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By Melody Carlson

Zoey knows her days are numbered. At least when it comes to remaining in Cedarville. So when Louisa coaxes her to be part of a garage band, Zoey tosses her insecurities aside to make music with her friends. And she even goes out for the basketball team. But what will happen when her mom shows up and pulls the plug on everything?

Chapter 1

Early January

It’s not that I hate boys. I just don’t like them so much. And it gets tricky when you’re trying to “love your enemies” like the Bible says we should. But I have to admit that some people are really hard to love. Take mean girls—and I’ve had some experience with them. To be honest, I’d rather love a stupid boy than a mean girl. And I’ll never admit this to anyone, not even my BFF Louisa Cardwell, but Jefferson Combs isn’t too horrible…for a boy.

But as Louisa and I walk home from school on Friday afternoon, I’m still fuming at Jefferson’s best friend. Mason Peterson is a royal pain in the you-know-what. And Mason Peterson is the reason Louisa and I are arguing.

“I can’t stand him,” I growl at her. “I don’t even want to hear his stupid name.”

“You’re overreacting.” Louisa frowns at me as we pause outside of her house. “He was just trying to be funny.”

“Mason Peterson is a first-class jerk.” I tug down the stocking cap that Mason ripped off my head a few minutes ago.

“How was he supposed to know your hair was like that?”

I try not to remember the embarrassing wad of sweat-tangled hair that Mason revealed to half of the sixth-grade kids. Even though it’s a surprisingly warm winter day, I put on my ski cap to cover the results of an overly exuberant soccer game in my PE class at the end of the day. I planned to shampoo it at home.

“He was just teasing you, Zoey.”

“So I noticed.”

“Mason only teases you because he likes you.” She frowns a little.

I roll my eyes. “Yeah, right.”

Louisa stares down at her red canvas shoes. Like my favorite blue tennies, hers are faded and worn. But that’s how we like them these days. Artistically shabby has become our signature style. We wear baggy T-shirts, slouchy jeans, and old Converse. It’s a comfortable sort of cool. But my frazzled PE hair, not so much. “I wish Mason would tease me like that,” she says quietly.

“Really? You want someone to make fun of you?” I demand.

She looks up then shrugs. “Sure. If it was Mason. I wouldn’t mind. Especially if that meant he liked me.” Her freckled cheeks get rosy, and I know it’s not because of the weather since it’s not cold today. “Anyway, it’s just how guys are,” she adds quickly, like she wants to camouflage what she’s just insinuated about Mason—before I accuse her of crushing on him. “I mean, my dad does stuff like that all the time.”

“Your dad humiliates you?”

“Not exactly. But he does tease me sometimes. Just for fun…you know.”

“Yeah, but he’s your dad, Lou. You know he loves you.”


“Anyway, your dad’s not a dumb boy.” I’m studying her closely now. Unless it’s my imagination, Louisa has been acting differently lately. Ever since she turned twelve a couple weeks ago. Like she thinks twelve is so grown-up. And if it is, I should be worried because I’ll turn twelve next month.

“You mean a dumb boy like Mason….” She sighs again, but this time it’s in a dreamy sort of way that’s seriously disturbing.

“So you really want Mason to humiliate you?” I don’t know why I’m pressing her about this, maybe I just want to know. What is going on with her? “And you honestly think that if he teases you, it’s because he likes you?”

She nods with a half-smile. “And maybe he does like me. Remember how he sat by me at youth group last weekend?”

“Yeah, well, that was the only seat left.” However, I do remember it—and how I thought it was pretty weird.

“And Mason and I used to be good friends.” Her eyes light up. “We used to have play dates together, you know, because our moms are friends. In fact, they’re still friends.”

“Uh huh.” I’m trying not to look as concerned as I feel. Seriously, is Louisa crushing on Mason? I think about the girls at school who are boy crazy. Lou and I usually make fun of them—not to their faces—but just to ourselves. We both think boy-crazy girls are lame.

“Anyway, if Mason didn’t like me, he would’ve just stood with the other boys.”

“Huh?” I’m feeling lost now.

“At youth group, you know, when he sat by me last week.”

“Oh, yeah, right.”

“So, you just never know,” she says this in a way that suggests she does know.

