One by one they all made their excuses.
Crap. Now she’d have to ride the bus. And as if that weren’t bad enough, she’d have to go to yet another college fair as the only kid without a parent.
When the food was gone, the crowd drifted away, leaving Lauren and David alone at the table.
"Can you get there by yourself? Maybe I could fake a cold–"
"No. If I had grandparents, I’d love to go visiting." She felt a tiny sting at the confession. How often had she dreamed of going to Grandma’s, or meeting a cousin? She would have done almost anything to meet an honestto-God relative.
"I’ll bet Angie would take you. She seemed pretty cool."
Lauren thought about that. Was it possible? Could she ask Angie for that big a favor? "Yeah," she said, just so David wouldn’t worry. "I’ll ask her."
David’s remark stayed with Lauren all the rest of that day and into the next. She was unused to having someone of whom she could ask a favor. It would make her look vaguely pathetic, she knew, might even prompt questions about her mother. Normally that would be reason enough to just forget the whole thing and take the bus.
But Angie was different. She seemed to really care.
By the end of the week, Lauren still hadn’t made up her mind. On Friday, she worked hard, moving quickly from table to table, keeping the customers happy. Whenever she could, she caught a glimpse of Angie, tried to gauge how a request would be received, but Angie was a butterfly all night, flitting from place to place, talking to each patron. Twice Lauren had started to ask the question, but on both times, she’d lost her nerve and turned away abruptly.
"Okay," Angie said as she was closing up the register for the night. "Spill the beans, kiddo."
Lauren was filling the salt shakers. At the question she flinched. Salt went flying across the table.
"That’s bad luck," Angie said. "Throw some salt over your left shoulder. Quick."
Lauren pinched some salt between her thumb and forefinger and tossed it over her shoulder.
"Whew. That was close. We could have been struck by lightning. Now, what’s on your mind?"
"That space between your ears. You’ve been staring at me all night, following me around. I know you, Lauren. You have something you want to say. You need Saturday night off? The new waitress is working out. I could spare you if you and David have a date."
This was it. Now or never.
Lauren went back to her backpack and pulled out a flyer, which she handed to Angie.
"California schools … question-and-answer session … meet with representatives. Hmm." Angie looked up. "They didn’t have any of this cool stuff when I was a kid. So you want Saturday off so you can go?"
"I-want-to-go-could-you-give-me-a-ride?" Lauren said it in a rush.
Angie frowned at her.
This had been a bad idea. Angie was giving her that poor Lauren, so pathetic look. "Never mind. I’ll just take the day off, okay?" Lauren reached down for her backpack.
"I like Portland," Angie said.
Lauren looked up. "You do?"
"You’ll take me?" Lauren said, almost afraid to believe it.
"Of course I’ll take you. And Lauren? Don’t be such a chicken next time. We’re friends. Doing favors for each other comes with the territory."
Lauren was embarrassed by how much that meant to her. "Sure, Angie. Friends."
THE TRAFFIC FROM VANCOUVER TO PORTLAND WAS stop-and-go. It wasn’t until they were halfway across the bridge that connected Washington to Oregon that they realized why. This afternoon was the big UW-UO football game. The Huskies versus the Ducks. A rivalry that had gone on for years.
"We’re going to be late," Angie said for at least the third time in the last twenty minutes. It was alarming how angry that made her. She’d undertaken the obligation to get Lauren to the appointment on time and now they were going to be late.
"Don’t worry about it, Angie. So we miss a few minutes. It’s hardly a trauma."
Angie flicked on the turn signal and veered left onto their exit. Finally.
Once they were on the surface streets, the traffic eased. She zipped down one street and up the other, then pulled into an empty parking stall. "We’re here." She looked at the dashboard clock. "Only seven minutes late. Let’s run."
They raced across the parking lot and into the building.
The place was packed.
"Damn." Angie started to walk down to the front. They could sit on the step if nothing else. Lauren grabbed her hand, led her to a seat in the back row.
On stage there were about fifteen people seated behind a long conference table. A moderator was facilitating a discussion of entrance requirements, school selectivity, in-state to out-of-state student ratios.
Lauren wrote down every word in her day planner.
Angie felt a strange sort of pride. If she’d had a daughter, she would have wanted her to be just like Lauren. Smart. Ambitious. Dedicated.
For the next hour, Angie listened to one statistic after the other. By the end of the presentation she knew one thing for sure: She wouldn’t have been accepted to UCLA these days. In her era, you’d needed to be breathing without a respirator and have a 3.0 grade point average. Now to get into Stanford you better have cured some disease or won the National Science Fair. Unless, of course, you were good at throwing leather balls. Then you needed a solid 1.7 grade point.
Lauren closed her notebook. "That’s it," she said.
All around them, people were rising, moving toward the exit aisles. The combined conversation was a loud roar in the room.
"So, what did you find out?" Angie asked, staying in her seat. There was no point merging into the ambulatory traffic.
