Erin Downing, Author Erin Downing, Author
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Moon Shadow

Ages 8 & up
Simon & Schuster/Aladdin, May 2017

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Chapter One

“Moon pies are obvious, right, Lucia?” Jonathan Bauer piled an armload of gooey, plastic-wrapped treats into our shopping cart. “Ooh! What about Nutty Bars?” He held a yellow box in front of my face, pleading with his huge, puppy-dog eyes.

I squinted back and asked, “How do Nutty Bars fit with an eclipse theme?”

“They’re awesome?” Jonathan shrugged, then dumped them into the cart. “That must count for something.”

Our friend Anji—short for Anjali—Mehta hollered from the next aisle over, “If we’re going to ignore Lucia’s food rules, then I vote for Doritos over Sun Chips!” I could hear her opening a bag of chips; the crunching echoed in the empty grocery store aisle. “It’s your thirteenth birthday, Lu. Shouldn’t we celebrate in style? Sun Chips are the armpit of the chip section.”

“Come on, you guys,” I pleaded. “Sun Chips, moon pies, Starburst, star fruit . . . How lucky is it that star fruit is even in season somewhere in the world? Can we please stick with the theme?” I poked through our cart, admiring the small pile of outer-space-themed food we were buying for that night’s lunar eclipse. The last total eclipse that had been visible in our little piece of the northeast was on the night I was born. Because of this birth connection, I’d been obsessed with eclipses my whole life, but I hadn’t ever seen one live. “Besides, my dad only gave us twenty bucks. We can’t afford much.”

“Whoa,” Jonathan said, holding up one hand. “Your dad gave you twenty bucks? Nice. Mine gave me nothing.”

“Well, it is my birthday,” I reminded him. “And I didn’t want a cake.”

Jonathan half smiled. “Even if it were my birthday, my dad wouldn’t be handing over a twenty.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I pushed our cart around the corner and grabbed a chip from Anji’s open bag of Doritos. Then I dropped it back in. I always felt guilty eating food I hadn’t yet paid for. “Do you really want to ruin our eclipse feast with Doritos and Nutty Bars? I guarantee there will be other food at Velvet’s party.”

“Ugh. Don’t remind me that we’re going to Velvet’s party to eat this stuff,” Anji moaned. She rolled her eyes and put her hands on her hips, looking fierce in her green miniskirt and yellow tights. “Are you sure you want to go tonight? It feels wrong that this is how you want to celebrate your birthday.”

“I’m sure,” I said, even though I really wasn’t.

Ever since first grade, Velvet Mills—self-appointed queen of the “Chosen Ones”—had hosted a huge annual party that every kid in our grade was invited to. In third grade she’d had a pool party at a fancy hotel. In fourth her parents rented out a whole bowling alley and let everyone order food off the menu. Last year, in sixth grade, Velvet’s mom hired a party planner to turn their backyard into a full-on beach with sand and tiki lights and everything. There were hula dancers wiggling around, and this chubby guy hung out all night roasting a whole pig over a fire. Her parties were seriously over-the-top. Everyone talked about them for the rest of the year—which is exactly what Velvet wanted. She was the kind of person who lived to be loved and admired. Velvet was also one of the girls in our grade who nearly every other girl longed to be. Her dad was the chairman of Peep Records, she wore clothes you couldn’t buy at a regular mall, and she oozed the kind of cool confidence I’ll never have.

Until a few months ago there wouldn’t have been any question about me going to my former-BFF’s big fall bash. I used to do everything Velvet did, without a second thought. But that all changed last summer. Still, there were some parts of my old life I wasn’t willing to let go. “We don’t want to be the only seventh graders who don’t show up. Trust me. Besides, the Millses have a killer roof deck where we’ll have an amazing view of the eclipse.” I folded my hands together and begged. “Pretty please . . . come with me?”

“You’re telling me you want to go to Velvet’s party because of a roof deck?” Anji sighed. She knew just enough about my history with Velvet that she couldn’t stand my former best friend. I had only been hanging out with Anji and Jonathan for a month and a half—since the first week of seventh grade— but I had already discovered they were both unfailingly loyal. It’s what I loved most about them. It’s also what made them so different from Velvet. “Velvet doesn’t deserve to have you there. You need to move on and get out of her shadow. Am I wrong?”

“No,” I mumbled. “You’re not wrong.” But I was just being agreeable. Even though Velvet had hurt me, deep down I didn’t really want to believe that we would never be friends again or that my life would never go back to the way it once was. Velvet had knocked me down, but I guess a piece of me hoped that showing up at this party would be a good first step to show her that she couldn’t keep me down. “But I still want to go. We can hide out on the roof deck with our eclipse treats.”

