My new tattoo is covered by a Band-Aid, but halfway through recess, the Band-Aid falls off. I’m hanging my winter coat on the hook in our fourth-grade classroom when my teacher, Ms. Davonte, walks by and gasps.
“Della,” she says, “is that a tattoo?”
I hold up my wrist to show it to her. “It’s an ampersand,” I say, careful to pronounce the word correctly.
“I know that,” Ms. Davonte says. “Is it real?”
It’s so real, it still hurts, and the skin around it is red and puffy. “Yes, ma’am,” I say.
She shakes her head and mutters. I am not one of her favorite students. I may be one of her least favorites.
I don’t care. I love, love, love my ampersand tattoo.
I am ten years old. I’m going to tell you the whole story. Some parts are hard, so I’ll leave those for later. I’ll start with the easy stuff.
My name is Delicious Nevaeh Roberts. Yeah, I know. With a first name like that, why don’t I just go by Nevaeh? I never tell anyone my name is Delicious, but it’s down in my school records, and teachers usually blurt it out on the first day.
I’ve had a lot of first days lately.
If I can get it in before the teacher says Delicious out loud, I’ll say, “I go by Della.” I mean, I’ll say that anyhow—I answer to Della, not Delicious, thank you—but it’s easier if no one ever hears Delicious.
Once a boy tried to lick me to see if I was delicious. I kicked him in the— Suki says I can’t use bad words, not if I want anybody to read my story. Everybody I know uses bad words all the time, just not written down. Anyway, I kicked him right in the zipper of his blue jeans—let’s say it like that—and it was me that got in trouble. It’s always the girl that gets in trouble. It’s usually me.
Suki didn’t care. She said, You stick up for yourself, Della. Don’t you take crap from nobody.
Can I say crap in a story?
Anyhow, she didn’t say crap. She said something worse.
Lemme fix that. Suki says whenever I want to use a bad word, I can say snow. Or snowflake. Or snowy.
I kicked him right in the snow.
Don’t you take snow from nobody.
Yeah, that works.
Okay, so back to me. Delicious Nevaeh Roberts. The Nevaeh is heaven spelled backwards, of course. There’s usually at least one other girl in my class called Nevaeh. It’s a real popular name around here. I don’t know why. It sounds dumb to me. Heaven backwards? What was my mother thinking?
Probably she wasn’t. That’s just the truth. My mother is incarcerated. Her parental rights have been terminated. That just happened lately. Nobody bothered to before, even though by the time she gets out of prison, I’ll be old enough to vote.
I can’t remember her, except one tiny bit like a scene from a movie. Suki says she was no better than a hamster when it came to being a mother, and hamsters sometimes eat their babies. It was always Suki who took care of me. Mostly still is.
Suki’s my sister. She’s sixteen.
I’m still on the easy part of the story, if you can believe that.
Suki’s full name is Suki Grace Roberts. Suki isn’t short for anything, though it sounds like it should be. And that Roberts part—well, that’s our mother’s last name too. Suki and me, we don’t know who our fathers are, except they were probably different people and neither one of them was Clifton, thank God. Suki swears that’s true. I believe her.
Can you say God in a story? ’Cause I wasn’t taking His name in vain, right there. I really am thanking God, whatever God there is, that Clifton ain’t my daddy.
Suki used to have a photograph of Mama, from her trial. White pale face, sores on it, black teeth from the meth, pale white lanky hair. Suki says she bleached her hair, but whatever, you can see it’s got no texture to it. Hangs like string. Suki’s hair is soft and shiny, dark brown except when she dyes it black. It’s a prettier version of Mama’s hair, and her eyes look like Mama’s too. My hair has bounce. It tangles up all the time. My eyes are lighter than Suki’s and Mama’s.
Suki’s skin is skim-milk white, so pale, her belly almost looks blue. She burns bright red when she goes out in the sun. My skin’s browner, and I don’t never need sunscreen, no matter what Suki says. So while me and Suki don’t know one single thing about our fathers, we’re guessing they weren’t the same.
