The first time I ever met Erica Stevens was in Miss Moore's first-grade class at Thomas Grant Elementary. Erica had had a big first-grade crush on Tyler Applebaum, who sat across from Erica at their table. Of course, Erica, being the excessive talker that she was and still is today, chatted non-stop to poor Tyler every chance she got, whether it was during Miss Moore's addition lesson or during D.E.A.R. time, which was supposed to be silent. Finally after a few weeks Miss Moore got fed up with Erica's talking and just like every other teacher we have both had from first grade through now, she moved Erica's seat. Guess where the chatterbox got moved to? That's right, my table. Miss Moore had probably figured that since I was extremely shy and hardly ever said a word in class that Erica would have no one to talk to and that would be the end of Erica's constant chatting. Boy, was Miss Moore wrong. As soon as she sat Erica down across from me, Erica stared at me with her beautiful baby-blue eyes and I stared at her back, chewing on one of my brown braids. Then, Erica uttered the first words she had ever said to me: "Hi, my name is Erica. Do you think Tyler is cute?"
That was the start of our friendship. Erica's talking was contagious and pretty soon I had "caught" it. We talked all the time in class, which led Miss Moore to move Erica yet again.
But that didn't stop us! The two of us were inseparable, and we did practically everything together. We went over each other's houses almost every weekend, playing with Barbie and Ken dolls for hours at a time (Erica pretended that they were her and Tyler Applebaum).
Even though Erica and I were best friends, we were still complete opposites. I was unbearably shy around practically everyone but Erica and never talked that much. Erica was always bold, on the other hand, and would say anything that was on her mind. She would always jump off the park swing when it was at the very highest it could swing or would sled down a big, steep hill in the winter. Then she would call after me, "Now you try, Natasha!"
"That's all right," I would say. "I might get hurt."
"No you won't!" she would holler back. "You just have to trust me!"
The years passed, and Erica and I went through so much together as best friends. We grew out of Barbie dolls and replaced them with CDs, makeup, and going to the movies. Sleepovers turned into giggle sessions complete with gossip about boys.
But no matter how much we grew up, one thing seemed like it would never change: we would always stay best friends.
However, when Erica and I started the seventh grade, things started to change. We weren't in the same homeroom like we usually were, and we didn't have the same classes.
Erica started to become more popular. She always had a huge group of girls that would surround her every minute of the day, and it seemed like every boy in the grade wanted to eat lunch and hang out with Erica after school. Whenever I tried to talk to Erica, they would act like I wasn't there and make me feel small.
I made some new friends, and Erica and I didn't hang out as much as we used to. We didn't have our late-night phone calls anymore, and there were never any sleepovers either. I felt sad that we never saw each other anymore, but I knew I had to move on.
The months passed, and before I knew it the seventh grade was over and summer vacation had arrived. I had always loved summer, mostly because there was no school and I could do whatever I wanted during the day. Erica and I used to get together almost every day during the summer, but I knew it would be different that year.
One hot day in July my mom came in from outside where she had been gardening. She was holding a stack of envelopes and magazines in her hands.
"Natasha, mail's here," she said.
"Did I get anything?" I asked, putting down the Nancy Drew book that I had been reading on the couch. I hoped that the summer issue of Teen Wave had arrived.
"You got a letter," my mom replied, handing me a small, pink envelope with sparkly star stickers all over it.
I ripped open the flap, eager to see if my grandmother who lived in Florida had sent me birthday money seven months early again. But it wasn't money. It was an invitation to Erica Stevens's boy-girl summer bash at her lake house. It was to be two weeks from Saturday.
Mom peered over my shoulder and read the invitation, which had a picture of a smiling sun with sunglasses on it.
"Erica's having a party? That's nice," she said. "I haven't seen Erica around here for awhile. Is everything all right between you two?"
"Yeah, fine," I replied absentmindedly, reading over the invitation again and again. Why would Erica invite me to her party? There would probably be all popular people there, and they would all make me feel so lame. Her mom probably just felt bad for me and made Erica invite me. That's probably why she invited me.
I sighed. It would be rude not to go after I was invited, so I might as well, even though Erica probably wouldn't even notice I was there.
* * *
The day of Erica's party arrived, and when I arrived at the lake house, I knew right away that this was a big bash. The house was a small but pretty cottage on a sandy beach that was right by the lake. Streamers ran all across the porch railings of the house, and balloons were tied to the benches of picnic tables, which were covered with brightly-colored tablecloths. Tons of party food was piled on the tables, including nacho chips and a cake that was covered with chocolate frosting. A huge stereo was blasting a hip-hop song from a local radio station.
There were also tons of kids running around. I could hardly believe it— there must have been at least fifty of my classmates all over the small beach. Some of them were splashing around in the water, and some other boys were running around, attacking girls with water guns. Other kids were at the picnic tables, munching on the food and drinking soda.
"Hey!" I heard a familiar voice call out. I turned around. Erica was running up to me, wearing a hot-pink bikini with white flip-flops. Her blond hair looked even more blond and gorgeous in the July sun.
"Hey," I replied. "Thanks for inviting me." It felt kind of weird talking to Erica again.
"You're welcome," Erica replied, grinning. "Can I talk to you for a sec?"
"Sure, I guess," I replied, wondering what she could possibly want to talk to me about.
Erica led me across the sandy beach and stopped at an old, wooden dock that was surrounded by weeds and cat o' nine tails. It was out of the way from the party.
I looked back over my shoulder at all of the kids, and then looked back at Erica. She hadn't acted so buddy-buddy towards me in a long time. Was there something strange going on that I didn't know about?
"Look," she said, "I don't really know how to say this, so I'll just say it."
I stared at Erica, and when I looked straight into her blue eyes, I felt like I had been looking at her for the first time in my life. She looked sadder than I had ever seen her before. Erica, who had always been the bold and courageous one, for the first time in her life, looked shy and... scared. But what was she afraid of? Me?
"I'm really sorry that I haven't been a very good friend to you," Erica said. "I don't know what happened. I guess we just kind of went our separate ways. I never really wanted that to happen... it just did."
"We never really went our separate ways," I replied, almost angry at Erica. "You did. You got all of those new friends and became Miss Popular, and you left me in the dust. How do you think that made me feel?"
Right then, I thought that Erica would either yell at me or storm away angrily. Neither of those things happened, though. Instead, Erica did something that I never knew was even physically possible for her. She started to cry. Then, like some magic spell that had been over her for all of those months had been broken, she threw her arms around me and cried.
"Natasha, I'm so sorry!" she sobbed.
I just stood there, stunned, not knowing how to react. Then, like some magic had come over me too, I hugged my best friend. I could feel tears streaming down my own cheeks, but I didn't bother to wipe them away I wanted them to stay there forever, a reminder that this very moment had really happened. The moment I had gotten my best friend back.
Suddenly, I took Erica's hand and pulled her over to the edge of the dock.
"What are you doing?" she asked, her voice still shaky from crying.
I grinned from ear to ear and tightened my grip on her hand. "You just have to trust me."
Then, before I could stop myself, I leapt off the dock, pulling Erica with me. We were in midair for a split second, and then landed with a splash in the cold, swampy water. Even though we weren't in the air anymore, I felt like I was on top of the world. When I heard Erica's familiar, friendly laugh, I knew that it would stay that way.