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.
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.
“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!”
by Brooke Herter James
Picture Book Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature