Tricia and I are holding left pinkies under our desks, which always works. It’s how we managed to be the only fifth graders to have been in the same class every single year of elementary school: we held left pinkies under the desks whenever a teacher talked about the next year. Now it’s Thursday after school and Mrs. Kalinack, the school secretary, is visiting our classroom to talk about the epic party she’s organizing for our teacher, Mr. Fallon. Mr. Fallon is from Ireland but has been teaching at Pine Hill Elementary for years. Over the summer, he became a United States citizen. Mrs. Kalinack says that means he belongs in the country as much as anyone who was born here, and he has new rights and responsibilities. That’s the boring part.
The exciting part is that our school is going to throw a big party to congratulate him. There are going to be flag cupcakes and red-white-and-blue decorations, and the gym will hardly look like a school gym by the time we finish. Mrs. Kalinack is assigning the fifth graders to committees, and Tricia and I are trying to get on the Decorations Committee together. That’s the best one. (Some people are going to be assigned to the Cleanup Committee. Those are kids who don’t believe in left pinkies, even though we told everyone else to try it. We’re nice that way.)
Mr. Fallon has no idea what we’re planning; the party is going to be a complete surprise. Mrs. Kalinack has come up with all sorts of excuses to keep Mr. Fallon away while we work on the party, and everyone who volunteers is going to have to meet during some lunch periods and stay late after school a few times. This is exciting, because usually after school I have to pick up my little brother, Manuel, from the second/third-grade door and walk him home so we can both do our homework and get ready for ballet class. If Tricia and I are on the Decorations Committee together, we’ll get to hang out after school, and maybe my older sister, Regina, will have to pick up Manuel for a change.
“Tricia Rivera--you applied for the Decorations Committee. No problem,” Mrs. Kalinack says. Tricia squeals and lets go of my pinky to hug Stella, who is sitting on the other side of us and already got picked for captain of the Decorations Committee. But as soon as she and Stella finish hugging and cheering, along with Abdul and Lucas, who are also on the Decorations Committee, Tricia turns back and links pinkies with me.
Mrs. Kalinack is going through all the names in reverse alphabetical order to be fair to people with Z names, so it takes forever to get to me. “Sofía Acosta,” she says finally, “you applied for the Decorations Committee.”
“Yep,” I say confidently.
“Aren’t you going to be very busy with The Nutcracker the next few weeks?”
Tricia and I look at each other, and she shakes her head. She knows what I’m thinking. There are four other kids in the fifth grade who do ballet, including Tricia. But teachers only worry about how much time it will take me, because my parents are performing arts teachers at the high school and my older sister is practically a professional and, well, the Acosta family is a big part of The Nutcracker in this town. But I do The Nutcracker every year. Mr. Fallon is only going to become a United States citizen once. I definitely want to do the Decorations Committee with Tricia. I tell Mrs. Kalinack that, but she purses her lips.
“We already have several volunteers for Decorations. But the History and Contexts Committee is a little thin. It’s just Laura, the captain. No one else has signed up.”
That’s because Laurita is only interested in two things: softball and protests. If you work with her at school, she’ll give you an earful about the polar ice caps melting or make you listen to her talk about batting statistics.
“I won’t let ballet get in the way,” I promise Mrs. Kalinack. “And I bet I could help make the gym look really nice. . . .”
Tricia drops my pinky, as if she already knows it’s over.
Mrs. Kalinack doesn’t even respond. “That’s decided, then: Sofía’s working with Laura. Our meeting times are on the schedules I emailed to your parents. Remember, don’t tell Mr. Fallon! You have no idea the time I’ve had making sure he isn’t around during our meetings, so no one give it away.”
Around me, chairs scrape against the floor as people get up and grab their backpacks. Everyone is talking and making plans with the other kids in their groups, but I’m just sitting there.
“I guess you should go talk to Laura,” Tricia says. “It’ll probably be an interesting committee--didn’t Mrs. Kalinack say the History and Contexts people were going to put up, like, an exhibit around the gym?”
