Chapter 1: Meg
Chapter 1 MEG
MY CURRENT BEST FRIEND IS a brown paper bag that has a slight crease in the corner. I take it everywhere. This particular bag has been with me for about two months now, although it’s getting ratty along the edges, so it won’t hold my air for much longer.
I stash my old bags in a drawer in my room because I can’t bring myself to throw them out. After I hide the old one, I go hunting for a plain, recycled, thick paper bag that will withstand the force of my lungs blowing into it. Bags like that are harder to find than you might think. Mushroom bags are good, or bags that have held fancy loaves of bread. I tried naming my bags at the beginning, but it felt a bit sad, so now they’re just the Bag.
I didn’t always have the Bag for a friend. I used to have a real best friend. Her name was Eleanora. I was so impressed that someone with such a sophisticated name was my friend, I’d say her full name as often as I could. She had four syllables. I only have one. Meg. Actually, that’s not true. It’s Margaret, which I like even less than Meg. It’s as dull as my mousy brown hair.
Eleanora isn’t around anymore. That makes it sound like she’s dead. She’s not. She just ditched me and made friends with other girls who don’t carry paper bags in their pockets, leaving me here, in the nurse’s office, with mine.
The nurse’s office is a fluoro-lit room down the corridor from the principal’s office, where the Bag and I sometimes spend part of the school day. At first my teachers tried to coax me back to their classrooms, although now they’ve accepted that I hang out here on occasion. Actually, if I were to fill in a questionnaire about how frequently I was in here, I’d probably lean toward the “Often” category. I like those questionnaires. I’ve filled in a few in the past year or so. There’s something reassuring about seeing parts of your life broken down into a series of black marks in little boxes. It makes life feel more manageable.
The office lady, Sarah, who starts the day with red lipstick on her lips and ends the day with it smeared on her teeth, even sneaks me some leftover snacks from the staff room. It might be a piece of banana bread or a couple of cookies. The food makes me feel like I’m now one of the nurse’s office’s permanent residents, as regular as Dash Jones, the kid with asthma.
The nurse’s office is about the size of a child’s bedroom. There’s a single bed that nobody ever wants to lie on because it’s hard to imagine the sheets are changed very often, and what if the kid who used it before you had stomach issues and vomited on the pillows? And there are a pair of armchairs that are too brightly covered in red-and-yellow patterned vinyl like they’ve been stolen from the children’s hospital, where the furniture is all primary colored to lift the mood of the patients. The only wall decoration is a poster of a Healthy Eating Pyramid that is torn in one corner, and there’s a straw basket of picture books left there for kindergarteners to read when they are having a bad day. When they built Bayview East Elementary School, they should have consulted the students to see how many of us might need to frequently use the nurse’s office, because then they would have worked out that it needs to be much larger than it is. Although that is assuming, of course, that anyone cares about those of us spending time in here, and that is probably unlikely.
There’s nothing pleasant about the room, although I still spend a lot of my time here. It’s tricky to explain why. My friend the Bag knows why, although nobody else really does. Except for Sarah in the office, because she knows everything about everyone in this school, but she’s never actually said anything directly to me.
The reason I walked out of class today is because it’s Thursday, and on Thursdays we have an hour of PE and today we’re running four laps of the track and I happen to be wearing slippers, and if I go to PE then my teacher will do two things: first he will lecture me about wearing inappropriate footwear, and then he will make me run anyway in the inappropriate footwear.
I’d like to think that if I were a teacher, I’d guess that my wearing slippers to school wasn’t through choice. And then maybe I’d actually investigate what else might be going on. My PE teacher isn’t really one to ask questions, though. He’s a whistle man. He enjoys creating sharp noises and making us sweat.
Unsurprisingly, I’m really not up to PE today, so instead I’m in here, in the nurse’s office, perched on my favorite of the chairs in the corner near the fridge. Usually I bring my book and reread the passages I love, but I forgot it this morning.
From this spot I can see the corridor through the open door, so I know when someone’s coming. Preparation is key to a quiet life, which is my daily ambition. I can also hear the hum of the fridge filling in time. For the past five minutes, I’ve been looking through the glass door of the fridge, reading the labels of the medicines. It’s really the school’s fault, because if they don’t want anyone knowing what medicines kids are taking, they should keep them somewhere a bit more discreet.
I’ve now learned that Jacob in grade two is asthmatic, and Emily in grade four is anaphylactic if she comes into contact with chocolate, eggs, or strawberries. Poor Emily. I thought it was hard having my life. Removing chocolate and strawberries is something else altogether. One kid is on Ritalin for ADHD, and someone else requires oral steroids. I didn’t bother investigating Dash’s medication, because he told me all about it last year. It’s like a miniature pharmacy in there.
“Hey,” a voice says, and I turn my attention to the door as quickly as I can, trying to pretend that I’m not reading the labels after all.
It’s Riley Jackson, another girl from grade six. She started at my school toward the end of last year, so I don’t really know her. She doesn’t look so good and I hope she’s not about to vomit on me. That would make me wish I’d stayed in PE, and I never wish that. Riley’s tall and skinny and her ponytail is slightly messier than usual. She’s in shorts and a patterned T-shirt, and she’s wearing the black-and-white fabric fanny pack she always wears around her waist. I’ve tried to find out about the fanny pack, but it makes it hard when I don’t have anyone I can ask. She crashes in through the doorway and drops down on the bed. I jerk out of reach so we don’t bump legs. Touching isn’t really my thing.
“Riley, I’m calling your parents.” Sarah bundles in after her.
