Set in a suburb of Las Vegas, Ella and Zachary, called Z, have been friends forever, but Z has always been “the weird kid” in their class. He collects stubby pencils, plays chess, and maintains an elaborate –and public– fantasy life, starring himself as a brave knight. Z’s games were okay back in 3rd or 4th grade, but by now their other friends have ditched them both. Z doesn’t care, but Ella longs to be part of a group of friends, even though most of the class makes fun of her. Ella’s mother is black and her father (now deceased) was white, and she’s the only black girl in their sixth grade class. When a new boy, Bailey, moves to town, he befriends Ella, because they are now the only two black kids in class. But Bailey is popular – popular enough to make Ella cool and give her a wider circle of friends – but only if she stops hanging out with Z. Ella’s faced with a difficult decision – remain loyal to the boy who has been her best and only friend for years, or pass up the opportunity to be one of the popular kids that she has always longed to be.
I call him zachariah. he calls me eleanor, but the way he says it, it comes out sounding like Ellie-nor.
These are not our real names.
Most people, the sort of people who don’t need extra names, can get away with doing simple things like looking in a mirror or taking a bathroom pass out of the cafeteria in the middle of lunch hour. We are not most people.
Z and I have learned how not to see the things we don’t want to. It’s not that hard, but it makes us seem strange to everybody else. Z, especially, is . . . different . . . from the other kids in our class. Good different, as far as I’m concerned, but the kind of different that makes other people raise their eyebrows and sort of laugh under their breath, as if he’s not to be believed.
I’ve been gone maybe five minutes, but it’s too long. Heading back toward our table, I can almost hear that silly Sesame Street song humming in the air, converging on him. “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn’t belong . . .”
Z’s in trouble. I’m walking toward him and I see it, know I should never have left him alone, but some things can’t be helped. Our eyes lock across the room, and there’s nothing in his gaze but stark terror. I should never have left him alone.
These are not our real names. These are our shadow names, our armor, our cloaks. They are larger than we can ever hope to be; they cause things to bounce off us so we can never be hurt. By anyone. Anything. Ever.
It doesn’t always work.
“Zachariah!” I practically scream it, running toward him.
“Ellie-nor,” he says, gazing at me with alarm.
These are not our real names, but none of that matters now. For the moment I simply throw my arms up over his head to stop the food from hitting him.
Spaghetti with mystery meat sauce.
Tiny rolling peas.
Vanilla pudding with cookies.
A carton of chocolate milk, unopened, thank goodness.
Z’s whole tray overturned by laughing hands. The bulk of it catches me in my shoulders, neck, and back.
Beneath me, Z sits stock still, clean but immobile, gazing innocently at the blank space of the table in front of him. He survived.
This, this is my superpower. My only power, to protect him. He wouldn’t understand what had happened. He would pretend not to see. Then he’d make up a story about how he had to crawl through a tunnel lined with bloody, mangled earthworms to get to freedom. He would smile, gooey strings of pasta hanging from his hair, and murmur, “All in a day’s work.”
Jonathan Hoffman tosses the soiled green tray onto the tabletop. He smiles at me in that way that is so infuriating. Is he proud of himself? As if no one else in the history of time ever thought to dump a lunch tray on someone’s head.
“Way to take the bullet, C. F.,” he says.
My face flushes with rage. I stand with my hands on my hips, ignoring the fact that I’m the one dripping with red sauce and noodles. I am Eleanor, Goddess of Everything, fearless in the face of danger.
“Do you ever get tired of being a gigantic jerk?” I snap.
Jonathan stretches lazily. “My work is exhausting,” he says, then saunters off to accept the high fives from his table of cronies.
I sink into the seat beside Z and let my head fall onto the table.
“Ellie-nor,” he says. “Ellie-nor.”
His small hand covers mine. I manage to look up, into his close-to-tearful face.
“Ellie-nor,” he says, but I’m not her anymore. Now I’m just Ella. Plain old everyday Ella, the girl with drying pasta goo in her hair, on her skin and clothes. I think some of the peas rolled into my shoe. Little cold mush balls sitting in there.
“You fought the dragon and won,” Z says. “You fought the dragon and won.”
I smile sadly. “Yeah, I did.”
Z taps the table in a drumming rhythm. “Brave, brave, fair lady. You fought the dragon and won.”
It’ll work for him to pretend. Z’s not like other kids. He knows what happened, but he can’t admit what it was, what it means about us in the real world. He believes, really believes, that we sit alone at lunch by choice.
I shove my own lunch tray toward him. “Eat this,” I say. “I’m really not hungry. Anyway, I have to go change.”
Z’s hand falls on my sleeve, tugging me to stay with him.
“You would cast aside this badge of honor?” His eyes bug out, incredulous. “You fought the dragon and won!”
Sighing, I unwrap the napkin from his spork and use it to wipe my neck. I left him alone once already today. So, I sit here, watching him eat—he polishes off everything on the tray and some of what fell on the table—until the end-of-lunch bell rings.
People look at me funny as they clear their trays, but it’s not only because of the food mess. They’d be looking, anyway. If Z and I were business-minded, we’d build a wall around our table, and a window. We could charge admission for each single peek in. We’d either make a fortune or be left alone. Win-win.
I try to become Eleanor again. Smile as they pass, like I know something they don’t. Make them uncomfortable.
“Ellie-nor.” Z reaches up under his shirt and pulls out two fluffy rolls. On spaghetti day, you have to pay ten cents extra for rolls. Z does not have ten cents, let alone twenty. He hands me one.
“Thanks,” I say, accepting the stolen roll. The lunch ladies don’t pay enough attention. Not when we go through the line, and not when we get food dumped on us. I guess it’s only fair.
I keep two changes of clothes in my locker. It’s important to be prepared for occasions like this. I keep an extra shirt for Z, too, but he’d never actually use it. He meant what he said about the badge of honor. I go along with a lot of his fantasies, but I can’t quite get on board with that one.
Z’s waiting outside the girls’ bathroom for me. He observes my change with large, thoughtful eyes. Then he pushes up his glasses with his pebble of a fist, ready to move on. I tug at the hem of my clean shirt, feeling guilty. Maybe it’s a form of surrender, I don’t know. I haven’t figured it out yet. What the right thing to do is when things fall out of the sky and hit you.
Kekla Magoon has worked with youth-serving nonprofit organizations in New York City and Chicago. She holds an MFA in writing for children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and her first novel, The Rock and the River, won the Coretta Scott King–John Steptoe Award for New Talent. She resides in New York City and you can visit her at KeklaMagoon.com.