100 Days of Cake
Cherry Berry Bundt Cake
It’s been summer break for four hours, and Alex McDermott and I are already on our third Golden Girls rerun and our second container of house special lo mein.
Sitting cross-legged on the counter at FishTopia Saltwater Fish & Supplies, we’re staring at the ancient TV above the register, passing the carton of noodles between us, and basking in the thin wave of air from the oscillating fan that blows our direction every few seconds.
“Molly, you’re hogging all the good air.” Alex scoots closer to me, near enough that our shorts and thighs are practically touching, and I’m thankful I was motivated enough to shave my legs this morning; some days it’s a stretch.
“Shouldn’t you be sweeping or something?” I nudge his shoulder with mine, and he rolls his eyes. Since the place opened two years ago, I don’t think anyone has ever taken
the broom out of the supply closet in the back, much less attempted to use it. The handful of customers who come in never complain, and the owner, Charlie, pops in only once a week to do inventory and drop off our checks.
“If Chuck graces us with his presence, I’ll point out that he’s violating just about a thousand labor laws for not having AC in this place.” Alex gives this cute crooked smile, and a dimple pops into his cheek. “Seriously, this cannot be good for the fish.”
Like me, Alex is a junior (technically we’re seniors now, I guess), but he goes to Maxwell—Coral Cove’s other high school, across town. When we started working here after school and on weekends, I wasn’t sure we’d have much in common. He’s in a band, and there was this steady stream of girls with inky dyed hair and Hot Topic graphic T-shirts who used to come in here and flirt with him. But it turns out Golden Girls and take-out noodles are some kind of universal language; Alex and I were fast friends from the first time we stumbled upon an episode and he said Betty White was the bomb.
We’ve seen this episode at least four times in the past six months alone. It’s the one where Blanche, Rose, Sophia, and Dorothy put on a production of Henny Penny at an elementary school, and they’re all wearing these ridiculous leotards and feather headpieces. Knowing when the jokes are coming only makes it funnier; sometimes I crack up just seeing Rose on screen.
In my perfect world I’d spend the rest of the day (maybe the rest of the summer; maybe the rest of my life) right here at FishTopia just like this . . . but in the pocket of my cutoffs, my cell phone rings.
“Your wife again?” Alex asks, and I scrunch up my face in mock annoyance, but it is the third time Elle has called in the past ninety minutes, and Elle and I have been best friends since kindergarten, which is a lot longer than either of our parents were married, if you think about it that way.
I wander into an aisle of clown fish and guppies for moderate privacy.
“Mrs. Kamp next door can watch Jimmy, so that’s taken care of.” Elle picks up the conversation in pretty much the exact spot where we left off half an hour ago, when she was trying to find a babysitter for her little brother. She’s still trying to convince me to be her wing woman at Chris Partridge’s end-of-the-year party tonight. I don’t want to go any more than I did the last time she called.
“Come on, Mol. How often do we even get invited to stuff like this?”
Ah, never. It’s not like Coral Cove High is a John Hughes film, where you never talk to people outside your clique, but Elle and I have always spent most of our time with the other dorks in advanced classes and on the swim team (before I quit), while Chris plays baseball and is the president of our
class; there’s just not a lot of overlap. So it was doubly weird this afternoon when Elle and I were emptying out all the crumpled notebook paper and stray pen caps from our locker, and Chris sauntered over and specifically invited us. “Bring whoever you want,” he said, “friends, family.” I thought that Elle’s head might explode. She’s had a crush on Chris since he offered her a Life Saver one time in study hall freshman year.
“Chris probably just invited the entire class or something,” I say.
“See, everyone will be there; we have to go.”
That makes the prospect even less appealing. I haven’t been to a single anything party since my massive freak-out at the divisionals meet a year ago. A ginormous party with everyone talking about senior year and college and who’s getting engaged and all that other BS seems a horrible place to dive back into the CCH social scene. But . . .
Even though I’m reasonably sure Chris and Elle never spoke again after the Life Saver incident (technically I don’t think he actually spoke to her then, just kind of held out the pack and grunted), it would still be pretty crappy if I didn’t go with her.
