#2 on GoodReads Middle Grade Novels of 2016
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I get ready for school and ignore Auntie’s request that I change my hair. I grab the black jeans I wore yesterday and pick up the black sweater that’s lying next to them, but a quick smell check informs me that I need to wash it before I wear it again.
As soon as I hit the sidewalk, I slow my pace. Goosebumps race up my arms and my feet stop moving. I scan the street for anything out of the ordinary but everything seems to be as it should. I shake off my willies and head off to school.
The feeling won’t leave. Something isn’t right. Then I hear it. I never hear the laughter or singing during the day, but today I hear both. In fact, the singing is louder and clearer than it’s ever been. It’s in a language I’ve never heard, so that’s probably why I couldn’t understand it before. Last night I saw creatures at the foot of my bed, and today the singing. Did Auntie see them too, or am I going crazy?
“Shhhh. Shhhh. That’s her,” whispers through the air, but there’s no one around.
Mrs. Belmonte is taking her garbage to the curb. She’s the only one on the street and I can see she’s not talking.
“That’s the Agatha.”
I stop and thoroughly scan the area. Someone must be playing a prank, but I don’t understand how they could do it without an elaborate setup. Plus, I’m not important enough for anyone to go to that much trouble.
The sound seems to be coming from the maple I’m standing next to, almost as if one tree is talking to another, but there are too many voices. They’re exceedingly high-pitched and talking in unison. Can bugs talk? Can I hear bugs? No, bugs don’t talk, so obviously that’s not what I’m hearing.
My gaze darts down the street. I don’t want anyone to see me listening to the tree. I used to believe that the singing was something everyone heard. People always talk about a song they can’t get out of their head, or maybe an argument they had with themselves, but when I told Auntie about my songs, she told me that only I can hear them. She said I must never tell anyone or they’ll take me away. I never asked where they would take me or who they were, but I’ve never told anyone anything ever again, not even Auntie.
The voices used to be just songs, but now they’re talking to me, or more accurately, about me. Delusional, that’s what this is called. I’m imagining things in my room and hearing voices.
I can’t get enough air into my lungs. My fingers are tingling and my arm is going numb. I need to get away from the bugs, or whatever they are. I don’t want to run and draw attention to myself, so I walk as fast as I can while trying to look relaxed.
“Which one?” the voices continue.
“That’s the Agatha.”
“Goes to school down the street.”
“Why did she do that to her hair?”
The bugs in each tree speak as one voice and discuss me with their neighbors in the next tree. I don’t care who sees me, I’m running.
The wind in my ears and the blood thumping through my veins make it impossible to hear the voices, so I sprint faster. I cross the street against the light and weave around the honking cars. Even though I don’t go far, my lungs almost implode from the effort. My right thigh is cramping so intensely I’m afraid I might fall.
As I reach the school, I have to slow down because the other students are clogging the sidewalk. I shove anyone who is in my path out of the way. Some of the kids complain and a few push back, but I keep running.
Once I’m safely inside, the noise of the other students drowns out everything else. I bend over and rub my thigh as I try to fill my burning lungs. I’ll never run again for as long as I live. When my air returns and I can keep my breakfast down, I stand. There, on the locker right beside my face, is a fly. Without thinking, I smash it with my bare hand. There’s no way I’m letting them follow me in here.
“Gross,” a girl across the hall says to another.
The burning in my face replaces the fire in my lungs. I can’t believe I just did that, and in front of Trishel Gomez, of all people. My hand is covered in fly guts and Trishel is witnessing the whole disgusting episode.
“So Aggi,” she says, leaning against the lockers. I wipe the fly guts on my jeans and see her flash of revulsion. This day couldn’t get any worse.
“What made you decide to dye your hair?” Trishel asks so sweetly it’s easy to tell she’s faking.
“I’m thinking of dying mine, too. Where’d you get yours done?”
I don’t answer. I just put my head down and walk away, hoping she doesn’t follow. She’s making fun of me the way mean girls do. I don’t know how to fight back when they pretend to be nice but really aren’t. Her friends laugh at me as I walk down the hall, and I’m relieved they let me go.
First period is science. I share a lab desk with Joe Thompson, one of the most popular boys in school. I’m not up to facing him, so of course, he’s waiting for me when I arrive. I keep my head down and hope Joe loses interest in whatever he has planned for me today, but no such luck.
When I reach the desk, I notice he’s left a white carnation on my side of the table. I ignore it as I sit down and chide myself for getting to class so early. Joe is unfazed by my lack of reaction as he waits for more of his followers to arrive.
When the class is full, except for Ms. Quraishi of course, Joe picks up the flower and drops to one knee. “Agatha Stone, you are the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. I must have you. Will you marry me?” The last part is hard to understand through his laughter.