“Are we still doing music tonight?” This is my effort to change the subject from dumb boys. It’s funny too because I used to drag my heels about doing music with Louisa. But after my Uncle Ned gave me his old drum set for Christmas, I’m really into it. Playing ukulele was okay, but drumming is way better. Lou and I did music together for most of winter break, and then every weekend since then and, unless I’m imagining it, we actually sound pretty good together.

“Absolutely.” Louisa nods eagerly.

“And my grandparents said it’s fine for you to spend the night like we’d planned. They’re still going to their cuisine club tonight, but it’s not like we’re little kids that need a baby-sitter.”

“Yeah, especially considering I’m old enough to baby-sit my brothers.”

“Plus Uncle Ned’s home,” I add. Although, knowing my laid-back uncle, it’s not like he’ll even show his face.

“So is it okay to bring my new amp over? It’s really awesome, but it’s kinda loud. Will Ned care?”

“I don’t think sound from my room makes it clear down to the basement.”

“Hope he’s not sorry he gave you that drum set.”

“Nah. And if he does hear it, he’ll probably just put on his headphones. He just gave me a drumming lesson last night. He says I’m improving.”

“For sure. I can’t wait to hear us with my amp tonight.” She frowns at her house. “I asked my parents about using our garage for a band practice space, but they say it’s too crowded in there.”

“Grams and Gramps don’t mind us using my room. I mean, even if they are home.”

“Good thing your bedroom’s on the third floor.”

“And that both my grandparents are hard of hearing.” Although I do wonder what they’ll think of Lou’s new amplifier. What if that’s too much for them?

Louisa gets a funny look now. “So…did you know that Mason’s into music too?”

“No.” I can’t believe it—she’s talking about Mason again? What is up with her anyway?

“Yeah, last week, after youth group. I overheard Mason telling Brent that he plays bass guitar. Sounds like he’s been taking lessons. He even offered to play backup for Brent at youth group sometime. So I guess Mason must be pretty good.”

“Uh huh.” I scowl at her. “So why are we talking about a dumb boy again?”

“I, uh, I don’t know.” She shrugs then glances back at her house. “Well, I gotta go. I’m supposed to baby-sit my brothers while Mom gets groceries. But as soon as she’s back, I’ll come over. I mean, if that’s not too early.”

“Anytime is fine. And Gramps said he’d fix us something to heat up for dinner.” I wave good-bye then head for my house. Really, my grandparents’ house, but it feels like mine too. As I go up the porch steps, it hits me again—how grateful I am to still be here in Cedarville…still living with my grandparents. Sure, I might have to move back to Seattle with Mom by the end of the school year. Something she firmly reminded me about when she came to pick up her car right before Christmas. According to a conversation I overheard between my grandparents (okay, I was eavesdropping), my mom wants to have me with her for long enough to claim me on her taxes. So much for motherly love. But I’m trying not to think about that now. After all, June is more than five months away.

“There you are,” Grams calls out to me. “Just in time to help your grandpa.”

“Help with what?”

She slips a wrench into her tool belt. “He’s making some special dishes for the culinary club tonight and he can use a hand. But I need to fix that leaky faucet in the upstairs bathroom before we go. Don’t want you and Louisa springing a leak while I’m gone.”

“Okay. I’ll just go put my stuff away and come back down.” I run up the two flights of stairs, toss my backpack and jacket onto the floor—knowing my neat freak self will insist on picking them up later—then race back down to help Gramps. As I wash my hands, like he’s taught me, I remember how I used to hate kitchen work. But now I kind of enjoy it. Gramps has taught me so much about cooking—and he’s helped me to try some new foods. He still calls me a picky eater, but I’m way better than I used to be.

“What’re you making?” I ask as I watch him stir something syrupy in a saucepan.

“Cherry cheesecake right now. But I still need to work on the broccoli casserole, and I don’t have enough hands at the moment.”

“Just tell me what to do.”

“Stir this.” He hands me a wooden spoon then nods to the saucepan. “When it starts to bubble, turn the heat down and then add those cherries.”

As he chops vegetables, I keep an eye on the saucepan, stirring carefully. As usual, he asks me how school was today. As usual, I just shrug and say, “Okay.” I never know how to answer that kind of question. Should I tell him that going to middle school is kind of like walking through a mine field? Does he really want to hear that sometimes everything is okay and the next thing you know it blows up in your face? I don’t think so. To be honest, I don’t enjoy telling my grandparents about how some mean girl bullied me in PE or how Mason Peterson thinks it’s okay to torment me. I’d rather put it behind me once I’m at home.

