Chapter 3: Fourteen Days
"You know it's spring when girls start making those stupid posters for the spring formal," Faith grumbled, shaking her head. We were in the library for our free period. My math notebook was splayed out before me, and I uncapped a yellow highlighter to box an important equation I really needed to memorize.
"Hm?" I asked, mumbling the equation back to myself. Faith snapped her fingers in front of my face, making me move back in my chair. "What?"
Faith laughed in disbelief. "Do you ever stop studying?"
"Yes," I said, closing my notebook to prove it to her. She narrowed her eyes at me, smirking.
"I can hear you thinking math in your head."
I sighed, slumping down in my chair and crossing my arms. "What do you want from me?"
"To reply to my current topic," Faith declared. Mrs. Briggin shushed us from her spot behind her desk. She buried her head back behind her computer, clacking away at the keys. Faith lowered her voice. "Spring formal. Lame posters. Girls asking boys."
"I think a girl can ask a boy to a dance if she wants to," I replied, gathering my books and placing them into my backpack.
"I know that," Faith said. "I'm just saying that I wish girls were more inventive. I've seen too many posters declaring 'Will you be the petals to my stem?' or 'Will you be the fries to my burger?'"
"Fries to my burger is kind of clever," I said, zipping up my backpack. "The petals one, not so much."
Faith got up with me from the table and followed me into the A-G shelf section. "Would you ever ask a boy?"
I sighed in satisfaction when my fingers fell upon the spine of a book that I'd been searching for. Flowers for Dummies. "With this face? I don't think so."
As soon as I removed the book from its position on the shelf, I narrowed my eyes and peered into the now empty space, spotting Leslie with her back against a bookshelf, her arms wrapped around Harrison's neck. I quickly placed the book back into its place, the back of my own neck heating up.
"What's up with you?" Faith asked, absentmindedly flipping through the pages of a handbook on golf. I shook my head.
"Nothing. Let's go."
Quickly whipping the black apron over my head and tying the ends around my waist, I took a step into the greenhouse. I inhaled the sweet scent of floral perfume and dirt caked leaves. My mother stood towards the back of the greenhouse where the roses were kept, observing five pots of soil. She frowned at them, switching them around. I waltzed up to her and she lifted her chin at me, smiling for a change.
"Nina," she said, pulling me in and kissing the top of my head. Then she pulled away from me, raising her eyebrows. "You're late."
"Sorry," I sighed, tightening the hair tie on my pony tail. I really did need to buy a new set of them. "I missed the first bus, and the next one didn't come for another twelve minutes."
She turned to look at the pots once more, switching the pot at the end with the pot in the middle. "You could always call your dad for a ride. He lives just near the high school."
I let my hands slowly fall back down to my sides, swallowing. "No, it's okay."
She stopped switching the pots around, staring me straight in the eye. It was at moments like these where I wondered why on earth my father would abandon my beautiful mother. Simply because of me? Because of a baby and the responsibilities you have to take on as a dad? When my mom faced me directly like this, I could see how green her irises were, like emeralds. Her cheekbones popped out at just the right angle, and her eyes were shaped like almonds. She had a heart shaped face, with slightly round cheeks and a pointed chin. No receding hair line, not that there should have been one since she was only thirty three.
"He called today," she said. "He wanted to know if you were available on the 24th."
"What's on the 24th?"
"Helena's birthday," she replied. My throat tightened. "She's turning nine."
I started to move the pots to different shelves, where more sunlight would shed on them and help them grow. "I think I have a dance to go to that day."
"A dance?" she asked in surprise. I turned around and frowned.
“Spring formal," I answered, then panicked. This would mean that I'd actually have to go to the dance...without a date. Dateless Nina. Pathetic. "It's coming up."
She slowly shook her head. "Okay," she said. "Did you want me to give you his number so that you could let him know?"
"Can you do it?" I asked, opening the bottom cupboard to take out our smallest watering can. "I have a lot of homework."
