At five o’clock, Mary dropped Amber off at Laura’s house. Her mom hadn’t mentioned the meeting with Ms. McGuire, and Amber had no plans to bring it up. Melissa and Laura came rushing out to help her bring in her gear. Laura lived in one of the fancier homes in Bluesky. Her dad, Bill Thomas, was a banker. He worked at a large bank in Marshallville. Laura’s mom, Emma Thomas, had trained for a career as a ballet dancer when she lived in New Orleans. Now she was a dance teacher. She had a small studio in Bluesky where she taught tap, ballet, and hip-hop along with gymnastics.
There were four girls in the Thomas family. Fourteen-year-old Amanda was the oldest. Everyone called her Mandy. Laura, who was having her tenth birthday, was next. They had two younger sisters, Molly, who was six, and four-year-old Taylor. All the girls were dancers, except Laura who tried ballet but changed to gymnastics, which she liked better. Laura’s mother and her three sisters all had long straight brown hair that was pulled into a bun when they performed ballet. Laura liked to keep her hair cut short. She said it was easier to do tumbling without a knot on the back of her head.
Out in the backyard, a tent was already set up, and the girls helped Amber put her things inside. Unlike Amber’s backyard, the Thomases’ was carefully landscaped. Matching lawn furniture was arranged artistically on the patio. A stone walkway led to a gazebo in the middle of the carefully manicured lawn. Neat planters filled with bushes, and flowers lined the fence. Amber knew that once it was dark, Mr. Thomas would turn on the decorative lighting. There would be lights bordering the planters, rope lights on the edges of the patio roof, and tiny twinkling lights in the trees. Taylor called it the fairyland.
Each girl selected a lawn chair and sat down. “Tomorrow we’re going to the senior center, right?” Melissa asked.
“That’s the plan,” Laura said happily. “I wonder what jobs Mrs. Snow assigned us.”
“I hope it’s not doing the dishes,” Amber groaned. “I hate doing the dishes.”
Mandy came in with a tray of lemonade. “We’re not going to make you do the dishes,” she insisted.
“We’re talking about the senior center,” Melissa explained. “We’re volunteering there tomorrow.”
“That’s a really nice thing to do,” Mandy said. “I’m sure they need lots of help.”
“We even put up a flyer in case any of the seniors needs help at home,” Amber added.
“Have you gotten any calls?”
“Not yet, but we just put the flyer up on Monday.”
Bill Thomas came out onto the patio to light the gas barbecue grill. Laura’s mother called her through the open sliding door, and Laura got up and went inside. Amber followed her in.
“Could I use the phone?” she asked Mrs. Thomas.
“Of course, help yourself,” she answered.
“We’re having individual gourmet pizzas,” Laura informed her. “We’re going to cook them on the grill.”
Amber noticed a tray with a variety of pizza toppings: chopped meats, peppers, onions, olives, mushrooms, and some other things she didn’t recognize. There were bowls with red and white sauces and several types of shredded cheese. She was sure this was Laura’s idea, since cooking was her passion. Laura’s little sisters were busy making their own pizzas to cook in the oven.
“Where’s the pepperoni?” Molly asked.
“These are gourmet pizzas,” Laura explained. “You don’t put pepperoni on gourmet pizza.”
“That’s the kind I like,” Molly said.
“Me too,” Taylor added. “That’s the kind I like.”
“Don’t say everything I say,” Molly scolded, and Taylor hung her head.
“Be nice to your little sister,” Mrs. Thomas reminded her. “You were the baby once yourself.”
“I’m not a baby!” Taylor insisted.
Amber had just finished putting the toppings on her pizza and had given it to Mr. Thomas so he could put it on the grill when Mandy called her name.
“Kyle’s here to see you,” Mandy said, her face obviously red.
“I wonder what he wants,” Amber said as she walked in the house.
“Here’s what you forgot.” Kyle handed her a birthday-card-sized envelope.
“Thanks.” Amber hung her head. “I thought Mom would bring it.”
“She’s busy,” Kyle said. “Come here a minute.”
“What are you looking at?” Amber asked.
“Just making sure your head is attached to your shoulders. I wouldn’t want you to leave it anywhere.”
“Brothers!” Amber spouted as she walked back outside. “Be glad you both have sisters.”
“We have little sisters,” Laura reminded her. “Need I say more?”
When they finished their pizzas, Mandy came out with a tray full of graham crackers, Hershey bars, and marshmallows. “S’mores!” Amber and Melissa shouted together.
Laura noticed Molly and Taylor with their sad faces pressed up against the window. “Come on out,” she said with a sigh. “You can make s’mores with us.”
“You’re not supposed to cremate the marshmallow!” Laura yelled at Molly. “You are supposed to toast it lightly a little at a time. Watch me.” Laura put a marshmallow on her stick.
“I like it burned,” Molly insisted.
“No, you don’t,” Laura said. “Who would like burned marshmallows?”
“Me,” Amber said. “The more burned, the better, as far as I’m concerned.”
“Well,” Laura said, “you’re both weird.”
“Because we’re not marshmallow gourmets?” Amber asked.
“Because you like burned food,” Laura corrected.
Just then, Taylor held up her stick with a melted marshmallow dripping onto the patio. “I didn’t burn mine,” she said with pride. Everyone started laughing.
Mr. and Mrs. Thomas came out to the patio, carrying a birthday cake and gifts. After the traditional singing of “Happy Birthday,” Laura blew out the ten candles on her cake. There were gifts from her parents and from each of her sisters. Mostly, they were clothes and hair clips or jewelry. The gift from her mother was a cookbook for young chefs. Melissa gave her a CD she’d been hinting about for weeks, and Amber gave her a gift card to her favorite store. Laura thanked everyone appreciatively. With help from Melissa and Amber, she toted her gifts off to her bedroom. The girls decided to put on their pajamas and then go get into the tent to listen to music. At ten o’clock, Mr. Thomas came out to tell them to turn off the music so they wouldn’t disturb the neighbors.
“If Logan, Chris, and Spike were the only boys on earth,” Melissa suggested as the girls sat in the dark tent, “which one would you want to marry?”
“If Spike was the only boy on earth,” Amber said, “I would be single for my entire life!”
“He is kind of cute,” Melissa said.
“You think every guy is cute,” Laura responded.
“What about you, Laura?” Amber asked. “Who would you choose?”
“Logan’s so serious,” Laura said thoughtfully. “He doesn’t seem to want to have fun.”
“Yeah,” Amber agreed. “Chris seems like the most normal one, but personally, I couldn’t imagine being married to any of them.”
“Lucky thing there’s more fish in the sea,” Laura sighed.
“What does that mean?” Melissa asked.
“It means you don’t have to choose the first guy who comes along,” Amber said.
With that, the girls burst into laughter.
The Handy Helpers book series is available at Amazon