Nola watched from the swings as the other girls sat on the steps outside the cafeteria. It seemed like every girl in her class sat there, she was practically the only one that didn’t. Well, there was Gracie Cooper, but she was an odd child, not quite right. Kate had said once something about her being “mainstreamed” and that being a mistake. And then there were the Sylvester twins, Lisa and Jenny. They were always together and didn’t seem to care about being with anyone else. Nola tried not to care, too. She tried very hard to pretend she didn’t care. But she did.
So when Melanie Woodman suddenly appeared in front of her, out of nowhere, blocking the strong afternoon sun as she stood before her, Nola was startled. She almost fell off the swing. Melanie didn’t seem to notice.
“I’m having a sleep over next weekend and I’m inviting every girl from class. Here,” she said, shoving an invitation at Nola, who almost dropped it when she awkwardly reached for it. “You don’t have to come,” Melanie said matter of fact, and then turned to walk away. However she stopped a few feet beyond Nola, turned back around, and added in what sounded like a genuine attempt at being nice, “But I guess it’d be cool if you did,” and with that she walked back over to the steps full of chattering girls.
Nola watched, a little wary. She expected to see Melanie say something to the crowd and then hear a twitter of giggles, to see some of them make a face or in some way reveal their true feelings about Nola having even been spoken to let alone receiving an invitation to Melanie’s home, that it was all some sort of joke or trick. But no such reaction followed. They seemed to continue their conversations; their behavior was unchanged. Nola looked at the invitation and started to open it, half expecting it to be empty or have some sort of hoax hidden inside instead of a real invite. Then she realized that if that were the case she would be playing right into their hands, becoming their afternoon entertainment. And if it wasn’t a prank, well, it might look lame if she were so suspicious. She decided to wait until she got home.
The rest of the day went as usual. No one spoke to her; no one paid any attention to her at all. Nola was invisible to her classmates, and why not? She didn’t belong there; she wasn’t like the rest of them. They were almost three years older than her but it might as well have been three hundred years. They probably thought she was either a baby or a freak. She wasn’t interested in the same things they were, didn't get their fads, their inside jokes went over her head.
She didn't belong with kids her own age, either, and they certainly didn’t like her, that was clear. They thought she was stuck up, too smart for her own good. “Genius Freak,” that’s what they called her, being smart was some sort of insult requiring an epithet, shameful and weird.
After school when she got home she went to her room as quickly as possible, rooted around in her backpack and dug out the invite. Carefully she opened the small pink envelope, inside was a regular invitation, complete with glitter and little bits of confetti tucked in. The card looked in order, the right date, time, she knew the address was correct because it was only a few miles away and she passed it on her way to school every day. Everything looked legitimate. The RSVP date was the day after tomorrow. She needed to think about this, make sure she considered the possibilities.
In the end she decided to go.
She would ride her bike there instead of having her mom drive her. That way if anything happened she could leave in a hurry, on her own steam. Nola figured she could hide the bike in a little patch of woods about a block or so before Melanie’s house and walk the rest of the distance, that way no one could do anything to the bike and prevent her from leaving if she needed to. She thought it all through, planned for every contingency. She would be cautious and on guard. Based on her experience with kids her own age she knew you had to be. But maybe these girls were different.
When Nola had first been told she'd be skipped ahead two grade levels, she was both nervous and relieved. All the kids from her old grade had thought she was a huge pain in the ass, so she had no friends, everyone hated her. Nola raised her hand too much, she knew all the answers and read everything quicker than anyone else in the class. Of course, Nola didn’t realize she was different at first. During the early days of school, back in kindergarten and first grade, she thought everyone was just like her. By the time she understood, it was too late. She’d already established her reputation as a know it all. Being a know it all was a sin worse than having red hair, or wearing glasses or even being fat. It was worse than all three combined.
So far, with the exception of one girl, Gwen Van Matre, her new eighth grade classmates pretty much ignored her as long as she left them alone and stayed quiet. There was that incident at Gwen's birthday party in the beginning of the year, but Nola could have misunderstood, it could have been an innocent mistake.
But back in her old grade with the kids that knew her all along, it had been different, there was no misunderstanding. Their cruelty seemed to have no bounds. They would roll their eyes whenever she walked by, mock her if she spoke at all. It became a popular schoolyard pastime to do exaggerated imitations of "Know-It-All-Nola"...to see who could string together the largest made-up words and mange to say them in as pretentious and pompous a tone as possible.
The first few times Nola was made fun of she went home crying to her mother. Kate had told her that the kids were just teasing, to try and laugh it off and not pay any attention. Nola had tried, but that only seemed to egg them on to go to further extremes, to do wilder and more inflated imitations, and worse. It was only the beginning. She was a convenient target for merciless ridicule. Alone, culled from the herd she was weak, vulnerable, a perfect scapegoat. Her backpack would mysteriously disappear; she would trip on unseen feet as she walked down the hall or in the cafeteria, sending her food flying and causing the cafeteria staff to hate her too. Even a couple of the teachers had joined in the derisive laughter a few times, in spite of themselves. Towards the end of the last school year it had gotten physical, violent. Nola came home bruised and scraped from being pushed around, punched. That’s when the school system intervened.
Nola was hopeful now that she was with the eighth graders, hopeful but still cautious, once burned twice shy, like Grandee used to say. Still, these older girls seemed less physically rowdy, they were more aloof and Nola took that for maturity, for seriousness, perhaps even for the chance to be safe. She thought that if she simply remembered to keep it dialed back a notch, didn’t put herself out there, she might at least just slide through, slip by disregarded and unnoticed.
She couldn’t have been more wrong.
six words: see ya soon - minor eye injury still needs healing