"Nina..." she trailed off, and I felt my fingers clench together. "I thought you and your father talked things out last summer?"
I fought the urge to let out a bitter laugh. Last summer, when he'd unexpectedly visited us at the flower shop to announce that he was living in Melway again and attracted the unwanted attention of nearby customers, who loudly whispered that next to him, I was my father's daughter. I didn't have a drop of my mother's looks; everything about me, from my straight brown hair sitting flatly atop my head to my mud colored eyes to my too narrow face shape screamed Todd Fabiano. It was a mystery as to how a man like my father, who had a wardrobe not too far from a homeless man's and a bowl hair cut complete with thick lens glasses, had gotten a woman like my mother. It was town gossip, even to this day.
"I just can't go, Mom," I said, sprinkling the soil with light drops of water. "These should start growing by the end of the month. You just had them in the wrong spot. They needed more light."
She sighed, walking up to me and placing her hand on top of my head, a gesture she did often. She smoothed down my baby hairs. "This shop would be a mess without you." She kissed my cheek, and I smiled. "I'll call your father for you."
"Okay," I said, my ears perking up as the bell above the glass door rang. A customer walked through and began to scan our price board for our most popularly selected flower deals. I turned to greet him but my mother placed a gentle hand on my wrist, making me stay for a moment.
"You have to talk to him sooner or later, Nina," she said firmly, then let go and continued walking around the green house. I knew that I had to talk to him sooner or later. He was my dad. But he also made the decision to not be my dad when he abandoned my then seventeen year old Beauty Pageant Teen Mom. He'd knocked her up, fled the town, made her lose her pageantry title, and didn't even give his baby girl a chance.
How could she expect me to give him a chance?
"Did he seriously call and invite you?" Harrison asked as he leaned against my bed frame. I sat in front of him, crisscrossed and hugging my stuffed octopus.
"Apparently," I replied. "I mean, my mom said he did. Why, do you think he didn't?"
"No, I just think that maybe he's trying to make it up to you."
"By inviting me to my half sister's birthday party? By wanting me to see his new family and his new house and his new life? I feel the love," I snorted, shaking my head and frowning. Harrison sat up straighter, scooting closer to me.
“Come on. You've got to at least give him the benefit of the doubt."
"Did he give me the benefit of the doubt when he left Melway? No."
"Twinkles," I mimicked, and Harrison scowled, wrapping an arm around my neck and holding me in a head leg. I punched his thigh but he refused to let go.
"You are so stubborn," he laughed, blowing into my ear. I yelped, socking him in the stomach.
"Ahem," a voice said at my now open bedroom door. My face flushed.
"Mrs. Gregory," Harrison said, startled. He unlocked me but kept his arm lightly hanging over my shoulder. I could feel my heart racing. My mother was staring at his hand and looking at me pointedly, but I pretended not to notice.
"Hello Harrison," she said, folding her hands together. "What have you been up to these days? You haven't stayed for dinner in a while."
Harrison and I made subtle faces at one another. My mom wasn't exactly the best cook, especially with her most recent attempt at Italian dishes. I wasn't aware water could burn until she managed to do it. "I have a curfew," he lied, and I nudged his rib in disapproval.
"Right," she replied, clearly amused and aware he was fibbing. "So, Nina told me about some dance coming up? The spring formal?"
I froze. I hadn't told Harrison that my excuse to not going to Helena's birthday party was that I'd be attending the spring formal on the same day. I would have gotten to that part in my rant if she hadn't barged through the door. We desperately needed to get new locks.
"Yeah, the 24th," he said, and I could almost see a bulb light up above his head. He gave me the side eye glance before turning his attention back to her.
"Nina doesn't have a date yet. You should take her," she suggested.
"Mom," I warned her, inching away from Harrison's grip. His arm slid casually off my shoulder. "Harrison already has a date."
"No, I don't," he said. I raised my eyebrows at him.
