Preview: Just Like Me, Chapter 1: Jamie

seashore during nighttime
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Here’s the thing I don’t understand: if bullies are so mean to others, why do kids want to be friends with them but not with me? Mom tried to explain it to me once – something about being like other kids and some people gravitating toward the loudest voice in the room – but I still don’t get it.

I’m reading ahead in Advanced Earth Science, while the teacher goes over the water cycle that we learned in third grade. Next to me, the biggest bully of my class, Augie Bowman, quietly crushes his boot onto a multi-color pen sticking out of the backpack of a boy named Aarav, who’s sitting in front of him. I’m not friends with Aarav, but breaking someone’s stuff is wrong, so I whisper to Augie to stop. I guess my whispers are pretty loud, because the teacher stops talking and Aarav turns around.

Then, the lunch bell rings.

Augie’s face is red and his eyebrows are lowered all the way down. Angry. I pack up my bag, put on my noise-canceling headphones, and duck out ahead of the crowd, so I don’t have to face him or the confusion of people walking every-which-way instead of in a single line or two across. As I claim my seat near Mrs. Lloyd, a teacher who always eats her lunch with me, the other kids begin to fill in, opening bags and grabbing food that smells disgusting. No one sits with me, but that’s okay. I eat my cheese sandwich and drink my apple juice while Mrs. Lloyd reads her book.

Around me, the other kids are yelling and throwing peas at each other, which is against the rules but no one stops them. A pea hits me on the cheek, and when I turn, Augie Bowman is smiling at me, even though his eyebrows are still lowered and his face is still red. Does that mean he’s happy or angry? I ignore him and he throws another, but this time it hits Mrs. Lloyd who turns around too late to see him.

Augie shoves half a sandwich in his mouth, then starts talking to the kids around him, waving his arms while the other kids giggle or listen intently. They stare at me, which makes me uncomfortable, but then they turn away. I figure he’s probably telling them – again – about the new gun he says he earned in one of his war games, which he shouldn’t be playing anyway because it’s rated M for mature and he’s the most immature person I know.

Thankfully, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons floats through my headphones, blocking out Augie’s voice and the cafeteria noise. I pull out the cartoon emotion faces I need to learn and try to concentrate on them, because my next class is social skills with Mr. Watanabe. It’s so stupid. I’m not completely face-blind, my doctor says, so I’ve learned what faces look like when they’re unhappy or happy or angry. But I can’t tell the small differences between angry and sad and frustrated, or between satisfied and happy and jubilant, and no amount cartoon faces will help.

I give up and put the faces away and pull out my drawing to work on while I have time. It’s a pointillism, drawn entirely with dots, of the Skyway Bridge in Florida. It’s almost done, and when I put the final dot on the page I’m going to give it to Aunt Kathy because the Skyway Bridge is in the same state where she lives.

I open my sketch pad and pull out the special black ink pen. It’s the same one Aunt Kathy gave me for Christmas last year, but I’ve used up seven since then. With the span and tower supports of the bridge already drawn, I touch the pen to the paper and start drawing tiny dots to create the long, straight line of a cable that stretches from one tower of the bridge to its deck. There will be twenty-four cables on each side of two towers, fanned out like the sails of a ship.

Mrs. Lloyd’s face appears in my sight so I take off my headphones.

“Is this what you’re drawing?” She points to the black and white photograph I’m working from.

“Yes. It’s the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa, Florida. It’s the world’s longest cable-stayed, concrete bridge. It’s 21,877 feet long and 431 feet high in the middle. It would have been better if the numbers were even but I have to draw it like it really is.”

“I recognize it.” She leans her chin on her hand. “My brother lives in Florida. Why are you drawing it like that?”

“It’s called pointillism, drawing with dots. It was made famous by Neo-Impressionists like Seurat and Signac, and even Van Gogh used pointillism. I count the dots as I go. But I can’t count when you’re talking to me.”

“I see.” She taps the paper. Her fingernails are red like her shirt, like blood just at the tips of her fingers. “How many dots are you up to?”

“Two thousand, three hundred eighty-nine.”

“Wow. I’d like you to make me a drawing sometime, if you’d like.”

She asked me to make a drawing! The only people who’ve ever asked are Mom, Aunt Kathy, and my art teacher. One of my pointillist drawings, of the world’s longest suspension bridge — the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge in Japan, also known as the Pearl Bridge, which is 12,831 feet in total length — is hanging in the lobby of the School Board building.

I bite the inside of my cheek, trying not to look excited. “Sure. Do you like bridges?”

“I prefer flowers,” she says. “Can you draw those?”

Flowers. Mom liked flowers too, especially roses. They grew in our yard in big bursts of red and pink and yellow, and now I wish I could see her again, even though people say be careful what you wish for. It’s one of those sayings that doesn’t make sense. Wishes aren’t real, so being careful can’t protect you from things that happen. Still, there are things I don’t know, things I am ignorant of. (Ignorant is a good word, it means “lacking knowledge or awareness, or unknowing,” which I rarely am, but just in case. It also means someone rude or not polite, which is stupid because words should have one meaning, otherwise how do you know what someone means when they use it?)

I’m careful with my wishes just in case I’m ignorant, and I only wish for things I know I can’t have. That way, I’m careful not to get them.

Things I wish for:

Mom.

The ability to ride a bike.

A distant planet where people can actually live, and kids like me fit in.

Mrs. Lloyd is still talking, but I didn’t hear what she said. “Um, what?” I ask.

“Flowers. Can you draw them?”

“I draw bridges and buildings. I could make you one of the Freedom Tower. I haven’t done that yet.”

She smiles. “That sounds lovely. I’ll let you get back to it.”

