The House That Ivy Built - Book 1

Chapter 3

(from The House That Ivy Built, © 1997-2017)

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3


       “Ack,” I said, and the word came out of my mouth in a bubble. I was pretty deep in the water, just like Alix had said. No other pool had been this deep; I’d never had to go more than a couple feet to break the surface. I wasn’t sure what to do. I was still pretty disoriented from going through the pool, so I couldn’t think straight. Having my mind unraveled and sucked back together again never left me with a very functional sense of reason.

       I jerked myself upward with my energy since I didn’t know how to swim, hurtling through the water until I broke the surface. I stopped, floating a couple feet over the lake, dripping. My breath caught in my throat as the cold air shocked my skin, and the sudden bright sunlight made my eyes squinch shut. I was in the other world.

       I panted for a moment, but finally I came out of shock and put myself into a spin cycle. I sprayed water every which way, frightening ducks and finally stopping somewhere between dry and damp. As I drifted toward the bank of the lake, I noticed a lonely old fisherman clutching his beer and staring at me. He waved his hand at me in slow-motion, his face full of disbelief but still trying to wave an automatic polite hello. Hah, I’d just randomly popped out of the middle of a lake and he was saying “hi there.” Not to mention I’m flying, my brain reminded me. Yeah, that could be shocking too. But he looked friendly. I decided he could be useful.

       “’Scuse me, which way’s the elementary school?” I asked. He didn’t seem to register that I was talking and just drank some more of his beer, his eyes never leaving me.

       “Hey, you awake?” I asked. I shoved a little wind in his direction, but even though it moved his hat it didn’t break the spell. “You know which direction takes me to the school?”

       “I dunno if I should be talkin’ to a figment of my ’magination,” said the fisherman in a slurred, almost unintelligible Southern dialect.

       I sighed. This was futile. I’d have to find it myself. “I’m not a figment, I am an alcohol-induced phantom,” I replied smartly, “and unless you stop drinking so much beer, you’re gonna see me again.” I tried to snarl menacingly but didn’t come out quite right. I decided not to worry about it and skipped away into the air, briefly thinking of Alix, who drank the same brand of beer as the old man.

       I climbed high into the sky so I could see more of the land. I wasn’t sure what the school would look like, but something told me to just look for lots of kids. I didn’t see anybody in the general vicinity, though. I dug through my memories of the background info I’d been given. I remembered Adele saying that the lake was close to the school; that was why we had chosen that particular lake. And that was the only real scrap of information that had made it into my brain. I decided to just fly around until I saw some kind of a clue.

       I got bored looking for something unidentifiable; there didn’t seem to be anyone anywhere. I drifted down and sat on the low roof of the nearest building, and then I lay down to try to dry out my clothes, baking myself in the afternoon sun.

       When I felt that I was dry enough, I sat up and surveyed my surroundings. I was on a very short brick building with only one story. It was in the middle of a sandlot, and I stood up, looking around at the low wooden benches and the surrounding trees. I also noticed a lot of unfamiliar equipment in the distance. I was just about to take off and investigate when I felt a commotion and some muffled noise under my sneaker-clad feet. In a panic, I threw myself into the air. Oh crap, what if I set something off? What if it’s going to explode? I tried to catch my breath, looking down to see the cause of the uproar.

       Hordes of children scampered out of buildings all around me and rushed toward the equipment and the sandlot, making thunder on the earth. It hit me that I must have found the elementary school totally by chance. I dropped back onto the roof and huffily sat down, wondering how I had let little children scare me like that. I wrung the last of the water out of my braids, feeling embarrassed even though I knew no one had seen me. Now I had missed a good chance to look for the little Nina girl, just because I had freaked out for no reason. If only I had watched them come out of the building before they’d spread themselves all over this playground, I probably would have seen her. Deciding this roof was as good a vantage point as any, I stood up and surveyed the land, trying to locate Nina.

       “What’re you doin’ up there?” asked a high male voice. I looked down to see a very small curly-headed boy looking up at me as he scratched his knee.

       “I’m looking for someone. Do you know Nina Fairchild?”

       “Nope,” he replied. “Why you lookin’ for somebody on the roof? There ain’t no kids on that roof.”

       “I can see farther from up high.”

