How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied (10 page)

BOOK: How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied
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chapter 10

“In most African biomes, predators and prey must share the same watering hole.”

—Animal Wisdom

I bet Africa feels a lot like junior high then. Only here the predators wear skirts and the prey can't move as quickly as gazelles.

Sometimes, it feels like life should stop until you feel better. You know, like when bad things happen and you have a moment of silence over the PA system at school or something. Life should do that for you when you become camel poop girl and your best friend meets a girl named Leilani and your grandpa is parading around the news like a rockstar. Life should stop when you can't figure out who you are, no matter how hard you try. Just a moment, where things don't change or don't move, out of respect.

But it doesn't.

The next day, I knew I had to have a plan. Wild animals adapt and evolve to survive their hostile environments: I had to do the same. I needed a method, a fail-proof plan to make it through the next three days of school without Liv's help. While Grandpa was in town flaunting his famousness all over the place. And my butt, apparently.

This was easier said than done.

When Liv first moved away, I sort of felt like she was still around, like a little voice on my shoulder waiting to hear about my life and help me out. But it didn't feel like that now. Now that she had Leilani and exciting adventures and all that. Now somehow the place that used to feel sort of like home to me felt dangerous and unknown. I felt alone,
really
alone, with nobody there on my shoulder.

So my plan was to disappear.

In the past two weeks, I learned quickly that if you're writing and doodling away with your nose stuck in a book, people are much more likely to ignore you. Constantly writing in a notebook is one of the best ways to avoid people. There are all sorts of crazy things going on in junior high, and the Sneerers would find it hard to focus on little ol' me if my eyes were always down in a notebook.

Right?

Ana's Week, Constant Notes Courtesy of Crippling Fear and/or Self-Pity:

8:15: Arrive at school, narrowly miss the Sneerers on their way to the bathroom or wherever they go to apply makeup that their parents wouldn't allow them to leave the house with. (Note: The Sneerers could totally be raccoons at Halloween without much effort, given all the eyeshadow. This would totally beat their oh-so-unique cat costumes every year.)

8:30–9:20: English. Book report due on The Hunger Games. Really, Mrs. Roca should know better than that—we're all just going to watch the movie instead. Managed to avoid eye contact with Ashley, who sat behind me staring death rays at the back of my head. Felt slight burning sensation in my hair.

9:30–10:20: History class. Luckily I share this one with Bella, who is crazy into history and carts around ancient books and maps everywhere. Note: these books are often huge and great for hiding.

10:30–11:20: Math: reviewing session. We've already begun preparing for the final test, which apparently will be cumulative. In other words, all the stuff that I knew before for the last test but then forgot will be on it. What the crap is a rational number again? A number that makes sense? Praise the lemurs I have Kevin's awesome notes.

It wasn't until the bell after science rang when I realized I was up against what was possibly my Most Dangerous Encounter:
lunch
.

In other words, open season on losers.

For all of our junior high lives, Liv and I had shared a table at the far right of the cafeteria, against the wall. According to her, tables in the middle of the room are simply far too easy to access from any angle, making an ambush likely. The trick was to stay on the perimeter, ready for a quick escape.

I approached the cafeteria cautiously, with my eyes down. I had to consciously force my legs to stop shaking. Nothing to see here, folks. I stood in line with my tray, waiting for them to slop up a scoop of mashed potatoes on my chicken parm. Finally, I grabbed a carton of chocolate milk, paid the lady, and made my way to the table. For the first time in my life, I was disappointed that Daz and Kevin had a computer club meeting; you know things are bad when you're wishing your idiot brother was around for lunch so you could share a table.

I had just plunked myself down when I noticed Bella, sitting across the room behind a huge atlas. She was barely visible, with only the top of her head poking out. She probably had her whole meal going behind that atlas.
The
girl
is
a
master
at
anonymity,
I thought with admiration. Why didn't I think to ask her to sit with me? I pulled out my notebook and tried to make it look like I was absorbed in the blank page, doodling aimlessly.

“Hey, Scales. I saw your grandfather and his girlfriend at the store yesterday,” Ashley's voice interrupted my thoughts. I twitched a little upon hearing her, and noticed Brooke and Rayna were standing beside her. They were all wearing matching skirts, which were clearly pushing the boundaries of what “three inches above the knee” meant. “Leave me alone,” I muttered, trying not to make eye contact.
Just
keep
doodling.
Anonymous people don't talk much.