Which is good, right? Because if the same guy stuck around long enough to be the daddy to both me and Suki, he should’ve stayed and helped us out of this mess. Otherwise he’d just be a snowman. What Suki thinks, and me too, is that Mama probably never told either of our daddies that she was going to have their baby, so we can’t blame them for not being around. It’s possible they were great guys, fantastic in just every way except of course for hanging out with our mother, who was always a hot mess.
Suki and me gave up on Mama a long time ago. Had to. Not only is she incarcerated, she had what’s called a psychotic break as soon as she got to prison. It comes from the meth, and it means she’s bad crazy in a permanent way. She wouldn’t likely even recognize us were we to walk into her cell, not that we could, since she’s incarcerated in Kansas somewhere, which we have no current means of getting to. She doesn’t write or call because she can’t write or call, not so as she would make any sense. And it would never occur to her to do so. She’s forgotten all about us. I’m sorry about that, real sorry, but it’s nothing I can change.
I got a big mouth. That’s a good thing. It’s excellent. Let me tell you a story to explain. Last week at school—this was a couple of days before I showed up with my new tattoo—Ms. Davonte told us we all had to draw family trees. She showed us what she wanted: lines drawn like branches, mother, father, grandparents. Aunts and uncles and cousins.
My tree would dead-end at Mama, behind bars, with Suki sticking off to one side. Wasn’t no way I was going to draw that, especially since I suspected it was something Ms. Davonte planned to hang up in the hall outside our classroom for the entire school to see.
Ms. Davonte still doesn’t get it. I don’t know why not. I thought she was starting to.
Instead of a family tree, I drew a wolf. I’m getting better at wolves. I made her eyes dark and soft but her mouth open, showing fangs. I borrowed Nevaeh’s silver markers to outline her fur.
Ms. Davonte came past and said, “Della, what are you doing? That’s not the assignment.”
I said, “This wolf is my family tree.” I gave her a look. Ms. Davonte doesn’t know my whole story, but she knows an awful lot of it. Especially given all that’s happened lately. If Ms. Davonte stopped to think, even for just a moment, I bet she maybe could guess why I didn’t want to draw a family tree. Nope. She tightened her lips and said, “I want you to do the assignment I gave you.”
I said, “The assignment is snow.”
I got in trouble for saying snow.
I knew I would. It’s why I said it. I got to take a little trip down to the principal’s office. The principal and I are practically friends by now. Her name is Dr. Penny. (Penny is her last name. I asked.)
Dr. Penny said, “Della, to what do I owe the pleasure of seeing you this time?”
I said, “I’m not doing that assignment. I can’t fix my family tree, and it’s nobody’s business but mine.”
“Oh,” said Dr. Penny. Then she asked what I was doing instead of the assignment, and then she agreed that drawing a wolf seemed like a reasonable compromise. She said she’d have a word with Ms. Davonte.
I said, “Luisa doesn’t want to draw her family tree, either. Or Nevaeh.” Nevaeh’s dad left a few years ago. Luisa, I didn’t know her whole story, but I saw the way her eyes emptied out when Ms. Davonte told us what she wanted us to do. “Ms. Davonte is still not listening until she has to.”
Dr. Penny sighed. I don’t know who she was sighing at. She said, “I’ll talk to her, Della.”
I said, “She ought to be paying better attention.” I’m only ten years old, and I noticed Luisa’s eyes and the way Nevaeh’s shoulders tightened. Ms. Davonte is the teacher.
Francine says you can trust some people, but not all of them. I didn’t think I would ever trust Ms. Davonte.
Dr. Penny said, “It might be helpful, Della, if you quit using words like snow.”
I said, “Probably not.” I wasn’t trying to give her lip. I said, “When I said snow I got to come down here and explain this to you. If I didn’t say snow, I’d have to say why I don’t want to draw a family tree. The whole class would have heard my business. And then I’d get made fun of on the playground.”