“I promise I won’t say anything if people aren’t recycling,” Elle says, which is a big deal for her. Then she threatens to invoke BFF law—this modified version of the Girl Scout Law we came up with way back when we were in Brownies. “Pleeeeeeease.”
“Will you drive?” I ask, and I can almost see her weighing the environmental damage of using the old gas-guzzling Jeep Cherokee her dad gave her, against the off chance that Chris might go all High School Musical and fall in love with her.
“Can we do windows instead of AC?” she asks.
“Elle, it’s one hundred thousand degrees out!” Technically 103, but it has been that way for three days, which is ridiculous even for central Florida.
“Fine, we’ll turn it on low. I’ll pick you up at the store in an hour.”
When I hang up and turn around, Alex is standing at the opening of the aisle, staring at me like I’ve grown additional heads. Automatically my hand goes to the mouse-poop-colored frizz on my head; with this humidity it’s more of a lost cause than usual. My mom—who wouldn’t hesitate to tell you she owns the most successful hair salon in Coral Cove and the surrounding areas—would be horrified.
“What?” I ask defensively.
“Sorry, I was totally eavesdropping, but were you guys talking about Chris Partridge’s thing tonight?”
Hesitantly, I nod.
“Dude, Chris and I have been buddies since Little League.” Alex is nodding excitedly. “How did I not know you guys were friends?”
“More like acquaintances.” I shrug. More like nothing.
“But you’re going?”
“For a little. . . . You?”
I probably see Alex more than any human being on the planet who doesn’t physically live in my house (and honestly, more than I’ve seen my sister lately), but we only ever hang out at FishTopia. Sometimes he suggests we go grab dinner or coffee or he’ll ask if I want to see some show, but I can never tell if he’s serious or not or if it would be a date-date or not, and then I start thinking about those Hot Topic girls and all the weird stuff that’s been going on with me this past year, and it gets hard to breathe. So I always kind of brush him off. It’s safe to be with him here—like our own little aquarium.
But maybe it would be okay if we saw each other at this party? Then there’d be at least one person other than Elle who I know I like. Although, it’s already a little screwed up, since Alex thinks I’m all buddy-buddy with Chris.
“I’ve got band practice after we close up here.” Alex is still talking. “But I’ll come after that.” He takes his phone from his pocket and unlocks the screen. “Gimme your digits, and I’ll let you know when I’m on my way.”
Reciting my phone number, I have this flash to winter sophomore year when T. J. Cranston asked for my number after swim practice; suddenly my stomach feels all oily.
“Cool,” I say. I have no idea if this is actually cool. All
I know is, I’m nervous enough that it’s hard to follow the rest of the Golden Girls episode.
In her ancient Jeep Cherokee, Elle pulls up in front of the store and honks. She refuses to enter FishTopia, because she thinks it’s a prison for marine life or something. I push off the counter, gather my backpack, and throw my container of lo mein into the garbage. Alex waves to Elle through the store window. They’ve never actually met, but Alex has heard me tell enough stories that he could probably write a dissertation on Elle Lovell.
“So I guess maybe I’ll see you tonight?” I say.
“Definitely.” Alex holds the door open for me, and the little bell that alerts us to new customers dings. “Let me help you with your bike.”
“I got—” I start, but then I just nod, and he follows me into the soupy air that is Coral Cove this summer. Motioning for Elle to pop the rear door, I unlock Old Montee—this green Murray Monterey Beach cruiser that my mom used to ride around when she was growing up here—from a handicap-parking sign. Alex hoists it over his shoulder and slides it into the back of the Jeep. Even though I’m still pretty twisty about tonight, I take a minute to appreciate just how easily he lifted my bike. Alex is a little on the short and slender side, and I had no idea he was that strong. . . . Duly noted.
In the driver’s seat, Elle spins around and introduces herself, her dishwater-blond curls still in springy ringlets, despite the heat and lack of animal-tested or ozone-destroying hair products. “And I’m guessing you’re Alex.”
