Wink is the heartfelt and hilarious story of Ross, a 12-year-old boy who was recently diagnosed with a rare eye cancer. When his friends don’t know how to treat him and start pulling away, Ross turns to music, starts a band, lets loose and embraces the weirdness that comes with his new normal — like wearing a giant cowboy hat to school to protect his eye. Wink is perfect for fans of Wonder.
Ross Maloy just wants to be a normal seventh grader. He doesn't want to lose his hair, or wear a weird hat, or deal with the disappearing friends who don't know what to say to "the cancer kid." But with his recent diagnosis of a rare eye cancer, blending in is off the table.
Based on Rob Harrell's real life experience, and packed with comic panels and spot art, this incredibly personal and poignant novel is an unforgettable, heartbreaking, hilarious, and uplifting story of survival and finding the music, magic, and laughter in life's weirdness.
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
LET’S GET RADIOACTIVE
I’m lying on a steel table, all too aware of the giant ray gun pointed in my direction. It looks like one of those room-sized five-ton laser things supervillains use in movies. The kind they threaten to destroy the planet with.
“What music’re you into, Ross?”
I’m pretty sure the radiation tech is just trying to distract me as he bolts me down. A hard-plastic-mesh mask over my neck and head holds me still—they molded it to my face yesterday—and the tech struggles to click it onto the table. He scrunches his nose, pushing.
“Oh . . . anything. Whatever,” I mumble through my teeth. The hardened mask doesn’t let my chin move much.
The headpiece locks in, and the tech—Frank—gives my shoulder a bump with his fist. “C’mon, man. If you’re gonna lie here for half an hour, you need some tunes. I’ve got all kinds. Name something you like. There are no wrong answers.”
I scan my brain. “You could . . . Can you just . . . KZAQ?”
Frank stops and doubles over at the waist like he’s been gut-punched. He hangs there, talking to the floor.
“Okay . . . No wrong answers but that one.” He straightens up and winces at me. “Seriously? You like that Top Forty garbage?”
“It’s . . . what my parents have on all the time . . .”
So dorky. I try to look away casually, but my head won’t budge.
Frank stares before letting out an exaggerated sigh.
“Fine. But tomorrow, tell me whatyou like. Not what Mom and Dad like.” He walks over and fiddles with an old-timey boom box on a high wall shelf, next to a teetering stack of CDs and cassette tapes.
Seriously? There must be a gazillion dollars worth of equipment in here, and they can’t afford an MP3 player? I notice a bit of tattoo peeking out from the arm of Frank’s scrubs. A lizard tail, maybe? Or a tentacle?
Beyoncé fills the room, and suddenly Frank is all business. “I know we went over this yesterday, but let’s review.”
He wraps his arms around his clipboard and begins, like he’s done this a thousand times.
“The gurney you’re on is going to lift you up and move you into place. The treatment takes twenty-five minutes or so. Keep your limbs and naughty bits inside the ride at all times. Do not throw things at the radiation techs. Do not FEED the radiation techs. Do not waggle your legs around like a synchronized swimmer. Do not pass Go. Do not hum the Goo Goo Dolls, as I DESPISE the Goo Goo Dolls.”
Frank steps aside to let another tech—Callie, I think—reach in and mold some blue clay over the bridge of my nose. She smiles at me and tells me it’s to protect my “good” eye from the beam. Then she pats my chest. I hope I don’t look as nervous as I feel, ’cause I feel like a rabbit in a trap. My face is hot.
“Okay. Now for the important part.” Frank is back. “When I tell you, you’re gonna stare at the red X above you. The one we made over there by the big zapper yesterday. You’ll see it when the machine slides you over.”
The mask prevents much of a nod, but he seems to catch it. “Don’t move your eye off of that X, or your eye’ll explode into a million pieces like the Death Star, m’kay?”
I let out a little grunt.
Frank puts his hand on my arm. “I’m kidding, Ross. I mean . . . kind of. Don’t look away from the X. Your eye won’t explode, but we’re dealing with your vision. Important stuff. So keep your eye on the X, or it could . . . Just keep your eye on the X, and you’ll be fine.”
