Authors: Barbara Dee
“Huh,” Maya said. “So in other words,
didn't invite us.
See? I knew she'd pick up on this.
“But it still counts, right?” I argued. “You said you wanted to go. And now we don't even have to crash.”
“I don't know, Fin. I was kind of psyched to crash. I kept imagining Chloe throwing one of her tantrums. While I stayed perfectly calm, of course.” She squinted at me. “What's wrong with your tooth? It looks weird.”
I ran my tongue over my teeth. Right away it hit something slimy: a tiny shred of blueberry skin. Eww, attractive.
I watched Maya take off a red wool scarf and fold it carefully, tucking it into a corner of her locker. “Okay,” she said, “so what's
“Don't yell. Like fifteen minutes after Olivia.”
“You're joking, Finley, right?”
“Why would I joke about that?”
“Why would he
?” She wrinkled her nose, like his call would smell bad.
“I don't know,” I answered truthfully. “He's coming back to school today. He sounded pretty nervous.”
“Yeah, well, he should be nervous. Considering what people think about him.” She shook her shiny ponytail. “And anyway, Finley, why would he call
That was a question I couldn't answer, even though I'd been thinking about it more or less nonstop since yesterday. But there was something about the fact that
my best friend
was asking it that made me feel, I don't know, a bit funny. Especially after that comment yesterday about me not comprehending boys.
“Why shouldn't he call me?” I asked her.
“Let me think. Because he was never your friend?”
“Maya, I don't think he was friends with anyone.”
“Exactly my point. The boy was too Tadpole for the Tadpoles.” She rolled her eyes. “Oh, who cares about Zachary. You brought your camera today, right?”
She did the
grin. “Maybe at lunch we could try one more photo. I was thinking with the red scarf this time.”
“The yearbook isn't in color,” I reminded her.
“I'm perfectly aware. But red always makes me feel fabutastic.” She batted her eyelashes at me like a demented Disney princess.
I started laughing but stopped when I saw Olivia rushing toward us, followed slowly by Sabrina Leftwich.
“You guys,” Olivia cried, as soon as she was in front of Maya's locker. “Finley, I
we're supposed to shoot the photo today, but I woke up
“You look fine,” Maya insisted, squinting at Olivia's face.
“Check under my bangs.” Olivia pulled back her hair. Sure enough, smack in the middle of her forehead there was a zit the size of a Lifesaver hole. Not hideous, but still.
“That's okay,” I told her. “We have the rest of the week, don't we? That's plenty of time to outwit the Zit Gods.”
Sabrina laughed through her nose. “The who?”
“Zit Gods,” I said. “You know, the evil spirits who wreck yearbook photosâ”
Maya shot me a look like,
Don't tell Chloe's lapdog about my zit photo!
Then she grabbed my arm. “Finley, omigod, look who's coming.”
She pointed out Zachary, who was taking giant steps toward us. He was dressed almost exactly the same as yesterdayâslouchy jeans, navy blue thermal, light gray hoodie. Except now he had an olive-green backpack slung over one shoulder.
I ran my tongue over my teeth to check for blueberry slime. Just in case.
“Hey, Finley,” he said, smiling. “Hi, Maya. Olivia. Sabrina.” He glanced at Maya's locker, then fixed his almost-purple eyes on me.
“You guys, isn't it great? Zachary's back at school,” I said in this
sort of voice.
“Zachary?” Olivia squealed. “Omigosh, I didn't even recognize you! You've gotten soÂ .Â .Â .
Maya choked on a giggle.
“Yeah, I grew six inches in ten months,” Zachary said. “Someone told me that's like a new world record. And none of my old clothes fit anymore, but the good news is, I'm working on my hook shot.”
“I'm sorry, your what?” Olivia asked.
“Hook shot,” I repeated. “That's a basketball term.”
He grinned at me. “Finley, you know basketball?”
“She's on the girls' team this year,” Maya said.
