Chapter 1 1
I wave my hands in the air. “Save me!”
Sofía is yelling too.
We’re sitting on scooters in the middle of the gym, crammed together with the whole class on a crumbling island. The rest of the floor is a lake of fire. Pedro runs toward us from one wall, Lin from the other. They can each only save one person as the island breaks apart beneath us!
We all press closer to the painted line and reach out as Pedro and Lin skid to a stop. Pedro grabs Eli’s hand. Lin grabs Sofía’s.
Excitement surges through me as Lin pulls Sofía toward her and then pushes her to safety. As soon as they tag the padded wall, Sofía jumps off her scooter, and they both sprint back toward us. Behind me, Pedro and Eli run back for two more boys.
“Come on! Come on!” everyone shouts. As soon as Sofía saves me, I can help the girls win!
I wheel myself right up to the line.
Sneakers smack against the gym floor and squeak to a stop right in front of us. I strain my hand toward Sofía. She reaches through the tangle of arms—
—and saves Nora!
“No,” I cry. “Pick me!”
But she’s turning away, black hair flying as she pushes Nora toward the wall. I want to kick my heels and scoot after them, over the fiery lake and onto the shore.
Time is almost up! My stomach clenches as both teams tag the wall and leave their scooters behind. Now four kids are running from each side. The boys get here first, grab hold of their teammates, and drag them out of the circle.
The girls reach us. “Sofía, please,” I shout, stretching my hand as far as it will go.
She locks eyes with me, grabs my hand, and pulls me out.
I grip the handles and lift my feet up off the floor. “Hurry,” I yell. “Hurry!”
Sofía spins me around and starts pushing. I’m flying over the lake now, her hands pressing against my back, my hair whipping around me. We’re closing the gap. We’re nearly to shore. We’re going to make it!
Mrs. D blares her whistle, and the boys erupt into cheers. Sofía lets go of my shoulders, and my scooter glides to a stop a few feet from the wall. I feel my whole body deflating as the boys give each other high fives. I turn to Sofía in disbelief. “Why didn’t you save me?” I ask.
She’s panting, hands on her knees, yellow flower headband askew. “I did.”
“You saved Nora first.”
Sofía stands up straight. “She was closer. Didn’t you want to win?”
I thump my heel against the floor. “I don’t care about winning.”
She raises her eyebrows at me.
“Okay, I care a little,” I say. “But what’s the point of being best friends if we don’t pick each other first? I didn’t even get a chance to save anybody.”
Sofía pushes her scooter over to me. “Want a ride to the equipment closet?”
I cross my arms and scowl. “No.”
She crosses her arms back at me and smirks.
I glance over at Mrs. D, twirling her whistle while everybody gets into line, and my mouth turns up. “Yeah, okay.”
I flop over, chest on one scooter, stomach on the other, knees bent. Sofía grabs my feet and starts to push. Pretty soon she’s running, and the floor is whizzing by. I spread my arms and feel like I’m flying, my best friend at my back, giving me one last push that sends me spinning before—
Tweet! “Girls! Bottoms on the scooters!”
We have to cover our mouths to keep from laughing when we line up with everyone else, first because Mrs. D said “bottoms,” and second because we’re not supposed to be happy about breaking the rules, even if we are.
I’m last in line as we head for our cubbies. My feet are hot, so I take off my socks and shoes while nobody is looking and walk barefoot down the hall. Just a few more minutes until the weekend! Sofía and I stayed in for lunch recess today, so I’m extra itchy to get out of here. I’m not a huge fan of practicing handwriting while she catches up on math, but I am a big fan of Sofía, so I guess it’s okay. The good news is that all the extra work has been making my handwriting awesome.
The bad news is that Mrs. D told me today to erase all the extra swirls.
I wish she’d let me write my own way. Back in kindergarten, the teacher used to let us practice letters with colored pencils. He loved everything I wrote, even though I couldn’t spell. And when I made up my own words at our spring concert, he just shook his head and laughed.
Mrs. D doesn’t let me do any of that stuff. Today I even got in trouble in art class.
We were supposed to copy a painting of a panda bear holding a bamboo stalk. “You have total freedom,” she said. “You can make the stalk longer or leafier than the picture. You can make the bear fatter or taller.”
I painted myself holding a magic wand instead. It’s not my fault Mrs. D doesn’t know what “total freedom” is!
It seems like I have to spend every minute at school acting like all the other kids. I do the same worksheets as everyone else and get the same answers. I play the same games and sing the same songs.
But I don’t want to be like everyone else. I want to be me—the one and only Meena Zee!
At least I’m Sofía’s one and only. This afternoon, I finally get her all to myself. We’ll make popcorn and do projects in my workshop. Maybe we’ll make our new friendship bracelets too—if she ever finishes packing up, that is.
“Did you remember your social studies homework?” she asks, pulling folders out of her cubby.
“Oh, yeah. Thanks.” I cram it into my bag. “Did you pack up your scented markers?”
“Right!” She grabs them and nestles them into the front pouch of her backpack. She starts checking her assignment notebook next, running her finger slowly down the page.
