Authors: Abby Cooper
I don't remember much about the appointment, but I remember Dr. Patel. After he examined me for what felt like hours, poking and prodding and grimacing and groaning, he said, “Don't worry, Elyse. It'll get easier with time.”
But it didn't. It got harder. I thought he was full of baloney, and not the delicious kind you put in a sandwich.
At least when I went back to preschool the day after the Poopyhead Incident, the super-wise four-year-old Jeg decided that she would become my personal bodyguard to prevent any more icky comments. Mom has all these hilarious videos where you can see little Jegâusually wearing a floppy hat, a poofy tutu, and a pair of silky princess pajama pants all at the same timeâstanding right in front of me with her little hands on her hips, a fierce expression in her eyes. When kids wanted to play with me, she'd ask, “Do you promise to say only nice things?” and the kids had to swear on their stuffed animals that they would.
After the Poopyhead Incident, Mom would go to school with me every day and wait until Jeg got there. When Jeg took off her coat and went into bodyguard mode, Mom finally went home.
Jeg didn't ask people to swear on their stuffed animals once we started elementary school, but she still looked out for me.
Most of the time.
I pushed the memory aside as Mom looped a rubber band around the end of my French braid. She left me to get dressed for the meeting, and I thought about the blue note again. Whoever had written it had made a good point: being Explorer Leaderâand getting those great wordsâwould be awesome for me. The writer was wrong about one thing, though: it
hurt to try.
But I think I wanted to try anyway.
I took my time to finish getting ready, wanting to make sure my outfit was as perfect as it could be. I pulled on my comfiest socks, the pink ones with the silver stars on them, and then tried on lots of different accessories before settling on a fun silver charm bracelet and my half of the Best Friends necklace Jeg gave me for my tenth birthday. It was part of her famous-fashion-designer parents' jewelry collection, and they were super-funky designers. They were so funky, in fact, that they had started calling their daughter Jeg, instead of her real name, Jenny, when jeggings first became a thing. She looked so awesome in their jegging line. The name couldn't have suited her any better, and it's stuck ever since.
I fastened the necklace around my neck and rubbed the charm between my fingers. Instead of just saying
like every other friendship necklace in the world, it was this artsy peace-sign shape that looked really cool whether it was attached to the other person's necklace or not. It was one of my most prized possessions.
I grabbed my favorite fruity perfume from my dresser and gave myself a little spritz. As I set it back down, something else caught my eyeâa single piece of gum. A gift from Liam. Ugh. I should have gotten rid of that thing months ago, or at least chewed it while it was still chewable. Now it was probably a gross, moldy mess, just like my heart.
When Liam and I first started going out at the end of fifth grade, he told me all these weird secrets about himself, like how he still slept with a stuffed animal (Mr. Koala Snuggles) and once kept a piece of gum in a jar as a pet named Chewy. (That's why he gave me gum: not in case I wanted minty-fresh breath, but in case I wanted a pet.) And, in his spare time, he liked to bake pies out of cheese puffs, cereal, and French fries, just to see what would happen when he put them in the oven. So weird. So awesome. So awesomely weird.
And then I showed him my words. Like everyone else at our elementary school, he knew about them, but he was one of the few people who really liked seeing them up close and wanted to know more about them. He'd ask me questions all the time.
“How'd you get it?”
“Nobody knows, Liam. Something about a bad gene my mom passed on.”
“How many people have it?”
“Beats me. I don't know of anyone else. Dr. Patel says it's one of the rarest disorders in the world.”
“Why are they only on your arms and legs? Why are some big and some small?”
“Because that's where they show up. And that's just how they form. I never know where one will pop up or what size it'll be.”
I never had real answers to his questions, since there was a lot Dr. Patel was still researching. Dr. Patel spent lots of time researching, but the truth was that he couldn't really do much to make me better or change anything. Mainly we just talked and he made me feel less like a weirdo. I told Liam this, but he kept asking things anyway. He thought it was interesting.