"That in the public schools almost ninety percent of the students come from in-state. And tuition is on its way up."
"Well, you’re definitely having one of those the-glassis-half-empty moments. That’s not like you."
Lauren sighed. "It’s tough sometimes … going to Fir-crest Academy. All my friends are picking the schools they like. I have to figure out how to get the schools to like me."
"It sounds like the essay is a big part of that."
"Yeah. Too bad I can’t get, like, Jerry Brown or Arnold Schwarzenegger to write one for me. As it is, I hope Mr. Baxter–my math teacher–can rock their socks off. Unfortunately, he forgets where the blackboard is half of the time."
Angie glanced down at the stage. The folks from Loyola-Marymount, USC, and Santa Clara were still there. They were sitting at the tables, talking to one another.
"What’s your first choice?" she asked Lauren.
"USC, I guess. It’s David’s second-choice school."
"I am not even going to get into the conversation about following your boyfriend to school. Okay, I lied. It’s a bad idea. Don’t follow your boyfriend to college. Now come on." She stood up.
Lauren put her day planner in her backpack and got up. "Where are you going?" she said when Angie headed downstairs instead of up.
She grabbed Lauren’s hand. "We did not drive all this way to be in the peanut gallery."
Lauren tried to draw back, but Angie was a freight train. She went down the stairs, around the orchestra pit, and onto the stage. Dragging Lauren behind her, she marched up to the man from USC.
He looked up, smiled tiredly. No doubt he was used to mothers hauling their children on stage. There was no way for him to know that Angie wasn’t a mom. "Hello. How can I help you?"
"I’m Angela Malone," she said, offering her hand. When he shook it, she said, "I’m a UCLA girl myself, but Lauren here has her heart set on SC. I can’t imagine why."
The man laughed. "That’s a new approach. Knocking my school." He looked at Lauren. "And who are you?"
She blushed deeply. "L-Lauren Ribido. Fircrest Academy."
"Ah. Good school. That helps." He smiled at her. "Don’t be nervous. Why SC?"
Angie hadn’t known that. She smiled, feeling like a proud parent.
"Think you’re the next Woodward or Bernstein, huh?" the man said. "How are your grades?"
"Top six percent of the class. About a 3.92 with lots of honors classes."
"Last year I got a 1520. I took it again, though. Those scores aren’t in."
"A score of 1520 is impressive enough. You do sports and volunteer in your community?"
"And she works twenty to twenty-five hours a week," Angie put in.
Angie made her move. "Do you know William Layton?"
"The dean of the business school? Sure. He’s from around here, isn’t he?"
Angie nodded. "I went to school with his daughter. What if he wrote Lauren a recommendation?"
The man looked at Lauren, then pulled a small brass carrier out of his back pocket. "Here’s my card. You send your app. to me personally. I’ll shepherd it through." To Angie, he said, "A recommendation from Layton would really help."
LAUREN STILL COULDN’T BELIEVE IT. SHE KEPT BREAKING into laughter for no reason. Somewhere around Kelso, Angie had asked her to please stop saying thank you.
But how could she? For the first time in her life, she’d been treated like Someone.
She had a chance at USC. A chance.
She looked at Angie. "Thanks. I mean it," she said again, bouncing in her seat.
"I know. I know." Angie laughed. "You act like this is the first time anyone’s ever done you a favor. It was nothing."
"Oh, it was something," Lauren said, feeling her smile fade. It meant so much to her, what Angie had done. For once, Lauren hadn’t been on her own.
THE HIGH SCHOOL CAMPUS WAS BUZZING WITH TALK today. It was the third week of November and the college admission application process was in high gear. Everyone was obsessed with college. It was in every conversation. Lauren had filled out all her financial aid and scholarship paperwork, gotten all her transcripts together, and written all her essays. And miracle of miracles, Angie had gotten her a recommendation from Dr. Layton at USC. She was beginning to believe she had a real shot at a scholarship.
"Did you hear about Andrew Wanamaker? His grandpa got him into Yale. Early decisions aren’t even out yet and he knows." Kim Heltne leaned back against a tree, sighing. "If I don’t get into Swarthmore, my dad will crap. He doesn’t care that I hate snow."
They were all sitting in the quad, eating lunch, the "gang" who’d been best friends since freshman year.
"I’d kill for Swarthmore," Jared said, rubbing Kim’s back. "I’m supposed to go to Stone Hill. Another private Catholic school. I’m afraid I’ll go postal."
Lauren lay back, rested her head in David’s lap. For once, the sun was shining and the grass was thick and dry. Even though it was cold out, the sun warmed her cheeks.
"It’s Mom’s alma mater for me," Susan said. "Yippee. William and Mary, here I come. This high school is bigger than the college."
"How’s it going for you, Lauren? Any word on scholarships?" Kim asked.
Lauren shrugged. "I keep filling out the paperwork. One more why-I-deserve-it essay and I might scream."