"Are a girl or a boy?"
Dani Delgado contemplated the kid in front of her. About Dani's size, which meant taller than most and skinny with it, his hair was so dark it seemed to have blue streaks in the uncombed mess.
"Whaddya think I am?" she sneered. There wasn't much Dani hated more than being asked if she were a boy, but it happened all the time.
"If I knew, I wouldn't ask ya."
He wiped the sleeve of his coat across his runny nose. Two weeks into April and Dani could still see her breath on the air. What was up with that?
Sure, she'd been a little excited when her dad said they were moving from Boca Raton to Kiwanee, Wisconsin. What kid didn't want to see snow? But Dani didn't want to see it right now.
"What's yer name?" the boy asked.
He made a face. "That ain't any help."
Actually her name was Danielle, but she wasn't going to tell him that.
The bell rang, and all the children filed into Kiwanee Elementary. Dani hung back. This was the fourth school she'd gone to, not countin' preschool, and she was only seven. But her dad said they were here to stayat least for a season or two.
Dad had been a semifamous pitcher for the Marlins. Then he'd done something wonky to his arm, and he couldn't play no more.
For years they'd moved from city to city as he went from job to jobassistant pitching coach, head pitching coach, back to assistant again. Dani had thought they'd never stop. Then he'd gotten a job managing the minor league Kiwanee Warhawks.
Dad said this was his big break, his dream job, his life choice. Whatever that meant. All Dani knew was that he was smiling more than she'd seen him smile ever before.
Determined to fit in this time,Dani marched into Mrs. Henning's second-grade classroom. She'd been here last week with Dad. They'd walked all over the building so Dani would know where things were, then they'd met Mrs. Henning, who'd shown Dani which seat would be hers.
Dani took it, eyes narrowing at the boy from the playground. He had the desk right behind hers. She wasn't sure yet if he was mean or not, but he wouldn't be able to pull on her hair, because she'd chopped it off this morning. She knew better than to give nasty kids something to yank on.
Her dad wouldn't be happy. She'd had to sneak back to the house after he left in order to do ithe never would have let herbut Dani had been determined.
Mrs. Henning, who looked old to Dani, though Dad had said she was only fortyas if that were youngsmiled brightly, and Dani winced. She knew what was coming.
"We have a brand-new student today."
Dani prayed the teacher wouldn't make her stand in front and talk about herself. She'd had to do that a few times already, and it never went too good. Kids would whisper and point. Dani's voice would get quieter and quieter until she mumbled. No one cared about the new kid anyway, unless it was to tease him or her.
She'd done her best to dress right today, though Dani wasn't sure exactly what "right" was. The definition seemed to change at every school she attended.
Dani had worn jeans, sneakers and one of the pink shirts her mom always sent for her birthday, even though Dani hated pink. But girls wore pink, or so it seemed. Dani wasn't very good at bein' a girl. "Everyone, welcome Danielle Delgado, all the way from Florida." Mrs. Henning clapped, and the class joined in halfheartedly.
"You're a girl?" the boy behind her whispered.
Dani turned. "Do a lot of boys wear pink in this town?" She smirked. "Do you?"
For a minute Dani thought the kid might slug her, and her fingers curled into her palms, ready, even as she bit her lip to keep herself from saying anything else smart.
Then he laughed, smacked her on the shoulder, hard, and said, "Good one."
Dani faced front and slowly let her hands relax. She tried, she really did, to be nice, to keep her lip zipped, but she couldn't help it. Sometimes stuff just came out.
She'd been in fights at other schools, and her dad had said, "No more," and "Be a lady," but he never told her how.
Mrs. Henning finished taking attendancethe boy behind Dani was named Jeffrey Braun. People spelled their names weird hereBraun instead of Brown, Mueller instead of MillerDad said it was because everyone was German, but Dani didn't understand why being German gave them license to misspell. When she'd asked, Dad had sighed and rubbed his forehead. He did that a lot when she talked.
The morning went okay. She had no problem keeping up in class. Her mouth wasn't the only thing smart about Dani. But when lunch came, she thought again about how hard it was to go to a new school. 'Specially when the entire year was almost done. Everyone had their best friend already, and their second best friend and their group of friends. They didn't need her.
Dani ate alone, then went onto the playground, shivering in her too-thin coat. Who would have thought she'd need to wear a winter coat in springtime? She didn't have one anyway.
