“Why do you have to be embarrassing like that?” asked Lillian.
“Like how you are.”
Admittedly, I was currently wearing Lillian’s brother’s miniature straw hat and playing with the dinosaur candles from his birthday cake. But I was sitting in the corner. I thought that’s where embarrassing things were acceptable. I mean, Imogen and Miles were swollen-lipped kissing in the opposite corner and no one was poking their shoulders asking them why they were being embarrassing. It was an eight-year-old’s birthday party, for god’s sake.
I decided to stay under my canopy of multi-colored balloons until it was time to go. Or until my legs told me it was time to go. Whichever came first. At this point, I was betting on the latter.
I took two more sips of sparkling grape juice (“for Lillian and her grown-up-friends,” Mrs. Hallaran told me with a wink) and watched Davie open up his remaining presents: Dinosaurtopia! The Game: So Real It’s Practically Prehistoric; dinosaur figurines (meteor sold separately); and dinosaur bed sheets. I was looking forward to two weeks later, when he hated dinosaurs. I got him a Choose Your Own Adventure book because books aren’t a phase. Plus, who doesn’t want to choose their own adventure? When he opened it, Lillian gave me a glare that probably meant You couldn’t have gotten him one about dinosaurs? and gestured to the decorations like I hadn’t noticed.
Yes. Now. The time is now. My legs stood me up and I took off Davie’s straw hat. I peeled off the “Hello! My name is: I killed the dinosaurs” sticker (“It’s a joke!”) from my sweater. I would miss the ninth-graders-only afterparty in Lillian’s basement: sweaty 13-year-olds holding each other too close while awkwardly swaying on a carpet of deflated, passed-out balloons. I wasn’t so good at pretending those things were fun. My feet carried me to the door.
I thought I would get a “Where are you going? You’ll miss the afterparty!” and a chiming of “Stay! Stay!” But no, just a “Bye, Nettie,” and a one-shoulder shrug from Lillian.
“Bye,” I said to the air on the other side of the door.
I’m not so good at pretending that thing that are happening aren’t, but I’m good at a different kind of pretending, like having tea parties with a lioness, being a shrink to a bunny with autophobia (“Have you been eating your carrots?”), and time-traveling by way of my extensive record collection. I used to be one of two members of the Professional Pretenders Society. It was a big deal.
The other member was my next-door neighbor, Amos. We had since lost touch. I think it was puberty. It made pretending uncool.
But as I hung off the side of my bed one day, the sun covering me in stripes, I found something in the space underneath: my old PPS badge in all its hand-lettered beauty. Cue nostalgia for two years ago.
Next thing I knew I was half-breaking down his door.
“Amos! Open up!” I yelled. I probably wouldn’t have been yelling if his parents’ blue sedan were in the driveway. But it wasn’t so I was. “Amos!”
Then there was his face, bespectacled and flushed.
“Who died?” he panted. “Who is in the process of dying?”
I decided this was as good a segue as any. “My patient,” I said, wagging the badge in his face. “You know, the bunny? His anxiety is worsening. He’s not eating his carrots. It could be fatal.”
Amos just stood there in the doorway and stared at me, like it wasn’t almost the end of Sir Tufty’s world.
“Nettie Lawson is at my door talking about rabbits,” he said, sliding his hands under his glasses and rubbing his eyes.
Somehow we ended up in different social crowds. I went to dinosaur-themed birthday parties and he went to book club meetings. It was fairly obvious who got the better end of the coin (is that even a phrase?). It should have been the two of us together. From seventh to ninth grade and back again, sun up to sun down.
“OK, do you want the truth?”
“The rabbit’s fine.”
“No, the actual truth.”
“OK, OK. I miss you. I mean, I miss the society. And you.”
He just stared at me.
“Still got your badge?” I asked.
“Want the truth?”
“I know exactly where it is.”
It ended up being in the back of his sock drawer. But I swear I didn’t look while he was rummaging around. Though there may have been some squirrel-printed footies. Just a guess. Professional Pretender’s promise.
First stop was the I Scream, the ice cream parlor. It was shaped like a cone with soft-serve on top. The architecture in our town is pretty literal.
We leaned against the waffle cone as we ate our own, the sky bright and our shadows long. When I was almost done, I binned my ice cream when Amos wasn’t looking.
“Someone stole my ice cream!” I shouted.
His neck snapped up and he looked at me over the thick frames of his glasses. His eyes were doubtful as he glanced at my Pretenders badge and back at me. I think he realized then that he was in too deep. He would have to play along.
“Something came and snatched it, quick as a shadow!” I said.
“That doesn’t even make sense,” he said. I was doubtful of his abilities. I almost wanted to rip the badge right off his button-down.
“Which way did he go?” he said. There’s my Amos.
“That way,” I said, pointing at the streets still lit by the sun.
“We’ll catch him,” he assured me, taking off down Alver Lane.
I chased after him, catching the breaths I’d lost.
“What did he look like?”
“Um. He was tall?”
Everyone was tall compared with us. I had to squeak through the rust on my imagination-wheels.
“Could you be more specific?”
“He had a bowler hat on. And a suit. With a really ugly tie like the one you wore on school picture day.”
I didn’t know if it was too early for jokes, but he smiled, I think.
“Maybe he stole my tie.”
“A clue!” I ran up to an abandoned receipt on the sidewalk and picked it up. “It’s from the thief.”
A smile climbed up Amos’s left cheek.
“If you ever want to see your ice cream again,” I improvised, “I’ll be waiting for you in the park. A taxi will pick you up. Call the driver Sheila and tell him that the vanilla rides at midnight.”
I looked up from the receipt which actually said “Penny Davis Workout DVD: Sweat Out or Stay Out! $10.95.”
“I’m pretty sure your ice cream is melted and/or eaten by now,” Amos said. “I’m leaning towards ‘or.’“
So the ice cream thief idea didn’t work out. I hadn’t thought it through. But after that, Amos and I set up a tent in his backyard like we used to. We lay down underneath the paper stars that still hung from its pointed top. The sun filtered through the fabric and made our faces bright orange.
“Maybe we should be demoted to Pretenders in Training,” Amos said. The walls held our laughter in. “We’ll try again tomorrow,” he said.
I felt him nod beside me.
“OK,” I said. “I’ll send you a Pretenders Party invitation. Bring your time-traveling clothes.”
Silence ached for a moment.
“You don’t think I’m embarrassing, do you?”
“No,” he said. “Someone that makes up the phrase ‘the vanilla rides at midnight’ on the spot can never be embarrassing.”
I don’t know how I had lost him.
We seemed a million miles away from anywhere, from school hallways and new friends and basement afterparties. As long as we stayed inside. As long as we were here. I had chosen my own adventure and hadn’t died in the middle or gotten lost.
Congratulations! You are here. ♦