Next thing you know, they’ll tell us kids that our assignment is to
—and then we’ll all want to hold our breath until we turn blue.
I tug the soft yellow blanket up to my chin and listen to the
of the rain outside and the
of the old clock on a nearby table. Every so often the wind swirls by, and the eucalyptus trees creak and groan as if they are complaining about having to stay outside on such a miserable night.
Our house smells good, like the chicken tacos we had for dinner.
“Emma?” Mom asks softly, stroking my hair. “Are you asleep, honey?”
“Nuh-uh,” I say, shaking my head a little. “I was just thinking about tomorrow.”
“You must be feeling pretty good about things,” Mom tells me. “What with all the preparation you’ve done.”
Running and jumping are what Annie Pat and I have been practicing the most, in secret, because those are the two competitions Mrs. Jakes mentioned first.
“I think I’m better than I was a few days ago, anyway,” I say. “And Annie Pat is running faster than she ever did before.”
I am smiling under the blanket fringe, because I can’t help but feel happy about how excellent we are going to be.
. I have a lot to prove to my dad, and Annie Pat would definitely like to add another prize to her collection.
She doesn’t say so, but I know it’s true.
“Your mind is racing, isn’t it?” my mom says, shifting her legs a little and putting down her book.
“Yeah,” I admit. “The boys in my class always say, ‘
And I guess that’s what I’m doing. Thinking fast.”
Mom sighs. “I wish you could cool things down a little, Emma. I think you kids should tell each other to
And in my humble opinion, you’ve got the whole spirit of Winter Games Day wrong. You’re putting entirely too much emphasis on winning—or on other kids losing.”
“But there are going to be prizes,” I point out, feeling only a little bit sorry in advance for whoever-it-is who loses. “Someone has to come in last. And anyway, what’s wrong with winning? You’re always saying how special I am, Mom. Don’t you want
“I certainly don’t need proof that you’re special, honey,” my mom says, laughing. “But do you know who you remind me of?” she asks, stroking my tangled-up hair again.
“Me. When I was a little girl,” Mom says, and I snuggle in for one of my favorite things in the world, a story about when she was a kid. Listening to her stories is like finding the lost pieces of a great big jigsaw puzzle. And when I finish the puzzle, I’ll know exactly the kind of kid my mom used to be.
Will I ever finish that invisible puzzle?
I think she and I would have been friends, if I had been on the earth way back then. Maybe not
friends, because she is a lot neater than I am, but still.
“Tell,” I say, shutting my eyes.
“Well,” Mom says, thinking back, “when I was about nine, your grandmama was organizing a fashion show to raise money for some charity she was involved in. And she needed a few children to be models, so of course she signed me up.”
“You were a
?” I ask, impressed. “Wow! But I thought you told me once that you were a tomboy.”
That’s the weird-but-fun thing about my invisible mom-puzzle. Sometimes the pieces don’t fit.
“They didn’t have many supermodels back in those days,” Mom tells me, laughing. “But in any case, I think you could have called me a not-so-super model that terrible afternoon. Because even though I wanted to make my mama proud, I experienced some—uh—technical difficulties.”
Mom nods, solemn. “It all started with the outfit I was supposed to wear. You know how much your grandmama loves clothes, Emma.”
It’s true. Grandmama is a very dressed-up, old-fashioned lady. She lives far away in Michigan, and she sends me these weird outfits that no kid in California would ever wear.
Except I have to, when she comes to visit. It is always very embarrassing.
This is another good example of how fast my feelings sometimes change—from happiness that my grandmama is visiting, to horror that I have to go out in public wearing the clothes she’s given me: matching dresses and coats with fake-fur trim, and smocked girly dresses with puffy sashes, and holiday sweaters with fluffy snowmen knitted right into them.
I nod my head.
“So this other little girl and I were supposed to model swimwear together,” Mom says. “In other words, bathing suits. And as I said, I wanted to make Mama proud, and I wanted to do a better job than the other little girl who was modeling. You know the type, a little show-offy and stuck-up.”
, I think, hiding a smile. And probably Lettice Wallingford, too.