Dr. Penny paused. She looked at me for what felt like a long time. Then she said, “Thank you for that explanation.” She suggested I sit in the comfy chair in her office until recess. She had a shelf of books I could read. I don’t like books much, but there was one about dinosaur poop that was interesting.
I don’t know what Dr. Penny said to Ms. Davonte, but I didn’t have to make a family tree, and Ms. Davonte didn’t hang any of them in the hall.
See? It’s useful, having a big mouth. Next thing I’m gonna do with it is help put Clifton in prison for a long, long time.
We are still on the easy parts of the story.
Suki and I live with Francine. She’s our foster mother. That’s the word they use, foster mother, but there is nothing motherly about Francine. She don’t even have meth for an excuse.
“Happy to have you,” she said, when the social worker first brought us to her house. That was a couple of months ago, late August, still hot every single day. It was a week after we got away from Clifton. Feels like a year ago. A lifetime. But it wasn’t.
Francine’s house was half of a double-house, if you will, with a tiny little yard and a cramped living room. It wasn’t dirty and it smelled okay. “Here’s your bedroom,” Francine said. “I don’t usually take girls as young as you, Della, but I like that you two are sisters. Probably won’t fight as much.”
Back then Suki and I never fought with each other.
The bedroom was nice. Bunk bed made up with sheets and pillows and blankets. Two wooden chests of drawers. One each.
“Huh,” Suki said. “Not much space.” She took the plastic grocery bag out of my hand and dropped it into the top drawer of the first dresser. Dropped her own plastic bag into the top drawer of the second.
That was all the stuff we had. We were in a hurry when we left Clifton’s place.
We were running.
“Beats the emergency placement witch,” I said. I meant the woman who took us in the first few days. The room at Francine’s was smaller than the one at the witch’s house, but it seemed friendlier, and so did Francine.
Suki sniffed. “We’ll see.”
Back in the family room, Francine said, “Didn’t they let you go back for your clothes? Books, toys, anything?”
“Clifton burned our stuff,” Suki said. “That’s what the cops said.”
We’d seen the smoke from Teena’s house. Clifton threw everything we had onto the burn pile in the backyard, doused it with gasoline, and lit a match. Cops said he was trying to pretend we didn’t live with him.
Francine turned to the social worker, who was still shuffling papers. “They get a clothing allowance?”
Social worker checked her notes, and said we did.
So, soon as the social worker left, Francine piled us into her old junker car and drove us to Old Navy. I got to pick out whatever I wanted, two hundred dollars’ worth. And Suki got two hundred fifty, ’cause she was older.
“Don’t forget underwear,” Francine said on the way there. “Socks, pajamas, whatever else. I ain’t buying you anything more till your checks start coming in.” She paused a moment. “You need school stuff? Backpacks, notebooks, pencils?”
I shook my head fast. No way was I spending my two hundred dollars on that.
Suki said, “Clifton wrecked my laptop. The one the school loaned me for the year.”
Francine sighed. “I’ll have to sort that out,” she said. “I’ll head over to the high school tomorrow morning, after I get Della settled. I work at the DMV, lucky they don’t open until ten. You got a driver’s license, Suki?”
Suki nodded. She’d taken driving at school and passed the test. She traced her finger along the passenger-side window. “Left it at Clifton’s,” she said.
“I can get you a replacement,” Francine said. “We’ll work on that too. You’ll need to get insurance before you ever drive my car. You a decent driver?”
Suki said, “So far.”
It was strange losing all our stuff at once. On the one hand, I loved getting all new things, and from Old Navy, no less. A fancy store. Most of my clothes came from the free clothes closet. Sometimes Teena gave me hand-me-downs, but since she usually got her clothes from the free clothes closet in the first place, they weren’t actually any better. But I’d had a purple sweatshirt I really loved, and a couple of nice T-shirts.
I reached into the front seat and grabbed Suki’s arm. “Hey,” I said. “I’ll be starting school wearing all new stuff.” It’d be fabulous. Like I was one of the kids with a real mom who had a job and everything.
