Okay, so first, a note: The characters, places, and situations created for the Baby-Sitters Club series are the property of Ann M. Martin and Scholastic. (If they were mine, you know Cokie Mason would have her own show on Fox News by now.) Everything that isn't real life and isn't Ann M.'s is mine, and if you violate my copyright, I will cut you. On with the show.
In our last episode, the girls reunited over Mexican food and a lot of tequila.
Opening my eyes was physically painful. I think my mascara glued my eyelids shut. And then I got them open, and I had to close them again, because there was just a little bit of light coming in between the curtains and it felt like it was melting my corneas. So I had to do that about three times. And then, when I finally got my eyes open, I could see that I wasn’t in my hotel room. It was a hotel room, but not mine. And nothing I could remember from the night before was telling me whose room it was.
When the bathroom door opened, I seriously gave thought to jumping off the couch and running out of the room. But it was Claudia, which answered the question of whose room I was in and also answered why I felt like I’d been run over by a truck.
I’ll tell you: I’m used to pain. I’ve sprained almost every joint in my body. I don’t have any of my original toenails. I once dislocated a rib—I didn’t even know that ribs got dislocated. Have you ever taken a full-body ice bath? I have. But nothing—nothing—compared to the misery of waking up with a hangover after partying with Claudia Kishi.
“Drinks! We need after-dinner drinks!” Stacey shouted as we stumbled into the parking lot of Los Sombreros.
“I’m still working on my during-dinner drink,” Mary Anne said.
“Unlike some of you, I have work tomorrow morning,” Kristy said. “But you all have a great time.”
“Eh, you’re no fun anyway,” Stacey said. “You either, Joni Mitchell.” That was Dawn, but she didn’t seem offended. “Claud? You in?”
“I’m in!” Claudia said.
“I’m not,” Mallory said. “I promised myself I’d get two chapters written by the weekend, and I haven’t even started.”
Stacey threw an arm around her shoulder. “You are even inner. You’re coming out, sister. How about you, Slim?” That was me. Slim.
“Jessi, please,” Mallory mouthed to me.
It was a terrible idea. I’d been working so hard in staying in shape, I’d already blown my diet that night, I had this horrible image of me getting drunk and falling off my shoes… “Why not?” I said. “Where are we going?”
Everybody just looked at each other. Then we all cracked up. “I have no idea,” Stacey said. “I’ve never even been to a bar in Stoneybrook. I was never old enough.”
“Oh, but that didn’t stop you at that concert, did it?” Kristy asked. “What was it? U4Me?”
“Okay, that was Stamford, not Stoneybrook.” We cracked up even more.
“Car!” Dawn yelled. We stumbled apart to let an SUV pass, then bunched back together to fall all over each other again.
“Try Dave’s,” Kristy said, catching her breath. “They have live music on Tuesdays. And sometimes they have drink specials.”
Claudia hooted. “Drink specials for special drinkers!”
“‘Special’ seems appropriate,” Dawn murmured to Mary Anne, who snorted. “Car!”
We all shrieked when a white Camry squealed across the parking lot and nearly mowed us down. “Hey, I’m walking here!” Stacey yelled, flipping the car off with both hands. We were laughing so hard we were practically falling down.
“Okay, it’s getting dangerous out here,” Mary Anne laughed. “It’s bedtime.”
Dawn threw an arm around her shoulders. “Come on, I’ll give you a ride.” They waved and headed off in the direction of Dawn’s rental car. Kristy waved and headed to her car in the other direction.
“Dave’s!” Stacey said, grabbing my shoulder and dragging on me.
It turned out Dave’s was just down the street, so we didn’t even have to move the cars, not that any of us could have driven anyway. When we got inside, I was surprised at how crowded it was on a Tuesday night, but I guess Stoneybrook really didn’t have that many bars.
Claudia immediately squeezed through to the bar. “Shots. Tequila. Four of them.”
“I don’t know…” Mallory said.
“You do too know,” Claudia insisted. “We’ve been drinking margaritas, and so we have to keep drinking tequila, or the alcohol won’t mix right.”