My blood stops circulating and I freeze solid, praying he’ll tire of this game, and willing the teacher to hurry up.
“You just got rejected by Agatha Stone!” a girl in the back of the room shouts. The entire class erupts into laughter.
I don’t understand why this is funny, especially since he does stuff like this all the time. He asks me to every dance, recites obscene poetry, and tries to hold my hand on a regular basis. It wasn’t funny to begin with, but the repetitiveness of his torture should be boring his audience by now. It’s been going on for years, though, so I guess I’m wrong.
I make it through the rest of my morning classes without incident and, as is my ritual, I hide in the library during lunch. I get some chips and a soda out of the vending machine and peruse the aisles.
My nightmare rattled my nerves. Only now I can’t remember what I was dreaming about, just the events that happened after I woke up. I try to find a book in the psychology section that can explain what’s going on with me.
I’ve always been different. I don’t know how to talk to people, and I don’t know why people do the things they do. I also don’t like the stuff others seem to like, and they certainly don’t like what I like. Different had been hard, but this new delusional twist is terrifying.
I open a book at random and then slam it back into place. I’m not insane. I’m in the wrong section. Where I should be is in mythology. That thing last night looked a lot like the Grim Reaper. Maybe I read something that stuck in my head and came out in the nightmare.
Death is dark and cloaked like that. Every cartoon wanting to depict something scary has the red eyes in the dark. The devil sometimes appears like that, too. But what I saw wasn’t scary. Maybe that’s the trick: like a Venus flytrap, it makes you comfortable, then eats you.
Frustrated, I leave the library to get an early start to my next class. I don’t pay any attention to my teacher and try, without success, not to think about the weird events of the last few hours.
“Ohhh! Ohhhh! Ohhhh! I know this one! I know it!” say the high-pitched bug voices.
I snap my head around and scan the room. No one is talking, and no one hears the bugs. The teacher continues his lecture as I search for the source of the voice or voices—many voices saying the same thing.
”Agatha,” the teacher says.
Mr. Hallman has asked something, but I have no idea what the question was. Why do teachers get such a thrill from picking on the weak? Mr. Hallman knows I don’t know the answer but called on me anyway just to humiliate me.
“Cape of Good Hope! I know! I know! Ohhhh! Ohhhh! Cape of Good Hope!” the bugs chant.
I don’t know the question Mr. Hallman asked, and I’ve never heard of the Cape of Good Hope, but the bugs seem to know. “Cape of Good Hope?” I mumble.
“Very good,” Mr. Hallman affirms, sounding surprised.
I’m surprised, too! How do I know that? Maybe I heard the question and somehow knew the answer, but I don’t know what the Cape of Good Hope is.
The bugs are singing again. This time it’s in English and about famous explorers. I’m definitely not writing these songs. It’s one thing to make up a language, but I don’t know these explorers. It’s coming from a large Yucca tree in the corner that’s swaying in the breeze from the open window. However, there’s no breeze on this side of the building. The tree is dancing. It’s singing a song and dancing to its music.
I’m as nutty as Auntie. The thought makes me jump out of my chair and gaze helplessly at the startled faces staring back at me. I need to get out of here. I grab my book bag and walk out the door. Mr. Hallman says something about my leaving and the Yucca bugs say goodbye, but I ignore them.
I run as fast as I can toward home, but even though it’s just a block and a half, I’m not going to make it this time. I’m almost there when my lungs won’t take any more. This is the most exercise I’ve ever had in my life and it might kill me. I’m nauseous, but once some air gets into my lungs and I walk off the leg pain, I notice that the bugs have stopped talking. Relieved, I walk the rest of the way home.
Just as I reach my stoop, the bugs mock me. “You’re in trouble. You’re in trouble,” the high-pitched voices chant in unison.
I try to jump up the first three steps at once, but miss and crash painfully into the concrete.
“You don’t want to go in there,” the bugs tease, shaking the trees branches.
I ignore them and limp inside. Is it rude to not speak to one’s delusion? Walking up the stairs clears my head and I relax for the first time today. Auntie won’t be mad that I’m skipping school because she doesn’t care if I go or not.
When I walk into the apartment, the air leaves my lungs with an audible whoosh. My body refuses to draw in another breath as my eyes travel around the empty room. Before I can form an explanation, I leap backward out the door. I bend over to make the oxygen rush to my brain faster. I can’t believe I was so distracted I accidentally walked into the wrong apartment. I turn in a slow circle and press my hand to the bridge of my nose. I’m in the right place, but I check the number to be sure.
I cautiously step back in. Everything is gone, including the carpets. Moldy stains cover the floor and walls, and the entire place has been swept clean and wiped down. The smell of garbage-cats has been replaced with the scent of rotting lemon-pine trees. Funny how our apartment looks smaller with the stuff out of it. My vision spins but straightens out before I can faint. How is this possible?
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