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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Better Than the Best Plan

Lauren Morrill

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

CHAPTER ONE


“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, is this really happening?”

Every part of me feels warm and clammy, and it’s only partly because I’m standing on blacktop in 90-degree weather with 100 percent humidity. If I stand here much longer, my shoes are going to melt into the pavement.

“Josh told me during third period that Ali told him during homeroom that he was going to ask you out after school.” Lainey scans the parking lot and spots Ali coming out of the main entrance of the school. “There he is. Okay, are you ready?”

“For my eternal crush of forever to finally ask me out? I don’t know, how do you get ready for that?” I have to will myself not to look at him, just in case he sees me and we have one of those awkward staring moments. I want to turn around and be all fresh-faced and Hi! about this, like I’m in a face wash commercial or something. I want awkward to have no part of this, which, let’s be real, is going to be an uphill battle.

Lainey’s eyes dance from me to somewhere over my shoulder. She looks as giddy as I feel, but she’s got the freedom to let it out. “I could slap you in the face. Do you want me to slap you in the face?”

“Why would I want that?”

“I don’t know, it’s a thing people do on television. Maybe it calms you down?” She shrugs.

I casually turn and bump her hip, like maybe she just said something funny or we’re having a moment of solidarity or something. It brings me around to her side so that I can see Ali across the parking lot without staring over my shoulder, you know, like a weirdo.

“Smooth,” Lainey whispers.

“I try,” I reply.

She returns the hip bump. “I’ll meet you at the car,” she says, then trots off.

I see the exact moment when he spots me. He gets a wide grin on his face and gives this adorable little half wave, two of his fingers up in a lazy peace sign. His pace picks up to a trot as he heads for me. Ugh, he’s so pretty. Tall and lanky from year-round soccer, with deep tan skin and dark wavy hair. He’s got this great smile that uses his whole face in a way that you can’t help but smile back. It’s the most contagious grin I’ve ever seen.

“’Sup, Ritzy? Happy summer!” His eyes drop to his shoes, those black flat sneakers that all the soccer players wear, before flicking back up to me. It’s the only indication that he, too, might be a little bit nervous.

“Thanks,” I reply. “Back atcha. Big plans?”

He cocks his head and shrugs. “The usual. Beach. Soccer. Working at the restaurant.” His parents own this amazing Indian takeout place near the mall. His mom is super nice and always gives us discounts or free samosas. Ali has worked there since he was old enough to make correct change. “Probably doing college stuff. You know the drill.”

“Totally,” I say, though I won’t be going on any college visits or taking SAT prep like Ali or some of my other classmates who just finished junior year. Even though we had to endure endless lectures from our teachers and an hour-long assembly in the gym where the guidance counselors acted like if we didn’t tour at least five schools before the fall we might as well give up and join the circus, I have no plans to go anywhere. My future is a little up in the air right now, and all I know is that I need to spend the summer working as many hours at Roasted as Mr. Reynolds will give me. And I may even try to score a second gig, though the only places still hiring are probably the string of fast-food restaurants that line the road up from our apartment complex, and I really don’t want to go there. The thought of spending the hot Florida summer smelling like a deep fat fryer kills a little bit of my soul. And I’m not totally convinced it won’t clog my arteries by osmosis.

Still, rent is due at the end of the month, the electric bill a week after that, and I have no idea how long paying those will be my responsibility. But that’s a lot of backstory that I definitely don’t want to get into with Ali, especially if he’s about to ask me out.

“Hey, I was wondering if you had plans for tonight?” The words come out in a rush of a single breath.

This is it! Okay, be cool, Ritzy. Be. Cool.

The mental reminder keeps me from barking out, Yes, I’ll go out with you anytime anywhere AWESOME! Instead, I manage an only slightly cooler, “Um, no, I don’t think so. Why?”

“I was thinking maybe we could hang out. Grab food at the Mexican place on Division? Their queso rocks.” He pauses, kicking at a pebble on the blacktop between us. He bites his lip, a tiny smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. When he glances up at me with those deep brown eyes, I nearly melt into a puddle right at his feet. “Just us?”

And there it is. Ali Anikhindi, my crush since freshman year, who has been solidly in my friend zone since we were first paired up for a group project on To Kill a Mockingbird in ninth grade, is asking me out on a date. An actual date. Just. Us.

Every cell in my body is vibrating, just begging me to explode with a Hell YES! And maybe even a fist pump for good measure. But I manage to wrestle the energy into a confident, yet still somehow cool, “That sounds great.” Though I’m pretty sure I’ve got a manic smile on my face to give me away. Which is fine, because Ali’s giving me one of his trademark giant smiles. I swear, even his ears look happy.

“Awesome. Pick you up around six?”

“Perfect,” I say, already mentally scanning the meager contents of my closet for the perfect, not-trying-too-hard outfit.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you tonight,” Ali says. He gives me one parting smile, then heads off to his car, his keys swinging around his index finger. I wait until he’s backed out and his taillights are disappearing out of the parking lot before I race off toward Lainey’s usual spot at the back of the lot. By the time I get to her, all of the excited energy is bursting out of me like a faulty water fountain. When I skid to a stop at her rear bumper, where she’s leaning against Barney looking smug, I’m actually squealing.

“Dinner tonight at Margaritas!”

“The one on Division?”

“Yep.”

“Good, because the one on Third is ass.” Lainey grins and heads for the driver-side door. I take my spot at the passenger side, waiting for her to get in and lean over the center console to unlock my door. When she does, I pull it open, my shiver at the usual creak of metal coming a beat early. Barney, short for Barnacle, is what we call Lainey’s ancient Volvo, so named for the ring of brown rust that clings to the lower half of the car. She inherited it from her grandmother who moved into a nursing home sophomore year. I climb in and adjust the frayed beach towel on my seat so the old, cracked leather, which has been cooking in the parking lot all day, won’t scorch my thighs. It’s only May, but May in Florida is like late July anywhere else, hot and thick with humidity.