“Only as a sub,” I explained. “And I barely get minutes. But Sabrina is our starting center.”
Sabrina shrugged like
Please, no autographs.
For a nanosecond my eyes met Zachary's. “I don't remember you playing basketball,” I said. “I mean, before you left last year.”
He looked away. “Yeah, well, unfortunately, I was always too short.”
“Hey, watch what you say about short,” Maya said, laughing.
Zachary smiled. “Oh, but it's different for girls. You guys are lucky. Nobody cares if you're short or tall or medium or whatever.”
“That's not true,” Sabrina said, glancing at Olivia. “You can't be a model if you're too short.”
“Yeah, but models don't count; they're all cyborgs, anyway,” Zachary said. “And besides, for gymnastics you're
to be small, right, Maya?”
Maya raised her eyebrows. “You remember I do gymnastics?”
“Sure. You're amazing. Didn't you win that championship, or something?”
“I made regional finals. On uneven parallels.”
“And you had that photo in the paper.”
“I looked awful. But yes. Wow, I can't believe you remember.”
“I remember some things, but they're usually the wrong things; that's my problem. Well, one of them.” Zachary ran his hand through his longish dark hair. “And I wasn't gone that long, although it feels that way sometimes. And nowÂ .Â .Â . the truth is, I'm not sure what to expect.”
“Oh, I'm sure it'll be fine,” Olivia said. But she said it in the loud, enthusiastic voice you use when you're telling your grandma how much you loved the sweater she knitted you for Christmas. And immediately Sabrina started pretend-coughing.
Zachary blinked. For a couple of seconds it seemed almost as if he'd lost his place in the conversation.
Then he said, “Thanks, Olivia. I know I did some stupid things before I left. I'm just hoping people will give me a second chance.”
The bell rang for morning homeroom.
“Okay, well,” Zachary said. “I have to turn in some forms to Fisher-Greenglass, so. See you guys later, I guess.”
He turned, and the four of us watched him disappear down the hallway.
As soon as he'd turned the corner to the main office, Olivia and Sabrina raced off, probably to inform their fearless leader, Chloe.
But Maya didn't even seem to notice. “Do you think we should wait for him?” she asked me.
“Wait for who? You mean Zachary?” I stared at her. “Why?”
“I don't know. He seemed kind of nervous.”
said wasn't surprising. Are you worried about him?”
“Maybe a bit,” Maya admitted. “I mean, seriously, Finny, you know what it's like when people get this
about you. And how they can hold a grudge.”
I couldn't argue. It was a Chloe reference, obviously, and you couldn't argue with Chloe references.
But Maya's reaction kind of surprised me. Ten minutes ago she'd been acting like his phone call smelled bad, and now she was volunteering to be his bodyguard? One more example of how unpredictable she'd been lately.
I flashed back to the time in seventh grade when Maya told Chloe that she was the one who'd invited Zachary to Chloe's party. Maya had defended him then, back when he was a Total Loser with sticking-out ears, so why was it weird she was defending him now?
But somehow also it was.
We walked into homeroom. The second we took our seats, our English-slash-homeroom teacher, Ms. Richter, rapped on her desk.
“Okay, listen up, people,” she said. “Some of you may be aware that a former classmate has returned to Fulton Middle. I know we'll all want to extend our warmest welcome back, and that I can count on you to behave graciously, like thoughtful, mature almost-high-schoolers.”
If you call us mature, it's like practically daring us to act like toddlers.
And then of course the entire class started buzzing.
So who's back?
You know. That annoying little jerk.
He's back? I hadn't noticed he was missing.
You mean Freakazoid?
He's gotten sooo cuuute.
Okay, you're joking, right?
Zachary didn't show up for homeroom. But Maya and I were early for first-period science, and there he was in the front of the class, watching Mr. Lamott drink his Starbucks. That's what this teacher did all morning, slurp his Venti Americano, which was why we called him Mr. Coffee.
Maya grabbed my arm. “Come on,” she murmured. “We need to do this.”