“You should have told us you were related to him. It explains
so
much.” She giggled to Brooke, while Rayna watched with her usual blank look. A shot of betrayal rang through me; I didn't expect Brooke to be
nice
to me exactly, but I had thought we'd been civil to each other in class so maybe she'd go easy on me. I could use some pity right now.

“Hope you're ready for lights, camera,
action
!” She waved her fingertips as her voice trailed off dangerously in a hiss. Her eyes were cold as ice.

I shuddered at the reminder of our upcoming TV interview. “Please…” I was already annoyed at myself for sounding like such a wimp. Liv would tell me to stand up for myself. I tried to make myself feel braver. “Go away,” I said, looking up at her.

“Oh, quit whining. We just wanted to get your music choices for the dance playlist,” Rayna interrupted, flicking her hair and shrugging like this was the most normal thing in the world. (Are you surprised they were organizing the dance?
Really
?)

I squinted and closed my notebook. The last thing I wanted was for them to see my list of “How to Survive the Sneerpocalypse.” (Step one: find invisibility cloak.)

“Yeah, okay, sure.” I snorted, rolling my eyes and taking a swig of chocolate milk.

“It's true! Ashley's only messing with you. We need everyone's list by Friday,” she said, smiling her widest grin as she and Ashley wandered off to a vending machine behind me, leaving Brooke standing alone, fidgeting with her nails.

Did they actually care what I wanted to hear at the dance? And how did Rayna get her teeth so white?

“Listen, Ana,” Brooke said softly, “I know that everything's sorta messed up lately, but you could go to the dance”—she paused—“plus,
everybody
is going.” She gave me a knowing look and glanced over her shoulder at Zack, who was currently arm wrestling Mark, otherwise known as The Guy Who Bathed in Cologne.

I let out a tense breath.

Okay.

There was no way I wanted to go to the dance. Not only did I hate everybody, but the thought of showing up on my own in front of everybody made me want to lose my chicken parm all over Brooke's electric-blue shirt. But maybe Brooke was trying to be nice? She had been half nice to me when we made our study notes, after all. Maybe I should give her a chance, now that Liv was gone.

I should have known better.

As soon as the word
maybe
came out of my mouth, I noticed too late that Ashley had returned and had set her chocolate milk down on the table.

I should have known.
I
should
have
known.

It was like a scene from a movie as I watched it all happen in slow motion. From across the cafeteria, I could see someone from Ashley's table pull his arm back, then launch something. A tennis ball whizzed through the air—my own personal fuzzy green demon of social ineptitude—and smashed directly into the open carton of milk and into my chicken parm. Of course, the whole thing wouldn't be complete without chocolate milk and tomato sauce splashing all over my chest. Let me rephrase that: my
white
T-shirted
chest.

I looked like a rotten tomato farm had exploded all over me. Shock was quickly replaced by bitterness; I had to hand it to whomever threw it—the guy had good aim.

Tears stung in my eyes as everyone started laughing and pointing. Rayna made a snotty click with her tongue and shrugged with a smirk, and Ashley beamed. Brooke's mouth hung open in shock; tiny droplets of parm had also spattered on her shirt but were nothing compared to the catastrophe on mine. From their table, someone was snapping pictures with a phone.

“Ana,” Brooke said, her voice coming out in a cracked whisper.

“Don't,” I mumbled, shoving my chair from the table.

I wouldn't give them the satisfaction of crying—
I
wouldn't
. I snatched my books and dashed toward the door. I could hear the cafeteria jeering with every step I took. Somehow, Bella had made her way to the exit as well and met me at the door, wielding a handful of paper towels.

“Here,” she said quietly, holding open the door first, then handing me the paper towels.

I bit my lip to keep from saying anything. I was still too emotional, and there was no way I was going to get all
Sweet
Valley
High
on her. Instead, we walked in silence and I fumbled with my soaked shirt.

As we made our way to the bathroom, a very British accent called out my name. Mr. Miller had caught up with me. At first, I thought he was going to tell me that everybody in the cafeteria would be punished for my little chocolate milk ambush, but his surprised expression at my shirt ruined that theory.

“Ms. Wright,” he said, doing his best not to eye my top half. “I see that you are, uh, busy, but I wanted you to pass on a message to your parents, if you would.” He was stroking down his tie, clearly relieved that he wasn't the one covered in embarrassment. Bella was looking at her shoes.

“My parents? Why?” I could feel the mess begin to drip down the front of my shorts as I stood there waiting for his answer.

