The Charming Life of Izzy Malone
1 TOAD GIRL
The bracelet and the first charm appeared the day I punched Austin Jackson in the nose. I didn’t mean to slug him. His face just got in my way. It was a bruising end to a disastrous first month in middle school.
You know that kid in class that everyone secretly (and not-so-secretly) thinks is weird? The one people laugh and point at behind their back, the one who gets picked last in gym class, the one you wish you hadn’t gotten stuck with for a science partner?
At Dandelion Middle School, that kid is me, Izzy “Don’t Call Me Isabella” Malone.
Truthfully, my slide into loserdom started in elementary
school and was pretty much an established fact by the time sixth grade started last month. It’s partly because my mouth often has a mind of its own. But I think it’s also because there are a bazillion other things I’d rather do than talk about boys, clothes, and makeup, and I refuse to wear strappy sandals and short skirts.
(If you ever catch me wearing strappy sandals or a short skirt, you have my permission to kick my butt.)
I do like skirts, though. Really long, colorful ones I get from Dandelion Thrift. I like to wear them with my camouflage combat boots.
I call the look Camohemian.
“I don’t understand how it could be locked,” Ms. Harmer, my English teacher said, tugging on the door of our classroom. “Fifteen minutes ago it was open.”
“Does this mean class is cancelled?” I asked. Our class was held in an outdoor portable. The day was chilly but sunny, and being stuck indoors writing another round of horrible haikus was the last thing I wanted to do.
“Izzy,” I said.
“—that is definitely not what that means. Everyone wait here while I go to the teacher’s lounge to look for my keys. Lauren, you’re in charge while I’m gone.”
Lauren Wilcox smiled, all angelic-like. “I will.” After Ms. Harmer left, Lauren’s smile pulled back, like a beast baring its fangs. “You heard her. I’m in charge.”
Students clumped off into their cliques. Being the class outcast, I am thoroughly cliqueless, and normally I’d sit by myself. But today I was planning to change all that.
Lauren and her friends claimed a grassy patch of sunlight—kicking out a couple other girls who’d gotten there first. I stared at them and squared my shoulders, preparing myself to do some major strappy-sandal smooching up. Lauren and her crew are the sixth-grade members of the Dandelion Paddlers, a competitive after-school rowing club. Lauren’s family owns the aquatic center on Dandelion Lake, and you need to get in good with Lauren if you want to be a Paddler.
I learned that the hard way last summer during Paddler tryouts. I thought the fact that I was a great rower would be enough. There were four open spots, and they all went to Lauren’s friends—even though I came in fourth during the timed heats. The last spot went to Stella Franklin, who had somehow managed to become BFFs with Lauren over the summer. I’m guessing the fact that Stella can kiss butt faster than a frog can catch flies has something to do with it.
But I wasn’t about to give up. Being on the Paddlers is a big deal in Dandelion Hollow; when my dad was my age he was on the boys’ team. He’s taken me rowing for years, and we trained for tryouts all summer. Dandelion Lake is my favorite place in the world. I love being on the open water, where the only thing I feel is the wind in my hair, and words like “odd” and “strange” blow away like dead leaves on a blustery autumn day.
Lauren’s locker is right next to mine, and this morning I took an extra-long time loading up my backpack so I could listen while she told her friends they were one Paddler short since Emily Harris moved away last week. I figured now was my chance.
“Hi,” I said, plunking down next to Lauren. “It’s weird Ms. Harmer can’t find her keys, right?” I took the headphones from my iPod out of my skirt pocket and twirled them around, like I was bored and just making conversation.
Lauren blinked at me like I was a species she didn’t recognize.
“Um, excuse me,” Stella Franklin said. “What makes you think you can just sit here?”
It’s a free country, is what I wanted to say. “I want to join you” is what I blurted instead.
“You want to join us?” said another of Lauren’s friends. A husky blond girl who was wearing a chunky red headband over her ponytail.
“I mean, I want to join the Paddlers.” I looked at Lauren. “I know you have an open spot, and last summer at tryouts I finished ahead of her.” I jabbed my finger at Stella, who swelled up like a puffer fish.
“You did not! We tied.”
“Nope,” I said, twirling my headphones. “I beat you by three-tenths of a second.”
Lauren leaned back and looked me up and down. I sat up straight, trying to appear taller. I’m pretty short, but what I lack in size I make up for in won’t-quit-till-I-die persistence.
“I only have winners on my team,” she said.
“I’m a winner,” I said. Only my voice squeaked a little, and “winner” came out “wiener.”
“Did you just call yourself a wiener?” Headband Girl asked.
Everyone laughed, and I counted silently to ten, because my patience was all puckered out.
