Veronica Caisse, age ten, stood in front of the mirror, her arms out to the sides. “What do you think?” she asked her cat, Aphrodite, turning so she could see the full extent of her outfit. Aphrodite gave a tiny, indifferent meow.
“Thank you!” Veronica told her. “I do have good fashion sense, don’t I?” She admired herself again. Cute knee-length dress with a black-and-white stripy pattern, sparkly ballet flats, long blond hair pulled back with a flowered white headband.
“Ronnie!” Her dad bellowed from downstairs. “Get down here! We’re gonna be late!” With a final glance in the mirror, she walked out of the room with a goodbye to Aphrodite.
Veronica found, when she got downstairs, that her family hadn’t taken nearly as much care and time getting dressed as she had. Her mom was looking nice but normal in a maroon turtleneck sweater and black pants. However, Veronica noted the pearl earrings and slight coating of lipstick. Her dad wore jeans, a plain blue jacket, and a lighter blue polo shirt. Hmm, that was what he wore every day. Her older brother, Jared, was attired in a pair of ripped jeans, a faded T-shirt, and a well-worn USC jacket. Disgraceful.
Jared burst out laughing. “Ronnie, you are really… wow…” Veronica tried to figure out what his deal was. Did she have a lump in her hair? Or were her shoes on the wrong feet?
“Sweetie,” her mom said hesitantly, “do you think you are a little, um, overdressed for an informal family gathering?” Her mom emphasized the “informal,” as if Veronica hadn’t heard that description five million times already.
“Ron-Ron,” Veronica’s dad intervened. “There will be games and running around. You can change, or not. It’s your choice.”
Veronica pretended to consider, but honestly, it was a no-brainer. “I’ll wear this,” she said decisively. After all, looking good should be everyone’s top priority. “And don’t call me Ron-Ron!” she admonished her dad. “It’s so babyish. I’m ten, you know.”
Her mom and dad exchanged what-can- we-do looks but said no more about the matter as the whole Caisse family walked out the door and into the car. As Mr. Caisse revved up the engine and began driving down the street, Veronica arranged herself comfortably on her half of the back seat. Headphones, check. iPod, check. Markers, check. Pad of paper, check. Jared was sprawled out as much as he could in his amount of space, earbuds stuffed in his ears, though Veronica thought she could hear a very soft echo of the pounding heavy metal. Sighing, Veronica put her headphones on and began working through her playlist, humming along as she carefully designed outfits on the outlines of the people she had drawn.
About an hour into the drive, as she was mumble-singing the lyrics to “All About That Bass” and filling in the shirt on her newest figure, Jared nudged her.
“Look up, Ron,” he said, “we’re nearly there.”
Though slightly miffed to be interrupted in the chorus of her favorite song, she pulled off the headphones and looked out the window. Sure enough, there was Aunt Mattie and Uncle Rob’s house. “We’re there!” she nearly squealed.
Jared grinned. “We’ll get to see all our cousins! Nina and Josh and Kymmie and Gryffin and Joe…”
Veronica and Jared waited impatiently while their dad circled around, looking for parking. “Come on, Daddy!” Veronica urged. “We need, need, need to get in!” Both Jared and Veronica were appropriately excited for their once-every-two-years family gathering with all their cousins and uncles and aunts. The place where it was held varied from year to year. This time, they were lucky, since Aunt Mattie and Uncle Rob lived relatively close to them. However, many of their cousins had to fly in. But the luckiest by far were Lucy and Gryffin, who didn’t have to go anywhere at all this year.
Finally, finally, they parked and the kids leapt out of the car.
“Race you!” called Jared, sprinting down the block.
“I can’t run!” Veronica yelled after him. “My flats…” He didn’t notice, and with a sigh she began to walk with her mother at an annoyingly slow pace.
By the time they reached their aunt and uncle’s house, Jared was already leaning coolly against the doorway, with an expression that said, “What took you so long? Awesome people always get places fast.”
Rolling her eyes, Veronica reached up and rang the doorbell. Almost instantly, it swung open, and there was Aunt Mattie, a big grin on her face. “Hello hello hello!” She gave them all crushingly warm hugs, and with several more greetings and hugs to other relatives, Jared and Veronica escaped to the backyard where the other kids were all gathered.
“ROOOONNNNNIIIIIIIE!” A little pint-sized ball of energy hit Veronica full in the stomach, sending her falling back into the grass.
“Hey, Kymmie!” she grinned. Kymmie was seven years old, tiny for her age, with wide, intelligent brown eyes and soft red hair. Veronica had been the big sister Kymmie had never had, as the latter had grown up in a family of boys.
While Jared was greeting the other boys ( Josh, Gryffin, Tyler, and Joe) with a series of fist bumps, back slaps, and “Hey, man!”s, Veronica’s other girl cousins had come over: Nina, Lucy, and Emmy.
