Don’t Quote Me
by Melissa Baumgart

Overall First Place, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

We get our yearbooks the Friday morning before the Jubilee weekend, the annual end-of-the-year carnival held in our high school’s parking lot. It’s kind of like the end of Grease! But with less hairspray and singing.

Ms. Benway hands the yearbooks out during homeroom, making sure we get the correct ones before anyone starts signing each other’s, because senior year, you get your own name engraved in the bottom right corner of the front cover.

I run my hand over the gold imprint, tracing my name. Jane Marie Smith, Class of 2018.

I open the yearbook. The binding is stiff, so I press the front cover back until the spine makes a cracking sound that cuts through the chatter in the room. It’s weirdly satisfying. I flip through the table of contents and the opening pages, looking for the senior class photos and quotes.

I can’t wait to see my portrait, between Alison Smalls and Cara Snyder, the way I have been every year since middle school. I feel the tiniest bit bad splitting them up, because everywhere but in the yearbook, they’re joined at the hip.

What I’m really dying to see are the senior quotes: that one line each person chose way back in September, to sum up his or her entire life philosophy in 150 words or less. I spent forever picking out mine and finally settled on one from Edith Wharton: “There are two ways of spreading the light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

See, I’m more of a mirror kind of girl. I’m not the girl that boycotts the cafeteria menu for not providing enough vegan options, like my best friend Divya, or runs for student government, or is captain of a sports team, or even plays a team sport. But I am always there, supporting everyone else.

So I’m excited to see my quote right under my name and picture.

Except that when I find the page where I should fall, alphabetically speaking, I’m not there.

Alison and Cara are right next to each other, the way they are in real life. I keep checking the space in between them, as if my picture will sprout out of the sliver of white space, like a weed in the sidewalk. But of course, it doesn’t.

Alison’s quote: What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Alison Smalls would pick Emerson.

Cara’s is I woke up like this. – Beyoncé. That choice doesn’t surprise me, either.

I go through the entire senior section, scanning for my face and name. Maybe I’d been placed out of order by accident.

But when I get to the end of the alphabet, there is only this: Not Pictured: Jane Smith.

What the hell?

*

That’s what I say when I find Rudy Yee, the yearbook editor, in the hallway between classes.

“What the hell, Rudy?” I shove my open yearbook under his nose, so he can see where I’m pointing – at the space where my face is supposed to be.

“What’s your problem?”

I point harder. “You left me out of the yearbook. I was pictured. I had a quote and everything. I gave it to the office back in September, just like everyone else.”

Rudy looks at my yearbook, and then takes it from me. I glare at him as he flips through. He scrunches up his face as he sees what I already know: I’m not in there.

He looks back up at me. “You must have fallen through the cracks somewhere.”

“You had all year to ask me about it, to double-check. But now? Everyone in school has this yearbook, and I’m not in it.” My voice trembles a bit. I am not going to cry in front of Rudy.

I know it’s just a yearbook. But years from now, people will look through it and wonder why I hadn’t gotten my shit together to send in my portrait and quote when I did and Rudy Yee somehow overlooked me.

Rudy’s face is sympathetic, but he shrugs and says, “Nothing I can do about it now. Sorry, Jane.”

“That’s it? You’re sorry?”

Rudy opens his wallet and pulls out two twenty-dollar bills. “Here. I’m refunding the cost of your yearbook.” He holds them out to me.

I swat his hand away. “It’s not about what I paid. It’s that no one is going to remember I was part of this class.”

Now Rudy looks annoyed. “You have heard of the Internet, right? The yearbook is just something to collect signatures in and gather dust in your house until your kids take it out one rainy day and make fun of your hair. Get online and get over yourself.”

“My. Name. Is. Jane. Smith. I’m practically un-Googlable. Why were you yearbook editor if you don’t even care about it?”

Rudy makes a “duh” face. “For college apps? Obviously.”

Unless I end up doing something extraordinary with my life, it’ll be impossible to tell me apart from the hundreds of other Jane Smiths in the world. If my classmates lose track of me, I will not be easy to find.

I won’t be the candle or the mirror. I will be a ghost, with no reflection, no memories, not even a scorch mark left as a reminder of my presence.

*

Even Ms. Drabek can’t pretend to care when it’s the last day of school. She scrolls through her phone while everyone signs yearbooks and talks about the Jubilee and graduation this weekend.

“Hey, Jane, sign my yearbook,” Iris Chang says, passing it to me. It’s heavy in my hands.

“Sure.” I write, Good luck at college! Stay sweet – Jane Smith. Even my penmanship looks boring. This is who I am. Forgettable.

I hand it back to her.

“Where’s yours? Can I sign?”

I look to my backpack at my feet, where my own yearbook is hiding. “I forgot it in my locker. Maybe you can sign it later.”

“Okay,” she says, and moves on to Max Niederman.

Next to me, Divya shoots me a look of disapproval. She’s the only one I’ve told besides Rudy, in a string of incredulous texts.

“You’re making too big a deal out of it. At least let people sign your yearbook,” Divya whispers.

I snatch her yearbook off her desk and let it swing open, the pages flapping in the air. “I showed up to every football game in the fall. I went to every dance. But somehow, I’ve managed not to make it into any of the pictures, not even in the background. It’s like I wasn’t here at all.”

Divya grabs it back, like she’s worried my omission is contagious. “At least come to the Jubilee tonight with me.”

“I don’t want to.”

“You’re going to blow your entire grad weekend because Rudy messed up your yearbook portrait?”

I’m about to tell her to stop judging me when her picture is right where it’s supposed to be, with her quote (We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? – 11th Doctor (Matt Smith)) below her name.

But that’s when Teddy Morganstern pulls up a chair next to me, yearbook tucked under one arm. One strong-looking, smooth arm. The kind of arm that could pull you by the waist and hold you against him as he bent his head and –

“Hi, Jane,” he says. “Divya.” His smile is warm, and his eyes are bright behind long lashes.

I sit up straighter, shaking myself out of my daydream about Teddy’s arms. “Teddy, hi.” I touch my hair, then notice I’m touching my hair, and pull my hand away too fast, grabbing a pen off my desk to cover up my awkwardness.

“You guys get your yearbooks? Can I sign?”

“Of course,” Divya says, trading hers with his. She gives me one more look, eyes wide, and points her gaze at my backpack. If she could telekinetically rip my yearbook out of my bag, that look would do it. “Of course I want to sign the class president’s yearbook. Who wouldn’t?” Her voice has a slight edge to it that I know is for my benefit.

Teddy blushes a little. “I mean, I hope that’s not the only reason,” he says.

“Of course not,” Divya says. “You have many great qualities that endear you to your fellow students. Doesn’t he, Jane?”

“Oh, yes! I mean, you’re also valedictorian.” Ugh. What am I doing, writing his resume?

“Just like his brother Andrew,” Ms. Drabek says, without looking up from her phone. I didn’t realize she’d been eavesdropping.

Teddy winces, just barely, but I notice.

“I didn’t know that about your older brother,” I say, a bit more quietly.

Teddy signs Divya’s yearbook as he speaks, his eyes on the page. “Yeah.” It’s more of a sigh than a word.

“How’s he doing?” Ms. Drabek asks, a bit of eagerness creeping into her voice. “Visiting home anytime soon? I graduated with him, you know.”

Teddy looks up at her and smiles again, but it’s the kind of smile I make when I don’t want Divya to know I can’t handle the sriracha she puts on our fries. “He’s in law school and clerking for some federal judge in D.C. this summer. I don’t know if he’ll be home at all.”

Ms. Drabek frowns, her summer romance fantasy shattered. She goes back to her phone.

Divya’s eyes are even wider now. “She totally wants your brother!”

Teddy shrugs. “He has that effect on people. He’s the guy everyone wants to be around. Or to be.”

It’s weird, because that’s exactly how I would describe Teddy, who is definitely a candle and not a mirror. He has a light in him that people are drawn to. And there’s also those arms.

But even he feels overshadowed sometimes.

Or he’s been a mirror all along, just like me, and I just didn’t know it.

I need to say something.

Maybe it’s because it’s the last day of school, and maybe it’s because I’m not in the yearbook, and maybe it’s because after wondering for so long what Teddy and I could ever possibly have in common, I’ve finally found it.

But it’s not as hard as I think it should be to find the words.

“Well, Andrew’s in D.C., and you’re here. He’s old news.”

Teddy looks up from the yearbook and a slow smile spreads across his face, his eyes locked on mine.

I would kill for the ability to read minds right now.

I’m so obvious. I can’t stop staring at him, and it’s like it doesn’t even matter, because school is over.

And Teddy just broke up with Emily, and we’re going to college in different cities in three months, so it really doesn’t matter.

Divya hands Teddy back his yearbook. He scrawls a quick note in hers, and looks at me. “Jane? How about you?”

And like that, I freeze up again. I don’t want Teddy to know that, unlike him, nobody will be talking about me after I’m gone.

After what I’m certain is an eon, I manage, “Um, it’s in my locker. I can sign yours now, though.”

Divya sighs.

Teddy hands his yearbook to me and I flip to the back inside cover.

Now what? Clearly not what I’m thinking, which is “I’ve had a crush on you since the fifth grade, and now that you and Emily broke up, maybe we could hang out some time?” with my phone number beneath it.

I glance at Divya. I need her to distract Teddy to buy me some time to think.

“So, Teddy, what are you doing this summer?” she asks.

They start talking about summer jobs, and I stare at the blank page. Divya and Teddy’s conversation fades away from my ears as I focus on his yearbook.

What would Edith Wharton say?

For one thing, she wouldn’t overdo it. I picked her for my quote because she knew how to say something true and meaningful without being too wordy.

Teddy, I write. I know you’ll go far, no matter what you decide to do with your life. The only person you need to live up to is you. And you’re already pretty great. I hesitate over the closing. I could write “Love, Jane,” but that would be a bit much. I could write, “Sincerely,” but that’s too formal. I bite my lip and draw a small heart, making two swooping strokes with my pen before I can think too hard about it, then write Jane after it. A heart is a heart, but a lot of girls sign their names like that. It doesn’t mean I’m saying I love him.

Even if I kind of do.

I snap the yearbook shut, and Divya and Teddy jump.

“Sorry.” I hand it back to him.

“Should I read it now?”

“Maybe save it for later.” I wink at him.

I wink. At Teddy Morganstern.

And he seems to be just fine with it. “Okay,” he says, standing up. His eyes are on me, the whole time.

“We’ll see you at the Jubilee, right?” Divya asks.

“Definitely,” Teddy says, and he winks back.

At me.

*

“You are going,” Divya says at lunch.

“I’m not.”

“You cannot still be upset after Teddy basically asked you out this morning.”

“He didn’t ask me out.” I get hot all over, thinking about it. But I squash the feeling. “A cute boy being nice to me doesn’t make up for the fact that I am a total nonentity in the yearbook. And frankly, I’m a little surprised you’d suggest that it did.”

Divya blows her straw wrapper at me. It hits my cheek and falls to the table.

“Of course it doesn’t. You’re not in the yearbook, fine, but you’re still a part of this class. So show Rudy! Show everyone. You belong at the Jubilee.”

“How?” I crumple the wrapper in my hand.

“What was your senior quote again? Be the candle, duh. Quit being the reflection for once. Force everyone to pay attention to you.”

“You’re not suggesting that I, like, set a fire or something?”

“What? No. Don’t be so literal.” Divya leans in closer. “Do something so big no one will forget you. Flash everyone on the Ferris wheel.”

“You know I don’t like heights. And I would never flash anyone.”

“Okay, but if you could do something big, what would you do?”

And just like that, I know what that big something should be.

*

I’m impressed with how easily Divya takes to scheming.

We go to Walmart after school. I get the spray paint. Neon pink.

Diyva picks up matching black hoodies for subterfuge.

“I’m worried you’re a little too excited about this.” I can’t be responsible for starting Divya on a life of crime right before she heads off to the University of Michigan.

“What? Gotta dress for the job you want,” she says as we pay. “It’s cosplay, Jane.”

Then I understand.

Divya goes to cons on the weekends and dresses up as her favorite sci-fi and fantasy characters, with these amazing costumes she’s sewn herself. I’ve never been into it. I have never been able to be anyone but plain old Jane Smith. “You’re already halfway there.”

“What do you mean?” I follow her out to the parking lot.

Divya bats her eyes and speaks in a falsetto. “Andrew’s in D.C., and you’re here. He’s old news.

“I was just trying to be reassuring!”

“Jane, I have been waiting years for this side of you to come out. Honestly, I think this yearbook snafu is the best thing that’s ever happened to you. It’s like senioritis on steroids.”

I stop in my tracks. “What do you mean? This has been one of the worst days of my life. I’ve never felt like a bigger nobody.”

“Don’t you see? You have been living in this defined little box, and now it’s gone. You stood up for yourself to Rudy. The old Jane would have never done that.”

Divya unlocks the car and we get in.

“You think it makes you nobody, but what it actually means is that you can be anybody. Including the kind of girl that flirts with Teddy Morganstern.”

*

On the football field, they’re putting out all the chairs and the podium where we’ll cross the stage tomorrow morning.

There are food stands, games, and rides, like the Tilt-A-Whirl, and a Ferris wheel that towers over everything else, where the parking lot usually is, so we have to park at the middle school and walk over.

My last Jubilee. I breathe in the scent of baking flour from the fried elephant ears and the spun sugar of cotton candy.

Having the spray paint in my backpack puts me a little on edge. The cans clink together when I walk. Every time a teacher walks by, my heartbeat pounds a little faster in my chest. But I remember what Divya said.

It’s cosplay. It’s not me, just a character I’m playing. Someone who isn’t afraid of getting in trouble, or of being seen.

The football team has a pie-eating contest booth, which I usually find disgusting, but when they ask for volunteers, I raise my hand. The quarterback, Brandon Rodriguez, hands me a paper bib, and I tie my hair back. Divya gives me a thumbs up. When Brandon yells “Start!”, I thrust my face into a chocolate cream pie and don’t look up again until I’m licking aluminum. Divya snaps pictures of my sticky face and I grin and wipe the whipped cream and pudding out of my hair. I don’t win, but I also don’t care, especially after Brandon fist-bumps me and says, “Nice job, Jane.” I didn’t think he knew my name.

Next, Divya and I ride in bumper cars with Iris Chang, shrieking and laughing as our rubber bumpers collide and send us spinning across the floor.

At the dunk tank, I somehow manage to dunk Mr. Murphy, my calc teacher. When the bell rings and Mr. Murphy drops from his seat into the clear tank below, everyone gathers around, clapping and cheering and giving me high-fives. With every slap of someone’s palm to mine, I think, I am here. I am seen. I am one of you.

Soon the Jubilee will close for the night and everyone will go home. Then Divya and I can get to work. But in the meantime, I want to enjoy every last minute of my final Jubilee.

Divya and I have just finished a round of Skee-Ball when I hear my name.

“Hey, Jane, want to ride the Ferris wheel with me?” Even before I see him, I know it’s Teddy.

I turn, and even though I want to say yes, I panic at the prospect of me and Teddy, alone up in the air, and Old Jane takes over. “I don’t really trust any moving contraption that can be set up and dismantled in a few hours.”

Even New Jane should probably stick to the games and the food, safe on the ground.

“Oh. Okay.” Teddy frowns.

Jane.” Divya gives me a little nudge from behind, pushing me towards Teddy. “You’ll be fine.” To Teddy, she adds, “She’s cracked out on cotton candy. What she meant to say was that she’d love to.”

“You sure?”

“Uh huh,” I say, but I can’t feel my feet as Teddy and I walk to the Ferris wheel line.

“Crazy that we’re graduating, right?” he asks.

“Yeah, crazy.” I’m trying to calculate how high the Ferris wheel is and if I’d die on impact if it collapsed or if I’d just be paralyzed.

The attendant lets us on. I tug at the safety bar to make sure it’s secure.

Teddy snaps his fingers. “Hey, just realized I never caught you with your yearbook after English class. I’ll have to sign it tomorrow at graduation.”

The Ferris wheel starts to move with a groan and a squeak, and I swallow. It’s fine. It’s not going to fall apart. Definitely not when we’re up at the top. We totally won’t go crashing down to the ground and die with our whole lives ahead of us. My classmates will never forget me then.

“Or do you have yours in there?” He points at my backpack. “I’ll sign it now.”

“No! I mean, no. I don’t have it.” I kick it over to the side, where he can’t reach it.

Teddy looks like he’s sorry he just locked himself in a flying car with an unstable girl.

We fall into silence. I look up at the night sky, finally dark and full of stars.

It’s a good thing we’re both going off to different colleges so I can forget this ever happened. Old Jane and New Jane are battling it out, and Old Jane is winning.

We get higher and higher, stopping each time they add new people and let more off. While we’re moving, I’m okay, but each time it stops, our little cab jerks and sways. I grab the edge of the seat with one hand, and Teddy’s wrist with the other. It’s not like this morning, when that senioritis on steroids, as Divya called it, took over.

No, this is mortifying.

“Are you . . . okay?” he asks.

I shut my eyes for a moment. “I don’t like heights.” I open my eyes and lock into Teddy’s. “I don’t believe that something temporary like this can be safe or a good idea.”

“So . . . why did you agree to come on it with me?”

“Because you asked?” Because Divya made me. Because I’m trying to be someone else for a night.

“I wouldn’t have asked if I’d known it was going to freak you out. I could have just challenged you to one of those water gun races instead.” Teddy pulls his wrist out from under my hand.

I want to leap from the car and let the Earth take me.

Until he takes my hand instead, intertwining his fingers with mine and letting them rest in between us.

I look at our hands, then up at him.

“Does this help?” he asks.

“Yeah.” It’s all I trust myself to say.

I look out across the Jubilee, which is now lit up for night and filled with our classmates’ voices laughing and talking, and music pumping from speakers. I can see Divya, who appears to be playing corn hole with Lizzie McCoy, tossing sandbagged sacks through holes in a wooden target. I can see Jenny Kim and Matt Bradshaw, and Alison Smalls and Cara Snyder, and all of the kids I grew up with and will be leaving behind soon.

“Are you going to be someone new next year?” I ask.

“What?”

“Like, are you going to reinvent yourself at college? Take up hockey or guitar or calligraphy?”

“Calligraphy,” Teddy repeats.

“Or whatever. Calligraphy is just one of the many options.”

“I don’t know. I guess I’ll find out when I get there.”

“Well, you could always just do whatever your brother did.” It comes out harsher than it sounded in my mind, and I hear Teddy’s sharp intake of breath.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. It’s okay if you want to be like your brother. It sounds like you could do worse, as far as role models go.” I babble to fill the dead air around us.

After a long moment, Teddy exhales. “You know, I read your yearbook message.”

“You did?”

“Yeah. It was . . . exactly what I needed to hear.” He squeezes my hand in his, just the tiniest bit.

“I meant it.”

“What about you? Are you going to be someone new at college?”

“I want to be myself first. Whoever that is.” If I’d been more of a joiner, maybe I’d have a better idea of who I am, by virtue of having tried more things. Maybe one picture in the yearbook wouldn’t have the power to make or break me, because I could be many Janes, not just Old Jane or New Jane.

“They, um, forgot to put my picture and senior quote in the yearbook,” I add. The confession is a relief somehow.

“What? How?”

“Doesn’t matter now. It happened.”

Up here, I can see the football field, where graduation is set up for tomorrow.

But I can also see all of the seats, where we’ll sit in our itchy, hot robes and hats while we listen to Principal Brady blather on about our potential, and we’ll all act kind of bored but also excited, and Teddy will give his valedictorian speech, and our parents will watch us get our diplomas under the hot June sun, and the marching band will play, and then we’ll all go our separate ways and do the best we can with what we have.

I continue, “So, after I realized I wasn’t in the yearbook, I had this idea. Divya and I were planning to do it after everyone leaves tonight. I wanted to spray-paint my name on the football field. So tomorrow, when we have graduation, nobody would forget me.”

“I wouldn’t forget you. Even if you’re not in the yearbook and your name’s not on the football field.”

“Why not?”

“Let’s see. You always have the best comments during English class, like when you totally eviscerated Dimmesdale for being a tool in The Scarlet Letter.”

“That’s what you remember? My English class arguments?”

“You hit the desk at one point because you got so mad that Mr. Randolph didn’t agree with you. And your hair fell in your face, and you didn’t even notice. You just kept at him.”

“Well, Dimmesdale was a tool. I can’t believe you remember something I said in English a year ago.” Or how I looked when I said it.

Teddy bows his head, like he’s a little shy. “And once in third grade you wouldn’t let Grant Wilson torture the class hamster and you shielded it from him with your body until someone got the teacher.”

“I forgot all about that.”

“And you always write in purple or green or turquoise.”

“I hate black pens.” I didn’t know he noticed that. Any of it.