I nod and pick up my pencil. The dots crawl up the page like ants. Two thousand three hundred ninety … ninety-one … ninety-two…

Ten minutes later, my class is done not eating lunch and another strut is finished on my drawing. While Mrs. Lloyd puts away her book, I gather up my supplies, roll up the pointillism, and stick it in my backpack. Then, I avoid stepping on tossed peas and cracks, even though I can’t break my mother’s back. I have nine minutes until my next class, so I wait at the edge of the courtyard for a few minutes. The kids in my class are chatting with kids from other classes, but I stand near the wall listening to music and wait to go back inside.

I’m watching Macy and her friend talk near the art room, when someone taps me on the shoulder, making my entire body clench. I duck away from the touch and pull off my headphones. “Don’t touch me!”

It’s Augie Bowman. “Hey,” he says. His voice is low, and his face is still red, and now there’s no smile on his face. “You’ll pay for getting me in trouble, robot guy.”

Anger flares in my chest. I hate when he calls me that, because it’s not my name and I’m not a robot.

“How come you talk like that?” His voice is loud, and he’s looking around and laughing. “I. Am. A. Robot.”

I ignore him and look around for Mrs. Lloyd or Miss Galloway, the substitute teacher. They’re on the other side of the courtyard talking. I head toward them, thinking I can either lose Augie Bowman or reach her, but there are too many kids in the way, and it’s loud out here and it’s as if a tunnel is closing around me and I can’t get out, and he’s talking in that stupid voice that makes him sound like a robot that he thinks sounds like me. Some of the other kids are laughing at the robot voice so he keeps doing it.

“Cut it out!” I stop and rock from one foot to the other and tap my leg because all the kids are laughing at him so, really, they’re laughing at me. I shift my backpack, but I forget the pointillism of the Skyway Bridge is sticking out of the top so it doesn’t get creased, and it tumbles to the ground.

Before I can pick it up, Augie Bowman grabs it and starts waving it around. “What’s this? Robots can’t draw with straight lines?”

I jump up to snatch it back, but Augie Bowman is too tall. He pushes me back to fall on my butt.

“No, it’s called pointillism, stupid, you draw with dots.” I climb to my feet.

He’s swinging it and wrinkling it and talking like a robot. I jump again but miss, and then I hit myself in the head because I can’t do anything to make him stop, and the more the other kids laugh, the more he does it. Mrs. Lloyd is there, and she’s trying to get me to leave, but I can’t. It’s mine and he’s wrinkling it. I jump to grab the drawing but when my fingers close on it the corner rips.

“No!” I scream. I crumple the scrap of paper in my hand. I worked so hard on it for Aunt Kathy, and now I can’t hold back a tear that runs down my face. “You stupid, ignorant–”

“Stupid? Ignorant?” He throws the drawing at me even as Mrs. Galloway and another teacher come up behind him and start to corral him. “Look at the crybaby robot!”

There’s a burst of laughter around me.

My self-control explodes. I scream and drop the picture and yank my arm away from Mrs. Lloyd. I’ve gone supernova and my backpack is off my back and I swing it as hard as I can at stupid Augie Bowman’s ignorant face, and it hits him with a thunk and a spray of red. There’s a lot of yelling and then I’m on the ground and someone is holding me. It’s Mrs. Lloyd but she’s not big, she’s small, and I push her off and grab my backpack and the pointillism and run and run, because I’m afraid to get in trouble and I know I can get away and go home through the side door which is only locked from the inside. Then I’m out, out through the parking lot, and I’m never coming back here, I don’t care what Dad says because he only loves his bike and not me.

It feels good to run. The pain in my chest clears my head and I hear voices behind me but even though I’m clumsy, I’m fast, and they can’t catch me.

I reach a bus stop several blocks from school, breathing hard. The bus is coming, so I pull my wallet out of my pocket, along with the ride card Mom bought to teach me how to take public transportation. There’s an empty seat behind the driver. I drop into it, riding somewhere, anywhere that’s not here, not school, not Augie Bowman, I have no idea where, but who cares?

 

#

 

I gulp air after running so hard and take breaths to calm myself. Stupid, ignorant Augie Bowman is such a jerk even though I never did anything to him, and I’m never going back to that school again, they can’t make me and I know they can’t.

Calm, be calm, breathe in and out, calm. I rock and rub the seam of my jeans and, after a few minutes, the nausea has receded and the anger and fear have cleared enough for me to think again.

I’m on the bus heading away from the center of town, but a glance at the bus line chart shows me I’m on the wrong bus to get home. Mom taught me how to take the bus last year, walking with me to the bus stop near our house and teaching me to show my pass, and then sit and wait, and ring the bell when I’m close to my stop. I wasn’t allowed to take the bus without her, but she said when I got older, I could take the bus any time I didn’t have a ride. I can read bus schedules too, though they make no sense because a bus schedule can say a bus will be there at 1:13 and the bus shows up at 1:15 or 1:23 or some other time that’s not on the schedule. You’ll never miss it if you get there ten minutes early, Mom said, which was hard to accept because ten minutes early isn’t on time, but she was right and the bus schedules are wrong.

This bus isn’t going toward my home but toward the beach which wasn’t what I wanted. I ring the bell at the hub and get off to catch the right bus home. I don’t want to see Dad, but he’s at work, so I won’t need to see him now.

When I get off eight blocks from the house, the bus driver doesn’t ask why a kid is on the bus in the middle of the day. That’s seriously stupid because I could be a runaway, which I’m not because I didn’t run away from home. Grownups should ask those kinds of questions, though, because if not then kids can break the rules and no one would ever know. I imagine being a grownup and then pretend I am one now, because then jerky Augie Bowman wouldn’t be able to take my things or push me or use that stupid voice to make the other kids laugh at me. I pretend I’m a grownup and leave the bus through the rear door without even looking at the bus driver.

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