Callie steps back in with a U-shaped attachment that looks like part of a kid’s car seat. She fits it over my face and helps me slip the molded mouthpiece into my mouth. My teeth lock into it when I bite down, and she snaps the ends of the U to the table. Ka-chunk. The table is attached to a huge mechanical arm, like something out ofStar Trek.
My nose itches. I couldn’t move my head if I had to, and something about that makes me all squirmy inside. I feel like a bug on a dissecting table.
Frank and Callie look down at me. “You good?” Callie squeezes one of my sock-covered toes. “Need a blanket?”
“Nuh, I’n goo.”
“Okay.” She tucks a lock of hair behind her ear and gives me a friendly smile. Everybody smiles a lot here, probably because they can tell I’m freaking out. “We’ll be right around the corner. You’ll do great.”
Frank winks. “No sweat. You’ll see.”
They walk off to my left, but I can’t turn my head to follow them. The lights dim slowly as Gwen Stefani starts singing about bananas.
I’ll admit it. It’s a little freaky being the only one in here with all this machinery. All this . . .stuff.
I close my eyes and let out a long breath. It shudders as it slowly comes out, which somehow takes my nerves up another notch.
“All right.” Frank’s voice squawks through a tinny speaker. “We’re gonna get started, Ross. Just relax and keep your eye on the red X. You’re about to go for a ride.”
After a few seconds of silence, there are loud bangs and a revving sound. The entire room full of heavy machinery comes to life with beeping and whirring and what might be big fans powering up. Maybe things heat up when the radiation gets going? I have no idea.
Then the gurney shudders, and I begin to rise.
Frank comes through the speaker again.
“Houston, we have liftoff.”
My vocabulary of scientific terms has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few months.
Biopsy. Malignant. Mucoepidermoid. Carcinoma. Lacrimal gland. Resection. Triangulation. Proton radiotherapy. I may be in seventh grade, but I ought to be qualified for med school by the end of this.
The hardest part of the treatment is keeping my eye focused in the center of that red X. The whole thing makes me incredibly nervous. If someone tells you not to think about a purple elephant, it’s suddenly the only thing you can think about.
The harder I try to keep my eye still, the more it wants to slide off of the X. And my eye isn’t the only thing drifting. My brain keeps taking me back to the day this all started . . .
So, there have been a few really Bad Days through this whole thing. CapitalB, capital D. The first one was a few months ago. Mid-July. Right smack in the middle of what was supposed to be an awesome, relaxing summer.
The buildup to Bad Day #1 started when I’d been lying upside down in a chair reading To Kill a Mockingbird. It was a summer reading assignment, and while I’m strongly against summer schoolwork, I had to admit it was a pretty good book. I got up and walked into the kitchen, and my dad’s eyes got wide.
“Whoa! What happened there?”
I had no idea what he was talking about, so I opened the pantry door, searching for food. “What happened where?”
He came over and carefully touched the area above my eye. “Does that hurt?”
“Does what hurt?” I stepped into the hallway and looked in the mirror.
My eyelid was all puffed out—it looked like a bullfrog’s neck when they blow their necks up.
“Whoa! That is nasty!” I poked at it. It was pretty gross, like it was full of fluid. We talked about whether I’d been bitten by something (no) or gotten hit by something (no)—and decided to ice it.
It went down over the next half hour, so we forgot about it.
Until the next day—Sunday—when I woke up late with another case of Frog Eye. We iced it again. Then, Monday morning, my dad took one look at me and called out of work—which is a super big deal—and we drove to see some eye specialist, Dr. Sheffler. Dr. Sheffler told me I needed a “cat scan.”
Turns out that’s lingo for a procedure called a CT scan, but for a little while I was picturing a doctor waving a cat over me.
Thirty minutes later, I was in an ancient building near the hospital. I found myself wearing a hospital gown—the dumbest, most butt-revealing garment ever designed—padding down a cold hallway in little brown socks with treads on the bottom. They put me on a steel bed, my feet sticking through a giant mechanical donut, and at this point I started getting genuinely nervous—and kind of wishing my dad hadn’t stayed in the waiting room.
