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Lizzie at Last
By Claudia Mills
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2000 Claudia Mills
All rights reserved.
YOUR HOROSCOPE FOR MONDAY, AUGUST 25 Aries (March 21–April 19). This is a crucial day for you. Decisions made today will affect you for many months. Be bold rather than cautious. You have less to lose than you think.
Lizzie Archer lay in the backyard hammock, suspended between two ancient oak trees, and read those words for the tenth time as the late-afternoon shadows lengthened across the Archers' unmown lawn. During a lazy summer spent reading, writing, studying French, and playing her flute, Lizzie had started to look at her horoscope every day. It was such a poetic idea, that her life here on earth was affected in some mysterious way by the movements of distant planets and stars.
And how could she not believe in astrology at least a little bit when those very words appeared in her horoscope book as the prediction for tomorrow, the first day of seventh grade? If the first day of seventh grade wasn't a crucial day for her, what was? Decisions made on the first day of seventh grade would affect her for the rest of the year, maybe for the rest of her life.
Be bold rather than cautious. That applied, too. Lizzie didn't like climbing ropes in gym class, or swimming in the deep end of a pool, or playing sports. On the other hand, she wasn't afraid to be different from the other kids at school. She was the only one who wrote poetry, and she was better at math than all the others, and she dressed the way she wanted to dress, in clothes she bought at thrift shops rather than at the mall. That afternoon she was wearing one of her favorites, its long, flowing skirt filling the hammock with billows of fabric.
But that was just the problem. Lizzie was too different. "The Lizard," people called her. "The Brain." Oh, if only summer didn't have to end, the sweet, dreamy summer when she could lie in her hammock scribbling poetry, far away from the snide giggles and sarcastic remarks of the popular girls. Seventh grade was bound to be the worst year yet. In seventh grade, unlike sixth grade, there would be a dance, where Lizzie would be the only one who didn't go — or, if she went, the only one who didn't dance. She could already hear all the popular girls whispering about it, for weeks on end, in their cruel little cliques.
Lizzie turned back to her horoscope: You have less to lose than you think. The line was a puzzling one. Lizzie knew she didn't really have anything left to lose in seventh grade, as far as the others were concerned. In their view, if you weren't popular, you didn't exist, except as someone to giggle about when they walked by you in the halls. Maybe the horoscope was trying, in its own cryptic fashion, to show her some way in which — in their eyes? in her own? — she could win.
She dropped the horoscope book onto the long grass beneath the hammock. From beside her, Lizzie pulled out her poetry book, covered in a pattern of purple pansies. She turned to a fresh page and wrote:
Be bold rather than cautious.
You have less to lose than you think.
Then she let the hammock sway gently as she searched for how to continue:
The shadows that surround you
Will vanish if you blink.
A new day for you is dawning.
You stand upon the brink.
She gave the poem a title: "Lines Written on Contemplating My Horoscope for the First Day of Seventh Grade."
A new day for you is dawning. You stand upon the brink. Lizzie's new life was about to begin. If only she had a clue to how to begin it.
* * *
Wandering inside the house later, she found her mother and Aunt Elspeth in the kitchen. They were sisters, and both had the same wild, curly red hair that had been passed on to Lizzie. But Aunt Elspeth was in all other ways as different as she could be from both of Lizzie's parents. Lizzie's mother was a professor of English literature, doing research on Jane Austen: Lizzie was named after the heroine of a Jane Austen novel, Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie's father was a professor of philosophy, doing research on the nature of time. Both of them worked at home during the summer, reading and writing for hours on end, lost to the world, just like Lizzie.
Aunt Elspeth was the practical one in the family. She was a mechanical engineer, recently divorced. Already, after the first week of her two-week visit, Lizzie felt as if Aunt Elspeth were a permanent member of their family.
"Lizzie, my love," her mother greeted her. With one hand, she reached out to touch Lizzie's cheek; with the other, she held open a book, from which she had been reading aloud to Aunt Elspeth. Lizzie could see the title: Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats.
Aunt Elspeth stopped stirring the spaghetti sauce long enough to hold out a spoonful for Lizzie to taste. "Yum," Lizzie said. The meals had gotten better since Aunt Elspeth came. She didn't forget ingredients, the way Lizzie's parents did.
"Are you all ready for school tomorrow?" Lizzie's mother asked.
"I think so." Lizzie had had all her new school supplies for weeks. She loved buying school supplies. She could hardly look at a brand-new notebook or packet of binder paper without seeing an invitation to cover those empty pages with poetry. But she would feel more ready for school if she didn't know that giggles and stares and mean remarks were lying in store for her. Marcia Faitak had had all summer to think up new tricks to play on Lizzie, and all the other kids were probably waiting to laugh at her afterward.
"What are you going to wear?" Aunt Elspeth asked. "When I was in school, that was the big question: what you would wear on the first day of school, and what all the other kids would be —" Aunt Elspeth broke off, as if suddenly aware of Lizzie's ankle-length Victorian dress, unlikely to be the current fashion in West Creek. "Though I doubt you're as superficial as I was at your age."
