Presenting the winners of the 2008 Worthington Libraries Teen Poetry and Short Story Competition. Caroline Lieser, the first place (tie) winner for middle school short story, reads "A Follower No More."
On a gloomy Wednesday in March, I was sitting in a rocking chair in my attic, watching cars go by on the street below. It was one of those days where I just felt like doing nothing. In my lap slept my Siamese kitten, Peek-a-boo. She purred softly now and then, but for the most part, the room was completely silent. I was alone with my thoughts, the way I liked it.
Before I knew it, I had almost dozed off, but was awakened by the sound of brakes squealing as a moving van pulled up in front of the house next door. Behind it was a spotless, shiny Volkswagen Beetle. Two men hopped out of the moving van, but I quickly turned my attention to the car, eager to see my new neighbors. I crossed my fingers, hoping there would be a girl my age. Not super preppy or stuck up, maybe a slightly shy girl, who preferred to follow others, rather than come up with her own ideas, like me. Though I was starting to become popular at school, I still didn't have anyone who would hang out or do homework with me.
As the door to the car opened, a beautiful lady dressed in black, stylish clothes (that were probably ten years too young for her) and heels stepped out. I leaned forward to see a girl about my height climb out of the passenger side. She wore a tan and grey knit sweater, white corduroy shorts, and black Mary Janes with knee-high pink socks. She had black and yellow glasses pushed down to the tip of her nose, and she was reading a book. Her messy, light brown hair was adorned with hot pink highlights and was held back by green scrunchies in three uneven, lopsided ponytails. The lady seemed to be yelling at her. Even though I hated to eavesdrop, I opened the window to hear what she was saying.
"Get your nose out of that book, May! You'll never make any friends that way! And where are your contacts!"
"Mom, I—," May started.
"I don't want to hear excuses, young lady. Go inside and put in your contacts. And what's up with that outfit? You look a mess. As soon as we unpack, I'm taking you shopping. I will not have my daughter looking like she got dressed with her eyes closed. Now, go!"
"Mom," the girl groaned. Her mother gave her a look and the girl began to stomp inside.
"Book," called her mother. May slowly turned around, crossed her arms, and walked back. She put the book in her mother's open hand. She gave it a longing look before running into the house and slamming the door. Her mother sighed and shook her head, and then began to yell at the movers.
"Jenna," my mother called from downstairs.
"Coming!" I called back. I closed the window and ran downstairs, Peek-a-boo right behind me.
My mom was frantically rushing around the kitchen holding my three-year-old sister, Tori. I could tell by the look on my mom's face that she was getting angry because she couldn't find her keys. I saw them on the counter and handed them to her.
"Thanks, sweetie," she said and kissed me on the top of my head. "The new neighbors are here, and I have to go to my book club. Could you make some brownies and while they're cooling run down to the store and buy some flowers?"
Then, she turned to Tori. "I need you to watch TV and not bother your sister, okay?"
"That's my girl!" She set Tori on the floor and gave her a hug before rushing out the door. Tori ran into the living room and I got to work on the brownies.
When my mother got home from her book club, she changed into more casual clothes. Then, she started fussing about. She'd been fussing a lot since the divorce.
"Do you think we should go now? They might be eating dinner. Maybe I should call. But some people don't answer their phone while they're eating. What do you think, Jenna?"
I put my hand on her shoulder. "Mom. It's fine. I'm sure they'll be happy to see us."
At these words she seemed to become relaxed. "You're right." She sighed and put a smile on her face. "Let's go!" She grabbed Tori's hand and the flowers. I grabbed the brownies and followed them out the door.
When the door opened, a surprised look came over May's mother's face. "Hi!" she said, sounding a bit confused, but smiling all the same. She seemed to have cheered up from earlier. I noted her perfect, white teeth.
"We're the Mulligan's. We live next door," my mom explained, handing her the flowers and the brownies.
"Oh well, I'm Tina Stevens. Come in, come in!" she said ushering us inside. She led us into a room filled with boxes and a couch. "I have a daughter about your age," she told us, looking at me. "Let me get her. May! May!" She called as she walked up the stairs.
