Madi Morgan wasn’t sure she had made the right decision when she asked her mom to make a chocolate cake. What if no one liked chocolate? Of course, that was crazy. Who didn’t like chocolate? But she remembered Suzy Preston saying something in English class the other day about how chocolate would go straight to her hips. Madi didn’t know exactly what that meant, but it sounded bad.
What if Suzy showed up and then hated Madi because she only had chocolate cupcakes instead of vanilla? Being hated by Suzy Preston was social suicide.
Madi glanced at the clock, then frowned. It must have been running fast because it said it was already a quarter after one, and no one was here yet. But no, the clock above the piano said the same thing.
Straightening a few of the tiaras lined up on a folding card table but the door, Madi reminded herself that it wasn’t cool to be on time to things. Junior high had been confusing since day one, but Madi had been paying attention for the last seven months, trying to navigate it all as best she could. Her brother, Kit, had told her that she just needed to notice the things that made people happy and try to do more of that, and she knew she could trust Kit.
He was definitely one of the cool kids. Even among the cool-by-default eighth graders. No one in the world disliked Kit Morgan, even though he had gotten a lot more mature and serious since last year. He had about a million friends.
Madi didn’t understand how he did it. She had a couple of school friends, like the girl whose locker was next to hers and sometimes ate lunch with her, but Madi had never had friends the way Kit did. Friends like Oliver and Ben, who hung out after school and had sleepovers and went to the movies. Kit was almost never alone, except when he and Madi rode their bikes to the library or the corner store to get candy bars. Even then, Oliver was with them a lot of the time because he and Kit had been friends Madi’s whole life.
All of that was why Madi decided to throw this party, so she could find someone to do all those things with her so she didn’t bug her cool older brother anymore. She had even told Kit to go somewhere else so he wouldn’t feel like he had to hang around and pretend to have fun.
Maybe princess things weren’t cool anymore? Madi was twelve now, and honestly she hadn’t been all that into princesses for a while, but Mom found all the decorations on sale and said the lady at the store told her that her daughter had just thrown a princess party and it was a raging success.
Madi probably should have asked how old the daughter was; she was starting to suspect it was a six-year-old.
“It’s okay,” Madi told herself, sitting down on the couch so she wouldn’t keep fidgeting with the decorations. “No one has to wear a tiara. We can just paint our nails and do the face masks.”
Spa nights were a thing, according to her eavesdropping in the halls at school. Mani pedis and facials. (Madi had to look those up on the internet, not an easy feat when she thought the girls were saying Manny petting, something Ask Jeeves didn’t understand.)
One thirty. Fear started bubbling up in Madi’s chest. Had she put the wrong time on the invitations? No, because she had been double checking it all week. Right time, right address, right number of exclamation points. She had handed out almost forty invitations last week, personalizing each of them.
“Hey, sweetie.” Mom sounded like she did when she was trying not to wake Dad up whenever he fell asleep in front of the TV. “No one’s made it yet?”
Tears filled Madi’s eyes, but she tried to hold them back. “They’re just being fashionably late.” She didn’t even know what being late had to do with fashion.
“I’m sure they are, Mads. I’ll go reheat the pizza in the oven.”
“Thanks, Mom. I’m sure they’ll be here any minute.”
That was a lot harder to say at two o’clock, but Madi still tried. There had to be an explanation. She went outside and checked the street, thinking maybe there was something blocking the road, but the street was empty in both directions. Had the city been evacuated for some reason? Or maybe there was a huge car accident on the busy street two blocks south so no one could get into the neighborhood.
Madi blinked, her tears finally falling. Three of the kids she’d invited lived in the neighborhood. One girl was just a block away and could have walked.
As she stumbled inside, Madi wrapped her arms around herself and stopped in front of the table full of crowns. She’d told Mom to just buy fifteen of them because she knew not everyone would be able to come.