       “What can ya see? Can I come up?”

       “If you want,” I said, shrugging. I shaded my eyes, looking for brown pigtails.

       Then I heard a loud clanging noise; it was the little boy’s shoes clinking against the drainpipe as he tried to climb up. I figured he was going to hurt himself.

       “I hope you don’t fall off,” I said.

       “I can’t climb it,” he whined.

       “So stay on the ground,” I said impatiently.

       “I don’t wanna. I wanna come up there with you!”

       I looked down at him.

       “Why do you want to come up here?”

       “I just wanna see what it looks like up there.” The kid squinted up at me.

       I figured he wouldn’t leave me alone unless I appeased him, so I hopped down, grabbed him, and sort of tossed him onto the roof before following him up. He was heavy for a little kid.

       “Boy, you’re strong,” he said.

       “You’re light,” I replied.

       The boy frowned and looked up at me.

       “I’m Frankie, nice to meetcha,” he offered in a rehearsed speech, extending his hand toward me. I ignored him. He was supposed to run off and play on the roof, not keep bugging me. “What, don’cha shake hands?” Frankie said, wiggling his outstretched fingers impatiently.

       I sighed. “Sure I do,” I said, and bent down to shake his tiny hand, still searching for Nina. I couldn’t see her; now there were too many little kids running around, and too many of them were little girls with brown hair. How was I to know which one was her?

       “Shit,” I said, under my breath.

       Frankie looked up at me, releasing my hand.

       “How come you only gots four fingers?” he asked. He held up his five-fingered hand to contrast with mine, like he was trying to show me what my hand was supposed to look like. I didn’t answer him, still hoping he’d just go amuse himself, but he persisted.

       “Lemme see your other one,” he said, and proceeded to examine my left hand, registering surprise when it matched the first one. “Hey, you’re missin’ two of ’em. How come your hands are like that?”

       “So I can count to eight. Now be quiet.” It was hard for me to concentrate on more than one thing at a time, and when he kept talking I couldn’t think about my mission.

       “What happened to your pinkie finger? How come you don’t got a pinkie?”

       “How come you got a big mouth?” I retorted, getting annoyed.

       “Didja cut it off in an accident? One time that happened to my uncle’s friend. But it was a piece of his other finger and not his pinkie. What happened to yours?” He paused and studied me when I didn’t reply. “Hey, hey, hey. Ain’t you gonna answer me?”

       “No,” I replied as evenly as possible. “I never had a pinkie. I was born with only four fingers on each hand.” I held them out for him to see. “So you’ve got five. We’re different. Now can you leave it alone?”

       “That’s freaky,” he said against my warning look. “Four plus four is eight, did you know that? Do you have eight toes, too? Can you count to ten?”

       “Yes I can count to ten. Look, leave me alone or I’ll put you back on the ground. I’m trying to think and you’re interrupting me.”

       “I can count to a billion billion,” said Frankie in a singsong voice, tugging gently on my shirt.

       “Look, I warned you, Frankie,” I said, dropping lightly to my knees so I could look him in the eyes. “I’m sorry, but I’m gonna have to put you back on the ground now.” Why hadn’t he listened to me? Was he deaf?

       “But there’s nothin’ to do down there . . . ” he protested as I clamped my fingers around his wrist.

       “Too bad.” I dropped him back onto the ground, and I used my energy to make sure I was pretty gentle about it, so I was surprised when he immediately started bawling, fairly loudly. I couldn’t have hurt him, so his feelings must have been wounded. I rolled my eyes. At this rate, his crying would attract everyone’s attention, and the last thing I needed was more kids noticing me on the roof. I was going to have to come down.

       Once I was on the ground, Frankie changed his mind about crying and grabbed my hand.

       “Hey, come play with me now, okay?”

       “I’m not here to play. I’m looking for another kid, remember?”

       “Oh yeah. Is she a kindergarten girl?”

       “Kindergarten girl?”

       “Yeah, what grade is she in?”

       Oh, maybe this kid could be useful after all. “No, Nina’s a first grader. Do you have any ideas about how I could find her?”

       “Huh?” His little face screwed up.

       “How do I tell who’s in first grade?” I asked him.