My mom smiled at me. The girl walked down the stairs. She didn't look much different with her contacts in.
"May, these are our new neighbors, the Mulligans." She turned to my mother. "I'm sorry, what was your name again?"
"I'm Linda," she replied. "And these are my daughters, Tori and Jenna." She pointed to each of us in turn.
"Well, take a seat." All five of us managed to squeeze onto the couch. The adults talked, but the kids sat silently. Tori was growing restless between my mother and me, and she began to squirm. On my other side, May picked up a book and began to read, sucking on her pinky finger.
After what seemed like an interminable amount of time spent twiddling my thumbs and staring into space, thinking about what else I could be doing, my mom announced that it was time for us to go home.
In our kitchen, my mom began talking about our new neighbors.
"Tina, I mean Ms. Stevens...Now girls, don't call her Tina, it's impolite. Anyway, she's quite the chatterbox...Now don't tell her I said that, but I doubt I said ten words during our entire conversation, she laughed. "But her daughter seems to be the exact opposite. Jenna, why didn't you try to talk to her?"
"'Cause she was reading, and I didn't want to interrupt her. That would be impolite."
My mother sighed. "Go do your homework."
I groaned and stomped over to the stairs, trying to emphasize how much I did not want to do that.
The next day at school, some of the popular girls and I were talking about the big cheerleading competition that was taking place in Hawaii in about a month. We were all on the cheerleading team at school and were really excited about being in the qualifying round in two weeks.
All of a sudden, Betsy, another cheerleader ran up to us. "You guys! There's a new girl in school and she's a total loser! Wait 'til you see her! She's coming this way!"
We all turned to where Linda was pointing, to see May turning the corner, her nose in a book. Everyone started cracking up, except me. I crossed my fingers and hoped she wouldn't try to talk to me.
May began to wander over, her pinky in her mouth. As she drew nearer, we all got quiet. She looked up and, seeing me, began to walk faster.
"Hey, Jenna," she greeted me when she reached us, showing her brown and green braces. "Do you know where Room 313 is?"
I could feel my face growing red, but May still stared at me, expecting an answer. "It's uh...it's down the hall on the right. Near the drinking fountain."
"Now leave!" ordered Jessie, one of the captains of the cheerleading team. May shrugged and walked away. Then Jessie turned to me. "Do you know her, Jenna?"
"Uhh..well...what are you guys wearing to the big game tonight?" I asked, counting on clueless Chelsea, the other captain of the team, to unknowingly help me change the subject.
"Well," she started, "I'm wearing this really cute pink top with these—"
But Jessie cut her off. "She's trying to change the subject. Why change the subject, Jenna? Do you know the new girl or not?"
"Well, she's kinda my new neighbor." I stared at Jessie terrified of what she was going to do next.
"Kinda?" she asked, even though she already knew what I meant, I'm sure it gave her pleasure to torture me like that.
"Okay," I blurted out. "She is my new neighbor, but I've never even talked to her until now." I gave Jessie a look, begging her to get angry.
"I see. I have to say, I pity you."
"What?" I was stunned that Jessie had actually shown sympathy to anyone beside herself.
"I said, 'I pity you.' It must be horrible to have her as a neighbor. But that's why we need you to be an inside agent. Find out what you can about her, befriend her even, so we can make a plan that will cause her mortal humiliation at this school. Clear?"
I was confused. Why did we need to mortally humiliate her? I mean, wasn't the way she dressed and acted humiliating enough? But I nodded anyway, not wanting to get on Jessie's bad side.
"Good. Tomorrow at practice tell me everything you've learned. And you better have learned something." Then, her frown changed to a smile. "Bye!" she smirked, and she and the other cheerleaders turned and walked off.
I sighed. I really didn't want to do this.
It turned out that May was in my homeroom. After the teacher took attendance, I turned around and said, "Hey, sorry about that earlier. So, do you wanna hang out after school today?"
I felt so guilty when I saw how much her eyes lit up when she replied, "Sure!"
