Read an Excerpt
No one saw me.
I pressed my back against the pale-green cafeteria wall. How long would it be before anyone noticed I existed? Minutes? Hours? Days? The entire school year?
Yesterday was different. Everyone smiled. New clothes. New haircuts. New binders. Blank paper organized perfectly into labeled sections. Even teachers smiled, swept up in the great-to-be-back vibe.
There were a lot fewer smiles today. The second day.
By now Stellamar Middle School was old news to everyone—except me. I gnawed my bottom lip, pretended to smooth wrinkles on my favorite sky-blue top, and scanned the cafeteria.
I don’t belong here. I’m not one of them, I thought. My stomach twisted nervously. Can they see I’m different? Can they sense it?
I choked back a laugh. Seriously, Sara. Stop being silly, I scolded myself. No one senses anything. They don’t even notice you.
Yesterday I spent lunch in the guidance office as they sorted out my records from my old school. I wondered if I should head back there. Create another problem for them to solve.
“Oh, wow! Can you believe Mrs. Moyers kept me after class? I mean, it’s the second day. Like I really need a reminder not to speak without raising my hand. Come on, we’re in seventh grade.” Lily Randazzo rushed through the cafeteria door, her long black hair flying behind her. She scooped her arm through mine and propelled me into the lunchroom.
I hurried to keep up as she expertly wove her way around kids wandering aimlessly with plastic lunch trays.
“You don’t have her, do you?” Lily continued, not stopping to say hi or even breathe. “I wish we had more classes together. Oh, hey, Erin!” She waved at a short girl with a high ponytail. “But you like it here, right? All’s good, right?”
“Sure.” I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t know what else to say. At the moment, I was just grateful to be wrapped in the whirlwind of Lily.
“There’s barely any time to eat,” Lily announced to a long table filled with girls. “Scoot down, Avery, okay?”
“Sure thing.” Avery smiled, showing off a rainbow of rubber bands on her braces.
“Can you push down for Sara, too?” Lily asked. “She just moved to my street this summer. Everyone, this is Sara.” Lily pointed to me.
My face grew warm as the girls stopped eating and stared. I wasn’t like Lily, who loved attention. I was happier on the edge of a crowd. But I liked Lily, and I wanted her friends to like me. “Hi,” I managed. My voice sounded unnaturally squeaky.
I quickly slid onto the bench next to Lily. Avery leaned across Lily’s sandwich and squinted at me with slate-gray eyes. “You’re really pretty,” she said finally. From the way she said it, I wasn’t sure if it was a compliment or an accusation.
“Oh . . . thanks.” I pulled out my container of mixed-berry yogurt and tried to be friendly. “I like your braces.”
“I decided to go all Roy G. Biv. You know, the total rainbow.” Avery flashed a full-tooth grin. She had a different color rubber band on each tooth. The effect was a bit dizzying.
“Sara looks like that because she’s from California,” Miranda announced. She sat across from Avery. I’d met Miranda a few weeks ago on the boardwalk with Lily, but I didn’t know her well.
“That makes no sense, Miranda,” scoffed a thin girl with wavy, reddish hair. “Not everyone from California has long blond hair and blue eyes like Sara. There’s no way everyone in California is, like, that pretty.”
All the girls stared at me again. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to talk about how I looked. I studied my pink yogurt.
“That’s true. There are ugly people in California too,” Lily piped in. “But Sara looks like a surfer girl. I mean, wouldn’t you cast her in one of those sunscreen commercials? She’d be great in that new one with that girl on the paddleboard.”
Everyone agreed with Lily. I swirled the yogurt with my plastic spoon as they discussed the best commercials.
“Why did you move to New Jersey?” Avery asked.
“My father got a new job,” I explained, relieved at the change in subject. I told them a little about his job and our move. I didn’t tell them that he’d been fired from his old job or that his girlfriend had dumped him. I didn’t tell them that I still couldn’t figure out why we had to suddenly move across the country when life seemed perfectly okay in California.
But I was used to keeping information to myself.
Miranda and Lily gave me a rundown on all the teachers. Who was supposed to be tough and who favored the girls over the boys. The other girls jumped in with stories and warnings. The way they talked over one another, filling in sentences and laughing, made it clear they’d been friends for a long time. Everyone seemed to have some zany story or advice they wanted to share. I began to relax.
“Look who’s checking out Sara,” the red-haired girl, whose name was Tamara, suddenly whispered. She gave a slight nod to her right. Immediately every girl at our table whipped her head to the right.
“Oh, that was subtle!” Tamara cried.
Everyone giggled. I gazed in that direction. A table of boys.
“Who?” Miranda demanded. “Who was looking?”
“All of them,” Tamara said. “They all want to see who the new girl is.” She leaned across the table toward me. “I think Luke’s especially interested.”
“The boy with the dark-blond hair,” Lily whispered.
There were at least four boys with dark-blond hair. None of them were looking at me.
I shrugged. I didn’t care about boys. I was just happy Lily had saved me from being the weird kid in the corner.
“Your friends are nice,” I said to Lily.
“You fit right in,” she whispered to me. “I knew you would.”
I smiled as I tossed my empty yogurt container back in my brown paper bag and pulled out a yellow pear. I listened as Lily showed Miranda the thin bangle bracelets she had layered on her wrists. My thumb pressed the pear’s too-soft flesh, adding another bruise to its dented skin. The pear’s musky, overripe scent filled my nose and I pushed it, uneaten, back into the bag. Gross! I hated mushy fruit. Crumpling the bag, I stood to toss it into the trash can.
