Sylvia's french fry pauses at Mel's comment, but only for a split second. Her smirk doesn't budge. "I could have fixed them for you at Nellie's sleepover Saturday. Why didn't you come?"
An open-ended question—Sylvia's specialty. She sits back and takes a bite of her fry, waiting, watching me. Everyone watches me. Everyone except Mel, who's examining her food.
I push my tongue against my teeth. One word, any word, and I can start over. I can wipe the slate clean, and they'll forget I haven't spoken at this table in the past ten minutes.
Or the past week.
Or the past seven months.
Sweat collects under my arms. I can feel it happening—my throat closing up. The bubble forming. The cop-out coming. Here it comes: My shoulders move up and down in a quick motion. A shrug.
Sylvia cocks her head. "You're awfully quiet today."
Today. As if it's different from any other day.
"Give her a break." Mel picks up her soda and stirs the straw. The ice crashes together.
Sylvia's smirk flickers. She shoots Mel a look. "Why? Didn't her parents teach her how to talk?"
Mel concentrates on her food. I try to catch her eye, but I'm losing her. The longer I go without saying something, the more tired she grows of defending me. One of these days, she might stop altogether.
Hours pass, or maybe seconds, before someone changes the subject to something about the sleepover last Saturday. They always lose interest in the elephant eventually. I can count on that.
I return to the page where I left off.
But my eyes slide upward. Faces look at me funny—funnier than usual. No one else in the cafeteria is reading. The point of the book was to draw attention away from me, to show that I'm busy, unavailable, otherwise engaged. But it's backfiring. I close the book, pick up my bag, and leave the cafeteria. Mel doesn't call after me.
I go back to Miss Looping's room, still empty except for Beady. I'll have to put up with him staring. At least he won't talk to me. And if Miss Looping comes back early, she won't try to make small talk like the other teachers. She'll let me be.
I sit in the back row near the open window and return to my book. Something moves in the corner of my eye. I look over to Miss Looping's desk, where Beady is watching me. A fly buzzes past. I swat at it and try to keep reading, but the print blurs worse than before. Instead of poetry, I see Sylvia's smirk all over the page.
You're awfully quiet today. You're awfully quiet today.
My teeth grind. I slam the book shut and punch it with the side of my fist. At the same time, a black shape leaps in my periphery and another noise shakes the room—a shattering of ceramic. I jerk my head up to find Beady on the floor near Miss Looping's desk, rocking on his side. Miss Looping's "What the Dickens!" coffee mug lies in pieces next to him.
I grab my book and bolt out the door, my heart thudding.
Relax, I tell myself as I stumble down the hall. He's a stuffed bird. Top-heavy, that's all. Top-heavy things tip over sometimes.