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By Melody Carlson

A school play sounds like fun…for some.

As she settles into life in the middle school of her new hometown, Zoey agrees to audition for the school play to encourage Louisa. Isn’t that what a BFF does? But she’s none too sure it’ll actually be fun—especially when she’s cast as a dog! Louisa really does need her support though when some of the older girls get upset at a sixth grader landing the lead role. Zoey does her best to be supportive and finally begins to feel really at home with her grandparents and at school.

Until someone pulls the plug on all her dreams.

Melody Carlson has written more than 200 books for teens, women, and children. That’s a lot of books, but mostly she considers herself a “storyteller.” Her young adult novels appeal to teenage girls around the world. Her annual Christmas novellas become more popular each year. She’s won a number of awards (including RT’s Career Achievement Award, the Rita and the Gold Medallion) and some of her books have been optioned for film/TV. Carlson has two grown sons and makes her home in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and yellow Lab dog.

Chapter 1

How do I get into these things? That’s what I’m asking myself as I wait outside the school auditorium. How did I let Louisa talk me into auditioning for a play? And just now I overhear an eighth-grade girl saying it’s going to be a musical. I’m sure that means singing and dancing. And, okay, Louisa is very musically talented. Me—not so much. I glance around the noisy crowd, which is mostly girls, trying to spot Louisa. And really, are they here because they want to be in this production…or using this excuse to ditch their last class of the day?

“Ready for this?” Louisa has an ear to ear grin as she joins me and the others clustered around the locked entrance.

“No.” I firmly shake my head. “In fact, I made up my mind, Lou. The only part I can play will be a fan.”

“Huh?” She waves her hand like a fan. “Like that? What’d’ya mean?”

“I mean I’m here for you. I’ll cheer you on, but that’s about all I—”

“But you have to be in this play, Zoey.”

“It’s not just a play,” I quietly inform her. “It’s a musical.”

“That’s even better. A musical sounds like fun.”

“Fun for you maybe. But I can’t sing. And dancing on a stage in front of an audience sounds like pure torture to me.”

Louisa rolls her eyes. “Don’t be such a wet blanket. You’re super coordinated so I’m sure you can dance. And you’re a good singer. You just need to give it a try.”

“The problem is that I don’t want to try.”

“But you promised me. Remember last week? I told you about tryouts, and you said you’d come with me.”

“And I came.” I hold up my hands. “I’m here.”

Miss Flynn—our English teacher, who’s also the middle school drama coach—steps up. Greeting kids, she pushes through the crowd and unlocks the auditorium. As everyone pours in behind her, I try to think of a convincing argument for Louisa. I’m more determined than ever to avoid what I’m sure will become public humiliation for me. Besides still being the new girl in this small town, I’m barely over other recent embarrassments. I so don’t need this. And by the way, did I really promise? I remember agreeing to consider it. But a real promise? I don’t think so.

“Everyone, please, take a seat,” Miss Flynn calls out. Naturally, Louisa heads straight down to the front row. I reluctantly trail her, and after everyone settles down, Miss Flynn steps onto the stage and welcomes us, as well as introducing the other teachers who’ll help with this production. “And I’m excited to announce that this year, we will be performing Annie.”

There’s a mixed reaction as one of Miss Flynn’s helpers pass around what appear to be scripts. Some of the older kids let out groans of disappointment at her announcement. A few actually slip back out the door, like I want to do. But Louisa looks over the moon thrilled. “I love-love-love Annie,” she whispers to me. “I know a lot of lines already. And every song by heart. This is perfect.”

Miss Flynn pauses as the door clunks shut. “Now, I realize some of you were hoping for High School Musical this year, but we did that show only four years ago.” Miss Flynn pauses as a few more eighth graders stand and exit. “But it’s been ten years since we produced Annie. And this time we’ll be doing Annie Junior, so it should be easier on everyone.” As she continues to describe the plans, practice hours, and the dates for performances, Louisa leans forward, her face lit up as she eagerly soaks it all in. Meanwhile, I slump down into my seat like I hope it’ll swallow me whole. Maybe it will.