“I’m just saying, people notice more than you realize.” He nudges my knee with his own.

I could float away right now, like a balloon, if Teddy weren’t holding my hand.

“What was your senior quote supposed to be?”

“It was Edith Wharton. ‘There are two ways of spreading the light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.’” Saying it out loud to Teddy, it sounds sad to me. Like I have no self-esteem. How had I not realized sooner that I picked the senior quote of wallflowers everywhere? “What was yours?” I hadn’t even checked.

“‘It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.’ Teddy Roosevelt.”

“Had to go for the namesake, huh? I like it.” The message fits this Teddy. It’s optimistic and pragmatic at the same time.

“I can’t help it that T.R. is highly quotable. Plus, it’ll make for a good speech tomorrow.”

“You nervous?”

“Nah, it’s fine.” Teddy gives speeches all the time as class president, but I couldn’t do that in front of the whole school. At least, Old Jane couldn’t.

“I’d be nervous. But I think that Teddy’s got the right idea,” I say. “I am trying. From now on.”

Teddy clears his throat. “So, is there anything you want to try to do?”

“I can think of a few things,” I say. My eyes drop to Teddy’s mouth. “Why’d you ask me to come on the Ferris wheel with you?”

“A guy can’t go on a Ferris wheel alone,” Teddy says. “That’s weird. You’ve got to go with someone.”

I pause. “Why me, though?”

“I didn’t want to fail by never trying.”

That’s when I lean in and kiss Teddy Morganstern right on the mouth.

*

Divya’s grin when she sees Teddy and me get off the Ferris wheel holding hands would be insufferable if I weren’t so distracted.

“I can’t believe you kissed him,” she says after he leaves, promising to text me later. She chants it over and over again, dancing and jumping around me. “Who knew you had it in you? This was a big win for New Jane tonight. And on her first outing.”

“It’s not that big a deal.” But I can’t stop grinning now, either.

“Maybe we should spray JANE + TEDDY on the football field instead!”

“About the football field,” I say. “I don’t think we should do it.”

Divya stops jumping around. “What? Why not? Don’t tell me that it’s because Teddy made you realize you’re still special even if you’re not in the yearbook, or some shit like that.”

“It’s really not just him. It’s just that I was up there, and I could see the whole school, and graduation’s a big deal, for everyone. I’m not in the yearbook, but I’m still in the class.”

I was part of everything tonight. I was in a pie-eating contest and Brandon Rodriguez fist-bumped me. I dunked Mr. Murphy.

It wasn’t just Teddy.

“I was prepared to risk losing my diploma for you,” Divya says. “All in pursuit of one great moment of badassery and you’re going to back down.”

I throw an arm around her and pull her close. “I know. And I appreciate it. Which is why I have a different idea.”

*

Maybe we all have moments where we’re the candle and moments where we’re the mirror, and just because I wasn’t the candle in high school doesn’t mean I won’t find something exciting and new in college. Something that might light a spark, making me burn so brightly that everyone will have to notice. I can be anyone. By September I may be a whole new Jane. And by December, another one.

You can do something big so no one will forget you. Or you can do a million little things, so that the people who matter never do.

And failing that, you can spray paint JANE AND DIVYA WERE HERE ’18 in a little corner of the parking lot, where the grass has almost grown over and no one ever parks, and take a selfie, one you can frame and put in your dorm room in the fall.

Because even if they paint it over, nobody can take the memory away from you, of a perfect summer night with your best friend.

Where’s Z?
by Brooke Herter James

Picture Book Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

They were halfway to school before Y noticed the empty place behind him on the sidewalk.

“Yo! Where’s Z?”

The other 24 letters stopped and turned to look.

“Asleep again, I bet,” groaned A. “I’ll go back and check. You go on ahead.”

“Come on, Z!  Wake up! It’s the first day of school and you’re going to make us late!”

“I can’t go. Look at me. I bought this new hat, but I need straps to keep it from sliding off. I really wanted to get back-to-school shoes like yours, but I have no feet OR legs, for that matter.  Plus, I looked myself up in the dictionary. Zany! Zip, zilch and zero. As in Loser. As in Has To Tie His Hat On.”

“Oh, Z. That’s ridiculous.” A looked at his watch and hopped from one leg to the other. “X has it way worse. No one can tell his head from his feet!”

“Maybe. But he can do handsprings. He stars in all the tic-tac-toe games. He can wear jeans and cowboy boots. Look at the postcards he sent me this summer. He rode a horse!”

“Fair enough, but how about O?” said A. “She worries about rolling over. Q can’t quit sticking her tongue out. F is afraid of falling on his face and T is toast in strong winds. I think you are just feeling sorry for yourself! We all have a job to do! Get UP!”

But Z would not budge.

*

A hurried to catch B through Y. They shuffled on to school, just in time to hop up over the board before the bell rang.

“Good morning, children!” said Mrs. Kramer. “Welcome back to school! Let’s start by reviewing our alphabet names and shapes.“

“Uh-oh,” said X to Y.

“Psst,” whispered A to B. “Pass it down. Tell N to slide to the end and lie on his side. Maybe Mrs. Kramer won’t notice.”

But sure enough, Nancy Noonan did.

“Hey, where’s the N?”

“Hmmm,” said Mrs. Kramer. “That’s odd.”

Then Lizzy Zanzer cried out. “Look at the Z! It’s kind of squished!”

Mrs. Kramer turned and addressed the alphabet. “We seem to have a problem this morning. Why is N lying down where Z should be? And where, for that matter, is Z?”

A cleared his throat. “Z would not get up this morning. He is feeling…well, unneeded.”

“I get that!” said B. “A gets all the attention! Why not let Z go first for a change?”

“I don’t care if A or Z goes first,” said W. “I just don’t get my name, that’s all. I mean no offense to U, but shouldn’t I be called Double-V?.”

“Why would I be called Double-V?” said I.

“Now that you mention it,” said N, “I’m sick of being an M with only two feet! Like, who needs three feet?!”

“I never asked for that third foot,” shouted M. “Have you ever tried buying three shoes?”

“Now, now!” Mrs. Kramer clapped her hands. “Enough! We have a problem! Z belongs here with us and we must figure out how to get him back to school!”

“I have an idea,” said E, hopping down in front of Mrs. Kramer’s computer. “I will send him an E-mail.”

“Good idea!” said I. “What should I write?”

“I said I would write the note, not you!” said E.

“What’s wrong with me writing it?” shouted U.

Mrs. Kramer clapped her hands again. “Quiet!! Settle down, letters!”

Little Lizzy Zanzer raised her hand.

“May I please send the message to Z?” She walked to the front of the room and whispered into Mrs. Kramer’s ear.

Mrs. Kramer typed a brief note onto the computer and pressed SEND.

“Now back to work!”

*

Way across town Z awoke, startled by the ding of incoming mail. He slid out of bed and across to his desk. He stared into the computer screen.

 

Dear Z,

Today we thought about lots of things we need you for. Like pizza and zippers and zebras at the zoo. But most of all, I kept thinking about how I really can’t be me without you.

Love, Lizzy

 

“Wow,” Z whispered as he read the note over again. “Wow, wow, wow.” His cheeks felt warm. He closed his computer, tied on his new hat, and glided outside.

*

The classroom door opened and Z slipped in. He hopped up over the board, sliding past all 25 letters before coming to a stop in his usual spot.

“Hey, cool hat,” whispered Y.

Mrs. Kramer looked up at Z and smiled. “It’s nice to have you back!”

“I think I belong right here,” said Z to Y.

“That makes sense,“ said Y. “I mean you got that email, right? Just think, at any moment, Lizzy Zanzer might be looking up at you.”

“At U?” said Z. “Why would she look up at U?”

“Not U, man!” said Y. “Y-O-U! Or me! She needs us both after all!”

Noble Nuptials: An Elizabethan Wedding Alphabet
by Helen Kemp Zax

Middle-Grade Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

A

Archbishop awaits at the altar.
Aristocrats and attendants alike:
All are agog!

B

Behold!

Bustling along the byway—
bridesmaids bearing bouquets of blossoms,
Barons and their Baronesses,
bitty babes and boisterous boys.

Bells of brass beckon—
Bong! Bong!
Bong! Bong! Bong! Bong!

Bearded bridegroom in bright breeches,
betrothed bride in blush, with bit of blue—
both bewildered.
Both are breathless.

Behold!

C

Courtiers chatter in the churchyard
as crickets chirp chirp chirp.

Crowds of clergy, countesses, children
crush into the close chapel
for the couple’s ceremony:

Chalice
Contract
Circles-of-gold
and
Courteous-kiss.

Then the couple cries,

“Come cheer us!
To our country-house! Come, courtiers!
For champagne, cloves, and cinnamon.
Come celebrate. Carouse!”

D

With the dowry delivered,
the delighted Duke
(in dark-red doublet)
declares:

“Those diamonds, those drawings, those dwellings!
And my Duchess is darling. She dazzles!
She’s delightsome! How delicious!
Do let’s dance and drink till dusk.”

E

England’s Queen Elizabeth enters—

in eye-catching emeralds,
in elegant ear-pickles.

Everyone (even the Earl’s English bulldog) exults!

F

After much fanfare,
the Duke
(in fine form)
and the Duchess
(in farthingale, fresh flowers, and frills)

flatter and flaunt:

“Faerie Queene! Fortunate Familiars!
In fellowship, feed upon these fashionable foods:

Fancy Fowl & Freshwater Fish
Flame-roasted Filets & Flanks (from Formerly Four-footed Fauna)
Farm-fresh Foodstuffs & Flakey Flour-filled Fare
Flavorsome Figs & Fabulous Fruits
Fanciful Frostings & Fluffiest Fluffs

Finally,

Fine French Fermentations in Flutes.

Fantastic Friends—now feast!

G

Genteel grownups, gowned and girdled,
gather near the Great-house Gallery
to dance Gavottes, Gaillards.
Queen Elizabeth gets going—
gilded garments all a-glow—
Queen glides between her guards.

H

In the high-ceilinged Hall,
horns harken
the handsome, hand-stitched-wall-hanging
that heralds
the Host and Hostess’s hospitality:

HONORABLE HOUSEGUESTS:

When Helios again horsebacks across the Heavens,
ALL HAIL
For—

Hunting with Hounds for Hart and Hare – Half-past 7
Hawking with Hunting Hawks – Hand on 8
Horsemanship with Her Majesty – Half-past 12
Honeyed Hikes beyond the Hedgerows – On the hour
Haunting the Hummingbird-Hawkmoths that Hover by the Honeysuckle – Hand on 2
Hurling and Hammer-throwing – Hourly
Horseshoes and Hopscotch – Hour upon hour

I

Invitee (William Shakespeare!)
–idling in an inner-chamber—
inks an inspired idyll
for
the ivory-faced Duchess
and
her infatuated Duke.

J

Jesters, jugglers, jousters,
jingling jewels of jet,
jiggling jellies, juicy jams—

Oh, joy! Oh, joy! Oh, joy!

K

Knights kneel to the kingless Queen

whilst

the keeper of the kennel kicks back with a kidney-pie

whilst

the kitchen-maid kneads with her knuckles

whilst

the Duke and Duchess—
keen to kiss in the knot-garden—
keep company with kinsmen.

L

To the lilting lines of lutes—

Lords and Ladies lift long limbs and laud
the lucky Duke and his long-locked Duchess:

“Long life! Long life! Long life!”

M

Whilst madrigal music melts on a musk-rose mist,
a mischievous, miniature master
meanders the maddening maze.

He moves

a
n
d

moves

a
n
d

moves
and

m
o
v
e
s

until . . .

Mama! MAMA!

. . . he is mislaid.

N

The nineteen-year-old newlywed
nudges her niece and nods at her Duke—
“Now ’tis Nell nevermore,” the noble-lady natters.
“My newfound name (since my noonday nuptials):

The Duchess of Nonesuch.

O

One and all ooh and ah
over the opal-encrusted ornament—
an oval oil-painting of the overstuffed Duke—
his opulent offering to his Duchess.

P

Picked-over peacock parts
perch on plumed platters

whilst

prospering peacocks
parade palace promenades.

Q

The queenly Queen

quaffs
&
quaffs
&
quaffs

in questionable quantities.

R

In rubies, ruff, and ribbons,
the red-lipped, red-cheeked, red-haired,
reigning Royal—

rollicks!

S

Squires sing and somersault!

Whilst

the Duke and Duchess

sample sweetest spun-sugar
’neath the shadow-draped, setting sun.

T

Tudors trill and tumble!

Whilst

the Duke and Duchess

tiptoe off together . . .

with twenty Tudors trailing.

U

Unmerry urchin
underfoot.

“Upsa-daisy!” urges
an understanding underservant.

Unsoothed urchin
underfoot.

Whilst

the Duke and Duchess

unbutton and unlace—

then upstairs under . . .

V

Varicolored velvets,
vivid velveteens, velours—

the Duke and Duchess vow
in velvety, veiled voices:

“You’re my virtuous Valentine.”

Whilst

viol’s vibrato,
vanilla, and venison

verily vanish—

along with the Viscountess
who vaults the verdigris Venus
after dancing the Volta,
vexing the Viscount.

W

Women in worrisome whalebone,
well-played wordsmith William,
and wildly weary well-wishers
wash down wedding-cake
with warm wine.

Whilst

the Duke and Duchess

whisper…

X

x x x
x x x

x x x x x x

x x x

Y

Yonder—
yard-dogs yap
and yeomen yarn
of yesteryear.

Whilst

the Duke and Duchess

y    a     w     n

Z

Zephyrs

zig

and

zag.

Whilst

the Duke and Duchess

ZZZZZZZZZZZ

ZZZZZ
Z
Z
Z
ZZZZZZ

 

*

 

GLOSSARY

Agog: Extremely interested and excited.

Altar: A table in a church that is the center of a religious ceremony.

Archbishops: The most powerful leaders of the Church of England. An archbishop would perform the wedding ceremonies of royalty and nobility.

Aristocrats: Members of the upper class of Elizabethan society seen as superior to common people in rank and wealth.

Attendants: People who perform tasks for others like a bridesmaid at a wedding, or people who are present at ceremonies or events.

Baron/Baroness: The lowest rank of nobility in Elizabethan England.

Betroth: A promise to marry. Aristocratic parents arranged marriages to increase the wealth and status of couples, who often did not meet until their wedding day. The Crying of the Banns publicized marriages to allow people to object to the union.

Bit of blue: Brides often wore a garter of blue, the color of purity and eternal love.

Breeches: Short pants worn by Elizabethan men that ended just above or below the knee.

Bride: A noble bride wore a dress covered in ribbons, flowers, and lace. She carried a bouquet filled with sweet-smelling herbs and flowers to scent the air around her.

Bridegroom: A noble bridegroom, usually bearded, wore a fancy doublet, breeches, hose, a codpiece, and a neck ruff made from expensive fabrics like velvet, satin, or corduroy and dyed in vibrant colors that were costly to make.

Bridesmaids: Women who helped the bride prepare on her wedding day, made the bride’s garland, and led the noisy wedding procession to the church.

Carouse: To take part in a wild celebration or party.

Chalice: A drinking cup that was used as part of the marriage ceremony.

Circles-of-gold: Rings that might be exchanged during the wedding ceremony. Often rings had poesy—phrases like “With Everlasting Love”—written on the band.

Clergy: Men ordained to perform the religious functions of the church.

Cloves and cinnamon: Some of the costly imported spices used by the rich to flavor food.

Contract: Marriage was a religious sacrament as well as a contract under the law.

Courtier: A person who was a member of the royal court.

Doublet: A close-fitting jacket buttoned at the front, worn for formal occasions. The color, style, and choice of materials for Elizabethan clothing were set by law.

Dowry: The money, land, and goods a woman brought to a marriage.

Duchess/Duke: Nobleman and woman who ranked directly beneath the king and queen.

Earl/Countess: Nobleman and woman who ranked beneath a marquis and marchioness.

Ear-pickles: A name for earrings, often made of gold and gems, that were worn by both sexes.

Elizabeth I: Queen of England from 1558 until 1603 and the last Tudor monarch. Queen Elizabeth never married; therefore, there was no king during her reign.

Faerie Queene: A name for Queen Elizabeth, who appeared fairy-like because of the thick, white makeup made of lead that she wore to cover smallpox scars and wrinkles. Aristocratic women copied her style and wore ivory-colored makeup as well.

Familiars: Close friends and associates.

Fanfare: The lively sounding of trumpets.

Fare: Food.

Farthingale: Large hoops worn beneath skirts of aristocratic women, made of whalebone or wire in the shape of a wheel. Farthingales made moving quite difficult.

Fauna: Animals common to a region.

Fellowship: Friendship.

Fermentations: Wines made from juice after yeast is added.

Filet: A piece of meat without a bone.

Flank: A cut of meat.

Flaunt: Show off.

Flute: A tall, thin, delicate wine glass.

Fowl: A bird of any kind.

Fresh flowers: The bride wore and carried blossoms, including a ring of flowers—often roses and rosemary—that she then wore like a crown after the wedding ceremony.

Gaillard: A lively dance that Queen Elizabeth, who loved to exercise, did each morning.

Gallery: A long hall on the upper floor in a manor often used for exercise or entertaining.

Gavotte: A popular dance that gave partners the chance to steal a kiss.

Genteel: Anything having to do with the aristocracy or upper class.

Girdle: A piece of clothing that circles the waist, worn by both men and women.

Great-house: A large home or mansion.

Hall: A room off the large inner court on the ground floor of an Elizabethan manor.

Hammer-throwing: An outdoor game in which a large sphere attached to a pole is thrown.

Harken: Listen or pay attention.

Hart: England’s largest deer, often hunted on horseback with dogs used for tracking.

Hawking: The hunting of game birds, like pheasants, with falcons.

Hedgerow: A row of trees or shrubs.

Helios: In Greek mythology, the god of the sun.

Herald: To announce.

Her Majesty: The title by which subjects call their queen.

Hummingbird-hawkmoth: An insect often mistaken for a hummingbird.

Hurling: A fast field game in which teams move a ball down the field with a bat to score.

Idyll: A piece of poetry or prose that may have a romantic theme.

Infatuated: In love. In arranged marriages, it would be improbably lucky for a bride and bridegroom, like the Duke and Duchess, to fall in love on their wedding day.

Jester: Fool or clown who entertained members of the court.

Jet: A black, precious stone.

Jouster: Men—often knights—who fight or compete in tournaments on horseback.

Kinsman: A male relative.

Knead: To work something into a ball—often dough—with hands.

Knight: Rank beneath a baron and baroness. The title of knight was given to a man who distinguished himself in battle in front of his king or queen.

Knot-garden: Garden beds made into rectangular designs using intertwined hedges that were planted so their patterns could be seen from above through windows.

Lady: A woman of a high social position.

Long life: The tradition of toasting newlyweds by wishing that they live a long time.

Long-locked: Having long, flowing hair, often adorned with flowers for a wedding.

Lord: A man of high social position.

Lute: A popular stringed instrument with a large body in the shape of a pear.

Madrigal: A short poem about love that was set to music.

Meander: Wander along a winding path.

Musk-rose: A type of rose that blooms in summer in England.

Natter: To chatter.

Noble: A high-ranking person or a person born into privilege.

Nonesuch: A person without equal.

Noonday: Midday. In Elizabethan times, it was considered lucky to marry before noon.

Nuptials: Concerning marriage or the wedding ceremony.

Oil-painting: Miniatures of the bride and groom exchanged before or after the wedding.

Opal: A precious gem that sparkles with iridescent colors.

Opulent: Luxurious sign of great wealth.

Peacocks: Showy birds with fanlike, shimmering tails. These birds often wandered the grounds of the upper class and were also eaten as delicacies.

Plumes: The feathers of a bird.

Promenade: A place for walking leisurely.

Quaff: To drink. Because water was often unsafe to drink, Elizabethans—including Queen Elizabeth I—drank large amounts of ale and wine.

Reign: The period during which a king or queen rules a country.

Royalty: People descended from kings.

Ruff: An elaborate, circular, standing collar with starched, pleated frills. By the time of Queen Elizabeth I, ruffs were so large they were often held up with gauze wings.

Shakespeare, William: The most famous playwright of the era, widely believed to be the greatest writer in the English language.

Squire: A member of the English gentry who ranks below a knight and above a gentleman.

Trill: A sound made by vibrating the tip of the tongue against the teeth.

Tudor: The royal dynasty from 1485 to 1603, when Queen Elizabeth’s reign ended. When she died childless, the monarchy passed to the Stuarts. The Tudor reign coincided with the Renaissance, a period when the arts, science, and exploration flourished.

Urchin: A mischievous, often annoying, youngster.

Velour/velveteen: Soft fabrics that resemble velvet.

Venison: Deer meat.

Venus: In Roman mythology, the goddess of love and beauty.

