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    "Daniel! Danny!"
     Jennifer, who had risen before the sun, had spent the last hour sitting alone in front of the TV with a bowl of cereal while the rest of the household slumbered. She'd waited as long as she could, buzzing with excitement about her impending party, before giving in and starting her round of wake-up calls early.
     "Danny! Time to get up!"




     "Oh my god," she gasped, turning a deep shade of crimson upon realizing that the lump under the covers was not just that of her snoring, drooling big brother. No; Daniel, a notoriously heavy sleeper, wasn't roused by the commotion. Mary-Sue, on the other hand, sat straight up and had to take a couple seconds to adjust to her surroundings.
     "I'm sorry; I didn't realize...I thought you were...mom said that you were staying in the guest bedroom.
     "I, uh, started out in there. But I was having a hard time falling asleep, so I came in here to talk to Daniel."




     "And you fell asleep?"
     "Uh, pretty much. Happy Birthday, though!"
     "...thanks."
     When the conversation lagged, Mary-Sue nudged Daniel sharply with her elbow. He rolled over and looked questioningly up at her. When she tilted her head subtly to the right he followed her cue with his gaze, landing on a sheepish-looking Jennifer. Suddenly wide awake, he joined Mary-Sue in an upright position, pulling the covers up over them. "Jenny! Why are you in here?"
     "I only came in to wake you up!"
     "You didn't knock!"
     "Sorry! I didn't know-" she gestured to Mary-Sue.
     "You know what," Mary-Sue offered before the small argument could have the opportunity to grow. "How 'bout you let us get dressed and we will meet you downstairs?" 
     "Yeah, sure," Jennifer said, still a little flustered. "Ok. I'll, uh, see you soon." She left quickly, shutting the door tightly behind her. 




     "Poor girl will be scarred for life," Mary-Sue said with a smile.
     Daniel chuckled, lacing his fingers through hers. "I'm only glad she waited until morning."
     "Just wait until your mom hears, though. I'm guessing we'll be in for an hour-long lecture about self-restraint and the atrocity that is 'living in sin'. Again."
     "I guess next time we'll have to suck it up and stay in separate rooms," he admitted, mostly to himself. "It sucks, but I can't stand it when my mom preaches from her moral high-ground!"
     "Well," she mused, drawing out the word. She flipped back the covers and stood up, stretching. "Leave the damage control to me; I'll see what I can do."


***




     "Did you sleep alright last night, dear?" Diane asked as she scrubbed the last bits of spilled batter off the stove-top. Her first task that morning had been to whisk together a double-layer vanilla cake which was now baking in the oven. "While you were in the shower I peeked in to make the bed, but it hardly looked slept in."




     Mary-Sue stopped pouring her cereal and let the box dangle at an odd angle. A few flakes fluttered down into the bowl. Her throat went dry. The truth was that she'd only stayed in the spare room for an hour or so, flipping through a couple books before she left to spend the night with Daniel. But she knew that Mrs. Pleasant had spent the last few years deluding herself about the nature of her son's relationship, preferring to believe that it had permanently retained its grade-school innocence, so she swallowed hard and said: "I slept fine, thank you for asking. I was up early and the bed myself this morning."
     Quickly, she glanced over shoulder to see if Jennifer would contradict her story. The young girl flushed, but kept quiet.




     Relieved, Mary-Sue turned back to preparing her breakfast. After hastily running through her ablutions, she'd caught up to Jennifer and offered to style her hair. They'd bonded over a curling iron, Mary-Sue offering answers to all of her rather naive questions and taking the opportunity to stress the importance of keeping certain things just between them.
     Jennifer left the bathroom rather more knowledgeable about the nature of adult relationships and Mary-Sue left with a strengthened sense of camaraderie between them. But, most importantly, they had both agreed that it would go much smoother for all involved if Diane was left in the dark regarding Mary-Sue's sleeping arrangements. 


***




     By two o'clock the party was in full swing; if, by "full swing," you meant drudging along at a rather tedious pace. Everyone, with the addition of two of Jennifer's friends from school, had been gathered together in the family room to watch the birthday girl open her presents which consisted mostly of clip-on earrings, books, and sensible sweaters.
     "That one's from Mary-Sue and me," Daniel said, referring to the brightly-wrapped box she'd just pulled onto her lap.




     "Thanks," she said, taking hold of the corner and tearing enough paper to reveal a bright turquoise and pink case. An inkling of what it contained having formed in her mind, she tore off the rest of the paper and threw it aside. She unlatched the lid and opened it to reveal layer upon layer of eye-shadow, lip-gloss, and blush. She fingered the colorful palettes lovingly, an incredulous expression on her face. "I get makeup?"
     Her friend, Karen, eyed the gift jealously. "Totally cool!"




     Diane exchanged a worried look with her husband. "Now, Jenny," she warned, "why don't we put that up to save for special occasions."




     With hardly a glance in her parents' direction, Jennifer leapt from her spot on the floor and threw her arms around her brother. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
     Daniel laughed at her enthusiasm. "Hey, Mary-Sue is the one that picked it out! Thank her!"
     "Thank you, Mary-Sue!"




     She danced about the room a bit, snatching up her make-up kit before her mother get her claws on it. With a final 'thank you,' she rounded up her friends and led them from the room. Johnny, their other friend, trudged along rather reluctantly. All the way down the hall, Mary-Sue could hear her and Karen squealing over the wide variety of cosmetics packed into the box.
     She smiled to herself. The present had been somewhat of a gamble - she really didn't know the girl very well at all - but it had apparently paid off.