Gramps asks if Louisa is still coming over tonight and I confirm she’ll be here after five.

“There’s that leftover stew you girls can heat up. And my homemade bread.” He nods to the cookie jar. “And I made some oatmeal chocolate chip cookies this morning.”

“Thanks, that sounds great.”

“And I’m sure you’ll clean everything up when you’re done.”

“Of course.” I nod. I know how particular Gramps is about his kitchen. I don’t plan to disappoint him.

“So you and Louisa practicing your music tonight?”

“Yeah. She got a new amplifier for her guitar.”

His brows arch. “You won’t be too loud, will you? We don’t want our neighbors to complain.”

“Louisa’s parents are neighbors too,” I point out.

He chuckles. “Well, if they can hear you, we’ve got trouble.”

“Don’t worry, we won’t be too loud.”

“So you girls are a two person band?”

“I guess so. For now, anyway. Louisa is hoping to discover another girl or two to join us. But so far, she hasn’t come up with anyone.”

“Well, I’m sure the right girl will come along in time.”

“Yeah…I guess.” I don’t admit that I hope we don’t find another girl. I like it better when it’s just Louisa and me, just playing around. And even though Louisa has been getting me to sing more—when it’s just the two of us—I’d be too self-conscious to sing in front of another girl. Especially if she was really musical.

Louisa entertains these oversized dreams of becoming a real band that plays for a real audience someday. In fact, she’s been hinting about the spring talent show, which pretty much scares the beejeebers out of me. It was bad enough playing Sandy the dog in Annie. But doing a duet with Louisa, well, I just don’t think I can go there.

But knowing Louisa, she’ll keep pushing. Still, I will keep insisting we need lots more practice before going public. Months and months. Maybe I can hold her off until it’s time for me to go back to Seattle.

Though that thought makes my heart feel heavy. I don’t want to go back. And then it reminds me of my mom. It’s weird to remember how enraged I got when she dumped me with my grandparents in order to pursue her music dreams of touring the country with her grunge rock band. It’s almost funny now—how I thought I’d run away. I hated the idea of her being part of a stupid band. Even though she’s no longer pursuing her music career dreams—because her rock band hit the rails—I still don’t want her to know that I’m getting involved in music. I’m certain she’d make fun of me. After all, I made fun of her. But since I haven’t heard from her in several weeks, I don’t think I need to be too worried. It’s not like she’ll come blasting back into my life anytime soon.

Still, with my mom…you never know. Anything’s possible.

Chapter 2

After my grandparents leave for their culinary club, I take a quick shower and wash my messed-up hair. Then I get things set up for Louisa and me to have dinner in the kitchen. It’s weird doing this with my grandparents gone. Setting the table, putting out napkins, and filling glasses of water. It makes me feel weirdly grown-up to think I’m having my friend here by myself. Home alone. Well, except for Uncle Ned, and he probably won’t show his face. When I went down to beg some junk food from him—for later—he reminded me tonight is a big online gaming night for him. And when I told him about Louisa’s new amp, he pulled out his headphones.

So really, it’s like having the house to myself. And it’s kind of exhilarating. But I’m sort of surprised…especially when I remember how often my mom used to leave me home alone in our apartment in Seattle. Even when I was pretty young. But that was different. I didn’t like being alone in our apartment. I remember how I used to get scared sometimes. But tonight it feels good. I guess I’m more mature. After all, I’m almost twelve.

As I set the kitchen table, I set aside some popcorn to make after dinner. Gramps refuses to buy microwave popcorn, like my mom always got. He says it’s unhealthy. But I’ve learned to like the old-fashioned popcorn even better.

The stew is just simmering when I hear the doorbell ring. I hurry to let Louisa in. She’s loaded down with her guitar case and amp and backpack, which we lug up two flights of stairs.

“Your room is so perfect.” She looks around. “Not just because it’s so high up and roomy, but I’m sure the acoustics are better than a garage.”

“Grams said she put in lots of insulation when she turned it into my room.”

Louisa sets her amp by my drum set then waves her arms. “You’ve got enough room to put a stage in here. I’ll bet my dad would build us one.”

I frown. “I don’t really want a stage in my bedroom.”

“Just for practicing,” she says. “To make us feel like real performers.”

“I forgot that my BFF is such a diva,” I tease. “Anyway, dinner’s ready.” As we go downstairs, I tell her about the popcorn and snacks we’ll pig out on later.