Verdigris: A greenish-blue coating found on some metals left out in the air over time.

Verily: Truly.

Viol: A stringed instrument during the 1500 and 1600s played with a bow. A viol, an instrument like a violin, usually had six strings instead of four.

Virtuous: Filled with good qualities.

Viscount/Viscountess: Nobleman and woman ranking below an earl and countess.

Volta: A dance in which couples embraced closely and men lifted their partners in the air.

Vow: A promise made with great seriousness.

Whalebone: The bone from a whale used in undergarments worn by women.

Whilst: A form of the word “while,” used most often in England.

Wordsmith: A talented writer.

Yeoman: A lord’s servant who ranked between a squire and a boy page.

Yesteryear: Time that has passed.

Zephyr: A soft breeze.

 

Cover Image: Artist unknown. “Portrait of a Woman.” Oil on wood. England, ca. 1600. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bird Girl: A Reimagining of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre
by Christy Lenzi

Young Adult Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

(a novel excerpt) 

 

1.

My fingers freeze, hovering over the threads of my loom. Everything turns quiet again, but the scream hangs in the midnight air like an icy breath. My mistress rises up in bed with another cry. And sweet, holy Mary, don’t it turn my blood to cold, rushing rivers!

When she lifts her hands toward the firelight, they’re stained dark red. Dotta runs to her, throwing off her mother’s blankets. Mistress Sigrid’s legs are red. The linens are red. It reminds me of my first cycle, five summers ago. I was young and afraid, but Sister Fiona and the other nuns were by my side to calm me. This is different— Mistress is with child. She has the wild eyes of a demon-possessed creature. I have no love for the pagan woman, but I hope the poor baby inside her lives.

“Alf,” Dotta cries to her brother, “go fetch the seeress.”

He curses as he stumbles from his bed to the door, still half-fluthered from last night’s ale.

I know neither face nor place of this seeress woman, but ‘tis too late for her to be catching the child, I’m thinking. Mistress Sigrid turns to me, the whites of her eyes shining like moons in the dark.

“Dotta,” I say. “Your ma needs soothing herbs in a horn of beer.”

She glares at me. “Don’t tell me what to do, you Irish bitch. You’re our slave, not the other way around.”

“Am I, then.” My chin lifts in defiance. “But can’t you see the baby’s a-coming?”

Dotta slaps my cheek. “Then what are you waiting for?”

With my face burning but my chin still set, I scurry to the pantry to mix the herbs into the drink. My fingers shake, sloshing some of the potion on the floor.

“Hurry!”

I carry the drinking horn to Mistress’s bed and rest my hand on hers to calm her, but she pulls her hand away as if my body’s made of flames.

“Don’t touch me! I won’t have your filthy Christian paws all over me. Dotta, make Étaín go away. The pain worsens when I have to look at her ugly face.”

Dotta takes the horn from me and pushes me out of the hall like a dog, slamming the door behind me. I’ve managed to grab my feather cloak, but only one boot. I slide it on my foot and huddle against the side of the hall, shivering in the winter night.

Mistress’s moans issue from inside, sounding more animal than human now. I wrap my arms around myself to keep warm as I peer out into the darkness, lit by a half-moon. To the east I can make out the slope of the master’s ancestral burial mound. And don’t my skin be a-crawling at the thought of what’s inside! They opened it soon after I arrived, during the funeral for Master’s brother, so the dead warrior might join his family who had gone before him into the pagan afterlife. I try not to imagine his rotting body next to the bones of his kin and I turn away, to the west.

The hay yard in front of the hall stretches out cold and empty, blending into the night sky like one vast, lonesome sea surrounding me. Then ain’t I a wee boat, lost in it.

I gaze above me and am startled again at the green rippling ribbons of light in the sky. I’m still not used to seeing such a thing—like grand fairy lights in the heavens. They do be looking like the swirling skirts of dancing angels. I never saw such strange skies from the convent in my Éire land. Even though I have no family and the nuns didn’t love me, when I think of my homeplace, my eyes turn wet—but a home ain’t a home anymore once the people there have left it for eternity. I don’t have a home in the world then, do I.

The moon is just bright enough to see the birch grove and the small tree that Mistress Sigrid’s husband dedicated to their pagan gods for the baby on its way. I walk to the little grove where he performed the ritual before he went a-Viking across the sea.

If he were here, he’d not let them treat me so hard, I’m thinking. That day when he picked me from the captured slaves on the boat almost a year ago, he spoke in my own tongue—no one else I’ve met on this murderous island knows a word of it, and I’ve had to learn theirs.  He said he wanted me to be a companion to his wife and daughter while he was away. He wanted a lass with “strong, quiet ways,” he said, who could help in times of trouble with little fuss. He said he chose me because I was the only lass whose eyes weren’t red and raw from crying. I remember being pulled from the belly of the boat and made to walk down the plank on wobbly sea legs to the cold, muddy beach of this dark Land of Ice. For sure ‘twas an ugly land, but I was ready enough to keep on living with my head up.

Mistress’s cry becomes one long howl, like the sound of Alf pretending to be a bear-man berserker when he tells old stories from Norway to scare me. The noise usually makes the hairs on my arm stand on end, but this time it takes my breath from me.

When Mistress’s voice breaks, the quiet that comes after ‘tis louder than anything I’ve ever heard in my life. Slumping to the ground against the baby’s tree, I pull my knees up to my chest and clap my hands over my ears to drown out the silence.

Everything in me do be hoping for that poor babe to live. Babies don’t give a care if a person’s pretty or ugly, pagan or Christian. They don’t know the difference between slave or free. I’m thinking I could let that baby love me if it had a mind to.

I reach for the wooden cross hanging from my neck and squeeze it between my fingers. Holy Father, save that innocent babe.

Make a noise, child.

Please cry—

A sound like the bleating of a goat tears through the stillness. I loosen my hands and listen. Is it one of Mistress’s goats they keep in the hall over the winter, or the baby?

I hear it again.

A newborn’s weak cry! Jumping to my feet, I leg it to the hall. Mistress Sigrid do be looking like a crumpled rag, her face ashen and slack. Her eyes flutter at me, but seeing the limp baby in Dotta’s arms, she clamps her eyes shut and turns her face away.

I take up the iron scissors. “We must cut it loose. First we should tie the belly cord.”

Dotta holds the child away from her like ‘tis some strange, unearthly thing, fallen from the sky. I rummage through my pocket, pull out a thread, and tie off the baby’s belly cord myself, then cut the child free. The baby’s blue skin is lightening to purple, but the infant’s not well. Too small—just a doonshie thing—and so still. Almost dead.

“Rub her,” I cry. “Wash her!”

Dotta won’t look at me and only says in a wobbly voice, “No. It’s too late. Fetch a basket.”

“Let me hold her!” I pull at Dotta’s arms, but she turns her shoulders away.

“Get away from me! It’s come too early like the other ones,” she says. “It’s too sickly—it doesn’t have the strength to live and must be removed. It’s just another girl, anyway. Nothing to be done about it, now.”

The other ones?

“Stop gaping and obey.” She waves her hand at me to hurry. “Fetch the covered basket. We must take it from the hall—that’s just the way it is. Our ways are no different than any other family’s in the land. Iceland women are strong and can do what needs to be done. We aren’t weaklings like you Christian women.” Dotta’s voice trembles, but her body’s rigid as stone. “Hurry, Étaín, you half-wit—do as I say!”

“But your ma needs tending, and the afterbirth hasn’t come out yet.” I don’t fetch the basket, because my body has stopped working.

A sob breaks from Mistress’s throat, and she turns her head away. “Do as Dotta says, Étaín. And curses on you if you disobey me in this. Go quickly.” The pain in her voice makes something in my heart crack clear open, and I want to do whatever she tells me, just to ease her burden.

“I will.” But I can’t move. I stare at Dotta, who’s found the lidded basket herself.

“Get your other boot and mittens on.” Dotta doesn’t even wrap the whimpering baby in a blanket before putting her in the basket, though it’s Goa-month; snow and ice covers everything.

I stare at her like a stone statue.

“Now, you fool!” Dotta’s voice sounds shrill and wild like a trapped animal, startling me into action.

I pull my boot on in a panic. Dotta, her jaw set and lips pursed, shuts the lid over the baby. How can she do such a thing without even flinching?

My duty presses down on me like the weight of an avalanche. But as I slip my mittens on, I’m thinking there’s still one thing I can do.

I finger the woven bracelets around my wrist. My ma made them for me when I was just a doonshie thing, before she died and the nuns took me. She called the design The Angel Sisters because it looked like powerful wings overlapping. She prayed a blessing for me over them, that as long as I wore them, the angels, they would protect me. To them who don’t know, they look to be two unrelated pieces, but if you match the bracelets up next to each other, their edges fit together just like a puzzle.

“Hurry, Étaín.” Dotta presses down on Mistress’s stomach, trying to release the afterbirth. Mistress still faces the earthen walls as she moans.

“It’s sickly and the same as dead. It hasn’t been given a name, so by the law of Iceland, no child has been born here tonight. It must be removed. You do it—I need to tend to Mother. Take the basket to the lava fields. Don’t stop. Leave it there and come straight back.” Dotta’s eyes are red. “If you disobey, I’ll have Alf whip you till you bleed.”

I nod, but my heart’s resisting like a mighty arm a-pulling at my chest. I lift the basket, no heavier than a bundle of linens, grab the blanket off my bed, and leave the hall. But I won’t go to the faraway wasteland of the lava field, will I. Nay, I won’t do it. I’ll fly, instead, to the sheltering rocks near Skógar River where the pagans say the guardian spirits dwell. ‘Tis a peaceful place with moss growing on the river rocks even in winter, and the comforting sound of the water rippling under the ice. If ever there be a place where the Christian God might deign to honor with His presence in this heathen Land of Ice, I’m thinking it might be there.

I fly like a night bird along the riverbank path, beside the frozen hayfield. The moon casts a shadow that follows me, creeping and a-lunging like a troll over the snowbanks after me as I run. I can’t stop shivering. My heart thumps a message like a voice in my ears, begging me to stop.

When I reach the rocks, the moon shines between the clouds and casts a faint, silver glow over the stones. Setting the basket down, I pull the baby to my chest. “You are Brigid.”

It means powerful. ‘Tis a name my people give to a girl child. I clutch her closer, rubbing her tiny back, her legs. “You do have a name. You have a tree. You have me—a sister.” Though not of my blood, she’s the closest thing I have to kin, because, like me, she has nothing and belongs nowhere. And hers is the only heart that hasn’t turned hard against me. I cry into Brigid’s soft neck. Her skin smells sweet and new.

Resting my sister’s belly on my lap, I pat her back until she gurgles and coughs and starts to breathe with more strength. Her skin’s no longer such a deep shade of purple. I cradle her in my arms and stroke her wee wrinkled face and limbs. I slide one of my ma’s Angel Sister bracelets off my arm and over Brigid’s for protection.

My voice cracks as I speak a prayer into the darkness. “Oh Holy Mother Mary, protect this lass, such a frail one, cast off in the great world and most alone. Remember her to your holy son, Jesus, and his heavenly Father. Do not forget her in this bleak land.”

But it don’t seem enough. Can the Holy Mother even hear me from this heathen place? I look around at the grand rocks, the pagans’ guardian spirits and, most suddenly, I feel I’m a trespasser on sacred ground. What if the pagan spirits direct their wrath on this child for my sacrilege? I swallow hard and whisper to them in the quiet. “Oh guardian nature spirits, I be but a stranger to you, but I ask you a humble favor. Please accept this gift of a precious bracelet and take care of my sister. She do be one of yourn, and her people know and love you. Oh spirits, please protect her.”

I think of the Norns, those pagan female beings who visit newborns and who spin and weave each child’s fate. Might their ears be turned to a beseeching Christian holding one of their own children on such a quiet, lonesome night? I almost imagine the Norns bent toward the infant, waiting to decide her future.

“Oh powerful maidens,” I plead. “Spin a garment of protection around my sister. Weave for her a kind fate, strong and good. Have mercy.”

I shudder to imagine what my own god might be thinking if He’s heard my plea to His enemies, but I don’t know what else to do. If neither gods nor spirits intervene somehow, then I’ll never be seeing my sister again.

I kiss the baby’s forehead and wrap her tightly in the blanket before laying her in the basket. Water burns my eyes as I leg it back to the hall.

By the time I return, Alf’s snoring in his bed once again, and I suppose the seeress has come and gone. Everyone’s sleeping. Dotta’s left the mess for me to tidy, of course. I take the afterbirth in the bowl beside Mistress Sigrid’s bed and bury it under Brigid’s tree, then I wash my hands and crawl into bed.

And don’t the dark thoughts plague me! Alf tells horrible stories of a troll who lives in a rock near Vík, a quarter of a day’s journey from our home. The troll longs for the flesh of young children. It only leaves its rock at night, but when it does, it can smell a lost child from twenty miles away.

The cover gets twisted around my legs as I toss in the bed. My ears strain for the sound of a baby’s cry, but the only noise is Mistress’s heavy breathing and Alf’s snores. May God or the spirits accept my prayers and care for Brigid before—? I try not to imagine a hungry beast lurking near the stones or that hunched-up old woman who was seen last month, a-wandering around the area, mumbling to herself. Alf called her a crazy hag. And the cold! How could I leave her out there in the freezing cold?

A sourness rises from my stomach to my throat, and don’t I want to heave my insides out. Brigid deserved more than my prayers and my bracelet. I just left her there. A babe. Alone! What have I done?

But ‘twas their doing, I’m thinking, not mine—I had no choice, did I. Ain’t I a slave, like Dotta said?

The night’s turned completely still.

Nay.

‘Tisn’t true.

The answer to my own question shakes me at the core.

My heart is no slave. ‘Tis free to do what it knows to be right. And that alone makes me equal or better than they.

I sit up in bed, a-shaking. Ain’t my heart beating like a battle drum. My breaths come so fast and hard, I feel dizzy. Everything inside me told me not to leave Brigid. I do have a choice.

I toss the covers aside.

Trembling at what I’m about to do, I rise from my bed and put on my things, creep to the door, and slip outside. The sharpness of the air raises the hairs on my arms as I run toward the stones.

I’ll hold the baby in my bed until morning, giving her goat’s milk from my finger to keep her quiet. In the light of day when Mistress sees her new daughter alive, she’ll agree I did the right thing, to be sure.

And don’t I fly like a night bird straight to the rock dwellers, imagining my sister’s pale round face shining up at me like a reflection of the moon. But as I approach the slabs of stone and stare at the spot where I left her, a bolt of lightning from somewhere inside my body strikes my heart and stops my breath.

My legs buckle beneath me and my knees hit the snow. I crawl on the rocky ground to the baby’s basket, lying just where I left it.

But, oh my heart! Brigid is gone.

 

 

2.

All the way back, as I run past the river, past the mound, I’m making a solemn vow. When Nuns make oaths, they place their hands on gilded Latin Bibles, but all I have is the cross around my neck. As I reach for it, I’m thinking I have something more sacred than a man-made wooden thing. Don’t I have the beating heart God gave me? So I run with my hand on my heart, saying these words in my mind over and over: never again will I ignore the voice inside my own self telling me what is right. Never again, never again—no matter what others might say I should do.

I’m out of breath when I return to the hall. My chest aches from holding in the silent sobs that rack my ribs. ‘Tis like I’m in a trance, moving through deep water. The long fire has burned down low and the room is full of shadows. I stumble over a sleeping goat on the floor and it bleats out in annoyance. I make my way to my bed, but a figure rises up in my path.

Alf. His nightshirt’s manky smell of sweat and ale makes me wince. I fight the instinct to turn and run back out into the fresh night air.

“Let me pass,” I whisper. “I do be tired.”

“Where have you been?” He reaches for my arm to steady himself.

“The stones of the guardian spirits.”

“Why? It’s our sacred place, not yours. You don’t belong there.”
“’Tis none of your concern.” I move to pass by him, but he pulls me closer.

“I’ll say if it’s my concern or not. What? A little slave bitch keeping secrets from her master? I think you need to be brought down low where you belong.” His fingers tighten around my arm like a manacle. “This is down where you belong.”

He drops backward onto his bed behind him, pulling me with him. I tumble forward, into his lap.

“That’s it. Right down there.”

I struggle to get out of his grip. “Please let me go.”

He grabs my hair near the scalp “My father paid good silver for you,” he whispers in my ear. “If it had been me, I would have picked out a pretty one, but I don’t really need to look at your face.” He laughs and pushes my head down into his bared lap. “Have some of that.”

“I won’t!” I cry as loud as I can, to wake his ma and sister. I dig my nails into his naked thighs, dragging them through his skin.

Alf cries out, too, waking them both.

“What is this?” Mistress Sigrid bolts up in bed.
Dotta throws off her blankets and runs to Alf’s side. “What has she done to you?”

I’m still on my knees with my hands on Alf’s legs, trying to lift myself away from him.

Alf says, “She came at me while I was sleeping, to seduce me. I thought she was a witch trying to murder me, the ugly thing!” He knees me in the stomach as I pull away, shoving me to the floor.

“When she saw her charms weren’t working, she stuck her claws into me and tried to rip me to shreds.” He gestures to his bleeding thighs.

“By the gods! Maybe she is a witch!” Dotta cries. “Let me get you some strips of linen to wrap your wounds.”

I struggle to a standing position. “’Tis a lie.”

Dotta halts on her way to fetch the linens. “What? You say it’s a lie that you’re an ugly thing? Have you seen yourself? Well, let me tell you—a truer thing was never spoken. Or do you say it’s a lie that you cut him with your own claws? Look at the state of his wounds, and the blood under your very nails. It’s clear as water that it’s you who’s lying.”

Mistress holds her stomach as she watches Dotta tend to the gouges I made in Alf’s thighs. “How dare you accuse my son when you’re to blame? I can’t bear to be in the same room with you for another minute.” She waves me away with a sweep of her hand. “Open the mound and shut Étaín in with all the rot. Perhaps by morning she will have learned her lesson.”

I gasp.

Mistress lies back down and pulls the covers up to her chin.

Alf laughs. “Yes, that’s a perfect idea.” He brushes Dotta away from him as he stands and pulls on his trousers. “Go remove the bolt—I’ll bring her out with me.”

Dotta smirks as she puts on her cloak and boots, lights an oil lamp from the smoldering embers of the long fire and leaves the hall.

I can’t speak for the shock of it.

“Maybe the gods will mistake you for dead and take you along with them to the other side. Don’t forget to tell my Uncle Grimolf hello for me. You might not even have to go to the other side to tell him so. Several times since we put him in, I’ve seen ravens flying above the mound that just suddenly drop to the ground, dead—some say that the presence of a draugr in a mound will do that.” He takes my arm. “You do remember what the draugar are, don’t you?”

I do, to be sure! For don’t he frighten me every chance he gets with his dark stories about the undead who haunt such mounds, searching for flesh to devour. I shake my arm to free myself from his grasp, but he only clenches his fingers more tightly around me.

“Please don’t put me in there!” I cry, causing more moans to issue from Mistress’s bed.

She looks at me. “Stop shouting, you wretched girl. Why my husband ever thought to bring such a lily-livered Christian into our home, I’ll never know. You must be made to learn your place and strengthen your pitiful nature—seduction, deceit, and cowardice might be accepted among your people’s women, but such weaknesses won’t be tolerated here.”

“Please, Mistress Sigrid! I’ll sleep out in the empty goat shed. Or beside the hall! Please, don’t put me in the—”

“Enough of your noise! Take her to the mound.”

“Nay!” I shout. “I won’t go!”

Mistress’s eyes grow large as platters at my words of resistance. My heart swells

with this new boldness flooding my heart, and I do resolve to go all out. I yank my arm from Alf and shove him hard. “I don’t belong to any of you—I belong to my own self!”

But Alf lunges right back at me, locking me in a vice grip. His smooth, mocking voice has turned to gravel and sharp blades. “You’re going in the mound if I say you’re going in the mound.” He yanks me toward the door and out into the night. I writhe and thrash in his grip as he pulls me toward Dotta’s flickering lamp.

She’s unbolted the thick, low door on the side of the mound and, as we approach, she pushes it open. It squeaks on rusty hinges, sending quivers through me. I stare at the dark gap beyont it, and don’t my body start a-shaking like a rabbit’s!

Dotta thrusts the lamp into the opening and peers in, pinching her nose against the smell of rot. I be smelling it from here. I make out the carcass of a horse lying on the floor, saddled and bridled so its spirit can carry its master’s spirit to the other side. The human carcass can’t be far beyont. Lord o’ mercy! They dare not throw me into such a foul place as that.

But they do! Alf shuffles me toward the door and forces my head to bend under the low entrance. I scream and kick, to be sure, but I ain’t nearly as strong as him. With a laugh like the devil’s, Alf thrusts me into the dark chamber and slams the door behind me.

