Authors: Rajdeep Paulus
SWIMMING THROUGH CLOUDS
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Scripture notations in
this publication are taken from THE MESSAGE. Copyright 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996,
Cover design by Angela Llamas
Published in association with MacGregor Literary, Inc.
For my Sunshine. Because you know me.
And love me anyway. And you promise not to give up on me. Love you more than
words can say,
. When we first met, I thought
this. Fifteen years later, I know for sure:
You’re proof I’m God’s favorite.
I live in the in between. Between what
if and what is. It’s how I manage. It’s the only way I know. Everyone has their
way. This is mine.
I flip my imaginary pen shut, close my invisible journal,
and tuck my thoughts away in the only safe place I know exists. My heart.
A new school changes nothing in my mind—the other
place I file the chapters of my story. A story no one can ever know.
Instinctively, I tug at my sleeve, pulling the left one over my hand. Because
my arm is where Dad prefers to write. Reminders to never step out of line.
Someone clears her throat. The brunette bus driver with smoker’s
breath taps the top of the seat in front of me. “Bell rings in seven minutes.”
Empty rows surround me—we’re the last two on board. “Might want to get a
move on, hon.”
Second week of September, and I wish I
could move back. Back in time, that is. To a time when Mom made apple pie and
my younger brother flew kites from the roof. A time that never existed. Until I
wrote it down. In between my lines of reality. That’s my favorite place. Leave
me there. And leave me alone.
“Five, now.” Coughing, Madam Bus Driver’s friendly,
good-morning voice dissipates like the sand in an hourglass. “And don’t forget,
no cell phone use in the classroom. The ban is in full effect, and they will
confiscate on the first offense.”
“Oh, that won’t be a problem.” Because, well, I don’t have
Rising, I drag myself into school, plop my backpack next to
my desk, slide into my chair, and bury my face in my arms. If I can’t see the
other kids, maybe they can’t see me. Careful to keep my quads from brushing
against the museum of chewed gum on the bottom of my table, I hug my left arm
close to me when I notice a scrap of paper on the floor below. It’s a little,
yellow, square Post-it note. Small enough to vanish under my shoe if I had
stepped on it. Juicy, circulated gossip from last week, perhaps. I squint to
read the writing without moving the paper.
My name printed neatly across the top is all I need to see
before I do step on it.
Who wrote this?
Did Dad plant this here as a warning?
That’s nuts. Dad hasn’t followed me to school. Or has he? Is someone else
passing notes around about me? I excuse myself to the lady’s room, scoop up the
paper as I go, and crumple the Sticky Note in my hand to make it disappear.
Then I walk-run until I stand locked behind the walls of a toilet stall.
Trembling, I prop my back against the side with the least graffiti, leaning on
my right arm, and open up my hand and smooth out the creases.
The Post-it reads:
drop by and have lunch with me in the cafe?
Huh? Who is L? And how does this person know what my name
means? Or maybe he or she is just a terrible speller?
. Has to be. The same tall math geek who
wears his Bulls Jersey at least twice a week and would offer to tie my shoes if
the teacher asked for a volunteer. I ignore the offer. And him. I avoid his
eyes during the rest of first period and tell Ms. Miller, “I don’t need any
help with AP Chem. I understand the material. I’m good.”
Good until I arrive at my locker after second period, and
there’s another Post-it note openly stuck to the door for anyone to see.
This one reads:
I can balance
a mean cafeteria tray on one hand while spinning a b-ball with the index finger
of the other. Eat lunch with me?
I scrunch it up in my hand. How many people have read it in
passing? Do all his friends know he’s leaving me notes? Did the basketball team
put him up to this? Like some kind of stupid dare to test the transfer student?
What would make this stranger want to have lunch with me, the strange girl?
If that isn’t bad enough, when I open up my locker over the
week, a new Sticky Note falls out each day.
I can open up
a milk carton no-handed. Have lunch with me?
I’ll buy you
lunch. Throw in two desserts. Have lunch with me?
A stalker is all I need to add another layer to my already
complicated life. And this guy clearly has an overabundance of free time on his
hands. All week, I decide to hide in the girls’ bathroom and leave five minutes
to eat lunch at my locker, standing and scarfing down my sandwich and guzzling
down my water bottle before the bell sounds. Time is my enemy. I fear her more
than the dark.
When Thursday rolls around, I spin the combination on my
lock, confused that I’m half-expecting to find another sticky. My heart sinks
the second the lock clicks open. What if? And before panic sets in, a little,
yellow, square sheet sails down like an autumn leaf, landing on my shoe. Can
this tiny Post-it be trying to direct my steps? Toward Lagan?
I don’t know whether to hide or to laugh when I read
Thursday’s Sticky Note:
I’m in good
with the cafeteria ladies. Chocolate or vanilla ice cream? Have lunch with me?
Leaning against my locker, I imagine the cool sensation of
ice cream on my lips, and before I finish unwrapping my sandwich, a hall
monitor busts me. “No eating allowed outside the cafeteria. Proceed there now,
or I’ll have to write you up.” She stares at me, holding a pen and clipboard
with the intensity of a cop dangling handcuffs.
Put the cuffs,
I mean pen, away,
I think to
myself as I toss my lunch in the nearest trash bin rather than face the
lunchroom. And Lagan. The short, pudgy hall monitor lady, with tight red curls
a little past her ears, just shrugs her shoulders and returns to her post and
her pile of
magazines. I’m not mad at her. She’s just doing her job. I
I mumble, “I’m sorry,” as I walk past her down the hall and
up a flight of stairs to English class.
Sinking into my chair, the bell sounds, and Mrs. Benson
announces the first formal writing assignment of the semester. “Well, seniors,
I simply loved reading the journal entries on your summer adventures! Only two
weeks in and I sense this is going to be a superb fall kick-off to the
culmination of your secondary education, don’t you think?”