I zip up my bag, stuff my socks in my pocket, and cram my feet into my shoes again. Other kids are already leaving. I stand and bounce from foot to foot. Sofía is very thorough, so this could take a while.
“You want to meet outside?” she asks, glancing up at me.
“I don’t mind waiting for you.”
She chuckles. “Yes, you do. It’s okay. I’ll be out in a minute.”
I give her a relieved smile. “Okay,” I say, then bound down the hall and burst through the exit.
I take a deep breath of sunshine and blow the stuffy school air out of my lungs. In the flower beds along the building, green stems are starting to poke through the dirt. All around me, kids skip away from school. Cars pull up in a single-file line. The bus sits rumbling at the end of the sidewalk, puffing out exhaust.
It smells like freedom.
I check the ground for interesting trash. There’s not much since yesterday—just a broken stub of pencil and the straw from a juice box. Someone did drop a sock, though.
I feel the breeze on my bare ankles and check my pockets. That might be mine.
When I bend over to scoop it up, I spot something. It’s small and silver. A quarter? I pounce before anyone sees it. But when I pick it up and look closer, I see a hole in the middle, not quite big enough for my pinky finger.
Huh. Usually, I can tell what things used to be before someone got rid of them, but I don’t know what this is. It’s round and perfectly smooth, like a coin from someplace so ancient that they didn’t use words yet. When you turn it over, the silver has a rainbow sheen.
I rub my thumb along the edge. Whatever it is, I can turn it into something cool. Maybe I’ll pretend it’s a monocle. Or maybe I can stick it in one of the gumball machines at the hardware store and get something out for free.
I check over my shoulder for Sofía, then tap my foot, watching cars pull away from the curb. Lin climbs into her mom’s pickup truck. A fifth grader gets in the front seat of his babysitter’s car. The Taylor twins pile into the back seat of their van. Their dad turns all the way around to help one of them with a seat belt. A first grader starts to walk in front of them, her curly black hair sproinging out of pigtails.
She’s not supposed to cross here. Mrs. Nelson is nearby, waving kids through the crosswalk in a bright orange vest.
The girl is directly in front of the twins’ van when her lunch box pops open. Plastic containers hit the pavement. She stops and scoops them up. I’m about to go over and help her when her water bottle rolls under the van. Through the windshield, I see Mr. Taylor turn back around in his seat.
“Hey,” I say to the girl, but she doesn’t look up, and I don’t know her name.
Mr. Taylor glances over his shoulder.
“Hey!” I say a bit louder. She’s down on one knee now, reaching under the van.
Mr. Taylor puts a hand on the steering wheel.
He sees her, right?
The van inches forward.
I gasp. He doesn’t see her!
“Stop!” I yell. I leap off the curb and wave my arms. When Mr. Taylor slams on the brakes, the van jerks to a stop. I suck in a quick breath.
Mr. Taylor throws open his door. “Are you okay?” he asks, climbing out.
I lower my arms, my heart pounding.
“What on earth are you doing?” he demands.
“There’s a kid in front of you.” I point. “Look!”
The girl stands up, stuffs the containers into her lunch box, and latches it shut. Then she skips away, clueless.
Mr. Taylor watches her, his face going white. The twins lean forward in the back seat to look at me. Car doors open in the loading line, and parents step out and stare.
“What’s going on?” Sofía asks, coming up beside me.
“Meena saved that kid’s life!” I turn and see Aiden from our class running up.
He points across the parking lot. A frantic-looking lady has the first-grade girl by the shoulders, saying something right into her face. She gives the girl a little shake, then hugs her, hard.
The girl looks right at me over the lady’s shoulder, eyes wide.
“Mr. Taylor almost ran that girl over,” Aiden cries.
I shoot him a look.
“Seriously, she could have died,” he says, beaming.
I glance at Mr. Taylor, who takes out a hankie and wipes it across his forehead. “You weren’t driving that fast,” I say.
“But if anything had happened…” His voice trails off. He looks woozy, like he just bit into a chicken tender and found out it was fried fish instead.
“It wasn’t your fault,” I say, giving his sleeve a tug. “She practically crawled under your van.”
He nods, grabbing a fistful of his hair. Behind him, one of the twins rolls down a window. “Are we going?”
Mr. Taylor straightens. He lets go of his hair and rakes his fingers through it a few times. “Your name is Meena?” he asks. I nod. He takes my hand and shakes it, smiling weakly. “Thank you, Meena. How does it feel to be a hero?”
I pull away. “I’m not a hero. Anybody would have done that.”
“But you’re the only one who did.”
Mr. Taylor gets back into his van. He checks all around him once, twice, three times before he pulls away from the curb. The twins watch me out the rear window until they turn the corner, out of sight.
“What was that all about?” Sofía asks.
I don’t answer, because right then I feel something smooth and round in my other hand again.
I stare down at the metal ring—the one I picked up right before I saved that girl.
What is this thing?
I squeeze it tight, Mr. Taylor’s words echoing in my ears: a hero.
My chest fills up like a balloon. I think I could get used to that.