Jonathan pulled a few random things out of our cart and stacked them on an empty store shelf. “Fine, no Nutty Bars,” he muttered. “Meanie.” He pushed his scruffy hair behind his ears and pouted, his head hanging heavy and low.

“I’m sorry!” My cheeks were flaming. I hated fighting, and I didn’t want Jonathan or Anji to think I was a bully. Our friendship was still new enough that I often worried about ruining things. Reaching for the box of Nutty Bars, I said, “Get whatever you want. It’s no biggie. And we don’t have to go to Velvet’s party if you don’t want to. It was just an idea.”

Anji tugged me toward the beverage coolers, immediately opening a Coke she pulled from the refrigerator. “Listen up, Ms. Frank: You are allowed to be bossy from time to time. Especially on your birthday. So no worries. This is your night.” She grinned at me and said, “Just a hunch, but . . . I bet you made a list of every possible eclipse-themed food ages ago, didn’t you? And now it’s killing you that we’re trying to stray from your plan. Jonathan was teasing.”

“I know.” I forced a smile and nervously rubbed at the moonstone in my pocket, willing it to work its calming magic. The rock was a silly trinket my mom had tucked into my bassinet on the night I was born—an amulet of protection, she had reminded me a hundred times since then. I guess I’m supposed to feel connected to and calmed by the moonstone because I was born during an eclipse. I don’t really buy it, but the stone is pretty—pure milky- white with a soft, greenish glow—and rubbing it usually does have a calming effect. “And no, I did not make a list of eclipse foods. This is spur of the moment, whimsical fun.” I pointed into the cooler. “Look, Sunny Delight! Could there be a more perfect drink for tonight?” I hate Sunny Delight. It makes me gag. But it has the word “sun” in it, which made it perfect for the occasion.

As I set the Sunny D in the cart, Anji reached into my back pocket and pulled out the folded piece of paper I thought I’d so cleverly hidden. She read, “‘Moon pies, Sunny Delight, Sun Chips, Starburst.’ Hmm, that’s funny. This looks like a list to me.” She waved the paper around in the air.

“At least the star fruit was a late addition,” I pointed out. “Karmic kismet.” “What’s karmic kismet?” Jonathan asked.

“It sort of means fate delivered a happy little surprise,” I told him. “A lucky accident. Finding a ripe star fruit is like the universe’s reward for making me wait thirteen years to see my first eclipse. Since it’s happening on my birthday, this whole night is karmic kismet, really.”

“I’m beginning to figure out that nothing in your life is karmic kismet.” Anji batted her eyelashes at me and rubbed one tiny hand through her short, spiky hair. “Do you realize you plan everything? Even bathroom breaks.”

“I do not!” My face blazed with embarrassment. But I so do. Why risk it? Life is full of surprises, and few of them are good. I mean, math pop quizzes, getting your period, broken friendships, your parents’ divorce . . . these are the sorts of things that just sort of sneak up on you. I’d prefer to live off a script, if that were an option. So I plan whatever I can, trying to keep control over as many pieces of my life as possible.

When I was little, my mom used to drag me around to visit her odd collection of friends who were astrologists and psychics and hypnotists and junk. She would lure me to their incense-laden houses with the promise of candy and cable TV, and watch hopefully as they predicted I’d have a long life and a happy family and all the other things a mom might wish for her daughter. Unfortunately, none of Mom’s friends had ever told me exactly how my life would play out, and really, that would have been much more useful. I wish they could have outlined my life for me, put it into a tidy storyline that had moments of significance highlighted in green, so I’d know what to be prepared for.

Jonathan hopped up on the little bar on the back of the cart and twirled an invisible lasso, waiting for Anji to push him down the aisle. She giggled and gave him a shove. While Jonathan sailed toward the ice cream, Anji yelled back, “Second stall in the first floor bathroom, right after third and sixth period.” “Are you still talking about my bathroom schedule?” I cringed, my face getting even warmer. “And how do you even know that?”

Anji shrugged, as though it was normal that we were talking about my bathroom breaks. “I’m your friend. Friends keep tabs on each other. We share everything. I bet your body programs itself with the start of each school year, so you pee at ten fifty and two fifteen, even when you’re home on the weekends. Tell me I’m right.”