       “If you have a question, ask the teacher,” he replied. I looked up and noticed that there were quite a few adults around amid the crowds of children. Some of them stood in a little group chatting, and a couple others were spaced around the playground, observing the children. I looked closer. Most of the adults were dressed formally, in dresses or suits, but a few of them were dressed in more casual clothes. And those ones looked younger. Were they all teachers? Hmm.

       Maybe I should have paid more attention to Adele when she was talking. She might’ve given me instructions on how to deal with this. If I asked the wrong person, I might make someone suspicious and blow my chances to meet Nina, at least for today. What should I do? I decided to see if Frankie could be of any more use.

       “Let me ask you a question, okay?” I said, kneeling down again.

       He wriggled. “Can you push me on the swings?”

       “Not right now. Listen, are all those grown-ups teachers?” I had an idea.

       He looked around. “Huh?”

       “Some of the grown-ups look different. The ones in the less fancy clothes.”

       “Ohh.” He nodded. “The volunteers.”

       “What do volunteers do?”

       “I dunno. Help teachers? If you wanna know ask them. How ’bout we play swings. . . . ” Frankie tried to tug me in the direction of the swingset, but I didn’t let him pull me very far. We passed one of the volunteers and I let go of his hand, stopping next to the girl to talk to her. Frankie stopped and looked frustrated, kicked a clod of dirt, and finally stomped off. I was rid of him for now, as long as he stayed distracted.

       “Excuse me,” I said, and the girl turned from observing the ball-kicking game in progress on the field. She met my eyes and took a step backwards. I tried not to take that as a bad sign.

       “Hi, are you a volunteer here?” I asked, hoping that getting straight to the point would make this as painless as possible.

       “Yeah—I’m with Mrs. Nichols’s second grade, why?” She was looking at me funny already.

       “What do you do as a volunteer? How do you get to be one?”

       “Er . . . well I’m doing it through a program at my high school. Some of the others are college interns and stuff. I guess what you actually do depends on your program.”

       “Oh.” That didn’t help me much. “You said you’re with second grade, right? I’m looking for a first grader—”

       “You want to be placed with a first grade class? I’m not sure if you get to pick which grade—”

       “No, I’m. . . . ” Well, maybe I shouldn’t say I didn’t want to be a volunteer in the first place. I could probably pose as one for long enough to make contact with Nina, though. “I’m actually trying to find a certain student who’s in first grade. But I don’t know who her teacher is.”

       “Um. . . . ” The girl was starting to look really edgy. I didn’t know if it was my weird questions or my peculiar looks that were bugging her, but neither one could really be helped. I was trying my best to look benign, but I knew I would never really pull it off. The way my eyebrows pointed downward made me look angry or menacing even when I didn’t mean to be, and most people thought my upslanting eyes looked too big for my face. On the whole the humans didn’t like it.

       “Sorry if I’m distracting you,” I said quickly, “but could you point out a first-grade teacher for me real quick? I need to ask about the girl.”

       “Um, you could try Miss Wilson over there, she’s the blonde lady in the blue . . . good luck with whatever.” The girl moved away too quickly for me to thank her. I wondered what I should do differently to avoid that reaction from the teacher.

       Tucking my hands meekly behind my back, I approached the indicated teacher. She noticed me quickly and was already giving me a weird look before I even got close to her. I was going to have to do some fancy talking to get what I wanted.

       The teacher looked like she was about to say something to me, but I beat her to it.

       “Hi, could you tell me what I do to become a volunteer here?” Maybe I should have pretended to already be one, but the words just slipped out.

       I got a puzzled frown. “You’ll have to set it up through your school.”

       “What if it’s not through school?”

       “Uh.” The teacher was thrown by this possibility. “I don’t think we do that. Some high school students and college education majors volunteer here through their schools, or parents for certain events—”

       “You don’t have a place for regular old people to just help out as school volunteers?” That was kind of stupid.

       The lady was eyeing me with some mix of confusion and disdain. “Well, I wouldn’t handle it anyway, you’d have to speak with the front office personnel. If private citizens are allowed to volunteer, I imagine they’d have to get you placed with a class—”

       “To tell you the truth, I don’t want just any old class. There’s a special student I’m looking to help, her name’s Nina. . . . ”

       “Nina from my class?”

