Ellie leaped from the incubator warmness of her covers to get ready for the day that lay ahead. The sun was rising and the day was still in its infancy, offering a new beginning, and new challenges. After spending some time in her closet looking for just the right combination of shirt, pants and boots, she stole one last glance at herself in her dresser mirror.
“Yep, that’ll do,” she said, putting down the wand of her Sugar & Spice brand mascara. In the mirror, she saw a stylish girl staring back at her, with streaks of sunlight in her hair and promise in her smile. She smudged her eyeliner just the right amount. It was important to fit in at school. It took some doing, but all those trips to the mall with Hailey, Drew and Shoshanna had paid off. It wasn’t easy to run with the popular crowd; everything had to be perfect. There was a price to pay for being popular, but wearing that badge came with automatic lunch buddies at a reserved table, a crowd to hang out with every Friday night and a standing invitation to all the parties from anyone who was anybody. Ellie grabbed her books and ran to catch the school bus. Once aboard, she was careful to choose whom she sat with. Of course she wouldn’t want to be seen with the wrong person.
Wow, she thought, being popular does take a lot of energy. But she smiled to herself. It was worth it.
The morning moved as slow as a watched pot, but she knew things would pick up again by lunchtime. That’s when any gossip worth hearing would bounce around the cafeteria like a ball in Brownian motion.
“Hey, did you hear, Megan and Cole are going out?” asked Shoshanna.
“No, I hadn’t heard that,” she exclaimed, being careful to hide too much surprise in her voice for fear she’d be taken as an outsider.
“Did you hear that Avery and Jake broke up?” asked some junior wannabe sitting at the next table leaning over, clearly overstepping. Well, no she hadn’t heard that either.
“Hey, did I tell you that they’re having a sale on these new boots at Glitz & Glamour? I got mine for half price last night,” announced Ellie, trying to change the subject. Her whole table cheered. That was something worth knowing. A low buzz continued between bites. It sounded more to Ellie like noise made by busybodies, rather than any useful communication, but surely this was what middle school was all about. It was all about seeing and being seen with the right crowd. From the corner of her eye, suddenly Ellie spied Melanie transfixed on her from across the crowded cafeteria.
Oh no, she’s coming this way to talk to me, screamed Ellie anxiously in her mind. Melanie had been a friend ever since the first day of kindergarten when they both discovered their shared love for strawberry licorice and found out they had a common birthday. They had become instant friends and had celebrated almost every birthday in elementary school together. They had a lot in common. Both liked pink lemonade, jazz band and gymnastics. Ellie wondered exactly when their friendship had ended. Oh yeah, it was when Melanie had the nerve to wear that dorky lime-green sweater her grandmother had knit for her and sent her two birthdays ago, she reminded herself. She had been the laughingstock of the school. She wasn’t foolish enough to wear that sweater twice. But there was more to it than that. She just wasn’t popular and being popular meant everything, didn’t it?
Melanie was walking faster now and heading directly for Ellie. There was no avoiding her. Suddenly, Melanie was standing right in front of her. Ellie tried to look away casually, like someone else had just called her name, diverting her gaze. “Ellie, would you like to come over to my house Friday night for pizza and a movie?” Ellie’s face turned a deep shade of fuchsia. She tried to pretend she didn’t hear, but Melanie was persistent and facing her now, demanding a reply. “Ellie, would you…?”
“No, I heard you the first time, Melanie. Sorry, but I already have plans,” she heard herself grumble, noticing that everyone at the lunch table was listening and watching, enjoying her misery. Some were pointing. Ellie was squirming and uncomfortable, as if an army of itchy hives had suddenly infiltrated to pronounce their conquest. Some girls were even snickering out loud. They didn’t care whose feelings they hurt. Ellie turned away from Melanie sharply. Stony-faced, Melanie walked away.
Ellie thought she had seen tears in those lovely root-beer-colored eyes, those eyes that effervesced with excitement whenever they shared secrets, like at those sleepless sleepovers in the distant past. Ellie was glad, however, that the unpleasant encounter was finally over and she could move on, but secretly she thought that a movie with Melanie actually sounded fun. She was getting bored of going to the mall every Friday night with the same tiresome friends who only talked about fashion, hair and makeup. She had given up so much to be popular. She let her honest feelings now float to the surface, including the stabbing pangs of guilt for treating her friend so harshly.
The feeling of betrayal still stung when Ellie got home, but she tried to shrug it off. When she opened the mailbox at the edge of her driveway, part of every afternoon ritual, a letter addressed to her from her grandfather lay right on top. Ellie ripped open the envelope excitedly without taking another step.
“My Dear Eleanora,” it read, “Your grandmother would have been so proud of you and the nice lady that you are becoming.” Ellie’s heart sank with her grandfather’s description. Being an immigrant, English was not his first language, and some of his phrases were stilted. She could picture his broad smile. It always seemed to make her feel better, but now somehow it made her feel worse inside. “Enclosed is a picture of your grandmother, Nora. You are just like her. You are her namesake. It was taken before I knew her, but I think she would have been about your age at the time of the photograph. She would want you to have it.”
Ellie looked down at the sepia image before her. She was surprised to see herself staring back at her. The girl with the same promise in her eyes and brown hair that she wore shoulder length looked cheerful in her sailor dress. Her kindness shone through, thought Ellie. Ellie’s mind began to swirl with a thousand questions. Why the sailor dress? Did Grandma face the same peer pressure in her day? Did all the girls dress like this? Did you have to, to fit in? Ellie re-read her grandfather’s tightly scrolled handwriting over again. “Your grandmother would have been so proud.” A teardrop fell, splat, onto the cold, hard pavement. She certainly hadn’t felt proud of herself lately.
Ellie ran up to her room and threw herself onto her bed, allowing the softness of her petal-pink chenille bedspread to comfort her. It took a few moments before she could regain control of her sobbing. With a tear-stained face, she confronted herself again in her dresser mirror. Staring back at her was her grandmother’s image. Ellie thought about Grandma Nora and all the times she had taken care of her when she was younger, while her mom worked. She remembered the never-ending hugs, the velvety soft kisses, how she had scooped her up and held her close when she scraped her knee or bumped her head, or when Cupcake, her toy poodle, had nipped at her finger. Remembering, she wished she had made more of an effort to write to Grandma Nora in the last couple years. But she was too busy trying to fit in and time had quietly slipped away.
She looked into the dresser mirror again. This time she thought she saw another girl; her own granddaughter’s image stared back at her questioningly. She saw honesty in those tranquil green-blue eyes and a genuine heart. With conviction, she made a solemn oath. When it was her turn, she would make sure she shared with her granddaughter what was truly important in life, just like Grandma Nora had done. Suddenly, she knew what she must do. Fresh starts can occur at any time of day, not just at their beginnings. Racing to the phone, she dialed her friend’s number she had memorized by heart.
“Melanie, it’s Ellie.” Ellie felt her heart tripping over itself. “Can we still do pizza and a movie together this Friday? Would you like to come here, or would you still like me to come to your house? I know I’m babbling like an idiot, but I want to tell you that I’m really sorry I hurt your feelings today. If you can forgive me, can we still get together on Friday?”