Chapter 1: Mattie CHAPTER 1 Mattie
Brown eyes flecked with amber peer back at me. Above them are my eyebrows, a little bushier than usual. There’s my smallish nose, the one my mom says I inherited from my father. I turn my head, tilt my chin. But the face I’m studying doesn’t move.
“What are you looking at?” the girl demands.
“Nothing,” I mumble, embarrassed for getting caught staring at her. But I can’t stop. Back home, at the Minnesota State Fair, there’s a funhouse with a hall of mirrors, each one distorted to make you taller or fatter, shorter or skinnier. In those mirrors, you can see yourself, only different. Looking at the face across from me, I feel like I’m in that funhouse instead of a seventh-grade classroom.
The girl is wearing jean shorts and a T-shirt that says Throw like a girl. Her hair is the same brown as mine, although hers is smooth and loose around her shoulders, while I always wear my curls in a tight ponytail. She’s looking everywhere but at me.
“Boys and girls,” announces the social studies teacher. The chaos of the first-period classroom quiets. “We have a new student today.”
It’s not the first day of school for Poppy View Middle School, but it’s my first day. I slouch in my seat, wishing I could disappear.
“Would you please introduce yourself,” the teacher says, gesturing for me to join her at the front of the room.
My stomach tightens. I slink out of my chair and avoid making eye contact. I hate being in the spotlight, so I’m relieved that only a few students seem to care who I am. Most are doodling in their notebooks or checking their phones in their laps.
“Um, hi.” I shift from one foot to the other.
And that’s when, one by one, all the kids in my new class—except the girl in the seat across from mine—turn to stare. They switch off their phones. They put down their pencils. They lean toward each other, whispering. They nod and point. At me. My palms get sweaty. My toes curl in embarrassment.
“I’m Mattie,” I croak. What did I do wrong? Did they want my whole story? Was I supposed to give my full name? “Gómez,” I add a little uncertainly. I’m the only Gómez in my family now. When my mom got remarried over Labor Day weekend, she took Bob’s last name—Jasper—dropping Gómez like it didn’t mean anything, like there wasn’t a whole story behind it.
“Welcome, Mattie. Now, I want everyone to—”
The teacher is interrupted by a boy whose hair sticks up in a spike at the back of his head. “Mrs. Ellingham,” he calls out, “why does the new girl look just like Mercedes Miller?”
There are more murmurs. Mrs. Ellingham looks at me. She looks at the girl seated across from my desk. “Mercedes and Mattie do look very similar,” she agrees.
The girl who must be Mercedes Miller is studying her mint-green fingernails like they’re the most interesting thing in the world.
Mrs. Ellingham looks at us like we’re a puzzle. She nods her head of gray hair. She’s tall and looks even taller in the long, billowy dress she’s wearing. “Maybe they’re related,” she suggests.
Related? I’ve never seen this girl before in my life. But there’s a strange twitch in the back of my brain, even as I think this. And, although warm California sun is streaming through the classroom windows, a shiver thrums from my toes to my fingertips. I can’t tell if it’s one of my panic attacks or something else.
Mrs. Ellingham’s bright-pink lipstick creases as she smiles. “Are you two related?”
“No,” we say. Even though we speak in unison, our voices are different. Mine is small and just a little squeaky. Hers is bold, forceful, as if the idea of being related to me is the worst thing in the world.
“Well,” says Mrs. Ellingham, looking from me to Mercedes. “I’m sure you two will end up being great friends.” She smiles again.
She’s the only one smiling.
“In the meantime, let’s get to today’s lesson.”
I scurry back to my seat and resume my spot across from Mercedes. She seems to be pretending that I don’t exist, which is a lot like what everyone has been doing around me lately. My new stepbrothers act like I’m a piece of the furniture, Bob follows my mom around like a lovesick puppy, and my mom juggles the three of them while unpacking and reorganizing our stuff at the new house.
“We’re starting our mythology project today,” Mrs. Ellingham says. She writes the word “mythology” on the whiteboard in swirling letters. “The mythology of a culture reveals that culture’s history and beliefs.” She underlines “mythology” with a flourish. Below it, she writes: “Greek,” “Roman,” “Maya,” “Inca,” “Egyptian.” “Studying the stories of ancient civilizations helps us understand our own lives.”
