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"Is everything all right?" Raina St. James asked as soon as Kathleen McKensie had climbed into the car and shut the door.
"Sure," Kathleen said halfheartedly, turning her head so that Raina couldn't see her eyes filling with moisture. "Everything's fine. It's hard coming here, that's all." She had just toured the inside of her home while her friends waited for her in the car. She'd gone from room to room checking everything out, as she had every day for the past few weeks. Nothing was disturbed. Everything looked orderly and, except for some dust buildup, seemed the same as when she had been living there.
From the backseat, Holly Harrison reached out and patted Kathleen's shoulder. "Your mom won't be in the hospital forever. Didn't you say Dr. Kiefer was thinking of transferring her to the rehab center this week?"
Kathleen nodded, still gazing longingly out the car window at the front of her home. "It's just that I can't remember one time that my mom wasn't around for a first day of school. Ever since kindergarten."
"Well, we're here for you now, girlfriend," Raina said, backing her car out of the driveway.
"And . . . and I appreciate it," Kathleen said, finding a tissue and dabbing her eyes. She knew that Raina could have gone to school that morning with her boyfriend, Hunter, Holly's brother, but Raina had elected instead to face day one of their junior year with her best friends. Twisting in her seat, Kathleen told Holly, "And I know your mom tried hard to make the day special for us. It was nice of her to make waffles for breakfast because she knows I like them."
For the past several weeks, while her mother recovered from heart surgery, Kathleen had lived with Holly and her family. Because her father had died tragically years before, she and Mary Ellen had only each other. It had been fun being a part of Holly's family, but Kathleen was ready to go home. Only, her mother had weeks of rehabilitation to go through first, and Kathleen had to remain at Holly's.
"Mom lives to force-feed her family," Holly said, bulging her cheeks out in an exaggerated imitation of overeating. "I could have done just fine with cereal. The first day of school always makes me nervous, and when I'm nervous, I get sick to my stomach."
"Not in my car," Raina said, glancing in the rearview mirror at Holly. "Day one makes me excited," she added. "According to my schedule sheet, I can meet Hunter between three classes."
"Whoopee," Holly said without enthusiasm. "We get to meet him coming out of the bathroom every morning. Not a pretty sight."
This made Kathleen smile. "It's not that bad, Raina."
"And don't think I'm not jealous about it either." Raina was crazy about Hunter, now a senior at their high school, and she couldn't imagine facing the next year without him when he went off to college. "Speaking of boyfriends, what do you hear from Carson? I guess today's his first day too."
"He called last night," Kathleen said. "To wish me luck." Since Carson Kiefer attended the prestigious Bryce Academy on the other side of Tampa, she didn't expect to see him often. She figured it was only a matter of time before he forgot about her completely. Wasn't that what the nasty-tempered Stephanie Marlow had predicted to Kathleen at the end-of-the-year banquet for the Pink Angels hospital volunteers just a couple of weeks before?
The words buzzed in her memory. "Don't think that just because he's fooled around with you all summer, I'm out of the picture. This has happened before, you know. He finds some new little plaything for a few months and keeps himself busy. But he always comes back to me."
"Why don't you invite him to our first football game next Friday night? You can double with me and Hunter." Raina's voice pulled Kathleen into the present.
"Maybe I will. He told me he likes the two of you."
"Hey!" Holly interjected from the backseat. "What about me? Who will I go to the game with if you all double?"
"Is there anyone you could ask? We could make it a triple date," Raina said.
"As if my father will allow me to date anyone. I'll be an old dried-up prune before Dad ever lets go." Holly rolled her eyes. Mike Harrison was known for his strictness, especially when it came to Holly. Since she was the youngest of her friends and wouldn't be sixteen until mid-May, she knew she was facing another dateless year. "Is it going to be like this all year?" she groused. "You two running off on dates and me sitting home all alone?"
"We still have our volunteer jobs at the hospital," Raina offered. "We'll be together then."
"And don't think I'm not glad about it, but that's only two afternoons a week."
"And on Saturdays, if you want. I know I'm going to volunteer most Saturdays," Raina said. Hunter worked on Saturdays at a fast-food place, so she'd already decided to volunteer at the hospital while he was busy, because it allowed her to miss him less. "What do you say?"
"Count me in," Holly said, still unhappy about her solo status. "Anything's better than hanging around the house being bored and getting into my parents' way."
"I don't think I can commit," Kathleen said. "At least not until Mom's home and I see what her needs are going to be." Even before Carson's father had performed heart surgery on Mary Ellen, Kathleen had hesitated to be away from her mother too long. Because Mary Ellen was a victim of multiple sclerosis and Kathleen was her primary caregiver, much of her mother's care fell on Kathleen's shoulders.
"Well, don't let her tie you down too much," Raina said in a lecturing tone. "You're just now getting a real life."
"Raina . . ." Kathleen's voice held a warning note.
"Just a caution," Raina added quickly. By now they were in front of the high school, and she whipped the car into the student parking lot, which was already filling with returning students' vehicles. "I have to go to the office and get a parking permit for this school year," she announced.