In the thrilling, suspenseful new novel from the number one New York Times best-selling author Melissa de la Cruz, all of Ellie de Florent-Stinson’s secrets come to light in one eventful evening full of twists, turns, and surprises.
Before she became a glamorous fashion designer, Ellie de Florent-Stinson was a trailer-park teen about to turn 16. But a night of birthday celebration doesn’t go exactly as planned and descends into a night she’ll never be able to forget.
Now, on the cusp of her 40th birthday, it appears Ellie has everything she ever wanted: a handsome husband; an accomplished, college-age stepdaughter; a beautiful 10-year-old girl; adorable and rambunctious six-year-old twin boys; lush, well-appointed homes in Los Angeles, Park City, and Palm Springs; a thriving career; and a dazzling circle of friends.
Except everything is not quite as perfect as it looks on the outside — Ellie is keeping many secrets. And hiding those skeletons has a cost, and it all comes to a head the night of her fabulous birthday party in the desert — where everyone who matters in her life shows up, invited or not. Old and new friends and frenemies, stepdaughters and business partners, ex-wives and ex-husbands congregate, and the glittering facade of Ellie’s life begins to crumble.
Beautifully paced and full of surprises, The Birthday Girl is an enthralling tale of a life lived in shadow and its unavoidable consequences.
Release date: August 6, 2019
Print pages: 288
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The Birthday Girl
Melissa de la Cruz
24 years ago
Leo and Mish. Mish and Leo. They’ve been best friends since Leo came over to Mish’s house and didn’t say anything about how disgusting it was—dozens of unopened bills, yellowing leaflets and magazines piled on the coffee table, along with crusty coffee cups and empty beer cans brimming with cigarette butts, a ziggurat of catalogs and newspapers haphazardly piled against the walls, graveyards of dead potted plants, Mish’s mom sitting on the couch, rolling a cigarette, not giving a shit about any of it. Leo didn’t say a word, and Mish pretended not to care, even if they both knew Leo’s mom would never let something like that stand. Even though they lived right next door in a similarly dilapidated trailer home, Leo’s mom had dreams. Aspirations. She worked as a hostess at the nicer restaurant in the airport Ramada, and in the neighborhood, she was known as the uppity one, the one who acted like she didn’t live there, the one who always left the house in an ironed blouse and her good pumps.
Portland was a pretty sleepy town, and not particularly snobby, but even so, there were people who had living rooms and people who didn’t. No one who lived in Woods Forest Park, which was what the mobile home park was called, was at the living-room level. Leo often wondered what kind of moron came up with a name like Woods Forest anyway. Weren’t they the same thing? The place had a dirty swimming pool, a coin-operated laundry where half the machines never worked, a basketball court where the local drug dealers did business, and a view of the polluted Columbia River. Leo’s mom’s life goal was to get them out of there as soon as possible. Their house was immaculate, even if it didn’t have a living room. Meanwhile, Mish’s mom had multiple tattoos and a rough voice and didn’t own a vacuum.
Leo’s mom had grown up on the bottom rung of the middle class, but her parents had died young, and there hadn’t been enough money for college, plus she’d gotten pregnant in high school, and Leo’s dad was in jail.
The rumor was that Leo’s dad had killed someone with his fist. He’d gotten into an argument with a guy at the bus stop and clocked him good. One punch. Guy went down, hit the sidewalk at an unfortunate angle, and died immediately. It was an accident. Leo’s dad hadn’t meant to kill the guy, just, you know, punch him. Manslaughter. Leo’s dad went away when Leo was a baby; Leo hardly knew him. Her mom had stopped visiting him a long time ago. Her parents might even be divorced, but it wasn’t clear. Her mom didn’t like to talk about him, and Leo learned not to ask too many questions.
It didn’t matter. Mish’s dad had gone to jail too, for dealing drugs, but he was out now. That was another thing they had in common—that their dads were felons.
Leo, everyone called her Leo, short for Eleanor, another of her mother’s pretentions, people said. She was named Eleanor, for Eleanor of Aquitaine and Eleanor Roosevelt, and her mother had wanted people to call her Ella or Eleanor, but her dad called her Leo and it stuck. Leo was sixteen now; it was eight years since she’d gone over to Mish’s house and looked at that disgusting mess of a home and, instead of being grossed out, decided she liked Mish, that they would be friends. Because Mish was cool.
Mish looked the same at sixteen as she did at eight, like a tiny, elfin waif, slightly feral and underweight; she never wore bras underneath her thin tank tops, and her nails were always colored in glitter, like shiny claws. She had her mother’s narrow eyes and full lips, but no tattoos—yet.