       Oh, lucky. I’d gotten her teacher. Her eyes flicked away toward an out-of-the-way bench, and I followed with my own eyes, finally focusing on a little girl sitting all alone. Brown pigtails. Pastel-pink shirt, dark blue skirt, “sensible” shoes and a downcast expression. The sun-shaped ponytail holders binding her hair were the only happy things about her face; she looked hopelessly lonely. She carried an expression of sadness that was completely out of place for someone so young. I was seized by a desire to erase it from her face, and then I wondered where the hell that compulsion had come from.

       “Yes, that’s the Nina I’m looking for,” I replied, and started toward her. But the teacher caught my arm.

       “What do you think you’re doing?” she asked, her face wrinkling up.

       “Uh, I want to go talk to her.” She was still holding my elbow. It flipped me out a little bit; I wasn’t used to being touched by strangers.

       “You won’t do any such thing. You think you can just wander onto this property and visit with students?”

       “Why can’t I just talk to her?” I pulled my arm out of her grip, not caring about politeness since I was no longer dependent on others’ information to find Nina.

       “I’ve got a feeling you’re not authorized to be here. You’d better go through the office for a visitor’s pass or get off this campus immediately.”

       “Actually, no, I think I’d rather go see Nina now. I’ll catch up with you later if you want me to get some pass or whatever.” I turned to go, but I saw her hand swinging to grab my arm again. I probably shouldn’t have done it, but I obeyed my reflex and knocked her hand back before it got there. She didn’t know what to make of that, and looked up in shock to lock eyes with me. This time I didn’t bother to avert my eyes, and she backed up rather hurriedly, looking pale.

       “I’m not gonna do anything bad, I just want to talk to her,” I said, trying to make the words sound pleasant but firm. I was getting what I wanted whether she wanted to let me or not, and I hoped I was making that clear.

       “You, you, you can’t,” she stammered, not finishing the sentence.

       “I can’t what?”

       “Just . . . can’t just go interfere with children while they’re in school!” She straightened up a little. “This is private property!”

       “Look,” I said, holding my hands up in what I hoped was a peace gesture. “I’m tired of playing around, it’s just really important that I give Nina a message. I won’t hurt her or anyone else. . . . ”

       “But you. . . . ” She had no idea how to deal with someone who didn’t respond to spoken commands, apparently. Unfortunately for her, it would take a lot more than a verbal order to make me leave if I didn’t want to. She looked like she was considering grabbing at me again, but obviously she wasn’t that stupid because she didn’t try it.

       “Okay,” I said, tired of the stalling, “I know you don’t know what’s going on, I don’t really either, but I promise I’m here to help Nina, so there’s nothing to worry about. Arright, so, here I go, I’ll be outta here in just a minute.”

       I turned to walk away, but this time she changed her mind about being stupid. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed her hand reaching to land on my shoulder, just desperate to keep me from reaching the child through any means necessary. Enough was enough. I repeated my previous performance, stopping her hand before it reached its destination, but this time I didn’t just deliver a brush-off. I held onto her hand and locked it in place in the air. Then I turned and narrowed my eyes at her.

       “Please just don’t touch me,” I said, and that was the end of that. I gave up my control and let her hand slip free, and immediately she pulled back like a stepped-on dog. I expected her to freak out and demand an explanation, but instead she did the opposite: She turned around and trotted away like she couldn’t make enough distance between us. It hadn’t taken much to spook her out. That had been easy. Maybe now she’d leave us alone.

       I turned around to go toward Nina’s bench, but a small child was suddenly in my way. Frankie was back, grabbing my hand before I knew what was happening.

       “What?” I asked at his touch.

       “I want someone to play with,” he said, sticking out his chin.

       “Can’t you play with some other kid? I’m busy.”

       “No, you’re more fun. What’s your name, anyway?”

       “My name’s Ivy. I’m trying to do something and I don’t need your help.”

       He seemed crestfallen when I said that; his eyebrows knit together and he looked at me sadly, as if he didn’t know how to deal with being treated like the nuisance he was. I wasn’t used to dealing with human kids. Maybe they were more sensitive or something. I supposed I should try to be as nice as possible until I knew what to expect. I was glad I’d gotten to practice on Frankie before I ended up blowing Nina off somehow.