“Guilty as charged.” He gives that crooked grin again. “Nice to finally meet you.”
“Same. You need a ride?”
“Naw, I got a car.” Alex gestures toward his Ford Fiesta with the rusted undercarriage. “But it looks like I’ll be seeing you girls later tonight at Chris’s.”
Elle shoots me this laser-focused What’s-going-on? eyebrow lift.
“Yeah, it turns out Alex and Chris go way back,” I offer.
“Sweet,” Elle says, even though she doesn’t normally say things like “sweet.”
Alex says he’ll text me when he’s en route, and goes back inside to finish closing up. I barely make it into the passenger seat (the AC is totally not on, BTW) before Elle is bombarding me with questions about how Alex knows Chris and why I never told her.
“I swear I had no idea until today.”
“Are you excited he’s coming? He’s so cute,” she says. “And I kept telling you he was into you.”
This is true. Despite having never actually met Alex—that whole not-entering-the-store thing—Elle has long been convinced that Alex and I are destined to get married and
have a million babies and live happily ever after. I guess I do talk about him a lot.
“I don’t know.” I bunch my shoulders. “It’s weird.”
“It’ll be fine, and your mom will be thrilled you’re finally going out again.”
We’ve never been to Chris’s house, but we know where it is. There are only thirty-two thousand people in Coral Cove (up seven thousand souls from a decade ago, before J&J Plumbing moved its headquarters here), so you pretty much know all the subdivisions and who lives where. His place is only a few streets down from the model home where my mom and sister and I moved a few years ago.
The street is packed with the cars of kids from school. Half of them are new and shiny sixteenth-birthday presents, the other half hand-me-downs from parents and even grandparents—that’s new/old Coral Cove for you. My mom has promised me “any car within reason” if I’m ever motivated enough to sign up for driver’s ed; I’m probably the only seventeen-year-old in the entire county without a license.
We park and follow the line of cars to a big new house (Chris’s dad is J&J corporate), and we make it to the driveway before I start wondering if maybe I should have put on something other than my summer uniform of cutoffs and a
tank top, or if I should have at least put on a fresh tank top instead of just keeping on the one that I’ve been sweating in all freaking day.
Elle is wearing one of her oatmeal-colored shapeless cotton T-shirts and a pair of drapey pants that cost a lot because they’re made without any of the bad chemicals and don’t exploit cheap labor. There are probably hip eco-chic models wearing them all over San Fran, but Elle weighs ninety-eight pounds soaking wet, so the getup just looks frumpy on her. Obviously too late to say anything now.
Since the bright blue door is wide open, Elle and I exchange shrugs, let ourselves in, and follow the music out to the backyard.
I guess I was expecting some crazy TV party scene, but honestly it doesn’t look all that different from the swim team parties Elle and I used to go to back when I did stuff like that. There’s a bunch of people from our class clumped around deck chairs or sitting by the inexplicably drained swimming pool. On a folding table there are plastic containers of cold cuts and a pink bucket of beer and soda cans, as well as an enormous punch bowl. A few of the girls are wearing slightly dressier tank tops, but Elle and I don’t look horrifically out of place.
Meredith Hoffman—a cheerleader from my sophomore year health class—is giving off this first-lady vibe, scurrying around straightening the table and adjusting plastic cups.
I wonder if she and Chris are dating, wonder if Elle has picked up on that.
Seeing us, Meredith gives a little wave. “Hey, ladies!”
We nod back.
“You’ve got to try this punch,” she says, ladling out two glasses. “It’s a sacred recipe from Chris’s brother’s FSU frat.”
The color of a flamingo, it smells like pure gasoline. It must also be about ninety proof, because I feel totally loopy from one swallow. To be fair, even when I did used to go to parties, I was never a big drinker. Elle starts coughing on her first sip and mumbles something about not being able to drive home.
Informing us that she has already “broken the seal,” Meredith jogs off to the bathroom.