“I mean, I
wanted to do better,” my mom is saying. “Because when we were introduced, this other little girl looked me up and down like she couldn’t believe I was in the same fashion show that she was! Nancy Something, her name was.”
I grind my teeth together, wishing that I could bop that nasty little Nancy Something on her stuck-up nose to avenge my tomboy mom.
Sometimes I get tangled up in time.
“And I probably would have done okay,” Mom continues, “only the bathing suit Grandmama chose for me had a special long lacy cover-up that went with it. The kind of thing nobody actually wears in real life, especially not a kid.”
“Uh-oh,” I say, picturing the outfit. Grandmama probably loved it.
“So Nancy and I were weaving down the runway in the glittery flip-flops we had to wear,” Mom says, “and when we got to the end of the runway, I was supposed to take off my cover-up, and we were going to twirl around the way models do. And of course I decided to do a
better twirl than Miss Nancy. That’s all I could think about.”
I nod my head, thinking that a better twirl was exactly what
would have done.
“But when I was whisking off my cover-up,” Mom says, starting to giggle, “some of the lace got snagged on one of the jewels on my flip-flops. And down I went, taking snooty Miss Nancy with me.”
“Oh, no,” I say.
“Oh, yes! But that’s not all, because Nancy was so angry that she shouted out a bad word!”
“Which one?” I ask, and Mom leans over and whispers it in my ear.
“You’re kidding,” I say in a hushed voice. “Nancy said that word in front of Grandmama? The same Grandmama who scolded you when you were twelve because you kept saying ‘yeah’? Not to mention the time she washed your mouth out with soap because you said ‘butt’ instead of ‘bottom’?”
bad word in front of Grandmama—and about two hundred other ladies, who were all dressed up,” Mom says, still laughing. “So even though the whole fiasco was my fault, and even though Nancy was a whole lot prettier than I was, I was the one who ended up looking better that day.”
“Yes-s-s! You won,” I say, pumping my fist in victory the best I can while still lying down. “And no one could be prettier than you,” I add loyally.
“Thanks, Emma,” Mom says, making a move to get up from the sofa—because by now, it’s way past my bedtime.
“No, wait,” I say, pressing my head down harder on the flowered pillow to keep her there. “Let’s stay here a little bit longer, okay Mom? And listen to the rain? We don’t have to talk or anything.”
“Okay,” Mom says. “We’ll think slow for a little while.”
“Think slow,” I agree.
And dream about tomorrow,
I add silently, crossing my fingers.
A Big, Dead Bug
The little kids in kindergarten, first, and second grades were busy with their games day all morning, because our school only has one playground. Our games day, the
one, starts right after lunch, which we are just finishing, or trying to finish, because a few of us—me, anyway—are too nervous to eat. I feel as if I have a small flock of cabbage white butterflies in my stomach.
I could barely finish my peanut-butter-and-lettuce-on-a-bagel sandwich.
We will share the still-damp playground with fourth- and fifth-grade kids. Each class will compete on its own, thank goodness, because a lot of those fifth-graders are huge! You could fit two of me inside some of those gigantic boys and still have enough room left for a couple of baby Mur-phys. Or Murphies, whatever the plural of him is.
But Ms. Sanchez told us that the jumping contest will be fair, because the judges will compare how short you are with how far you can jump.
It’s hard to explain, but maybe you get the idea. I sure don’t.
“This is gonna be
,” Fiona moans as she drops her almost-full lunch sack into the trash. “People shouldn’t make other people do dangerous sports when those people have weak ankles.”
I sneak a peek at Fiona’s ankles. They still look like pink pipe cleaners to me. I sincerely hope Fiona doesn’t end up looking like a kindergarten crafts project gone wrong by the end of the afternoon, with her feet pointing every which way. I mean, we aren’t best friends or anything, but I don’t want her to get
“You’ll do okay, Fiona,” Annie Pat says, patting her shoulder sympathetically.
Kry Rodgriguez has started doing some stretches and lunges that are making me nervous, because she looks like she’s been practicing in secret, too, like Annie Pat and me. So I touch my toes a few times to look like I am also warming up.
I say to Annie Pat, and she does some stretches, too. But she’s acting like she’d rather be someplace else, doing