“That doesn’t sound right,” I said.
She rolled her eyes. “Of course it’s right. It’s science, Jessi.” The bartender lined up four shots out of a bottle I didn’t even recognize, and we slammed them back. The tequila burned like fire all the way down to my stomach and made my nose run.
“Dude!” Claudia was wiping her eyes. “Was that the cheap stuff?” The bartender nodded. “Okay. Just checking. You want more? Anybody? Mal?” Mal shook her head. “Another round!”
Then some stuff happened for a while that I don’t remember. At some point, Claudia was playing quarters with a bunch of college age-looking guys and Stacey was giving Mallory advice on hair straightening. And then Stacey was actually doing Mal’s hair right there at the bar and Claudia was teaching me to play quarters. And then at some point Claudia and I were holding onto Mal while she tried to climb onto the bar.
“Dancing!” Mallory waved her drink around and busted a half-move.
“That’s right,” I said, holding her elbow to keep her on her bar stool. “That’s kind of like dancing.”
“We should go dancing,” she insisted. “You’re a dancer, you can teach me to dance.”
“Awesome,” Claudia said.
“Dancing it is,” Stacey said. She leaned over the bar, pushing her boobs together and over the top of her dress. “Barkeep! I’d like to close my tab.”
When the bartender turned around, his eyes went straight down to her cleavage and stayed there. “Your what?”
“My taaab,” she said, swaying from side to side.
“This one’s on the house,” he told her boobs.
Stacey bounced up and down on her toes a bit. This could get ugly. “Really? Thanks!” She pulled a folded bill from somewhere deep down in her bra and slipped it in his tip jar. “You’re awesome.” She shot him a wink and shoved away from the bar.
“Dancing!” Mallory said again.
“That was awesome,” I told Stacey.
She shrugged. “I know. Come on, girl, let’s find a club.”
“Eh. You never know.”
Stoneybrook had a club. It wasn’t much of a club, pretty much just a big room in a storefront downtown, but the deejay was good and the floor was packed. Stacey immediately grabbed Mal and dragged her out on the floor, where they disappeared completely in the crowd.
“I need more alcohol before I try to dance,” Claudia said, heading toward the bar. “What do you want? It’s on me.”
“I don’t know,” I hedged. “I’ve been—”
“You’ve been a little weenie all night,” she interrupted, laughing. “You’ve been doing your best to not have any fun. You’re a dancer, and I’m going to have to get you drunk enough to go out and dance.”
“You’re going to drink what I order for you, and then you’re going. To go. Dance.”
I laughed finally. “Nothing with rum.”
Girl can put it down. I have no idea where she was putting it.
“How ya doin’?” she asked brightly, and my eardrums rumbled like a semi.
“Yelling,” was all I could groan.
“What?” She was totally doing it on purpose.
I cleared my throat. “Your voice is kind of loud.”
“Yeah? I didn’t know that.” At least she’d lowered her voice a little. “What are your plans for the day?”
I squinted. “I know I have something, but I forget what.”
From the way Claudia was moving around, you’d have no idea she’d spent the night doing… whatever it was that we did. She was already dressed and had her makeup on. “Stacey and I are having lunch, if you want to tag along.”
“I was going to drop by the Pikes’,” I said. “After I get cleaned up.”
“Where are you staying? Can I give you a ride?”
I rolled off the couch onto the floor and lay there for a minute, stretching out my muscles. “I’m staying with my parents. You can drop me off there.” My left boot was under the couch, and my right boot was under the bed. I managed to get them on the right feet and everything. My jacket was on the desk chair. But…
“Claud, have you seen my bra?”
She snorted. “Have I ever!”
I paused. “Is it… here?”
She snorted again.
The Pikes’ house felt almost as familiar to me as my own parents’ house—when we were growing up, if I wasn’t at my own house with my sister and brother, I was at Mal’s house with hers. When I got there, I almost walked right on in, but I managed to stop myself in time and knocked instead.
