Did I Mention I Love You(7)

By: Estelle Maskame

I end up taking the remaining hour and a half to get ready. If I could, I’d turn up on the patio in sweats. But I don’t think that would go down well with Ella, so I rummage through my suitcase and pull out a pair of skinny pants and a blazer. Smart casual. That should do.

I get dressed, dry my hair, curl it into loose waves, and then apply a fresh layer of makeup. I’m just spraying some body spray when I inhale the waft of…well, barbecues. It must be nearing seven.

I head downstairs, following the scent into the kitchen. The two glass patio doors are slid open, and I realize the get-together is already in full swing. So, correction, it must be after seven. There’s music playing from speakers somewhere, groups of adults milling around the yard, and everything else that makes social gatherings awful. I spy Chase in the pool with some kids around his age. I also spot Dad flipping burgers on the barbecue over in the corner while attempting to carry out a dance move from the ’80s. He looks lame as hell.

“Eden!” a voice calls. When I turn around, I’m irritated to discover that it belongs to Ella. “Get out here!”

Maybe if I fake a seizure I’ll get to escape back to my room, or better yet, home. “Sorry I’m a little late. I wasn’t checking the time.”

“No, no, you’re fine,” says Ella. She pushes her sunglasses up to the top of her head as she steps inside for a moment to pull me out onto the grass. “I hope you’re hungry.”

“Well, actually I—”

“These are our neighbors from across the street,” she interrupts, nodding toward a middle-aged couple standing in front of us. “Dawn and Philip.”

“It’s great to meet you, Eden,” Dawn says. It’s clear either my dad or Ella or both of them have been informing everyone that I’m here. Philip offers me a half smile.

“You too,” I reply. I’m not sure what else there is to say. Tell me your life story? What are your plans for the future, Dawn and Philip? I smile instead.

“Our daughter should be coming by too,” Dawn continues, which immediately makes me feel unsettled. “She’ll keep you company.”

“Oh, cool,” I say. My eyes drift away from the pair. Clicking with other girls has never been one of my strong points. Girls are terrifying. And meeting new ones is even worse. “Nice to meet you,” I say with a farewell smile.

I make a quick escape from them and Ella, hoping to avoid any more awkward introductions. It works for the first forty minutes. I linger by the fence and screw my face up at the awful mainstream crap that’s echoing from the speakers at the opposite end of the yard. It’s embarrassing to even be here. At least when the food is finally cooked and everyone begins digging in, the noise of their voices helps drown out the horrendous pop music. I pick at the bun of my burger for a few minutes and then end up tossing the entire plate into the trash. And just when I think I’ve successfully avoided Ella for the night, she decides to haul me around to each individual or couple or family and introduce me to them as her new stepdaughter.

“Here’s Rachael now!” she says as she’s leading me over to another batch of our neighbors.

“Rachael?” I repeat. If it’s someone I’ve been introduced to already, then I don’t remember. I’ve been given so many new names to learn within the space of an hour that I’ve started blanking them all out instead.

“Dawn and Philip’s daughter,” Ella informs me. She nods over my shoulder, and before I even get the chance to turn around, she’s calling, “Rachael! Over here!”

Ugh. I take a deep breath, convince myself that she’ll be friendly and nice, and then I plaster the fakest smile I can across my face. The girl joins us and steps around me. “Oh, uh, hey,” I blurt.

Ella beams at the two of us. “Eden, this is Rachael.”

Rachael smiles too, and we end up looking like a trio of serial killers. “Hey!” She shoots Ella an awkward grin.

Ella gets the memo. “I’ll leave you guys be then.” She laughs before striding off to engage in even more boring conversations with boring people.

“Parents make everything awkward,” Rachael says. I immediately like her based on this statement alone. “Have you been stuck here the whole time?”

I wish I could say no. “Unfortunately.”

Her hair is long, blond, and definitely not its natural shade. But I’ll let that slide simply because she doesn’t seem to hate me yet. “I live right across the street, and you probably don’t know anyone here, so we can hang out if you’d like. Seriously, come over whenever you want.”