“Questions lingered in my mind, like Where is she? Is she hurt? Is she DEAD?! If she’s alive, is she thinking about me and Dad??? How did she disappear?
I don’t know the answers, but I assume the worst. Mom’s probably dead, lost somewhere.
All I know is, I just really want her to come home.”
“Gwen. It’ll be ok.”
“No. No is no. Now—”
The lady gets cut off. She’s the secretary.
“FINE! I don’t care anyway,”
I storm off.
Dad calls after me.
I leave to my room.
Let me explain. I was just calling the military phone and my dad and I just got word that my mom, now the MIA soldier, had gone MIA and—sorry. I can’t stop crying.
My dad told me, when I was around 6, when mom left, he told me that he loves me but if mom goes MIA, I have to go live with Great Aunt Mia, which is ironic. I have never seen her, and I don’t wanna. I just DON’T. I mean, I get that dad can’t manage, but why can’t I go to a freaking foster home?! That has to be better than a relative, that, in dad’s words, is a ‘Gloomy Crabface.’ I know I haven’t met her, but I hate her for an odd reason. Mostly because she is taking me away tomorrow. I don’t get how she’s related to dad, but… I don’t know. It’s just that I’m so sad not only for myself, but for my mom. Questions lingered in my mind, like Where is she? Is she hurt? Is she DEAD?! If she’s alive, is she thinking about me and Dad??? How did she disappear?
I don’t know the answers, but I assume the worst. Mom’s probably dead, lost somewhere.
All I know is, I just really want her to come home.
A gray Cadilliac pulls up. A woman with about 3 MILLION wrinkles comes out. Jeez, I think, She is OLD! Her bleach-blonde hair is like a shining star compared to her clothing and face. Her eyes are literally gray. Not light blue, gray. She is wearing a white collared shirt and gray leggings. Why though?! It’s summer! This lady already sucks.
Dad doesn’t cry. He holds it in, but I feel tears in my eyes like they’re burning. Dad pulls me in and hugs me for what seems like forever. When he lets go, I grab my 2 duffel bags, one for clothes, and the other for my things. I walk quickly down the steps thinking that if I get out fast enough, the sadness and pain will stop. From the car window I wave, just long enough for Mia to drive off.
“So,” She begins. Her voice is like gravel, and it’s eerie how judgmental she seems.
“What? Just drive. I don’t wanna talk,” I say, frustrated.
“Well, it’s not what you want. It’s what you have to do,” she says, tensing.
“I don’t have to talk!” I say, my own words cutting me.
I see her eyebrows furrow, thinking. She has tiny pencil eyebrows. “Well, Gwen, you have to live with me,” she says thoughtfully.
“I don’t need you to take care of me. I don’t even need mom!”
“Ah, Kristina. She’s a good woman, strong-hearted. What a shame that she got lost.”
I go silent. The mention of her makes me full of love and sadness.
“I’m sorry if that offended you,” she says, faking it. I can tell.
“I’m fine, okay?! Just leave me alone,” I say gloomily.
So do I.
We pull up to a, wait for it, green house in a block of yellow ones. It’s like mold. It’s huge, over ten rooms, I think. Whatever. It’s just stuff, not people. I trudge inside. There is a pretty girl with a perfect bun sitting down, watching TV. She looks my age, 12. She stands up when I come through the door.
“Hi, I’m Juniper,” she says cheerfully.
“I’m—” I start.
“Gwendoline Ruby Jones. I know,” she says creepily.
“Grammy told me what happened. I’m sorry,” she says, for the first time, not cheerfully.
“Where are your mom and dad?” Mia interjects. I still hate Mia.
“Work,” Juniper responds.
“Well, um, nice to meet you, Juniper?” I say awkwardly. It feels strange to talk since she’s done all the talking.
She lets out a giggle.
“Nice to meet you, too! BTdubbs, call me Juni.”
“Cool,” I say, and for the first time, a bit happy.