I was going to a new school. Not the one I’d gone to my whole life, and not the emergency placement school I’d gone to for the last few days. Brand-new. A do-over.
“Great,” Suki said, not sounding like she meant it. She’d be wearing new clothes too, but to the same old place. Our town had a bunch of elementary schools, but only one middle school and one high school.
We went inside Old Navy and we both grabbed a cart. Suki walked with me to the girls’ section. “Start with underwear,” she said. She pulled out a seven-pack of hipsters, checked the size, and threw them into my cart.
“Hey!” I said. “Let me pick!” She’d grabbed white. I wanted colors.
“’Kay,” Suki said. “Get what you want. One pair of pajamas. Two pairs of blue jeans and at least three shirts. Try things on. Make sure you’ve got room to grow.”
I tried on blue jeans and found some I liked. Brand-new. I grabbed some T-shirts off the sale rack. Two hundred dollars was a lot of money, but Old Navy was expensive. Then I saw a hot-pink hoodie with OLD NAVY written on it in purple glitter. It wasn’t on sale, and August wasn’t exactly hoodie weather, but I loved wearing hoodies any time of year. All the fabric snug around my neck, and when I put the hood up, I could see people but they couldn’t see me. Also I had two hundred dollars. I threw the hoodie into my cart.
I picked through the rack of shoes. I hated the shoes I was wearing but Old Navy didn’t have much. I found a pair of plastic jellies my size. Six bucks, and at least nobody’d ever worn them before.
“Della!” I heard Suki call from another part of the store. “Get over here, quick!”
I hurried. Suki was standing in the center of the store, next to a table piled with shoes.
Not just any shoes. Purple velvet high-top sneakers.
“Oh,” I said. I’d never seen any shoes I wanted so much.
“Get them,” said Suki. She was grinning.
“You too,” I said.
“Nah.” She waved her hand at me and laughed. “Look at the difference between your cart and mine.”
Hers had blue jeans. Black underwear. Black socks. Black T-shirts and sports bras. Black eyeliner and mascara. If they’d sold black lipstick, Suki would have bought some. She liked black. Not me.
The purple velvet shoes cost thirty dollars, more even than the glitter hoodie. I put them in the very top of my cart and stroked them, just once. Me, tomorrow, first day of school: new blue jeans, glitter hoodie, purple velvet high-tops. For the first time in my life, I was going to look fine.
I’d added all the prices up so I knew I had enough money, but it turns out I forgot about sales tax, and in Tennessee that’s a lot. My cart came to $221.
I thought about putting back the socks. The cheap T-shirts. But they didn’t cost enough to make a difference.
I could get the plastic shoes.
Suki took the high-tops off the counter and put them into her own cart. “I’ll buy them,” she said.
She put one of her sports bras back, and a shirt. “You got a washer?” she asked Francine.
Suki said, “Then I’m good.” She put her arm around me. “Gotta take care of my girl. Who needs more than two bras, anyway?”
I could always count on Suki. Suki fixed everything.
I put those velvet high-tops on my feet right there in the store. I was gonna throw my nasty shoes in the trash, but Suki said to keep ’em, you never knew when it might be handy to have a second pair of shoes. We went back to Francine’s house and Francine ordered pizza for dinner. Delivered. Pepperoni and sausage both. She opened cans of soda for us. Suki cut the tags off all our new clothes, and I sat and stared at Francine.
She was seriously one of the ugliest women I ever saw. She looked like one of those little dogs with mashed-up faces and pouches hanging from their jaws. Also she had little round bumps of skin sticking out from her face. I don’t mean zits. They were zit-sized blobs that looked like they were on stalks, growing straight out from the surface of her skin. All over her face, and neck too. I started counting them. I got to thirty-six before she gave me the stink eye.
“Knock it off,” she said. “They’re called skin tags. They’re not cancer, they’re not contagious, and pulling them off hurts.”