“Now, I’m going to give you a few minutes to look over your scripts. Find a few lines that appeal to you—something you can read for us today. It doesn’t matter which character you read from since this is just a preliminary audition. But I do want you to use a strong voice and your best dramatic skills. You can do this with a partner, or solo, or else I’ll read the opposing lines with you. Mostly, we want you to show us your acting chops. Then after you finish a quick read, you’re invited to sing for us—a capella. Of course, this is only if you want to try out for a lead role. And I don’t expect a whole song. Just enough for us to get the flavor of your voice. And it doesn’t have to be an Annie song. Just something you’re comfortable with. I’ll give you about ten minutes to find your lines and practice running them—and then we’ll line up and start.”

As Miss Flynn moves to the edge of the stage, Louisa is already flipping through her script. I’m hoping she’s so excited about Annie that she’ll forget about me and my so-called promise to try out today. I’m tempted to sneak out—would she even notice? But eventually she’d call me on it…and it’d probably hurt her feelings. So I pretend to read my script. But mostly I just hope to slip between the cracks today. My goal is to remain an innocent bystander.

Louisa keeps trying to convince me I have music skills. Probably so I’ll keep playing music with her. And, although she’s helped me to learn the ukulele this past month, I only know four chords. Barely enough to accompany her while she plays guitar. And I’ll admit it’s sort of fun like that, playing behind closed doors, but the idea of singing on a big stage with a real audience terrorizes me.

The good news is this reminds me that I’m nothing like my mom. She’s a wannabe rocker who goes by KT Love. And she had no problem dumping me on my grandparents so she could tour the country with her grunge band. Seriously, what kind of mother does that? Anyway, I don’t want to be like her. Besides being incredibly selfish, I’m sure she’s totally forgotten me. I haven’t heard from her since late August—almost two months ago. Not that I care. Well, mostly anyway. It still hurts sometimes.

Louisa nudges me. “This is what we’ll do together.” She points to a section of her script. “I’ll read Annie’s lines and you can play Tessie and say ‘Oh, my goodness’ and—”

“No thanks.” I stubbornly shake my head. “I’m not going to read that.”

Louisa’s lower lip juts out. “Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to.” I fold my arms across my front, suddenly feeling very stubborn.

“So you won’t read with me?” She frowns. “Are you reading something different then?”

“Maybe.” I shrug. “Anyway, Miss Flynn offered to read with you. Or you can read alone.” I hunker down over my script as if I’m enthralled by a particular page.

Louisa lets out a frustrated sigh then turns back to her own script. “Fine. I’ll find a section that I can do by myself.”

“All right, everyone,” Miss Flynn calls out. “Time to get the party started.”

“Come on.” Louisa grabs my hand, dragging me over to the stairs where others—mostly girls—are lining up. “This is gonna be fun.”

“Yeah…right.” I stare down at my Converse high-tops as we stand in line, trying to think of an excuse to escape…the bathroom perhaps? Fortunately, Louisa is obsessed with her script. I can tell by her expressions that she’s mentally rehearsing her lines. Well, good for her. Maybe I can sneak away.

“Okay, who wants to go first and break the ice?” Miss Flynn smiles brightly at everyone, waiting until a brave girl steps forward. I think she’s in the eighth grade, and she looks pretty confident.

“I want to read for Annie,” she announces loudly.

“Good for you, Holly.” Miss Flynn nods.

Now the auditorium gets eerily quiet as Holly steps to center stage and starts to read. And I have to admit, she’s not half bad. But she doesn’t look a thing like Annie. I mean, I’ve only seen the movie once, and that was years ago, but Holly is too tall and skinny to be a very good Annie. That’s when I glance at Louisa—and it hits me. My best friend really does resemble Annie. With her curly red hair, she wouldn’t even need a wig. Even her freckles and dimples are perfect. I suddenly wonder if Louisa is going for the Annie role. Does she honestly think she could pull it off? Is that why she’s so excited? Would Miss Flynn even allow a sixth grader to play the lead role?