“Glad to cheer you up! I can tell you’re a bit happy,”
“Mom taught me how.”
I stand there, baffled.
She giggles again.
“Well, I better lead you to our room!”
“Our?” I ask.
“No, Gwen, me and the lion’s. Of course ours!” she laughs.
“Um, ok,” I say, smiling a bit.
She leads me up two spiral staircases.
She goes into the room.
It has yellow wallpaper with black polka dots, like a bee. One bed is dark purple and has see-through drapes. Then there is a blue bed, next to the purple one with identical features.
There is a closet with all the clothes moved to the side and room for way more. Her closet is the size of my old room that I shared with dad, which isn’t big. There are two bins of toys, both full. If the room wasn’t crazy enough, it has its own bathroom and shower. I stand there in awe. This one room is the size of my condo. I stand there, mouth wide open. Juni collapses into giggles and I realize what I’m doing and I giggle too. As much as I like this, I miss home. There is no place like home, where we could get messy and laugh. Mom used to help me and dad bake. We always screwed up, no matter what. My mom has/had a free spirit and didn’t care about messes. Her long brown curls always fell in the bowl. And sometimes, her brown eyes would get so wide with laughter. I was only with her for 6 years, half my life. God, I miss her.
I stop laughing and so does Juni. My laughter turns into tears while I fall on the bed. Everything is blurry. I hear footsteps of Juni walking over as I curl up in a ball and just fall apart. Juni keeps whispering stuff, but I can’t hear over my own thoughts. Eventually, I stop. Everything stops. I sit up straight like nothing happened.
“I’m hungry,” I say.
Juni looks at me like I’m crazy.
“Um, ok?” she says.
We walk down to the kitchen.
One thing I notice about Juni is that she is super happy, unlike me.
It’s really annoying.
About 3 weeks later, the day before school appears. Juni is currently telling me who to avoid and who to like:
“Ok, so not Josh, most DEFINITELY not Trista, hang with Ella, she’s awesome. Avoid Fatima. She is so fricking annoying!” She talks on and on.
This seems like I have about 5 people I can be friends with. She drones on and on forever while I stare at our backpacks. Juni’s is white with little flowers on it. Mine? Juni wanted to pick mine, but I said no. I took a black one with a galaxy on it. I’m really geeky, if I didn’t tell you, and I loved it. It showed me how a person can go on in the galaxy. Juni wanted me to pick a black one with white polka dots, but… I just didn’t like it. So while hers is super happy and fun, mine, to her, was nerdy. When she said that, I said thanks. She made a face at that.
We are sitting at the counter while Mia makes breakfast. She insists on waffles. I don’t feel like food today. Clatter! Juni’s plate drops down, almost broken. She doesn’t care and eats it all. I push mine away.
“Gwen, you need to eat,” Mia says, tensely.
“No. Ok?” I snap.
She goes quiet and picks up my plate. I walk upstairs to get ready. Juni eats quickly and follows. We walk in our room. I go to the bathroom while Juni stares at her closet. Yeesh. Fancy much, Juni? I brush my hair and pick it up in a ponytail while Juni is STILL at our closet.
Now it’s getting out of hand. Staring at clothes? Who does that? I just grab my overalls and a shirt. I tie my jacket around my waist. It’s black and red plaid. When I walk out, Juni raises an eyebrow and asks, “Are you sure you want to wear that?”
“Yeah. I don’t care how I look,” I respond flatly.
“Um, ok.” She giggles. We only have 10 minutes ‘til eight, when we have to leave. Juni spends about 2 minutes in there and comes out with her super long hair in a perfect ponytail dressed in leggings and a black and white tee shirt with the word Believe.
God. She’s really pretty. There is no feature out of shape. Her tiny nose, perfect brown eyes…
Middle school is gonna suck. FIGHT ME IF YOU DISAGREE! COME AT ME BRO!