Like me, he wasn't totally normal.
It was fantastic.
On our sixth and last day of going out, my heart pounded extra hard when I saw him and I didn't know why. It was more than my regular OMG-he's-so-cute-and-weird-in-a-good-way-and-I-can't-handle-it lurchy heart. It was the kind where I thought my heart was going to jump out of my body, run down the street, and never come back.
“This is going to be the last time we hang out,” Liam said. He crossed his arms and I felt like someone had kicked me so hard that all my insides fell out. Like I had nothing inside of me. Like I was a big blob of empty nothingness.
“Middle school starts this fall,” he said, like I didn't know, but I actually knew very well. In fact, I had daydreams about us walking down the hallway hand in hand all romantically like people in middle school probably did. Liam would lead the way, showing people my words and looking out for me like Jeg always did. With two awesome bodyguards by my side, the words would definitely be all amazing, all the time.
“YeahÂ â¦ middle school. So?” My voice was shaky.
“Soâ¦” He squirmed. “I can't really be associated withâ¦” He gestured to me. “All your weird stuff. It's too weird. You were really interesting to hang out with, though.”
popped up and itched like I knew it would, but when
formed, it didn't feel like much. Maybe my CAV wasn't sure, like I wasn't, whether that word was a compliment or a diss. Usually words like that didn't feel like much at all.
“It's just, in middle school, the CAV stuff, it's notÂ â¦ I can't. My brother told me it's gonna be different. And I want to have more time this summer for soccer and Kevin and the guys, anyway. We can still be friends, though. I'll text you. Trust me, you don't really wanna be with me.”
I was pretty sure I did, actually.
That's all he said before he walked away and left me by myself, scratching
and wondering what I did wrong.
Jeg, busy that day with another friend, wasn't there to help me scratch the word or to stop it from happening in the first place.
And Liam, the one who used to think weird was cool, had caused it.
I tried to get home right away, since I was technically supposed to be walking home with Liam and not by myself, but when I passed the Oak Park Public Library, I had to take a break to sit on a bench and scratch. When I looked up, I saw a whole bunch of kids I didn't recognize. They looked like they were about my age, but they must have been from a different elementary school.
And after all the commotion of Liam leaving and me crying and itching and freaking out, they were staring at me like I was nuts.
I gulped and wrapped myself in a hug, like I was a little animal trying to protect myself from predators. Kids from my school knew they weren't allowed to call me bad names, but kids from other schools didn't know me and didn't know the rules. Whenever I'd see people I didn't know out at the mall, the library, the pool, wherever, I'd have someone with me. A friend. Mom. Dad.
And they'd give the strangers scary looks, and they'd cover my ears if it looked like someone was going to say something bad.
But this time I was alone.
“What's wrong with your arms and legs?” some kid with spiky hair and glasses asked. I was already crying a little bit, but that was enough to push me over the edge. My arms flailed away from my body as I cried and cried and cried.
“What'd you do to that freak, Felix?” A girl came up to the boy.
formed on my kneecap right before their eyes.
“Holy meatballs!” yelled Felix. “What are you, some kind of a witch?”
“Witch!” the girl repeated, laughing.
was itchy. So, so itchy. I was an itchy, itchy witchy.
The rest of their friends approached. Before they could say anything, I scrambled away as quickly as I could.
As I ran home that day, tears streaming down my cheeks and words itching the bejeebers out of my body, I realized: maybe Mom, Dad, Jeg, and Liam were the only people who thought CAV was cool. And now Liam
think it was cool, and Jeg wasn't around as much, so maybe she didn't, and Mom and DadÂ â¦ Well, parents
to tell you that you were cool, even if you weren't. Everybody knew that.
If this was a sign of what people really thought when they weren't being threatened by my parents or friends or teachers, then, well, maybe CAV wasn't the cool kind of weird after all. Maybe it was the weird kind of weird, plain and simple.