"Lizzie!" her mother said then, snapping her book shut. "We forgot to get you new shoes."
Lizzie looked down at her bare feet. Her last year's school shoes were too small, and her sandals had a broken strap. It was typical of Lizzie's family that school supplies had been bought weeks in advance, while shoes had been forgotten until the day before school began. Lizzie could just see herself limping into West Creek Middle School on the first day of seventh grade with her sandal strap dragging on the floor behind her.
"The sauce will be all the better for simmering awhile," Aunt Elspeth said in her brisk, decisive way. "I'll run Lizzie over to the mall before it closes, and we'll get her some shoes and any other last-minute things she thinks of. Just wear your sandals, honey. You can shuffle along from the car to the shoe store."
Aunt Elspeth already had her car keys out. She didn't have to spend ten minutes looking for them, the way Lizzie's mother did. "Ready, Mizz Lizz?"
Lizzie followed Aunt Elspeth to the car, still thinking about her horoscope. Shuffling along in a broken sandal certainly didn't make her feel very bold.
* * *
The mall was crowded, but under Aunt Elspeth's capable direction, Lizzie had new shoes in twenty minutes. Not just any new shoes, either, but shoes she loved — low, flat, ballet-type shoes that were almost as comfortable as going barefoot on soft spring grass.
Then, as she was leaving the shoe store, Lizzie saw Ethan Winfield, with his mother. She froze, overcome with paralyzing shyness mingled with the thrill of seeing him again.
"What's the matter?" Aunt Elspeth asked.
"Nothing," Lizzie whispered.
She hadn't seen Ethan for almost six weeks, since the summer French class they had taken together had ended in mid-July. He had gotten a back-to-school haircut. The blond cowlick Lizzie loved so much had been partially tamed. It looked as if Ethan had grown an inch or two over the summer, but he would still be one of the shortest boys in the class, just as Lizzie would be the shortest girl.
"Do you know that boy?" Aunt Elspeth asked in a low voice.
Lizzie nodded mutely.
"Do you have a crush on him?"
Lizzie felt herself blushing until her cheeks flamed as red as her hair.
"Why don't you say something to him? Ask him what he's taking this year, how his summer was. Come on, Lizzie, be bold!"
Bold. Had Aunt Elspeth read her horoscope? Surely Lizzie had been bold enough in the past, writing poems to Ethan, even giving him one on Valentine's Day. Lizzie's all-too-obvious crush on Ethan was one of the many things the other kids teased her about. Where Ethan was concerned, her horoscope should have said, Now is the time to be cautious.
Aunt Elspeth grabbed Lizzie's hand and hurried her forward to overtake the Winfields. Lizzie was side by side with Ethan. It would be rude not to say something.
"Hi, Ethan," Lizzie said softly. Oh, there were so many things Lizzie loved about Ethan: how he stood up for her in front of the others; how one time, the best time, he had taught her to light the bunsen burner in science class, after Alex Ryan had teased her for being afraid to strike a match. Ethan even liked reading, or at least Lizzie thought he did. He had done one of his sixth-grade book reports on A Tale of Two Cities, a longer book than anyone but Lizzie would pick to read.
Ethan looked embarrassed. Lizzie liked boys who were shy around girls, not like loud, bullying, wisecracking Alex.
"Hi, Lizzie," Ethan said. Lizzie loved hearing him say her name.
"Are you also out doing last-minute school shopping?" Aunt Elspeth said to Ethan's mother, as if the two of them were old friends.
"I had no idea Ethan had grown so much over the summer. When I made him slip on a pair of his jeans this afternoon, there was a gap like that" — she held her fingers two inches apart — "between his pant leg and his ankle. And how he can go through a pair of tennis shoes in three months ..."
As the two women continued to chat, Lizzie stole another glance at Ethan. If possible, he looked even more embarrassed than he had before. He couldn't be that uncomfortable just because his mother was talking about him to some strange lady.
At that moment Lizzie realized they were being watched. She heard Marcia Faitak's familiar giggle, and then her squeal: "It's the Lizard! Talking to her lover boy!"
Another girl's voice — Lizzie refused to turn around to see whose it was — said, "Look at her dress. Should we tell her what century it is?"
Lizzie hated both of them then. She had thought she looked pretty and romantic in her long, flouncy, white cotton dress, which just skimmed her ankles. Wearing it, she had felt like someone in a poem. Now she felt funny-looking, different, like someone who would never fit in. No wonder Ethan Winfield couldn't bring himself to like her.
