On the morning this story begins, Isabelle Bean was convinced she was teetering on the edge of the universe. Which is why, instead of copying spelling words off the board as instructed by Mrs. Sharpe, she had her ear pressed to her desk. All morning a strange sensation had buzzed along her fingers every time she’d put her pencil to a piece of paper, and by the time spelling period had come around, she had determined that the buzzing was coming up from the floor, through the desk’s legs, and up to the desktop.
She closed her eyes in order to concentrate more fully on the buzzing. It was like the buzz that a house makes when it thinks no one’s home—the refrigerator humming a little tune, the computer purring in the corner, cable lines wheezing softly as they snake through the walls and underneath the floorboards.
Being a careful listener from way back, Isabelle knew this wasn’t the school buzzing. Elliot P. Hangdale Middle School never buzzed. In the mornings it rumbled and moaned as the children settled themselves into their desks and teachers cleared their throats, and in the quiet of the afternoon, students, janitors, and administrative assistants dozing off in every corner, it emitted a low-pitched whine, as though begging someone to bring it a glass of water.
So if it wasn’t the school that was causing Isabelle’s ear to tingle, then what? Isabelle felt if she could just hold her head still enough, for just a few seconds more, the answer would rise up from the floor and deposit itself into her brain, and maybe, finally, the floor would open up beneath her and she would fall into a far more interesting place than Mrs. Thalia Sharpe’s sixth-grade classroom.
“Isabelle Bean, I’ve asked you a question! What is your answer, please?”
Isabelle’s head jerked up and snapped back so violently she was surprised it didn’t fly straight off her neck. Mrs. Sharpe’s squeal of a voice always had this effect on her various limbs and appendages, as though Isabelle were a puppet and Mrs. Sharpe’s high-pitched voice her master. Fortunately for Isabelle, Mrs. Sharpe’s general inclination was to ignore her, but even Mrs. Sharpe couldn’t ignore what appeared to be blatant napping.
“And your answer is?” Mrs. Sharpe drummed her fingers against her desk to demonstrate her impatience.
“One hundred ninety-seven?” Isabelle guessed, remembering a moment too late that it was spelling period, not math.
Her classmates twittered and giggled. One boy in particular, Ferguson Morse, was especially tickled by Isabelle’s answer, and when Ferguson was tickled he began to hiccup violently. Ferguson’s hiccups caused Monroe Lark to laugh so hard he rolled out of his chair and into the middle of the aisle. Within seconds, the class was in a complete uproar.
“Isabelle Bean!” Mrs. Sharpe bellowed from the front of the classroom, pointing a finger violently toward the door. “To the principal’s office!”
Isabelle sighed a feather-brush sort of a sigh. Why always the same old thing? Couldn’t Mrs. Sharpe come up with something more original? Why not shoot Isabelle out of a cannon, send her flying over the top of the playground’s monkey bars? Why not enlist her in the Foreign Legion and deport her to deepest, darkest France?
That was the problem with adults, Isabelle thought sadly as she stood and brushed a few eraser crumbs from her lap. They lacked originality. Why, just this morning over breakfast her mother had made the most hopelessly boring suggestion that she and Isabelle should go shopping this weekend. “Janice Tribble told me there was a big sale at the mall,” her mother had said, reaching across the table for the jam jar. “Twenty percent off everything at the Junior Wear Jamboree.”
“You want me to go to the mall?” Isabelle could hardly believe it. The mall? Home of dreary raincoats and unnecessary sportswear? Capital of cinnamon buns that smelled wonderful, but tasted like sponges left for months under the sink? The very thought made Isabelle want to lie down and go to sleep for a hundred years.
“People do it all the time, Isabelle,” her mother said in a weary voice, a V of disappointment or worry or sadness (or some heavyhearted combination of all three) appearing between her eyes. “It’s quite a convenient way to purchase clothing.”
“I’ve decided to make all my clothes from now on,” Isabelle reported. The idea had burst into her head that very second, the way ideas did all the time—ideas like little constellations of sparks and light and bright colors—and she immediately liked it. So what if she didn’t exactly know how to sew? So what if she had the dexterity of a webbed-toed walrus? Why should that stop her?
“Izzy, you can’t even—,” her mother started, then stopped. She studied the jam jar (boysenberry, Isabelle’s favorite), then carefully dolloped a blob onto her toast and spread it with the back of her spoon before cutting the toast into four little triangles. As she lifted a triangle to her mouth and began nibbling on a corner, a splotch of jam dropped on her chin, and Isabelle thought about reaching across the table to dab at it with her napkin, but decided she liked how the blob of jam looked. Like a beauty mark, she thought.
“I just remembered that I’m allergic to the mall,” Isabelle said after a few moments of her mother’s chewing. “But if you really want to go shopping, maybe we could go to a thrift store. That could be fun, don’t you think?”
Mrs. Bean grimaced. “Hand-me-down clothes. I wore them my whole childhood. They smell like attics and old people snoring.”
“Sometimes they do,” Isabelle agreed. “But sometimes they don’t. Besides, you can always wash them.”
“The smell never goes away, no matter how many washings,” Mrs. Bean said, tucking the last bit of toast in her mouth. Picking up her plate, she stood to go into the kitchen, then paused and looked back at Isabelle, her face brightening. “How about catalogs? We could order you some new things from catalogs.”