In contrast, Leo always felt too big around Mish, like there was too much of her, like her hips were too wide and her hair was too coarse and too thick, even if it was the same exact shade as Mish’s, the same platinum hue from the same cheap bottle. Leo felt like she took up way too much space, whereas Mish was a pixie; she looked like she existed on air and fumes.
School had started a few weeks ago, and they were still enrolled, unlike a few of the other kids who lived nearby. They were only sophomores by then, but already so bored. Leo’s mom wanted Leo to go to college, but Leo’s grades were terrible, so scholarships were out of the question. It was the reason they fought so much lately, with her mom asking her what she would do with her life, what did she think would happen. Leo didn’t know. She thought she might model—don’t laugh—but she’d been approached at the mall. Discovered. The lady had given her a card with a number. Lose twenty pounds and call me, she’d said.
Leo knew all about the “dangers of modeling,” had watched the news shows and read all the warning articles in Seventeen and Cosmo. But this woman was middle-aged, frumpy like a schoolteacher, and firm. She seemed legit. Leo didn’t tell Mish about it. Mish was getting an Icee from the lemonade and hot dog stand, the one where the girls (and it was always girls) wore tight red-white-and-blue striped uniforms with matching hats.
Leo kept the lady’s card in her back pocket, like a talisman, like a lucky penny, like her ticket out. The lady said she was beautiful, but too big, confirming everything Leo worried about privately. Lose the weight and call me. Leo told her mom to stop making so many mashed potatoes that same night.
School was a dead end. But maybe her looks would get her somewhere. If she could lose the weight. She wasn’t at all fat, and was thinner than most girls already. But apparently not thin enough. It was depressing.
The girls were painting their nails together on Mish’s couch. The couch smelled rank (the whole house smelled like unwashed laundry) but Leo didn’t mind; it meant they could spill their Diet Cokes on the couch and no one would yell at them, or if she happened to shake the nail polish brush and a few little hot-pink flecks splattered on the plaid fabric, no one would notice.
Mish was painting her nails black, to match her lipstick. Mish was going through her goth phase. She looked like a dark fairy, with her bright hair against all the black she wore. Her current uniform consisted of a raggedy concert T-shirt and silk harem pants from Goodwill.
Meanwhile, Leo was just starting to get tired of looking like a reject, of wearing her outsider-y status on her sleeve. Her mother had even started buying her chinos from the Gap. Wanted her to look like the rich, preppy girls at school. Leo was starting to cave.
She brushed on the hot-pink polish. “It’s my birthday, I feel festive,” she said, finishing up her pinky toe and waving her feet in her friend’s face.
“Ew!” said Mish, scrunching her nose.
It was Leo’s birthday. Her mom was supposed to get out of work early so they could celebrate. Which meant a cheap Carvel cake and a twenty-five-dollar gift certificate to the Limited. But her mom would probably end up flaking like she always did. She wouldn’t be able to get out early, they’d need her till midnight like always, and Leo would be stuck at home, alone, waiting, like every birthday before then. Leo was turning sixteen and wanted more than that. Just this once. Something to remember, to really mark the occasion, to make the day different from all the other days.
Other girls had Sweet Sixteen parties at the country club. Or at home, if they lived in one of those grand, historic Arlington Heights or Goose Hollow mansions with views of Mount Hood. Parties complete with waiters and DJs and all the popular kids driving their Beemers to the party. Those kids had everything they ever wanted handed to them and they still sucked. They were mean and insecure and stupid.
Leo had Mish.
And Mish was going to rise to the challenge. That’s what friends were for.
The plan was to hit the mall, then . . . do something. Anything. Leo remembered the bottle of vodka that they’d been offered when it was passed around at the Madonna concert the other month. It was from the group in front of them, a couple of girls and a gay guy. The gay guy had really good eyeliner. Leo had never seen a guy wearing makeup before, except people on MTV, like Robert Smith or Boy George, and at first she was a little scared of him. But he seemed harmless enough, and when he offered the vodka bottle, Mish took a slug.
Leo had shaken her head. She was too scared to drink something a stranger offered. She was wary of alcohol and what it did to her. Mish had raised her eyebrow in disgust. But then, Mish was the bad one. (The “badder” one.) They knew what people thought of them, poor girls from the trailer park; they knew what people expected from girls like them. Nothing. They were bad girls. They looked like bad girls. Maybe they were bad girls.
