The Thing About Leftovers

NANCY PAULSEN BOOKS
an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

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New York, NY 10014

Copyright © 2016 by C. C. Payne.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request.

eBook ISBN 978-0-698-17575-4

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Jacket art and design © 2016 by Jeanine Henderson Murch

Version_1

For Mark Payne, who—miraculously—chose me, as if I were the best thing on the menu:
Thank you.
All my love forever,
C.

Chapter 1

There's nothing worse
than leftovers, except school-cafeteria leftovers, which are so bad they should be called something else—leftunders maybe? Yesterday the school had served tacos for lunch and today it was sloppy joes. The sloppy part tasted like leftover taco meat mixed with tomato sauce and slapped on a soggy white bun, which is exactly what it was. Yuck.

As usual, I had to face my leftunders alone. Okay, I wasn't
technically
alone. There were other girls at my lunch table, and they were all very . . . polite. But they never spoke to me unless I spoke to them first. They didn't seem to dislike me exactly; they just didn't seem to need any new friends—
nobody
in Lush Valley seemed to need any new friends. We were more than halfway through the school year now and I'd long since given up the hope that I'd enjoy lots of friends, birthday parties, and sleepovers in Lush Valley—like I had in my old neighborhood.

I'd told myself that was okay, that my old friends were enough for me, too, and I'd tried to hang on to them. My last attempt to hang on was trying to throw a slumber party at my old house, which was Dad's house by then. But when I called my friends, one by one, to invite them, nobody could come. None
of them said why. Finally my best friend, Olivia Moore, told me that everyone was already going to a slumber party at Liddy Duncan's house on that night. “Do you want me to ask Liddy if you can come?” Olivia said, sounding uncomfortable. “Um . . . no, thanks,” I'd said, because I barely knew Liddy and it was all too awkward—I have enough awkward in my life already.

I squeezed my eyes shut against the memory and took a deep breath.

When I opened my eyes, I found myself looking at the popular girls' table: They were all eating various kinds of sushi from bento boxes, which are especially made for packing delicate sushi and sauces. Everything about the popular girls, from their designer shirts and jeans to their lunches, said
Lush Valley
.

Just then, the leader of the popular girls, Buffy Lawson, caught me staring.

I returned my attention to my tray, wondering what my lunch said. I decided my lunch also said the same thing as my clothes:
leftovers
. But hey, at least I had the courage to look like myself. Not that I wouldn't have appreciated a few more options for looking like me, but at least I didn't look like I'd come straight out of the Lush Valley cookie cutter for kids.

When lunch was almost over, Buffy gave her friends a little nod, then stood and made her way to the wide aisle in the center of the cafeteria. Naturally, all of her friends followed, for what I think of as their “big catwalk moment.” One by one, they all strut up the center aisle, behinds swishing, to the trash can at the front of the cafeteria, where they strike a subtle pose as they dump their trash, then pivot and walk back, like fashion
models on a runway—which they probably think they are—especially Buffy, who actually says, “I just
live
for high fashion!” (I'm pretty sure that anything with ruffles qualifies as “high fashion” by Buffy's standards because she wears a lot of ruffles.
A lot.
)

I don't do ruffles, bows, flowers, or sequins—I am against the cruel treatment of clothes by way of bedazzling. I have flannel shirts for winter, T-shirts for summer, and long-sleeved T-shirts and baseball-type shirts for everything in between—I don't devote a lot of thought to clothes because I like to think I have more important things to think about. Even so, I wouldn't mind some designer jeans; only Mom won't buy them, which probably explains a lot about my situation here in the valley—I don't have the right stuff, literally or figuratively.

I stood and picked up my lunch tray, reminding myself what my aunt Liz had told me: “Almost everybody who's anybody was nobody back when they were in school.”

Okay, so maybe I'm a nobody at school, but the way I look at it, that just means I'm on my way to becoming somebody. And I am. I'm on my way to becoming a brilliant, world-famous chef who will have her own cooking show on television. That is, after I have my freckles surgically removed. Yes, by then I'm sure doctors will have made great breakthroughs in the area of freckles.

My TV show will be called
Fabulous Foods and Feasts with Fizzy Russo
—that's me. (My real name is Elizabeth, but everybody's been calling me “Fizzy” since the age of two, on account of that's what I called myself, and it seemed to fit my
bubbly personality—back then, at least.) Anyway, on my TV show, I'll have a hundred matching clear-glass bowls in every size, in which I'll put beautiful, colorful ingredients, placing them in perfect order in a semicircle before me—this is called
mise en place
, which is a fancy French cooking term meaning “everything in its place.” I'll also have great big jeweled rings on my fingers for when the cameras zoom in on my hands while I work—jewelry, not clothing, is meant to be dazzling! Shoot, after I appear on TV, Buffy Lawson will probably want my autograph, but I won't give it to her. I won't. I really won't.

That's what I was thinking as we all lined up in the cafeteria. I got behind Christine Cash, one of Buffy's followers, and met her eyes, thinking,
And you'll want my autograph, too, Christine.

As if she could read my mind, Christine rolled her eyes and turned her back.

Okay, so Christine didn't want my autograph today. That didn't mean she wouldn't want it
ever
.

• • •

Back in the classroom, our French teacher, Miss Fehr, finished her lesson on telling time. Apparently, the French complicate time-telling with math. For example, if it's 5:40, they don't say, “It's five forty.” They say, “It's five forty-five minus five”—in French—so you have to translate the language
and
do your own math! Since I hate math, I made a mental note to be sure and take my watch with me to Paris—when I go for culinary school—and spent the rest of class staring out the window.