We walk into a school with pearly white outer walls and rows and rows of silver lockers. REALLY nice school. My old school was sucky compared to this. My old school was brick and had rows and rows of dusty lockers. At least I had friends back there.
“You coming?” Juni asks.
“Nah. Gotta get everything from the principal.” I respond.
Juni walks away to a group of girls. There is this one girl in the middle, talking, and everybody is staring at her like she’s a god. I mean, the girl in the middle has locks of gold hair and freckles dotting her skin. She is… shallow from what it looks like. The principal hands me a paper and walks away without a sound.
I find my locker, locker number 8. WOWWWW. Juni’s is locker 6 and Shallow Girl’s is 7. My favorite number. 7. Seven was also my mom’s favorite number, too.
I walk over to Juni during recess. She waves and introduces me. “Girls, this is my cousin Gwen. She just moved here,” she says.
I did not move here, I think. I give a half a second smile then go back to a stare.
“Cool! I’m Ivy,” says the girl with her dark hair down and her blue eyes gleaming. I like her.
“Hey, I’m Ana.” This girl has red hair and baby blue eyes, like Ivy’s, just lighter.
“Um, hi. I’m Ella,” Shallow Girl says. This one has golden locks and freckles dotting her nose and face. She has her hair up, like Ariana Grande up, but it still reaches down her back. They start talking.
“Omygosh, did you see what Fatima was wearing?! It’s like, a white shirt and overalls. So cringe!” Ella says. Ana agrees while Ivy stares off and gives a slight nod.
“I know, right?!” Ana says with a smile. My eyebrows crease and my eyes are wild.
“Dude, that isn’t ok. People can wear what they want! So don’t judge or you will be judged, by everybody you looked down to,” I spit out. Ana stares with a mouth open while Ella gives me a disgusted look. But the worst is Juni. She furiously stares at me and then looks at me like I’m a different person. The expression I like the most is Ivy’s half smile.
“Well, then go run off with your BFF, Fatima. Go along, Gwenny!” Ella says mockingly.
“OMG! The weirdos are BFFS!” Ana laughs.
Juni looks at me and takes a breath.
“Yeah. They’re perfect.” Juni says, laughing with the others.
“What about you, Ivy? Cat’s got your tongue?” Ella giggles. Ivy opens her mouth and mumbles something like I gotta go to the bathroom. The other girls laugh. Jerks, all of them. I think.
“You should be ashamed, all of you, for treating other people like they don’t have feelings,” I say angrily and I rush to the bathroom. I think about how horrible they are, how mean they are. Even Juni.
I hear Juni say, “I can’t believe that we are related.”
I run faster when a teacher chases me. I run in and a stall is closed, and muffled cries come out.
“Ivy, open up. It’s me, Gwen,” I say. The door opens with a creak. I look at her. There is red around her eyes and she says, “Gwen, how do I get them to stop?”
“Say stop. And firmly. Like you mean business. Or even try to make your voice say, Do it or I will actually hurt you.
She giggles. I help her up and we walk out together. When we are near the door, she stops and goes out the other door. “Sorry. Too complicated,” she says. I get it. She walks back to the group while I stay by the cold stone steps. I sit. It’s the most serene I’ve been in ages. I stand up and walk over to a tree. I touch a leaf and it reminds me of Mom. She loved leaves and always went outside. The smoothness of the leaf feels like the touch of Mom’s fingers against mine.
A few weeks later, I’m on my bed and see my stuffed penguin.
“I can’t believe you’re leaving, Mommy!” I yelled.
“It’s for the best, honey. Why don’t we go to the store and get you a present to remember me by?” she asked sadly.
“Ok, Mommy, but I’ll always remember you!” I grumbled. I didn’t want some stupid present. I wanted Mom. We loaded into her black car. Dad was doing something at home in the attic. I didn’t know what it was. We went to Bullseye Shop. Mom held my hand while we walked. I was only six, just remember that. Mom led me to the toy aisle and she let go of my hand. I grabbed back on for dear life and she sighed and picked me up. I liked playing with her curls. I looked around while she held me and all I saw were princess dolls or army figures or even glittery toys. (EW! Who’d want THAT? Not comfy at ALL!) The army figures upset me. Mom pointed to a teddy bear with a pink lace bow.