I watch with curious interest as a few more kids step up and read lines. And then they sing. Not too surprising, most of the girls choose to sing “The Sun’ll Come Up Tomorrow”—which, if you ask me, is getting old. Some sound okay, but most are pretty lame. I’m surprised at how badly some of them sing—and yet they don’t even seem to know it. Miss Flynn just smiles and thanks them, going to the next one.

Strangely, I can almost feel my confidence rising when a boy’s voice cracks in the middle of his song. Not that I plan to try out because I most certainly don’t. But I can tell by Louisa’s expression, she’s feeling more confident too. And why shouldn’t she? So far, I’m pretty sure that Louisa can out-sing all of them. But for some reason that doesn’t make me feel very good.

I know it’s terrible, but I’m really, really hoping she’ll be a total flop. I so don’t want her to get the lead role. I’ll never admit this to Louisa, but I’m suddenly worried that if she gets the Annie part, it’ll take over her entire life. She’ll be so busy with this stupid musical that I’ll never get to spend any time with her. I hate feeling this selfish, but it’s the truth. And I just can’t seem to help myself. I’m tempted to silently pray that she won’t get it. But I won’t do that. It would be wrong…and self-centered.

After a couple more kids audition, Louisa steps forward with a slightly nervous smile. Miss Flynn waves her forward. “Show us what you’ve got, Louisa.”

I literally hold my breath as Louisa announces she wants to perform some of Annie’s lines. Then, instead of reading from the script like everyone else did, she actually recites the lines, which she obviously knows by heart. And she’s not just reciting them, she’s actually moving around, clutching her hands and speaking with such desperation that everyone watches with wide eyes. She’s talking about this locket that her parents left with her when they dropped her at the orphanage. And Louisa shows so much emotion that I almost believe she’s an orphan. Except that I know she lives with her parents—right across the street from me.

When she stops, a lot of people—but not me—actually clap for her. Not politely like they did with the others, but with genuine enthusiasm. And then Louisa breaks into a touching song called“Maybe.” She sings it so sweetly and tenderly, it’s as if she’s rehearsed it for days. But I know for a fact she had no idea that play tryouts would be for Annie.

When she finishes, everyone applauds loudly, and some even cheer and whistle. I can’t help but clap too. She’s really that good. And although Miss Flynn said this is only a preliminary audition, I’m pretty sure that Louisa just landed the lead role. And judging by some of the other girls’ expressions—some who don’t look terribly happy—they must think so too.

And sure, I know I’m being totally selfish here, but I feel like I’m about to lose my best friend. Even so, I force a cheery smile as I slap Louisa on the back, congratulating her for doing such a fantastic job up there. And I suppose I must admit that it’s kind of cool having such a talented friend, but it’s scary too. Louisa is so completely happy that she doesn’t even seem to notice how I hang back in the line, letting others pass ahead of me. And she doesn’t even notice that when it’s all said and done that I never did step forward. I somehow managed to avoid auditioning altogether. Really, what would be the point?

Chapter 2

It’s not until we’re walking home from school that Louisa realizes I never tried out. “You promised to audition,” she points out as we stand in front of her house.

“I don’t think I actually promised,” I say quietly. “And, really, what’s the difference? I can’t do that.”

“Do what?” she demands.

“Sing and act like you.” I shake my head to remember her audition. “Seriously, Lou, you were really great. I mean, I knew you were talented, but I didn’t know you could do that.”

“You don’t have to do it like I do, Zoey. You just have to be willing. There are lots of small roles. You could be a kid in the orphanage—then you’d be singing with the chorus. And I’m sure you could get the dance moves down. Best of all, it’d be fun.”

I shake my head, frowning. “I don’t think so.”