A truly enormous male nurse—he looked like he should play for the Colts—came in and put an IV in my arm (needle one out of three billion if I’m counting).
He warned me, “Ross, when I inject this, it might feel like you’re peeing your pants.”
It made me laugh—until a few minutes later when he squirted the contrast dye into the IV line and I got all warm and felt EXACTLY LIKE I WAS PEEING MY PANTS!
Even though I WASN’T PEEING! OR WEARING PANTS!
So weird. It couldn’t have felt MORE like I was peeing if I’d actually just let go and whizzed myself.
Afterward, Dad and I went to grab an early sub at Dagwood’s, as they have awesome milkshakes and their sandwiches are the best thing ever put between two slices of bread.
Dr. Sheffler had told us we’d probably get the results in two or three days, so it was pretty far from my mind as my dad parked out front. I was busy considering the wide array of delicious sandwich options I’d soon have.
Then my dad’s phone rang. He pulled it out, looked at the screen, and frowned. My dad was looking over at me when he answered.
I only heard my dad’s side of the conversation.
“Yes, it is.”
“Wait. You did?”
“Absolutely. We’ll be there in five minutes.”
He hung up and slid the phone all the way into the pocket of his jeans before he said anything. “That was, uh . . . Dr. Sheffler. He has your scans. Wants to see us now.”
“Is that bad?”
“Nah . . .” He started the car. “I don’t think so.” He was trying to sound casual, but his face had gone kind of slack. “Let’s just swing over there and . . . you know, we’ll grab . . . we’ll do Dagwood’s afterward.”
I peppered him with questions, but he assured me the doctor hadn’t told him anything.
Then he was just quiet, which wasn’t like him. I’d have killed for a knock-knock or a dad joke right about then.
“So,” Dr. Sheffler said, when we were back in his office. He used his foot to hook a rolling stool over and sat down in front of us. He set down the file he’d been holding and leaned in, his elbows on his knees like a basketball coach in a huddle. I felt my dad tense up beside me. I cracked a few knuckles.
“Thank you for coming so quickly,” Dr. Sheffler continued, speaking carefully. “Let’s not beat around the bush. The scan picked up something. A mass, above your right eye.” He looked right at me, his mouth squeezed in a tight line—it was a look that somehow said I’m sorry I have to tell you this andThis is serious business that we need to discuss like adults at the same time.
I’ll never forget the way my dad said it.Ree. A. Lee? Like he’d just found out dragons exist, or that day is night.
That’s honestly the last thing I remember clearly.
I mean, I didn’t pass out or anything, but they kept talking while my body and head went kind of fuzzy.
I heard bits and pieces.
“. . . tumor? No way to know yet . . .”
“. . . needle biopsy as soon as we can . . .”
“. . . could be benign, but let’s . . .”
“. . . in the lacrimal gland above the right . . .”
“. . . size of a gumball . . .”
“. . . not time to panic yet . . .”
Then all of a sudden, we were at the somber shaking-of-hands and thank-you part. They’d schedule this and that and call us.
And then we were outside. Sitting on the couple of steps outside the front door.
My dad pulled me into him and rubbed the top of my head. Gave it a casual kiss that seemed anything but casual.
“It’s all gonna be fine, Ross. Okay? The dumb thing is most likely benign, y’know?”
We sat there for a while, him rubbing my shoulder. I kept thinking,How serious is this?
I remembered when my mom went through this—even though I was only four when she did—that “benign” was the good kind of tumor. Or, not good, but not necessarily dangerous. “Malignant” was the bad kind: Cancer. TheBig C.
But—what now? Was I supposed to cry? Should I wail and throw myself down on the ground? It would have been helpful if Dr. Sheffler had given me a chart, from one to ten, circled the six and said,This right here is how much you should freak out at this point.
While I sat on the office steps, my dad went a few paces down the walk to call my stepmom, Linda. Then he called my grandmother (Gammy) in St. Louis, who sniffled and called me Rossy about a thousand times when I got on the phone.
