It's amazing how few words a person can get by with.
I scratch a tally mark into my notebook and grin. Yesterday it was two, and three the day before that. Today it's one. One word all morning: a new record. If Mr. Scroggins hadn't asked me to name the capital of Russia last period, it could have been zero.
When Miss Looping turns from the board, I move my pencil so it looks like I'm taking notes. I almost feel sorry about not paying attention—Miss Looping isn't so bad. She wears dark velvet dresses and is in love with Charles Dickens. Her stuffed raven, Beady, keeps looking at me. I sneak glances at his perch, waiting for him to open his beak and 'kraaa'. But he never moves.
Maybe it's Beady's stare or Miss Looping's dresses or her pasty skin that makes people wonder about her. Most students think she's weird. I don't mind her. She doesn't call on me or hold class discussions. Mr. Gankle and Ms. Dively like that sort of thing, so they never give me A's. Neither does Mrs. Bebeau, who thinks the best way to learn French is to speak it aloud. Miss Looping is the only one who doesn't penalize me for not talking. She puts A's on all my papers and jots comments in the margins—things like "good point" and "nice word choice"—and recommends poets I might like. Sometimes I add a note back to her: Thanks for understanding, Miss L. But she never gets the note because you don't give papers back to teachers after
I jump as Arty Pilger sneezes next to me, spraying my arm.
I hate when people sneeze. Not because of the spraying—well, that too—but because they expect me to say "bless you." Or "God bless you" if they believe in God.
Someone across the room yells "Gesundheit," and I relax. My tally remains one.
But lunch is next, and that will be trickier. People like to talk at lunch. I look back at the tally mark in my notebook. If I want my record to last more than three periods, I need a new tactic for the cafeteria today. A stronger shield, harder armor.
When the bell rings, I hurry past Beady, avoiding his gaze. I wish Miss Looping would turn him to face the wall. In the hallway, I empty my books into my locker, all except for one this time. Then I make my way to the cafeteria, armed and ready.
I slip into my seat at the end of Mel's table. Mel, Sylvia, Nellie, and Theresa are deep in conversation and don't pause at my arrival. They never do these days. Sometimes their eyes slide sideways, but I don't always see this because I keep my own eyes down.
I pull The Oxford Book of Sonnets out of my bag, open it, and eat my sandwich. I get through a whole poem without anyone trying to talk to me. Two poems. Two and a half. Why didn't I think of this before? Read a book—such a simple solution.
"You're reading at lunch?"
Sylvia's voice clangs against my armor. I keep my eyes on the page.
"It must be a good book then."
I force my eyes to move left to right, left to right. If I don't, they'll think I heard. They'll think I'm faking. I can feel them all looking. To these girls, I'm the elephant in the room. And no one can really relax when there's an elephant in the room, least of all the elephant. I've tried sitting at an empty table, but that makes everyone stare more. Like it or not, sitting at Mel's table is better than sitting alone.
"I'm so jealous of your eyebrows." Sylvia's voice again. "I swear they get bigger every day."
No one responds, so I know her words are meant for me. I try to focus on the typeface in front of me. It blurs. I drag my eyes away in spite of myself and find Sylvia in the seat next to Mel, slowly twirling a french fry between her fingers, a smirk playing on the corner of her lip.
Mel shifts in her seat. "I think they're pretty." She must still feel an obligation toward me, considering she's my neighbor and all—and the closest thing I have to a friend. She's too late, though. I'm already scanning the other girls' eyebrows, noting the safe, sure spaces between them—and fighting the urge to reach up and feel mine.