“Best friends stick together,” she insists with a furrowed brow.

“Maybe…but it’s too late. First auditions are over.” I’m a little surprised to realize that I actually feel a teeny tiny bit sad, regretting I won’t be part of the play. But that makes no sense.

“Then you’ll just have to come for second auditions tomorrow,” she tells me. “Miss Flynn will understand. Especially if you want to be part of the chorus. You saw how many eighth grade girls snuck out.”

“There were still plenty left.” I remember how some of the older girls, including that tall, skinny Holly, seemed upset over Louisa’s audition. Probably because she’s a sixth grader.

Louisa grabs my hand, looking into my eyes. “You can at least try out, can’t you? For your best friend?”

I shrug. “I guess so.”

“Give me your word, Zoey. Promise me you’ll go back tomorrow.”

I twist my mouth to one side, considering this. Do I really want to make a promise? I hate it when someone breaks a promise to me—so much so that I take my own promises very seriously. I feel confused and conflicted.

“Do you know why I did so well today?” she asks with intense green eyes.

“Because you probably know that whole play by heart?”

“No. I mean that doesn’t hurt. And FYI, I don’t know the whole thing by heart. Just the songs. And, okay, a lot of the lines since I’ve watched it so much—ever since I was really little. But, honestly Zoey, that’s not why I tried so hard to do my best today.”

“Then why did you?” I demand.

“Because my best friend was standing behind me. I knew you were backing me, Zoey, cheering me on. That helped me get rid of my stage fright.”

“Really?” I feel ashamed now. I’m glad she doesn’t know how I’d actually felt during her audition. “Okay,” I reluctantly agree. “I’ll try out tomorrow. Only for a small part. But I promise I will.”

Louisa lets out a happy cheer then hugs me. “And promise me that if you get a part in the play, you will do your best—okay?”

I reluctantly nod, but I also feel pretty sure I won’t get a part. At least I hope not. And since I know my audition will be lousy, I’m not too worried.

“We’ll practice together later,” she tells me. “I’m supposed to watch my brothers for an hour while Mom goes out. But she’ll be back by four. You come over then and I’ll help you get your lines down. And we’ll sing some Annie songs. And you can borrow our DVD. We’ll work hard, and you’ll be ready to rock it tomorrow.”

Although I’m glad about spending some time with her today, I’m not so sure it’s a good idea for me to humiliate myself by auditioning tomorrow. But as I walk across the street to go home, I’m determined to keep my word. It did feel pretty good to hear how much my support means to her. And, hey, maybe I’ll get lucky and Miss Flynn will nicely tell me that I didn’t make the cut. At least I’ll have kept my word. Louisa won’t be able to fault me for that. And I could intentionally do a bad audition. Except that I promised to try.

As I go inside, it smells like something good is baking. I know my grandpa has been experimenting with healthy snack foods lately. He’s determined to cure me of being a finicky eater and hoping to convert me from being a junk food junkie, but so far his attempts have mostly flopped. I’m sorry, but I don’t like cookies that taste like gerbil food. Or green cake made from zucchini. And even though I pretended to like his eggplant brownies, I didn’t go back for seconds. Just the same, I am hungry…and curious.

“Hey, Gramps.” I find him in the kitchen, just removing a cookie sheet from the oven. “What’s cookin’?”

“Just plain old-fashioned oatmeal raisin cookies.” He frowns as if there’s something inherently wrong with this. “It’s Grams’s recipe.”

“Oh? I thought she didn’t know how to cook.”

“That’s true. It was actually her mother’s recipe.” He holds up an old cookbook. “Grams claims her mother made these for her when she was a girl. She wanted me to make them to take to your great-grandma when you girls go visiting her this afternoon.”

“Oh?” I consider this. “That’s this afternoon…I sort of forgot.”

“Grams is working on something in her craft room right now. I told her I’d send you up.” He points to a brown bag. “Those are the cookies to take, and a few extras to eat on your way if you want.” He winks. “If you don’t like ’em, send your complaints to Grams or Great-grandma.”