       “It’s nothing personal,” I said to him, trying to see if I could make him happy again. He didn’t seem to understand, so I went on. “I’m really busy right now, okay? I need to tell somebody something. I’ll be done soon and then maybe you can play with me.” I had no intention of playing with him but I thought maybe he’d go away brighter if I didn’t totally reject him.

       Frankie nodded his head, seeming placated, and obediently walked away to sit on the bottom rung of the monkey bars. I felt bad about lying, but he needed to be out of my way. As I finally began to approach Nina’s bench, my stomach tightened up. I didn’t know how I was going to introduce myself.

       It turned out I didn’t need to worry too much about that. Nina turned around on the bench and saw me. Surprisingly, she smiled. The world lit up as her eyes did, and I blinked in amazement at the difference in her face.

       “Oh, hi,” she said, looking at me as if she knew me.

       “Hi,” I replied. What now?

       The little girl extended a hand toward me and grinned, as if we were sharing a secret and she wanted me to come closer to talk about it. I blinked at her, confused but pleased at her reaction.

       “Nina?” I said in my most innocent voice, trying to avoid frightening her. She didn’t reply, but looked me up and down with the calmest brown-eyed gaze I’d ever seen. I felt something strange happen inside me when she met my eyes. I wanted her to like me and I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was because she was a kid. Children must have some kind of ability to make people like them or their parents would kill them; I knew how much trouble kids could be. Still, even though I rationalized it, my wish for her to like me was still there. I smiled at her and tried to get comfortable with the situation.

       “You know me already, what’s your name?” Nina said in a musical voice.

       “My name is Ivy.” I offered her my hand in greeting like Frankie had done. She shook it, with this funny look on her face like she thought I was kidding around. “May I sit down?” I gave her a smile, trying to seem interesting and non-threatening. She nodded and patted the bench.

       “I didn’t know your name, but I know who you are, Ivy,” said Nina, her eyes sparkling. I blinked. What did she mean by that?

       “How do you mean, you know who I am?”

       “You’re my friend from over the rainbow, right?”

       Damn, I thought. I knew what that meant. She thought I was some kind of fantasy creature.

       “Ah . . . not quite,” I said, not sure how to reply. It was always a weird situation. “I’m here to be your friend, you’re right about that, but I’m not from over any rainbow.”

       “I don’t care,” she said, standing up and taking my hands. “I wanna go with you. Somewhere, now. Can you get me outta here?”

       That surprised me, and I wondered what I had gotten into. If all human children were like Nina, they were very different from any adult I’d met. None of my missions’ subjects had ever trusted me this easily or this quickly. Hardly believing my good fortune, I played along.

       “I can’t take you anywhere now,” I said. “I just wanted to meet with you real quick and . . . tell you I want to be your friend, so is that okay?”

       “Yes! I’d love a friend. But why can’t we leave now?”

       “These teacher ladies seem kinda touchy about me talking to you here. Can we meet after you’re done with school?”

       “Good,” she agreed simply, sitting down again. “Will you meet me by this tree?”

       “Sure.”

       “Oh!” burst Nina. “I’m so glad you’re finally here! I been waitin’ for so long to have a special grown-up friend from a magical place who would come and take me away from all this stuff. . . . ” She broke off, stunned with childish wonder. I wondered how I could tell her that I was neither grown-up nor from a magical place.

       “I think you’ve been watching too many Disney movies,” I butted in gently, knowing her assumptions were probably based on those mass-produced picture stories I’d seen in my limited exposure to television. I didn’t want to burst her bubble, but I wasn’t going to have her getting wrong ideas about me. I’d had trouble in the past trying to get people to understand the difference between “magic” and what I could do, and I could see in this situation it was going to be especially difficult. “I am here to play with you and have a lot of fun. But I’m not your fairy godmother. See?” I said, joking, “I don’t have any wings, or a magic wand.”

       She looked disappointed. “But you can fly, right?”

       I covered my surprise. “Um . . . actually, yes. How did you know that?”

       Her eyes brimmed with light as I fulfilled her prophecy.