I think about my new life here in California. I’m pretty sure ancient civilizations aren’t going to help me understand any of this.
“Hey!” I hear a hoarse whisper behind me as Mrs. Ellingham continues to talk about myths. “Hey, Mercedes and new girl.”
I turn around to see the boy with the spiky hair leaning back in his chair. He whispers, “You guys are probably doppelgängers.”
“Doppel-what?” I whisper back.
Mercedes glares at me and the boy.
“A doppelgänger. You know, someone who looks just like you. Like twins only not.”
Twins? I examine Mercedes. She has a small brown freckle on her chin, and mine is freckle free. My teeth gap in the front; hers hug each other close. Her skin is a shade darker than mine. My forehead is a little wider. Even so, there’s something eerily familiar about this girl. Despite the fact she’s carefully avoiding eye contact, it feels like an invisible wire connects us.
“Hey,” the boy hisses again, “did you know it’s bad luck to see your doppelgänger?”
My stomach drops like I just ate rocks. I’m not usually superstitious, but I ask, “What kind of bad luck?” I’ve already had enough bad luck.
The boy checks to see if Mrs. Ellingham is watching and then scoots his chair closer to me and Mercedes. “Some people die after seeing their doppelgänger.”
My hands feel tingly and my heart thumps.
“Do you feel okay?” he asks me. “What did it feel like when you first saw Mercedes? Your doppelgänger?”
“Um,” I say. “Weird, I guess.” I don’t say that it doesn’t really feel like a bad-weird. Just weird.
Mercedes leans forward and hisses, “Shut up.”
I’m not sure if she’s talking to him or me.
“It’s only a coincidence,” she adds. I can tell by the squint in her brown eyes that she has decided it’s bad-weird. “It didn’t mean anything.”
“Boys and girls!” Mrs. Ellingham claps her hands. The three of us jump. The boy scurries to his own place as the teacher says, “Look at the person sitting across from you.”
We all look. Except Mercedes. Her eyes avoid mine.
“Say hello to your project partner!” Mrs. Ellingham says cheerfully.
Now Mercedes looks up. And she glares at me. Her cheeks turn bright pink. I feel my own burn. How have I managed to make enemies with a girl I’ve only just met and then end up partnered with her on our first big project? All on my first day in a new school? It must be my doppelgänger bad luck.
“Write both your names on the assignment and exchange phone numbers. You’ll need to do some of this project outside of class. My room will always be open after school, too.”
A few voices cheer, a few groan. Mercedes is one of the people groaning. Then she sighs a loud sigh that says how much she doesn’t want to be my partner.
“What was your name again?” she asks, pencil poised above her paper.
“Mattie.” Does she feel it? Does she feel the bad luck? “Mattie Gómez,” I tell her. For one millisecond after I say my last name for the second time that day, her eyes flick to me and then back to the paper.
“How do you spell Mattie?” She emphasizes the T’s, sharp and jagged. Her eyes bore into me, as if I came to Poppy View Middle School just to make her life miserable. I never asked to be here. If I were still at my old school, I could be doing group projects with people who actually like me. Maybe even with my best friend, Mai. I try to picture life back home in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Soon the leaves will turn red, lopsided pumpkins drawn by first graders will be taped to the school windows, and the air will smell like the first frost.
Mercedes taps her pencil on the paper, waiting.
“Two T?’s,” I tell her. “M-A-T-T-I-E.”
“It’s a…,” she begins. She pauses as if searching for the right word. “It’s a cute name.”
“My friend had a dog named Mattie,” she adds.
I smile the way I do when my mom tells me to clean my room, but I know I probably won’t. “Well, it’s short for Matilde.” And then I spell very, very slowly, “M-A-T-I-L-D-E.”
Mercedes shoots me a look that could freeze a lake in Minnesota. I shrug.
“I’m named after the wife of this famous dead poet Pablo Neruda,” I inform her. “You’ve probably never heard of him. It was my father’s idea.” I’m not sure why I say that. I never talk about my father to anyone.
Mercedes traces the M in her own name over and over until it’s dark and black. “I’m named after a wife, too. The wife of a famous writer.”
We don’t make eye contact, but the wire between us seems to buzz.