What if Suzy found out she made the wrong kind of cake and told everyone that it would go to their hips so they wouldn’t want to come?
Mom’s sympathetic voice broke the dam, and Madi exploded into sobs. “No one is coming because I picked chocolate cake,” she cried, and then she ran, pushing past Mom and darting up the stairs to her room.
Most of her clothes were on the floor because she hadn’t been able to decide what to wear, so the closet door wouldn’t close behind her. That just made her cry harder, and she tugged at the door as hard as she could until it dragged over a sweater and slammed shut. She stumbled, crashing into the wall, but she didn’t even care that it hurt. She just curled up in a ball in the darkness and wished the day was just a bad dream.
Was she really so unlikeable that no one came to her birthday party? That answer seemed to be a loud and resound yes.
She didn’t know how long she’d been in the closet before someone knocked softly on the door.
“I just want to be alone, Mom,” she mumbled.
“It’s me, Mads.”
“Kit?” Madi opened her eyes. Not that she could see anything. She could just make out her brother’s shadow in the light coming from the bottom of the door. Sniffling, she wiped her nose on her sleeve. “I thought you were at the fun center.”
“Oliver wanted to borrow my Air Jordans. He thinks they make him better at laser tag.”
Madi slowly sat up. Oliver was here? Oh, but that meant he probably saw all of her princess decorations. He probably thought she was so lame!
“Madi?” Kit sounded closer now, like he was leaning against the door. “Are you okay?”
No, she wasn’t, but Kit didn’t know what it was like to not have anyone show up to his birthday party. His last party had filled the whole backyard just like parties did in the movies because that was the kind of guy Kit was. He was never awkward or overexcited about things, and he knew exactly how to make people happy.
“You can keep crying, you know. I think this deserves a good cry, and I’m here if you need a shoulder or anything.”
Madi wasn’t about to cry on her brother’s shoulder, but she did sit in the closet for a long time, letting it all out until she felt better. Kit was good at that, making things better, and she was glad that he was there offering silent support.
When she finally opened the closet door, she felt like she had completely drained herself of fluids. She knew she looked terrible, but Kit was smiling as he lay on the floor using one of her sweatshirts as a pillow.
“Feel better?” he asked.
Madi shrugged. “I guess? Mostly, I just feel stupid.”
He sat up, eyebrows high. “Why? Crying is really good for you. It releases chemicals or something. Besides, if anyone should feel stupid, it’s all the dumb sixth graders who didn’t show up to the coolest party of the year. I bet if you had invited people from my grade, they all would have come.”
Madi rolled her eyes, though she secretly loved that he was trying to make her feel better. She grabbed his hand and tried to pull him up to his feet. “Geez, Kit, you weigh a ton!”
“It’s not my fault. I grow like an inch a week.” He let her keep pulling until she gave up, and then he hopped to his feet and followed her down the hall. “I mean it, though. Your party looks awesome.”
“You’re only saying that because you feel bad for me,” Madi argued, and then she stopped dead when she saw two people sitting in the living room with their pant legs rolled up and sparkly foam separators squished between their toes.
Two guys, specifically. One was Kit’s friend Ben, and the other looked like he was in high school. Madi had never seen him before, but he looked super intimidating and mean.
Or, he would have if he wasn’t squinting at two bottles of nail polish as he held them up. “I can’t decide between this coral pink or this teal-looking one.”
Ben was already in the middle of painting one of his toes purple, though he paused to look at the colors the other guy was holding. “I like the pink one, but I don’t think it’s your color.”
The big guy scoffed. “What would you know? I can totally pull off pink.”
“Not that shade, though. Maybe that hot pink one?” He pointed, but then he caught sight of Madi and Kit and blushed hard, like he always did whenever Madi was around.
She blushed right on back because Ben was seriously cute. He was also one of the nicest people Madi had ever met, so it was hard not to crush on him. Not, like, a real crush. She’d known him for almost three years now and knew he would never go for someone like her, but it was fun to imagine meeting someone like him someday.
