake?” Jenner asked.
Major grinned and pointed to a fluffy white monster with brown crust. “Angel food cake. Would you like a slice?”
Jenner’s eyes lit up. “Yes, please.”
Major grabbed a plate for her. “How about you, Delilah?”
“Just a small one,” I said. “We’re heading back out in a minute.”
Major put down the plate and pulled a slip of paper from his pocket, studying it for a moment before glancing up at me. “Do you have any homework?”
“Not on the first day of school.” I unzipped my backpack so he could see inside, and Major wrinkled his nose.
“What is that smell?”
I took a whiff of Paige’s signature scent, which was starting to overwhelm the aroma of baked cake. “Oh, just perfume.” I held out my hands for a plate of spongy goodness, but Major kept it just out of reach.
“You know how your mother feels about perfume, Delilah.” He referred to his paper again. “Not until … you’re in high school.”
“It’s not mine!” I whipped the Little Debbie invite out of my bag. “It’s from this.”
Major took the invite from me, his lips moving as he read until they eventually curved into a smile. “Well, this is great, Delilah!”
“Yeah, but I’m not going to join,” I said.
Major clucked his tongue and passed me a slice of cake. “That’s too bad. The social skills you develop now will shape your future.” He sounded as if he’d memorized the words out of a parenting manual.
“My future is journalism, Major.” I ripped off a chunk of cake and popped it into my mouth. “And being part of a snob society won’t help.”
Major leaned against the counter. “I hate to break this to you, Delilah, but the ‘snob society’ is very influential in the news world. Who do you think owns all the magazines?”
“It is all about who you know,” agreed Jenner. “The student editor has a crush on Delilah and now she’s the lead—” She shrank back under my glare of indignation. “Sorry, but he has cake!”
“A crush?” Major frowned and left the room, returning a moment later with a blue binder. “Who is this guy, Delilah?”
“His name’s Ben Hines, and Jenner and I are going to his house right now to talk about the paper.” I crammed the rest of the cake into my mouth and shot Jenner a pointed look.
“Just a moment.” Major held up one hand while he flipped through the binder. “Hines, you said?”
“Yeah. Why?” I craned my neck and saw a page full of guy’s faces and names, all bordered by green, yellow, or red marker.
I let out a horrified gasp. “Major! You cut up my yearbook?”
“At ease, Delilah. They’re just photocopied from your yearbook,” he said. “I don’t know your classmates as well as your mother, so I had her fill me in, and I made a few judgment calls of my own.” He tapped Ben’s picture. “Luckily, he’s in the green. I approve.”
I just stared at the pages in disbelief. Only Major would categorize my peers by threat level. I was surprised every guy wasn’t outlined in red.
“What happens if they’re yellow?” Jenner pointed to a picture of a kid I’d seen maybe a dozen times at school.
“Delilah’s allowed to spend a maximum of two hours in their company, provided there’s an adult chaperone.”
I made a face. “You’re so weird, Major. We’re gonna go meet Ben now.”
“What about dinner?” he asked.
“Pizza!” I pulled Jenner out the door, cake still in her hand.
“Remember,” Major called after us, “he may be green, but he’s still a teen!”
“You know, Ben doesn’t really look like his picture anymore,” Jenner said as we walked up the Hines’ driveway.
I paused on the bottom step to their porch. “What do you mean?”
“Well, he’s taller now, and I saw him at the beach when he got back from France. He’s pretty tan.”
I tried to picture Ben soaking up rays on the beach, but all I could imagine was his mom hovering over him with an umbrella and yelling at him to put on sunscreen. “I still don’t think Major needs to worry.”
I knocked on the front door and waited a few moments before pushing it open.
Something thumped on the second floor, followed by a rolling thunder of footsteps across the landing and down the stairs.
“Delilah?” His eyes peeped around the edge of the staircase, and then his entire head appeared. “Hey! What’s up?”
He bounded toward me, grinning, but I couldn’t respond. My jaw had reached the floor, and my tongue threatened to flop out.
Either my standards had lowered, or Ben had gotten cuter over the summer.
The tips of his hair were frosted, and his skin was a gorgeous bronze. His clothes—jeans and a polo shirt—were casual and, for once, didn’t look as if his mom had picked them out.
“Ben! You … you look awesome!” I sputtered.
He laughed, and I noticed his voice had dropped an octave. “So do you. How was your summer?” He hugged me, smelling of hot guy and potential boyfriend.
“How was your summer?” I stepped back and gestured to him. “You look so different!”
He chuckled again and blushed, the pink barely visible against his skin. “I had some help. My hair was starting to get out of control, so I had to tame it … and I spent a lot of time outdoors.”
“Wow. All I spent my time doing was …” Suddenly I realized how boring my summer had been. “Um … wrestling alligators.”
Jenner pinched me, but to Ben’s credit, he merely smiled. “Hey, wait right here. I’ve got a surprise for you!”
“Okay.” I smiled and put an arm around Jenner’s shoulders. The second Ben disappeared, my fingers pulled at the latest candy necklace around her throat, letting it snap back in place.
“Ow! What was that for?”
“You told me Ben grew!” I hissed. “You didn’t say he grew hotter !”
Jenner rubbed her neck. “Why do you care? You’re waist-deep in imaginary alligators!”
“I … well, I don’t care.” Someone must have turned up the thermostat. The room suddenly felt ten degrees warmer.
“Aww. Kodak moment.” Jenner held up an invisible camera and clicked the shutter, taking shots from various angles. “Delilah’s first crush on something other than journalism.”
I sighed. “He is a smottie, isn’t he?”
“Smottie” was a Jenner term for a guy who was smart and a hottie.
Jenner tilted her hand from side to side. “Semi-smottie. You can do better.”
Ben poked his head around the stairwell again, smiling. “Are you ready for my surprise? It’s a good one.”
“Yes! Yes!” Jenner and I clapped and whistled, and Ben cleared his throat ceremoniously.
“May I present to you … Ms. Ava Piquet!” He gestured to the top of the staircase, and a pair of long, slender legs in Roman sandals emerged.
I stopped clapping, and Jenner let her cheering trail off with a dying “Whooo … hoo.”
The leggy sandals at the top of the stairs stepped down to reveal a strapless red sundress, boasting a model-thin figure.
“Please, let her have a horse face,” I whispered under my breath. “Or a unibrow.”
But as the rest of Ava Piquet strolled into view, I saw a beautiful girl with raven-colored hair and ivory skin. Her lips, which refused to smile, were the exact color of her dress.
“Ava, these are my friends Delilah and Jenner,” said Ben.
She acknowledged both of us with the slightest nod and coiled one of her arms through Ben’s. “How do you do,” she said in a thick French accent.
“Nice to meet you.” Jenner looked at Ben. “So, is this your … cousin?”
“Please.” Ava’s perfectly sculpted shoulders quivered with amusement. “I am Benjamin’s girlfriend.”
Ben grinned at us some more. “I met her when I was in France, and I convinced her to try a foreign exchange program.”
“Neat,” I said in a tight voice. “So, when is she going back?” Jenner elbowed me. “I mean, how long is she here?”
“For the entire school year!” Ben drew Ava close. “But that’s not the best part of it!” He gazed admiringly at her. “Delilah …” He paused for effect. “Ava’s going to share the lead reporter position with you!”
For a moment, silence enveloped the room as everyone watched me expectantly.
“Wow.” I swallowed hard. “I’m so excited … I could just … throw up.”
And I did.
© 2010 Jo Whittemore