       “’Cause I always dreamed you would come. I knew someone would come—I knew it—I mean I knew there had to be magic for me somewhere. And I know you’re the one because you don’t look like nobody I ever seen before.” She studied my face curiously, but at the same time like it was something familiar. I looked back dubiously. “I like your ears. You look kinda like a really tall elf.”

       “Uh, thanks, I guess,” I said as gracefully as was possible for a compliment on my ears, of all things. Why was it that no one ever commented on my neat hairstyle, or my cool button that said “EAT SHIT” in big orange letters? I would have preferred getting praise for aspects of my appearance that I’d actually chosen. “I like your ears, too.” I reached out and tugged on her earlobe playfully, for no particular reason. She grinned, with that strange light shining out of her face again.

       The look in her eyes made me think of the children I’d once seen at a fair, when I had just met our roommate Cecily. The children always looked so enchanted with all of the fun things there were to do, and Nina was looking at me as if I was at least as interesting as anything at a fair. The way she was staring at me—like she was trying to memorize my face—wasn’t uncomfortable at all. I responded to her the same way, and I wanted to learn more about her. We’d certainly managed to charm each other.

       Our magnetic gaze was broken when I saw Frankie running up to us. I stiffened, wondering what he wanted.

       “It’s almost time to go in now,” he said, his light voice riding the wind across the gap between us. “I just wanted to say ’bye, and I’m glad you found the kid you was lookin’ for.”

       “See ya later, Frankie,” I said.

       He offered his hand again and I grinned and shook it, wondering whether this hand-shaking business was for a variety of purposes or whether Frankie just overused it.

       “Will I see you again?” he asked, his voice rising slightly.

       “Maybe. On some rooftop somewhere.”

       He laughed. “I still think that’s kinda neat that you only got four fingers,” said Frankie, hanging onto my thumb as I wondered how he ever got such a one-track mind.

       “I didn’t see that,” said Nina, examining my other hand. “Didja see her pointy ears?” Nina reached up rather presumptuously and tucked my braids behind one of my ears so Frankie could see better. I felt like I was in a petting zoo.

       “Wow! That’s cool! Do they make you hear better?”

       “I don’t know, maybe,” I replied, wondering why he cared, and how I was even supposed to know something like that if I’d never had any other kind of ears. I started to feel self-conscious and a little angry.

       “Hey, what planet are you from?” he asked.

       I rolled my eyes and pulled my hands away, folding my arms.

       “And how many toes do you have?” Nina asked, looking at my sneakers.

       “Arright, you guys,” I said, exasperated. “I look freaky to you, you look freaky to me. We’re even.” I struggled for a straight tone.

       “We look weird to you?” asked Frankie, his little eyes wide as if he couldn’t possibly imagine that.

       “Yes. You both look as weird to me as I do to you.” That obviously wasn’t true, since they seemed practically obsessed with minute differences that I noted once and forgot, but I wanted them to shut up already. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t heard the same things reworded a bunch of times before, when I’d tried to interact with other mission subjects.

       “I gotta go,” said Frankie, dashing off to where his class was lining up.

       “My class is fixin’ to go in soon, too,” Nina said sadly. “Will you take me flyin’ before I hafta go in? I really want to.”

       “I’d love to, but I really can’t. Too many people would see us.”

       “Who cares? Let ’em see us. . . . ”

       “I can’t do that,” I protested. “You can’t do that sort of stuff with flying. People notice you. What would everybody think?”

       Nina bowed her head.

       “But I really wanted to go,” she whined. “I want to fly. . . . ”

       “I know. But we’ll go after school. We can meet at the tree and then I can fly you home, if you can tell me where to go.”

       “Oh, wow! That’d be great!” she exclaimed. Then she frowned.

       “What’s wrong?” I asked.

       “I wish I didn’t hafta wait. I hate waitin’!” She looked frustrated. I supposed impatience was one of those things I would have to deal with if I was going to be around human children; I’d seen it with Frankie and now I was seeing it with her. Observing her downcast little face, I decided to partially appease her.

       “Hey, look, you’re floating,” I said, teasing her. I lifted her up only a tiny bit so that no one could see anything unusual going on.

       Nina passed her hand underneath her bottom and looked at me in awe.

