I stand in the middle of Honeysuckle Hollow High’s noisy hallway, towering over everybody.
Too-Tall Tovi, that’s me.
Kids swirl past like blobs of sea foam. No one meets my gaze. No one stops. No one offers help. Why would they? They only know two stories about me, neither of them good. They also know interfering with the three girls in front of me will bring the wrath descending on them instead.
Jennifer Stokes stabs her index finger through the air. “I can’t believe what you did, Tovi Taggert!”
M.J. Maher dives in, her too-long teeth pushing out her upper lip. “Chase told us all the details!”
Terri Benton shoves her pointy chin forward. “We thought you wanted to be our friend, Toe-vee, but you’re no friend of ours!”
I did want to be their friend. I do want to be their friend. Tears well in my eyes.
I will not cry. I will NOT.
I clench my jaw.
It’s all mental, Tovi. You can’t cry when you’re smiling. Gramma’s always saying stuff like that. Sometimes what she says comes in handy. Like now.
I force my lips into a fake smile, the only defense I have. Almost. I can also rely on what Mom calls my smart mouth.
“You’re no friends of mine, either.” The words settle my nerves, the smile dries my tears.
Thanks, Gramma. You were right. It is all mental.
The three of them glare at me. Jen’s hand clenches around the strap of her black backpack, as if she’s barely keeping herself from clawing my eyes out with her fingernails. Red splotches spread across her skinny neck and her green eyes glitter as brightly as sunbeams off the waves in the Gulf of Mexico. She looks like a mutant sea turtle.
Even smart-mouthed me knows better than to say so.
“Stay away from us, you…you giant. Stay away from the game tonight. And stay away from Chase. He’s my boyfriend.” She whirls and shoves through the crowd, her straight blond hair splashing against the back of her shirt with every step.
“You don’t fit in here and you’re never going to.” M.J.’s smile is eel thin. “Why don’t you go back where you came from?”
I wish I could. That doesn’t seem like the right response either.
M.J. jerks her head at Terri. The two of them hurry after Jen. They stomp through the double front doors of the old school building without looking back and disappear into the waiting bus.
I didn’t cry. I won’t cry.
A weight heavier than my book bag and as real anchors me in place. The fake smile and false courage ebb. I tremble as I stand in the middle of the hallway, interrupting the flow of students like a boulder in a river. A five-foot-eleven and three-quarter-inch boulder.
Kids stream around me, bump into me, rush past me, gush out the door to the parking lot. It’s Friday afternoon, the last day of the first week of school. A few hours ago I was as anxious as everyone else for classes to be over and the weekend to start.
That was before Chase Webber told Jen what happened in Honeysuckle Hollow Park last night.
No, that’s not true. He told her his version of what happened.
I don’t know why he lied. All I know is I didn’t tell about the Choking Game and I didn’t make out with Chase. Well, not exactly. I mean—oh, what’s the difference? Jen’s not interested in my side of the story.
I trudge out of the brick building into the Florida September afternoon.
Chase has lived in Honeysuckle Hollow all his life. He’s hot. He’s smart. He’s popular. Of course Jen would take his word over a newcomer who arrived in town two months ago. A giant she nicknamed Too-Tall Tovi.
Even so, I hoped she would listen to me. I thought she was my friend. I thought Chase was too.
I’m a jerk.
And I’m going to have to sit in the school bus being ignored by Jen, M.J., and Terri and surrounded by the whispers of everyone else. My stomach sinks. Where’s the bus monitor? Mrs. Morrison, the principal, is on duty today. She has her hands full with a group of tenth graders who are chucking the week’s assignments into the air.
Now’s my chance.
I hurry down the sidewalk in the opposite direction. At the end of the building, I turn left and look over my shoulder to make sure I’ve gotten away without being spotted.
“Well, if it ain’t Too-Tall,” a familiar voice says. “Wanna meet me in the park again tonight?”