I thought about texting my friends Abby and Isaac, but I couldn’t yet. I had no idea what I’d say.
Later, when we got home, Linda set something yellow out for dinner that I poked at but didn’t eat.
I remember sitting in the basement playing Annihilation: Moon until my thumbs ached.
Eventually, the day got dark and ran out the way even the worst days do. I went to bed but couldn’t sleep, so I just lay there watching headlights slide across my ceiling to the sound of my dad and Linda low-talking in the next room.
All I felt was numb.
BACK TO REALITY
My entire body jerks, and my heart starts pounding. That big X is staring down at me, and the mesh mask has me trapped. Did I start to fall asleep? That’s a super scary thought, given the whole don’t-let-your-eye-drift, exploding-eyeball thing. I blame it on the slow song that was playing at the time. Frank may have a point about me needing better radiation jams.
Then, suddenly, it’s over, and Frank and Callie are back in the room unhooking me. Unmouthpiecing.
Unmasking. Frank sticks out a hand and helps me sit up.
“You did pretty good for a first-timer. In three more days, you’ll be a pro. And by the end of your eight weeks, you’ll be stealing my job.” He squints like he’s inspecting me. Judging me. “Right? I can see it in your eyes.”
He looks over at Callie. “He looks shifty, doesn’t he? It’s the beady eyes. We need to watch our backs.” Callie is looking at something on her clipboard. She gives me a quick roll of her eyes.
As I hop down, Frank leans in and stage-whispers, “Don’t mind Callie. She has an enormous crush on me, the poor thing.”
Callie blurt-laughs and walks away. “See you tomorrow, Ross!”
I put on my shoes and grab my backpack from a locker by the door.
We pass Dr. Throckton’s office on the way out. He’s known to my family by the superhero-like name “the Man with All the Answers”—and he’s the doctor in charge of my radiation. He’s behind his desk, his hair sticking up comically, like he’s been running his hands through it. Both feet are propped up on his desk, and he has his phone to his ear—but when he sees me, his eyes light up. He covers the mouthpiece and yell-whispers to me.
“How’d it go?”
“Good, I guess?” I answer. He pinches the phone between his shoulder and cheek and gives me two thumbs-ups. There’s a blue ink stain on one of them.
Frank walks me down the hall to the waiting room, asking if middle school is as unbearable as he remembers.
“It’s all right.” I shrug as we go through the electric double doors, into the waiting room.
As waiting rooms go, this one is pretty swanky. There are a bunch of comfortable couches and chairs arranged around several big aquariums. Halloween decorations are out, since it’s only a few days away. There’s even a complimentary drink station, with coffee and a fridge full of soft drinks and little water bottles.
I don’t see my stepmom. My guess is Linda ran to Starbucks for more iced green tea. She’s always running out for green tea.
An old guy sits beside one of the aquariums, sipping a cup of coffee. He lifts the cup in salute.
Frank steers me over. “Ross, I want you to meet someone. Or to be more accurate, warn you to stay far, far away from him.”
We stop in front of the guy. “Jerry, this is Ross. He just had his first treatment.” Then he addresses me. “Ross, this here is the oldest, crankiest man ever to stalk the planet.”
Jerry laughs—a wheezy, good-natured laugh—as he struggles up to the front of his seat. I shake his enormous hand. It feels like it’s made out of limestone.
“They stuck you with Frank, huh? I’d say it could be worse, but I’m not sure how.” Then his bushy eyebrows go up. “Go okay in there?”
“I think so. I guess?” I look away at the fish in the tank beside him. Why am I always so awkward?
“There ya go. Just lay back and let these guys do the hard stuff, right?” Jerry has a rough, deep voice—it
reminds me of gravel in a blender. He leans back, and I notice the blue mesh band at the bend of his arm where he’s had blood drawn. I’ve gotten annoyingly familiar with blood draws. I can tell you where my juiciest vein is, which is just weird.
Frank scans the waiting room. “Where’s your mom, Ross?”
