Chapter 1 1
The brush makes a scratchy sound as I paint the brown paper bag on my desk.
Next to me, my cousin Eli is drawing a rabbit on his bag. On my other side, Pedro is covering his with clippings from sports magazines.
I set down the brush and use my fingers to blend the rainbow stripes. The bag looks like my tie-dyed hoodie now—the one I gave Sofía right before she moved away. A lot of things make me think of her, like her cleaned-out cubby or the empty seat next to mine at lunch. It’s like there’s a hole everywhere I look, the exact size and shape of Sofía.
I glance at her empty spot across our pod of desks. I wonder what she’d be making if she were here. I bet she’d paint a portrait of her cat. Or maybe she’d draw a picture of the two of us, smiling together under a rainbow, the words Best Friends Forever printed underneath. That makes me smile. It makes my chest ache, too. I feel happy-sad—a mix of both, like yellow and blue turning green.
Then Lin plops down in Sofía’s place.
“Can I use those?” she asks, pointing at Pedro’s magazines. “Mine just have pictures of golf.” She grabs one without waiting for an answer and starts flipping through it.
I sit up straighter. “That’s Sofía’s desk.”
She looks up. “So?”
“So you can’t sit there. It still has her name tag on it.”
Lin frowns. Then she rips the tag off Sofía’s desk and tosses it onto mine. “Not anymore.”
I suck in a breath and wave my hand in the air. “Mrs. D! Lin is trying to take Sofía’s place!”
Our teacher stops shuffling papers in the corner. “It’s okay, Meena. I don’t think Sofía would mind.”
When Mrs. D turns away, Lin sticks out her tongue at me.
I grit my teeth and go back to blending, but the paint doesn’t seem as bright and cheery as before. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Lin tear a page out of the magazine, paste it onto her bag, and push it away.
“That’s all you’re doing?” I ask.
She shrugs. “It’s not graded.”
I scowl at the sloppy bag. She might be at Sofía’s desk, but Lin is nothing like her. Sofía is nice, for starters. And she actually cares about art.
It seems like all Lin cares about is sports. She wears a different team jersey almost every day. Her creative writing stories are all about winning some championship. She always wants to play kickball at recess, too. She’s bouncing her knees right now, watching the clock, waiting for the bell so we can get back to our game. The clip starts to fall out of her short, black hair. She unfastens it and pins her swoop of bangs to the side again.
“If your bags are finished,” Mrs. D says to the class, “you can come and get the rest of your art to take home. I thought we’d get a head start on our end-of-the-year cleaning.”
Lin springs up, heads over, and stuffs her art into her bag. Then she walks straight across the room and dumps the whole thing in the trash!
Mrs. D gasps. “Lin!”
“What? I don’t want it.”
“I’m sure your family would like to see it. Please take it home.”
Lin groans and pulls it back out of the wastebasket.
I smirk. I wouldn’t want that stuff either if I were her. None of Lin’s art is any good. Her president portrait was nothing but a stick figure. When we did panda bear paintings, hers looked more like a hippo. And she didn’t even try to make a nice take-home bag!
The recess bell rings. “Walk,” Mrs. D calls as we all rush for the door.
We hurry down the hall and tumble onto the playground. The grass is bright green, and the sky is my favorite shade of blue. I’m itching to get back to the kickball field. My team fell behind at morning recess, but after lunch, we tied it up five to five. I bet this recess—
I stop short.
Eli pauses beside me. “Are you coming?” he asks.
I finger the friendship bracelet around my wrist and look across the playground at the orange tube slide.
Eli follows my gaze. His shoulders sag a little. Then he gives me a nod and heads to the field without me.
I scuffle across the blacktop, checking the ground for cool trash to add to my collection. I spot a silver gum wrapper and a pink paper clip that’s bent out of shape. I pick them up and stuff them into my pocket.
When I get to the bottom of the slide, I look back. Lin is heading to the pitcher’s mound. Aiden stays behind to catch. The rest of our team scatters onto the field while Pedro steps up to the plate. I feel a twinge of jealousy, but I take a big breath and climb into the slide.
It’s roomy in here by myself—another Sofía-size hole. Before she moved away, we always spent at least one recess together. We played four square or looked for interesting trash or just sat in the slide and talked. Every day, I still spend one recess in here for her.
At least I’ll see her tomorrow. We do a video chat every Saturday for our Finders Keepers Club. I’ve been saving things to tell her all week! I can feel them piled inside of me, like colorful trash filling up a bin. Talking to her last Saturday felt like dumping everything out to show her. Afterward, I felt light and clean as a whistle.
But right after our call, I saw a blue jay swoop into one of our bird feeders, and there it was: the next thing I wanted to tell her. I could almost feel it landing—thump—at the bottom of me. Right away, I started filling up again—with the SOLD sign I spotted in our neighbor’s yard and the new haircut I gave my stuffed zebra. I’ve saved so many things to tell her since then that it feels like they’re piled right up to my throat.
I lie back in the slide and try not to think of anything new. I stare at the inside of the tube and remember old things instead, like the way Sofía moved her jaw back and forth when she was thinking and how her laugh reminded me of bubbles rising into the air. I press my hands against the smooth plastic of the tube, like I’m giving it a hug from the inside.
I sit up and see Lin poking her head into the foot of the slide.
“Why aren’t you playing?” she asks. “We need a catcher.”
“I thought Aiden was catching.”
“He went in for an ice pack.”
“Well, I’m busy.”
She raises her eyebrows at me. “You aren’t doing anything. Come on, please? Pedro’s gonna score!”
I lace my hands behind my head and lie back down.
Lin lets out a huffy breath. “Fine. But if we lose, it’ll be your fault.”
When she’s gone, I scoot forward and watch her stomp back to the pitcher’s mound.
I could go with her. I kind of want to. It’s not like Sofía would know if I missed a recess.
But here’s the thing I’m not saving up to tell her—that I don’t even want to admit.
Sometimes I forget she’s gone.
Sometimes, for a few minutes, I get busy and stop missing her. It happened when Lin started the kickball game this morning. I ran off to play, even though I always spend first recess in the slide. I told myself I’d make up for it at lunch, but I forgot. And just now, I almost forgot again.
I give myself a little shake. No. I can’t play. Not this recess.
Nora is up to kick now. Pedro is leading off of third base, but there’s no one to cover home. When Lin pitches, Nora kicks it right back and takes off for first. Pedro tears toward the plate. The infielders shout as Lin scoops up the ball and throws, but at the last second, Pedro pulls up short and lets it whip right by!
His team lines up to give him high fives. Lin lets out an angry howl and kicks the ground. Then she turns around and glares right at me. I shrink back into the slide, feeling a new mix of emotions.
I’m glad I stayed put.
But I’m a little bit sorry, too.