by Emily Cogan

***

Helen Whitepaw grinned over at her best friend, Jane Blackstripes. It was Friday afternoon, and Jane was riding home on the bus with her to Subdivision Glen. They used to do that every day together, but then Jane had moved to her new house. And that meant Helen didn’t get to see Jane nearly as much anymore. So Helen was super pumped to have Jane sitting next to her today in the window seat. It was like she’d never moved away in the first place.

“I’m never taking any of this for granted again!” said Jane, taking one of Helen’s paws in hers.

“Me neither!” Helen agreed, squeezing Jane’s paw. They were having one of their famous Best Friends Sleepovers tonight, just the two of them. They had the whole night planned, and Helen couldn’t wait to get started. It felt like months¬†since they had seen each other outside of school, when really it had only been a couple of weeks.

“Yo, are you guys gay for each other or what?” Kevin Hunter exclaimed from across the aisle, staring down at their joined paws.

“No way!” said Helen, glaring at Kevin.

Dealing with the boys was the only bad thing about riding the bus. Their bus monitor, Mrs. Pawson, tried to keep things orderly by having the boys sit on the left side of the bus, and the girls sit on the right side. But sometimes Helen thought that just made things worse, especially if you got someone obnoxious like Kevin sitting across from you for the entire ride.

“Yeah, grow up, Kevin!” said Jane. “You know Helen and I are best friends!”

“Uh, best friends don’t hold paws,” scoffed Kevin.

“What? You mean you don’t wanna hold my paw?” Jordan Whitespot said from beside Kevin, batting his eyes. They had been best friends since preschool, although Helen still didn’t get why anyone would want to be best friends with a pain in the butt like Kevin.

“Shut up!” Kevin shoved a laughing Jordan against the window. Jordan launched himself into Kevin’s chest, and the next thing Helen knew they were wrestling all over the seat, getting all sweaty and gross until Mrs. Pawson told them to knock it off.

Helen shook her head. She would never understand boys. Even her twin brother Zachary didn’t make sense to her half of the time.

But he sure liked Jane, judging from the way he’d been acting around her lately. And Jane wouldn’t admit it, but Helen could tell she felt the same way about him. It was so weird, thinking about her brother and her best friend. What would happen if they started going out or something?

She still didn’t know how she felt about boys. Some of them were kind of cute, she guessed, but most of the time they disgusted her more than anything. Sadie Greeneyes and all of them were totally boy crazy, and even Jane had a couple of different crushes last year. But this thing with Jane and Zachary, it seemed like more than a crush to her. It seemed like they actually liked¬†each other, like for real.

And Helen wasn’t sure she liked the idea of sharing her best friend with her brother.

***

Helen and Jane sat in Helen’s room, their heads bobbing to the music blasting from Jane’s radio. Jane was trying to paint Helen’s nails, but she kept missing, and Helen now had splotches of metallic blue polish dotting the golden fur between her paws. “You really suck at that,” Helen said, but she giggled as she said it.

“This is one time I actually miss Iris,” said Jane.

Jane’s little sister Iris was quite the artist, and even though she was two years younger than them, she was really good at painting nails. Like, way better than Jane, although that wasn’t saying all that much. She’d paint little swirls and add dots of glitter, and all kinds of other cool stuff.

“Yeah, but then we’d have to listen to her talking the entire time, so there’s that,” Helen pointed out. And that made Jane burst out laughing, which meant Helen wound up with another spot of nail polish on her fur. But what was one more at this point?

“You know what else I miss?” Jane said, sitting up straighter. She put the cap back on the nail polish and pushed it aside, and that’s when Helen knew Jane was about to get serious.

“What?”

“This.” Jane gestured around the room, and Helen could see tears standing out in her eyes. “I miss… everything. I miss the way it used to be.”

And at first Helen didn’t know what to say to that, because she knew how hard these past six months had been on Jane. She still remembered the night that Mr. Blackstripes had died. Jane had called her up, and she was crying so hard that Helen couldn’t understand anything she was saying. But eventually, she managed to get out that there had been a car accident near the plaza where Big Box Red and Big Box Blue were, and Mr. Blackstripes had died before he even made it to the hospital.

Without hesitating, Helen had said, “I’m coming over right now,” even though it was almost eight o’clock and her parents still made her go to sleep at nine on school nights.

But after she explained to them what happened, they had allowed her to stay over Jane’s that night. Mom made Helen take a quart of fudge ripple ice cream with her, although Helen didn’t understand what that was supposed to do. But apparently, bringing food over to people’s house after someone died was a thing, because as news spread around Subdivision Glen, over the next several days a whole bunch of their neighbors showed up at the Blackstripes’ house with casseroles and cookies and pies. At any other time, Helen would have been thrilled to have a whole bunch of free food hanging around, but not then.

She remembered how that first night Jane had curled up against her side on the couch. Helen had wrapped her arms around Jane and let her cry against her. Even Iris came and sat with them, leaning her head on Jane’s shoulder as she stared off into space. Tears ran down her face as she cradled her stuffed unicorn in her paws. None of them spoke, because none of them knew what to say. But somehow, it was enough that they were together.