Mal’s mom answered carrying a tiny, tiny baby. She smiled hugely when she saw me. “Jessi! It’s so good to see you! When did you get into town?”
“I just flew in last—Is that Lily?” Mallory’s youngest brother and sister caught everyone by surprise. My guess was that Brandon was the baby in a blue romper sleeping in the bouncy seat on the table, and Lily was the adorable little pink butterball in Mrs. Pike’s arms.
“It sure is.” Lily stretched and drooled. “Mallory’s actually—”
“Whatever. Baby!” Mrs. Pike laughed and handed Lily over. I cuddled her close and sniffed her head. I know it sounds gross, but I love the soap-and-baby-powder scent of a clean baby. I gave Lily a little squeeze, and she gurgled contentedly against my chest. “How are you and Mr. Pike?” I asked Mrs. Pike.
“We’re good. Readjusting,” she said, and we both laughed. She stroked Lily’s head. “It’s kind of nice to have kids in the house again, actually. It’s been quiet.”
“Well, going from eight—”
The back door slammed open, and a tall girl with long brown hair charged through. “You know, David, if I didn’t know better, I’d think—” Brandon jumped in his chair and immediately started wailing.
“Claire!” Mrs. Pike said sharply.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” The girl, who was apparently Mal’s youngest sister Claire, swooped him up and started bouncing him gently. “Shh. I’m sorry.” She smiled at me. “Hey, Jessi!”
“Claire? Holy crap.”
“Yeah, it’s been a while—”
The door slammed open again, and this time it was a tall blond guy. “You’re acting ridiculous. I never even said—” Brandon jumped again.
“Sorry, Mrs. Pike. Hey, Jessi.” Kristy’s little brother—not little anymore, though—took Brandon from Claire and kept with the bouncing. “It’s been a while. Are you in town for the wedding?”
“Yeah,” I said. “You’re in college, right?”
He nodded. “Boston College. I’m just home for spring break.”
“And are you two…?”
“No.” He glanced at Claire, and she rolled her eyes. “Okay, maybe,” she grumbled. “I guess it depends.”
“Depends on what?”
“It depends on you two getting along until I get back from work,” Mrs. Pike interrupted. She gave both babies, Claire, David Michael, and me a kiss each on the cheek and grabbed her purse from the kitchen counter. “Jessi, honey, I’m sure I’ll see you soon. Claire, David Michael, I expect the house to be standing when I get back.” And she was out the door.
“Is your mom working?” I asked Claire.
She carefully took Lily from me and laid her in the bouncy seat. The baby was fast asleep. “Yeah,” Claire said. “She didn’t really want to, but it turns out it’s expensive to put eight kids through college. She just works part-time at the library.”
“And does your dad still—”
The door slammed open one more time, and Mallory stumbled through, squinting in the light of the kitchen. Both babies started wailing, and Claire and David Michael were back to bouncing. “Mallory! Jesus,” Claire hissed.
“Let’s go upstairs,” I suggested. Mallory just swayed on her feet and followed me outside and up to her apartment above the garage. “I like your outfit, by the way,” I said, flopping down on her couch. “It looks a lot like the one you wore yesterday.”
“Your voice is really loud.” Mallory stumbled out of her shoes, blindly grabbed some clothes off the top of the dresser, and stumbled into the bathroom. Something thudded into the side of the bathtub. “Ow.” The shower started.
As Mallory cleaned up, I wandered around her apartment. It was really a studio, one large room with a bathroom and a small kitchen to one side, and it looked a lot like her old bedroom inside the house. A couple of the horse posters were even the same, even though they were matted and framed now, and a loaded bookcase at one end had an entire shelf full of her old books from when we were kids. I was flipping through Misty of Chincoteague when she came out of the bathroom, looking only slightly less rough than she did before.
“You look kind of rough,” I said. “Where did you spend the night?”
“Nowhere,” she said quickly. “So that was a good time last night, right? Going out to the bar, and then we went…”
The sentence hung in the air. “Dancing?” I supplied finally.