“Stepmom. Did she skip out on you? Flee the country?”
“Probably.” I sit on the edge of a couch. I know how to wait. That’s what phones are for.
“Well . . . if you’re still here in three hours, I’ll give you a ride. Least I can do.”
Jerry shakes his head. “Oh, good Lord. Don’t take that ride. They’ll let anybody have a license these days.”
Frank starts to walk away. “Keep trying, Jerry. You’ll say something funny one of these days.” Then he spins around to walk backward, pointing at me with both fingers like guns.
“Forty-four zaps to go, Ross. But, seriously. Tomorrow. I want suggestions for REAL music. Or I start playing you some of mine.” He jams his backside into the doors and is gone.
Jerry studies me, deadly serious. “Do it. Bring music, or he’s likely to play his band’s CD. You’ve suffered enough.”
“He’s in a band?”
He blows on his coffee. “In the loosest sense of the word.” Then he grabs a magazine, so I guess I can take out my phone without looking too rude. I text Abby.
Zap 1 in the books.
She texts back immediately.
Was it bad? Are you radiated mutant like Godzilla now?
Not really, but I can shoot laser beams out of my butt.
OOH! So jealous. Seriously, though. Did it hurt?
Abby had asked to come today, but I told her I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. She pressed, but I insisted she not come. If she’d come, there would’ve been hugs and high fives, and it would have been a Big Deal, and I feel like if I give this thing as little energy as I can, it’ll just . . . fade away.
I think Abby understood. Eventually.
The front doors fly open, and my stepmom stalks in on a cloud of cool air and caffeine. “Ross! You’re out! I’m so sorry. I needed a jolt, so I hopped over to Bucky’s and thought I’d get back before you were out! How was Day One?”
One of the more annoying things about Linda is her insistence on calling Starbucks Bucky’s. It gives me chills.
She stops in front of me and looks over at Jerry. “Hello.”
I start to get up. “That’s Jerry.”
Jerry starts the process of standing up to shake her hand. “That’s me. I’m Jerry Thompson . . .”
Linda flaps her hands at him. “Oh, no need to get up. We have to get going. It’s nice to meet you, Jerry. I’m Linda.” They shake hands quickly, and she turns to me. “You ready? I need to get you home. I have about two million things I need to do.” She turns to Jerry and rolls her eyes. “Real estate.”
Jerry smiles. “Ah, yes. Big doings.” Then he kicks my foot lightly with one of his Velcro orthopedic shoes. “Nice meeting you, Ross. I’ll see you around. I’m glad your Day One went well.”
I stand up and pocket my phone. “Nice meeting you too. What day of your treatment are you on?”
“This round? Day Thirty-six. But who’s counting?”
Linda’s phone starts chirping as soon as we’re in her Grand Cherokee, and we ride home to the sounds of Linda talking up a beautiful little three bedroom/two bath not too far from the lake. It apparently has amazing light and the most adorable breakfast nook.
I text Isaac, not really expecting him to text back. He hasn’t been around much lately. Like. Not at all.
Hey. What’s up? I just got radiated like the Hulk.
I sit there watching my screen, and I’m kind of surprised when the three dots start up. He’s texting back for once?
The three dots flash, and flash and flash . . . And then they go away. I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but my heart sinks. What’s going on with him? I wait, staring, for the dots to start again, but they don’t.
Eventually I cram my phone back in my pocket. The rest of the way, I just space and stare out the window. I’ve been getting pretty good at that lately.
At home, I go straight upstairs. I drop my pack and head to the mirror in my bathroom. There’s no visible mark where the beam went in by my temple. Weird.
But looking in the mirror brings up some bad memories, seeing my scar and my closed, squinty,
permanently winking eye. The biopsy. The diagnosis. The surgery. I try to keep that kind of looking to a minimum, so I don’t get all wigged out.
Eventually I go in and flop facedown on my bed. My phone starts buzzing in my pocket, but I’m asleep before you can say “proton radiation therapy.”