“Hi, Ronnie!” Emmy said, helping her up. Emmy and Lucy were the closest in age to Veronica, the former being eleven and the latter nine. Nina was the same age as Kymmie, and they would’ve looked very much the same except Nina’s eyes were a striking blue, in contrast to Kymmie’s brown.
The boys had wandered over. “Hey, girls,” Joe said. Joe’s real name was Sasha, but he thought it was a girly name, so had spontaneously changed his name to Joe. “Pop brought a bunch of potato sacks. Is anyone up for a race?”
It was unanimous. As they distributed the sacks, Veronica suddenly remembered. “Oh, my God, I totally forgot, I can’t.”
Emmy looked startled. “Why not, Ron?”
“My dress and my shoes…” Sadly, Veronica went and sat on the garden bench. She watched as her laughing cousins all started bounding across the yard. Emmy tripped and did a silly head-over-heels somersault, which got everyone giggling.
In the end, Gryffin won, and to everyone’s surprise, Nina placed second. Joe, indignant, declared a rematch, and Veronica decided to head back into the house. It was too painful to watch her cousins play without doing so herself.
There was already a smear of mud on the front of her dress where Kymmie had tackled her. She couldn’t risk it getting worse…
“Hey, Ronnie!” her dad called from the edge of the kitchen. “Having fun?” Veronica halfheartedly nodded an answer. She trudged over to the snack table and grabbed a handful of Doritos. The cheesy chips turned the tips of her fingers orange.
Uncle James swept by. “Hey, Veronica- Harmonica! Why aren’t you out playing with the kiddos?” Usually Veronica loved being called Veronica-Harmonica. James was her favorite uncle and had silly, creative nicknames for all the kids: Go-Joe, Mini-Kymmie, to name a few. But today, Veronica was feeling a little depressed.
She shrugged. James raised one eyebrow. “You sure you’re OK?” Veronica nodded, and her uncle moved on. Two more handfuls of chips later, she left the house. Maybe her cousins were playing something that couldn’t ruin a dress or ballet flats.
Yet they were playing tag. Lucy ran over to Veronica. “Hey, Ron, why aren’t you playing?” Veronica unhappily explained the situation. Lucy considered this, tilting her head back and forth, her blond ponytail swishing.
“You could borrow my clothes,” Lucy suggested. “I have a lot of jeans and sweatpants and stuff.”
“I’m OK,” Veronica shrugged for the second time in five minutes.
“Suit yourself,” said Lucy, running back to join the game.
Veronica did want to play, but the truth was, she really didn’t want to ruin her dress, and Lucy was a total tomboy, such a different style (some of her clothes were actually bought in the boy’s department: yipes!).
Veronica decided to get her iPod to busy herself, but the truth was, it wasn’t as effective as she’d thought. She couldn’t focus on the tunes, again finding herself watching her cousins running and laughing. She even cracked a smile herself, as Nina ducked under Tyler’s legs to avoid being tagged.
Come off it, Veronica! she told herself chidingly. You chose to wear this. It was your decision to look pretty. You do, you know! But even that happy fact seemed to mock her. She was saved, however, when Aunt Mattie called everyone in for lunch.
Emmy, Lucy, Kymmie, and Nina ran over, cheeks flushed and grinning. “I never ever got it!” sang Nina, doing a funny sort of pirouette jump.
“That was super fun,” Emmy said happily, wiping her forehead with a sleeve. “You should’ve played, Ronnie! The dress can be washed.” That was true, but what Veronica hated more than wearing something unfashionable was wearing something cute that was dirty. She shrugged.
Lucy yanked open the screen door and all the girls filed in. Fortunately, there was a large table, so all the kids fit when Uncle James smashed in some extra chairs. Veronica enjoyed lunch immensely, laughing and talking. There was some commotion when Gryffin made a dumb boy joke and Tyler laughed so hard milk flew out of his nose and right on Lucy’s sandwich across the table. Veronica couldn’t believe Lucy still ate it.
But lunch came to a close, and the kids rushed back outside, Veronica at the end. When she got outside, the kids were discussing what to do.
“Horse?” Veronica suggested, as it included no running, except chasing after the ball. No one seemed to hear her.
In the end, they decided to continue on their game of tag! Veronica was fuming, but not at them, at herself. Tag was her absolute favorite game to play with her cousins, and here they were, ready to play, while she couldn’t, because her stupid dress would get soiled!
Suddenly, she realized she really didn’t care about what she was wearing anymore. Veronica tapped Lucy on the shoulder.
“Hey, Luce? I’ve changed my mind. Can I borrow some of your clothes after all?”
Lucy smiled. “No problem.” She grabbed Veronica’s arm and led her into the house.
Two minutes and five outfit trials later, the girls emerged, Veronica in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt with a decal of a pink electric guitar.
“Come on, Luce, Ronnie!” called Jared from the field. “Kymmie’s it!”
And with a feeling of elation that was so much more fulfilling than a pretty dress, Veronica sprinted to join the fun.