I grabbed the cart, pushing it and Jonathan toward the checkout lane. I was eager to get to Velvet’s party and to get off this subject. I could see my sister, Romy, giving me the evil eye from out in the parking lot. She’d agreed to give us ten minutes to shop but promised she would leave us stranded if we were in the store any longer than that. When she first got her driver’s license, Romy had promised to drive me everywhere as soon as she was allowed. She had talked about going to the movies, just the two of us, and driving us both to the pool in the summer. But ever since my parents’ divorce, all her promises had been forgotten. After Mom left, Romy didn’t like to do anything nice unless she was forced or bribed.

“Schedules are nice,” I told Anji. “It’s helpful to be predictable.” Anji and Jonathan exchanged a look and laughed. Sometimes I still felt like an outsider with the two of them. They had gone to a different elementary school from me and had been best friends for years. I still thanked my lucky stars that I had found them after Velvet had stranded me just before middle school began. Sometimes, though, our differences were super obvious. They were both so laid back. I was so not.

While I paid, Anji flipped through the magazine racks. “Check it out—an eclipse story! Landon and Langdon Louis are conjoined twins, connected at the head, who were magically separated during the last lunar eclipse.” She gazed up from her trashy tabloid, eyebrows raised. “Cool.”

“You seem smart, but . . . ,” Jonathan started, trailing off. He pulled a dime from the depths of his pockets to round out my cash pool. “That’s obviously made up—those aren’t real names.”

I laughed along, happy to have the conversation shift to something other than my bladder. While the checker bagged our stuff, I pulled a different tabloid off the rack. The clerk was watching us closely, wise to the fact that we had no intention of buying the magazines. “Is it just the names that seem strange in that story?” I asked Jonathan. “You think the magical splitting of conjoined twins makes perfect sense?”

“Totally.”

I glanced at the cover of the second magazine and read one of the subheadings: “‘Vermont woman wishes for the return of her fiancé during Friday’s lunar eclipse. Fiancé mysteriously disappeared during the last eclipse.’ That’s really sad.”

“Well, she shouldn’t have taken her eyes off him. The magic of the moon swept her true love away and left her alone. Or it could have been that the fiancé left her for someone else.” Jonathan shrugged one shoulder. “Whatever. If it was the eclipse that made him disappear, I’m sure he’ll reappear tonight— that’s the way this kind of magic has to work, right? Otherwise they wouldn’t have a story to print next month.”

I nodded, despite the fact that stories like this gave me the heebie-jeebies. This was just the sort of thing I’d listened to my mom and her friends talk about when I was younger. Some people—my mom’s kind of people— believed eclipses were magical. More than the sun, earth, and moon aligning and casting crazy shadows. For years I’d heard Mom’s friends talking about legends and myths behind how and why the moon or sun got gobbled up by a dragon or an angry toad. Many cultures had their theories, but they all sounded silly to me. Personally, I loved the way all the crazy stuff that happened up in the sky felt and looked like magic but had a solid foundation in science and planetary movement. Astronomical magic could be explained—unlike creepy-weird stuff like ghosts and shape-shifters and mind readers and other nonsense my mom bought into. I didn’t believe in any of the made-up legends I’d heard Mom and her friends oohing and aahing about, but I did believe an eclipse would be beautiful. I couldn’t wait to be tucked inside that fold between the moon and earth’s shadow.

“Look at this,” Jonathan said, paging through another copy of the magazine. “The Vermont lady is going to make a wish on the eclipse that her fiancé will come back. According to this lady and some space dude named Larry, wishing on an eclipse is like wishing on a star—but better. I think I’ll try it.”

I wouldn’t mind a few wishes of my own coming true. As stupid as the idea sounded, I wondered if wishing on the eclipse was worth a shot. And did I get extra wishes because it was my birthday eclipse? That seemed only fair. “It’s seven,” Anji said suddenly, dumping the tabloid on top of the candy display. “We need to move or we’re not going to make it to Velvet’s in time for the eclipse. Not that missing the party would be the worst thing in the world. . .”

I stuffed both my and Anji’s magazines back in the rack, taking one last look at the sad face of the woman with the lost fiancé. “I read online that they hire actors to pose for the pictures with those magazine stories,” I said. “But how crazy would it be if something like this were real?”

Jonathan wiggled his fingers and wooed like a ghost in a kid cartoon. Anji danced toward the sliding doors that led outside, singing, “Once upon a time there was light in her life . . .” She paused and turned back, pointing dramatically at me. “Tonight is Lucia’s night, for a total eclipse of the heart!”

© Erin Soderberg Downing


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