Best Friends (Until Someone Better Comes Along)
Pine trees blurred into a green mess outside the window of my mom’s car as we sped along a bumpy old road to the middle of nowhere. I rolled down my window and inhaled deeply.
I scrunched my nose into a tight little ball and blew out, trying to force the stink back out of my body. Pressing the button to roll my window up again, I flopped back against the leather seat. I’d assumed it would smell pine fresh outside, like cleaning products or candles. But it didn’t. It smelled nasty. It almost felt like I could taste the stink in the air, it was that bad.
“I hope this isn’t the ‘fresh wilderness air’ you’ve been
promising me for the past month. It smells like excrement.” I smirked, waiting for my mother’s response. She should love my use of such a big word—excrement. It was a big, complicated word. A smart-person’s word.
“Don’t be rude, Isabella.” My mom, Sara Hurst-Caravelli, glanced at me in the rearview mirror. Then she focused her eyes back on the road.
“I’m not trying to be rude,” I protested. “I’m trying to be honest. You’re always telling me to expand my vocabulary. And wouldn’t we all agree that ‘smells like excrement’ is better than saying ‘smells like—’ ”
“That’s enough,” she snapped. My mother, she of rose-colored pedicures and coffee-shop lattes, had somehow become even crabbier as we got closer and closer to the end of the earth. It was sort of shocking that she could get any crabbier, but I guess a forced wilderness vacation can do that to anyone. “And I’ll thank you in advance for your change in attitude.”
I rolled the window down an inch and sniffed the air again—delicately this time. I figured I ought to give it another chance, just to be fair, but I immediately rolled it back up. It really did smell terrible outside, like something had died and was left to rot by the side of the road. I leaned
my head against the glass and stared up into the canopy of pine trees that now hung low and dark around our car. Even though it was only four in the afternoon, it was as dim as twilight inside the shadowed forest. Almost like the trees could sense my mood.
“Isn’t this beautiful?” My dad, Alex, mused from the passenger seat. It sounded like he was reading a line off a script. I knew he was about as big a fan of the woods as the rest of us, but he knew he had to put on a good show. He was the reason we were all stuck going on this super family vacation. “Like a wonderland.”
Quietly, I murmured, “More like creepy.” This forest was exactly the sort of place freaks and kidnappers might hide out when they were waiting to attack. Thick underbrush and stinky air would provide the perfect cover for any crime. No one would ever find a body, and hermits could hide out for years without anyone spotting them—big, hairy creeps with axes and wooden sticks, just waiting to attack sweet-smelling city girls.
I shivered. I could think of no worse place to spend a whole month.
Of all the things I could be doing in August, living at some broken-down resort on a lake with a bunch of
strangers would probably be, oh, let’s see . . . my last choice. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a choice. Even though both of my best friends had offered me a bed at either of their houses for the month, my parents had insisted that I join them. I guess if my mom was being forced to go, I wasn’t going to get out of our family adventure. Suffering together is so much more fun.
My parents kept telling me to quit moaning, since it was just one month. But I didn’t want to quit moaning. In this one (horrible) month, I was going to miss Sylvie’s birthday party, the weekend with everyone at Heidi’s dad’s lake house, and my annual back-to-school shopping with the girls. I was missing everything. I hate being left out.
Unless we’re talking about this family trip, and then I’d love to be left out.
After five torturous hours of driving, we were finally less than ten minutes from Pine Lodge Resort on Lake Whatchamacallit (I hadn’t bothered to remember the real name)—and I wasn’t feeling any more optimistic about the month ahead.
“Everyone else is arriving today, as well,” my dad said, turning his body so he could make eye contact with me in the backseat. My dad was big on eye contact. As an advertising executive, he had a lot of opinions about communication in general. Tone of voice, body language, word choice—apparently, there
are rules about all of those things. And I never get the rules right. If you asked my parents, they’d tell you I don’t do much of anything right. “We’re all going to cook out together tonight. You can get friendly with my coworkers’ kids.”
“Great,” I muttered. “Delightful.”