I said, “What if they hatch?”
She said, “If they do, it’ll be into little monsters that attack you in your sleep and make you itch till kingdom come. So you better hope it doesn’t happen.”
When the pizza came, Francine slapped it on the table and passed out paper plates. “I keep foster kids for the money,” she said.
I didn’t mind her saying that. I liked to know where we stood.
“I only take girls,” she said. “Mostly old enough to do their own thing. Two at a time, when I can.” She stubbed her cigarette out on the edge of her plate. “I used to have a roommate, but it was snow, having to deal with people who never quite came up with their share of the bills. I thought, gimme roommates where the state pays their share, that’ll be easier. Usually it is.” She lit another cigarette. “Y’all going to court? Prosecuting?”
Suki nodded. She leaned over and slid a cigarette out of Francine’s pack. Francine smacked her hand. “Nope,” she said. “You’re underage. I don’t contribute to the delinquency of minors. Plus, trust me, you’d wish you’d never started. I do. So. You’ve got clothes and we’ll figure out about the school laptop. What else you need?”
“Phones,” Suki said. Clifton’d smashed hers. It was pretty new too. Clifton hadn’t finished paying for it.
Francine shook her head. “Not my problem. You want one, get a job.”
“Della’s ten,” Suki said. “She can’t.”
Francine shrugged. “She’s ten. She don’t need a phone. Neither do you. I got a landline in the family room. Use that.”
“Seriously?” Suki looked annoyed.
I said, “We did too need Suki’s phone.”
Francine and Suki looked at me. Francine said, “Don’t worry. You’re safe here.”
Suki laughed. “Yeah, right.”
We threw the paper plates in the trash, and the pizza box, and that was the end of dinner. Francine turned on the TV and slumped in the recliner. Suki and I sat down on the couch.
“You see Teena today?” I asked Suki.
She grunted. “No. Quit asking.”
“You had to,” I said. “Unless she’s sick or something.” Teena was in Suki’s grade.
“Didn’t,” Suki said.
Teena’s mom had called the cops on us, which I didn’t appreciate, but still. “Teena’s our best friend,” I explained to Francine. “She’s, like, my other sister.” I turned to Suki. “It wasn’t her fault.”
Suki jumped to her feet. “Bedtime.”
“Suki,” I said. “It’s only—”
She grabbed my arm. “Bed.”
“There’s an alarm clock in your room,” Francine said. “Get yourselves up however early you need. I’ll drive you to school tomorrow, Della. After that you’ll take a bus.”
I put on my brand-new pajamas. I’d never had new pajamas before. They felt crinkly. “Brush your teeth,” Suki said.
I rolled my eyes at her. I always brushed my teeth.
She said, “And get them tangles out of your hair.”
I said, “You are not the boss of me.” Which was a joke between us, because of course she was the boss of me.
When I came out of the bathroom, teeth brushed and hair as good as it was going to get, Suki was already under the blanket on the top bunk. I climbed up beside her and snuggled close. I said, “It’s way too early for sleeping.”
“Won’t hurt you none,” Suki said. She held her right hand up, fingers splayed. I put my left pinkie against her thumb and my left thumb against her pinkie. We walked our hands into the air, pinkie to thumb, pinkie to thumb, climbing up as high as we could reach. Suki’d taught me to do this and recite “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” but we’d cut the spider song out long ago. When our hands were stretched as high as I could reach, we marched them back down.
“Skinna-ma-rink-y-dink-y-dink, skinna-ma-rink-y-do,” Suki sang. “I love you.”
I joined in.
Skinna-ma-rinky-dinky dink, skinna-ma-rinky do,
I love you.
I love you in the morning, and in the afternoon. I love you in the evening, underneath the moon.
Skinna-ma-rinky-dinky dink, skinna-ma-rinky-do.
I love you.