Gina and Tina, these freckled identical twins from our AP English class (the only advanced class I was able to keep this year), are sitting on the diving board with their feet hanging over the empty pool. So maybe the entire school was invited. Elle leads us toward them, and within minutes they’re all talking about the summer reading list and whether they’re going to take the SATs again in the fall—as if we hadn’t gotten out of school less than six hours ago.
“A scholarship is my only shot at paying for Columbia, so I’ve got to,” Elle is saying.
We were supposed to take the test at the same time in May, but I had such a panic attack that not even the Xanax helped. My mom and Elle ended up suggesting that I just wait until the fall.
Gina or Tina is saying something about applying early decision somewhere. These are the conversations that make me want to gnaw my arm off. “Are you thinking FSU or UF?” “You’re going into the army even though your dad was a navy man?” “Did you plan out every minute of the rest of your life already?” Vomit.
I’m just staring into the pool. Generally I haven’t been a big fan of pools ADF (After my Divisionals Freak-out, which was a year ago), but the missing water makes it much less intimidating. The bottom is painted this nice blue that’s probably supposed to look like the ocean.
“Your dad went there, right, Mol?” Elle asks.
“Your dad went to the University of Miami, didn’t he?”
“Oh yeah,” I say. “He was always talking about how this one biology professor changed his life.” Other than the Miami part, I don’t know if any of this is true. My dad died when I was three, and sometimes I just make stuff up because I don’t remember, which is weird and sad, but at least all conversations don’t come to a screeching halt the way they do when you say you have no memories of your own father.
“Yeah, I’m definitely doing early decision,” Gina says, as if someone asked a question; someone probably did.
Eventually Gina and Tina go get more chips, and Chris Partridge catches my eye and starts jogging over. Since we’ve hung out all of never, it’s surprising that he looks so completely psyched to see us.
“Molly, Elle.” He nods. “Thanks for coming to chez casa.”
Elle might burst into a million happy bits because he remembered her name. She doesn’t even mention that he just welcomed us to his “house, house.”
“Thanks for asking us,” I say, and hold up my still-full glass. “Awesome punch.”
“Yeah, it’s from my brother’s fraternity. He could get banned for life for sharing it.”
“His secret is safe with me,” I say.
Elle stands there like someone hit her pause button, and I can see Chris kind of looking off to my right.
“So, got any big summer plans?” I ask, because it’s my duty as a wing woman, not because I want to get into another discussion about SAT prep.
“Well, the pool should be fixed by the end of the week.” Chris gestures to the big empty hole. “Total bummer it wasn’t ready for tonight, but we’ll definitely get that going.”
“If you want an alternative to chlorine, they have natural enzymes you can use to keep it clean.” Elle finally says something, albeit a completely face-palm-worthy something.
“Huh?” Chris looks genuinely confused.
“An alternative that’s a little more earth friendly . . .” Elle trails off, as absolutely none of this is registering for Chris. “Is the bathroom this way?” she practically squeaks and points to the house, like the bathroom would be any other place. “Whoa, I had a lot of punch.”
And then she darts off.
Does a good wing woman run after her, or stay behind and explain why she’s acting like a total spaz?
“She okay?” Chris asks.
“Yeah, uh, she just broke the seal already.” This is so not something I would ever say, and it sounds ridiculous, but Chris bobs his head empathetically.
“That’s the worst, man. No wonder she was talking all crazy about chemicals.”
I bite my tongue.
“So, um, did you come with Ronnie—I mean Veronica?” he asks, and it takes me a good second to realize he’s talking about my younger sister.
“No, I didn’t even know you guys knew each other,” I say, wondering how Chris Partridge became this weird epicenter of my universe, secretly connected to everyone in my life.
“We had a study hall together. She said she might stop by.” He looks really dejected that I didn’t know this.
“Oh, she’s probably coming. I just haven’t seen her since this morning. After school I went right to work.”
He nods again, still looking like someone filled his pool with natural chemicals, so I tell him that it turns out we also have Alex in common.
“Shut up! You’re Alex’s Molly?” he asks.
Alex’s Molly. Chris looks as shocked as I feel. Alex’s Molly.