My eyes sting and I can’t think of anything to say. Tricia and I have been talking about the Decorations Committee since we first found out about this party. We were going to make foam cutouts of every state and then decorate them with sequins and rhinestones so the gym would sparkle. I pack up my backpack and wait around for everyone to leave, and then I shuffle up to Mrs. Kalinack.
“You don’t want to miss your bus.” Mrs. Kalinack tucks her papers into a folder and puts Mr. Fallon’s stool back in the corner where he usually keeps it.
“I’m a walker, remember?” I only live two blocks from the school. “I wanted to talk to you about my assignment--you see, I’m pretty good at sewing and crafts and stuff. The Decorations Committee might need my help.”
Mrs. Kalinack pulls down her reading glasses. I’ve known Mrs. Kalinack since kindergarten, and that isn’t a good sign. She does not like excuses. Come to school late without a note and that’s the end of you. My face gets hot the minute she pulls off those glasses.
“Sofía Acosta, what grade are you in now?”
“Umm, fifth?” This seems obvious.
“Don’t you think that by fifth grade individuals should be mature enough that they don’t complain about not getting their first choice of everything? Just imagine Sarah Zimmerman; she never gets to pick first, and do you see her complaining?”
“Well, she got to pick first today, actually--”
I think smoke might actually come out of Mrs. Kalinack’s nose soon. She’s breathing like an angry dragon. Between that and the glasses, I know it’s time to drop it.
“Sofía, no more complaints from you. Besides, isn’t Laura Sánchez your neighbor? It’ll be much easier for the two of you to work together, and you’ll need to do some things outside of school; that was part of the agreement when you signed up to help plan the party.”
Mrs. Kalinack swings her messenger bag over her shoulder and gathers up her folder. She holds open the door for me.
Outside, everyone is lining up for buses or looking for their friends and heading to the playground. I have to go to the second/third-grade door to get Manuel before he finds like six playdates for Friday, which is the only day we don’t have ballet. My mom says everyone is always welcome at our house, which means I get stuck walking home half the third grade on Fridays, and playing with them all afternoon to boot.
As I walk toward the little kids’ door, I pass Tricia climbing into her mom’s SUV.
“See you at ballet!” Tricia calls.
I’ve been telling Tricia’s mom that Tricia should just walk home with Manuel and me on weekdays, but her mom never goes for that plan. Still, it would make sense. Tricia and I are going to the same ballet class later anyway. But her parents think she’ll get more homework done if she goes home before, and they want her to have a healthy snack. It’s sort of surprising because my mom’s a performing arts teacher, but she doesn’t care that much about healthy snacks. She says everyone at her house has to have a full helping of black beans and rice every night, but other than that we’re allowed to have whatever we want when we get home from school, and she buys a ton of snacks. That’s part of how Manuel got to be so popular: all the third graders have to do is casually mention that Crispy Puffs are their new favorite treat, and my mom will load up on them. Because sugar is Cuba’s main crop and she and my dad come from Cuba, she claims that sugar won’t hurt us. I don’t think that is strictly true (Tricia’s grandparents on her dad’s side were Cuban too, and her family definitely doesn’t say that) but I’m not complaining. Except I think I might have more luck with Tricia’s mom if we ate more vegetables after school. The way things are now, Tricia is only allowed to have playdates on Saturdays. I sigh and wave back at Tricia just as the third graders burst out of the door.
I don’t run into Laurita Sánchez until Friday afternoon, when I’m walking home with Manuel, along with his best friends, Eva and Jonah, for, you guessed it, a playdate. Eva and Jonah are twins, which is kind of funny because Eva is tiny for her age and Jonah is a head taller than everyone else in the third grade. They are equal trouble, though--they like to climb, jump, and flip, and they once broke all three of the porcelain ballerinas my mom kept on the mantel. But my mom just said, “Más se perdió en la guerra”--which means that people lost more stuff in some old war in Cuba, so it’s not a big deal--and swept up the pieces. You would never have guessed how much she loved those statues. She just asked me to bring the dustpan, put a framed photo of Yolanda, her best friend in Cuba, in the empty space on the mantel, and kept buying Eva and Jonah their favorite Choco Chunks.