I have a dream where I’m a french fry in a basket, getting lowered again and again into thick boiling oil. It sounds really dumb, but it’s completely terrifying.
When I wake up, my room is mostly dark, and my dad is sitting next to me on the bed, his hand on my back. “Hey, Ross. You awake?”
I grunt yes, kind of.
“How’d it go? I want all the details.”
I roll over slowly, half awake. His hair is messed up on one side, and he’s loosened his tie. He needs a shave.
“Wow,” I say. “You look awful.”
He laughs and rubs his face with both hands. “Ha. Yeah. It was a day. And all I wanted was to be there with you.” He’s a trial lawyer, and he’s in the middle of some big megacase. It’s about some huge insurance settlement or something.
He lets out a long sigh, like he’s been holding his breath for days. “So, spill. Gimme the dirt. Start at the beginning and don’t leave anything out.”
So I slide back against my headboard, he settles back beside me, and I tell him.
SCHOOL FUN. YAY.
When I get to school the next morning, Abby is less than thrilled with me—I fell asleep and missed a bunch of texts from her. We drop her viola off in the band room, and as we make our way down the hallway—past a kid dumping crazy amounts of spit out of his trumpet—she lets me hear about it.
“You forget how to return a freakin’ text? I thought maybe they aimed wrong and your brains fizzled out after you got home.” She’s digging through her backpack trying to find something. ChapStick, most likely.
She’s the only person who jokes with me about my “situation”—she’s done it through most of this whole ordeal—and I literally could not appreciate it more. It makes me feel like something in the world is normal.
I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’d be weird if everybody else joked about it.
But it’s Abby.
Abby Peterson has been my best friend since the third day of first grade, when I choked on some milk and a Flintstones gummy vitamin shot out of my nose—a Dino, I think. She laughed so hard she almost threw up—and a forever bond was formed.
Around fourth grade, we welcomed the eternal goof Isaac Nalibotsky into our friend group—it was an easy fit—but he’s been acting weird lately. He’s just vanished, as far as hanging out with us is concerned. He’d normally be making this walk with us, and it’s still bizarre that he isn’t.
“I just really didn’t feel like talking,” I said. “Or texting. Or lifting my head off the pillow. Did you do the Language Arts homework? I totally ignored it.”
“Pssh. I think Ms. Bayer’ll let it slide. You only have, like, the ultimate excuse ever. ‘Oh, I’m terribly sorry, but I had a beam of pure energy shot into my head yesterday.’” She slathers on enough lip balm for three people. “But how was it? Was the beam hot?”
We stop at my locker so I can grab my math textbook. “It was . . . It didn’t feel like anything. I just have to lie there for a while, and then I’m done. It’s pretty weird.”
Abby stares at me for a few seconds, thinking. “Yeah, that isn’t gonna cut it. When people ask, you need to drama it up a bit—for them if not for you.”
“Okay. Right.” I shut my locker with a bang. I notice a couple of girls watching us. I’m pretty sure they’re sixth grade. “Maybe I say I could smell burning flesh. Or I could hear my eye sizzling like bacon.”
“You joke, but I wouldn’t stop there.” Abby puts an elastic thingy between her lips, gathering her wavy orange hair into a ponytail. Puts her headband in her backpack. “You can milk this whole laser beam sci-fi thing as far as you wanna go, friend. You’re school-famous.”
Such an Abby thing to say. If there’s one thing Abby enjoys, it’s standing out. Which is good, as her tangerine-colored hair can be seen from space. Add to that an eccentric sense of fashion—some would just call it insane—and Abby is someone you can’t miss. But her nutso style helps me out. I’m all but invisible standing next to her.
Actually, I used to be invisible. I could walk through a crowded library and escape completely unnoticed.
Unscathed. Hardly anybody talked to me, and I lived peacefully under the radar like a stealth bomber in a hoodie. I never realized it before, but it was kind of great.
Then, y’know . . . cancer.
Gone were my big plans to sneak my way through seventh grade with my non-noteworthy B average,
unnoticed by teachers and students alike. Now I can’t walk the length of a hallway without someone studying me to see if I look sick. Or just staring. Or even worse, they ask how I’m feeling.