“He’s talked about me?”
“I mean, he said he worked with this really cool girl. I just didn’t put two and two together.”
Even though it’s already a million degrees out, I feel myself blushing.
“Is he coming tonight?” Chris is asking.
“Yeah, when he’s done with band practice.”
“Sweet. McD is a good dude.”
From the table of snacks by the screen door, Meredith calls out to Chris that they need more beer.
“Duty calls.” Chris smiles and trots off.
This really cool girl. Alex’s Molly. Everything is all jumbled in my head. Is Elle actually right about Alex being into me? What about the Hot Topic girls? What about the way he always seems to be joking when he asks if I want to hang out?
My phone chimes that I’ve got a new text, and I jump a little, thinking it must be Alex and that he can somehow magically read my thoughts.
The message is from Elle: Hiding in upstairs linen closet. Mortified.
I write back: Told C u were drunk.
Thanks I guess??!!! Have to use b room for real now. BRB
I really don’t want to hear Gina and Tina go on and on about college anymore, and I don’t have strong connections to any of the other clumps of people, so I sit on a deck chair a little away from everyone and wait for Elle. To avoid looking like a total loser, I pretend to do something extremely important on my phone. When this slobbering adorable golden retriever comes over, I treat it like a long-lost relative.
Before he died, my dad always used to promise we’d get a dog. That’s one thing I actually do remember.
“Molly Byrne.” A familiar voice, and my stomach drops.
T. J. Cranston, all tall and tan and good-looking in this cheesy, Captain America way that your mom thinks is super-handsome—at least my mom did when he picked me up for our first date.
He was a couple of years ahead of me, but when I got bumped to the varsity swim team sophomore year, we were in the same practice lane, and sometimes he’d tell me he liked my suit or joke about how I was attacking him with my flippers. Then one day he asked me out. My mom and Elle and V were all excited, so I got a little excited. He took me to an Olive Garden knockoff, paid the check, and kissed me good night. We started going out like that maybe once a week, or we’d watch something on Netflix or go to a team party together, and he always gave me rides home after practice.
He was a nice enough guy—he never pressured me to have sex or do drugs like bad boyfriends always do in sitcoms—but it was right around that time when everything started to really pile up. I’ve always been kind of obsessive about grades and art class and big meets and stuff, but it got to the point where little things like having to pee when I’d already put on both practice suits could bring me to tears, and it just became easier to give up on stuff.
Finally T.J. asked why I was so mopey, but it wasn’t like anything was actually wrong, and when I told him that, his face scrunched up into this fake sympathetic look like he’d stepped in dog crap. So I never said anything again, but I started to dread seeing him and having to pretend I was this ray of sunshine, when in reality it didn’t even feel like I was there. It was like I was floating above, watching this undeserving girl with blue-green eyes and mouse-poop hair holding hands with Captain America dude, and French-kissing him at the end of the night. Then I’d go inside to my model-home bedroom and cry. Pathetic.
And then, the day before the divisionals meet, T.J. drove me home after practice, pulled into my driveway, turned off the ignition, and sighed. “You’re a great girl, Molly,” he began. “You’re just kind of different from what I thought before I got to know you.”
Oddly, out of all the appropriate times to start bawling, I didn’t—I actually felt sort of relieved. But then when I
saw him the next day at divisionals talking to this blond junior, something inside me just broke . . . which led to my infamous freak-out at the start of the freestyle relay. For the entire rest of the school year I managed to avoid him—which is pretty impressive, since our school has only seven hundred people total—and then he was off to Florida State.
But I guess he’s back now, and apparently he’s also BFFs with bloody Chris Partridge! WTF!
“What’s up?” I hear myself asking him.
“Well, FSU is awesome.” T.J. gestures to Chris’s older brother, who I hadn’t noticed before. “I pledged Kappa Sig with Robbie.”
“You guys make good punch.” I hold up my glass.
“Thanks. How ’bout you, Mol?” He tilts his head a little like he’s trying to be extra sincere, the stuff that annoyed the crap out of me when we were dating. “This year go okay?”