So I decided, right then and there on that sticky almost-summer day, that I could never wear shorts or T-shirts ever again. And, throughout the summer, I had stuck to my promise. Even if I was hot all the time.
Hot was better than itchy.
“Elyse, we gotta go!”
I took one last look at the gum and decided I'd throw it out later. Then I hurried downstairs and joined Mom and Dad in the car.
“This class trip is going to be so great for you, sweetie,” Mom said as she put on her seat belt. “I know it's months away, but I made some lists. Things you have, things you need, things you don't have that you might need, types of anti-itch cream that are best for cold weatherâ¦”
I groaned. Prescription anti-itch cream was the only thing that made my bad CAV words feel better, but the stuff was seriously nasty. Not only was it thick and gooey, but it also smelled like milk somebody should've thrown away weeks ago.
Mom passed a notebook back to me, and I held it up in front of the window and pretended to read her lists. Really, though, I just wanted to look out the window.
“Don't worry about all this stuff, Elyse,” Dad said. “You'll be fine. It'll be good. Everything's good.”
Mom rubbed his shoulder for a second, and then turned back to look at me. “Of course everything is good. Well, that's what we're aiming for. But we have to be prepared. Sometimes things don't go how we want them to. I have lotion for tonight in my purse, just in case things get itchy in there. Okay?”
I stared back out the window, pretending I hadn't heard her. Maybe if I didn't think about the possibility of things going wrong, they wouldn't.
Dad changed the subject. “So, anything interesting happen in school lately?”
“Not really.” I considered it.
was usually not good enough of an answer for my parents, especially when it came to school stuff. “Well, Ms. Sigafiss had us write letters to ourselves. We have to do it in a notebook every month, and then we get to read them someday in the future. And she doesn't even read them! She just kind of flips through every now and then to see that we did it.”
cool!” Mom's voice got all high and excited. “What did you write?”
“UmÂ â¦ it's private.”
If Mom knew that I had gotten a mysterious blue noteâand that most of my letter to myself was me wondering what it saidâshe'd totally freak out.
“Oh, okay,” she said. She sounded a little disappointed, but then she perked up again. “Still. Really cool project, sweetie.”
We parked and walked into the school auditorium from the big lot. Our principal, Mr. Todd, stood at a small podium on the stage, and almost everyone I knewâplus a bunch of people I didn't knowâsat in the audience. This many people wanted to be Explorer Leader? My heart sank all the way to the ground. Lower, if possible. There was no way I'd get picked when there was this much competition.
Besides all the people in my grade, there were parents, brothers, sisters, teachers, everybody. Even Ms. Sigafiss was there, sitting in the back row with all our other teachers, the typical I-hate-everything frown plastered across her face. It looked like most people were sitting with their families, so Mom, Dad, and I grabbed a few seats together toward the back. I looked around for Jeg and her parents. They were up near the very front, right next toâwas that Snotty Ami? It was, and she was all by herself. No parents or anything. Well, that was totally unfair. I was about to ask Mom if it would be okay if I moved to sit by them when Mr. Todd started talking.
“Welcome, students, parents, teachers, and friends!” His voice boomed out across the room. “I want to thank you all for taking a short time out of your Friday evening for this important meeting. Parents, you're here because your child is interested in being the Explorer Leader of the annual sixth-grade trip to Minnesota this February. Though there will be only one leader, I like to think of that person as a representative of our whole community of sixth graders and their families. We're all a team, which is why we learn together, grow together, and support each other at events like tonight's meeting.”
The room buzzed with energy, excitement, and nerves (if you were me). What was I doing here? I didn't belong here. I belonged at home, where it was safe.
Mr. Todd continued, “The Explorer Leader will have enormous responsibility in the planning and implementing of activities on the trip. This person will be organized, creative, and able to take charge. This person will also be well versed in the arts of physical and mental endurance. As you can tell from the overwhelming attendance at this meeting, dozens of students feel they have these very qualities. I will select a small committee of students to serve as Explorer Helpers, but only one will be chosen as the leader.”