I scream a banshee cry that rips a path from the deep part of my lungs, all the way up my throat. I fall against the door and beat it with my fists.

“Please open up! Let me out!”

Surely they’ll release me, now that they’ve had their way and terrified me to my very roots. The blackness surrounding me is pure cold and damp like something hanging in the air. A blackness that could slide over my skin and slip inside me. Another scream shoots from my chest, scraping my throat and shaking my bones.

What if Alf’s Uncle Grimolf did turn into a draugr and is in this room with me right now?  Oh, don’t the thought of it make my breath come fast and hard! Can draugar see in the dark like night beasts? Even if he can’t see me, I fear he’ll hear my heart banging like mad in my chest and follow the sound straight to me.

I clutch my wooden cross pendant and hold it out in front of me into the blackness, my back against the door.

Oh Mary! Oh Jesus and all the saints and angels!

But just as I feared, the blackness slips inside me and before I know it, it steals me clean away.

 

3.

When the blackness delivers me back to myself, I open my eyes and here I am in my own bed like the tail end of a dream. Light shines down through the smoke-hole in the roof, making a round, golden sun on my chest. I lie there for a moment, enjoying the warmth on my heart even though the rest of my body is cold. Then I remember Brigid and the burial mound, and the warmth disappears, for ‘twas no dream.

My body’s stiff and aches like I’ve had a beating, but I hear voices near the long fire—one of them Mistress Sigrid’s and the other a stranger’s—so I stay still as a dead man, the better to be earwigging their conversation. But ain’t it the voice of Mistress’s brother, Bröndólfur Godi, the local chieftain. I don’t like the goði one bit, for all the high words and the low looks he do be handing out wherever he goes.

Their talk is all about me and what I done.

“Look at her—she’s been out of her head all morning despite the shaking I gave her and she can’t be made to do a thimble-sized amount of work in such a state. She’s no use to me. My husband should have bought a boy to help Alf with the farming. I don’t understand why you’re forbidding me to sell her.”

“She is your husband’s property, not yours. I will not be responsible for causing a rift between him and me over this matter. You must wait until he returns to obtain his permission.”

“But she’s a liar and can’t be trusted. I’ve already told you what she did to Alf while he was sleeping, but there’s more. Alf says she trespassed into the guardian spirits’ dwelling place last night. And wouldn’t you know it—our goat gave no milk this morning, and Alf says a small avalanche buried our western field during the night. She’s disturbed the nature spirits. Who knows what else they will do because of her blasphemy?”

“That is a grave concern. Why didn’t you tell me this earlier? Have Alf whip the deceit and mischief out of her.”

“She has a hide of leather and a disposition to match—his thrashings fail to wet her eye.”

Bröndólfur Godi makes a deep rumbly sound in his throat as if he do be thinking the matter over. “Here is my advice. This Christian wench needs to be brought low and kept there in her place. And our neighbors should be made aware of her dangerous nature. Let me settle this as goði in an official, public manner. We don’t want any of her shameful behavior to end up on your husband’s shoulders if the nature spirits continue to shower their displeasure upon the farms in the area—it must be shared publicly so all will know that our family is addressing the matter.”

I hear him rise. “I’ll return within the hour. Have the fire hot.”

When they have gone and the hall has turned quiet again, I sit up carefully. Carefully because my bones ache like Lazarus’s must have ached when he found himself risen from the dead. I had been out of my mind all night as my body lay stunned and rigid in the cold, dank burial mound—my legs and arms do be forgetting how to move. But my bladder’s full to bursting and I need to use the pit, so I force myself up and wrap my feather cloak around me for a quick trip outside.

Alf’s repairing the far west wall and Mistress’s gathering peat for the fire. As I turn the corner of the hall toward the pit, Dotta crashes into me, going the other way.

“Loki’s Beard!” she cries. “Get out of my way, you lying witch.”

She pushes my shoulder and means to pass me, but something rises up inside me like a draugr, something that had been sleeping like the dead until this moment when a disturbance frees it from its crypt. And don’t it make me push Dotta right back!

“I’m not a liar!” I say as Dotta falls to the ground from my unexpected shove. I keep walking to the pit, hike up my skirt, and squat.

I hear her scramble to get up and hurry off. She’s got her ma with her by the time I’m done, and I see them approaching the hall as I stand up.

Ain’t Dotta’s face red as apples as she blubbers to her ma.  “She pushed me down and said—”
“Dotta, I told you and Alf not to go near her. She’s not worthy of your notice. Neither of you are to mix with her.”


And I hardly know the words I will say before I open my mouth and shout across the hay yard, “They are not fit to mix with me!” And before she can respond, I turn and run for the meadow, where the snow is deep but soft from the sun. When I get to the middle, I fall and sink down into the softness, hidden, and turn over onto my back, breathing hard.

I gaze up. No pagan hall, no ugly black mountain, no beatings, no enemies, no dank mounds or rotting bodies, just a sea of blue sky with hardly any dark clouds in it at all. I wish I could fall up into it and swim away to Heaven where all the saints do dwell.

Mistress, Alf and Dotta leave me be for a time, and ain’t it a relief to be alone. For once, I do feel something like peace, and soon drift into sleep.

‘Tisn’t long, though, till Alf’s smug voice calls me back to the world.

“Étaín! Come.” He gives a sharp whistle as if summoning a pet. “You’ve been a bad dog, not obeying your masters. Bröndólfur Godi is here to teach you some new tricks. Come here, little bitch.”

I stay where I am. The blue sky has turned grey, and black clouds shroud the Eyjafjöll Mountains. Maybe Alf will think I ran off.

But he’s seen my footprints and is already stomping through the snow, making a path toward me. He’s getting closer.

I won’t be waiting around to be scooped up and taken to the goði—who knows what he plans to do to me. I bolt up and away, legging it in the opposite direction, but before I’ve gone three paces, I’m yanked backward, a world of hurt bruising my middle.

‘Tis Alf’s goat rod, hooked at the end to catch them that run off from the herd. Once he’s hooked me, he yanks me backward and I fall to the ground. He laughs as he forces my hands behind my back and ties my wrists together. He pulls me to my feet.

“No more playing around. After today is over, I think you’re going to want to be a good girl from now on.”

I stumble over my feet as he pulls me by my hair back to the hall yard.

Dotta and Mistress stand there, flanking Bröndólfur Godi, with a small group of people gathered about them. I recognize them as members of pagan families of the district. Except for a pale lass with long white-blonde hair, standing in the back. I don’t know who she be, but she came down from the mountain once before, to sing the funeral lay for Master’s brother. She looks to be several years older than I, but tall as a man. All the rest of them seem quare antsy and eager to watch what happens to me, but with her ‘tis different. It feels like her solemn eyes do be boring a hole through my ribcage to my heart.

Bröndólfur Godi holds what looks like an iron rod with some strange attachment at the end of it. Does he plan to beat me with that? It doesn’t like any weapon I have known. Reminds me of the rods that farmers use for marking their sheep on the rumps as belonging to their clan. A shiver runs down my spine.

But as Alf and I approach, the goði hands the rod to his eldest son, Ketil, who takes it away and into the hall. I let out my breath in relief.

Bröndólfur Godi’s grey eyes gander freely up and down my frame, as if I am a heifer at auction. He turns to Mistress. “She’s a slight thing, and not much to look at. How many years is she?”

“Seventeen, if one were to believe a thing she says. We’ve had her these last nine months, though she has made them seem the longest months I’ve ever known.”

The goði turns back to me. “Étaín.” His eyes are stern. “Do you know who Loki is?”

I nod my head. I’ve heard the stories around the fire.

“And do you want to be like Loki?”

“I do.”

Mistress Sigrid’s eyes do be popping from their sockets. “See, she doesn’t even deny it!”

The goði crosses his arms over his chest and takes a glance over his shoulder at the people murmuring behind him. He squints at me. “And why would you want to be like the trickster Loki?”

I find the serious eyes of the tall lass in the back and I speak clearly and loudly so she and the rest of them can hear and know that I’m as sound as they. “The gods did not want Loki in their home and thought him beneath them, but wasn’t he pure clever and smart as ever a lad was. Smarter than they, to be certain. Sure, he did be getting into fixes, but didn’t he always find the craftiest way of getting out of them and mending the problem in the end?”

I see the hint of a smile on the lass’s face.

But the rest of them look sour as vinegar.

“It is your Christian ignorance that makes you talk so. Loki was a dangerous liar and mischief-maker. He didn’t deserve to call the house of the gods his home. Because of the lies that filled his throat, people called him Lygnhals, the lie-necked.”

I open my mouth to respond, but the goði raises his hand to shush me.

“Étaín, answer me truthfully: have you been an obedient slave, worthy of your master’s investment and this good woman’s care?”

No answer for such a question rises to my mouth, but Mistress answers it for me.

“Étaín has been a burden these nine months, not a help to me and my family as my husband intended. Her heart is stubborn and does not bend with whippings, yet she hasn’t the strength of nature to do what I have told her is right and good. The worst of her faults are also her most dangerous: she is deceitful and loves to make mischief.”

Mistress turns to the neighbors gathered around us. “I let her sleep in my own home and eat the same food as if she were family, yet not only did this wench try to seduce my son under our very noses, she attacked him while we were sleeping in our beds, wounding him severely, and then she lied about it!”

Oh, don’t my nostrils flare like a bull’s when I hear such falsehoods said about me to these folk!

Bröndólfur Godi shakes his head, and the neighbors frown at me. I blink back at the pale lass’s calm, steady gaze. I wonder if she can see the truth between the lies.

“But her dangerous behavior reaches beyond our hall,” Mistress continues. “Just last night, this Christian secretly trespassed onto one of our sacred places and disturbed the nature spirits who have shown their anger by distressing our goats and pulling an avalanche down on our field.”

This lights a flame under the people’s arses and don’t they get antsy! Their frowns turn into scowls and they raise a clatter of noise against me. But the pale one says not a word, and what a strange look she do be giving me.

I cannot stand to have that quiet lass think ill of me, I don’t know why. My rage at Mistress boils up within me and don’t it erupt like steam from a kettle!

“As God be witness,” I cry, “you’ve never treated me like family, though I sleep in your manky hall and eat your nasty food. But I would sooner eat dirt than be one of yourn.”

“How dare you say such things!” Mistress Sigrid screeches.

“Ain’t they true, then? Who had me locked in the mound with her dead kin? And who tells her cruel, eejit boy to beat me for no reason, just because she don’t be liking the look of me? People think you’re a good woman, but ‘tis you who be the lie-necked one, not I! And don’t I hate all of your pagan, heathen souls! I’ll never forgive you for what you done.”

And oh! How that riles them all. Here come the angry words like stones thrown in my direction.

The goði raises his hands, and the hurling of the word-stones stops.

All turns quiet except for the thunder a-rumbling over the Eyjafjöll Mountains into the valley.

“You, Étaín,” he says, “are a trickster like Loki, trying to untangle yourself from your web of falsehoods now that you have been found out. You are a dangerous wench, and all will know it from this day forward.”

He turns to the hall and calls his son, “Ketil, we are ready.” Then he nods to Alf, who takes hold of my arms again.

Ketil opens the hall door, holding the iron rod. The strange-looking piece on the end glows red hot.

Lord o’ mercy! I try to bolt, but I’m locked in Alf’s troll-grip.

Ketil hands the branding iron to his father and joins Alf. Before I know what’s happening, they push me to my knees and force me over Ketil’s knee, holding fast my head and shoulders.

Bröndólfur Godi raises the iron as he steps toward us. “As goði of the district, I mark this blasphemous slave with the sign of Loki, the lie-necked, branding her as a liar and dangerous mischief maker, so that all who see it will know to be careful and on their guard, and not to mix with her.”

He brushes aside my hair. With one hand, he pins my head to his son’s knee, and with the other, he presses the hot branding iron to my bare neck.

I scream as a flash of white glory-light blinds me, and my soul jumps up into my skin. I can’t tell the difference between my spirit and my flesh anymore because my whole being is lit a-fire, inside and out. The air smells of smoke and burnt meat, and I am sick, for ain’t it my own flesh a-cooking? I throw up on Alf’s feet, and he makes a disgusted noise and pulls away.

My body turns limp. Hands release me and I collapse, folding up into a crumpled rag.

4.

 

I don’t go out of my head this time; I go deeper into it. My senses turn pure numb, and I’m sinking into myself. My body feels heavy like it don’t belong to me anymore. When the goði’s young sons throw their dirt clods at me, I hardly feel a thing.

The people’s voices sound like the buzzing of flies. I keep my eyes shut against them so I don’t have to see their arrogant heathen faces. If I lie here quietly, maybe they’ll all go away.

And when the sleet starts a-falling, they do.

The neighbors scatter to their homes, and Mistress, Alf, and Dotta hurry inside. The clank of the bolt means they’ve locked the door against me for the night.

That moment before the hot iron had touched my neck, when I faced Mistress and delivered my truth-words—I felt the bonds around my heart had broken and I turned light as air. My heart had ascended the Eyjafjöll Mountains, above the clouds. ‘Twas glorious, like Christ must have been a-feeling after rising from the grave and ascending into Heaven.

But now, ain’t I fallen back to earth, feeling lower and more bound to it than before. I could go begging pardon from Mistress Sigrid, but then wouldn’t she despise me the more. What’s done is done, and the burning wound on my neck will be a constant reminder of why I’ll never forgive her.

My whole neck feels swollen and raw. I do be afraid of touching the wound, but I want to know how bad it is. I hug my knees up to my chest and hang down my head to let the cool sleet fall over the burn. Soon I’m drenched through and pure shivering from the cold. The thunder echoes the rumbling of my empty stomach.

I know I should be picking myself up and go sleep in the empty goats’ barn, but I can’t find the strength to make my bones move.

“Please, Heavenly Father,” I pray. “Don’t let me die here like a pig in the mud! I heard about that time you sent your angels to rescue the apostle Peter from his prison cell, and though I ain’t no apostle, I do be a prisoner in this Heathen land, and needing some rescuing. If it pleases you, sir.”

“Étaín.”

The angel voice at my side nearly makes me jump from my skin.

The angel is the tall, pale lass with broad shoulders and grave eyes. She holds a wooden staff and wears a hooded fur-lined robe, which must be hiding her wings.

The apostle Peter thought he’d been having a vision, not knowing if what his angel did was real. But my angel’s robe feels warm from her body as she drapes it around me.

“Étaín, stand,” she orders. “Come with me.”

And like a miracle, the strength returns to my bones, and I do.

What the Seashell Said by
Patti Richards

Honorable Mention, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

A girl in red with a hat on her head

went to the shore to explore.

She sat in the sand with shovel in hand

and scooped and poured while seabirds soared.

She heard a sound and turned around.

Something tumbled as a wave rumbled.

It toppled and tipped, flopped and flipped,

then landed in mud

with a thump, bump, thud.

And there in a pool that looked nice and cool,

that was made from the swell,

was a big seashell.

 

A big seashell, caught in a swell,

got stuck in the mud

with a thump, bump, thud,

and made a pool that looked nice and cool.

It watched a girl through the watery whirl

walk over the sand, her shovel in hand.

It whispered words that nobody heard,

then whispered again, “Come be my friend.”  

 

A hungry crab, reaching to grab

a tasty bite to his left and right

by the edge of the pool that looked nice and cool,

noticed the girl near the watery whirl.

He stretched out a claw towards what he saw.

As her fingers reached out, he heard the shell shout,

“That’s no way to play!”

So he sidled away.

 

During the lull a fleet seagull,

flying over the head of the girl in red,

saw the crab while waiting to nab

a seafood lunch with a little crunch.

The seagull heard the seashell speak

and fluttered and flapped from tail to beak.

Then the crab took flight before she could light

as her tasty crustacean changed his location.  

 

A girl in red with no hat on her head,

who went to the shore to explore

with sugary toes and sun-kissed nose,

reached in the pool that felt warm, not cool.

She picked up the shell that dropped from the swell

and got stuck in the mud

with a thump, bump, thud

and shook out the sand with both of her hands.

Then lifted it near to the edge of her ear and listened to hear…

 

Swish, swish, weeeee, swish, swish, wooooo

Swish, swish, crash, swish, swish, schlooooo

 

And that’s what the seashell said.

Randolph Caldecott, Forever in Motion
by Barbara Younger

Honorable Mention, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

 

Look! That picture book boasts a shiny sticker on its cover.

Study the sticker closely. Do you see a man bouncing on a horse? He’s John Gilpin.

Gallop back in time to meet the artist who drew him…

The world Randolph Caldecott loved was a leaping, flying, dancing, barking, galloping place.

At the King’s School in Chester, England, Randolph sat still long enough to pay attention, earning the title of Head Boy for his good grades.

The second school let out, he was off on adventures. On his way through town, he sampled sweets from the bakery, chatted with merchants hitching their wagons, and watched ducks splash in the River Dee.

He traveled the country lanes and fields, jumping over streams and fences. Randolph paused, every now and then, to study a pig’s snout, admire a rooster’s colors, or pet a farmer’s dog, but mostly, he was a kid on the go.

Those adventures whirled through his mind when he got home. He sent them sailing onto paper.

Mr. Caldecott didn’t encourage Randolph’s artistic talent. He wanted his son to be a banker. In 1861, at fifteen, Randolph moved to a nearby town to give banking a try.

Randolph added column after column at the Whitchurch and Ellesmere Bank. He needed a break from so many numbers! He sketched his fellow employees and the bank’s customers, a handy use for old deposit slips.

Luckily, his job included calls to local villages. He sped over the lanes in his brand new country gig. The villagers liked Randolph. They invited him to steeple chases, dances, and cattle fairs. More happenings to draw when he returned from the fun.

The Queen Railway Hotel caught fire that year. Randolph whipped out his notebook to sketch the shooting flames. He drew a more detailed picture later and mailed it to The Illustrated London News. The magazine sent Randolph a check, and, hooray, they published his drawing!

At twenty-one, he was promoted to a bank in the city of Manchester. Randolph grabbed the opportunities city life offered him: art lessons, an art club, and friendship with other artists.

Randolph suffered from a weakened heart and stomach pains, but he refused to let illness slow his artistic tracks. He snatched every spare moment to draw and paint. Sometimes, he even forgot to go to bed, working all night long.

But Randolph didn’t forget to celebrate each time he sold another piece of art.

One day he made a brave decision. He up and quit the bank.

Randolph Caldecott was on the move, this time to the great city of London. “I have enough money in my pocket sufficient to keep me a year or so,” he wrote to a friend.  In that year, he would learn if he could make a living as a professional artist.

Talk about a hopping place! Randolph roved the streets and squares of London. He sketched kids rolling hoops, ladies selling flowers, and rich gentlemen strutting to the theater with their noses in the air.

Inside the theater, he drew Hamlet on stage with a sword in one hand and a torch in the other. He drew the Prime Minister giving an important speech at Parliament. And when witty Mark Twain visited from America, Randolph caught him on paper.

Randolph spent happy hours at the Zoological Gardens. He sketched everyone he met from the roaring lions to the zookeeper mucking out the stalls.

The animals lay stiller than still in the British Museum. Randolph studied the wing feathers of a stuffed stork. He measured the skeleton of another stork. He needed to understand how their bodies fit together and how they worked so he could bring animals to life in his drawings.

Project after project delivered money to his pockets. He painted huge swans for the dining room of a fancy house. He climbed high into the Harz Mountains to sketch the sights for a travel book. His big break came when he illustrated one hundred and twenty scenes for Washington Irving’s Old Christmas.

People were paying attention to Randolph Caldecott, including an engraver named Edmund Evans. Mr. Evans was experimenting with something exciting: color printing. Publishers sold books for older kids in England, but they didn’t offer many picture books, especially beautiful ones. Edmund Evans was determined to change that.

He visited Randolph in his apartment on Great Russell Street and asked him to create two picture books.

Randolph knew kids were cool. He jumped right into the project. He decided to illustrate a nursery rhyme, “The House That Jack Built” and a ballad, “The Diverting History of John Gilpin.”

First, he constructed a blank book in the size the real book would be.

Next, he figured out where to place the words and pictures. He made quick drawings called “lightning sketches” as he thought about the story.

Then he painted the actual illustrations with brown ink and a small brush.

Finally, he added color to some.

Mr. Evans printed 10,000 copies of each picture book in time for Christmas, 1878. The first printings sold out right away. Success!  From then on, Randolph and Mr. Evans produced two new picture books a year.

Kids loved the books. Randolph didn’t preach or try to teach manners. The grownup characters made silly mistakes, and the kid characters got important parts. He even cast a boy and a girl as the King and Queen in Sing a Song for Sixpence.

And no one sat still. Cats caught rats. Frogs paid calls. Knaves stole tarts. A bear in a flowered dress and bonnet promenaded down the street. A doll danced. Dinnerware bopped to life.