The panic is circling in my throat.
“Yeah, it was peachy.”
I need to get out of here.
I can’t have Alex come here and see this. See me. Can’t let these people tell him that I’m not this really cool girl he works with. That the real me is a girl who randomly cries in the bathroom between classes. A girl who got hysterical on the starting block before the freestyle relay and ran away, disqualifying the team from the race and ruining the divisionals meet for everyone.
“Look, for a while now I’ve wanted to say something about what—”
“No, it’s all good.” I cut him off before he can say any of this out loud. “Actually, I gotta hop. Great seeing you.”
Then I’m hurrying away, back into the house, the golden retriever following after.
I try to text Elle that T.J. is here and I have to leave. But I’m so screwed up that I fat-finger half the letters, and it’s auto-corrected to: The hart O gave to hp.
What? Elle writes back.
Where r u? Have to leaf.
TJ HERE!!! Meet me at car.
I’m nearly at the front door, but the dog is still following me, so I try gently pushing his face back, indicating that he should stay, but he just licks my arm. I try throwing an imaginary ball into the living room, but he’s clearly on to me.
Ugh. I need to leave; already I can feel tears in the corners of my eyes. I can’t be that girl, not again.
In the kitchen someone opens the refrigerator, and Lassie immediately loses interest in me and trots off. I make a run for the door, but my phone dings. I look down to read it and smack into a sheet of shiny dark hair smelling of lilacs . . . my sister.
Veronica is two years behind me at CCH, but she’s with a group of older girls she works with at Jaclyn’s Attic, a trendy boutique in the “revitalized” downtown. Some of the girls I vaguely know from school; the others must go to Maxwell with Alex. They all have perfectly applied eye makeup and smudge-proof lips. All of them are pretty in sundresses or designer shorts and tops that show off shapely shoulders. But even among the gorgeous girls, my sister is the standout.
V got the good genes from Mom—the razor-sharp cheekbones and gravity-defying boobs, the legs that go all the way up.
“Molly?” she asks, part terror, part straight-up confusion. “Why are you here?”
“Great to see you, too, V.”
“No, I mean, I thought you didn’t do stuff like this anymore. Go to parties?”
“I don’t.” I nod. “I’m leaving.”
Glancing down, I see a text from Alex: Heading over now.
I need to get out of here.
“Wait. Why don’t you just stay?” V grabs my arm and holds it. She sounds like she might actually mean it, even if her friends are giving these WTF? looks. “We’ll, like, bond or something.”
Just a few years ago we were super-close. But things have been weird since ADF. Since she started in high school too.
Another text. Not from Alex but Elle: Finishing up here; there in a few.
“I gotta go. I’ll see you at home.”
“Yeah, okay.” V lets me go, and I practically run to the door.
Behind me I hear one of the Jaclyn’s girls snarl, “What was that all about?”
Closing my eyes, I try not to let it bother me too much. My shrink—Dr. B.—says that sometimes it helps just to take a couple of deep breaths, but it was like breathing through clam chowder. So I do.
How is it still so freaking hot out?
When Elle gets to the Jeep, she doesn’t even object when I crank up the AC knob as soon as I climb in.
“Sorry I made you go,” Elle says. “I had no idea T.J. would be there.”
I shake my head and try the breathing thing again.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
The answer is probably no. I want to scream or cry or go to bed for a week. But it’s almost worse to be honest and have people—even people like Elle, who’s been my best friend for longer than our parents were married—look at me like I’m broken. So I try to rein it all in.
“Yeah, that was fun,” I say flatly. “We should definitely go to more parties.”
When Elle drops me off and I make it upstairs to my room, all I want to do is fall into the huge sleigh bed and
pass out, but there’s a piece of horribly dilapidated blue-and-red-stained cake on a plate by my nightstand, along with a note in Mom’s chunky handwriting.
Hope you had a great time tonight! Figured I’d leave this for you in case you’re hungry. I have a good feeling about this one!
Bunching the note into a ball, I hurl it across the room and miss the garbage can by at least a foot.