Authors: Kristen Tracy
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Readers, #Intermediate, #Social Themes, #Self-Esteem & Self-Reliance, #Humorous Stories, #Social Issues
For Carl Jean Tracy–MY DAD!
This was the first book I ever wrote, and I’ll try to thank all the people who helped me on my journey. First, thanks to Sara Crowe, who plucked Camille out of the slush pile and found her a great home. And lots of thanks to Wendy Loggia, who provided wonderful insight, advice, and smiley faces that helped make this book what it is today. I’ve come across a lot of good teachers in my life: Gail Wronsky, Leslie Norris, Brian Evenson, Kathryn Davis, Eric Zencey, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, David Rivard, and Stephen Dunn have been very encouraging folks. And I’d like to thank Al Young, who kindly pushed me in the direction of fiction, and Stuart Dybek, who read early adventures of Camille and thought I could do something more with them.
My family has been a source of both inspiration and encouragement for this book. I’d like to thank my sister, Julie Tracy Belnap, and her family for providing, among other things, the idea for the arthropod assignment. (Thanks, Rachel!) And thanks, Mom and Dad, for giving me such a strange and rural upbringing.
Friends looked at and discussed various versions of this book with me and provided useful feedback and support. Big thanks to Ulla Frederiksen, Jackie Srodes (and family!), Michelle Willis, Linda Young, Ellen Lesser, Sarah Lesser, Rick Zand, my friends at Sarducci’s, Sarah Gessel Rich, Adam Schuitema, Joseph Legaspi, Stella Beratlis, and Scott Dykstra and the entire Dykstra clan.
And, of course, I must thank my elementary school bus driver, Linda Gilbert, for counting heads that fateful morning and realizing that a head was missing, because I’d fallen underneath her bus.
just, equitable, what is right.
Free of clouds or storms.
the life of Camille McPhee.
Getting Run Over
hen I woke up and kicked the covers off, I moved my legs back and forth in the air like superpowered scissors. I did this because I needed to get my blood moving. I needed to move my blood from my legs to my head so that when I stood up, I wouldn’t get lightheaded. My mom and dad thought that the reason I got light-headed was because I had low blood sugar. They said I was hypoglycemic.
You might think that someone with low blood sugar would be allowed to eat a lot of sugar. But I wasn’t that
lucky. When I felt shaky, I had to eat cheese. My parents said that I had to eat every three hours to keep my blood sugar levels stable. This meant that I had to carry extra food with me to school in a cooler.
I was the only student at Rocky Mountain Elementary School who was allowed to eat during class. I could open up my cooler and pull out a ham sandwich right at my desk whenever I wanted. And I did.
You might be thinking that I was a pretty fat fourth grader, but I wasn’t. I weighed less than sixty pounds. Five of those pounds were from my hair. I was very lucky. I didn’t have long, stringy hair like Polly Clausen or Gracie Clop. I had movie-star hair. It was thick, caramel brown, and beautiful.
When I walked outside on a sunny day, the sun bounced off my hair, making every strand shine like gold. It’s a really good thing that I had great hair, because it helped camouflage my head. Some people thought it was big. And they enjoyed pointing this out. You might think that a big head of hair drew more attention to a big head.
Well, it did. But when people said some mean thing like “Hey, soccer-ball head,” or “Why do you have a blimp attached to your neck?” or “What’s up, hippo head?” (I always hated that one), then someone else pointed out that maybe it was just my hair making my head look big. And then the first person would argue
that it wasn’t my hair but my big goofy head that made my head look big.
There would always be a debate about this. No one was ever sure. Listening to people fight about whether or not I had a big head made me feel terrible. Once, it got so bad that I thought about cutting off all my hair and mailing it to my cousin Binna in Colorado. She had always been a huge fan of my hair at family reunions. But I didn’t have to do that.