“They've not told you?” His eyebrows lifted higher, toward his receding hairline. “Your parents are coming in for Career Day on Friday! Being scholars in their field and such prevalent figures at the zoo, we thought it would be quite fitting for them to speak to our students. I need you to tell them they're slotted in for one o'clock, right after lunch.” He nodded like a proud parent.

I stepped back, steadying myself on the wall.

You have
got
to be kidding me. Why didn't they tell me?! The camel stunt and Grandpa parade weren't enough;
now
my parents had to infiltrate my school and prance around in their stupid safari uniforms talking about the mating rituals of gorillas? I must have turned green or something because Mr. Miller reached out to me, carefully avoiding the disgusting hybrid of sauce-milk on my shoulder.

“Are you quite all right, Ms. Wright? You have nothing to worry about. I'm sure they'll be smashing!” He bobbed his head up and down, and I wanted to smack the British accent right out of him.

No, no point in making things worse, I reasoned. I'll deal with this when I get home. I told him I'd pass on the message, and Bella and I hightailed it to the bathroom. She kept a spare shirt in her locker, which she let me borrow.

Genius, that Bella.

Lessons Learned from Bella—Anonymite Extraordinaire

1.
Always carry a notebook and a pen. Whenever people are looking at you, whip out a new page and start scribbling. At worst, you'll look like an eccentric writer. That means people will probably stay away from you out of sheer confusion. At best, they'll start to ignore you completely. (
She
had this figured out long before I did!)

2.
Never
ever
buy food with a tomato sauce base in the school caf. It will just end badly.

3.
Keep a spare shirt in your locker. In case you forget about lesson number two. Oh, and don't forget an extra set of glasses, contacts, hair ties, and sunglasses. Because you never know.

4.
The library is often a sanctuary, inhabited only by other anonymites. Use it wisely and don't invite in predators.

5.
Don't raise your hand in class, unless you are 110 percent sure you know the right answer. And really, this is junior high, so you probably don't. Glue that hand to your desk.

6.
Most importantly, keep your eyes down. Walk behind the enemy and you will avoid spitballs, projectile food, and (most) insults directed at your clothing.

Clearly, I have so much to learn about life.

chapter 11

“Dragonflies are one of the world's fastest insects, flying at roughly fifty to sixty miles per hour.”

—Animal Wisdom

Note to self: Grow wings.

The last day of school was passing with a blur, and I trudged through my classes. I knew I should be happy. I'd just taken my last math test of seventh grade, and Kevin's notes had officially saved my butt. I actually think I passed! Even English went well, and Brooke sort of smiled at me when we saw that our test prep question was on our exam. But even the thrill of conquering math and the upcoming summer off couldn't save me from my parents' school visit. By one o'clock in the afternoon, my entire class was waiting for my parents to show up. Their presentation was any minute, and you could tell everyone was psyched to get a free period to avoid tests. Nobody could sit still; it was like a cloud full of mosquitoes had swarmed the room.

As the clock ticked away, I chewed my nails. I knew if Liv were here, she would tell me that I looked like a chipmunk when I bit my nails. But who could worry about that when my parents were probably pulling into the parking lot that very minute?

I honestly wasn't sure why my parents had been asked to come in at all. So far we had heard from an interior designer, a fireman (Bobby Denson's father, who was actually quite hot, no pun intended), and a journalist. Everybody seemed interesting, although the girls were definitely more into Mr. Denson. The journalist sort of reminded me of the ostriches at the zoo, all nosy and curious.

I wriggled in my seat, fidgeting with my binder. Daz was lounging in the chair beside me, describing his latest snake escape to Bella and Kevin, who had joined the class to give me some “moral support.” Listening to them and the buzzing kids around me, I couldn't help the stab of jealousy in my gut. Bella liked being invisible too, but at least she was
good
at it. In fact, she was amazing. She could be a spy. She also had no famous grandfathers or nutty parents to live with. And Daz? Nothing bothered him because, well, he was Daz.

“Our next guests will be arriving shortly, I'm sure,” Ms. Harris said, shushing us with her hands as she checked her watch. “I'm sure some of our students will recognize the familiar faces.” She winked at me playfully. My stomach churned.

Mom and Dad were a few minutes late—maybe they wouldn't come? My palms began to sweat, leaving shiny stains on the top of my desk. Next to Daz, Kevin was designing robots. I was just letting myself zone out in his sketches, getting lulled by the random lines, when thirty seconds later, there was a loud air horn and my parents erupted into the classroom.