“Your tone says otherwise,” said my dad. Unsmiling, he fixed his bright-green eyes—eyes that matched mine exactly, even down to the little brown spots around the pupils—on me. I squirmed and looked away. When my dad was in work mode, which was almost always the last year or so, he kind of freaked me out. Unfortunately, we were going to this lakeside dump with all of his new coworkers, so I had a feeling he was going to be in work mode (a.k.a. downright scary) all month. My dad was so serious all the time when he was Mr. Ad Man. Actually, he was pretty serious and Not Fun most of the time lately, so maybe it’s not fair to blame work. “Your mother already asked you to change your attitude.”
“Consider it changed,” I said sweetly, because tone was everything. Dad gave me one of his meaningful looks, then spun back to watch the road ahead.
I slumped in my seat. My puppy, a Vizsla-and-something-else mix that I got from the Humane Society a few weeks ago as a reward for my sixth-grade year-end report card, scrambled
into my lap. I rubbed Coco’s ears, and she buried her head under my hand. I loved the way her loose puppy skin felt like velvet, warm and comforting. “I’m glad we’re in this together,” I whispered. Coco whimpered, then let out a low whine, which made me laugh. At least I wasn’t the only one complaining.
Moments later, without warning, the paved road ended and the trees spread out a bit. We thumped through potholes, and little rocks kicked up at the underside of our car. My mom guided us along a now narrow, rocky road. Her knuckles were white. She was gripping the steering wheel like it might fall off. I noticed that her fresh manicure was already chipped—my mom and I both had a problem with picking at our nails, but she refused to admit that she had any nervous habits. She carried a little bottle of touch-up polish with her everywhere so no one would ever know.
Up ahead, sunlight glinted off a smallish-looking lake. Out either side of the car there were cabins that looked like something straight out of every horror movie ever made. They had flaking reddish-brown paint and rotting front steps, and it seemed that each one was tinier than the one next to it. “Where are we staying?” I asked. I sat up taller in my seat, craning my neck to try to see what the main lodge looked like.
My mom laughed. It was a brittle and unfamiliar sound.
“It’s not funny,” I said. Suddenly, Mom pulled the car to the side of the rocky road and turned it off. She continued to chuckle. “Seriously . . .” I was starting to worry. The truth was, my mom only laughed when she’d had a little too much wine, or when she was making fun of someone. “Where’s the main lodge? Pine Lodge?”
Now my dad was laughing too. “Lodge?” he asked. “We’re in the Cardinal cabin—the pine trees that surround us are our natural lodge. We’ll be living in nature here at the resort. ‘Lodge’ is a loose term.”
I looked out the car window at the broken-down shacks that surrounded us like prison cells. Coco let out a low whine. I really wanted to join her. If I’d been alone, I would probably have released a sad howl or a whine or a growl—I wasn’t sure if I was upset or scared or downright angry.
One of the cabins, the crumbling shack that was closest to our car, had a hand-painted sign that read BLUEJAY. Another, CROW. A third, ROBIN. I was sensing a theme. “We’re staying in one of these?”
“Of course we’re staying in one of these,” my mom said, without a hint of apology in her voice. I caught her rolling her eyes in the rearview mirror. And they wonder where I get my attitude! “It’s a cottage.”
“This? Is not a cottage. It’s a bunch of rotten wood that’s been piled up in the shape of a tiny cabin. Maybe the owners of this place wish it was a cottage, but it would take a lot of fairy dust and dwarf-magic to turn this into something sweet like a cottage. Cottages are for fairy tales and English villages. This is worse than loser Girl Scout camp.” I sat and stewed in the backseat, refusing to move. I had expected bad—but this was worse. Sylvie gave me a fresh pedicure for this? So not worth it.
My parents ignored me while they began to unload bags and boxes of food from the back of the car. Every time they glanced my way, I shot them a look of pure evil. I wasn’t being unreasonable. I hadn’t expected a four-star hotel, like the W. But maybe I’d been thinking this would be something along the lines of a Comfort Suites. Because the thing is, that was roughing it. This was like some sort of survival show on TV.
Eventually, I opened the door and stepped out onto the rocky ground. Coco followed me, sniffing at piles of this and chunks of that. I didn’t even want to think about what my sweet puppy might smell like when she curled up beside me in bed that night.