“What about that one, sweetie?” she asked.
“It’s gross, Mommy!” I said, complaining.
Then she saw the army figures.
She rushed me past those and found what was soon to be my most prized possession.
I know this may sound weird, but I will tell you this to explain: I LOVE penguins. I don’t know why. I just like that they are cool birds. Even though they can’t fly, they fly in some way.
It was a giant stuffed penguin with soft blue eyes and a pastel yellow beak. It wasn’t rainbow, or glittery, just… .a penguin, I guess. I smiled and Mom picked it up.
“Oh, this is so cute! Why didn’t I see that, smart girl?” I laughed while she gave it to me. I held onto two things: My mother and my penguin. I didn’t want to let go of the penguin or my mom, so the cashier had to scan it in my arms.
Once we got home, Dad came out with two presents. The big one was for me and the small one was for Mom. I unwrapped mine quickly and saw one of those kiddie computers. In Mom’s was a sculpture of our family. We all hugged tightly and we all cried a bit. We spent the rest of our day sad-happy. Then it turned out to be the worst day of my life.
Later, Mom got called to leave. When we heard that, we all got sad and we all cried really, REALLY hard. Mom gave me and dad a kiss and when she hugged me, she whispered, “I’ll never leave you guys.”
I didn’t understand then, but I do now. When she left, I crawled to Dad and reached over for my penguin.
Back in my room, I’m close to tears. I decide to reach over to my phone, the old little iPhone 6 while Juni has iPhone 11 Pro. Jeez. Great Aunt Mia probably shops at Yucci. RICH. I pull up my texts and find 321. I turned off my alerts on all texts so I missed a lot. All Dad’s texts were like I’m sorry, I just can’t take care of you, I love you, Missing you, Give me a call. I decided to take up the offer on that last one.
I dial: 555-907-8070. His number. I hold my breath for a second when Dad’s voice comes on.
“Gwen? Oh my gosh, I have big news! Wait, is this even you?” He sounds like he’s aged in like 4 weeks.
“Yeah, Dad. What’s the news?”
“Well, I know I’m a bit upset but mostly happy. You know that day I gave your mother the sculpture of us?”
I get excited. “Yeah?!”
“Well, they found it shattered on a trail which sounds bad, but if you think about it, Mom could be alive!!” He excitedly says.
“Oh. OH!! Dad! This is great!! Also, can you visit me soon? I miss you. I’m holding The Penguin right now. I got sad,” I say.
He goes silent.
“Honey, I don’t think I’m ready. Only calls for now, right? Is that ok?” he asks.
“Oh- o-of course Dad, take your time.” I fake happiness in my voice.
“Glad you understand. Gotta run, love you!” he says. He hangs up when I hear footsteps. I shove The Penguin in my bag under my bed. Then I hear giggles.
I think I only hear one when I hear 3.
Oh Lord double.
I see Juni, Ana, and Ella, and in the back is Ivy. She shoots me a half smile.
“OK, Gwen. Juni, very dorkily, convinced me that you’re ok. You aren’t weird,” Ella says, not even saying hi, no trace of sarcasm. Ana giggles and nods. Juni goes red while Ivy looks down.
“Well, what if I wanna be weird? Who said being weird was bad, Ella? Aren’t we all weird in our own way, Miss I-like-making-people-feel-bad?” I say, frustrated.
“Well, I said that being weird is bad,” said Ella, bratty, know it all. Ana giggles and agrees. Ugh.
“Get out. This is Juni’s room, and we’re using it,” Ana says matter of factly.