"See?" Mom pointed out. "Think about it." She sent me a mischievous smile before leaving the room, of course, with the door wide open.
"Weird," I commented, forcing a laugh. "You haven't asked Leslie yet?"
"Everyone knows that the girl asks the guy for spring formal," Harrison scoffed. I smacked the back of his head. "Ow!"
"There is not a gentlemanly bone in your body, is there?"
"Did I not set up an entire dinner in a park for her?" he reminded me, snagging my octopus from beneath my arms to place it behind his head to use a pillow.
"With my help," I shot back. "You're welcome."
"Hey, I thanked you!" he exclaimed, frowning. "Besides, you're not really going to the dance, are you?"
I grabbed my octopus back, his head hitting the bed frame with a loud thump. He glared at me. "Maybe I will."
He started laughing, his nose crinkling and his eyes watering.
"What?" I demanded, scowling at him. He wiped his hand across his eyes, hunched over and still laughing like a hyena.
"You do know that you have to wear a dress, right?" he asked.
"Okay?" I said. "And?"
He nudged his chin at my present attire: a loose black tee and black track shorts. "Do you even own a dress?"
Now I was beyond pissed. I punched him in the arm, hard, then ran to the bathroom, locking the door. I heard Harrison run up to the door. He knocked and I drowned him out by turning on the sink and letting the water run, too angry to remember that we were currently in a drought.
"Nina," he sighed, but I could tell he was still kind of laughing at me. I could almost imagine him leaning against my wooden dresser, waiting for me to come on out and stop the dramatic antics. He knocked again, this time sounding a little more serious. "Nina, come on. I was only messing with you."
I turned off the sink, looking up at the mirror. I tried to see what Harrison saw. No makeup on my face, not even a hint of lip balm. I'd never tried curling my eyelashes before. When I was thirteen, I remember racking through my mother's makeup bag, opening the containers of pearly eyeshadow and apricot blush, but then shutting them because I was terrified. I would never be able to live up to my mother's beauty, and everyone knew it. Why bother even trying?
Harrison pounded on the door. "Hey, come on out. Please?"
I took a deep breath, unlocking the door, then placing my hand on the door knob, swinging it open. He jumped back, surprised. He sighed in relief.
"I was kidding," he said.
"I do own a dress, you know," I replied defiantly.
"Okay," he sighed, sheepishly scratching the back of his neck.
"And I am going to the dance, and I am a girl," I reminded her.
"I know you're a girl."
"Then treat me like one!" I yelled, my throat tightening up on me. His face fell completely, and he cleared his throat, looking down at the ground. I stared hard at the octopus on my bed, trying not to cry.
"Alright," he finally said softly, looking up at me. "I'm sorry."
I stubbed my toe into the floor, fumbling with my fingers. "It's okay."
He cocked his head to the side and stared at me, his eyes moving up and down my body.
"What?" I asked.
He blinked, shaking his head. "I was just trying to picture you in a dress."
"Oh," I mumbled.
He grinned. "I can't," he said, laughing again. I frowned but I knew he was teasing.
"Harrison!" Mom called from downstairs. "Your dad is here!"
I rolled my eyes. "Come on," I sighed, dragging him towards the door. He stopped in his tracks and I turned towards him. "What are you doing?"
He smiled, holding a hand up. Then he stepped in front of me, opening the door. "Ladies first," he said. I nearly swooned at the smile on his face. Those braces in middle school did him justice. I giggled, shaking my head and walking out the door with my head held high, dramatically shaking my hips. Harrison broke into laughter, shutting the door behind him.
"So, like, what does your name mean?" Amy asked me at lunch. Leslie was feeding Harrison a crouton from her salad (barf), and Faith was at an away game for volleyball. Out of all of Leslie's friends, Amy was not the sharpest tool in the shed. I swallowed the piece of bread I'd been chewing.
"Um, I'm not sure," I told her.
"That's a weird meaning," she said, her eyes widening.