Oh, what was the use? Isabelle nodded at her mother. “Sure, maybe we could do that.”
Grown-ups, she thought as she grabbed her backpack to go meet the bus. The mall! Catalogs! Why couldn’t they ever do something the slightest bit unusual? Unexpected?
Laziness, maybe. Or lack of imagination.
That was it: Lack of imagination.
Sometimes Isabelle dreaded growing up.
The path to Vice Principal Closky’s office was a familiar route. Over the years Isabelle had demonstrated an impressive talent for irritating teachers to the extremes of their patience. It wasn’t something she set out to do. In fact, she never quite understood what she did to raise her teachers’ blood pressure to such dangerous levels. Neither did her teachers, and this irritated them even more. Teacher’s college had equipped them to handle nose pickers, fire starters, back talkers, hitters, biters, and whiners. But quiet girls who weren’t shy, girls who talked in riddles but were never actually rude, girls who simply refused to comb those confounded bangs out of their eyes, well, girls like that were beyond them.
Isabelle slowed to admire the latest crop of fifth-grader artwork hanging on the wall between Ms. Palmer and Mr. Wren’s classrooms and took a moment to peer into the cafeteria, which seemed to her a more cheerful place at nine thirty in the morning than when it was overtaken by screaming kids and yellow trays still steaming from the dishwasher. Reaching the door to Vice Principal Closky’s outer office, she decided a short rest was in order. She enjoyed her visits with the vice principal, but resting now would serve in the long run to delay her return to Mrs. Sharpe’s classroom.
The hallway’s gray linoleum felt cool beneath her legs, which Isabelle had stretched out in front of her so she could examine her boots. She’d found them the day before in a pile of junk set out for the garbage collectors. Isabelle couldn’t resist picking through roadside junk, much to her mother’s dismay. She’d made loads of good finds over the years, including a bike with a bent tire that had only taken two good thwacks of a hammer to restore to its proper alignment, and a goldfish, still very much alive, swimming in a goldfish bowl. Although her mother had a strict no-pets policy, Isabelle had been able to effectively argue that fish weren’t pets, since you couldn’t actually pet them.
The boots had been stuffed under the cushion of a crumbling Barcalounger. They were women’s red leather lace-up boots, shiny and new-looking, flat heeled with surprisingly pointy toes. Isabelle’s feet had grown two sizes over the past summer, and the boots fit her nicely once she’d stuffed some toilet paper in them. And while it would be hard to argue that they in any way matched her current outfit of a hooded gray sweater and loose jeans, Isabelle felt that her boots somehow completed her.
She looked up when she heard giggling voices floating down the hallway. Two girls in gym suits walked toward her—or rather, one was walking and the other was limping, her arm flung around the other girl’s shoulder as if to steady herself. Isabelle recognized the limping girl as Charley Bender.
If you had to see somebody in the hallway, Charley Bender wasn’t so bad, Isabelle supposed. She wasn’t exactly Isabelle’s cup of tea, but she was okay for the kind of girl who was usually picked third or fourth for games in PE, who stuttered a bit at the beginning of class presentations but calmed down after a minute or two and was only halfway boring on the topic of the Major Domestic Imports of Southern Lithuania.
But Isabelle had noticed that Charley Bender was one of the few people at school who said hello to Morris Kranhopf, a boy who had to wear a shoe with a special raised heel, because his left leg was shorter than his right. And so she guessed that Charley was decent for someone who was as average as an apricot.
(Were apricots average? Isabelle wondered. Better make that apples. Or acorns.)
“Is the nurse in?” Charley called to her, as though Isabelle were the receptionist. “I need her to wrap up my ankle. Gopher hole.”
“Gopher hole what?” Isabelle asked. “Gopher hole who?”
“She stepped in a gopher hole, birdbrain,” Charley’s helper said. “She’s lucky she didn’t break her ankle.”
Lucky, Isabelle mouthed to herself. Now that was the truth. Girls like Charley Bender were usually lucky, in her experience. Why was that? Where other people would have broken five bones in their foot, the Charley Benders of the world only twisted their ankle. They were forever reaching the doorway just as the rain began to pour from the sky, or jumping onto the curb only seconds before the speeding car rounded the corner. What fairies stood over the cradle and cast their lucky spells the day Charley Bender was born?
“So, have you seen the nurse?” Charley asked again.
“I’m not here to see the nurse,” Isabelle replied.
Charley sighed. “Maybe I’ll just check for myself.” She poked her head into the doorway one door down from the principal’s office.
“Is she there?” her friend asked. “Because Mr. Lasso said I had to get right back to class, but I guess I could wait with you if the nurse isn’t there.”
“Not there,” Charley reported. “But I can wait by myself. I don’t mind.”
Not needing any further encouragement, her friend turned and trotted back down the hallway. Charley Bender disappeared into the nurse’s office, and Isabelle resumed admiring her red boots.
A sudden squeak followed by a piercing squeal punctured Isabelle’s reveries. Both noises came from the nurse’s office. Isabelle was sure the squeal had issued forth from the mouth of Charley Bender, but where had the squeak come from?
Intrigued, she decided to investigate.
© 2010 Frances O’Roark Dowell