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By the time they arrived at Marilyn’s van, Lizzie felt she had a general idea of how to use her new phone.
“Look who showed up today,” teased their driver, her teal eyes locking on Lizzie. “You know, if you had a different ride, you could’ve just said something to one of these clowns. I thought Mona was going to kill me!”
“I’m sorry, Mair!” the teen wailed, leaning over the center console to hug her after-school guardian. “Mona didn’t really give you a hard time, did she? She’s known about it since last week!”
“Nah, I didn’t actually get any heat over it,” she winked, gesturing for her passengers to buckle up. Kaine, who had called shotgun on their way to the lot, occupied the seat next to Marilyn; Gavin had lowered one of the middle-row seats into a floor compartment, allowing him and Tawni access to the third row. “If anything, I gave her shit over not giving me a head’s up. The only reason I give these losers the time of day is because Gavin drives you home every night.”
“I thought it was because you live in the same neighborhood as us losers, babysat us when we were kids, and love us like we were your own children?” Kaine challenged as Lizzie maneuvered her way around the seats to join their friends in the far back.
“Pretty sure you’re still kids and this arrangement is just a different form of babysitting,” she quipped, spying the empty middle row. “Speaking of babies, where are the littler kids?”
“Benji sent me a text saying they and Gabby had to wait behind for Koji,” relayed Tawni. “He was being chewed out for skipping so much.”
“Well, they better hurry the hell up!” Marilyn huffed and pulled up her own phone. “With everyone headed to the coronation, there will probably be so much traffic that we’ll just barely make it on time–if we leave in the next few minutes.”
Kaine sucked in a sudden breath when he saw her phone. “Oh my god, what did you do to your case?”
“Remember when Mrs. Dimaculangan gave me that box full of craft shit?” Marilyn recalled. “It had all these cabochons of cartoon characters, and tiny fake jewels, and scraps of ribbon and lace and other fabric. I read in an old magazine that you can take boring phone cases and decorate them yourself using a hot glue gun. I thought I’d give it a shot.”
She turned the phone around and held it up so the teens in the backseat could see her masterpiece. Marilyn had expertly covered her case in jewels, glittery resin hearts, and the round white head of an iconic cat wearing a black bow. The girls gushed at the sight, while the boy nodded approvingly.
“That’s so cool!” praised Tawni. “Mair, can you do my case too? Please?”
“Mine too!” Lizzie joined in.
“What’s in it for me?”
The teens exchanged puzzled glances. “Um… What do you want?”
“Well, I’d like to have a night alone with Walter,” she remarked. “But it’s kind of hard to do that when I’m stuck watching Carmen’s little brothers damn-near every night–”
“Oh no, not those little monsters!” The Tech Wiz interjected. “I had to rebuild my computer after the last time they came over–besides, Carmen’s a bitch. I don’t want to do her any favors.”
“Wait, Carmen Mantovani?” Lizzie inquired, recalling Mona and Monty’s gossiping from the night before. Frankie had gotten flack from the Council of Elders for dating a human named Carmen, but they backed off after Aunt Des gave him her blessing.
“Yeah, you know her?” Marilyn asked.
“No, I’ve never met her,” she clarified. “But I heard she’s dating Frankie Alagona, and Frankie’s really nice. Is she really that bad?”
The young woman snickered. “Nah, she’s cool. Tawni’s just jealous that Carmen snagged the hottest angel in the colony.”
“Wait–Lizzie, are you saying you know Frankie?” Tawni probed, her interest mounting. “You didn’t join our colony until a year after his coronation–how’d you meet him?”
“Through Mona,” she shrugged, suddenly feeling the weight of her words. Do they seriously not know who Mona’s related to? “We only met a few times, and it’s been years since I saw him last.”
She turned back to Marilyn. “I’m sure I’ve handled worse kids than Carlo and Cosmo, Mair–I can watch them for you sometime this week.”
“Thanks, babe!” She winked at Lizzie through the rearview mirror. “Send me one of those text-thingies with your phone measurements and things you want on there, and I should have it done by Friday.”
“Thank you!” Lizzie squealed in delight. “When do you need me to cover for you–?”
Tawni pouted over their exchange, her gaze wandering over to Gavin, who had been silently fiddling over his phone since they arrived. “How far did you get?”
“How the hell–?” she leaned in closer to observe his game. “I’m stuck at nineteen. Having jelly and limited moves in the same level is cruel and unusual.”
“It’s the same as level eighteen, but less jelly and more moves,” he pointed out. “If I can do it, you can do it.”
It was at that moment that the younger members of their group joined them. Benjamin hopped in first, pulling off their beanie as they scooted to the furthest seat of the middle row. “Hey, sorry we’re late. Blame Koji.”
“Hi Benji!” Lizzie reached over and poked the freshman affectionately before turning to the next arrival. “Hi Gabby!”
Gabriella climbed in after Tawni’s sibling, waving at the upperclassman as she took the middle seat. “Lizzie! I missed you!”
“Missed you too,” Lizzie smiled. Gavin’s younger sister was the sweetest out of their friend group, looking up to her older peers while giving her classmates the benefit of the doubt–like Koji.
Koji pulled the last seat out of its hole, nodding to Lizzie as he locked it in place. “I know, we’re late. All my fault.”
“You shouldn’t skip so much, Koji,” warned Marilyn. “You come to school for a reason, you know?”
“You and Kent used to skip and hook up in the gym,” he provoked as he slammed the van door shut. “How is that any different?”
Her face became flushed with color as she countered, “Okay, first of all, I cannot believe your brother told you that–”
“He didn’t, Lorena Di Napoli said her sister told her.”
“Micaela? Seriously?” Marilyn pulled out of their spot and followed the fast-moving procession out of the parking lot. “That bitch, I told her that in confidence!”
“Wait, you and Kent? Really?” Kaine guffawed. “Aw, dude! How come no one told me?”
“Shut up, Kaine, or you aren’t bumming any ‘cigs’ off me!” Their driver snapped. “Koji, how your brother and I spent our time two years ago shouldn’t dictate how you spend yours now. Yeah, we did stupid shit like skipping class and getting high in the auditorium–”
“We’re still smoking after this, right?” Gavin pitched in with a smug grin.
“Benji, Gabby?” Their driver warned. “Duck.”
Benji promptly pulled Gabby in close and the two bent over in their seat, dodging the can of de-icer that was pelted toward the rear. Lizzie and Tawni ducked behind Koji, screeching with laughter as their friend raised his arms in defense.
“Ow–Mair, what the fuck? That can’s heavy!”
“It’s only about half-full,” she speculated. “Anyway, you shouldn’t do the stupid shit that I did when I was your age because I ended up missing out on more than boring classes. I missed lectures where the teachers got deep, and goofy interactions with my classmates, and important announcements about school events. I still wish I had gone to the party the school threw for my class.”
Recovering from the giddiness that had erupted across the van, Koji nodded and said, “Yeah, I know. Kent says the same thing… I’ll try to go to class more.”
“And if you ever need any help with homework or a classmate, you know we’ve got your back, right?” Gabriella reminded him with a caring smile. Benjamin met his gaze as well, their forest green eyes exuding warmth on par with Gabby’s visage.
Through his jet black hair, Lizzie could tell that the tips of Koji’s ears had flushed a bright cherry shade. He took to facing out the window as he said, “Yeah, I know. Thanks.”
Their merry band continued discussing nothing in particular as they neared Solomon’s Park, all eager to witness the Jovial ceremony.