I look away from them. This is one of those moments when I hate being in the nurse’s office. Two kids are definitely enough to fill this space; two kids and a grown-up who is taller than most dads make it claustrophobic. I see Sarah look across at me and I clutch the Bag. It’s a just-in-case clutch. The last thing I want is for Sarah to make me leave because Riley’s medical needs trump mine. I have to stay here until PE is finished.
“No, I’m okay,” says Riley as the office phone starts ringing.
“You sure?” says Sarah.
“Yeah. I’m fine. Really,” she says in a voice that sounds anything but.
“I have to get that. I’ll be back to check on you,” Sarah says, rushing off.
I wonder if Sarah expected to be a full-time receptionist and a full-time nurse when she took this job. She is about my mother’s age, or maybe even older. Her hair is silvery in threads at the front but the rest is brown.
“What are you in here for?” says Riley, looking over at me.
“Carjacking.” I’m not about to tell her the truth.
She stabs a short laugh that’s not entirely unfriendly and then stops, her face turning even whiter than when she came in.
“If you’re going to vomit could you please direct it elsewhere?” I ask.
She gives me a strange look.
“You look rather pale,” I tell her.
“Nah, it’s nothing. Hey, I like your T-shirt.”
I look down as if I’m trying to remember which one I’m wearing. Of course I know its Gumby, because it’s always Gumby. I don’t have any others, but that information is private.
“Is it old?”
“Age is all relative, isn’t it?”
She maneuvers her body so she’s half sitting, half leaning back against the spotty-covered cushions. I notice her Converse and wonder if she’s spied my slippers. I tuck my feet back under the legs of the chair like somehow that will make my slippers disappear, but she’s still peering at my feet. So I take a deep breath and scrunch my eyes as tight as I can and practice seeing blue water.
“What are you doing?” Riley asks.
“Relaxing,” I tell her.
“Good luck with that.”
I snap my eyes open. She’s watching me as she pops a bright green jelly bean into her mouth. Where did that come from? Then I notice a small bag of colored jelly beans perched on her lap. My stomach flutters at the sight.
“You want one?”
Riley holds out the bag and I can see the tremor in her hand. I take too long to decide and she sighs, so I grab the brightest thing I can see: a fluorescent blue bean. Instead of eating it, I grip it, feeling the thick, sugary crust crush in my fist.
She eats another jelly bean and then tosses a pink one into the air and catches it in her mouth.
“You should probably hide them from Sarah,” I say. “We aren’t supposed to eat candy at school.”
Riley laughs like I know nothing. Maybe she doesn’t care about rules.
“Do I still look like I’m going to throw up?”
“Don’t worry. I’m not.” She sits forward. “This bed is all lumpy.”
“That’s the germy bed. Those in the know avoid it at all costs.”
She looks down at the mattress. “Why?”
“Unsurprisingly, the sheets are rarely washed.”
Riley laughs, and the sound is light. “To be honest, that makes me want to sit here even more!”
She wriggles to the edge of the bed and swings her Converse back and forth like she’s on a ride in a theme park. “You going to eat that jelly bean or just play with it?”
I unpeel my fingers and peek at the blue bean. I bite it in half, pretending for a second that I can savor it, and then suddenly suck the whole thing into my mouth. It tastes like cheap grape jelly and my stomach rumbles for more.
“Here, have as many as you want. I have heaps in my locker,” says Riley, throwing me the plastic ziplock bag.
I try to think of something smart to say, something that prevents her from knowing how much I want to eat the lot, though I can’t. I’m rarely stuck for words and I wonder what it is about Riley that has caused this particular condition.
“Have you done another test, Riley?” asks Sarah, bustling back in.
I’m holding the candy in full view and I wonder for a second if it was Riley’s intention that I get busted with them instead of her. I quickly wedge them between my back and the chair.
“I was just about to,” she says, unzipping the long fanny pack from her hip and taking something out. I can’t quite see what it is because Sarah’s now blocking my view. What test would she be doing? What is wrong with her?
I hear a beep and then Riley says, “It’s back up to four. I’m fine now.”
“Good. But I want you to stay here for another ten minutes and then you can go back to class. Okay?”
“Sure. That means I get out of PE,” Riley says lightly. A fellow PE dodger. Maybe we have more in common than I first thought.
While Sarah’s looking the other way, I manage to pop a green jelly bean into my mouth. This one is a strange lime flavor. I’m not sure I like it.
Sarah leaves again and Riley sits up properly this time. She doesn’t look white anymore.
I take a couple of jelly beans and pass the bag back. “Thank you,” I say.
She shrugs and zips them into her fanny pack. I wait, expecting her to tell me what she was testing.
“So, what’s wrong with you?” she says instead.
I don’t really know how to answer, so I quote a line from my favorite book: “I’m in the depths of despair,” I tell her.
She frowns at me and leans closer, peering at my face. “You’re what?”
I shrug, having decided long ago that one of the only currencies I have is mystery.
“I thought this place was for sick people,” she says, swinging her legs out of the bed.
“It’s a public space, and despair is a medical condition,” I say defensively.
“It’s called the nurse’s office and it’s for sick people. Just saying. I’m going to PE now. If Sarah comes back, tell her I left.”
She pushes past me, her hip banging into my elbow. When she reaches the doorway, she swivels and stares at me for a second, taking in my slippers again, and I can feel the stickiness of the jelly beans on my teeth. Then she walks off down the corridor and she’s gone, and I’m back to the hum of the fridge, reading the labels on the medicines and hanging with my friend the Bag.