Authors: Cari Simmons
“Pick up the pace, Grace!” Mari O'Hagan called from the band-room door.
Gracie Hardwick laughed. Her best friend loved to amuse herself by rhyming things with Gracie's name. She knew the next words out of Mari's mouth would be “You're losing the race, Grace!” or “Stop staring into space, Grace!”
“Just because I like to put my clarinet away properly doesn't mean you get to nag me,
,” she replied. Mari hated it when people used her whole name.
A couple of other kids laughed, used to this conversation since it happened pretty much every day.
“I don't get why you have to clean it twice,” Mari said, twirling in a circle. “Mine is already tucked away in my cubby, and you still haven't even taken yours apart!”
“This is how Mr. Cruz taught us to do it in fourth grade,” Gracie reminded her. “It's the right way toâ”
“âcare for the instrument,” Mari put in, doing her best impression of their old elementary-school music teacher. “But my way is faster.”
Gracie finished pulling the rag through her clarinet, then quickly took it apart and stowed it carefully in its case. Mari shook her head and went out into the hallway, but that didn't make Gracie hurry. She was always one of the last ones in the band room at the end of after-school practice, but she didn't mind. Her clarinet was in perfect condition.
Anyway, Mari had only been gone for a minute when Gracie finished putting her instrument in her cubby. It was no big dealâMari just hated having to stand still for even a second. It was how they'd first met, back in second-grade gym class. Mari had done a somersault right into Gracie's feet and knocked her over. She always said it was Gracie's fault for standing still to prepare for her own cartwheel, and that you were supposed to throw yourself right into gymnastic moves. But Gracie knew the truth: Mari was terrible at aiming her somersaults because she didn't bother to stop and look where she was going. Still, it was lucky that Mari'd done it, because they'd been best friends ever since.
Gracie moved away from her cubby and did a fast check of Mari's. As usual, Mari had left her band folder
behind. Gracie picked it up, turned around, and realized she was alone in the band room with Alex Parker. Usually Alex was out of there faster, so Gracie hadn't even thought to look for him. Quickly she ran a hand over her dark, kinky hair to make sure it was still neatly tucked into its braids.
Alex finished wrestling his saxophone into the high-up cubby where it lived. He gave her a grin as they both headed for the door at the same time.
“See you tomorrow, Gracie,” he said, holding it open for her.
“Thanks.” Gracie hurried past him, afraid to meet his gaze. She could hardly believe he'd called her by name. She'd assumed he didn't even know her name! Alex had come to Samoset Middle School from one of the other elementary schools, so she and Mari had only met him six months ago, at the start of sixth grade. Gracie was still getting used to all the new kidsâthere were three elementary schools that fed into Samoset. It was a little overwhelming.
Mari loved it, of course. She was never afraid of new people or new situations, which was why she was the perfect best friend. Gracie felt nervous when she didn't know exactly who everyone was or how she was supposed to act, so it helped to have Mari around. Mari
would throw herself into anything without bothering to think it through, and Gracie had to follow her to make sure Mari didn't lose her way (or her gym clothes, or her folder, or her new bus number, or her class notes, or her entire backpack) in the process.
And ever since she'd noticed Alex, Gracie had starting loving middle school too. He was the first boy she'd ever had a serious crush on. She'd kept quiet about her feelings so far, but now that he
knew her name
, she had to tell Mari!
Her best friend was waiting outside the band room, turning cartwheels down the center of the hall.
“I don't think you're supposed to do that,” Gracie said, glancing around to see if there were any teachers nearby. Breaking rules made her nervous.
“That's what makes it fun,” Mari replied with a laugh. “During the school day the hallway is too crowded to tumble.” She did two more cartwheels sort of in the direction of the doors. Sometimes Gracie thought her best friend did this kind of stuff just to make her lighten up and stop worrying. Then again, Mari didn't usually need a reason to do whatever crazy thing came into her mind.
Gracie followed without doing gymnastics. The sight of Mari's long red ponytail flying upside down and
smacking her in the face made Gracie chuckle in spite of her anxiety. “Wait up! I need to talk to you,” she called.
“You'll have to catch me first!” Mari landed on her feet and immediately flung herself into a front handspring. Only she couldn't do front handsprings, so she collapsed onto the floor.
Gracie gasped. “Mar, are you okay?” she cried, running toward her friend. Mari lay on the old linoleum, not moving. “Mari?” A burst of fear shot through Gracie. Had Mari broken her leg? Her arm? Her
Then she noticed that her best friend's entire body was shaking.
“Mari,” Gracie said. “Mari! Are you . . . laughing?”
Mari's entire face was red and tears ran down her cheeks. “I can't move,” she snorted, laughing even harder at herself. “That was the biggest handspring fail of all time.”
“You could've killed yourself,” Gracie said. “You're lucky you didn't land on your head!” But Mari was cackling too hard to even hear her, as usual.
“I must've looked so stupid!” Mari hooted. “Oh my gosh, I can't move, I'm laughing too hard.”
Gracie stared at her, openmouthed. There were so many things wrong with what had just happenedâno safety mats, no gymnastics allowed in the halls, no
ability to do handsprings. How could Mari think any of it was funny?
But she did. She was rocking side to side like a turtle on its back, giggling so hard that she couldn't get up.
“Your cheeks are as red as your hair,” Gracie said.
“I know!” Mari burst into another peal of laughter. “And you look so . . . so . . .
!” Mari said it like it was the funniest part of the whole situation.
Gracie couldn't take it. She burst out laughing. She noticed a few people down the hall turning to stare at them, which made her laugh harder.
“Help me up,” Mari gasped.
Gracie pulled her to her feet. “Are you okay?”
“I don't know.” Mari wiped her eyes. “I think I bruised my elbow.” She stuck out her arm for Gracie to inspect.