Randolph didn’t fence his characters in with a black border like many illustrators did. His characters moved across the page as if they were actors on stage. He left plenty of white space, too, so they could breathe.

Randolph Caldecott became famous in England, Europe, and America. Not one to brag, he spoke in a low, quiet voice. He sported a pleasant expression, although it was hard to see because of his whiskers. Tall and thin, he sometimes put himself in his pictures. He married in 1880. Mrs. Caldecott began to make appearances in Randolph’s pictures, too.

No matter how busy he was, Randolph answered the letters kids sent him. “I thank you very much for the grand sheet of drawings,” he wrote one boy. “There are many beautiful things waiting to be drawn. Animals and flowers. Oh! Such a many.”

In 1885, a London magazine asked him to travel to the United States to record “American Facts and Fancies.” Randolph said yes to the adventure.

The rolling of the ship in rough seas was not the kind of motion he relished. He joked in a letter: “We hope an overland route is discovered by the time of our return.”

That fall, Randolph drew the people and sights of America, from a boy getting off the ship in New York to dock workers loading cotton in South Carolina.

The Caldecotts reached St. Augustine in December. Randolph was now sick, really sick.

The man who never stopped drawing kept on.

Then the lines in his sketchbook trailed off.

Randolph died on February 13, 1886. He was thirty-nine. His good friend wrote in a tribute, “The artist’s hand is still.”

Fifty years later, publisher Frederic Melcher created an award to honor picture book illustrators. He named it the “Caldecott Medal” after the artist who, with energy and enthusiasm, first captured for kids the scurry and frenzy and fun of the world.

Look at the Caldecott Medal. There’s John Gilpin on his horse, coattails waving as he gallops through town. Geese honk. Dogs bark. People hurry about. No one is sitting still. Randolph Caldecott, forever in motion!

***

 

Creative Activities to Use with Randolph Caldecott, Forever in Motion

For Teachers

Oh! Such a Many Journals: Randolph wrote in a letter to a boy: “There are many beautiful things waiting to be drawn. Animals and flowers. Oh! Such a many.” Have students fold five or six sheets of paper in half and then staple them together to make journals. Ask them to write “Oh! Such a Many” on the front of their journal. Inside, they can draw things they think are beautiful. Next to each drawing, ask them to jot down words describing that beautiful thing.

Objects to Life: Randolph was one of the first illustrators to bring objects to life in his picture books. Explain to children that this is called “personification.” Human qualities are given to things that aren’t alive. Next, ask them to find something at their seat to bring to life such as their pencil, notebook, friendship bracelet, or shoes. Through creative writing, drawing, or small group conversations, let students express what their object is thinking and feeling.

Lightning Sketches: Have students take turns choosing an animal or object for everyone to draw as fast as they can. Explain that Randolph used this technique when he designed a new picture book. Set a timer to add to the fun. Children sometimes have trouble with the concept of sketching. Help them understand that a sketch isn’t precise or detailed, but a useful tool for brainstorming and planning.

Capture That Scene: Randolph first earned money as an artist by drawing news events. Let your students bring pencil and paper out to the playground during recess Ask them to study the scene, as Randolph did, and then make a drawing of the playground action. Display the drawings in the hall for the rest of the school to admire.

Long Columns of Numbers: In honor of Randolph’s banking days, ask your students to create a long column of numbers. Have them switch papers with someone else and then add up that column. Randolph made sketches of his fellow bankers when he got tired of adding. Invite students to make a sketch of a classmate on their paper.

Travel Guide: Randolph spent happy hours exploring London. Use travel books and websites to show students the sights of London. Next, on paper or in small groups, have them list their favorite sights in your area. Let them each choose a sight to draw. Ask them to write a sentence or two describing their drawing. Put the drawings together to create a travel guide. Display the travel guide in your school media center or use it as a welcome gift for a new student.

Caldecott Medal Winners: Read Caldecott Medal winners and Honor Books to the class. Then go through the books again, examining the illustrations more closely (or have students do this in small groups). Randolph’s art was best known for its sense of motion and its humor. Ask students to look for those qualities in the illustrations and to share what they find.

Picture Book Party: Kids loved the picture books of Randolph Caldecott. Invite your students to bring in a picture book they love. Let them show the class their favorite page and explain why it’s their favorite. Then treat your students to a reading of your favorite childhood picture book. Consider playing a game or serving a snack in celebration of your book.

For Kids at Home

Clay Creations: Randolph made clay models of animals and other objects when he was a boy. To make your own modeling clay, mix two cups flour, one cup salt, and three tablespoons cream of tartar in a saucepan. Stir a tablespoon of cooking oil into one cup of water. Add several drops of food coloring. Pour the liquid into the saucepan. With an adult, stir the mixture over medium heat for a few minutes. Cool and then knead. Use your clay to create animals and anything else you like.

Action Charades: Randolph’s illustrations are alive with motion. Take turns acting out animal actions such as a duck waddling, a horse galloping, or a frog jumping, and people actions such as flying a kite, riding a skateboard, or licking an ice cream cone. The actor may not talk or make any other sounds. The other players guess the answer by shouting it out. Whoever guesses first gets a point.

Thank You Pictures: Randolph wrote lots of letters. He often included a drawing, signing his name “Pictorially Yours, Randolph Caldecott.” For your next thank you note, draw a picture of yourself enjoying the present you received. Add a simple “Thank you” and sign your name.

 

Cover Image: Caldecott, Randolph. Gilpin Losing Control of his Horse. Colored engraving. 19th century. Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK.

Laps
by Meg Cook

Honorable Mention, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Saturday is my first day back to the pool since my brother Johnny died.  

Mom drops me off at 10 am with a granola bar, my swim bag, and my phone, fully charged. My sister, Ava, is texting in the backseat in her cheerleading uniform. Her brows are furrowed over the brightly lit screen. She doesn’t look up as I get out of the car.  

“Have a good time, sweetie!” Mom is effusive, if a little concerned. She wants me to swim, but doesn’t understand why I am doing it alone.

I try to smile at her, but it comes out more like a grimace.

I have a full hour. No longer. If I am late coming out into the parking lot, Mom will barge  into the lobby and through the locker room doors, panting with worry.

I make a mental note to wait in the parking lot five minutes early.  

Walking through the glass double doors, I see that nothing has changed. Same old vending machines, metal folding chairs and the woman with white hair behind the counter. She wears her glasses on a brass chain, and she never seems to recognize me, even though I’ve been coming here since I was six.

Her eyes flick up as I walk in.

“Member?” she asks.

I nod, and she waves me through. But I can’t seem to move.

It’s been four months. Four months since the accident. Four months since swim team.

Four months since my brother …

Dark clouds erupt like a fog in my head. Don’t think so much, I tell myself.

My therapist Dana and I talked about this a lot when I decided to start swimming again. We made a whole plan.

Her voice rings out in my head: Just focus on everything one step at a time. After you walk into the lobby, what needs to happen?

Locker rooms. I need to go to the locker rooms.

It’s pretty dumb, but for the whole thing to work, I need to lay out the instructions for myself like I am talking to a toddler. Like I am learning how the world works all over again.

My sneakers start trudging through the brown halls towards the blue tiled entrance to the pool.

I move towards the sign that reads Women and turn the corner down the hall which deposits me in a blindingly fluorescent room. It’s mostly empty. An older woman changes in the far corner, her belly folding at her center as she bends over.

My eyes register the wall of teal lockers, their metal handles. The fumes of chlorine, the residual steam from the showers. I drag in a breath.

The locker room is the toughest part about being here. It’s full of memories. Moments. Things from before Johnny died. Changing with the swim team, trading candy from the vending machines, hitting the showers and slicking back my hair for practice. Feeling that adrenaline pumping through me. Kay’s laugh. We always shared a locker, even when there were plenty of others to use.

Now I avoid Kay in the hall.

Dana and I came up with a plan for the locker room. Once I get to the pool, I figure I’ll be fine. The water is why I am here.  

Dana’s plan is about doing everything in the right order. Locker, combination, change into my suit, tuck my hair into my swim cap, grab my goggles. Go.  

All you have to do is remember your combination and unlock the locker. I do it. I twirl the little dial and it feels like being at school.

The locker clicks open. Inside, there is nothing. Just a little bit of light shining in on dark metal.

On my last visit with Dana, she said: I sense you have some issues with being seen.

But she’s wrong.

I wish I could disappear. Like sea foam in Ava’s favorite fairy tale. In the fairy tale, the mermaid jumps from the boat and just fades away.

Ava asked me to read it to her over and over again when we were kids. Sometimes, Johnny and I would read it together. He would do the voices and I would narrate. Again and again. The sea princess fell away in the waves. Again and again, she turned into nothing. Nobody, not even the prince, noticed.

It’s a stupid book, I used to tell Ava. And she would cry. Snot welling up in her six-year-old nose. Why do you like books about mermaids who die? Why can’t you like normal fairy tales like Cinderella? She gets what she wants: the prince, the dress, the castle.

The kingdom. It’s all hers.

“Amie,” a soft, surprised voice echoes behind me. I wheel around. The older lady is gone, her locker closed. Standing on the other side of the bench is Kay. Her hair is wet and clipped at the nape of her neck.  

“Hey,” I say, without understanding. “What are you doing here?”

Kay tilts her head, rolling her eyes in the way that only Kay can. “Well, that’s a nice greeting.”

I shake my head. “Sorry, it’s just …” But I don’t finish. I just stand there at my locker, arms at my sides.

I wrap my fingers into the palms of my hands. Fingernails into skin.

Say something, I tell myself. But nothing comes out of my mouth.

Kay doesn’t seem to mind. Amazing, considering I’ve been ignoring her for a solid four months. She shrugs and says, “We changed our practice this week to mornings. Because of the game.”

“Game?”

Kay stares at me. “You know, the playoffs? Tonight? Football?”

“Oh,” I say. “Right, of course.” Though I hadn’t known about it. Everyone must be talking about it at school. There must be banners and everything. A pep rally, too.

And Ava. She must be doing late practices with the team.

How did I not notice? Is that why she was in her uniform this morning?

I was so worried about coming here, I didn’t ask.

“So, you want to come? Or what? I could pick you up.” Kay is looking at me like I am a puzzle she can’t figure out.

“What?”

“The party. After the game. I am asking if you want to go. I could give you a ride.” Her voice tilts uncertainly.

A party. No way in hell am I going to a party. I look at Kay closely. Why would Kay want me to come to a party? Doesn’t she remember what happened at the last one I attended?

“I don’t think so” is all I say. I try to smile, but I don’t think it comes out right.

“Well, if you change your mind, text me.” She gives me a little wave and then moves towards the bank of swim team lockers at the other end of the room and pulls out her phone.

I grab my suit out of my bag and head towards the bathrooms. I don’t want to change in front of Kay, even though she’s probably seen me change five hundred times.  

That’s one thing about the swim team girls. You could have five inch scars all down your back or be covered in chicken pox or your skin could be as green as the Wicked Witch of the West – they would just change into their suits, ball up their hair underneath their swim caps, and hit the showers.

“We miss you,” Kay says. Her voice is soft and it sounds like the Kay I remember from sleepovers. When her armor was down.

I turn around. She still has her phone out, but she isn’t looking at it. She’s looking at me.

“On the team,” she says. “Coach hoped you would be back. He says you could still join. For the spring.”

Swim team.

In spring.

Kay watches me, expectantly.

My heart thumps inside me like it’s banging on a door, trying to break through. The smell of chlorine overwhelms me, my feet shrivel against the moist tile and the walls keep getting closer and closer. I drag in a breath. I have to get out of here. I have to get out of here before the rest of the team comes in.

“Okay,” I manage, already turning away from Kay. “I’ll think about it.”

I don’t wait for a response. I half-run to the line of bathroom stalls, clutching my suit to my chest as if holding it to my heart will make the whole thing stop.

As if these things can be stopped once they start.  

I bang through the gray stall door and stumble towards the toilet, then slam the door shut. God, it’s happening, I think to myself. My thoughts feel loud on the inside of my skull, like they have their own vocal chords and are screaming to be let out – my heart pounds faster and faster, adrenaline pumping through my veins as bright lights whirl through me, sparking like stars. Bolts of electricity run up and down my legs, my arms.

I can’t escape it. This thing.

My swimsuit falls from my arms and I clutch my elbows with my hands. My knees collapse, and I hold myself as I squat on the floor.

It will pass, it will pass, I remind myself.

This isn’t forever.

Dana. My therapist’s name comes to be like an epiphany. Dana says these are normal. A lot of people get them. Dana says the panic will go away. It’s always gone away before. Every time.

But first, I have to get through it.

I close my eyes against the fluorescents and see Bryan’s house decorated for Halloween, tissue paper ghosts strung up in the windows, an inflatable witch with a crooked nose on the front lawn. And inside: laughter, shouting, the pulse of a beat blasting through the speakers in the living room.

It was just a party.

I rarely went to parties, and if I did, it was only with Kay and the rest of the girls.

But Johnny. Johnny was always the life of the party. He went to every single one like it was Sunday church. He was a gentleman – that’s what everybody says. He never drank too much, never was creepy to the girls, always said hi to everyone even if they were unpopular or a jock or whatever.

God, Johnny. Why. Why. Why.

The question sprints through me and pumps hot blood into my chest. I feel like I am running a marathon, all breath and beat. All electric pulses. I might crack, I might explode.

I hug my knees to my chest, and rock myself on the stall floor. My face is right next to the toilet and I am inhaling bleach odor, but I don’t care, I just want it to be over. Just want it to end.  

I don’t know how long I am in the bathroom stall. All I know is that when I get my bearings, the locker room is peppered with the sounds of girls changing after swim practice. Voices I know. Part of me wants to go out there. I want to listen to their gossip, I want to know Cady’s new time for butterfly or how the meet against Ridgeport went last week. I want to be consumed with it.

But I don’t move, and eventually, the sound of flip flops on linoleum echoes through the room and the girls’ voices fade as they make their way out to the lobby.

I breathe until my heart steadies in my chest. Then, I slide out of my clothes, slip on my suit, and make my way towards the pool. Alone.

*

The water isn’t cold. It isn’t warm either. It’s perfect and chock full of chlorine. My mom complains about how much they pump into the indoor pool here, but I love it.

Makes me feel clean.

I strap my goggles on and the edges suction my skin. My hair is pulled back into a low bun and covered with a blue swim cap.

I tuck my legs and drop down beneath the surface in the deep end. It’s different underneath. The water has noise, which I always thought was weird. It muffles the splashes coming from other lanes, the lifeguard’s whistle, the slam of the locker room doors. But it also has its own sound. It’s a sort of endless sound. The sound of space and light. The sound of movement.

Blinking behind my goggles, I watch the aqua-tiled world. My eyes close halfway and everything blurs. My hands float ghost-like by my sides. My feet stabilize my body on the floor of the pool. I am not ready to float back up yet.

I am not ready to breathe in air.

The longer I am below the surface, the more my lungs tighten. I fight the urge to breathe in. I fight the urge to break through the surface. Every part of my body says, Amie, breathe, breathe! But there is something so tempting, so elusive about water. About the space I inhabit underneath.

If I can’t disappear forever, I at least want to disappear for a moment.

Finally, I press the bottom of my right foot against the bottom of the pool and shoot up through the water.

I float there for a moment. There are tons of skylights in the pool area. It’s kind of silly I guess, but I like how the gray light crisscrosses the tiled walls. How I still feel like I’m underwater even after I come up for air.

I never noticed that sort of stuff before. Before it happened. When I was still on the team. I can’t remember seeing the tiles or the windows or the people. I just remember the feeling of water on skin, stroke after stroke, the whistle, the way my arms cut through water. Adrenaline coursing through me like a river.  

I fold my knees against the wall and bend my arms back, latching my fingers onto the edge of the side of the pool.

My muscles know this feeling.

Dana says it’s overwhelming to think about a whole thirty minutes of swimming. She calls this an unproductive thought. Instead, she says, break up your day into only what you have to do next.

That’s how I get through my days.

It’s painful. My brain does somersaults narrating every last action, every motion, every thought. But I do things. I go places. I mean, mainly just to school and back home. And now the pool. But still. I eat my dinner and do my homework.

I have to hand it to Dana. It works.

My feet press against the slippery tiles as my arms arc through the water over my head. I tuck my chin, point my feet and glide, the feeling of water submerging me. The freedom, the ease.

My arms windmill on either side of my head. Freestyle. My favorite stroke. I swim fast. Faster than thoughts, faster than getting too drunk, faster than a car careening through the night.

My feet flutter-kick behind me as I angle my arms over my head. Every third arc, I tilt my head to the right side to breathe.

When I come up against a wall, I slip underwater and somersault before kicking off again, back across the pool for another length.

Two lengths make a lap.

Laps can be endless.

Laps can fill an hour.

I swim until my fingers are prunes. Wrinkled, shriveled raisins. It happened a lot when we were little kids. My brother Johnny in the bathtub. His brown eyes. His hair was lighter then. More strawberry blonde than red.

I hear the edge of my mother’s voice in the hall.

Muscles tighten against my bones.

A whistle blows, piercing my ear drums, dragging me back.

Free swim is over.

My legs pump in a familiar rotation beneath me. I am still breathing hard, but the rhythm of treading water helps calm me down.

I swim slowly, methodically to the shallow end of the pool. Kay’s voice keeps trilling through my head. A party. Has Kay been going to a lot of parties?

She tried to make an effort, after Johnny died. She tried to be my friend. But what could I say? The only thing I wanted to ask her was: what did he say? Moments before he died, Kay was with him, getting out of my car.

But I am not ready to hear the answer to that question.

And maybe Kay is not ready to give it.

Gripping the edge of the pool, I wait until my heart steadies inside my chest. I wait until the shaking feeling leaves me.

Pushing against the side, I climb out of the pool. My swimsuit clings to my body. I cross my arms over my chest and, dripping a trail of water behind me, I walk quickly over to the stack of towels by the locker room door.

I press the towel to my face, breathing into the cottony darkness. And stop.

Swimming is easier than living.

Living has so many moving parts. So many anomalies – so many things that could go wrong.

Just focus on the next thing. Do the next thing.

Dana’s voice is a clear bell inside my head. But that doesn’t make any of this easier.

I worry about tomorrow. It is empty and white. A beautiful plain. I have a hard time imagining me in it. I have a hard time seeing anything but the wet tiles of the pool area. The damp cotton of the towel. The world is endless, and I am so limited.

But I will end up waking up in this tomorrow-world. And it will be like today, only the details slightly rearranged.

I will end up leaving my phone unplugged tonight so the battery dies and Mom yells at me about responsibility. I will end up being dragged out of bed by Mom tomorrow around noon. I will end up watching shadows crawl across the wall until I curl around the warmth of my laptop in bed, so my heart stops beating so fast, so I can watch people who aren’t real and aren’t my friends love and hurt each other again and again.

That’s what my tomorrow-world will look like.

But then again, it might not be.

It could be clean, empty, white.  

I lift the towel away from my face. How long was I in the cottony darkness? A woman who wasn’t there before stands at the edge of the pool, removing her goggles from her face. They leave little red rings around her eyes. She isn’t paying attention to me.

Two guys make their way towards the men’s locker room. One slaps the other on the back. The movement makes a loud smacking sound that echoes through the entire pool area.

I sometimes wish I were in the ground. The smell of dirt, coolness of earth against my bones.

It doesn’t work like that, Dana says. You won’t feel relief when you are dead because dead people don’t feel anything.

That’s hard to imagine, Dana, I tell her in my mind.

But then she looks at me with these kind, brown eyes. Those perfectly aligned teeth. And I feel bad. I feel like shit for taking up so much of this nice woman’s time. She is trying to help people.

Trying to help me.

I try to envision a future where I come to the pool every weekend. A future where I train, join the swim team, and start sitting with the girls at lunch again.

A future where I go to parties.

The picture doesn’t come through. I walk through the locker room doors, blocking Kay’s invitation from my mind.

*

Mom is in the lobby when I finally emerge from the locker room. I am five minutes late.

Her face is flushed and creased with concern, but when she sees me, relief spreads like a wave over her skin.

“Hey Mom,” I say.

“God, Amie,” she says in a rush. “Not answering your phone. Not out in the parking lot.”

“Mom, there’s a lifeguard. And, in case you forgot, I am a great swimmer.”

Mom takes in a deep breath. “I know. I just …” But she doesn’t finish. Mom’s short,  shorter than me. So, I am looking down at her as she tries not to cry.

I reach over and put my hand on her arm.

It might seem weird to strangers. Teenage girls aren’t supposed to comfort their moms like that. But here’s the thing: Mom’s been this put-together business woman since forever. Ever since Johnny, Mom has been a basket case.

It’s just me, her, and Ava. If we don’t comfort her, nobody will.  