“Well, yes, dancing. Of course. I was just trying to remember the name of the club.”
“I don’t remember it.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “I was having a great time. All the things I did at the club.”
I laughed. “I’m sure you did. You and Stacey hit the floor as soon as we got there, and I have no idea what you did after that.”
“No idea.” She sounded weirdly disappointed about that. “Well, we had a lot of fun.”
“Me, too,” I said. “It was the first time I’ve danced in a while that I wasn’t worried about something the entire time. Not that it’s the same kind of dancing, but still.”
Mal lay down on her back on the bed, her arm over her eyes, and groaned. “Trouble in paradise?”
“Is the pressure of fulfilling your lifelong dream getting to you?”
“Okay, Mal, what’s with the attitude?” She’s tired and cranky, I told myself. She had a long night. “Bad hookup last night? Did he turn out to be ugly?” Okay, not terribly sympathetic.
Mallory stiffened. “No! I’m just… I…” She sighed and rolled over, finally opening her bloodshot eyes to look at me. “Talk to me about your life.”
“No, seriously, what’s up?” I was a little softer this time, now legitimately worried. “Is everything okay? Do you need to talk?”
“Nah, I’m good,” she said. “Tell me about dancing.”
This time I was the one on my back with my eyes covered. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep doing it,” I said. “I keep getting hurt. Like, over the past year, I’ve had all these ligament problems, hurting myself and then having to do rehab. Last spring, I actually had to give up a part because I tore two ligaments in my ankle and I couldn’t dance. The girl who took over for me was nineteen.”
Mal laughed. “Jess, you’re twenty-five. It’s not like you’re over the hill.”
“In dance, I kind of am, just a little. I mean, Quint’s a guy, and he’ll probably be able to keep going into his thirties, and some of the girls I’m dancing with in the chorus will, too. But a lot of them will break down in the next few years. Next year, I might be onstage, or I might be watching from home with my feet on ice.” I lifted my legs straight up, glaring at my feet as I rolled my ankles. “I’ve been doing this for almost twenty years, Mal. Can you believe it? What person our age can say that? Our bodies really aren’t designed for that, are they.”
The room was quiet, and then Mallory sighed. “You’re not going to want to hear this.”
“So, I know this is your dream, and that’s great,” she said, scooting over to lie next to me. “But maybe at this point you’ve had your dream. Maybe that’s the deal—you get your twenty years, and then you do something else.”
“I don’t want to do something else.”
“You always said you wanted to be a ballerina, and now you’ve done it.” The bed creaked as she stood suddenly, and I heard her feet thudding across the floor to the kitchen. “You’ve had your dream job, the one you wanted when you were a kid. Now it’s just time for you to pursue some other interests.”
I sat up and stared at her. “I don’t have any other interests, Mal. You remember growing up: I was dancing, I was baby-sitting, or I was hanging out with you. Those were my interests. What am I supposed to do? Say, ‘Yay, I got to dance! Now I’ll spend the rest of my life watching toddlers and reading books about ponies’?”
Mal didn’t look at me, just knocked around the kitchen, grabbing a plastic cup from a cabinet and filling it at the sink. “Sometimes things don’t work out, okay?” she said tightly. “Sometimes you spend years and years trying to follow your dreams and then realize it’s never going to happen, and then you know what? You find new dreams. You accept that you can’t have everything you want, and you move on.”
She spun around, and her face was so dark it knocked me backward a bit. “What is wrong with you?” I asked without thinking, which definitely didn’t help her mood. “What’s going on? Talk to me, Mal. Where is this coming from?”
“Nowhere,” she said finally, her eyes dropping. “It’s nothing. I just didn’t get a lot of sleep last night. I could use a nap.”
“Yeah,” I said, not convinced. I stood, grabbed my jacket off the back of the couch, and headed to the door. “Give me a call when you wake up, okay?” I said as gently as I could. “I want to hang out.”
“Sure.” She was already walking away.
Coming up: Mallory Pike comes to understand the consequences of the choices she makes.