     "Well, I think it's time for the cake," Diane announced, standing up and smoothing her skirt. "Mary-Sue, will you give me a hand?"
     "Of course," she said, rising as well




     "In the future, I think it would be best if you ran Jennifer's presents by me beforehand."
     Mary-Sue gripped the edge of the counter, biting the inside of her cheek in an effort to get through the conversation that she knew was bound to happen. After twenty tense minutes of silent cake frosting there really wasn't any other way it could have gone.
     "I mean, you're not really part of this family so you couldn't have known that Jeff and I don't want her wearing make-up until she's sixteen." Her saccharine tone did nothing to alleviate the sharp sting of her message. "We don't want boys getting the wrong idea about her; she's a good girl."
     "My mother let me start wearing lipstick at thirteen," she countered, stabbing the candles deep into the spongy pastry. "I really don't see anything wrong with it."
     "Well," she said, plunging her hands deep into the sink of soapy water. She swished the pans around a bit, drawing out the pause. "Thank goodness she's my daughter."




     Mary-Sue shoved the rest of the candles into the cake and snatched it up. "Cake's done," she snapped. She exited the kitchen, dropping it onto the dining room table.
     Diane called after her: "Why don't you run upstairs and tell the kids that it's time for cake."
     Mary-Sue rolled her eyes but complied.




     She stomped up the stairs, angrily counting down the minutes until the end of the party. Only a couple hours to go; and they could leave even sooner if they didn't stay for dinner.




     Coming onto the landing, she nearly ran right into Karen who had evidently just come from the bathroom. She motioned to the staircase, "Mrs. Pleasant says it's time for cake."
     "M'kay," she said with a smile, ducking past Mary-Sue to head down to the dining room.




     The door to Jennifer's bedroom had been left wide open and Mary-Sue could hear a few whispers coming from inside. Curiosity got the best of her and, instead of announcing her presence with a knock, she quietly sneaked around the corner and, careful to not make a sound, peeked around to see inside.




     Johnny was fidgeting nervously with a gift that he held in his hands. He tipped it from side to side and tugged on the bow. Jennifer cocked her head to one side, eyeing it with interest. "For me?"
     "Uh, yeah. Happy Birthday, Jennifer," he said with an audible gulp that cut his sentence in half. He held the box out in front of him.
     "But I already opened your present downstairs. You got me a travel book."
     "Uh, this is another present." His voice cracked in the middle, causing him to blush furiously. "Just open it."
     She took the present and carefully pried into the paper. Mary-Sue couldn't see what was inside, but she heard Jennifer suck in a deep breath. "It's beautiful, Johnny!"
     Wiping his palms on his pant-legs, he reached into the box and withdrew a blue butterfly bracelet from several layers of tissue-paper. With shaking hands he managed to hook the clasp around her outstretched wrist. "Do you like it?"




     "I love it!" She flung out her arms and wrapped them around his torso, pinning his arms down to his side. For a couple seconds, he stood there with a stupid, blissful grin but when his eyes met Mary-Sue's his smile dropped and he struggled to push Jennifer off him.
     "Uuh, Jen...look."



     "Cake's ready!" Mary-Sue announced in a chipper voice, coming fully into the room in an attempt to make it seem like she hadn't witnessed their intimate exchange. "Mrs. Pleasant wants you two downstairs."




     They took a few steps apart and answered in unison: "Alright; coming."
     Mary-Sue bit back a smile at Jennifer's freshly made-up face.




     "You know what?" she said, coming even further into the room and grabbing a tissue. She really had to help tone it down a bit. "I think you smudged your mascara a bit. Let me help you with that."


***




Happy Birthday to you,
Happy Birthday to you,





Happy Birthday dear Jennifer;
Happy Birthday to you.



***





     By the time for goodbyes had come, the sky had faded to a dark gray with only a few orange rays permeating the clouds that had rolled in over the course of the afternoon. Daniel and Mary-Sue had packed up their belongings right after Jennifer's friends were picked up by their parents and now the family was gathered outside the front door.




     "Are you sure you can't stay for dinner?" Diane asked, picking an errant thread from Mary-Sue's sweater. "I'm making spaghetti."
     As if that would convince us to stay, she thought. She'd been subjected to Diane's mushy pasta dishes many times in the past and it was always a good day when she could avoid another one. "Unfortunately not," she lamented falsely. "Daniel's got an early practice tomorrow so we'll just grab something on the road."




     "Good luck at your practice tomorrow," Jeff said, shaking his son's hand.
     "Thanks," he muttered. Practice didn't start until after the first of the year, but he could tell that Mary-Sue was close to crying 'freezer bunny'. He wandered away to start the car, ending their brief exchange.




     Mary-Sue turned away from Diane and pulled Jennifer into a hug. "Happy Birthday, hon! It was nice to see you."
     "Thank you for coming!" she said, squeezing tightly. "I really had a lot of fun. I hope we'll see each other again soon."
     "Of course we will!"
     "And thank you for my present!"




     "You're welcome!" she said, pulling away and hopping into the truck with one final wave.
     Daniel shifted into gear and backed out of the driveway. He stepped on the gas and sped down the road out of Pleasantview. Both breathed a sigh of relief, grateful that they'd somehow managed to survive the visit.

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