“I think if you saw me paddle again,” I said, crossing my legs, “then you’d realize I’m much better than—”
“What are those?” Stella interrupted, poking at my combat boots. “Those are the ugliest things I’ve ever seen. Don’t
you know boys don’t like to get up close and personal with girls who wear boots like that?” She poked me again.
“You keep running your mouth,” I snapped, smacking her hand away, “and these boots will get up close and personal with your face.”
Darn it! The mouth strikes again!
Lauren directed her gaze to Headband Girl, who seemed to take it as a silent command. She snatched away my headphones and flung them in the air. They circled once in the breeze before landing on an overhanging branch of a nearby tree. Then, one by one, Lauren, Stella, Headband, and the rest of them stood up and left in a line of ponytail-swinging nastiness, leaving me sitting alone, while the rest of the class watched me, waiting to see what I would do.
Yeah, stuff like this is pretty much why I think middle school stinks.
Let’s just pause for a moment to consider my options. I could:
a. cry, which would only convince them I didn’t belong on their team.
b. kick Headband’s butt into the next county. (Or try to, anyway. It’s hard to
appear threatening to someone who has biceps the size of Nebraska.)
c. get my headphones back.
Here’s the key to surviving as a middle school outcast: Pretend you don’t care. Pretend you have such great self-esteem that everything just rolls off your back. Most important:
Don’t show weakness. Ever.
I chose option C. I have a thing for trees, and I’d wanted to climb this particular one for a while. I eat lunch under it every day, on account of the fact that the cafeteria usually smells like burnt burritos.
Plus, it’s not like I have anyone to eat with, anyway.
I stood up and stretched. A skip, a hop, and a shimmy later, I was scrambling up the trunk.
“Go, Izzy!” shouted Austin Jackson, who, at the moment, still had a bruise-free face. A few other kids started cheering; Lauren and the Paddlers were already forgotten.
See what I mean? Pretend you don’t care. Works like a charm.
I braced my hands against the rough trunk. The star-shaped leaves were the color of a fiery peach, and they
whispered in the breeze. The air smelled sharp and crisp, like shiny red apples, and I breathed deep, enjoying being a little bit closer to the sky.
“Toad Girl is crazy,” Stella was saying down below. I pretended not to hear. I also pretended I didn’t know that was what most of the kids at Dandelion Middle called me. Stella the Terrible and I went to elementary school together and she gave me the nickname at her fourth-grade slumber party, when I put a toad in her sleeping bag. (I swear, that girl can howl like a werewolf on a full moon.)
I hadn’t meant to do it. I just got bored watching everyone else test out Stella’s lip gloss collection, and I started playing with her brother’s sand toad, Count Croakula. I guess I must have lost him. But Stella swore up and down I’d done it on purpose, so I wasn’t invited to her birthday party last year. I wasn’t invited to a lot of birthday parties last year.
Turns out, most girls would rather put on lip gloss than play with sand toads.
“Come down from there! You’ll get us all in trouble!” Stella was now standing under the tree. Lauren must have dispatched her to keep me in line. “Come on. Ms. Harmer will be back any minute.”
“Leave Izzy to her solitary pursuits,” said Violet Barnaby, who liked to use fancy words. She was sitting off to the side by herself, scribbling in a glittery purple journal. “Ms. Harmer won’t find her keys in the teachers’ lounge.”
“How do you know that?” Stella demanded.
“Because I have them right here.” Violet produced a key ring and jingled it.
The class gave a collective gasp, as Violet was known for being an A student who never got in trouble. I took the opportunity to climb up the branch. Slowly, I inched my way across it, where my headphones dangled in the breeze.
“Hey, Toad Girl!” called Tyler Jones. “Think fast!”
He lobbed an orange at me. It missed by a few feet and Austin said, “Tyler, you moron! Get out from under there. . . . I said, Get Out!”
“Ouch! All right, all right. I’m going!”
I kept inching forward, and stretched my fingers out to get the headphones. From up here I had a good view of several clusters of maple trees, which in late September were all colored in shades of gold and red and orange. A part of me wished I could stay up here forever, away from the middle school mean girls, who circled like sharks
below me. I picked a few leaves and stuck them in my pocket, so I could paste them into my leaf collection later.
“What’s going on?” came Ms. Harmer’s voice. “Is someone up there?”
Startled, I lost my balance and fell. I caught myself on the branch and swung—gymnast style—through the air, landing right in front of Ms. Harmer.
“Ta-da!” I said, throwing my hands in the air.
A few kids applauded, but Ms. Harmer’s face turned purple. “Go to the office. Now!”
As I walked away, I heard Stella say, “Excuse me, Ms. Harmer? You should probably send Violet to the office too. After all, she’s the one who stole your keys.”