“Do what?” I said, surprised.
She didn't answer. So I just followed her over to Mr. Coffee.
“Finley and I would like to be Zachary's lab partners,”
Maya announced. “He can borrow all our notes, and we'll get him caught up if he has any questions.”
This was pretty much telling Mr. Coffee that we'd do his job for him, so how could he refuse? Especially considering how brilliant Maya was at science and also how much he hated to teach.
“Sounds like a plan,” he said, exhaling coffee vapor all over us.
Zachary flashed a smile. He followed Maya and me to our lab station in the back of the classroom.
“Thank you,” he said. “You didn't have to do that.”
“No kidding,” Maya answered, laughing. “Do
make us regret this. Right, Finley?”
“Yup. Right,” I said, not looking at either of them. I opened my lab notebook and started filling in one of the graphs.
And I guess that was sort of hostile on my part, but I was kind of rattled by the whole arrangement. Maya hadn't even asked me if I was comfortable being Zachary's lab partner; she'd just gone ahead and signed us both up. And I wasn't
it, specifically; I just felt decided for.
Plus there was the whole Maya-changing-her-mind-on-me issue.
Plus, and I know this will sound lame, but sitting next to Zachary was going to be super distracting. Science was my least-good subject, even worse than Spanish, and the last thing I needed was something to take my mind off the human respiratory system, or the insides of a cell, or whatever fascinating topic we were exploring that day. And with Zachary on the lab stool between Maya and me, I knew concentrating would be impossible.
So the way I dealt with all of this was by not dealing. Avoiding eye contact, hunching over my lab notebook. Scribbling.
But I wasn't taking lab notes. I was taking mental notes. And here is what I observed about my new lab partner:
1) He was a foot tapper. Zachary spent that entire period tapping his foot under his desk. Not like one or two taps eitherâa whole percussion section worth of taps. I wondered if the foot-tapping thing was something new, maybe caused by first-day-back-at-school nerves. Or maybe he was just a nervous person, despite the sudden Frogginess.
2) He had a freckle on his neck. No comment about the freckle; it was just this random thing I noticed.
3) His clothes smelled like laundry detergent. What
was interesting about this was that Zachary was wearing almost the identical outfit yesterday, so obviously he'd washed his clothes and put some of the same stuff back on today. This struck me as bizarre, especially for a Frogâbut on the other hand, my little brother Max wore his
shirt straight out of the dryer, so not rotating your wardrobe was possibly what Mom called “a gender thing.”
4) Zachary had something written on his wrist in tiny black uppercase letters. I didn't get a good look, but I was pretty sure it said “LUNCH.”
And of course as soon as I noticed thatâ
âI couldn't think about anything else. Why would someone write “lunch” on their own skin? To remind himself to eat lunch? Or to remind himself to do something
Like what, for example?
I told myself.
Don't be ridiculous, Finley.
â¢Â Â â¢Â Â â¢
The rest of that morning, I kept my distance from Zachary. But I couldn't stop spying on him, even without my camera, which I'd left in my locker for safekeeping.
It was so strangeâeverything about this boy seemed like the opposite of the old Zachary Mattison. It wasn't just that he didn't make obnoxious jokes or fall off his chair; it was almost as if he'd been reprogrammed to be Froggy. Like the old Tadpole model had been returned to the store, and someone had erased all the data on his hard drive.
Because, I mean, Zachary was definitely cool now. Even with the foot tapping and the laundered clothes and the mysterious
logo on his wrist.
And he was especially cool with girls. The boys weren't sure about himâI could see the Tadpoles stealing looks, and the Croakers pretending to ignore himâbut the girls who spoke to him (for example, Olivia, who shared a work station with him in social studies) seemed mesmerized by every word he said. Zachary asked questions; he listened to answers; he made almost-purple-eye contact; he smiled. Really, he wasn't just Froggy compared to the old Zachary. He was Froggy compared to the Frogs.