The group in front of them with the gay guy were friendly and asked if they wanted to go to IHop after, but Leo and Mish didn’t have the money, so they said no. They had enough just to get to the concert; they couldn’t afford to buy a T-shirt or any other souvenirs. The tickets were forty-five dollars each and they’d had to camp out in front of the Ticketmaster booth to get them. But then the gay guy had handed them the vodka bottle and told Leo to keep it, and even though just a tiny sliver of vodka was left, and even though she wouldn’t even have a taste, it still felt like a present.
That’s what Leo wanted tonight, something unexpected. A birthday surprise.
“Sweet sixteen,” warbled Mish, putting away the nail polish bottle. “And never been kissed.”
Leo laughed. “Never!”
“God, can you imagine?” said Mish. “To be so old and never been kissed? Like, what is wrong with you, then? Might as well never been fucked.”
Leo shuddered. “Sad.”
Mish had lost her virginity at thirteen. Mish knew things about boys. Knew how to sneak out of her bedroom window, knew how to give head. She’d shown Leo one day, demonstrating with a carrot. Leo had felt a little sick, watching. But that was Mish. Mish lived up to her reputation.
But then it happened to her too. One afternoon, when her mom was still at work, she lost her virginity, just like that. Leo thought there would be more to it, but it happened so quickly, and so out of the blue, that she almost thought it didn’t count. At first, she didn’t want to tell Mish about it, not at all, but then she freaked out when she didn’t get her period for, like, five weeks, and she was sure she was pregnant and she had to tell someone.
Mish had screamed and hugged her. It was like they had accomplished something together. Maybe they had. What else did they have? They were terrible at everything else: sports, grades, art, whatever else other kids did; they didn’t do those things. They weren’t on a soccer or volleyball team and they weren’t good at studying. This was what they did. They had sex with boys. Like Madonna, whom they adored. She was the best of the bad girls. Like a bad girl saint.
And Leo wasn’t pregnant, she’d just counted wrong, or lost track, or felt guilty about having sex while her mother was at work. But she was okay, she wasn’t pregnant. Phew.
So the plan for Leo’s birthday was to go to the mall and meet up with some guys. Mish had a boyfriend—she always did. She was dating Brooks Overton. Brooks was not goth. He was older, a popular senior, one of the rich kids, one of those boys with the shiny hair and perfect teeth who got up early for practice. Before Brooks and Mish started dating, he had been their joint crush. They shared a lot of things, and from sixth grade on, they’d shared an adoration of Brooks. It was common among the girls in their school. Everyone was in love with Brooks, even the moms. The moms were the worst, actually, making their worship too well known.
“Brooks!” Mrs. Richmond would coo from her Mercedes. “Look at you, you handsome boy, so grown up now!”
The other moms would titter, but it was clear they all got their panties wet for Brooks.
Brooks was Mish’s boyfriend and no one liked it except Brooks and Mish. To their credit, Brooks’s parents were cool about his trailer-park hoochie. They were lawyers, and this was Portland, not Boston. Brooks could date whomever he wanted, and he wanted Mish. Who wouldn’t? The girl knew how to give head.
And if the cheerleaders and the honor students and the rich girls didn’t like it, they didn’t show it. Life wasn’t Pretty in Pink. Maybe they didn’t invite Mish to their parties or sleepovers or campouts. But they didn’t say mean things to her face or make fun of her either. They just ignored her. If Brooks wanted to date her, he dated her alone. Brooks never hung out with his friends and Mish.
When they hung out with Brooks, they hung out with just the three of them, because god knows they didn’t have any other friends at school. So they shared Brooks, even though Mish was the only one fucking him.
But since it was Leo’s birthday, Brooks was going to bring some of his friends to meet them at the mall. To make it special. To make it different from all the other days.
Leo hoped the friends would be cute, even though no one was cuter than Brooks. She blew on her hot-pink nails. They looked good, like a pink Ferrari, flashy and racy. Sweet Sixteen and Never Been . . . what? Never Been Kissed? Nah. Sweet Sixteen and Never Been Loved. Listened to. Appreciated.
Sweet Sixteen and Never Been Fucked? Or Never Been Fucked Over?
“Stop with that thinking face,” said Mish, who removed a Polaroid camera from her purse and waved it around. “To remember tonight forever!” She took a quick photo of Leo with her tongue sticking out.
“Ugh,” said Leo. “I hate pictures!”
Mish ignored her as she put the photograph and her camera away. “Let’s get to the mall. We need to celebrate!”
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