The car Teena’s mother used to have had this thing called a tape player. It played music when you stuck little plastic cartridges called tapes inside it. Somewhere Teena’s mom had picked up a tape with all these goofy kids’ songs on it, and, since it was the only tape she had, she played it all the time. Teena’s mom didn’t drive us around much, but still, by the time that car quit running we knew every one of the songs, Suki, Teena, and me. Suki’d sung “Skinnamarinky” as my lullaby for almost as long as I could remember.
It wasn’t even dark outside yet, but Suki’d pulled the curtains and the room was full of shadows. I tucked my head against my sister’s shoulder. The bed was unfamiliar and my new pajamas itched, but Suki was the same as always.
That first night at Francine’s, we fell asleep holding hands.
Suki didn’t stay asleep. She thrashed around half the night, pounding on her pillow and flopping from front to back to front again. She must have woke me up a dozen times. Finally she settled, and we were both hard asleep when Francine’s alarm clock went off across the room.
I jumped down but didn’t know how to turn off the noise. I smacked some buttons. The numbers on the clock started flashing but the alarm kept going. I smacked some more. Nothing else happened.
Suki reached from behind me. She punched one button and the noise stopped. The clock went back to normal. “Figure it out, Della,” she snapped.
“Good morning to you too.” I loved it when she woke up like this.
In the kitchen Francine poured us bowls of raisin bran. She told us that it was the only kind of cereal she had in the house, and also that after this we’d be eating breakfast at school, because kids in foster care automatically get free school breakfast and lunch.
“You mean, like, hot lunch?” I asked.
We never got free lunch before, but Clifton usually didn’t give us money for school lunch neither—or at least, if he did, Suki wasn’t about to spend it on school lunch. We packed our lunches. Mostly peanut butter sandwiches. Sometimes chips.
Suki said, “I don’t want to eat school lunch. Or breakfast.”
“Suki!” I thought it might be interesting, eating at school. The school breakfasts always looked kind of tasty—muffins, juice, stuff like that.
“I always fixed Della lunch and breakfast,” she told Francine. “I fed her. I don’t see why you can’t feed us.”
Francine shrugged. “I’ll feed you plenty. But if the state gives me a benefit, I ain’t turning it down.”
Suki stomped off to school, still muttering. Francine poured herself another cup of coffee. “You sure you don’t need school supplies? We could quick stop at Walmart.”
“Nah.” Teachers always found a way to get me anything I really had to have. Most of the kids in my old school couldn’t afford school supplies. The teachers were used to it.
In the car on the drive to school I asked, “So, foster mother. Does that mean you’re, like, legally my mom?”
We had lawyers now, Suki and me.
Francine glanced at me. “It’s kind of complicated. Clifton wasn’t ever your legal anything—”
“Shoo,” I said, “I knew that.”
“And your mother should have lost her parental rights when she got sentenced to such a long prison term. But that never actually happened. The social workers are getting you and Suki named wards of the state. Until that goes through, I don’t actually have much power.”
She glanced at me again. “It doesn’t matter,” she added. “You’ll be taken care of.”
“I know,” I said. “I have Suki.”
“Suki can’t have legal rights over you, though,” Francine said. “She can’t have legal rights over herself. She’s only sixteen.”
That didn’t mean anything. Suki was still in charge of my world.
“How many foster kids have you had?” I asked.
“Six,” she said.
“What happened to them?”
She didn’t even blink. “None of your blessed business. Their stories are their own.”
I thought for a moment. “Okay. What’s your superpower?” Teena said everybody had at least one.
Francine tapped her hand against the steering wheel. “I work with idiots all day every day and never lose my temper,” she said. “Given some of my customers, not to mention my co-workers, that’s a daily miracle.” She took another sip of coffee. “What’s yours?”
I said, “I don’t take snow from anybody.”
Francine snorted. Coffee flew out her nose. “Snow!” But she wasn’t mad, she was laughing. “Grab me some of the paper napkins off the floor, there, will you?”
I did. Francine wiped the steering wheel. She tossed the dirty napkins back to the floor. “What’s Suki’s superpower?” she asked.