She stared at the other girls, who were all dressed in skirts and colored tights with matching sweaters and low-heeled shoes, their winter jackets unzipped to show off their outfits.
Dani glanced down at her own clothes; she'd chosen wrong again. Not that she had a lot of skirts, or any tights or a single pair of shoes that had a heel. She was a failure as little girl.
Tears burned, and she blinked to keep them back. Dad hated it when she cried. He'd mutter his favorite line from League of Their Own, "There's no crying in baseball," and Dani would swallow every sob.
She liked baseball well enough. She was good at it; her dad was a professional. But what she really liked was dancing. What she really wanted was to take ballet lessons.
'Cept no matter how many times she hinted, Dad never got it. He just kept treating her like one of the guys. For her birthday, he'd bought her a miniature version of the Warhawks blue-and-gold baseball uniforms. She'd definitely wanted to cry then.
Dani continued to watch the girls, who stood in a circle at the edge of the playground talking and giggling. They sounded like birds flapping and squawking after being startled from the trees. She wasn't sure how to talk to them or if she should even try.
Dad always said to "just do" thingshit the ball, ride that bike, make those friends. So she walked over and said, "Hi."
They'd been discussing some picnic, she caught that much, but at the sound of Dani's voice, everyone went silent.
One girl, the one Dani figured for the leader, since she had the nicest clothes, the blondest hair and the loudest voice, lifted her eyebrows. "Does your mom want to do it?"
Instead of saying I don't have a mom, which, after only being in town a few days, Dani already knew made her weird, she asked, "Do what?"
"Plan the Kiwanee Mother's Day Picnic. The mom who was supposed to do it got her leg broke on the ice."
Dani frowned, trying to figure out how ice could break a leg.
"They need someone to volunteer, but all the other moms already have a job." The golden girl smiled. "Except yours."
"We have to have a Mother's Day picnic," the girl exclaimed, and all the others nodded like the wives Dani had seen in that Stepford movie Dad hadn't wanted her to watch. "It's the best time all year."
Dani was going to tell the truththat her mom had walked out when Dad had quit playing baseball and Dani hadn't seen her since. But when she opened her mouth, what came out instead was, "Sure, she'll do it."
THINGS WENT DOWNHILL from there. The golden girl, whose name was Ashley Wainright, let out a shriek and hugged her. Dani stood stiff and shocked as the rest of the girls patted her and cooed just like the birds she'd been comparing them to.
Stepford birds, her mind whispered, which was kind of creepy.
Then they all trooped back to school, and Ashley, the big mouth, told Mrs. Henning, who frowned at Daniafter all, Dani's dad had brought her to school and if he'd mentioned a mom at all it would have been to say that Dani didn't have one.
"But Dani, I thought"
"She isn't here yet," Dani blurted. "She had to sell the other house."
"Oh." Mrs. Henning scrunched up her lips, then glanced back and forth between Dani and Ashley. "I see."
Dani kind of thought Mrs. Henning did see, but at least she didn't say anything more. The same could not be said of Ashley. She told everybody.
By the end of the day, twenty people had thanked Dani for her mother's help. She'd been invited to a birthday party, a roller-skating party and a sleepover.
As Dani headed to her sitter's house, only six blocks away, Ashley skipped past and called out, "I'll have my mom call your mom."
Dani waved, smiled and muttered, "Good luck with that."
She began to feel sicker and sicker. Ashley's mom would call, and Dani's dad would spill the beans, then Ashley would hate her and so would everyone else, and Dani'd never have a single friend in this town.
Why hadn't she just told the truth? Better to be the weird kid without a mom than the liar who'd invented one. Unless
Dani stopped walking and several kids behind her scooted around. No one told her to "move it," and no one gave her a shove. First day and she was already okay, and all it had taken was volunteering her "mom" to plan a silly picnic. Maybe Dani could plan the picnic and pretend her mom was doing it.
Nah. She'd never pull that off. Somewhere along the way, someone would want to meet Mrs. Delgado, and then what would Dani do, rent a mommy?
The thought made her forget she was supposed to go to the sitter's. She gasped; she giggled; then she ran all the way home and pulled out the local paper, turning to the center and reading out loud the ad she'd seen that morning.
"Grand opening," she read. "Need help? Don't have enough hands? Time to rent a mommy."
Dani picked up the phone.