She shakes her head and squeezes my hand, smiling away the tears.

“Milkshakes and fries?” I ask. It’s our weekly tradition.

“God, yes,” she says as we turn towards the double doors. I breathe deeply as we leave the Y.

I climb in the passenger seat, tucking my swim bag on the floor. Mom puts the car in drive.

We swing through the drive-thru at Burger King. Mom orders for us: a large chocolate shake and a large fry.

I hope we can inhale sugar and salt in compatible silence, but Mom has other ideas.

“What are your Saturday plans?”

“My Saturday plans?” I stuff a fry into my mouth. I never have plans anymore. She knows that.

“Yeah. Your plan.”

“Nothing,” I say, sticking two fries dipped in delicious milkshake into my mouth. Ava thinks this is gross, but she has no idea what she is missing.

Mom’s ignoring her milkshake.

“We talked about this.”

“It’s one night, Mom,” I say. “I don’t have to make a plan for every night.”

“Dana thought …”

“Dana said I could have free time. Dana said I needed time to relax. That’s my plan.”

Mom turns the key in the ignition. I hand her a fry.

“These will get cold you know,” I say. She smiles and dips it in the shake before reversing.

I have a plan.

My plan is to avoid my sister’s dark glare.

My plan is to eat just enough of dinner that Mom doesn’t say anything.

To watch the bright screen of my laptop and sleep.  

But to Mom, plans mean progress. Normalcy. But plans can mean the destruction of things, too. It was my plan to quit the swim team. My plan to stop talking to Kay.

Suddenly full, I place my shake back in the cup holder and look out the window. The sun skids across my eyelashes, warming them and blinding me. I can’t deal with Mom’s interrogations right now.

I have to come up with something so she’ll leave me alone.  

“There’s a party tonight. For the game.”

“A party.” Mom says, pinching her lips together. “You know you’re not allowed …”

“You want me to see the girls on the swim team. That’s where they are going to be.” Maybe now she’ll see that staying home and watching my laptop is better than having so-called plans.

Mom purses her lips. I watch her watching the road.

“I’ll think about it. Where is this party?”

I shrug.

She is thinking about cars. About rides. About drunk drivers. Suddenly, I feel like a shithead for even bringing it up.  

The last time I went to a party, Johnny never came home.

Mom will say no, and then I can tell Kay that I tried but, of course, Mom wouldn’t let me. Then, Kay will think I am her friend still and I won’t have to watch teenagers guzzling beer out of kegs. I won’t have to see Johnny’s friends playing flip cup and turning up the volume on the speakers.

I won’t have to see the space that my brother once occupied.

*

At dinner, Ava’s sulking at the table in her cheerleading uniform. We won the game, but apparently, I ratted out Ava’s party plans to Mom.  

Ava pushes her potatoes around her plate with her fork. She used to do that a lot when she was little. Nobody can pout like Ava.

“Maybe you girls could watch a movie together,” Mom says brightly.

“I’m just gonna go to my room,” Ava says, standing. “Take a shower. I’m sweaty from the game.”

Mom nods, her lips pursed into a strained smile.

Ava and I have never gotten along. Johnny was the butter between us. He made us a unit. Without him, we don’t know how to interact. So we just … don’t.

Ava flies up the stairs, and I help Mom with the dishes before slinking off to my room. I curl into my unmade bed. My silver laptop lies asleep and charging underneath the sheets. I wake it up and navigate towards YouTube. I turn on the documentary I was watching last night and let the sounds wash over me.

My eyes close, I am almost asleep.

And then, I am dreaming.

I dreamt about Johnny a lot right after he died. They weren’t good or bad dreams, just little snippets. Like little pieces he left behind. I would be in the kitchen and he would come in as a little kid and open the fridge. Or we would be biking near the high school. But now, it’s like he is banned from my dreams. I never see him, not even the top of his unruly red hair.

Instead, I dream about my sister.

She is a little kid, and she has her bright blonde hair tied up in braids. We aren’t at home. We are at this cabin rental we used to go to when we were kids and our grandma was still alive. It smells like Pine-Sol and all of the lights are off.

She is by the window watching the lake. Except, when I stand beside her and look out, it’s not the lake at all. It’s a street. It’s night and red lights dance across the inky sky.

“It’s alright,” Dream Ava tells me. She is gripping the splintery windowsill with all her might.

Then, she hooks her palms under the large glass window and pulls it open with a large creaking sound.

Sirens blare into the cabin.  

My heart hammers in my chest. I am sitting bolt upright in my bed. My laptop is a black screen next to me. A siren wails a few streets away.

And then, there is the sound of the window sliding shut.

Of course.  

I crawl over to my window. It’s dark outside but I can see, by the dim light of the streetlamps, Ava in a dark sweatshirt crawling across the roof towards the tree.  

I toss the sheets aside and heave my bedroom window open.

“Hey,” I hiss in Ava’s direction. She turns around, surprised. But when she sees me, a mix of frustration and annoyance clouds her face.

I crawl towards her, the black shingles rough like sandpaper on the palms of my hands. This part of the roof is flat and wraps all the way around the house. There is enough room to lie down. The tree is right in front of Ava’s room. It’s one of those trees that was made for climbing. It’s like our house wants us to sneak out in the middle of the night.

She’s already in the tree when I reach her. I grab one of the branches and swing next to her. Her makeup is thick and heavy. I can barely see her eyes under all of it.

“Why do you want to go anyway?” I whisper. “Doesn’t it make you sad?”

“Sad to hang out with my friends?” Ava rolls her eyes. “Sad to have fun? Amie, we won the game today. Not that you noticed.”

“No,” I say, ignoring her comment about the game. “About Johnny.”

Ava wasn’t at that party over the summer. She was at sleepaway camp. She wasn’t here when we got the call. She made it just in time for the service.

“Everything makes me a little sad these days,” she says.

She climbs the rest of the way down. I don’t stop her.

I sit motionless in the tree, in the dark, listening to my sister walk towards a party I should be at.

And do what, try to be her friend? Try to enjoy myself in the mass of sweaty, drunk teenagers who all treat me like I am made of glass?

I could protect her, a small voice inside me whispers.

Like you protected Johnny?

My brain twists in something close to pain. I wait for the tightness in my chest to unfurl.

It doesn’t.

I ache for the morning before he died. I don’t remember it. Not at all. But I ache for it. For what we had for breakfast. For the dumb names he called me. For how he used to get Ava and I laughing.

I wait for Dana’s voice to give me instructions. But I can’t figure out the right thing to do. Minutes pass and the wind makes patterns as it hits the tree branches. The longer I sit in the tree, the more uncomfortable I am.

I swing down from the tree, my Converses hitting the hard, November earth. I don’t have my phone. I don’t have my wallet. I hug my sweater around my arms and walk in the direction of Hillcrest.

It’s cold and the wind rises every minute to whip my hair against my cheeks. The street is silent, and my footsteps make these loud scraping noises as I walk faster and faster.

My heart speeds up as I walk. Too fast.

I squeeze my arms under my armpits. No, I think sternly. I already had an attack today.

I practice breathing as I walk, the way Dana taught me. Breathe out longer than you breathe in. It’s weird but it works.

My heart steadies.

I hang a right on Hillcrest. It’s a short, curving hill. I can already hear the muffled sounds of hip hop on the speakers, laughter on the front lawn. I jog up the hill and pretend I am swimming. Pretend I am in the pool.

Pretend I am underwater.

The pavement is unrelenting on my knees. I feel stiff—I feel like if I fall, I might crack open into little slivers of Amie.

I am sharp inside. All knife-like edges. All words that cut.

I stop jogging and put my hands on my knees, breathing hard. I am a swimmer. An athlete. A jog up a hill shouldn’t wind me.

A car engine revs and bright, blinding lights flood the street. A horn blares behind me.

“Move!” Someone I don’t know is hanging out the passenger window. “Quit blocking the road, bitch!”

Startled, I walk slowly to the curb. I stand dumbly as a Ford Escort passes, the bass thumping loudly. A car full of boys laughing. Probably at me. I sink down to the grass and watch the car park on the side of the road. My eyes float up to the house across the street. The front lawn is packed with teenagers. This party got too crazy, too quick. The houses on Hillcrest are spread far apart and hidden by these tall pine trees, but there is no way the neighbors are going to let this party go on much longer.

I should find Ava. Find Ava and get out of here before someone calls the cops.

I force myself off the curb and move towards the party, my heart flickering like a flame. Every bodily sensation is magnified to 1,000. But I keep walking. I cross the street and make my way towards the front door, into the press of teenagers. The smells overwhelm: hair gel mingling with some terrible cologne, cold air, stale beer and the sharp scent of vodka. Someone says my name, but it’s not my sister, so I keep going, crash my way through the foyer and into the loud, thudding world of the living room.

They have pushed all the furniture—the coffee table, the couch, the lamps—to the edges of the room and everyone is crowded in the center, dancing. Or, doing something that is close to dancing. I look for Ava’s long, dark blonde hair in the tangle of bodies, but she isn’t there. I turn towards the bright kitchen and run straight into Kay.

She is holding a red solo cup. When I bump her, it spills onto her pale pink top.

“Shit,” she says, dabbing the wet spot ineffectually with her hand. Then she looks up.

“You came!” Her eyes are the kind of bright you have after a few drinks.

*

I had been the designated driver that night. Kay had to be home at midnight, so I promised I would drive her. I didn’t go to parties a lot. I remember Johnny in the kitchen, playing beer pong. He winked at me and I rolled my eyes at him. He was so smart, but played the dumb jock so well.

Then someone put a drink in my hand and I thought, One drink. Why not? Kay only lives 10 minutes away. Only 10 minutes.

But the drink was strong and by the time I was done with it, the whole world was a blur of lights and colors. I suddenly loved everyone and then my brother was there. They called us twins at school—only a grade apart. We were the athletes. The jocks. I was shy but it didn’t matter. Everyone knew me because of him.

“I’ll take her home,” he said. “Just don’t drink anymore, Mom will kill me if you’re hungover.”

I remember Kay laughing at this, and then I don’t remember much else until later that night. Until Mom screaming, screaming like someone stabbed her in the temple.

God.

Kay.

The party blares. I am caught inside it, my heart beats so fast I can’t tell where one beat starts and the next begins. The sharp pieces inside keep threatening to cut deeper and deeper. All the air goes out of the room. I can see Kay’s eyes, the tilting world of the living room and I wonder, suddenly, if any of this is real.

I try to hold onto breath, but I can’t seem to find the air. I open my mouth to ask something. Shut it.

It should have been me.

Johnny was hit after he dropped off Kay. He was on Foley Street and the guy who hit him ran the stop sign. Doing 60 in a 40.

Johnny hadn’t had a single drink.

But I … I was drunk. He took the car. He drove Kay home. Kay knows, though. Kay is the only one who knows. Which is why I had to quit the swim team. Why I had to leave.

Why I can’t be Kay’s friend anymore.

“Amie,” Kay’s voice emerges from the static.

Noises blur into aqua tinged tiles. For a moment, I am back in the pool. Safe under the blanket of water. I am going to melt into the air right here at this party before I can find my sister. Before she gets in a car. Before. Before.

“Amie.” Kay’s voice is as calm as a lake. “I am here. You are going to be okay. Someone is getting Ava.”

I crumple. Heaving sobs on Kay’s chest. “I’m sorry,” I say. I say it over and over again. A hand runs through my tangled hair. My hair tie is gone, probably trampled on by a thousand drunk teenagers. And then. Then, we are outside. Kay must have brought me here. It’s cold, but the cold feels good. I drink in the air, the almost quiet.

“Here,” Kay offers me her cup, and I shake my head. “It’s water. I promise. Drink.”

I take the cup and lukewarm water spills down my throat.  

Kay laces her hand in mine. “We are going to be okay,” she says. I look at her. Her eyes are red. Like she’s been crying.

I never talked to her about it. About Johnny. She was the last one who saw him alive.

“Kay …”

“Amie!” Ava’s breathless voice breaks through. I turn and she is coming at me full force. Her makeup is smudged and her hair is loose and wild.

“Hey,” I say and raise the red solo cup in a mock cheers. We stand there looking at each other. Sisters, somehow.

She drags in a deep breath and glances at Kay, who nods.

“Let’s go home.”

*

In the kitchen, Ava makes hot chocolate the way Mom used to when we were kids. In a saucepan: whole milk, Hershey’s syrup, and cinnamon.

She brings two steaming mugs into the living room. I take a sip. It’s perfect.  

Ava curls onto the couch, tucking her knees up to her chest. She doesn’t look at me when she speaks.

“You think it’s your fault.”

I don’t say anything.

“You do,” Ava says. And then she laughs. It isn’t a nice laugh. It isn’t a mean one either. It’s a disbelief laugh.

“You don’t understand,” I manage, finally. “It’s complicated.”

Ava snorts.

“What?” I say.

Ava turns toward me. Here is a secret: my sister’s eyes have always scared me. When she was little, she did this creepy thing where she would come into my room when I was sleeping and when I woke up, she would be sitting on my floor staring at me. Like she was trying to figure me out.

Now, her hazel eyes laser into mine. I can’t escape them. She faces life full on. She isn’t a coward like me. She doesn’t flinch.

“Tell me” is all she says.

I hang in the silence for a moment—just a breath. Then, something in my chest loosens.

I tell her about the party, about the drinks, about Kay. I tell her how I was supposed to be the one to drive Kay home. How Johnny stepped up. How I haven’t talked to Kay since.

After I am done, we sit in silence for a bit.

“Is that why you quit the swim team?” she asks.

“I couldn’t deal with it. With Kay. Facing her.”

“She probably misses you. She was pretty upset tonight.”

I don’t say anything.

Ava picks up our mugs from the coffee table and heads to the kitchen. The mugs clang in the empty sink.

She comes back, standing in the doorway, backlit by the fluorescent lighting of the kitchen.

“It’s no one’s fault, Amie,” she says. “I thought it was my fault for a while, too.”

I look at her. “How could it possibly be your fault? You weren’t even here when it happened.”

“Exactly,” she says.

She doesn’t move. I breathe into the darkness of the living room, the taste of milk chocolate coating my tongue.

“I am sorry,” I say.

“For what?”

“For missing the game. For not even realizing there was a game to begin with.”

Ava laughs. “It’s not your thing.”

“But you come—came—to all my meets. With Johnny and Mom.”

Ava moves from the doorway and perches on the arm of the couch so that a sliver of moonlight catches her face.

“I like watching you swim,” she says, not looking at me. “You are completely focused. Other swimmers look like they are attacking the water. But you just … are the water.”

She turns towards me and quirks her lips into a half-smile.

“I’ll be at the next game,” I say, holding her words in my chest carefully, not wanting them to break.

“I’d like that,” she says.

I listen to her footsteps as she walks up to her room. I let my eyes half-close so that the world comes out all blurry. It reminds me of the pool—how everything softens around the edges when I sink beneath the surface.

How I become the water.

*

I fall asleep on the couch. I don’t remember it happening. I don’t remember my dreams. Just the feeling of water submerging my limbs.

Mom shakes me awake. I blink back to consciousness, disappointment swallowing me.

The party, the panic attack, Kay, Ava.

Ava.

“You okay?” Mom’s brows are furrowed together. She is in her terrycloth bathrobe and she hasn’t put her makeup on yet. Her eyes are pinched and puffy.

“Yeah,” I say. “Just fell asleep here.”

She looks suspicious but nods. I follow her into the kitchen where we make coffee and watch the sun part through the trees and through the windows over the sink. I drink my coffee black.

I dig my phone out of my pocket. It’s still alive, despite not being charged in forever.

It’s early on a Sunday. She probably isn’t up.

I navigate to my contacts and click on Kay’s name, opening a new message.

When I am done writing, I hold my breath and hit send.

“What are you up to?” Mom is pulling bread and eggs out of the fridge.

“Making plans,” I say.

Mom smiles. I look back at my phone. Kay’s name is brightly lit against the screen.

Before I read her message, I close my eyes. Imagining a future where I am on the swim team, talking to Kay. Maybe even talking to my sister sometimes.

It will be a while, I know. But there is glimmer in knowing it could happen. That the world isn’t just a wide-open blankness. That there is me. There is light.

Until then, I will just keep swimming laps.

 

The Young Travelers Club
by Jessica Rinker

Honorable Mention, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

September 11, 2001
6:00am
Where were you?

When my mom decides to show up, that’s what I will ask her.

Because she isn’t at the end of the long accordion-looking walkway they pull up to Gate 61 when I get off the plane. And she isn’t at the baggage claim like the flight attendant named Anne thought she might be. She still doesn’t show up when they page her to Terminal C. Instead we grab my stuff, and Anne leads me to a mostly-glass room with a sign above the door that says: Young Travelers Club. There are three kids already in the room: two small kids, and a girl my age with black hair pulled into a huge knot on the top of her head. She’s reading, and her eyes flick up to look at me and then go right back to her magazine.

She’s not interested. Nobody ever is.

There’s also a too-tall, too-skinny guy who smiles too big when he sees Anne. He’s wearing a name tag that’s shaped like a pair of gold bird wings. The tag says TOM W. Tom takes my bag and guides me by the shoulders into the room.

“I’ll be your Travelers Club Tour Guide today, Brady McKinley,” Tom says as he reads a piece of paper Anne handed him. “I’ll help you with whatever you need while you’re with us.”

“Tour guide?” I ask.

“Pilot of the crew. Captain of the room,” he says, grinning like he’s clever. Maybe
if I were six I’d agree. When I don’t give him the response he wants, he says, “Just a title, bud. This is where kids wait for their flights when parents can’t wait with them,” he says, smiling at me as though I’ve just landed myself a premier spot in the most prestigious club ever. His teeth are very white. My mom, a dental hygienist, would approve.

“I just got off my flight. I’m not waiting for one.”

Tom’s smile disappears. “I realize that.”

“I’m too old to be here,” I say, looking at the little kids who are watching a cartoon about a sponge, which is actually really funny, but I’d rather be anywhere else right now. Sleeping, snoring, and dreaming in my bed is one idea. Chasing Bigfoot across the Siberian tundra is another.

“The Clubroom is glad to make an exception,” Tom says, like the room has a brain. I’d like to not be an exception to this room for kids who can’t take care of themselves. Except the older girl looks like she could take care of herself. She looks strong, like weirdly strong. No idea what she’s doing here.

“Hey everyone,” Tom says, his voice getting higher with every word, as I walk in
and inspect the room. “This is Brady.”

I half expect everyone to say ‘Hi, Brady,’ like it’s been rehearsed, but they say nothing. This is going to be a long morning. There’s not much to do. Table and chairs, two recliners, and a small couch. A half-full bookshelf with a few novels and a bunch of magazines. Fully stocked vending machine, but I don’t have any money. TV, but I could be watching that at home in my bed.

Girl my age, but reading what must be the most interesting magazine ever written since she can’t take her face out of it.

Two little kids. They are maybe eight or nine years old, small, and now that I see them closely, definitely siblings. One boy, one girl. They each sit with one leg up on the couch, almost mirror images of each other. The girl is coloring while her brother messes around with a pair of walkie-talkies. They buzz and crackle as he turns knobs and presses buttons. The walkies scream when they are too close together. He doesn’t seem to understand how they work.

“Uri and Phoebe,” Tom W. says even though I didn’t ask. “They are headed to Florida. Going to Disney.” When he turns back to me, he has a smirk on his face and adds, “Very soon,” as if I’m on his side.

The boy grins at me. The girl ignores me. The walkie-talkie squeals.

Tom closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “Uri, please stop doing that.” He points to the girl reading, who still doesn’t look up at us as Tom talks about her.

“And this young lady is Jada. She’s headed home to Colorado Springs. I think you two are about the same age. Maybe you can keep each other company? Play Uno or something?”

He says it in a hopeful way, and glances at Anne who’s still standing in the doorway. I
get the feeling he’d rather follow Anne out of the room when she leaves, but he only follows her to the door and watches her walk down the hall. Jada doesn’t look at me again so I’m guessing Uno is out.

I head for the table in the back corner. The chair makes a loud screeching sound on the tile floor when I pull it out. Tom flinches a little bit. If he doesn’t like noise, he’s
probably got the wrong job, but I don’t say that out loud.

I drop myself into the plastic orange seat, throw my backpack on the table, and purposely scrape the chair as I pull it back in. Inside my bag, I have a big green spiral notebook. The McKinley Book of Records. I slap that on the table upside down so no one can see what it says on the cover, rip out a piece of paper, and start folding it. Folding paper calms me down. My dad’s the same way; he says it’s meditative.

“How long do I have to stay here?” I ask, as I fold the corners to the middle of the
page.

“Until a parent shows up.”

“My mom, you mean.”

“Whoever is able to pick you up.”

“My dad is an air traffic controller in Boston.”