“Yup, you bruised it.” Gracie's smile wavered. “Doesn't it hurt?”
Mari shrugged. “I guess. It's still funny, though.” She bent down to grab her backpack. “I'll walk the rest of the way, I promise.”
“Good.” Gracie wanted to say more but didn't.
“You shouldn't do things like that without the proper equipment and the proper training,” Mari said in the high-pitched voice she used whenever she imitated Gracie.
Gracie smacked her on her non-bruised arm. “That is not what I sound like.”
“Oh, sorry.” Mari dropped her voice down a couple of octaves and put on a British accent. “You shouldn't do things like thatâ”
“Stop it!” Gracie interrupted, laughing. “You tease me, but I'm right. You totally fell on your face.”
“I fell on my butt,” Mari corrected her cheerfully. “But I'm over it now. Race you!” She took off running, and Gracie stared after her.
“There's no running in the halls,” she said, breaking into a jog to follow Mari. “And wait for me! I need to tell you something.”
But by the time she caught up to Mari at the double door, she could see that it was too late. Outside, her mom's Volvo was pulling up to the curb in front of the school. That meant it was time to goâher mother didn't like to waste time. Telling Mari about her crush would have to wait.
“Did I tell you my plan?” Mari asked, not even noticing the Volvo. “Epic. Sleepover.”
“What makes it epic?” Gracie replied, trying not to look at the car. If her mother caught her eye, she would have to leave. For now, she could pretend she hadn't seen it yet.
“It's two nights long!” Mari cried. “You sleep over on Friday
Saturday. Or else you sleep over Friday and I sleep over at your house on Saturday.” They looked at each other for a moment, then burst out laughing.
“That'll never happen,” Gracie said. “Mom even makes my grandparents stay in a hotel.”
“Well, you don't have a guest room,” Mari pointed out, as if that mattered. Mari's family didn't have a spare room, either, but there were always guests staying with the O'Hagans. “Anyway, we can just do it at my house for both nights.”
“You're right, that would be epic,” Gracie said. And it would give her plenty of time to talk over her Alex Parker crush with Mari. Well, after all of Mari's brothers were asleep. They liked to eavesdrop, and she couldn't let them hear this.
“Gracie! Time to go.” Her mother's voice drifted across the schoolyard.
Mari jumped in surprise. “I didn't know your mom was here already,” she said. “She's even earlier than the after-school buses. I think this is her new record!”
Gracie nodded. The bus kids were all hanging out on the lawn or the benches near the front entrance, waiting for the late buses to show up. Mari always took the bus home, which meant she always got an extra
five minutes of hanging-out time.
“Hi, Ms. Hardwick!” Mari called, bounding over to the Volvo.
“Hi, Mari. How was school today?” Gracie's mom replied.
“I got a ninety-five on my math quiz, and Gracie got a ninety-six,” Mari said. “So, you know, it was an
Gracie's mother laughed.
“But we have an epic plan to tell you,” Mari went on, rising up onto her toes the way she always did when she was excited. “It's so epic that the word âepic' is right in the name of it! You tell her, Gracie.”
Gracie glanced from her mother's confused brown eyes to Mari's sparkling green ones. Somehow she didn't think her mom would find the sleepover idea epic at all. In fact, she was kind of surprised that Mari had brought it up. They both knew Gracie's mother didn't do well with two-night plans. Or one-night plans. Or sleepovers in general. They'd been best friends for four years, and Gracie had only been allowed to sleep at Mari's twice. And both times had been in the summer, when there was no school to worry about. And both times had also involved Ms. Hardwick worrying herself sick beforehand. She just couldn't relax when Gracie was out of her sightâshe was always afraid something
would go wrong and Gracie would need her. It was like she thought Gracie was still five years old.
Mari was waiting, smiling eagerly.
“Epic two-night sleepover,” Gracie squeaked, not looking her mom in the eye.
“That does sound like fun, but it isn't a good idea during the school year. Maybe you girls can have a sleepover this summer. Gracie, we can talk about it in the car. It's time to go.”
Mari's face fell, and Gracie felt terrible. The summer was months away. Her mother might as well have just told them no.
“Can I hang out until the school bus comes?” Gracie asked. “Otherwise Mari has to wait all alone.” She held her breath, hoping that today would finally be the day that her mother said yesâto anything. But her mom's dark eyebrows drew together like they always did when Gracie dared to ask something unusual.
“We need to get home, sweetie,” Ms. Hardwick said. “You know dinner is at six, and that only gives you an hour to do your homework first.” She glanced at Mari, concerned. “You don't mind waiting by yourself, right, Mari?”
“Of course not,” Mari replied, already back to happy again. “My two stupid brothers are over there by the
flagpole, anyway. It's just more fun to wait with Gracie.”
“Well, we've got our schedule to stick to,” Ms. Hardwick said with a relieved smile.
“You forgot your folder again,” Gracie told Mari, handing it over.
Mari shook her head and crossed her eyes for a second. “I'm such a flake. What would I do without you?” she asked, taking the band folder.
“Sorry about the sleepover, Mar,” Gracie mumbled, reaching for the handle of the car door. “See you tomorrow.”
“It's okay. We'll find another time for the epic sleepover,” Mari promised her.
“Sure,” Gracie agreed, but she knew it wouldn't happen for a long time. Her mom would never let her go anywhere for two whole days if it threw off the family schedule. She sadly got into the car.
As Gracie pulled on her seat belt, she couldn't help staring at her best friend. Mari was cartwheeling again, over toward her older brothers. Her red hair flew like crazy, her cheeks were flushed, and she was smiling. Mari had fun all the time, no matter what she was doing. Gracie wished that just for once her life could be as spontaneous and fun as Mari's.