“Nice. And I have a surprise for you.”

“Cool.” I’m guessing she’s written a new song. That’s usually her favorite surprise. And I have to admit some are pretty good. And others…well, there’s always room for improvement.

While we’re eating, Louisa acts sort of mysterious. She gets this funny grin then giggles. But when I question her, she acts all innocent. By the time we’re done, I’m aggravated. I can tell she’s keeping a secret from me. Something more than a new song. And when she checks her phone for the umpteenth time, which is out of character since we both believe phone addicts are lame, I just start cleaning up our dinner dishes.

 But then Louisa just leaves, without even offering to help. As I quickly scrub the dishes, I become even more annoyed. Seriously irate, I set the last bowl in the dish drainer then march out to the living room. Louisa is still staring at her stupid phone.

“What is going on?” I demand.

“Nothing.” She gives me the innocent look again.

“What’s up with you?” I press. “Is your family okay?”

“They’re fine.” She actually giggles.

“Then what is wrong?”

“Nothing is wrong. Something is very right.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Your surprise. It’s almost here.” She giggles again!

“Wha’d’ya—” I pause at the sound of the doorbell.

“That’s him.” Louisa leaps to her feet and races to the door.

“Him?” I follow, watching in stunned silence as she invites none other than Mason Peterson right into my house!

“What is going on?” I demand for the second time.

“Hey, Zoey.” Mason carries what looks like a guitar case and now I see that Jefferson Combs is right behind him.

“What is—”

“I had to bring Jefferson cuz we’re hanging together tonight,” Mason says casually. Like this is all perfectly normal. “But we have to skedaddle by eight o’clock.”

“Why are—”

“Mason plays bass guitar,” Louisa announces like that explains everything. “Remember, I told you that already, Zoey.”

“Yeah, but—”

“I told Mason about our two-person band, and he offered to jam with us tonight.” Louisa looks pleased with herself, but I’m too irritated to even speak.

“I hope it’s okay that I came with him.” Jefferson smiles sheepishly at me, and I just shrug, trying to make sense of this whole crazy situation.

“Come upstairs,” Louisa tells the guys. “We’re set up in Zoey’s room and it’s perfect for—”

“But you can’t—”

“Come on, Zoey,” Louisa yells from the second floor. “We only have a couple of hours to play. Let’s get this show on the road.”

I follow them upstairs, wondering how to put the brakes on what seems like a very bad idea. I’m not even sure why I’m so concerned about this, but what would Grams and Gramps think if they came home right now?

“Cool room.” Jefferson looks around with an approving nod. I know I should be flattered, but I’m too confused to even think about that. I just want to get them all out of here—now! But when he spies my artwork, some finished and some in progress, his brows arch. “Wow, you’re a really good artist, Zoey.”

“Uh, thanks,” I mutter, still not comfortable with my unexpected visitors.

“Hey, nice drum set.” Mason picks up a drumstick, giving a cymbal a clang. “Vintage, huh?”

“Louisa!” I tug her toward the door, whispering. “We can’t have boys up—”

“Go ahead and get set up,” she calls out in a cheery tone. “We’ll be right back.” Then she nudges me out the door, closing it so we can talk. “It’s okay,” she assures me. “We’re just doing music. No biggie.”

“Really? What would your parents say about us being home alone with boys up here in my room?”

“I already told Mom that Mason was coming to do music with us, and she thought it was a great idea. My mom and Mason’s mom are good friends. When we were little, he used to come over to my house for play dates and—”

“But this is different,” I hiss at her.

“Oh, Zoey, don’t be such a dork.”

“A dork?” I blink.

“I’m sorry. But you’re acting so weird. Just chill. Doing music with boys is no big deal.” She grabs my hand, looking into my eyes. “Trust me—it’s okay.”

I still don’t know what to think, but Louisa opens the door and Mason calls out, “Come on, you guys. Let’s get this show on the road.” He’s tuning his bass, and Jefferson has already made himself comfortable in my rocking chair. Louisa starts hooking up her amp and guitar, and even though I’m still uneasy about the situation, I leave my door open then go over and sit down on the stool behind my drum set. Taking a deep breath, I brace myself. This is not how I’d planned for tonight to go, and it feels like my head might explode, but I suddenly don’t want to look like a total dork by throwing everyone out of here. Besides, I remind myself, Louisa says her parents are okay with it.