One day, like magic, a new teacher showed up at my school. Ms. Golden. She came from New Jersey. And one of the things she brought with her to Rocky Mountain Elementary School was very large and powerful hair. When she walked down the halls, her hair spilled off her in curls and waves. And because everybody liked Ms. Golden, big hair became very popular. And nobody teased me anymore.
I mean, nobody teased me about my big head anymore. You see, one winter day, right after I kicked my legs back and forth in the air like superpowered scissors, something really bad happened. It was a Friday, the day my mother taught a morning kickboxing class at the gym. She didn’t leave to teach it until after I went to school, but she was a very dedicated instructor, and she always practiced her routine several times in the den. So I had to get ready by myself.
That Friday, I got up and put on fresh thermal
underwear. And jeans. And a fuzzy blue sweater that didn’t itch me. Then I ate a bowl of cereal. And washed my face and brushed my teeth. And most important, like always, I fluffed my hair. For one whole minute. After that, I grabbed my books, pencils, chocolate-milk money, and cooler. I poked my head into the den and told my mother goodbye.
She appeared to be doing jumping jacks.
“See you when you get home,” she said, panting.
When I went out to catch the bus, I thought it was going to be a great day. I walked down the front steps and blew a big cloud out into the cold February air in front of me. Then I took a deep breath. It was so cold that my lungs started to sting and my right nostril froze shut.
Of my two nostrils, it was usually the right one that froze shut. Because I was right-handed and my right arm was stronger than my left, I figured I was also right-nostriled. Which meant when I sucked in cold air, my right nostril sucked a lot harder than the left one, and that was why it would freeze shut.
But the awful thing that happened really doesn’t have anything to do with my nostril.
I walked to the bus stop and stood in line behind Manny and Danny Hatten. They were identically mean twins and were in the sixth grade, which meant they
were pretty tough. Nobody messed with those two, because Manny and Danny had muscles. Mostly in their legs. They were very good at kicking other people’s backpacks and lunch boxes. And they were also very good at having greasy blond hair.
I lifted my right hand to my forehead to shade my eyes and look down the long, snowy road. In addition to the bus, I was also looking for my cat Checkers. I hadn’t seen her for three years. But I still kept my eyes open just in case. I was what my mother called
. I spotted my bus making its first stop at Coltman Road. It would be here in five minutes.
I lived on County Line Road. It was in the middle of nowhere. Across the street, there was a big hay field that stretched so far that it never stopped. During the winter, cows lived there. To keep them from escaping, a barbed-wire fence surrounded the field. And there was a steep drainage ditch that ran along the bottom of the field, next to the road. That was not a good place to wait for the bus. So we made our line on the side of the road with the driveways.
I checked my cooler to make sure that its lid was on tight; then I set it down in the snow. I didn’t say anything to anyone. I wasn’t much of a talker.
I mean, I used to be, but I wasn’t anymore. After last September, when my very good friend, Sally Zook,
moved to Japan with her family, I decided that I didn’t need friends. So far, without Sally, fourth grade had been pretty rough.
I shifted my weight from my right boot to my left. Then I stood back and admired my snow-stamping job. I liked to leave tracks wherever I went. Doing that reminded me of an important fact that I learned about myself in second grade: I wasn’t just a girl. I was also an animal. A mammal. If you are an animal with a backbone, and you aren’t a mammal, you are either a fish or a bird or a reptile or an amphibian. But not an insect or a plant.
While admiring my stamping job, I heard a smacking sound. I looked up. Manny and Danny were throwing snowballs at Polly. The snowballs exploded on impact, breaking into countless icy pieces. One big clump got stuck in Polly’s long, stringy hair.
“Stop it!” Polly yelled, taking off her backpack. She lifted it up in front of her and used it as a shield.
I was glad that they were throwing snow at Polly instead of me. It wasn’t that they liked me or anything. The reason they threw snow at Polly and not me was because my father was a very big man with a very big temper.
Polly’s father had been a skinny man who didn’t have any temper. When we were in the first grade, he was killed in a car accident. His car slid on a patch of
ice and another car slid on a patch of ice and the two cars mashed into each other. Everybody except Polly’s dad lived.