One kid came up to me and in hushed tones asked if I was dying. He was in sixth grade, so I think he was honestly just unsure what to say. Another kid, an eighth grader named Billy Herrold, just came up and nodded—then told me his uncle died of cancer.
I wasn’t really sure what to do with that info, so I just gave him a half smile and said, “That’s too bad.” He walked away like he was proud he’d opened up to the sick kid, but I had a worried knot in my stomach for two periods after that.
I think those kids are trying to be nice—or at least act nice—but I’d give my right eye to be Anonymous Kid again, which is a super stupid thing to say, ’cause my right eye is where I had my tumor.
One of my worst cancer moments happened when the school did something that was—again—supposed to be nice. Since my surgery happened later in the summer, I missed the first week of school, recovering. On my first day back, I found a huge card signed by the teachers and everyone in my class.
They’d written messages all over it. Get better! Sorry you’re sick! and the always helpful Cheer up!
I was horrified. It had been a few weeks since the surgery, and except for some yellowing bruises, I looked relatively okay. But that card said, Forget sneaking back into school like Mr. Normal. It was like someone had hung a big lit-up sign over my head announcing what had happened. Sick Kid right here!
When I get to class, Ms. Bayer appears next to my desk.
“How are you doing, Ross? You started your treatment yesterday, right?”
I feel a few sets of eyes on us. “Yeah. I’m okay.”
She settles into the desk across the aisle and gives me a concerned look. A mass of bracelets clack and jangle as she puts a reassuring hand on my arm. People like to touch your arm reassuringly when you’re sick, I’ve noticed.
“Okay. Well, let me know if you need anything, or if the homework gets on top of you.”
I nod and think of Abby saying I have the Ultimate Excuse.
“I . . . um . . . I was pretty tired when I got home. I didn’t get the worksheets done, but I . . .”
Ms. Bayer smiles and leans in like she has a secret, wafting thick perfume. “Don’t you worry. Get them in as soon as you feel up to it, okay?” Her eyebrows go up so far, she looks like a cartoon. “Just keep talking with me, all right? Keep me in the loop.” She stands up and walks back to the front of the room.
I blink, a little stunned. Bayer is one of the strictest teachers in the school.
What magic is this?
I’m wondering how far I can take this new power of mine when Sarah Kennedy floats in and the room brightens like somebody upped the wattage in all the bulbs.
She heads to her desk, directly in front of me. Awkward energy floods my body as I busy myself getting out some pens and paper for notes. I have to actually work at looking casual, even though I know she isn’t looking remotely in my direction.
Then she looks.
I look behind me to make sure she isn’t talking to someone else. She isn’t. “Yeah?” All noise has dropped out of the room except for a high ringing in my ears.
“I’m out of paper. Could I borrow a few sheets?”
She smiles her ridiculously bright smile, and I feel my throat tighten. Sarah Kennedy has this effect on me. She has this effect on a lot of people in my school, if I’m being honest. I know there’s nothing terribly enlightened about going all gooey over a girl I barely know, but . . . well . . . blame puberty.
Sarah isn’t just popular and good-looking and super amazingly smart. A couple of years ago I saw her at the park with her older brothers . . . and she was skateboarding. Skateboarding! And she was good at it! It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. It was like seeing the Queen of England hop a curb.
It’s burned in my memory forever. I even thought about taking up skateboarding myself. Then I borrowed Isaac’s and just about killed myself and decided that wasn’t happening. Coordination and I are not friends.
“Mm-hm. Sure.” I pull out a couple of sheets of paper, but my fine motor skills have fled the building. My hand chooses to crumple them as they come out, so I shove them in my backpack and pretend it didn’t happen. I go into my folder for a few more and hold them out for her.
Then comes a deep voice to my right. “So, what? You got superpowers ’n’ crap now?”
I turn slowly.
It’s Jimmy Jenkins.
“Nope,” I say. “No superpowers. Not yet.”