“Uh, hi, Madi,” Ben said, carefully screwing the cap onto his bottle of polish. “I hope this is okay. Kit said we could help ourselves, and I wanted to ask you first but I wasn’t sure if…” He grimaced. “Sorry about your party.”
“It’s okay,” Madi murmured.
“It’s really not,” Kit argued. “I kind of want to punch the kids in your classes.”
“You can’t punch worth crap, Morgan,” the big guy said with a roll of his eyes. Then he held the bottles of polish toward Madi. “Which color should I do?”
“Madi,” Kit said, “this is my friend Cam Martinez. Cam, this is my little sister, Madi.”
“Stop trying to sound cooler than you are, Martinez,” someone new said, and Madi turned just as Oliver bounded into the living room from wherever he’d been. He had a habit of making himself at home whenever he was here, which was often. He high fived Madi as he passed and then grabbed the pink polish out of Cam’s hand. “No one says ’sup.”
Cam scowled at him. “I do,” he grumbled. “And I was going to use that color. Where did you disappear to, anyway?”
“I had to go get something. Ben, was he really going to use the pink?”
Ben turned his full focus to his toes as he resumed painting. “I told him he should use the other one because it will complement his skin color better.”
“You should listen to him,” Oliver told Cam as he kicked off his shoes. “He’s a super good artist.”
“Really? Can I see something you’ve done?”
“Kit!” Oliver held up his hand. “Throw me one of those crown thingies. I want to match my toes to the jewel.”
Kit obliged, sending a tiara flying across the room, and Madi felt like she had stepped into the Twilight Zone. What in the world was happening?
“Kit,” she whispered, grabbing his sleeve. “You guys don’t have to do this. I’m fine.”
He laughed. “There’s no way I’m getting in the way of these three and their pretty toes.”
“I can’t believe you told your friends to paint their toes.”
Madi waved her arm over the three guys as evidence that her brother was totally lying.
But Kit just grinned and settled a tiara on his head. “Don’t blame me,” he said brightly. “I was talking about the cupcakes when I said they could help themselves, and I’m honestly surprised Cam is doing it. It doesn’t really seem his style.”
“Why haven’t I met Cam yet?” With the way Kit was acting, Cam seemed like a pretty good friend.
Shrugging, Kit slipped out of his shoes and started pulling his socks off. “We haven’t been friends very long. He came over for dinner the other night, but you were sick that night.”
Madi had thought she heard a voice that wasn’t Dad or Kit, but she’d figured it was Oliver; he was here more often than he was at his own house. Thank goodness she hadn’t decided to go downstairs despite being super nauseous.
As Kit settled on the floor next to Ben and said something that made all three of his friends laugh, Madi tried to understand what was happening. Maybe she didn’t know Cam, but she could tell just by looking at him he was one of the cool kids, just like Kit. And Oliver was the definition of cool; anytime she saw him in the halls at school, he was surrounded by girls, especially if Ben was with him. They were like magnets for girls. Why would they be having fun at a lame princess party no one had come to?
“Mads!” Oliver raised his eyebrows at her. “Are you coming? This is your party, after all. I promise Cam doesn’t bite.”
Cam actually winced as Madi slowly approached. “I really don’t. Not people, anyway.”
Oliver snorted. “What is that supposed to mean? Do you go around biting cats or something?” He patted the couch next to him, telling Madi she should sit with him.
She was glad he was helping her feel more comfortable. She liked Ben but hadn’t interacted with him a ton, and Cam was still a little bit scary. She had always been comfortable around Oliver, like he was another brother.
“I’m really glad you’re here,” she told him, keeping her voice low. She grabbed five different bottles of polish, deciding to do rainbow toes since she didn’t need to worry about having enough bottles to go around.
Oliver nudged his shoulder into hers. “I wouldn’t miss my little sister’s birthday party.”