“Cherry limeades?” Lainey asks as she shifts the car into reverse. “My treat.”

“Yes, please.”

We roll down the windows, since the air conditioner in Lainey’s car is barely a suggestion of cold air. I turn on the radio, tuned to STAR 102.1, the oldies station, and before we’re even out of the parking lot, we’re singing along at the top of our lungs to a Motown hit, attempting harmonies only dogs can hear.

There’s usually a long wait to get out of the student parking lot after school, as people linger, rolling down their windows to chat with friends or make weekend plans. But today everyone puts the pedal to the metal, off to the beach or the pool or somewhere else to celebrate our three months of freedom. Some more free than others, of course.

“Did you hear Vera Braxton talking about going on a cruise?” I ask when we stop at a red light. “Apparently, her dad won it from his company.”

“You couldn’t pay me to go on a cruise,” Lainey replies. She reaches into the center console and digs out a pair of sunglasses. “People are always getting norovirus on those boats. I can’t imagine anything worse than crapping your pants on the high seas.”

“Okay, but not everyone gets norovirus. And wouldn’t it be nice to take a trip?”

“Sure, a trip would be nice. But when Mommy and Daddy aren’t paying for it, the costs add up. And seriously, do you really want to spend every penny of your sandwich-making money on five days at the beach?” Lainey squints into the bright sun, her sunglasses no match. “When, by the way, there’s a perfectly good beach twenty minutes away.”

I sigh and prop my feet up on the dashboard, a move I’ve done so much there’s practically an outline of my flip-flops there.

“Buck up, Reed,” Lainey says, flipping her signal as she turns into the Sonic parking lot. “Soon enough we’ll graduate and leave here. And then you’ll be glad you saved all that money.”

I wince at her reference to my savings account, because it’s not exactly what it used to be. But even though I usually tell Lainey everything, I haven’t been able to bring myself to tell her that yet. I think I’m hoping the situation will resolve itself, but it’s been two weeks now with no end in sight.

Lainey’s been saving every penny she can from her paycheck at the library (minus the occasional Sonic splurge), which she took because it was the only job where she could both study and earn minimum wage. For Lainey, it’s all about leaving not just Jacksonville, or even Florida, but the south entirely. I don’t blame her. Lainey is one of the few black kids in our school. She tries to downplay all the ways that she feels like an outsider at Southwest, but I’ve known her long enough that I see how much the lazy, offensive jokes of our classmates and casual bias of our teachers gets to her. I know her well enough to know that even as her best friend, I still can’t grasp even a tenth of her experience here.

Lainey and I met freshman year in detention, which is notable because it’s the only detention Lainey and I have ever had. Lainey was there because she poured her soda on Nate Blackburn after he pulled one of her braids in the cafeteria. I was there because my mother had embarked on a spiritual quest (her words) to live a simpler life, so she unplugged every electronic device in our apartment. This included my alarm clock. And Mr. Hardiman, my homeroom teacher, was a stickler about tardies.

I was halfway through writing an essay on punctuality (like I said, Mr. Hardiman equals stickler), when I heard a whisper coming from the table behind me. “You got a pencil?”

I turned to Lainey. “Just pens. You want one?”

“Nah. Doing math. Pencil’s a must,” she said with a shrug. “I like your sweater.”

I was wearing my favorite cardigan, which I’d found at Darcy’s Closet, a thrift store near my house. Not a trendy thrift store, with actual vintage clothes the girls in my school might think were stylish or cool. Darcy’s Closet was a thrift store for people who actually needed to be thrifty. And since I was too young to have a job, I was still at the mercy of my mother’s clothing budget. On top of her spiritual quest, she was also deep in her “make, do, mend” phase and had convinced herself that with just a little more practice she could knit all the clothes we’d ever need. Thus far, she’d only succeeded in crafting a series of wonky dishcloths, so I needed to buy my clothes on the cheap.

Darcy’s Closet had a back room with a dollar-a-pound pile, which was an enormous mountain of fabric. You pulled out what you wanted, the cashier weighed it on an old-fashioned produce scale like they have hanging in the grocery store, and you paid based on weight. It sounded like a great deal until you realized that 99.9 percent of the clothes in the pile were utter garbage. Stained, moth-eaten, smelling vaguely like attics and cigarettes and one time, in the case of a particularly putrid-looking puffer vest, tuna fish. Most of the stuff was decades old and not even in fashion when it was new. There were a lot of clothes that looked like they were once part of someone’s work uniform, a lot of khaki and button-up shirts and mom jeans. I almost never bought anything from the pile, but that didn’t stop me from digging.

Which was how I came to find my cardigan, my one and only big score. It had arms that were just a little too long, which was perfect for pulling my hands inside when the air-conditioning in school got too frigid (which was often). It was long enough to cover my bum, which meant every once in a while I could get away with wearing leggings to school, in direct defiance of the sexist dress code. It had two big pockets on the front, perfect for holding a phone or some cash or a plastic baggie full of tortilla chips that I sometimes had to sneak during third period when we had last lunch. The best part? The cardigan was tie-dyed. Rainbow tie-dyed, and the colors were still completely vivid. My mother called it the fashion equivalent of a bad acid trip, but I loved it.

I told Lainey the whole story, and as soon as she nodded, familiar with Darcy’s Closet and their dollar-a-pound policy (she’d scored a yellow rain slicker from the pile, which she said made her look like the Morton Salt Girl), I knew we could be friends.


Copyright © 2019 by Lauren Morrill