As I picked my way across the rocky ground, I stuffed my
hands in the pockets of my new black sundress. I didn’t want to accidentally touch something disgusting. I’m no diva, but I am a city girl. This whole roughing-it business was going to take some getting used to. The air still smelled like cow poop, but now it mixed with the scent of pine and wet grass and old wood. It wasn’t actually all that bad, but I wasn’t going to admit it. I’d already made my point. Now I had to stick by it.
“This way!” my dad called, waving from over by a cabin that was squeezed between two others. Somehow, it looked like it had been neglected at least a hundred years longer than all the others. “I found a Cardinal!”
“Is it dead?” I muttered under my breath. I didn’t bother carrying my bag to the cabin. If I left it in the car long enough, one of my parents would bring it inside. They’d nag me and nag me, but I knew if I ignored them, eventually they would just do it themselves. I found that to be true in most situations—if I ignored something long enough, someone else would usually deal with it for me.
I pushed the screen in the cabin’s door to open it. But instead of the door springing open, the screen popped out of the door frame. I kicked at the wooden frame, and the door flew open and slammed against the wooden wall inside. “So this is home for the month, eh?”
My dad nodded from just inside the door. He was blocking my path inside our home sweet home, as though he was hiding something. Probably, he’d found a dead mouse or six that he didn’t want me to see. Maybe I’d sleep in the car all month. “We can unpack later. I think I heard some people down by the lake. The team isn’t starting creative sessions until tomorrow, and I’d like to get some quality relaxing time in with the gang before then.”
I have never understood the world of advertising, but I really don’t get my dad’s new company at all. Just three months ago, he was hired as senior account director at a branding, advertising, and media strategy company called You, Only Better. His firm’s offices were in the heart of downtown, in a restored old loft, which was pretty cool. What wasn’t cool was the team’s annual retreat to the north woods. But You, Only Better had several woodsy sort of clients—an outdoor gear retailer, a bunch of climbing gyms, and a number of organic and natural product companies—that kept their advertising dollars with my dad’s company only because the firm’s creative team went “back to nature” once a year for a month of creative brainstorming and ad development.
“Ready?” Dad asked, eyebrows raised. He began to cross
his arms, then unfolded them again—everyone knew crossed arms sent a bad signal. Something about being closed off and guarded.
I shrugged, crossed my arms, and reluctantly followed him down a path toward the lake. Coco trotted along behind me. We walked over the crest of a pine needle–strewn hill, and I could see a dirty-looking beach area and a rickety dock jutting out into the lake. I squared my shoulders and stood tall. It’s easy to fake confidence when you’re tall like me.
I was eager to make a strong first impression, until I saw the people I was trying to impress. A group of dorky-looking adults were clustered on and around the dock, drinking sodas and eating chips. Zit food, I thought, wondering if they realized how bad that stuff was for their skin.
I scanned the faces that had all turned to look at us. A few people waved and shouted their hellos. My dad waved back, but he isn’t a big shouter—he prefers one-on-one greetings and cheesy handshake-hugs. He reminds me of a small-town mayor, the kind of guy who might ride on the back of a convertible in the Fourth of July parade, patting babies and shaking hands. As Dad walked forward to do his thing, my eyes slid over the group of adults wearing ugly shorts and hideous terry-cloth swimsuit cover-ups.
Slowly, I turned my attention to a group of kids who looked about my age. They were sitting on the ground on the rock-and-sand beach. I tried to keep my expression cool as I looked each of them in the eye in turn. It was time to establish my alpha status. But even though I was giving them the look I had perfected for the first day of school, the one my best friend Heidi called the “Isabella Caravelli Scary Smile,” no one seemed fazed. I pushed out my lips and narrowed my eyes, the way my mom sometimes does, trying to look a little more threatening.
Suddenly, I sucked in my breath. Two faces in the group were familiar. Too familiar. I swallowed and looked down. I needed a second to collect myself. I wasn’t prepared for this.
Once I’d regained my composure, I crossed my arms over my chest and looked up again. Then I smiled straight at them. They obviously recognized me, too. I felt a rush of power as their smiles crumbled.