Once we start playing, I can feel myself relaxing a little. We actually sound pretty decent together. Rough, yeah, but not half bad. And then Jefferson pulls out a harmonica. To my surprise, he’s pretty good on it. He joins us and we really start jamming—and it’s so much fun!

We jam like that for about an hour then take a break. The guys were already eying my stash of junk food and sodas. I thought I’d begged more than enough from Uncle Ned, but with Mason and Jefferson it quickly vanishes. Then we go back to playing some more music. I’m not sure when my grandparents will get home, but I know the guys have to leave by eight. Hopefully Grams and Gramps won’t be back by then. That would be awkward.

Although I’m still a little uneasy about having these guys up in my room, I’m having a good time with the music we’re playing. And I do plan to tell my grandparents about the situation…tomorrow. But it makes me nervous because I feel pretty sure they won’t approve of me having more guests here. Not while they’re gone anyway. But I hope they’ll understand.

Finally, it’s nearly eight and Mason announces it’s time to quit. Although I’m really relieved, I’m a tiny bit disappointed too. Who knew doing music with boys was this much fun?

“That was cool,” Jefferson tells me as Mason packs up his gear. “You’re pretty good on those drums.”

I shrug. “I’m still learning, but I really like drumming.” I glance at Louisa. “Way better than the ukulele.”

“You play ukulele?” Jefferson asks.

“Not very well. It was Louisa’s idea.”

Jefferson notices something on my dresser, going over to check it out. When he picks up the baseball cap, I’m reminded that it used to be his cap. He gave that to me at camp last summer, not long after we met. “So you still have this, huh?” he asks in a teasing tone. “Didn’t throw it in the trash?”

“Of course, not. I’m a Seahawks fan. Do you want it back?”

“Nah.” He plops it onto my head. “I gave it to you to keep. Besides, I got a new one for Christmas.”

“Remember how jealous Kayla Sharpe got when you did that?” Louisa says to him. “I thought she was going to kill Zoey.”

“She tried to,” I remind her.

Jefferson just laughs, tugging on his jacket.

“Speaking of Kayla, have you guys heard the latest news?” Mason closes his bass case with a snap.

“What news?” Louisa’s brows shoot up.

“I thought Kayla went to live with her aunt in California,” I say. “You know, after she got in trouble last fall.”

“Well, she’s back.” Mason picks up his case.

Louisa tosses a nervous glance my way. “Did you know Kayla lives next door to Mason?”

“Lucky Mason,” Jefferson jokes.

“Yeah.” Mason nods grimly. “Anyway, my mom just told me Kayla’s gonna be back in school—like next week I guess.”

“Oh, great.” Louisa groans.

I flash back to Kayla’s bullying—both in person and online—remembering how she nearly ruined my life. Once again, I’m hit with the challenge to love my enemies, but it’s lots easier when your enemies are a thousand miles away.

“Maybe she’s changed,” Jefferson says in a tone that suggests he doesn’t believe it either.

“Anything’s possible.” Mason pulls on his coat and picks up his bass.

“Well, I’m going to be praying for her,” Louisa announces. “And you guys should all do the same.”

I nod somberly. “Yeah, you’re right. Maybe we should invite her to youth group again. Remember how she totally quit going?”

“That’s because she was embarrassed,” Louisa tells me.

“Yeah, go figure.” Mason leads the way out.

“Zoey makes a good point,” Jefferson says. “Remember last week? When Brent challenged us to reach out? He said God wants to use us with everyone and anyone.”

“Yeah, no matter how hopeless or useless it feels,” Mason adds.

I’m actually impressed that these guys paid that much attention to Brent’s message at youth group. My respect for them goes up a couple notches. Still, I’m glad that they’re going down the stairs—safely out of my room while the coast is still clear. Whew!

We’re just on the last flight when I hear my grandparents entering the house from the garage. My heart begins to pound like my bass drum, and I’m tempted to make a dash down, and rush the boys out the front door. Anything to avoid what can only turn into a really awkward situation. But it’s like my feet are stuck to the step. And it’s too late. So, bracing myself for however this goes, I stand there and wait.

As my grandparents come into the living room, I can tell by their expressions they’re pretty surprised. Maybe even shocked. And suddenly I’m tongue-tied, which is unlike me. But I don’t know what to say. To my relief, Louisa jumps in with introductions and a somewhat awkward explanation. But as the boys leave, I suspect there is more conversation coming.