“Sorry, the room says that it doesn’t want two, not Juni and Ivy, mean girls infecting its area. The room says nope, ” I say with a grin.
Ivy gives me a tiny smile and Juni’s mouth twists in a weird way. Ella and Ana both give me a mad glare, the stare burning in my scalp. “Let’s go, girls,” Ella says.
Ali and Juni follow while Ivy calls, “Be right there! I dropped my ponytail holder that was on my arm!” A lie. It makes me feel good that somebody would lie just to talk to me, in a strange way.
“If you don’t want to be friends with them, you should tell them,” I say as Ivy is done calling. She is still facing the door. She stands quietly and then turns around to talk.
“Gwen, what if I want to be friends with them?” she asks. Now, that makes me quiet. She spent all this time complaining to me about how horrible they are. Now she wants to be friends with them? “They are nice when you are friends with them. Sure, they talk about other people and make jokes, but they don’t try to be rude,” Ivy says.
I sense something is off about the words rolling out of her mouth and into my face. “Who told you that?” I ask, like stone.
“Ana,” she says quietly.
“Well then you sho—” I start. We hear Ella call for Ivy. Ivy speed walks away to them. I am left, sitting in my room. I feel stupid.
Of course! I figured it out. Ella and Ana are an unstoppable team of bullies. And it’s not just Ivy they bully. And they means Juni, Ella, and Ana. Girls like Fatima, and Trista, and many others. They don’t say it to their faces, but everybody knows they talk about people. Everybody just knows. Ivy stands quietly, but they are labeled popular, even though everybody doesn’t really like them. So if nobody actually likes them but still wants to be friends with them, what’s the point?
The next day, Juni says matter-of-factly that she’s going to walk to school with Ella and Ana. She doesn’t mention Ivy, which I find weird.
“What about Ivy?” I ask.
Juni tilts her head. “Ok, can you keep a secret and like, not tell Ivy? TBH, we’re thinking of cutting her from the group. She seems to like you better than us, anyway. Ella and Ana are sad. Ivy was cool before you came. She fit in.”
And with that, Juni walks out the door to find Ana and Ella waiting.
I never really thought of it like that, me stealing Ivy. I guess I did. Maybe I should leave them alone. I grab my backpack, heavy with homework, and head out. Instead of seeing Ana, Ella, and Juni walking, I find Ivy laughing nervously when Ella says that we are best friends.
“What is that supposed to mean, Ivy?” I ask coldly.
“Gwen! I didn’t mean it. I try so hard to fit in and I—” Ivy pleads.
“That’s enough. I’m done,” I say, and I speed off toward school. My head hurts and I want to cry but I don’t allow myself. They would get satisfaction from my tears. I reach up to the school steps and run up. I speed through the hallway and push down three people. I don’t really care. I mean, my mom is gone, my cousin is horrible, my only friend left, and now my dad doesn’t even want to see me. How much can one twelve-year-old girl take? I know people have much more horrid lives, but right now it’s the worst. Something in me tells me that I have to do something big. Something so people will know my sadness and pain. I know it’s bad, but everybody has to know the feeling inside your gut that makes you want to puke or cry or run away. I decide to hatch a plan. One that will not fail. One that will make them understand. One that will stay with them forever and ever.
After I get out of school, I race “home” and don’t do my homework like Mia says and I don’t do my chores, because Mia has to give the kid with no mom chores. I run up the stairs when I hear Juni, Ivy, Ana, and Ella. I slam the door and whip out my notebook. Here’s what I write:
I don’t write my plan out because Juni might flip through my notebook. But it’s great. It’s dangerous. It’s perfect.
I pack my bag with food, water, and clothes because they might kick me out. I remember The Penguin and pack it too. I decide to strike at twelve a.m. Nobody will know I’m gone. I’m so determined that I’ve forgotten to be scared. This is probably the most important thing I will ever do. After I’m done, I go downstairs for water. Then I see Ivy’s shoulders shaking. She must feel bad, I think. But then I hear her.