It was a perfectly sunny January Thursday in Louisville,
Kentucky—except for the bitter cold—and I knew what that meant: It meant that Coach Bryant would take us outside for gym class. Coach Bryant is big on fresh air and exercise. According to him, fresh air and exercise would solve most of the world's problems.

It was then that I realized I'd accidentally worn gym shoes. See, if you don't wear gym shoes on gym days, then you don't get to participate in gym class. So, occasionally, I forgot to wear gym shoes—on purpose. On those days, Coach Bryant sent me to the library to write a one-page report on whatever we were studying—football (first played in England), soccer (similar games were documented as early as 50 B.C.), basketball (invented by a Presbyterian minister), or whatever. I usually finished my report in about twenty-five minutes—hey, I didn't say it was a
great
report—and then I had another twenty-five minutes to myself to read cookbooks.

Here's the thing: I'm not exactly athletically inclined. In fact, I'm pretty sure there's a magnetic field in my nose that attracts all athletic balls within a half-mile radius directly to it. But I'd just have to risk my nose today, since I had on gym shoes and all.

• • •

Coach Bryant was waiting by the double doors inside the gym, kickball in hand. As soon as the bell rang, he blew his whistle, shouted, “Everybody line up,” and pushed out into the bright-white sunlight.

Of course, I was the last kid picked for a kickball team. As I stood on the blacktop with my hands in my coat pockets,
waiting for my turn to kick—and embarrass myself—a sick feeling seeped into my stomach.

I tried to distract myself with the thought of dinner: What would I cook tonight?

I've been in charge of dinner—mostly—ever since my mom and dad divorced. Lots of things changed A.D. (after divorce), including my former stay-at-home mom, who now works full-time selling advertising for the
Courier-Journal
, which is the newspaper here in Louisville. Pretty much ever since she started working, Mom's been “running late,” as she says. She's late for work, she's late getting home, and she used to be
very
late starting dinner.

After a few weeks of eating canned soups and grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner, I'd volunteered to cook. Now, that may sound like big stuff, but here's a little secret: Anyone who can read and follow directions can cook. Of course, I'd had to prove that I wasn't going to start a fire using the stove, that I'd be careful with the knives, and so on, but after that, the job was all mine.

I love my job. I love reading cookbooks, planning our meals, and making the grocery list—honestly, I love making a list of any kind. I love grocery shopping with my mom every other Saturday morning. And the cooking . . . well, cooking dinner is my favorite part of any day. Plus, I only cook things that
I
like!

I was thinking of making us Kentucky Hot Browns— country ham and turkey on top of Texas toast, covered in a heavy cream sauce, topped with bacon and tomato, and smothered in melted cheese—because Aunt Liz had recently given
me the original recipe from the Brown Hotel. Did we have any heavy whipping cream at home? I tried to think, running through the contents of our refrigerator in my mind.

My heart sank, because that's when I remembered we still had enough red wine vinegar chicken leftovers from last night to make another meal. That meant I wouldn't get to cook today. That was the rule: Mom said if there were enough leftovers to make another meal, then we had to eat them—because food is money, and we can't afford to throw away money.

It's hard to make a meal for only two people and not have any leftovers, especially since most recipes are written for at least four people—usually more. But that's where my new cookbook came in. Yesterday, Aunt Liz had lent me a cookbook called
Two for Dinner
and all the recipes were written for just two people! I was hoping the book would put an end to leftovers at my house once and for all. I'd planned to start reading it right away—today—during gym!

“Hey, you're up!” someone yelled.

I blinked. It was my turn to kick.

Mike Anderson, the boy pitching, made a show of rolling the ball to me in super slow motion.

I ignored him, took a few running steps, and kicked as hard as I could. I was thrilled when the ball connected with my foot and went flying through the air. I took off running for first base as fast as I could.

The class groaned.

When I arrived at first base, Jimmy Cox, the boy standing on it, turned to me and said flatly, “Foul.”

I swiped at my eyes and sniffed. The cold, or maybe the running, or both, had caused my eyes to water and my nose to run. I willed my face not to leak as I walked back to home base, to take my place at the back of the line.

“You have to kick again,” Christine Cash said, rolling her eyes.

Why? Why couldn't I just be done?

Again, Mike made a show of rolling the ball to me as if I'd just learned to walk, and again, I took a running start and kicked.

This time, the ball flew directly into the hands of an outfielder and all the outfielders moved in to change positions with us. It was our team's turn in the outfield. Now, the only thing I hate worse than kicking is fielding.

My team completely ignored me while I tried to decide where the ball was least likely to go so I could stand there. But sure enough, on the first kick, before I even knew what was happening, the ball smacked me hard in the face and blood poured out of my nose—worst facial leakage ever.

“Gross,” someone said.

I covered my nose with both hands and glanced over at our team captain, Buffy Lawson—who else?

Buffy held up her hands and said, “Fizzy, these are called hands. Maybe you could try using yours next time.”

I removed one—slightly—bloody hand from my face, reached out like I was going to touch her, and said, “Like this?”

Buffy squealed and skittered away from me as the wind blew a big chunk of her perfectly styled hair into her perfectly
sticky lip gloss. She swatted at it and glared at me like I was responsible for this tragedy.

“Okay, okay,” Coach Bryant said to Buffy. Then he looked over at me and shook his head like he couldn't believe this had happened—again.

At least I was out for the rest of the game. I leaned against the brick wall, holding an ice pack to my nose and promising myself two things: 1) that I'd remember to “forget” my gym shoes next week; and 2) that I'd stop by Aunt Liz's house on my way home from school.

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