“Where does your mother live?”

“Mars.”

Tom squints at me like he’s trying hard to keep his eyeballs behind his eyelids.

“Then I guess…your mother?”

“I guess.” If she decides to show.

“What are you making?” he asks, pointing to my paper. I notice Jada looks up, too.

“A starwing.”

“That’s an unusual way to fold a paper airplane.”

“My dad taught me.”

“Your dad sounds like a pretty cool dude.”

I look at him. But I’m done talking. Jada goes back to her magazine. Tom stands in the doorway and stares out like he wishes he were somewhere else. That’s something we could agree on, I guess.

*

Mom’s forgotten me before.

The last time she swore it would never happen again. But here I am. I understand sometimes it’s hard for her to get out of work early enough to meet me at school and on those days, I walk home alone. Last year, my ex-best friend Charlie’s mom would sometimes make me dinner, but if she couldn’t, I’d walk to Mr. Lou’s or the pizza place, and they know my usual order: General Tso’s Chicken or Two Slices Extra Pepperoni, Extra Cheese—Hold the Oregano. No big deal. But since I’ve been flying to Dad’s, she has never been late to the airport to pick me up. She always meets me at the gate when I come home, waving like she hasn’t seen me in a year.

She borrows Dr. Ross’ BMW. He’s the dentist at the practice where she cleans teeth, and they’re good friends. Mom tells me she loves to pick me up because the car ride is the only time she can keep me in one spot for more than fifteen minutes anymore, and she says how did that happen? because in sixth grade, I still hugged her in front of the school and now I won’t even look her in the eye. But she must not love it enough to be on time this morning. Even though I was gone all summer, I didn’t think she’d forget to pick me up. Even though we hadn’t been talking much by the end of seventh grade, you don’t forget your only son. Right?

Her lateness definitely makes the McKinley Book of Records, the notebook Dad and I started over the summer. It’s just like the Guinness Book of World Records, only just for our family. After we got in a fight about which type of paper airplane flies the farthest (Dad won), Dad said people will always fight over facts because they use whatever facts they want to back up what they believe from their own experience. In other words, I’m young and don’t know any better. He also says if I write stuff down, I might like to read it when I’m older.

I don’t really know if I’ll care about all the crazy stuff I wrote down about what we saw in the city, like the Drunkest Man at a Red Sox Game (Dad’s friend Zeke), and Farthest Frisbee Ever Thrown (Dad), and Loudest Root Beer Belch Ever Performed in a Taxi (me). I asked him if he should keep the book at his house until I come back, but he said to bring it with me and continue the recordkeeping in New York. Show him when I returned.

I’ll show him.

Worst Mother Ever: Lauren McKinley

Then I feel really bad. She’s not really the worst mother ever. She isn’t even strict. My mom’s just busy. I cross her name out, but not so much that she couldn’t still read it if she ever decides to pick up the record book and skim through. Because that’s how mad I am.

Latest Mother Ever: Lauren McKinley

I still feel bad.

I rip out the page, fold it into a classic dart plane, and fly it into the garbage.

*

I pretend the W on Tom’s name tag stands for Warden and I write Tom into the record book, too.

Skinniest Man Alive: Tom Warden

Seems to me he’s kind of like a teacher, only he has less power than a teacher so really he’s just like a super skinny babysitter. Tom finally leaves the doorway and now sits in the corner of the room on a computer, scrolling through lists of auctions on eBay. He’s wearing headphones and taps his foot, humming way off key, but I recognize the song anyway. Dad and I sang it most of the summer. It’s our song.

Tom confirms it with a sudden “Sweet Caroline! BUM BUM BUM!” For some reason this makes me mad. I grumble out loud and kick the chair across from me. Jada scowls at me. Tom lowers his headphones, turns to me, and asks, “Is there a problem?”

“Problem?” I say. “There’s no problem.” I even raise my hands up like I’m innocent. I don’t say anything about how only Red Sox fans sing that song and he couldn’t possibly be one because this is New Jersey. Just then the walkie-talkies squeal with feedback.

“Uri!” Tom jerks around to him. “Please. Stop. Doing that. I’ve been asking you all morning. I implore you to play with something else.”

“What’s implore?” the little boy asks.

“It means to beg,” Jada says, not looking up. She turns her page and then catches me watching her. She’s wearing black leggings and a long red t-shirt that says USA and she has crazy strong biceps. She tilts her head and widens her eyes like she’s saying ‘What are you looking at?’ I don’t want to, but I look away.

“Just play with something else, please,” Tom says.

“Like what?” Uri pushes one walkie-talkie over to his sister. She doesn’t look at it, but puts it in her pocket. “There’s nothing to do.”

“Why not get out a game?” Tom gestures to a big cabinet. “There’s a bunch to choose from. Clue, Monopoly, Life…maybe you and your sister can get this guy to join you.” He nods toward me.

Uri takes one look at me and politely says, “No, thank you.” He pulls a magazine off the rack instead. It has motorcycles on the front.

Good choice.

“Come sit by me,” Jada says, as she rolls her magazine up and sticks it in her bag. “We can look at that one together.”

Uri grins and squeezes himself between Jada and the arm of the oversized chair. They turn pages and talk about chrome and big tires, and Uri is about the happiest kid ever.

My stomach growls and the vending machine brags all about its Snickers and Doritos that I can’t buy. Dad said I wouldn’t need any money because Mom would be right there and could take me to breakfast. But that obviously did not happen. I stare out the glass windows that make up the front of the clubroom to try to take my mind off my stomach. Out in the hall, more people are passing by, dragging wheeled cases and small children.

The sun is coming up over the New York City skyline way in the distance. From the horizon up, the sky goes from yellow to white to blue to violet, and the sun is just below Manhattan so that the buildings look black against the pink and orange clouds. I don’t usually see the sunrise like this because I live on the Lower East Side and the buildings are too tall to see the whole sky at once. A sunrise in the city is more like a dimmer light slowly turning on. This looks like the world is on fire.

At the gate across the hall from us, an American Airlines jet taxies in and the massive engines come to a slow spin. Even behind all this glass, I can hear the steady roar die down. Lights on the tail blink and hypnotize me for a minute, makes me think about the first time I watched a plane pull up to the gate like that. I thought I was the luckiest kid with divorced parents ever because I got to get on that plane all by myself. I got free food and all the root beer I wanted. I got flight attendants like Anne fussing over me the entire flight. I didn’t have to drive back and forth like other kids. Flying was way cooler. But a year later, I’m over it.

Mom should probably send me back to Boston, let me live with Dad like he offered over the summer. He doesn’t want me getting into any more trouble at school.

But that would really hurt her feelings. But I’m also dreading going back to school because ever since Charlie ditched me, we haven’t said a word to each other. But I’m not sure I want to move to Boston. What if I couldn’t make any new friends? I’m not that great at it. But not going to Boston will hurt Dad’s feelings. I can’t win. Just thinking about all of it makes me feel like my eyes are bouncing around inside my head.

I grab my Sharpie and start scratching on the desk instead of the record book: L-O-S-E-R. When I’m done I stare at the word for a long time. Who is it for? Charlie? My very-late mother? Dad for sending me off without money? Or me for being me?

*

Caroline must have stopped being so sweet. Tom is suddenly standing in front of me yelling my name.

“McKinley!” It makes me jump. I’m starting to really not like him and his skinny chicken legs.
“What do you think you’re doing?”

“Nothing,” I say. I look at the desk. I don’t know what I was thinking.

“Well, it looks like nothing is defacing airport property. Do you write on your tables at home with black permanent marker?”

“It’s just ink.”

“Oh, okay. If it’s just ink,” he finger quotes ink, “go get something to wash it off with.”

He mumbles, “Unbelievable,” as I get up and loudly scrape the chair again. I swing open the bathroom door so hard it crashes into the wall. I yank on the paper towels so the cover pops off and clatters to the floor.

“Jesus, kid! Could you be any louder?”

I kick in the stainless steel garbage can. The more noise I make, the angrier I get. Phoebe holds her hands over her ears. Jada takes Uri by the hand and sits on the couch between the twins. They all look at me like I’m a crazy person and then I feel really stupid. I’m not a crazy person, I’m not even mean. But it’s hard for me to stop arguing with Tom. I want out of this room.

“You do realize it’s a privilege to be here?” Tom says. “You could sit in the security office until your mother arrives. I don’t have to keep you, especially if you’re a danger to the other kids.”

I’m not a danger to other kids. Only to garbage cans. “Then why are you?”

“Because I thought this would be more comfortable for you. Be with other kids, TV, stuff to do.”

“I didn’t ask for any favors,” I say. I’m not trying to be a smart-ass; the words just fly out of my mouth by themselves. But it’s the truth. This was the airport’s idea. I’d never choose to sit in a room with Tom or a security guard or anyone else. Well, maybe with Jada, but she’s so not interested in me. So probably not even with her either. If I had money, I could have gotten a cab home all by myself.

“Just clean up that mess please. Use this.” Tom places a bottle of Windex on the table. I hate to tell him Windex will not clean up Sharpie. I’ve tried it before in the boys’ bathroom at PS 276 after Charlie and I got in trouble for drawing a giant Tic-Tac-Toe board. I was X’s, he was O’s. It was a tie.

“When you’re finished, please just sit still like the Wonder Twins over there.”

“What’s a wonder twin?” Uri asks in his high-pitched voice.

Tom sighs and ignores him, but keeps lecturing me. “You need to keep it down and respect the property of the Clubroom. We made an exception for you today, so it would be helpful if you minded the rules; set a good example for the younger kids.”

I almost tell him to set his own example, but instead I spray the table with the Windex and keep my mouth shut for once. He doesn’t.

“You’re not above them, you know. Just because you’re what, twelve?”

I feel my skin getting hot as I scrub at the word LOSER. It’s not coming off, of course. I hope my face isn’t turning red. “Thirteen.”

The table will not come clean. Some things are permanent.

“Excuse me. Thirteen.” Tom sits on one of the reclining chairs and his voice changes, he’s trying to be nice now. This is where I should calm down and make peace.

I focus on the 747 outside. I imagine everyone boarding and storing their bags, unbuckling the seat belts and cursing when they can’t buckle themselves in. The way the compartments never close all the way, but somehow the flight attendants can always figure it out. How no one over the age of eleven can fit in those seats. How you always have to sit by strangers, but the roar of the engines at takeoff always puts everyone to sleep.

“Were you visiting your dad in Boston?” Tom asks.

I rest my chin on my arms. I don’t even look at him and he still won’t stop trying to have a conversation.

“Pretty well-off parents, I guess,” he says, smirking a little bit. “Used to getting what you want, I’d guess.”

If I were someone who laughed, I’d have laughed right out loud. Flying is just a perk from Dad’s job. And Mom is anything but rich. She works real hard, but never makes enough to buy Air Jordans or anything like that.

Rich is a fairytale, something you see in the movies.

Rich is for kids who have their own drivers with signs in fancy script who are always on time after school or at the airport.

Rich never has empty pockets or a growling stomach.

Rich is reserved for kids like the one who walks into the room right now.

*

“This is Nicholas Grace.”

Anne comes back into the room behind a blonde kid in khaki cargo pants and a white polo shirt who looks like he stepped right out of the Macy’s display window. He has a video camera around his neck and looks cleaner than an Ivory soap commercial.

Anne rushes over to Tom, who is suddenly Mr. Too-Nice Guy again, with a big stack of papers. Like an entire file-folder of papers.

“What’s all this?” Tom gets up from his chair and flips through the pages.

“His instructions,” Anne says. “Including a list of meal preferences?” Her flushed face has an unreadable expression, though Tom seems to understand it.

“O-K,” he says and tosses the folder on his desk. “Welcome to the Clubroom, Nick.”

“Nicholas,” the kid says.

He surveys the room with his camera in hand, panning across very slowly, filming the entire room and stopping on everyone’s face. Especially Jada’s. Tom and Anne look at each other. Anne shrugs, and smiles at Tom, tapping his shoulder.

“You have quite the group today, Tommy.”

She leaves and we keep watching Nicholas as he scans the room with his camera like he’s gathering evidence.

“Tom?” he says. “Your name is Tom, right?”

“Yes.” Tom points to his wings. “Tom.”

“This room is freezing, Thomas.” Nicholas walks over to the thermostat and raises the camera to it. “This should be set at seventy-two.”

“It’s just Tom. And why is that?”

“My father, Gregory Scott, you may have heard of him, he’s pretty famous. He’s written thirteen books and produced five movies, mostly about natural disasters, and he wrote a book about Mt. Everest and avalanches and hypothermia…”

“Sit down, Nick.”

“Nicholas.”

“Sit down, Nicholas.”

I get out my record book. This is gonna be good.

“I’m just saying, Thomas. Prolonged exposure is a dangerous and underrated phenomena.”

“I’m just saying,” Tom takes a breath, “you’re in an airport. And it’s September.”

“My fingers are already cold.” He blows on his hands like he’s trying to warm them up. “And my father…”

Tom walks over to the thermostat. “It’s sixty-eight, kid. Sixty eight is hardly freezing.”

“Seventy-two is recommended room temperature.”

Tom stares at Nicholas and punches a button on the thermostat four times with dramatic force. He slams the cover shut, returns to his desk, puts on his headphones and starts scrolling through eBay again. I’m willing to bet he’ll be sitting like that for a long time.

With a smug smile on his face, Nicholas goes to the windows and films the airplanes on the tarmac as if nothing ever happened. Jada and I look at each other. She shakes her head and sighs and I can almost hear her thinking it—boys—and I want to say something about how I’m really nothing like that kid even though I know so far I’ve sounded like a total jerk, but her attention goes right back to the twins.

“You’re a talented artist,” she says to the little girl. “Those skyscrapers look real.”

“She says thank you,” Uri says.

“Can’t Phoebe speak for herself?” Jada asks.

“No.”

Nicholas swings around with his camera and films their conversation.

“Why won’t your sister talk?” Nicholas asks from across the room.

“She only talks at home. She’s really shy.” Then he leans over to Jada and whispers, “Sometimes she wanders too, which is why my mom makes us carry these.” He taps the walkie-talkie.

“That’s fine,” Jada says, looking at Nicholas. “She doesn’t have to talk if she doesn’t want to.”

“So where are you all flying to?” Nicholas asks, still looking through his camcorder.

They tell him and he continues interviewing them like he’s some kind of reporter.

He has this weird way of getting them to talk, like part of him is grownup and important
and part of him is just nosy but maybe even a little shy too. I can tell he’s the kind of kid
who knows exactly how to use words to get what he wants. I can’t decide if I admire that
or hate it because I’m terrible at it. But I write their entire conversation down in the
record book. And then I rip out a page, scribble something down and fold it into a classic
plane. I send it to Uri and it lands right on the couch between him and Jada. They both
seem surprised, but when he opens it, he lets Jada and Phoebe read it, both twins grin at
me. Jada even cracks a tiny smile.

Most Powerful Superheroes = Wonder Twins

Then Nicholas whips his camera over to me. He doesn’t feel the need to keep his distance from me like he did with Jada. He walks right back across the room and stands in front of my table. When he pulls out the chair, it’s silent.

“What are you writing?” He asks in his reporter voice. But I don’t trust him.

“Nothing.”

“Is it a diary?”

“No. It’s just a book.”

“That’s not a book.”

“Yes, it is.” I close it and show him the spine and flip the pages. “See? A book.”

“Not a regular novel is what I mean. One that you read.” He brings his camera up and asks if he can get me on film. “I’m making a movie. Can I record you?”

I stare at him over the lens. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t actually looking for an answer.

“I’m serious, you’re a very interesting character,” he continues. “This army jacket that’s obviously way too big, faded camo pants that you’ve clearly worn a lot, silver stud in your ear which has to be new because your earlobe is still really red, and writing in a diary. It’s a great juxtaposition.”

He’s right on all accounts. These pants are my favorite because they have a ton of pockets. I keep my Sharpie in the lowest pocket. Other stuff like a small paper plane my dad left me, and a couple bottle caps from the day Charlie and I sat at the park and drank an entire six-pack of root beers. The army jacket was my grandfather’s and my dad just gave it to me before I left his place. And the earring, well, that was my own personal experiment this summer. Dad bet me I couldn’t do it. I won. Total record book material.

Nothing Nicholas needs to know.

All I can say is, “It’s not a diary. It’s a record book.”

“Can I read it?”

“No! Now go away.”

He gets out a small kit with a soft cloth and tiny spray bottle and cleans his perfectly spotless camcorder. “My dad sent me this.” he says. “It’s a Canon FV30.”

“Is that supposed to mean something to me?”

“It’s only one of the best and most expensive hand held video recorders you can get that also takes still shots. It’s perfect for amateur filmmakers such as myself.”

I don’t like that he thinks he knows everything. I want to tell him to buzz off, but with a better vocabulary word than “buzz.” But Tom would be on me for that one. Still, what could he even do? I’m already a prisoner of the airport. I don’t have any money. They can’t kick me out, they can’t send me anywhere except the security office, whatever that is. I can do whatever I want, though punching this mini Steven Spielberg is not smart. He probably has his own lawyer. I glare at him and say nothing and he seems to finally be out of questions, so he gets up and moves to one of the reclining chairs to watch videos on his precious camcorder.

When I was little, Mom used to tell me to punch a pillow or my bed if I got really angry. It doesn’t work anymore. And when I’m not home, there’s nothing to punch anyway. It builds up inside like a balloon with too much air and especially after last year, I feel almost ready to pop all the time. But these aren’t the things Dad wants me to record. He told me to write funny things, fantastic things, anything I want to remember. I think he’s right, not everything is meant to be in permanent ink. Instead I get to work on a zip dart, one of my best airplane folds, and push thoughts of Nicholas out of my head.

When I look up, I notice the little girl half of the Wonder Twins staring at me from the couch. She intently watches my fingers as I fold and crease and fold and crease until the plane is finished. When I’m done, I hold it up, aim it toward her, and when she smiles and nods, I send it her way.

*

Nicholas can’t stay quiet for long. He turns the camera back on and asks Jada if she wants to be in his movie.

“Not really,” she says. “But thanks.”

“Why are you making a movie?” Uri asks.

“Because it’s in my genes.”

Uri blinks. Nicholas explains, “My dad’s books get made into movies. That’s why I’m flying out to see him. I’m going to be on set of this next one.”

“Wow! So your dad’s really famous.”

“Pretty much,” Nicholas says and shrugs like it’s no big deal, even though he’s said it at least three times in about just as many minutes.

Phoebe whispers something in Uri’s ear. He speaks for her, “Phoebe wants to know if you’re going to be famous, too.”

“I am. That’s why I carry this camera around with me. I’m going to write screenplays—that means basically I will write and direct my own movies. I already have a ton of ideas.”
I grunt from my corner.

“What?” Nicholas says. “You don’t think I can do it?”

“You have to have something interesting to write about. Something people would actually watch.”

“I have plenty of interesting ideas.”

“Like what you do on Sundays at racquetball club? With your crisp white polo shirt and fancy camcorder? Everyone’s going to want to see that.”

“You don’t know a thing about me,” Nicholas says, angrily. It’s the first time he doesn’t sound spoiled. I’m almost willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until he opens his mouth again.

“Who wouldn’t want to see the secret lives of the rich and famous? Look at all the reality shows on TV. My dad is a celebrity. Why couldn’t I have my own show?” He crosses his arms and smirks.

“You can’t just be rich. You’d have to do things no one else does. The only way to get a good story is to do things other people are too afraid to do.”

“How do you know I’m not?” Nicholas crosses his arms.

I can’t think of anything to say, so I shrug.

“Whatever.”

I put my headphones on and Nicholas goes back to the Wonder Twins. I close my eyes and try not to think about my growling stomach or what questions Nicholas might be asking those kids now. Jada laughs at something Nicholas says. I bury my face in my arms and drift off, hoping when I wake up the others will be on their flights and most importantly, my ride will show up.

*

Uri’s walkie-talkie screeches through the room like a jet.

I fly back in my seat, the sound jolting me from a dream I can’t remember. I check the clock and realize not even a full ten minutes passed while I drooled. Sleep was my only chance at escape and Uri ruined it. But I’m not as mad as Tom.

Tom whips around like someone hit him in the back of the head with something.

“Uri! Didn’t I ask you to please turn those off?”

“Sorry.”

“I can’t take it anymore.” He stands up and walks over to the couch. “Let me have them until it’s time for you to go.”

Phoebe’s eyes go wide and frightened. Uri shakes his head. “I won’t do it again. I promise.” He turns his off. “See?”

“I think it would be better if you let me hold them. I’ll set them right here on my desk.” Tom walks over and puts his hand out. Uri looks at his sister, but hands it over.

Phoebe doesn’t move.

“Phoebe?”

Neither twin says a word. Nicholas does it for them. “They need those because she doesn’t talk to other people.”