Chase and his duo of best buds are leaning against the side of the building, smoking cigarettes from a pack one of them probably shoplifted. All three wear cowboy boots, jeans, and dark mirrored sunnies. They look like a country band. They’re all beyond cool.
Six reflections of my brown eyes stare back at me in the surface of their uptilted sunglass lenses. My hair sticks out. It never stays in the ponytail holder.
Why am I worried about what I look like? Real friends wouldn’t care what I look like.
I blink away the surge of wetness in my eyes and smile at Chase. “Okay. What time?”
His thick dark eyebrows crawl into a frown. They resemble fat, fuzzy caterpillars as they disappear beneath the metal frame of his sunglasses.
“Whoa, Chase, you were right about her.” Ted Eskew’s teeth flash in the sun, bright white against last summer’s beach-party-and-volleyball tan. He exhales a stream of smoke. “Why don’t you meet us all in the park tonight after the game, Too-Tall?”
Ray Mead, who never has an original thought, says, “Yeah! I’m for that!”
The three of them start laughing and poking each other. I walk through the stink of sweat and cigarette smoke mingled with body spray, holding my head high.
“Look at her stick that nose in the air. Wonder what the weather’s like at that altitude.” A mocking tone replaces Chase’s frown. “Hey, Too-Tall, you sure were a lot friendlier last night.”
Ted and Ray hoot with laughter and reach out to grab me. I dodge sideways and break into a run.
Fear adds a spurt of speed and I race away without looking back. Fast as they are, they’re not dressed for running. I am and I have longer legs and desperation on my side.
By the time I reach the gap in the chain link fence at the far end of the ball field, they’ve given up the pursuit. Their mocking voices are far behind me. I slip through the opening, cross the street, and keep moving. I’m not going to cry. I’m not.
My book bag pounds against my back. My sneakers slap against the pavement in time with my breathing. I swallow as the hot air scorches my throat. I’m sorry I passed on riding the bus.
Umm, no. No, I’m not.
Ten minutes later, I veer off the blacktop and cut left into the entrance of Honeysuckle Hollow Park. Chase was smart to make the park the scene of his story. Jen would believe we met here. She knows I’m in the park a lot. The land once belonged to Gramma. It backs up to Gramma’s house, where Mom and I live now too. I’m sure Chase doesn’t want Jen to know he was there last night before he met her and the rest of the gang to play the Choking Game. At the house, I mean, not in the park.
I’m also sure he doesn’t want her to know about all the times we’ve been together over the past couple of months. Not that I would have told.
Forget Chase. Thinking about him is a waste of time. I’ll be home—I’ll be to Gramma’s house in another few minutes. I can already taste the honey-sweetened lemonade Mom keeps in the refrigerator for Gramma.
I slow to a walk and catch my breath. The pain strikes, as if it was waiting for my full attention. The sharp needle-prick Gramma calls a stitch stops me in my tracks. I bow to one side and press a hand against my ribs to ease the stabbing spasms. I gulp deep drafts of sticky air, sucking in the gritty sweetness of honeysuckle blossoms mixed with dust.
After several seconds the ache in my side lets up and I can stand straight again. As I do, a saucer-sized yellow and black butterfly drifts past, floating on an invisible current. I hold out my hand. The butterfly lands on my index finger. The ancient legends of Honeysuckle Hollow, the ones Gramma tells in her soft musical voice, include butterflies.
Whisper your wish to a butterfly and set her free. She’ll carry your desire on the west wind and your wish will be granted.
Sure it will. And blowing out all the candles on a birthday cake makes wishes come true too.
Still…what can it hurt?
“I wish I had a friend in Honeysuckle Hollow,” I say.
The butterfly waves its antenna and shifts six tiny legs. I lift my finger until we’re eye to eye.
“I wish I had a real friend. A forever friend.”
The butterfly looks directly at me. Then it wings into flight on a soft breath of air.
What did I expect? A puff of smoke? The appearance of a regal goddess anxious to grant my wish?