As I was leaving school, I saw May waiting for me. I had completely forgotten that I had asked her to hang out with me. We walked to my house in silence.
"So," I said, trying to start a conversation. "You wanna come to my house and do our homework?"
"Okay," May replied nervously.
My mom wasn't home from work yet, and Tori was at her day care center, so we had the house to ourselves. We sat down on the living room floor and unloaded our backpacks.
"Let's start with reading," I suggested. "It should be the easiest."
"Sure," replied May, but, in fact, she sounded very unsure.
I'm not the fastest reader in the world, but by the time I'd finished reading the chapter we had for homework, May was only on the second or third page. She seemed to be staring at one spot.
"You okay?" I asked.
"Yeah, it's just...what's this word?" she pointed to the spot on the page she'd been staring at.
"Um, college," I told her, trying to hide the disbelief in my voice.
"Oh, yeah." I continued to stare at her as she went back to her book. I tried to avert my eyes, but I couldn't. How did a seventh grader not know the word 'college?'
Finally, she realized I was staring. Shyly, she explained, "I love to read, but I have dyslexia, and sometimes it just takes me longer."
I didn't know how to react. I started to say "sorry," but I realized that was what you said when you realized someone's friend or relative had died, so I just said, "Oh."
May turned red and went back to reading.
By the time May had finished the chapter, I had already finished the rest of my homework and was pretending to be interested in my algebra textbook to avoid looking at her and feeling awkward. She got up and quietly told me she had to leave.
Later that night, Chelsea called me on my cell phone.
"So, any news on that 'June' girl?"
"It's May," I corrected her.
"Whatever, they're both, like, seasons, or something."
I sighed, but didn't correct her. She didn't seem to notice.
"So," she persisted. "Any news?"
"She has dyslexia," I blurted out, hating myself for it as soon as the words escaped my mouth.
"Oooh, that'll work perfectly...wait, that means she can't drink milk, right?"
"No, that's lactose intolerance. Dyslexia is where you have trouble reading."
"Even better!" she giggled and hung up.
I wanted to call May and explain everything to her, but I couldn't make myself do it. Instead, I slept fitfully, worrying about the horrible things they would do to her.
When I entered school that morning a few minutes before the bell, I saw a bunch of kids crowding around May as she walked down the hall. Nightmares seemed to come alive as they yelled,
"Hey May! What does L-O-S-E-R spell?"
"You're such a D-O-R-K!"
But May didn't even seem to notice. Then, I heard Chelsea, Jessie, and the other cheerleaders yelling at me. They sat alone in homeroom.
"Way to go, Jenna!" Jessie cheered smugly. "Thanks to you the whole school knows how UN C-O-O-L May is!"
Suddenly, all my anger and frustration poured out of me as I yelled, "You're right. It was my fault. It was wrong, and it won't happen again...because I quit!"
"What?" said Jessie, standing up and backing me into the wall.
"You heard me," I replied. I had no idea where this courage was coming from. "I said I quit. I quit the cheerleading team. I quit trying to be popular. And above all, I quit being your little spy. I quit hurting people like that."
"Fine then," she smirked. "We don't need you in Hawaii." She put the emphasis on 'Hawaii' as if to give me a last chance to change my mind, but when I didn't respond she yelled, "Go find your dumb friend. Leave!"
I turned and slowly walked to the door, knowing all eyes were on me. Then, I saw May in the doorway. Quietly, we sat down on a bench farther down the hall.
"So I guess you heard everything," I started.
"I did tell Chelsea, but I'm sorry. It was really stupid and..."
May cut me off. "It's okay. It would have happened anyway."
We sat there in silence for a few minutes before I said, "If you like to hear the stories in books, I could read them to you. Or help you find some books on tape."
"I'd like that."
I smiled. She smiled back. As we walked back to homeroom, I felt like a new person. The person that, deep down, I'd always wanted to be.
1st Place (tie), Middle School Short Story
2008 Worthington Libraries Teen Poetry and Short Story Competition
See all the winners of the Worthington Libraries Teen Poetry and Short Story Competition!