“Yeah, right.” I thank him and take the bag upstairs, hoping Grams will understand if I beg out of going to the old folks’ home today. It’s not that I don’t like my great-grandmother, but I really want to go over to Louisa’s at four. And I know Grams will want to stay longer with her mother.

“There you are.” Grams continues to staple some upholstery fabric onto a wooden bench. “Let me just finish this and then we’ll leave.”

“Do you, uh, mind if I don’t go?” I ask.

She looks up from her project. “You don’t want to go?”

“I do want to go.” I quickly explain about Louisa and the musical production tryouts. “Louisa thinks we should practice so that I can do better at tomorrow’s audition. I’m supposed to go to her house at four.”

“You’re going to be in Annie?” Grams smiles. “That’s nice.”

“Well, I’ll try out for it. I doubt they’ll want me.”

“Of course they’ll want you.” She pats my shoulder. “I’ll explain to Great-grandma why you couldn’t make it today. I’m sure she’ll understand.”

I hold out the cookies. “Gramps said you wanted these for her.”

“I’m hoping she’ll eat them. Her appetite’s been failing.” She staples a few more places then stands up straight. “I thought they might tempt her.”

“Be sure and tell her I’ll come next week. I promise.”

“She’ll be happy to hear that, Zoey. You always brighten her day.”

I feel slightly guilty now. “Maybe I should go today after all? I mean, if she’s not feeling so great. Do you think I should—”

“No, no, don’t you worry about that. Next week will come soon enough. And maybe you can tell her all about your school’s musical then.”

“And even if I don’t get a part, I’ll tell her about Louisa because I know she’ll get a good part. Maybe even the lead part. She’d be a good Annie.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice? And don’t worry, Zoey, I’m sure you’ll get a part too. You just need to believe in yourself.”

“Maybe…I’m sure Louisa would agree with you on that. So anyway, I guess I’ll just have to try a little harder.”

“Do your best and you won’t regret it.” Grams reaches for the bag of cookies. “And I’ll let your great-grandmother know you’ll be there next week.”

My time spent practicing lines and singing with Louisa, combined with watching the Annie DVD with Grams and Gramps after dinner, seems to have bolstered my confidence a little. So the next day, when Louisa and I get in line for the second stage of auditions, I’m not totally freaking. Oh, I’m pretty sure I won’t get a speaking role and maybe not even into the chorus, but at least I’m keeping my word to Louisa. And I already assured her that even if I don’t make the cast cut, I want to volunteer in other ways. According to Gramps, who used to be involved in a small theatrical group, there are lots of non-acting roles in the theater. Like set design, costumes, makeup, lights—any of those sound fun to me.

Unlike yesterday, Louisa makes sure she and I are at the end of the line today. “Is this so you can really check out all the competition?” I whisper in her ear.

She grins. “Maybe I want to be sure the judges have seen everyone before me.”

But as we watch auditions, it feels like some girls have really upped their game. They’ve picked better lines than yesterday and they seem to be more dramatic. Plus we’re hearing songs besides “The Sun’ll Come Up Tomorrow.” After one exceptional performance by a petite eighth grader named Sally, I notice Louisa is biting her lower lip, which means she’s nervous.

“Don’t worry,” I whisper, “you’re way better than Sally.” Okay, “way better” might be stretching it. But I do think Louisa is a little better. At least I hope so.

Louisa frowns as Sally skips down the stage steps to sit down in the auditorium. “I don’t know…. ” Louisa’s voice is hushed. “She was really, really good.”

“Not as good as you.” I nod vigorously as the girl before us takes the stage. “Just keep believing in yourself, Lou. You’re meant to be Annie. I just know it.”

After the girl ends her audition, I suddenly feel slightly sick—and my feet are stuck to the wooden stage. But Louisa nudges me forward. “Go for it, Zoey,” she urges. “You can do this.”