Jimmy is the biggest kid in our year. Definitely the sketchiest. I’ve heard stories—about him being mean or crazy or both—and frankly, it freaks me out that I have to sit by him. An encounter with Jimmy is like handling a grizzly bear. One wrong word can result in him getting angry, and you don’t want him angry.
I heard, in fifth grade, he gave a kid a noogie so bad the kid went to the hospital. And last year he supposedly roughed up a high school junior over a football bet or something.
Jimmy’s tongue expertly adjusts an enormous wad of gum—grape Big League Chew, most likely—around his mouth as he considers this. He’s always chomping on an enormous ball of the stuff. It’s gross. His mouth gets all wet when he chews it, and then he ends up sticking those big blobs wherever he feels like when he’s done. I’ve stepped or sat in a couple of Jimmy Wads, as they’re known around the school.
To make it even grosser—sorry—he carries this little juice bottle around with him and spits in it. I don’t know if he thinks it’s like he’s chewing tobacco or if he has some kind of saliva problem, but it’s literally the nastiest thing ever. I’ve had nightmares about it.
“Sucks for you. Did that cancer beam make ya crap your pants or anything?”
All of my blood has gone to my ears, and I can feel Sarah watching the exchange.
“No. Nope.” My voice cracks. “None of . . . that.”
“Yeah? How ’bout yer piss. Does it glow in the dark? I heard that happens.”
This is like threading a needle. Don’t poke the bear, but maintain dignity in front of Sarah.
“Not . . . not that I’ve noticed.”
“Mm. Too bad.” Jimmy grunts and starts chewing again. He shifts his oversized bulk to face front again. His interest in me has run its course.
Sarah is still looking back, holding the paper. Is she looking at my scar? My squinty eye? I tip my head away from her just in case.
“Well. Thanks for this. I used all my paper on . . .” She lifts up a thick stack of flyers and hands me one. “For the Christmas talent show. It’s in December. End of the semester. Maybe you could do some of your drawings or characters onstage or something?”
I take the flyer, trying to imagine how that would go—me doodling onstage while students yawn and die from boredom in the front row.
My cheeks flush deep red at the thought.
I’m a doodler, not an artist. Huge difference. My mom was an artist. An illustrator, actually. She did work for kids’ books and magazines and stuff before she got sick. She was crazy good, and we have her artwork up around our house.
I mean, I’m not bad, but . . . the characters Sarah’s talking about are Battbutt and Batpig. I made a tiny splash on our school’s art scene a couple of years ago when my doodle of Battbutt got me my one and only trip to the principal’s office.
I make dumb little comics about their adventures sometimes, but since the principal thing, I’ve focused more on Batpig. There’s less risk.
I actually have a sketchbook where I do most of my Batpig comics. Or just drawings of random stuff. And some more-involved sketching—of real things. Life drawing, as my mom called it—but I don’t show those to ANYBODY. Not even Abby. Or my dad. It’s this awesome beat-up old sketchbook holder that was my mom’s. I found it in her things a few years after she died. I don’t really remember her dying all that much. Or her, really. But that sketchbook still means a lot to me.
It just feels private, so I keep it that way. For me alone.
Or maybe I’m just worried somebody’ll tell me they suck.
Anyway, I’m kind of shocked my doodles have even landed on Sarah Kennedy’s radar. She’s always seemed pretty busy with her friends and the whole being-super-popular thing.
Then, while she’s looking at me, this thing happens to Sarah’s face. It morphs and shifts, and suddenly it’s all sad-eyed and sincere. I know what’s coming. I’ve seen it a lot lately.
“Anyway . . . how are you feeling?” The look of concern on her face makes me want to crawl into a hole and stay there for maybe forever. I’m super uncomfortable with the prolonged we’re-all-here-for-you eye contact hold.
I redden. “Oh. Good. Yep. I’m good,” I mumble.
“Hang in there, okay?” She nods and gives me a sad smile and turns back around.
I take a deep breath and slide down in my seat. I fold up the talent show flyer and stick it in my back pocket.
I may have dorked out a bit, but my heart didn’t seize up.
That’s a win in my book.