“She can make herself invisible,” I said.
The school was big, brick, kind of shabby, just like my old one. The security officer smiled at me. The principal introduced herself—Dr. Penny—and shook my hand.
My new teacher, Ms. Davonte, didn’t. She didn’t even smile. She didn’t look glad to see me at all. The first thing she said was, “I don’t know where we’re going to fit in another desk.”
Like that was my fault. Everyone in the class stared at me. Nobody smiled. I said, “I can sit on the floor.”
A boy in the front row, white skin, freckled face, plain brown hair, said, just loud enough for me to hear, “Next to the garbage can.” The boys sitting near him snickered.
Ms. Davonte said, “Strike one, Trevor. And it’s only eight o’clock.” She walked over to the whiteboard and drew a slash under the name TREVOR written in the corner of the board. Trevor sighed, rolled his eyes, and muttered something else. Ms. Davonte said, “What was that?”
Trevor said, “Nothing.”
Ms. Davonte said, “What?”
Trevor said, “Nothing. Ma’am.”
Ms. Davonte turned back to me like she’d half forgotten I was there. She sent someone off to the custodian’s to get another desk. She looked down at the papers the principal gave her, frowned, and looked back up at me.
I knew what she was thinking. I said, “I go by Della.”
She nodded. “Good.” She introduced me to the class as Della, not Delicious. She didn’t make me say anything else, which I appreciated. The custodian brought in a desk. Ms. Davonte made everyone in Trevor’s row, except Trevor, get up and push their desks back a space. She put me in between them and Trevor.
“How come I don’t get to move back?” Trevor asked. “Put the new girl in the front.”
“I don’t think so,” Ms. Davonte said.
Then she said she was just about to pass out a math quiz. She wouldn’t expect me to do well, but she’d have me take it to see what I knew. She said, “Do you have a pencil, Della?”
I shook my head. Her eyes traveled from my face down to my glitter hoodie past my new blue jeans and purple high-tops, to my total lack of backpack or school supplies. When she looked me in the face again her expression had changed. Like, Girl, maybe you should have got yourself a pencil along with those new shoes.
I rolled my eyes and said, “My mama said the school had plenty of pencils I could use.”
My mama never even put me into school—it was Clifton did that—let alone told me anything about pencils, ever, or cared if I had school supplies. But the whole class was still watching to see if I could hold my own, and I had to let them know I could. Like the way that boy Trevor made it clear he didn’t care how many strikes Ms. Davonte gave him. You gotta be tough from the start.
Ms. Davonte found me a pencil. Said she wanted it back at the end of the day. Whatever. I went through the math quiz and wrote some numbers down. I didn’t know any of the answers. Couldn’t tell you whether I’d been taught any of it before or not. Sometimes stuff teachers say just doesn’t stick. Like today—there wasn’t room for math inside my head when it felt like the whole class was still staring at me. I had hoped my new shoes would help more.
Trevor turned around. “Nice shoes,” he said.
I didn’t know if he meant it. “Thanks.”
He said, “Too bad you’re so ugly, wearing them.”
I guess not.
Ms. Davonte said, “Trevor, are you talking during a quiz?”
He said, “No, ma’am, the new girl asked me a question.”
“Della,” Ms. Davonte said, “please be quiet. If you have a question, raise your hand and ask me.”
I raised my hand. Ms. Davonte nodded. I asked, “How come I have to sit behind this snowman?”
The class exploded with laughter. Ms. Davonte’s face froze. When she got it unfroze, she said, “You’re not getting off to a very good start, Della. We don’t use language like that in my classroom.”
Sure we did. I just had.
Ms. Davonte told us to pass our quizzes to the front. The girl next to me turned and whispered, “What’d you do that for?”
I nodded toward Trevor. “He’s a jerk.”
She said, “Ignore him. We all do.”
I turned my quiz upside down before I passed it forward, but Trevor turned it right-side up when he took it from me. His eyes widened. “You’re stupid!” he said.
