By: Donna Cooner

I look around the room once more. No other choice. I slide into one of the chairs, my bottom falling over both sides of the seat. I put my book bag on the floor beside me and carefully hook the strap over one arm. Don’t let it fall. If it falls then every thing will be out of my reach for the rest of class. I pull the strap up until I can manage to reach inside. Rummaging around, I look for a pen and notebook. Pulling them out, I try not to make much noise. I don’t want anyone’s attention. I rest the notebook awkwardly on my stomach and try to turn to today’s blank page. Finally, I’m ready. Everything is hard.

The teacher looks toward me.

“Look at the pity in his eyes.”

I guess that’s better than the disdain I see in most of the teachers’ eyes and the outright fear I see from most other kids. Fear that it could happen to them.

“Look. She can’t even fit in the chair.”

Skinny doesn’t have to whisper that in my ear. I can hear it plainly. Kristen Rogers doesn’t even lower her voice. She is wearing a little pink tank top with the glittery word “Juicy” across the boobs. People think being fat somehow affects your hearing.

“I didn’t know pants came in that size,” Kristen says. “Maybe I should go on a diet. I told you my jeans were getting tight.”

“Don’t worry. You’ll never look like that,” her petite best friend Whitney responds. I know she’s right. Neither one of them will ever look like me. I don’t know why, but I know it’s true.

“Gigi Retodo has an announcement to make before class starts.” Mr. Blair waves Gigi up to the front of the room. “Only five minutes,” he warns.

Gigi’s face is an exotic combination of her Filipino father and Texan mother — creamy olive skin and almost black, almond-shaped eyes. But the bright blue bangs and the pink hair that fades into purple around the back of her neck distract from the pretty face. They’re definitely what you notice first.

Today she’s wearing red leggings and sparkly high-top tennis shoes. She’s tiny, with elf-like features and the body of a twelve-year-old boy. It’s March, but she still has a purple-striped scarf wrapped around her neck. She moves with a jittery grace that makes me think she just ate a sackful of candy and is dancing it off.

“The drama club wants to invite all of you to the spring musical in April,” Gigi says in a surprisingly big voice for such a little person. Then with an amazing lack of self-consciousness, she bursts into song. “Oooooooo . . . klahoma . . .” She dances around the front of the room, like Rainbow Brite on speed. Her voice is strong and on pitch even without accompaniment. It’s a good voice, but I can sing better. A secret no one in this room knows.

“But who wants to see an elephant dancing around?”

Everyone bursts into applause at Gigi’s final, flourishing bow. I glance over at Jackson. His teeth are flashing in a blaz ing smile as he claps enthusiastically. There used to be braces on those teeth. I remember. Mr. Blair gets the class back on track, and I try to concentrate on algebra. Skinny is quiet at my ear. Good. If I stay very still, maybe I can stop the whispering.

Chance Lehmann, his rich ebony hair curling wildly out from underneath the New York Yankees baseball cap he has pulled low over his eyes, slides into the chair across from me. He’s ten minutes late. Early for him. I shake my head at him when he meets my eyes, but one side of my mouth creeps up in a half smile. Chance has that effect on people. His mouth twists down in a grimace, his puppy-dog brown eyes fake sad, and then he waves a hand briefly in hello. His skin is a dark honey color. The better to notice the sparkling purple fingernail polish on his hands.

“You like?” He holds his hands out toward me, palms down. “It’s called Jammin’ Jelly.”

I look to see if Mr. Blair is paying attention, but he’s talking to someone in the front row about their homework. “Do your toes match?” I whisper across the aisle.

“Of course. I’m completely in touch with my feminine side.”

Chance grins at me, fanning his face with one purple-painted hand. That might be true, but he’s also “completely in touch” with a baseball and can pitch an amazing curveball that will buy his way into any university he wants to attend, painted toenails and all. “You should try it, Ever. A mani/pedi is exactly what you need.”

“You can paint a pig, but it’s still a pig,” Skinny whispers in my ear.

I frown at Chance and turn toward the front of the room again. Mr. Blair calls a couple of students to the board to work on some problems. Panic rises in my chest. Don’t call on me. Don’t call on me. The idea of squeezing through the aisle to display my backside to the whole room’s comments makes me start to breathe hard.

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