“Thank you for your help, Nicholas. I realize that. I’m not keeping them. I’m just going to hold them until they are ready to leave.”

After a few more seconds of nobody moving, I can’t help myself. “Leave them alone. You’ve already got one. The other one can’t make noise by itself.”

Tom stares at me. My armpits sweat bad. He points at me, but then shakes his head and says nothing. Instead he sets the walkie-talkie on the table, sits back down to the computer and puts on his headphones. I exhale. Then I look at Nicholas and tell him to leave the twins alone too. He seems surprised.

“We’re just talking,” he says. “This is how you make friends, you know. You talk.” He drags out “you” and “talk” like I can’t understand English. Like I’m some kind of ape in a cage.

“You’re not making friends, you’re making fans.”

Nicholas looks at me for a minute like he doesn’t know what I’m talking about. Then he points the camera at me. He seriously has no fear.

“Where are you flying?”

“I’m not.”

“This is an airport. If you’re not flying, why are you here? Are you the janitor?”

“I already flew. I’m waiting for my ride.”

“You must have had a red-eye,” he says. “That means an overnight flight.”

“I know what a red-eye is.”

“They don’t usually let kids do that.”

“I’m special.”

Nicholas shrugs and continues filming, but swings his camcorder over to Tom. I want out of the room so bad it’s hard to sit still. The walls seem closer and sitting here seems more and more ridiculous. I shove the record book in my bag and scrape my chair out. Everyone is watching me, but I pretend I don’t notice. I pace in front of the windows that look into the terminal.

“Can I make a call?” I turn and ask Tom.

Tom looks startled. “Why?”

“Because I want to make a phone call.”

“Who are you calling?”

I’m so tired of people’s questions. “What does it matter?” My foot kicks the table leg and sends it a couple feet. Phoebe jumps. I look at her and want to tell her I’m sorry, but the words don’t come. They never do. I don’t have those words, I’m sorry. But Tom has plenty.

“I think you should give me a good reason why you need to use the phone.”

I don’t have a good reason, at least not one that will convince him. Tom seems to know this because he sits in his chair with his arms folded like he’s waiting for me to do something besides pace. I wish I could. I wish I was brave enough to pound out of the room, but I’m not.

“Why can’t he make a call?” Jada asks. My skin reacts before my brain. She’s sticking up for me?

“Yeah,” Nick chimes in. “Isn’t that the point of having a phone?” I won’t lie, I’m annoyed when I hear his voice, but interested to see where Nicholas, lawyer to the people, takes this one.

“There needs to be a reason,” Tom says.

“Does it cost money to dial out?”

“No.”

“Is there a limit to how many phone calls a day can be made?”

“No.”

“Then why does he need a reason?” Nicholas is as calm as anything. Like they’re discussing the morning’s weather. I’ve never known a kid who can challenge an adult without skipping a beat. All without showing any frustration.

Ballsiest Lawyer in Training: Nicholas Grace

Nick continues. “If he doesn’t have a cell phone, he should be allowed to use the phone in here.”

“I have a cell,” I lie. “It’s just dead.”

“I rest my case,” Nick says.

I could learn something from him. Jada beams at him. That makes me want to throw a paper airplane at his face, but I can’t. He’s helping me out.

“What’s with the three of you? Do you know each other or something?” Tom asks. “Brady, no phone for right now, okay? Your mom’s on her way. Just sit tight.”

Nicholas sighs. Loudly. Then he stands up, reaches in his pocket and holds out his phone. “You can borrow mine. It’s supposed to be for emergencies only, but my parents don’t care.”

I stare at the phone, pretty much the best phone you can get, and stare at Nicholas. My mom would say tearing someone else apart just makes you feel worse in the end, but I can’t keep my mouth shut.

“Do you have your own credit card too?” I ask, unable to hide the sarcasm that fills the air like a giant cloud of black gnats.

“Actually…”

“I’m good.” I put up my hand to block his offer. “I don’t need your phone when there is one right there on the wall that I should be allowed to use.” I glare at Tom.

“Fine,” Tom puts his hands up. “I was simply asking you a question. Calm down and make your phone call.”

Now everyone is staring at me as I walk to the phone. I hadn’t intended on causing such a scene. I don’t even understand why I get so mad sometimes. Since I never seem to know where my feet are, I kick the trash can on the way over, surely making Phoebe jump again, which makes me feel bad.

I dial the phone and listen to it ring and ring and ring as my insides dry up and turn to dust. She’s either on her way or sleeping. Either way, Tom looks way too satisfied that no one picks up. I slam the receiver down so hard the phone rings back at me.

Sorry, Phoebe. I stare at the phone. Twenty more minutes and I’m calling Dad.

I stand there for a while. Tom returns to his computer, and Uri starts talking to Nicholas again. But Jada looks at me, worried, this time. I don’t know what to do with myself so I sit back down and hide my face again. There’s nothing worse than disintegrating in front of all of them.

This is all my mom’s fault.

*

My stomach growls so loud, Phoebe looks at me. I pretend it came from Tom W.

I did not sleep at all last night because I was so nervous about coming home, and I haven’t eaten in over twelve hours. I drum my fingers on the table thinking about all the food I could be eating out in the food court right now if I wasn’t stuck in this room. And if I had money. Cheeseburgers, spicy tacos, sweet and sour pork, cinnamon buns dripping with icing, warm chocolate chip cookies, French fries…my stomach growls even more thinking about it.

Jada pulls out her magazine again and now I realize it’s a photo of a gymnast on the front. She reads with a serious expression on her face.

Nicholas keeps his eyes on his camcorder, and he let’s Uri watch clips he’s recorded over and over. Nick cracks up every now and then, which looks like his shoulders are shaking, but no sound comes out of his mouth. His ears are pink. I think he’s super nervous sitting by Jada, but I guess it’s a good thing if the director likes his own work.

No sound from Phoebe except the continued scratching of her pencil.

“Is it okay if I sit next to you and read?” Jada asks. The girl nods and even smiles a bit, so Jada sits across from her and starts pulling things out of her bag. Water bottle, more magazines with gymnasts, a book, a box of protein bars, a pencil, and an iPod. She lines them all up on the table in a nice row. As soon as my brain registers the sound of the foil wrappers, my stomach growls so loud that Jada turns to me.

“Want one? I have plenty, and my mom sent more boxes in my checked bag.”

Shoot me now. I might as well announce that I’m penniless and foodless. I don’t need handouts. I need my mother to be where she’s supposed to be. I shake my head and put my face back in my arms and breathe on the table, where it feels like my own private greenhouse.

“I’ll have one,” Nicholas says, finally brave enough to speak to her. “I mean if you’re offering.”

“Sure!” She tosses one across the room; I hear him catch it. I get the feeling he will save that wrapper until the day he dies.

Meanwhile, my stomach curses me for saying no. I continue to breathe in my arm-head-table fort, listening as she settles back in her chair, how the pages of her magazine whisper when she turns them. Phoebe’s scratching pencil. Tom W’s fingers hitting the keyboard too loudly. Uri rocking his chair. Only Nicholas can’t be located by sound. I peek up and see him filming through the windows again. He is seriously obsessed with that camcorder. And then I realize there’s a protein bar on the table in front of me. Which is really, really nice timing because I was about to start eating my own fingers.

I look at Jada and try to give her a silent thank you, because I don’t really want to talk out loud and get Tom after me again. I’m not sure if she understands or not, but she nods and goes back to her magazine. I unwrap the peanut butter oatmeal piece of heaven, fold it in half, and eat it in one bite. I need about eighteen more of those things to make a dent in my starvation.

“Excuse me, Thomas?” Nicholas suddenly asks in his lawyer voice.

Tom sighs.

“Any chance you can get me out there?” Nicholas points toward the windows, but Tom doesn’t turn around.

“No.”

“You didn’t even look where I’m pointing.”

Tom pretends to turn and look. “No.”

Nicholas walks right up to Tom’s desk and stands to his left.

“Do you have kids?”

“No.”

“Then what’s with the figures?”

“My nephew’s birthday is coming up.”

“He must really love Star Wars. Bet you’ll be his favorite uncle.”

“What do you want, Nick?”

“Nicholas. I want you to take me outside so I can get some up-close shots of that airplane. It’s really important that I get all the right angles for this movie.” He sounds so professional and convincing, it’s creepy.

Tom spins his chair around now and folds his arms. “What’s your movie called?”

“It doesn’t have a name yet. Only a working title.”

“What’s a working title?”

“It means,” Nicholas impatiently sighs, “I have a title but it could be changed.”

“So what’s your working title?”

Nicholas dramatically poses and raises his hands like there’s a banner in the room.

The Day Everything Changed.

“Interesting,” Tom says, sounding genuine. “What happens on the day everything changes?”

Nicholas is quiet for longer than three seconds, which for him is a lot. “I’m not sure yet, but it’ll be good.”

Tom laughs. “Well, I can’t take you out there. You’re not supposed to leave this room until Anne comes to get you for your flight. And I definitely can’t take you outside the building. Nobody goes on the tarmac except employees or if a plane is boarding out there. Sorry.”

“No one will ever know,” Nicholas suggests. But Tom shakes his head very slowly.

“My father…”

“Don’t start.”

Nicholas sighs and gives up even though I know he’s accustomed to winning.

This must be new for him. When he passes by me, he whispers, “I’m getting out of this room and getting out there. You watch.” I guess he’s not giving up after all.

Adrenaline pumps through me. Could he be serious? I have to believe if anyone could wheedle his way out, it would be this Nicholas kid. And there’s no way I’m staying in here if he manages it. I’ll call my mom from a payphone and hide out in the men’s room if I have to. Anything is better than this place. Nick sits on the couch next to Jada and inspects his camera. I rip a piece of paper out of my record book and write: If you’re going, I’m going.

Then I fold it into a basic dart, the best fold for a quick and easy note pass, and send it crash landing into Nicholas’ lap. He reads it, looks surprised, and glances at me. I raise an eyebrow. He nods. And just like that, we’re on the same team.

*

Anne pokes her head in the room again.

“Tommy, can I talk to you for a minute?” Tom gets up in a hurry, a big smile on his face, and leaves the room without saying anything to any of us. The second the door is closed, Uri runs to the table, grabs the walkie-talkie and hides it in his pocket. I like that kid.

I forget my fortress of solitude at the table and go up to the window to see where Tom went. They are standing outside the door to the right, talking about something I can’t hear, but clearly isn’t about Young Travelers. Anne tucks a piece of hair behind his ear and he pokes at her ribs. Gross.

“Ready to leave?” Nicholas says, suddenly standing at my side. We don’t make eye contact and just stare out the window.

“Yes.”

“Have you thought about security?”

“Not worried about it. I only have to get to a taxi.”

“Do you have money for a taxi?”

“Shut up.”

“I’m trying to help you think it through. When someone tries to help, you don’t have to be so nasty.”

“I don’t need your help.”

Nicholas looks me in the eyes like no one ever does. “I think you do.” And he shows me a wad of money like I’ve never seen.

“Your parents let you travel with all that?” Jada asks, surprising us both at the window.

“They don’t know what I travel with,” Nicholas says and shoves it back in a pocket.

“What are you saying?” Jada asks.

“I’m saying they don’t know what I travel with.”

“You know it’s dangerous to go around with that much cash in one place. Everyone knows that. Someone could steal it all in one shot.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Nicholas says. “I have this too.” He pulls out a wallet and flashes a little plastic rectangle. I’m beginning to think money comes out of his pores.

“I knew it,” I say.

“It’s for emergencies, but my parents seriously don’t care.” He slides the credit card back and puts the wallet in his bag. “So, if we can get out, your ride home is on me.”

I can’t tell whether or not Nicholas is telling me the truth. Although getting home is totally easy if I have the cash, escaping is a different matter. If he’s all talk, I’d be stuck out in the airport with no way to even call my mom without going back to the clubroom like a dog with its tail between its legs. Can’t do that.

“Put your money where your mouth is,” I say.

“How do I know you won’t keep it?” he asks.

“Because I want out of here more than anyone. Did you not see how much Tom likes me? He’s a jerk and he’s going to make the rest of my day miserable.”

“You’ll get me out, too?”

“Promise, but I can’t get stuck out there with no ticket home. Cash first or no deal.”

Nicholas looks at Jada. “Don’t look at me,” she says, crossing her arms and grinning. “You two seem to have this all figured out.”

But I have the feeling she doesn’t really think we do.

“Cash for my ride home and I’ll get all three of us out,” I say.

“You’re crazy,” Jada says, but she’s still smiling.

“I like it,” Nicholas says. “You get your ride, I get a close-up of that plane. We help each other out.”

I nod. But I’ll believe it when I see it.

“Perfect. My flight isn’t for hours. I got dropped off early cause my dad had to work,” Jada says, rolling up her magazine and sticking it in her bag.

“You just said we were crazy!” Nicholas says.

“You are, but it’s still an awesome idea,” she says, grinning. “So how are we doing it?”

“You don’t even know me,” I say, not sure why.

“I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself.”

“Why do you want out?”

“Why not?” she says with an expression on her face that tells me that’s all I’m getting. I figure it’s as good a reason as any other.

“I’m totally getting a Cinnabon,” she says.

Feedback from Uri’s walkie-talkie makes us all jump. “Can we come?” he asks.

“No,” Jada says. “But I’ll bring you back treats.”

Uri seems satisfied with that. Phoebe smiles, but doesn’t look up from her drawing.

“Do you think they’ll say something?” Nicholas whispers.

“What would they say that Tom wouldn’t already know? Besides, we’re going to need their help,” Jada says.

“We are?” I raise an eyebrow. Whose plan is this?

“Those walkie-talkies. They could seriously come in handy.”

I think about what Uri said about why he had them in the first place. “I don’t know.”

“What is there to know? If we get separated, we can stay in touch. I’ll make sure to bring them back here later.”

I don’t say anything to that because I didn’t even think we were going to stick together the second we get out the door. If we even get out the door.

“And no matter what happens,” Jada adds. “If we get caught, they can’t do anything to us. It’s his job to watch us, he’s the one who’s gonna get in trouble.”

“What are you going to do out there?” Nicholas asks.

“I don’t know. Explore. Shop,” she says.

“That’s a super exciting plan,” I say.

She makes a face at me. “And yours is so much more spectacular?”

“Nicholas is the only one with a grand idea,” I say. “I just want to get out of here.”

“A grand idea that I’m never going to have time to do,” Nicholas says as he looks at the clock.

“Why?”

“Because my flight is supposed to leave at seven-thirty. I don’t know if there’s enough time before they board me.”

“Oh no,” I say. “You don’t get to call off the bet now. A deal is a deal.”

“I didn’t realize the time!”

“Too bad!”

“I can’t miss my flight. My dad is waiting.”

“Yeah!” chirps Uri. “He has to be on set!”

I roll my eyes. Fans.

“On set for what?” Jada asks. “Are you actually part of the cast?”

“Long story,” Nicholas says and for what I think is probably the first time in his life, he doesn’t tell the story. Another entry for the record book.

“Flight or no flight, you can’t go back on a bet,” I say. I ball my fist up in my pocket. It wouldn’t take much to knock him over and take the cash, a thought that surprises me as soon as I think it. I’m not really a bad person, but I am so close to getting out. This is our best chance, with Tom distracted in the hall and now Nicholas is going to wreck it. It makes me want to wreck him.

Only I don’t think it would impress Jada and I know it would scare the twins. I walk away from them both. There has to be another way.

Then Tom returns and my stomach drops. Chance lost.

“Nicholas?” Tom says. “You’ve been put on a later flight.”

“Why?” Nicholas asks.

“Mechanical issues with the plane. You’re going to catch the nine-thirty instead.”

Tom closes the door and goes back to flirting with Anne.

“Well,” Jada says. “There you go. Hand over the money.”

*

I stare at the ten and two twenties. Besides Christmas, I don’t know if I’ve ever had this much cash in my hand.

Jada and Nicholas stare at me now, waiting to see what I’m going to do. Honestly, I didn’t think Nicholas had it in him to live up to his end of the deal—not the guts or the generosity. But I was wrong. Both of them have their bags and are ready to go as if we’re going to walk right out the door. But Tom and Anne are standing too close to it.

“I still don’t have very long,” Nicholas says. “I need a shot of that plane and the food court.”

“I know where the food court is,” I say. I shove the money in my bag and put the bag near the door. “You’re on your own with the plane.”

“What’s the plan?” Jada asks.

“I’ve got it covered,” I say.

“Well, you better hurry up because I think the love-birds are wrapping it up,” Nicholas says.

“I’ve got it,” I say, and I do. I have an instant escape plan, one that Charlie and I developed in sixth grade. It failed, but I think I’ve got the kinks worked out now. And it should buy us enough time to sneak out before Tom even knows what’s going on. I crouch down in front of Uri, who seems a little intimidated at first. I’m careful to not get too loud.

“I need you and your sister’s help. We’re going to, um, detain Mr. Tom, but I don’t want him stuck forever. It’s only so we can sneak out. You’ll let him out after a little while. Can you do that?”

He turns his walkie-talkie on and off, on and off while he stares at me, then nods and says, “As long as there’s a cinnamon bun in it for me and Phoebe.”

Jada laughs. “Kid after my own heart.” She bends down to us too, and it’s like we’re making this pact together, a small team united by cinnamon buns. “What time do you and Phoebe leave?” she asks.

He pulls out a folded piece of paper with all his flight information handwritten on it. “My mom made me carry this.” He hands it to Jada who reads it and nods again.

“No problem,” she says. “Plenty of time. I’ll bring you guys back a whole box.”

She looks at Nicholas who nods as if this has been his whole plan all along. Still, I like
this girl more and more, and even Nicholas doesn’t seem so terrible right now. The fact he
actually gave me fare for a cab? You never really know what someone else is thinking, I guess.

I look at the Wonder Twins and hope they don’t rat us out before we escape. Then I get an idea.

“Lend me one of those.” I point to the walkie-talkie in Uri’s hand. “Do you know what air traffic control does?”

Uri nods and then shakes his head no. “Not really.”

“They sit up in that tower out there by the runways and help tell the airplanes where to go. When a plane is up in the sky, there’s no road signs or anything so air traffic control keeps track of every single plane to keep it on the right path. To let them know if there are any problems. They stay in touch.”

“You want me to do that?” A smile stretches across Uri’s face.

“Exactly. You tell us what Tom is up to and where he’s going, after you set him free. And we will bring the walkie-talkie back before you have to leave. Do you think you can do that job?”

Uri nods like crazy, like he’s been dying to have a reason to use the walkie-talkies and I just gave him the most important job in the airport. I’m glad he’s into it, because this way I can stay in touch with him, and know what Tom is up to. I give him a quick lesson in how to use the thing right, to make sure it’s not too noisy and Tom finds it. “Don’t use it if he’s right in the room, though.”

“Got it,” Uri says and slides back on the couch. His feet don’t even hit the ground because he’s so small and something about it gives me a weird feeling like maybe I really shouldn’t get them involved.

“You ready?” Jada asks.

“Yeah. Yep, I’m good,” I say. “Let’s get this thing going.” I get up, shove the walkie-talkie in my pocket and explain the plan to everyone. We line up our backpacks under the window by the door and wait for Tom.

*

Tom walks in looking like he just saved the world. I think maybe he finally got a date.

“You should probably call whoever is picking you up in San Francisco, Nicholas. The airline will call too, but it’s good for parents to hear straight from their kids and since you have your own phone…”

Nicholas looks unsure. “Nah, I’m good to go,” he says, looking at me instead of Tom. It sends a rush through me to move quickly. I get up and go into the bathroom, and waste five minutes unraveling three rolls of toilet paper, remembering how Charlie and I tried this to get out of going to see CATS on Broadway. Instead of expulsion, Mr. Jones threatened to make us go to the show twice. We got two days of detention instead. After the show.

But this time no one can give us detention. I stuff all the toilet paper and some paper towels for good measure into the toilet in a manner in which you should never flush.

And I flush.

I peek out the door. “Um. Tom?”

“Yeah?” Tom barely looks my way, busy settling back to his eBay auctions.

“Toilet’s clogged.”

“Seriously?” He shoves his chair back, and attempts to move me from the doorway, in which I scramble away from his hands anyway so that he can fully appreciate the fountain of tissue and water I’ve created. I move behind him, slam the bathroom door, and hold it tight while Jada wraps Tom’s headphone cords between the bathroom doorknob and the supply closet right next to it. Then we slide the big table up against the doors. The entire time Tom yells and bangs on the door.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Uri giggles on the couch. I give him a thumbs up. “Fifteen minutes, okay?”

Uri holds up his walkie-talkie and paper airplane and whispers, “I got this.”

I salute the Wonder Twins. We grab our backpacks and slip out the door, escaping the Young Travelers Club.

Freedom is way easier than I expected.