“Stop right there,” a harsh voice demanded after I’d taken only a few steps. “Are you really going to do that?”
I turned and saw the scowling face of an overweight man. Unruly gray eyebrows framed his narrowed eyes. He wore a shiny navy polyester tracksuit with white stripes down the arms and legs. The jacket was partially unzipped, and his belly strained against a worn gray T-shirt. “Me?” I asked, looking around. Was he talking to me?
“You heard me,” he continued, his tone gruff. He pointed to my arm, the one that held the lunch bag. “It’s wrong. A crime.”
I swallowed hard. I didn’t know what he was talking about. “W-what did I do?”
“In this school, we don’t stand for that kind of behavior,” the man continued. “Not in my room. Do you know you are in my room? I may be a gym teacher, but I am also in charge of the cafeteria. My room, my rules.”
My head bobbed up and down, as if no longer attached to my neck. Agreeing with him. About what I didn’t know. I just wanted to go back to my table.
“Your actions deserve a detention.” He reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out a yellow pad and the kind of short green pencil you get at mini-golf.
I swallowed hard. Detention? Me? I’d never gotten into trouble in my old school. I glanced toward Lily. She was busy talking to Avery and hadn’t noticed this teacher yelling at me.
He began to write on the pad. “Name?” he demanded.
I gnawed my lip. I couldn’t get in trouble. Not me. “What did I do?” I asked again. My voice wavered as my heart pounded.
“I asked for your name.” The gym teacher glared at me.
“Sara Collins.” I stared down at my red Converse sneakers, feeling my cheeks burning. What would I tell my dad? I couldn’t make sense of what was happening. “But why—?” I gazed back up at the gym teacher. The air around me grew thick. Heavy.
“You’re new, Sara Collins,” he growled. He scratched his balding head with the tip of the stubby pencil.
“Yes—” I couldn’t bring him into focus. He shimmered before me, an undulating blob of blue.
“Sara, why are you hanging by the garbage can?” A voice floated toward me. Avery. Or maybe Tamara. I couldn’t be sure. My pulse quickened as spots of light danced before me.
“Do you know why you are getting a detention, Sara Collins?” the gym teacher asked.
I gasped for air. I tried to slow my breathing. Something was wrong.
“You are getting a detention because you have given in to pear pressure.”
My throat tightened. Dry. My mouth was so dry. I tried to bring him into focus. Tried to stop the pulsing light.
“Peer pressure. Pear pressure! You see? It’s a pun!” And with that, he doubled over in deep laughter. “Gotcha!”
I tried to stop the familiar swaying I felt inside. The tingling running up my leg. Reaching back, my hand grasped the plastic garbage can. I held on tight.
“Gotcha!” he bellowed again. “I saw you with that pear!”
I widened my eyes and stared. His body was now completely transparent. I could see through him.
I squeezed my eyes tight. Please, not here. Not now.
I prayed it wasn’t true. But I knew it was.
The gym teacher wasn’t alive. He wasn’t here.
“What’s Sara doing?” I heard the voice in the distance. One of the girls.
“You don’t think I’m funny? Come on . . . that was a classic fruit joke. Admit it,” the gym teacher said, his body still shimmering before me. Here and not here. “You’re not mad about the detention thing, are you?” The gym teacher now looked concerned. Transparent and concerned.
“Yes, I’m mad,” I whispered. “Why are you doing this to me?”
He shrugged. “You can see me.”
I swallowed hard. I hadn’t been expecting an answer.
“Leave me alone!” I hissed through gritted teeth.
“Why is Sara talking to that garbage can? She’s not talking to a garbage can, is she, Lily?” I could hear their voices. They saw. Well, not all of it. I knew they couldn’t see the dead guy. Only I saw the dead people. But they saw enough to make sure I’d never fit in here. Weird girl.
“I sensed it immediately,” he said.
I knew I shouldn’t speak. I knew I should walk away. Go back to the girls and make a joke about talking to myself. I knew it. I really did. Yet somehow I couldn’t leave.
“Sensed what?” I asked. His body continued to flicker in and out of focus, yet the suffocating feeling was fading.
“You have the gift.”
I rubbed the hangnail on my thumb, not sure what to say. I wasn’t surprised. Not really. I’ve seen spirits since I was little. I’ve never told anyone, not even my dad. Then last month, when I moved to this shore town, something strange happened. I started really seeing spirits. Everywhere. And hearing them. I’d never heard them speak before.
Now this guy. Playing jokes on me and having a conversation.
“We have a connection. You and I,” the gym teacher said gleefully, pointing to me.
I couldn’t let this happen here. New school. A chance to be normal. I shook my head defiantly. “No, no, we don’t!” I cried.
I loosened my grip on the trash can and willed my feet to move back to the table.
“Sara, were you just yelling at the trash can?” Avery couldn’t control her giggles.
All the girls eyed me oddly. Even Lily. I glanced back at the trash can. The gym teacher’s spirit was still there. Hovering.
I took a deep breath. “Just practicing for a . . . summer vacation speech I have to give in class later.” Lying was not my thing. “Do you guys have it too?”
No one, of course, knew about a speech.
“Oh, maybe it was just for me because I’m new. . . .” I gratefully allowed myself to be swallowed into their group, as we headed out of the cafeteria into the halls.
I needed to be much more careful, I realized. I was on the verge of having a group of friends, and I desperately wanted to hang on to them.
I had to keep the dead people far away from the living.
That meant no more talking to spirits in school.