Better stupid than a snowman. I was trying not to say that out loud, but I still might have, except that Ms. Davonte spoke first. “Trevor, that’s two.” She drew another slash under his name on the blackboard. “Three strikes and you don’t get recess.”
Trevor glared at me. “She didn’t get in trouble for calling me a snowman—” More laughter. It’s just hilarious, the word snowman. “Three.” Ms. Davonte drew a third slash.
Since it wasn’t even nine o’clock in the morning I wondered what she was going to threaten Trevor with for the rest of the day. I mean, three strikes is the limit, right?
Also, I felt bad. Because by rights one of those strikes should have been mine. I had called him a snowman right out loud, and hadn’t gotten in trouble at all. That wasn’t fair. The whole class knew it and I did too.
I took a deep breath and raised my hand. “Ms. Davonte—”
“Everyone in my classroom is responsible for his or her own behavior, Della,” Ms. Davonte said. “I gave you a pass because you don’t yet know our rules. Trevor, do I have to phone your mother? Again? It’s only the third week of school.”
Trevor scowled. Underneath the scowl I thought he looked afraid.
Ms. Davonte said, “Do I?”
Trevor said, “Nah.” He put his arms on his desk and his head in his arms. He didn’t move for the rest of the morning, not once.
The girl beside me whispered, “Only Trevor gets strikes. The rest of us just get yelled at.”
I wanted to say something back to her, something friendly, but I didn’t know what that might be. Also, shoo. I’d said enough for the first morning. I didn’t want my name up on the whiteboard.
Suki had friends at school, but she never let them come to our house. The only friend I had was Teena. I had another once, for a while, back when I was small. June, her name was, but she went by Junebug. She was friendly and funny until the day I said “My mama cooks meth” when we were on the playground. Probably kindergarten, though I can’t remember for sure.
“What’s meth?” she asked, wrinkling her nose a little.
Junebug was black. She wore her hair in a dozen braids, with bright beads strung on each one. I loved those braids.
“You know, meth,” I said. “It looks like sugar. Only it makes you act funny and sometimes it makes the room explode.”
She nodded and we kept on playing, but the next morning she looked at me with big eyes and said her mama told her not to talk to me anymore. And she didn’t. And when she stopped talking to me, a whole bunch of the other girls did too.
I asked Suki what did I do wrong. She said, “You can’t tell people about the meth. Or about Mama or Clifton or any of this.” She made a list of stuff I wasn’t never supposed to talk about: Mama. Clifton. (Especially not Clifton. Not that he was gone most of every week, not that he wasn’t our kin.) Meth. Prison. Who or what or where our daddies were. None of that.
I tried to win Junebug back. I sat next to her at lunch. I stood behind her in the bathroom line. I made silly faces. I poked her and I laughed a lot. Usually people like funny kids. Junebug ignored me for a couple of days. Then the teacher pulled me aside, told me quiet-like that Junebug’s mama had called the school and asked them to make me stay away from Junebug.
I didn’t have a mama who could call the school and stand up for me. And it’s not like my mama could’ve hurt Junebug, not from prison, so I didn’t understand why Junebug’s mama cared. But she did.
Another time, couple years later, I got invited to a birthday party. A real invitation, printed out on paper. I brought it home from school. Suki said “No” but I really wanted to go, so I saved it for the weekend and asked Clifton.
“Sure you can,” he said. It was Friday night, he’d just gotten home. He smiled, and I smiled back, happy even though Suki was shooting me stink eye.
The next morning I dressed up for the party. I told Clifton it was time to go. He said, “I ain’t taking you, kiddo. I said you could go. But I ain’t taking you there.”
It was too far to walk. I went back to my room and cried. Suki got mad and said what did I expect and she hoped I knew better now. Next day the girl whose party it was asked me why I didn’t show up. I said I wasn’t interested in that kind of snow.
I was in that school for five years. I got myself a reputation early and it stayed.
Copyright © 2020 by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.