All eyes flew to the front of the room.

“Greetings, Homo sapiens!” my dad said, touching the tip of his safari hat like he was some sort of nerdy-cowboy–Indiana-Jones knockoff. Zack and Mike, who were sitting at the back, let out a snicker.

Oh God.

My mother joined him, opening her arms wide and letting out a gorilla hoot. I mean it—my own flesh and blood mother stood at the front of the room before my entire class and whooped and hollered like an ape. I can't make this stuff up.

My stomach retched, and I had a death grip on the sides of the desk. My feet began tapping nonstop, like they were going to make a run for it, with or without me. They had been in the room for less than a minute and already I wanted to disappear. Beside me, Daz was nodding up a storm, looking pumped.

“We are here today to talk to you about being zoologists!”

Why did they have to talk like that? They were practically
yelling
. I slide down in my chair, feeling eyes on the back of my head.

“As zoologists, we get to study animals all over the world. Some of us study what they eat or where they live. Henry and I study how animals mate,” Mom explained.

A few of the boys perked up, and the girls shifted in their chairs. How could my parents talk about this stuff in my classroom? Please tell me they didn't bring video footage or this would be worse than that time in sex ed class when Mr. Grosse (yes, Mr.
Grosse
) brought in bananas.

“For many of the animals we study, one of the most important factors in mating is actually the mating displays, or rituals, that precede copulation.”

Aggggh!
Are
you
kidding
me?!

I bit my tongue and glared at my mother, trying to force as much terror into my eyes as I could. Maybe I could telepathically communicate with her. Mothers and daughters could do that, right? My teeth were grinding together so hard I could feel my pulse in my molars.

“And,” my dad jumped in, “we've learned that some animals—like birds for example—have extremely flashy displays that precede mating.”

A chair scraped on the floor. “Like what?” The question came from the back.

“Well,” I could see my dad considering, “male manakins—those are birds—will do moonwalks to attract mates, like this!” He began his attempt at a moonwalk across the front of the classroom. The class burst out laughing, including Ms. Harris at the side of the room.

I bit my lip to keep from yelling at them to stop. My class was making fun of them—laughing
at
them, not with them. Why couldn't they see that? Even Daz was grinning ear to ear like a fool.

When my dad stopped moonwalking (or at least, trying to do so), my parents perched themselves on the sides of the desk at the front.

“We have lots of information for you guys, including some great audio of mating calls. But first, did any of you have any questions for us? Anybody want to get into animal-related work when they're older?” My dad beamed at the class, urging them to ask away with his open hands.

Ashley's hand shot up from the other side of the room.

Jerk
. She couldn't wait to pipe in, could she?

Mom gestured to her, smiling gently. “Yes, dear?”

Ashley sat up straighter in her chair, clearly loving the feeling of being the center of attention. Before speaking, she flipped the back of her hair out. You know, in case there were any paparazzi nearby.

“Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Wright.” She paused, drawing out their names to make sure everyone was listening. “I was just wondering if you could tell us about anacondas? I saw on Animal Planet that they're the biggest,
ugliest
snakes on the planet!” She looked up at my parents with raised eyebrows, like she was the reptiles' biggest fan.

I don't know if it's possible or not, but at that exact moment, my stomach began to flip itself inside out. It was also at the moment that the clock on the wall ticked to a halt.

My dad rubbed his hands together like he was about to eat a huge slice of pizza from Michaelangelo's.

“That,” he said, “is a very good question!”

Ashley, no doubt figuring out that her evil plan was working, sat back with a tight smile.

My dad went on. “Anacondas
are
the biggest snakes in the world. Not the longest, but they do have the widest girth. I don't know about the ugliest though! Their heads look a lot like
dogs—
and they can swallow nearly anything—including deer—whole!”

Ashley smirked at the word
girth
, and I began to sink farther into my chair. The rushing in my ears was getting louder, and I felt dizzy. People began to snicker around me, and I could feel the stares begin. I knew my dad didn't know what he was doing—but as far as everyone else was concerned, he might as well have just said outright that I was the biggest freak in the world. If I tried hard enough, could I disappear? Maybe I could sell my things on eBay and make enough money to move to New Zealand. Or even better, Antarctica. Penguins didn't seem so bad.

Mom cut in, “Actually, we named our daughter after an anaconda!” She seemed so proud of me, smiling at me with admiration.

That did it.