Our plan had been to audition separately since I picked a pretty easy piece from an early scene, and Louisa wants to do something that comes later. But suddenly, she’s grabbing my hand and dragging me out to the center of the stage.

“Zoey and I are doing different pieces, but we want to audition together,” she announces like this was our original plan. “Zoey will go first.” Then with Louisa by my side, I timidly read my lines, which I’m afraid are unimpressive. And now I’m freezing up again. But Louisa’s elbow in my ribs reminds me I’m not done. And then she starts my song and we sing a few stanzas of “It’s a Hard Knock Life” together. Louisa’s strong voice encourages me to sing louder, which probably makes me sound better. And then we’re done and I’m about to make a quick exit. But Louisa is still holding my hand.

I know she plans to do a scene with Sandy the dog. And without missing a beat, she steps into her Annie character and acts like she’s talking to the dog. Only she’s looking directly at me. So, playing along, I crouch down and actually hold up my hands like paws and pant like a dog who’s begging. What won’t I do for my best friend? There’s a lot of laughter, but Louisa doesn’t miss a beat as she clearly recites her lines. And then she starts belting out the “Dumb Dog” song, which she pulls off perfectly. Meanwhile I continue to play Sandy. The applause is the loudest it’s been throughout all the auditions. We both do a little bow then hurry down the stage steps to join the others. My knees are actually shaking when I sit down. But I’m so glad that’s over with.

Miss Flynn takes the stage with a wide smile. “You have all done superbly—both yesterday and today. I’m sure that means our production will be fabulous! We’ll have six weeks to get it all polished up. And we’ll perform it shortly before winter break as a Christmastime treat for the whole town.” She looks over to where the other teachers are waiting on the sideline. “We judges will meet together this afternoon to discuss casting, and our results will be posted outside the auditorium tomorrow. Best of all, play practice starts next Monday.” She thanks everyone, and then we begin to exit the auditorium.

As we leave, I can hear some of the older girls congratulating Sally on her audition. They seem to believe Sally cinched the lead. But a couple of younger girls quietly encourage Louisa, acting like she still has a good chance too.

“Louisa is a natural Annie,” I say to one of them. “She even looks like Annie.”

“You don’t get the lead role just because you have red hair,” an eighth grader calls over her shoulder. “Ever heard of a wig?”

“FYI, little girls, with costume and makeup, we will make Sally look exactly like Annie,” an older girl named Bree informs us.

“And she’ll do it better than a little sixth grader,” someone else calls out.

I toss a look at them but keep my mouth shut. Then I link my arm into Louisa’s and walk her toward our locker. “Ignore them,” I hiss quietly. “They’re just afraid you’re going to get the Annie part.”

“They’re probably right. I’m only a sixth grader. Maybe it’s not fair for a younger kid to get the lead.” Louisa sighs. “And, really, I’d be happy with a smaller part. I could play Tessie or Molly or—”

“Or Annie!” I throw open our locker door. “It’s like that role was made for you. And everyone loved your audition.”

“Not everyone.”

“Well, those snobby eighth graders don’t count. Just forget about them.”

“Okay.” She shoves a book into her backpack. “I can’t believe we have to wait until tomorrow to find out though. I probably won’t be able to sleep a wink tonight.”

“Try not to think about it.” I zip my backpack closed. “You did your best. That’s all you can do.”

“You did your best too.” She breaks into a grin. “I had to control myself from laughing when you started playing the dog. But thanks for doing that! You really helped me with my scene. And, really, your audition went okay.”

I can tell she doesn’t really believe that. “It doesn’t matter. I’m just glad to have it behind me now.” And I won’t want to admit it to her, but more than ever I hope I won’t get cast for anything. The idea of painting sets or running lights is very appealing. I’d like to remain behind the scenes. And after seeing the list of how many parts there are, combined with how many kids tried out…well, I don’t think I need to be worried about getting a part.