Stupid. Old legends, no matter how plentiful here, are still only legends. Besides, I already have real friends, even though none of them lives in Honeysuckle Hollow. I unbuckle the outer pocket of my backpack, pull out my cell, and flip it on. Sometimes I can get a signal in the park, and I can text Georgina and Helena, my friends from the city.
This is not one of those times.
I put the phone away. When I get to Gramma’s, I’ll text them—no, I never get a signal at Gramma’s house. I’ll use the ancient dial-up connection, update my page, and see if they’re online. Then I’ll tell Mom—again—that we have to move back home. I hate Honeysuckle Hollow.
Sweat rolls from under my hair and slides down my neck. I raise my arm to brush the dribble away. My deodorant has failed. At least nobody’s around to know.
I swipe my fingers across my denim shorts and head for home—for Gramma’s house. Honeysuckle Hollow is not my home. And never will be. Midway along the park’s paved road, I turn right, onto a five-acre field that was once Gramma’s watermelon patch.
Even if the land had still belonged to Gramma, the drought of the past six months would have killed off any chance of a watermelon crop. The brown withered grass crunches under my feet. All the oak trees in the field are drooping. Their stiff leaves curl like tight leafy fists of desperation. Except for a two-second downpour Monday afternoon, no rain has fallen. Every step I take raises dust. The wisps levitate like ghostly tentacles and curl around my bare legs as if pleading for my help. Honeysuckle Hollow Park is so dry the dust is begging for water.
That would be a great picture for art class.
Thunder booms and I jump. In the minutes since I entered the park, the clear blue sky has turned black. Thick heavy layers of clouds roil as the wind thrashes in angry water-scented gusts. Rain? After all this time, rain is going to fall now?
Lightning cracks, a wicked white whip snapping at the racing clouds. The hair on my arms lifts straight up. The swirling, heated breeze carries the scent of ozone and dampness. Thunder booms again, followed immediately by another sharp crack of lightning.
I run. Being caught outdoors in a thunderstorm is not smart. I’m new to Honeysuckle Hollow but I’ve lived in Florida all my life. The Sunshine State is known as the lightning capital of the country for a good reason. Once I saw a picture of a man blown right out of his shoes by a bolt of lightning. His white sneakers were singed black and a chalk outline on the sidewalk showed where he landed.
I dash through the trees lining the clearing to the sagging rusted wire fence that separates the land Gramma still owns from the rest of the park. As I near the fence, the scent of honeysuckle grows stronger, sweeter, chokingly thick. The wire is covered with pink blossoms and dark glossy vines. I’m lucky I’m not allergic.
No, not lucky. If I was allergic, I could convince Mom to get us out of here.
I stop in front of the fence. Maybe I can fake an allergy. I try out a phony sneeze as the clouds dump their load of water in a drenching downpour. I barely have time to blink against the first icy drops before I’m soaked.
Great. Now Mom will know I didn’t ride the bus and I’ll have to explain why.
Forget about faking an allergy. Get to Gramma’s house and dry off. I shove my dripping hair behind my ears and separate the strands of fence so I can slip through. My book bag bangs across my arm and the top flies open. Pencils scatter into the leaves and books and papers flop into the wet sand. A gush of water runs into my sneakers.
I release the fence, sling the bag back onto my shoulder, and grab the sodden mess of schoolwork. As I snatch up Wednesday’s art project, the wind whips more fat chilly raindrops across my face. I’m stuffing the books into the bag when the ground moves under my feet. I wobble sideways.
An earthquake? In Florida? No, earthquakes are California’s claim to fame. I must have imagined—another shift tosses me into the fence. This is not my imagination.
I clutch the rusty wire to keep from falling. The earth shudders. A hungry giant roused from sleep rumbles in the field. A peculiar gurgle follows, as if the giant is using a straw to suck up the last of a super-sized milkshake.
Before I can blink the rain out of my eyes, the field I raced across moments ago disappears, trees and all.