After the phone and the doorbell finally stopped ringing, Mrs. Blackstripes had called them all into the kitchen. Helen barely recognized her that night. Mrs. Blackstripes had always been one of the most beautiful wives in Subdivision Glen, with her gleaming orange fur and her fashionable outfits. But that night, she was wearing an old sweatsuit, and her fur looked dull and rumpled. It was like she hadn’t slept in a week, even though it had only been a few hours since Mr. Blackstripes had died. And Helen felt awful for her, because Mr. and Mrs. Blackstripes were, like, this fairy tale couple who still held hands and went out on dates with each other and all of that soulmate stuff.

Anyway, Mrs. Blackstripes took the fudge ripple out of the freezer, holding it out to the girls with a small smile streaked with sadness. Iris had grabbed the spoons, while Jane brought the bowls out from one of the cupboards. And all four of them had sat around the kitchen table, eating ice cream and sharing memories of Mr. Blackstripes until almost midnight.

Helen still didn’t know how Jane had managed it. She wouldn’t know what to do if she lost one of her parents like that. They didn’t talk about it a lot anymore, but Helen secretly thought that Jane was just about the strongest girl she had ever met.

“I miss this too,” Helen finally said, giving Jane a tight hug.

As they pulled away Helen’s eyes landed on the clear phone sitting on the end of her bed. After months of begging and pleading, her parents had finally let her have a phone in her room. She didn’t have her own private line, like Sadie Greeneyes did, but at least she didn’t have to have her conversations out in the living room anymore, where Zachary could walk in and overhear. Not that Zachary was much of a pest when it came to stuff like that anyway, but still.

Jane noticed Helen looking at her phone and said, “I wish I could have a phone in my room. But there’s no way my mom can afford it now.”

And all over again Helen was reminded of how much things had changed for her best friend over the last six months. “I wish I could give you mine,” she said, and she meant it. “I was just thinking, maybe we can call some of our other friends? Have a little party or something.”

Helen swore that Jane was about to hug her again, but just then Zachary burst into her room. “Helen! Have you seen my–”

Once he caught sight of Jane, her brother stopped dead in his tracks. His white fur did absolutely nothing to hide the blush creeping over his cheeks as he stared at Jane, stammering out a hello.

And of course, Jane started blushing too, although she’d probably deny it later. “Hey, Zachary,” she breathed.

They gazed into each other’s eyes like they were starring in one of those pukey romance movies, until Helen finally had enough. “Don’t you knock?” she said, crossing her arms and glaring at Zachary.

Zachary tore his eyes away from her best friend long enough to look apologetic. “Oh, uh, sorry, sis,” he said. “And sorry, Jane.”

Jane shook her head and smiled up at him through her eyelashes. “It’s okay. What are you looking for, anyway?”

“Oh! Uh, I just wanted to know if you guys had my Walkcat.”

“Why would we have your Walkcat? We’re listening to my radio.” Helen couldn’t help rolling her eyes at her doofy brother. She was pretty sure he was just using the Walkcat as an excuse to come to her room so he could see Jane, but she couldn’t prove it.

“Oh, yeah… right,” said Zachary, his cheeks growing even darker. “Well, maybe I’ll ask Mom if she’s seen it. Thanks, Helen. And… bye, Jane.” Zachary favored Jane with another warm look, which made Jane’s eyes sparkle even brighter than the metallic blue nail polish.

She bit her lip and looked down at her lap with a shy smile, before staring back up into his eyes for another moment. “Bye, Zachary.”

Helen couldn’t help laughing as Zachary almost walked into the wall instead of passing through the door frame. She shook her head as he grinned sheepishly at Jane, rubbing his shoulder. He thought he was so smooth, but really he was just a big old dork. Helen wondered if she should tell Jane about how he sat around farting in his Greenpaw pajamas while he watched cartoons on Saturday mornings.

But from the dreamy way Jane was watching the spot where Zachary had stood just a few moments ago, Helen didn’t think any of that would matter to her one bit. “Jane, are you okay?”

Jane shook her head, like she was trying to clear it. “Yeah… yeah, of course. I just…”

“You’re just in love with my brother, that’s all!” Helen teased, throwing one of her pillows at Jane.

“I’m not in love with him!” Jane protested. She held the pillow in her lap, tracing the geometric patterns with her fingers. “But he is…”

“He’s what?” Helen prompted, leaning forward. Was Jane finally going to say what she thought she was going to say?

“Okay, fine. I think he’s cute, okay? There, I said it.” And Jane buried her face into Helen’s pillow. Without moving, she said in a muffled voice, “But you can’t tell anyone!”

“Who am I going to tell?”

“Zachary?” Jane peeked her worried face out from the edge of the pillow.

“Oh, come on, you know me better than that,” said Helen. “I won’t tell anyone, don’t worry.”

Jane reached for Sookie, Helen’s favorite stuffed teddy bear. “Sookie swear?” she said, invoking the most sacred promise the two friends could make. If they swore on Sookie, it was serious.

They each grabbed one of Sookie’s arms, and neither one of them laughed or smiled, not even a little bit. “Sookie swear,” said Helen, and they both waved Sookie’s arms at each other to confirm it.

And even though Helen still wasn’t sure about this whole thing with Jane and her brother, she also knew that Jane was her best friend. And she sure had been through a lot lately. So maybe she needed something good in her life right now. And as much as Helen liked to tease Zachary, he was actually a pretty good brother for the most part. Jane could do a whole lot worse, like Kevin for example.

Maybe it wouldn’t be that weird anyway. Jane and Zachary wouldn’t forget about her if they started actually admitting their way too obvious feelings for each other… would they?

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