“Uh, she’s my sister, Hamilton,” Kit said sharply. “I’m not letting you steal her from me.”
Madi’s chest warmed. She had definitely lucked out in the brother department.
“Yeah, but I don’t have a sister,” Oliver argued. “And even if I did, she wouldn’t be as cool as Madi.” He looked at her, and his eyes looked green today. Sometimes they looked brown, but not today. “Can I adopt you, Mads?”
She bit the inside of her lips, too overwhelmed to answer his question. Overwhelmed in a good way. She loved having Oliver around, and it was nice to know he liked her just as much as she liked him.
“I already have four sisters,” Ben said without looking up from his toes. He seemed to be making some sort of design on his, though Madi couldn’t see it from where she was sitting. “But I wouldn’t mind having another one,” he added, throwing Madi a grin and a wink. “You’re definitely cool.”
How was a girl supposed to function with totally popular and attractive guys saying such nice things? Girls like her weren’t supposed to interact with guys like them. Only girls like Suzy Preston had eighth-grader friends.
Cam smiled sheepishly. “I probably haven’t made a good first impression, but I always wanted a sister. Can I adopt you too?”
Madi looked at Kit, who seemed just as happy about this idea as Madi. His grin was huge, and he was looking at his three friends like he already considered them his brothers. Madi had been blessed with a brother like Kit, and she couldn’t imagine how it felt to be picked by him. These boys had no idea how lucky they were.
“Sure, Cam,” she said, opening the bottle of red polish to start on her big toes. “You can be one of the Wonder Boys.”
“One of the what?”
Oliver snorted another laugh. “Wonder Boys. It’s what Madi called Kit when they were little, and she started calling me that too a few years ago. Ben didn’t have to wait to be cool like us; he got it immediately.”
Cam pulled his eyebrows low, glancing between Oliver and Madi. “What is that, like Wonder Woman?”
“She’s the coolest,” Madi whispered, feeling her face heat. It was probably lame to still like a superheroine, but at least it wasn’t a princess. Well, not technically. “I want to be her when I grow up.”
“Who doesn’t?” Cam said with a shrug. Then he tested out the name a few times. “Wonder Boys. Wonder Boys. Wonder Boys. It kinda sounds like a laser tag team name or something.”
“I’m still so curious to see if you’re any good at laser tag,” Kit said. He stuck his tongue between his teeth as he began painting.
“What is Cam’s laser name going to be, Captain Morgan?” Oliver asked.
Cam frowned. “Don’t I get to pick my own name?”
“Nope,” Ben said, cocking his head as he examined his toes.
“I’ll have to see him in action first,” Kit said.
Oliver laughed. “Didn’t you see plenty of action when he punched you in the nose a few weeks ago?”
Wait, Cam had been the guy who punched Kit? He’d gotten into a fight a few weeks ago and ended up in detention, and Mom had been so mad at him. But if Cam was the one who beat him up, why were they friends?
Her questions must have been written all over her face because all four boys blushed and became super focused on their toes all of a sudden.
“We can go next weekend,” Kit said as he adjusted his glasses.
Oh, Madi had almost forgotten that Kit and his friends had been planning on going to play laser tag before they found her failed birthday party. “You guys don’t have to stay,” she said quietly, keeping her head down. “You can go to the fun center if you want to. You don’t need to do all this birthday stuff.” When no one said anything, she looked up.
“But there are cupcakes,” Ben said, looking almost miserable.
“And I wanted to know what that game with the balloons is so I can beat Oliver at it,” Cam said.
Oliver nudged her shoulder again. “We’re not going anywhere, Mads. You’re our sister now, which means you’re stuck with us.”
“You okay with that?” Kit asked, lifting an eyebrow.
Okay with that? Madi was pretty sure she was about to start crying again because she couldn’t imagine a better birthday gift than these Wonder Boys. What more could a girl need?