“I love having this photo here,” my mom says every time she walks by the mantel. “I miss Yolanda so much, and now I get to see her every day.”
The photo isn’t very good. It’s of Yolanda with her teenage son, Álvaro, and they’re both backlit. You can see their matching smiles and Álvaro’s floppy black hair that reminds me of Manuel, and not much else. But to hear my mom talk about it, breaking those statues and getting to put up their picture was a lottery win.
The good part about how my mom always says “Más se perdió en la guerra” is that she never gets mad. The bad part is that Manuel’s friends never learn a lesson, so if I don’t want them to break my stuff with their flipping and climbing, I have to keep an eye on them.
A train rumbles by with a loud whistle as I walk Manuel and Eva and Jonah back to our house. Our town, Pine Hill, is only thirty minutes from New York City, and a lot of people’s parents take the train to go work there every day. I like that our house is so close to everything: right near our school, the train station, and Main Street. Tricia lives on the other side of town, in Pine Hill Heights. The houses there are bigger and more spread out, and it’s too far for her to go anywhere without a ride from her mom. My family can walk to a lot of places, like the grocery store and the pizza place.
We’re turning onto our block when I see Laurita heading toward her house from the other direction. Everyone at school calls her Laura, but since her mom’s name is Laura too, my mom calls her Laurita so we know that she’s talking about the younger of the two Lauras across the street. I guess it’s a good system, because I got used to calling her Laurita, even at school, where no one else does.
Laurita has a mitt in one hand and a ball in the other, which she keeps throwing to herself and catching. We cross paths with her just as she reaches her house. She’s chewing bubble gum super loudly.
“Hey,” I say.
Laurita tosses her ball and mitt onto her lawn and fishes something out of her backpack. It’s a stack of flyers, which she tucks under one arm while she pulls out a big roll of masking tape.
“Here,” she says, shoving half the stack into my arms. “You can help.”
“What? Why?” Laurita must have printed these flyers at school. They’re on the blue copy paper that Mr. Fallon buys when we run out of the white printer paper Mrs. Kalinack puts in our classroom. The flyers say build acorn corners! with a long paragraph about how we need more apartments in Pine Hill.
Laurita rips the masking tape like it’s a quiz she failed, then slams a flyer onto the nearest tree. “Because,” she says, “you’re just standing there, and this is important.”
“Okay, fine.” I pull a piece of masking tape off neatly and put up another flyer a few steps down. I don’t think it’ll help Laurita if people see her flyers looking all sloppy. I keep one eye on Manuel and Eva and Jonah, who are jumping over the sidewalk cracks a few steps ahead of us.
Once Laurita sees I’m helping, she finally says, “I guess we have to talk about the committee.”
“When do you want to meet?”
“Whenever, as long as it doesn’t interfere with softball. Travel this year.”
“It can’t interfere with ballet, either!” Laurita talks about softball like it’s the most important activity there is. It’s not like the rest of us don’t have stuff to do after school too.
“Oh, right. The Nutcracker.”
There’s something in Laurita’s tone that bugs me, like she thinks The Nutcracker is babyish.
“I’m going to be in the Party Scene this year.” I don’t actually know that, but it sounds impressive. “It’s a big part.”
Laurita blows an enormous bubble that pops in her face. “Sure,” she says, like it doesn’t really matter. “How about Wednesdays after my softball practice?”
A part of me wants to say I have a super-important rehearsal or something then, but I’m actually free after ballet class. “What time?”
“We just have to be done by seven-fifteen because that’s when I call my abuela.”
Weirdly punctual, I think, but I say okay. Manuel tugs on my sleeve. “Can we go now? We’ve been standing here forever!” He knows better than to try to cross the street without me, but that doesn’t mean he can stop Eva and Jonah from trying to shinny up a telephone pole, which is what they’re doing.
Copyright © 2022 by Emma Otheguy. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.