All the humiliations of sixth grade came flooding over her in a tidal wave of shameful memories. The worst, the cruelest, the one she could barely stand to let herself remember, was when Marcia had tricked her into sending a poem off to a fake contest, and then sent her a fake letter telling her she had won. Marcia had somehow gotten Ethan to take part in it, too. Lizzie had been so proud and happy when the letter came — her first-ever publication! Then Ethan had broken the truth, that it had all been a joke, designed to make fun of her in the nastiest possible way just because she loved to write. At least Ethan had been brave enough, and kind enough, to try to make things right with her afterward. But Lizzie still couldn't look at Marcia or Alex without remembering.
Finally, Aunt Elspeth let Ethan's mother go. Lizzie and Ethan had stood silent through their whole conversation, Lizzie overcome with her painful memories, Ethan seemingly overcome with shame at being seen with Lizzie.
"I think he's cute, too," Aunt Elspeth said to Lizzie when the two of them were alone again. The jeering girls had moved on, shadowing Ethan. Apparently it was more fun to stalk a cute boy than a girl who wrote strange poems and wore funny clothes.
Aunt Elspeth hesitated. Then she said, "Those girls? Do you know them from school?"
Lizzie nodded miserably. She had been hoping that Aunt Elspeth was too absorbed in her own conversation to overhear their remarks, but she had heard everything.
Suddenly Lizzie couldn't bear starting seventh grade if seventh grade was going to be like sixth grade, another year of Marcia's giggles, of the other girls' shrill laughter, of Ethan's embarrassment, of the crushing loneliness of being the smart girl, the different girl, the one who didn't fit in. A lump of unshed tears swelled in her throat. With painful clarity, she knew exactly what the horoscope meant now.
"Aunt Elspeth? While we're here? You said, if there was anything else I needed ... Well, I might ... Do you think you could help me buy something new to wear on the first day of school? My mother'll pay you back later ..."
"Look, honey," Aunt Elspeth said gently, "I don't have anyone to spend my money on since my divorce, and we came to the mall to get you what you need for school, so let's pop over to The Gap and buy you a few things. I love picking out clothes for people. Shopping is one of my talents."
An hour later, Lizzie and Aunt Elspeth each had a bulging bag full of jeans, tops, and sweaters. Lizzie hated to think how much money Aunt Elspeth had spent. But the clothes crammed into those two enormous shopping bags meant that Lizzie would start school tomorrow utterly transformed.
When she had seen herself in the three-way mirror in the dressing room, Lizzie had been shocked. She hadn't looked like the Lizard at all, but like any other girl, like Marcia and her friends, like a girl on the cover of a teen magazine. Like someone Ethan Winfield could like? Like someone he could dance with at a seventh-grade dance? Lizzie didn't know. She felt half-scared, half-excited, at the prospect of finding out. She would boldly enter seventh grade tomorrow as the new, improved Lizzie: Elizabeth Bennet Archer, normal seventh-grade girl.
You have less to lose than you think.CHAPTER 2
No. Lizzie couldn't go through with it. She could hardly stand the thought of going down to breakfast dressed in her new clothes, let alone walking into West Creek Middle School. She could barely look at herself in the full-length mirror on the back of her bedroom door. But she did.
The straight-legged jeans felt stiff and awkward encasing Lizzie's slim legs. Lizzie never wore jeans. Until the shopping trip with Aunt Elspeth last night, she hadn't owned a single pair.
The skinny spaghetti straps of the tank top left Lizzie's white, freckled shoulders bare, and the turquoise shade seemed blinding. Lizzie never wore bright colors. She usually wore white, like Emily Dickinson, the nineteenth-century poet who wrote poems all day shut up inside her house in Amherst, Massachusetts. Emily Dickinson was famous as a recluse, someone who hardly ever left her house. Lizzie doubted that Emily Dickinson would have worn anything like this in her bedroom, still less out in public, even if she had lived in Lizzie's time.
Maybe the tank top was too much for the first day. Lizzie held up another of the tops Aunt Elspeth had picked out — a skimpy little green T-shirt. At least it would cover her shoulders and the tops of her arms.
"Lizzie!" her mother called up the stairs. "We're leaving in ten minutes!"
Lizzie tore off the tank top and tried on the T-shirt. She felt more comfortable in it, but not as comfortable as she would have in one of her antique white dresses.
"Lizzie!" Aunt Elspeth called this time.
But the point wasn't to be comfortable. The point was to make seventh grade as different as possible from sixth grade. Lizzie switched back to the tank top, hunching her shoulders to make sure the straps stayed up. Bold rather than cautious. That was the theme of the day, of the new school year, of the new Lizzie Archer.
When she made herself walk into the kitchen, her father was at the table reading his New York Times. It cost a ridiculous amount to have The New York Times delivered every morning to their house in West Creek, Colorado, but Lizzie's father couldn't start his day without it. Lizzie's mother had her back to Lizzie, slicing fruit for everyone's lunches. Aunt Elspeth looked up from her latte and smiled encouragingly.
Lizzie's mother, finished with the fruit, turned from the cutting board. For a moment she just stared. "Lizzie?"
Excerpted from Lizzie at Last by Claudia Mills. Copyright © 2000 Claudia Mills. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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