"No, it's not-" I began, but she was already turning to Angela to talk about a cheer routine. I sighed. Sometimes certain cheerleaders really did fit the stereotype. Someone's hip bumped into mine and I turned to my right. Richel sat beside me, her tray filled with a burger and fries this time. She handed me a fry, smiling. There was a strange twinkle in her eyes as I slowly reached for the fry before popping it into my mouth.
"Thanks," I said, narrowing my eyes at her suspiciously. Yesterday, she had almost turned my whole world upside down. Today, she was sharing her lunch with me. Her emotions were giving me whiplash and I wasn't sure if I could keep up.
"You're welcome," she replied cheerfully, bouncing her toes up and down. She seemed awfully excited, and I was tempted to ask her why but I thought I was better off not knowing. I didn't want her biting my head off again like our first encounter back at the shop. She turned her attention to Leslie. "Hey, cuz?"
Leslie stopped feeding croutons to Harrison, who seemed glad. Harrison wasn't exactly a big fan of healthy foods. The number of pizza nights, burger nights, and steak nights he'd had at my house were one too many. It was shocking, really, that he hadn't blown up to the size of a sumo wrestler.
"Mhm?" Leslie hummed.
"How are your auditions going?" Richel asked. I munched on my sandwich, taking a sip of my thermos of lemonade.
"Good," Leslie brightly replied. "Great, actually."
"Auditions?" Harrison asked, removing his arm from her shoulder.
"I'm trying out for the Melway Beauty Pageant," she squealed, intertwining her fingers together. "The girls who pass move onto the next round."
"What's the next round?" he asked, wrapping his arm back around her, this time her waist. I averted my eyes to a food pyramid poster on the wall behind them.
"The Miss USA competition," she excitedly responded, grinning from ear to ear. "If you pass that round, you get flown out to Florida for the Miss America round."
"Sick," Harrison commented, stealing a potato chip from my lunch pail. I frowned at him, and he bugged his eyes at me, meaning I'm-starving-and-tired-of-eating-croutons.
"I heard you guys are short about four girls," Richel said. Leslie nodded, running her fingers through the roots of her hair. I wondered how much her highlights cost. Richel handed me another french fry, and I gratefully took it.
“Yeah," she sighed. "Hopefully more girls enter or else the Melway pageant might not go through. Another town might just do it, not ours."
"Is there an age limit for the contestants?" Richel asked, handing me yet another fry. I hoped she sat with us at lunch everyday if she was always going to be sharing her lunch with me. I was beginning to get tired of turkey sandwiches. Maybe tomorrow she would bring something exotic like sushi. I hadn't had a California roll in forever.
Leslie looked up at the ceiling, tapping her chin. "I think its between the ages of fourteen and eighteen," she said.
"Nina, you should totally join," Richel calmly said, placing another fry in my hand. I dropped it out of shock. Everyone at our lunch table froze, and Harrison snorted, trying to cover it up with a cough.
"What?" I quietly asked, shifting uneasily due to the stares of Amy, Angela and Olivia. Leslie blinked before jumping right in.
"You can if you want to," Leslie offered, smiling. Knowing her, she was probably just saying this because she felt bad about implying that I was ugly the other day, which I knew I was. But still.
"I don't think so," I said, shaking my head. "I'm not really a pageant kind of girl."
Amy nodded, and I saw Angela elbow her in my peripheral vision. She stopped nodding, instead examining her nails.
"Oh, come on! The prize for winning first place in the Melway round is one thousand dollars," Richel coaxed. "The grand prize is one hundred and fifty thousand."
"I don't know..." I trailed off, but my mind was already blown by the gigantic numbers. One hundred and fifty thousand dollars. I could use that money to save for college and to upgrade a few things here and there around the flower shop. Mom could stop leaving a bucket out for the leak coming down from the ceiling near the refrigerators.