       “I’m not touchin’ anything. . . . ” she gasped, unable to believe it. She stiffened up inside my field, then started laughing. I set her down and patted her shoulder. I hadn’t realized that floating unexpectedly was going to freak her out so much, but I guessed I should have.

       Nina’s eyes were still wide as she stood up.

       “That was so neat!” she cried. “I wasn’t touchin’ anything at all! That’s the only time that’s ever happened, I always have to be touchin’ somethin’ unless I jump in the air, and that only lasts a couple seconds. . . . ” Nina danced around, her dark pigtails bobbing. I admired the cute way she rattled on in her Southern accent, drawing out certain words and speaking excitedly but still slower and more relaxed than my speech. “I guess you don’t understand how I feel right now,” she said, suddenly serious, “’cause you do it all the time. But I just had my first time, ever! Now I know it’s really for real!” Nina threw herself at me in a sudden hug, and I laughed even though the unfamiliar contact disturbed me.

       She had no sooner let go of me than I felt someone’s hand roughly grasping my shoulder. Nina’s teacher appeared in front of me and pulled her away, and some lady I’d never seen before was behind me. I looked up, unafraid but annoyed. An older woman with black hair and no-nonsense glasses was giving me a look of sheer disgust.

       “Excuse me. Who exactly are you and what are you doing here?” said the woman in a metallic voice. Nina stood at her teacher’s side, absently holding her hand.

       “I’m Ivy and I’m talking to Nina.” I stood up, forcing the woman with the vise grip to let me go.

       “Well, I’ll tell you who I am and what I’m doing,” said the lady smartly. “I’m the principal of this school, and I am removing you from the premises.”

       I sighed and looked at Nina. This wasn’t going well, but at least I’d made contact like I was supposed to. I decided not to act on the anger I felt and just pretend I’d given up.

       “That’s okay. I can remove myself. I just wanted to see Nina.”

       “And I wanted ta see Ivy,” Nina piped up. Both of the adults looked at her.

       “Do you know this . . . girl?” asked the teacher, as if unsure of what to call me.

       “She’s my friend.” Nina gave her teacher the funniest look, a puzzled yet condescending expression. “What, didja think she was here to kidnap me or somethin’?”

       “Well, she waltzed onto the playground without any clearance. We couldn’t just let her do whatever she wanted. . . . ” The teacher trailed off as if she’d just realized it was ridiculous to argue logical points with a seven-year-old.

       Nina made eye contact with her teacher, then glanced at the principal to make sure she had their attention. “Sorry if she made you worry ’bout me. Ivy ain’t from around here. She didn’t know no better.”

       That, of all things, seemed to appease the adults. They both relaxed visibly, though I couldn’t figure out why. Nina just made sense, I guessed. Maybe they wanted to please her just like I did.

       All around us, children were scampering over to teachers whose classes were lining up. It looked like playtime was over.

       “You can go take care of your class,” the principal said to the teacher, and she nodded and walked toward the buildings, holding up two fingers and pulling Nina with her by the hand.

       “’Bye, Ivy,” Nina called, skipping along without complaint.

       “’Bye,” I echoed, too soft for her to hear. I was glad she hadn’t said “See you later” or something; I didn’t want the teacher or the principal to hear that we would indeed be seeing each other later, as they would probably make that as hard as possible. I watched Nina and all her schoolmates scurry along until they were all behind the doors, their cheerful noises bottled up inside the buildings.

       “Now for you, young lady,” said the principal, and I realized she thought she had me cornered.

       “Forget it. I’m leaving, okay?” I turned my back.

       “Take this advice with you,” she called after me. “If you ever come onto school grounds again, you’d better go through the office or I will see to it that you get in serious trouble.”

       “Fine, fine,” I said, waving my hand at her. On a whim, not caring if she was watching, I leaped up onto the school building and began making my way toward the campus limit while walking along the roof. My steps made a nice metallic hollow sound.

       “What in the—get off of there!” called the principal. I laughed, jumped off the roof, and continued to walk.

       “Don’t you ever pull a stunt like that again!” she hollered. I pretended not to hear and disappeared from her view around a corner. I waited there a few minutes until I figured she was probably gone, then flew right back onto the playground and parked myself in the designated tree. No one was there to stop me, and I smiled. I’d gotten what I wanted in the end. I always did.


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