“Don’t expect life to be fair,” my father said right after the accident. He was sitting at the kitchen table with the newspaper spread out in his lap. He pointed to a small square photo of Polly’s dad. He bit into his doughnut and shook his head. “Don’t expect life to be fair,” he said again, folding up the paper and setting it aside.
I’m glad my dad told me that early on in life. Be cause until this happened, until Mr. Clausen slid on a stupid patch of ice, until he died and everyone else lived, I was expecting life to be pretty fair. In fact, I was expecting my own life to be terrific, lengthy, and at some point filled with ponies.
Polly got a couple more snowballs chucked at her, and I stood behind her with my head down. When trying to avoid making friends (and enemies), it’s really important not to make eye contact with anyone, especially kids who are in your class.
I could hear the bus brakes gasping and squeaking. The bus lurched to a stop and we waited for Mrs. Spittle to wave for us to cross the road. She flashed the yellow lights and opened the door. When Mrs. Spittle opened the bus door, it always made the same sound, like somebody was letting out a breath.
Manny and Danny ran across the slick road, putting their weight in the heels of their cowboy boots, skidding most of the distance. They zoomed so fast that I worried they might end up in the drainage ditch. Polly had a weird way of walking. She did it with her pink boots angled out, like a duck waddling across the road on its floppy, webbed feet. Poor Polly. I walked like a normal fourth grader, one foot in front of the other. The only thing that wasn’t normal was that in addition to my backpack, I also carried my small, bright blue cooler.
I lifted my cooler out of the snow and followed a few steps behind Polly. Friday was chocolate-milk day. I loved chocolate-milk day. It was the one day my mom didn’t mind if I ate something sweet for lunch. I heard my chocolate-milk money jingle as I walked. I liked carrying money to school in my pocket. And I preferred change over bills. Because change jingled better. Anytime I had several quarters, I felt very rich, and I would do some extra shaking whenever I could.
Shake. Shake. Shake
. Halfway across the road, there was a patch of black ice. Polly waddled across it just fine. But with my heavy backpack and cooler and jingling change, I was tripping over my own feet to catch my balance. The next thing I knew, the lid flew off my cooler, and my own banana hit me in the face. Then my
butt and head smacked the frozen ground. And everything looked dark.
At first, I thought I had been knocked unconscious. People in my mother’s soap operas were always being knocked unconscious. A lot of the time, they’d wake up with complete amnesia. But when I opened my eyes, I knew that it was chocolate-milk day and that I was Camille McPhee. And when I felt around me and grabbed my banana, I knew that I couldn’t be unconscious, because an unconscious person wouldn’t have been able to open her eyes and locate her banana so quickly.
Even with my eyes open, things were still pretty dark. I brushed my hair off my face and expected to see some light. But there wasn’t any. That’s when I realized that I was no longer underneath the bright Idaho sky. Somehow, I had fallen and slipped underneath Mrs. Spittle’s bus. The underbelly of the bus was filthy. Dirty chunks of melting ice dripped onto me.
To the right and left of my head were big black tires. Snow was pressed deep into their treads. I groaned. Then I heard one of the worst sounds of my life. It was the one sound you never want to hear if you’ve slipped and fallen under your own school bus. I heard the sound of Mrs. Spittle shutting the bus door.
. Then, from somewhere deep in my own brain, I heard my father’s words: “Don’t expect life to be fair.”
t that moment, I no longer worried about whether or not my life would be fair. I had a much scarier thought in my head.
If your school bus drives over you, does that mean you won’t be alive anymore?
I rolled onto my stomach and pulled myself forward, out from beneath the bus. Once I cleared the bumper, I got onto my hands and knees. I crawled as fast as I could, faster than a cockroach trying to escape a shoe. I made it to the side of the road and tried to stand up. But instead,
I fell backward into a snowbank. Then I heard a good sound. Mrs. Spittle opened the bus door.