Superb. Sure. I guess she bought the made-up story of my
trip to Disney. If my life were a Disney flick, I’d ask the Genie for one wish:
Dad—go poof and disappear.
business skirt down from her hips like she’s drying her hands and continues
teaching, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. “Pay attention now. Today’s
writing lesson focuses on personal narrative. But to spice it up, instead of
telling me about you, you will be writing each others’ stories. For starters,
each of you will need to pair up and interview a classmate. The remainder of
today’s class will be spent brainstorming a list of questions. And I expect you
to approach your write-up as a chapter out of a biography rather than a Q&A
Lagan’s hand shoots up so fast it’s a wonder he doesn’t pull
“Yes, Lagan,” Mrs. Benson says with an adoration-soaked
!” a few kids chime.
Then George, his basketball bud, adds, “As in La
, and when the bell rings,
we will be
George stands up to give Lagan a chin-raised high-five, then sits back down.
“Thank you for that phonetic breakdown of La-
name, George. I stand corrected.” Then she turns to
Lagan, eyebrows raised, waiting for his question.
“Well, I was just thinking—” The classic start of so
many of Lagan’s responses since school started. “Most of us have been together
“Go on.” Mrs. Benson lowers her bifocals and looks over the
top of them at her manicured fingernails.
“So most of us already know each other.” Lagan shrugs, and
several kids throw in
with their nods of
agreement. Maybe he hopes she’ll cancel the assignment.
Mrs. Benson emits a
throat clear to quiet down the class. “Which means most of you have no excuse
and can find each other and get your assignments in on time. As for you, Lagan,
can I trust you to work with Talia? Help her to feel welcome and complete this
assignment in the process. Yes, why don’t you pair up with Talia? But realize
that interviewing the new student does not buy you any extra days. Talia, I
vouch for this one.” Mrs. Benson steps forward and pats Lagan’s shoulder like
he’s her son. “You’re safe with Lagan. Does that work?” Lagan nods once as he
beams a smile to the teacher.
I think she was asking me
, but my voice fails me. I suppose Mrs.
Benson takes that as a yes, too.
Then she addresses the entire class again. “Make time to
meet during study hall or lunch or after school in my classroom, if you need
to. I’ll just be grading papers at my desk. All typed, double-spaced copies are
to be placed on my desk at the start of Friday’s class, a week from tomorrow.
I’ll be grading them for content, grammar, and creativity. And I’ll bet even
those of you who think you know each other will discover something new. Because
we’re always changing. Always.”
Sure. My burns change to blisters. The blisters change to
scabs. The scabs to scars. Back to burns again.
Is that what
you mean by change, Mrs. Benson? And what about those of us who don’t want to
is not an option, and no one else is jumping up to ask me to be partners. So,
Lagan it is.
Seems like this place is no different than the last place I
lived. Benton Harbor, a few hours east of Chicago in the mitten State, was a
sea of chocolate while Darien, Illinois, my new home, is a loaf of white bread
with a handful of “others.” When you’re an ethnic cocktail like me, you never
know where you belong. Or if you belong at all.
I can read the words behind the stare-downs I get,
especially from the girls. Labels they stamp me with that I’ve heard my whole
weird, uncool, out there.
And then the word they think I can’t hear, because they
spell it with hand gestures:
If they’re thinking I’m emotionally unstable, they should
meet my younger brother, Justice. We call him Jesse. Funny thing is, he looks
normal with his regular buzz cut, flawless tan skin, and chocolate brown eyes.
About the only ordinary detail about me is my average height, but stature
doesn’t help a person blend into the crowd when the other details scream,
“Check me out, I’m a freak!”
My face and hands are a shade of brown lighter than your
average Southeast Asian, but not quite light enough to be considered Caucasian.
Most people guess I’m Hispanic or Middle Eastern. Once or twice, I’ve been
called an Islander. Not sure which island they were referring to, but I knew
they were confused. Not even sure what to call myself since I’m half Indian and
half South African. If White Chocolate Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup were an option
on forms, I’d check that box.
I instinctively brush under my nose with the top of my
pointer finger. My nose is petite on the whole, but my nostrils flare up
slightly, making a nose ring out of the question. I leave my hand there as a
curtain. Usually, I keep a few strands of my hair pulled over to my
mouth—my futile attempt to hide my lips—the part of me that draws
the most attention.
No matter how much Chap Stick, lip gloss, or lipstick I
apply, I cannot make my deformed, deeply ridged lips disappear. My bottom lip
looks worse than the top, and no respectable cover for lips exists yet. Have to
look into that. Start a trend. Invent some lip glasses. Call them Lip Shades,
for when you can’t find the perfect color or get a cold sore, or in my case,
your lips always look like your vampire boyfriend prefers lips to necks. If a
pair of these puppies could keep a kid from talking too much, teachers might
endorse it, and I’d be a billionaire. Run away. Fly to the moon. Take Jesse
with me, of course.
Since that’s not going to happen today, or ever, I attempt
to draw the least amount of attention to myself. But even that seems to
backfire in this new school. Between the redhead Hall Cop’s eagle eyes and Mrs.
Benson’s assignment, I’m left with little choice the next day. At least it’s
Friday. Time to buy lunch and face Lagan.
As I walk into the cafeteria after Bio, a parent volunteer
offers me a tray. I could have picked one up from the pile myself, just as
easily. When I spot a Post-it curling up off the far corner, the plastic tray
slips from my fingers, but I manage to grab it before it hits the floor.
Relieved, I lift the tray up to the counter and flatten the note to read it.
I’ll put your
tray away for you. Sitting on the right side at the back table. Saved you a seat.
Have lunch with me?