“G-Gwen hit me and—and then she said I’m a stupid brat. I thought she was my friend…” she wails. I didn’t do that. I didn’t. I should just walk away. But I don’t even wonder why she’s lying, I just wonder what I should do. Because I’m this close to hitting her for real.
“I did not, Ivy. Now stop the act before I hit you for real, not in the magical fairyland in which I hit you,” I yell. Ivy stops and the other girls just stare back and forth between us. That is when I decide I’m doing this now. But first I hiss, “I will teach you, very, very soon.”
I take the seven cans of spray paint I bought and head to the school. I took seven because I know that with that number, I will be lucky. I stop at their lockers and I think that I should do them each with their own message. In bright pink, I write: I THOUGHT YOU WERE MY FRIEND on Ivy’s locker, and on Ella’s and Ana’s I write, STOP MAKING PEOPLE FEEL BAD.
And on Juni’s… I write I THOUGHT YOU WERE ON MY SIDE. That’s when the lights come on.
“POLICE! STOP AND PUT YOUR HANDS UP!
I sit in my cell. I’m sentenced to a month and 3 days here. In juvie. Thing is, they made me apologize, but I’m not sorry. The only thing I am sorry about is that I couldn’t see their faces. But Juni visited me. That was one of the worst. We talked a bit like this:
“I can’t believe you. How could you?” Juni says angrily.
“How could you? You were the one who called me weird. You were the one who took Ella’s side and you know she was wrong,” I say sternly.
“Well, Ella was just trying to help you fit in,” she says defensively.
“What about Ivy? Why did she lie, huh? You know I didn’t—”
I get cut off.
“I know you didn’t. I know now. But I can’t just abandon Ivy like that. She was jealous that you were stronger than her. Braver,” Juni whispers that last part. “Truth? So was Ana and Ella. And me. You just yelled what you thought, while none of us could do that. We have to fit in,” she says. Most she’s said in one sitting.
“Thanks, but I’m not forgiving anybody,” I say.
“Neither am I,” she says. And with that, she strides out.
What was really painful was when Dad visited.
I didn’t know what to expect. He might yell or scream. But he didn’t. He was so mad but, also, happy, like he was hiding something. I hate it when Dad hides stuff. He’s still here. Good thing is that I’m sent to live with Dad after all this. Then he walks over to me. The prison guard lets me out to see dad.
“Why?” he asks.
“They betrayed me. I couldn’t sit around and let them,” I say.
“Oh,” he says calmly. “I’m so sorry. I should have stayed with you. You got so angry. I feel like it’s reflecting off of me leaving,”
“It’s not your fault. I just—I guess all the anger of Mom leaving and my friends leaving just came out of me,” I say, almost in tears.
“Oh, and I have something else I need to tell you,” he says.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Gwen, your mom is coming home after this month, when you are out of here,” he says, his voice breaking.
I don’t say anything. I just cry. My heart fills up and I feel like a bomb ready to explode with happiness. I already know that the next month will take a long time.
This is the day I go home. Nothing is resolved with Juni and Co. I told Dad what happened. Then a car pulls up and Mom runs out with bruises and cuts and love. I hear some pain in Mom’s voice, like she had been so terribly hurt that she couldn’t talk.
“Hi, my little penguin,” she says in tears.
“Hi, Mom,” I say cracking up. Dad just stays quiet.
“Hi, Rob,” she says to Dad. Before, I talked to mom over the phone and told her what happened. She was sorta mad but not too much. By the way, I asked mom what had happened to her, but she won’t say. I guess it’s too painful.
Then me, Mom, and Dad sort of clump on the couch and stay there. Me and mom are hugging The Penguin, too.
For some reason, I think that I left Juni and Friends in a good way, a way where they probably are sorry right this minute. A way where they know what they did, and now they know why I was hurt. I don’t care that I didn’t make up with them, I just care that I’m home.
With the only people I need.