The whole class exploded with laughter. I could feel the blood begin to collect in my mouth from where I'd been gnashing on the inside of my lip. My parents, completely unaware of what the big joke was, exchanged curious looks but kept smiling.

Ashley turned to face me, tossing her hair and smirking. I glowered at her and noticed she kept eyeballing Zack behind me. I didn't have the guts to turn around to see his face.

“And what about me?” Daz called out, above the reams of laughter. “What did you name me after?” He threw his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair.

Mom raised her eyebrows and perched her hands on her hips. “You, my son—we knew you'd be trouble from the start. So we named you after a crazy monkey!”

I pried my hands from my desk and gawked at Daz. He was sitting there happily, basking in all the loud laughter. What was
wrong
with these people?! I could barely breathe, and he was enjoying himself? Did Daz not care about our wacko family because nobody teased him? Or did nobody tease Daz because he didn't care?

The worst part was they were only getting started. Next came the game of “Guess That Mating Call” complete with audio soundtrack.

Seriously.

The class continued until my parents' time ran out, and Ms. Harris announced that our next speaker would be here in five minutes. Maybe the next career was a fisherman in Alaska and they could take me on as first mate.
Anything
to escape this madness.

As my parents packed up, I excused myself from the class. I needed a break, a drink of water, to check my locker, to restart my heart—anything—to get out of there. My parents were swarmed by some of my classmates, so they didn't even notice that I was leaving.

After a two-minute walk down the hall (long enough to get my hyperventilation under control), I returned. To my horror, Ashley, Brooke, and Rayna had surrounded my parents.

No.

The Sneerers gawked sweetly at my mom. I sucked in a breath, like I was preparing to be the one unlucky gazelle in a herd being chased by lionesses.

“Of course we'll be there to support Ana. It's
so
cool what she's doing!” Ashley gave Brooke a meaningful look.

I knew that tone.

“Totally. Maybe we can even film it and put it up online!” Ashley beamed at Rayna.

Although I'd just grabbed a drink from the fountain, hearing those words made my mouth as dry as the Sahara.

They were talking about my presentation. The
Sneerers
knew about my presentation.

I could practically hear my heart fall with a thud onto the dirty linoleum floor. Daz, Kevin, and Bella came up beside me as I steadied myself against my desk.

“Daz? Did you…?” I was dazed. I read somewhere that in extreme pain, your body goes into shock so you don't feel anything. It's what happens when you get your leg torn off by a shark or something. That must have been what was happening to me, because I couldn't feel anything. I looked pathetically to my friends, trying to get the question out.

Bella shook her head. “No, Ana. He didn't say anything. They sort of…cornered your parents. I'm not sure how they got it out of them,” she whispered. Daz nodded solemnly, giving me another Vulcan salute.

My lip quivered. Kevin reached out to guide me onto the top of the desk. “So they know,” I said quietly.

Kevin nodded, giving my shoulder a squeeze. “It's okay, Ana. Seriously. So they'll show up and be their annoying selves. That doesn't have to stop you from doing a great job. They can't make you do anything embarrassing.” Bella and Daz started wobbling their heads up and down in agreement.

My mother looked at me apologetically from the front of the room, while Dad looked so thrilled at Ashley's offer that his mustache was practically twitching. He swiped at his forehead with the back of his hand, sending his hat to a strange angle on his head. It occurred to me in that very moment that boys and girls live in totally different worlds. Why else would Daz not care about all our zoo stuff, while I practically have a panic attack every ten minutes when I think people will find out? I bet none of his guy friends have made fun of
him
for living in a zoo.

“That would be quite something!” He called out to me, tapping his mustache, “Ana, your friends were thinking of putting your presentation this weekend online. Isn't that nice?” He waved me up to the front of the room.

“Only if Ana is comfortable with it, of course,” Mom piped up. It was nice of her to say it, but it didn't stop my blood from boiling.

I inched my way forward and looked Ashley dead in the eyes. Her fake, sugary smile nearly gave me a cavity. Betrayal, in case you were wondering, smells like dirty safari hats.

Oh yes,
Father
. Why didn't I think of that? Maybe because they've tortured me for a decade and plastered the entire school with my butt? Maybe because I'm their personal doormat and they use me for chicken parm
target
practice
?!
Maybe
because I can already tell they're plotting their next move, telling absolutely everybody about
our
family
and how ridiculous you look in your safari gear and how I am a part of the weirdest family in town?!

BOOK: How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied
9.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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