The bell rang just as I was thinking up other smart ways I could use the prize money. Leslie smiled awkwardly at me, and Harrison shot me a questioning look. He'd surely bring this up with me later, without a doubt. I was in for a long interrogation. I went to throw my trash away and Richel was right on my heels.
"You should totally do this!" she exclaimed in my ear. I pulled away, cringing.
"Ow," I said. She smiled sheepishly.
"Sorry, sorry. But Nina, this is your chance!"
"My chance?" I asked, tightening the straps of my backpack around my shoulder. I dodged an incoming football, which whizzed just past Richel's ear, but she didn't even seem to notice.
"Your chance to get Harrison to notice you," she sighed, clearly exasperated. I whipped around to shoot her a crazed look.
"Are you insane?" I asked. "He has a girlfriend."
"He has a girlfriend because she's all he sees at the moment. No offense, but your best friend doesn't exactly have the best taste in girls. Leslie was feeding him to death with that incessant train of croutons."
I shook my head, squeezing past a group of giggling freshmen. "No," I said. "I'm sorry."
She let out a groan, leaping in front of me. I stopped so suddenly in my tracks that I nearly dropped my World History textbook.
"Okay, listen, think of this as me being your fairy godmother. You like Harrison. You wish he noticed you the way he noticed my cousin. The way he's noticed a lot of other girls, I'm guessing. Right?"
I sighed, biting my lip. "Okay... yeah. Right."
"And you also wish you looked more like your mom. Right?"
My eyes widened at this correct assumption of hers. Perhaps she really was my fairy godmother. I nodded, unable to find words.
Richel placed her hands on her hips. "All of that and more can happen if you enter the pageant," she reasoned with me. "And you know it."
I played with the ends of my ponytail, debating the possible consequences of this. I could fail. I could trip onstage. I could wear a horrible dress. I could look like a clown with makeup on. I could embarrass myself in front of all of Melway. But then I thought of the pros.
People would stop whispering about my looks versus my mother's. They would stop treating me like a dirty washcloth. I could charm boys without trying, like my mother did to the male customers that visited our flower shop too often to be called "browsing at azaleas." Harrison wouldn't have difficulty picturing me in a dress anymore and would stop giving me noogies and making me help him out with dates for various girls.
"Don't you want all of that?" Richel asked. I swallowed, looking nervously down at my palms.
“I do," I whispered. The warning bell rang, which meant that if certain students weren't inside their classrooms, detention slips were handed out to them.
Richel beamed, clapping her hands together and squealing, practically bouncing on the balls of her feet. Then it was like someone hit the fast forward button on her mouth, and my brain was taking in a bunch of information. "The Melway pageant is in two weeks. I'll have to print out a form for you to fill out to enter you into the contest. We'll go over their itinerary and their rules. You'll have to give me your cell phone number, though, so that I can easily contact you. We can even meet up at my house; I live right on-"
"Wait, wait, wait," I breathlessly interrupted, holding up a hand. "You said the Melway pageant is in two weeks?"
She nodded. "Yeah. So?"
I gaped at her. "So are you saying you have a magic wand to make me pretty in fourteen days?" I asked, sounding a bit shrill but only because I felt like someone had taken my leg and began stringing me along the streets of Peru.
She frowned. "You're already pretty," she scowled.
"Parker, go to class!" Principal Warren yelled from behind me. I whirled around in confusion. His face fell, and then he began laughing. "Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you were Parker. He's a troublemaker senior, that boy."
Richel mumbled something that I couldn't catch and I whipped back around to face her, glaring. "Oh yeah, so pretty that our own school principal thought I was a boy."
"From behind," Richel weakly replied, smiling. My frown deepened. "At least think of the money. Come on, Nina. Don't you want to be seen for once? Really seen?"
I thought back to the gossiping women at the shop, Leslie's implications in the cafeteria, and Harrison treating me like one of the boys. It was like something was rising inside of me, something was being released that had been begging to be let out. "What street did you say you live on?"