She is leaning against the school sign that reads “Half- Day Friday!” Her brown hair comes only to her chin. In her hand she carries a plain, brown book. I have never seen her before, but I know at once she is my friend.
“Kara, don’t forget your lunch bag,” my mother says from the front seat, jerking me from my thoughts. I nod, take it from her and start across the lawn.
“What did your mommy want, Kara?” Cheryl Reyes asks, striding over to me.
“None of your business.”
“So,” says Cheryl, “how have your precious drawings been going lately?”
“Leave me alone.” Cheryl knows I’m sensitive about my drawings; it’s my way of escaping from a world in which I am neither academically brilliant nor popular at school.
I turn to see the girl holding the book looking over at us. Cheryl sees her too and rolls her eyes.
“Who’s she?” I ask Cheryl.
“The new girl. She’s so ugly!”
I didn’t see how. She wasn’t a fashion model, but she had a kind smile.
“I- I don’t see…”
“Her clothes are old-fashioned, and did you see her feet? She’s barefoot!”
“Barefoot?” I follow Cheryl’s gaze, and I see that the new girl’s feet are naked.
Cheryl sniffs. “She’s weird.” But when the bell rings, I notice that Cheryl is careful to avoid the new girl’s eyes.
* * *
“Class, we have a new student today.” I look up from my sketching to see Ms. Reynolds, our teacher. “I hope you will all treat her nicely. Would you like to come up and introduce yourself?”
The girl I saw on the playground looks up from her journal and nods. As she walks to the front of the room, I see that she is still barefoot. Ms. Reynolds notices as well. “Where are your shoes, please?”
“I left them at home,” she says simply. Her voice is like music to me, but everyone else is sniggering. Ms. Reynolds is uncomfortable. Spitballs and loud students she is used to, but never a student forgetting his or her shoes.
“Um, well, OK. Try to remember them tomorrow, will you?”
“I promise,” the girl says.
“All right. You may introduce yourself now.”
The girl stands there, seeming oblivious to all the whispers and giggles. “My name is Irah Anders,” she begins, but one of the boys interrupts.
“Irah—is that Italian or Japanese?” He laughs.
“My parents liked the sound of it, but it’s short for Amirah, which means princess. I love to write. My favorite school subjects are literature…”
“Oh, you can’t say plain English?”
“Rob Wilson,” cuts in Mrs. Reynolds, but Irah finishes.
“…and princess training.”
“Where’s your tiara?”
“Yeah! Princess!” the class taunts, but I don’t join in; instead I hide my face in my notebook.
The kids laugh. But Irah holds her head high, staring straight ahead with a mysterious smile on her lips.
“Yes, I am a princess,” she says finally. The class goes silent. “A princess,” she repeats. Cheryl forces out a laugh. Still Irah stands defiant.
Irah, the princess?
* * *
It’s recess, my least favorite time of the day. Kids can tease me without having to be worried a teacher will catch them. And I’ve never been one for the playground equipment, the running, and the noise. The only thing that seems remotely interesting to me is the patch of woods right near the playground. I’ve always wanted to explore them, but I usually prefer to sketch, or else kids tease me instead. And sure enough, Cheryl and her friend Marianne corner me against the brick wall.
“So, what’s up, Picasso?” says Cheryl.
“Nice clothes—hand-me-downs?” adds Marianne.
It’s not the teasing that I mind so much. I’m used to the insults of middleschool girls. It’s Cheryl, Cheryl who I’m afraid of, Cheryl, who I’ve never been able to stand up to. I can’t stand it anymore. I push past them and run to the small patch of woods, faster than I’ve ever run. I run so fast and hard that I have no idea how far I’ve been running until I stop, hearing a soft cry of surprise.
Something—or someone—jumps down from the tree overhead. Then I see her— hair messed and tangled now, but otherwise looking as she did in the classroom.
Irah, the princess.
She smiles at me with a mysterious, beautiful smile, reaches down, and pulls up an obscure little wildflower I’d never noticed before. One of the leaves is cracked and brown.
“This is a pretty one, don’t you think?” she asks.
“Um, yeah.” I want to ask a million questions, but I’m still too awkward with this barefoot princess girl.
“Here, do you want to hold it?” She hands it to me, cracked leaf and all. “Didn’t I see you in Ms. Reynolds’s class today?”
“Y- yes, I- I think you did.”
“I thought so,” she said. “What do you think?”
I look puzzled for a moment until she explains.
“Whenever I meet another person, I like to check them out.”
“What did you think of Cheryl?” I ask, preferring not to answer the original question.
“She is very nice,” Irah says.
“I mean the one who laughed at you.”
“I knew which one you meant, and my answer remains the same.”
I don’t quite understand, but I do not want to press her.
“I saw you drawing earlier,” she says. “It reminded me of what I imagine I look like writing. Writing and drawing are two of the best ways to express your feelings.”
“Yes!” I say, excited that she understands. “But it is hard to do when I’m teased.”
“People are ignorant when they tease others. But when you look past cruelty and differences, you will see beautiful people.”
How I wish I could speak such wise words! My own words are clumsy stones.
“May I see some of your artwork?” Irah asks.
“Sure.” I pull out one of my sketch pads from my backpack and show her the drawings. Each one tells a story, a story I thought I drew just for myself. But Irah looks over them, and her eyes light up. She understands.
I am sorry when we hear the bell. Recess is over.
“Maybe we could meet here again tomorrow after school?” I ask.
Irah smiles. “Of course.” Even her voice is like a princess, which reminds me of the class making fun of her.
“Are you really a princess?” I blurt out.
“Yes, I am,” she says, smiling mysteriously before sliding off the stump, waving goodbye, and running ahead of me into the school building.
* * *
“Well, look who’s here,” says Cheryl the next day as Irah and I come off the bus together. “Picasso and the princess!”
The “princess” eyes the girls without any kind of hatred. Instead, she smiles slightly before taking out her journal and leaning against the wall. I, “Picasso,” however, grow brick-red in the face.
When I see Irah, however, I suddenly remember what she said the other day in the woods, about Cheryl being “very nice.” What did that mean? I wasn’t sure. But all I knew was that if a princess could think Cheryl was very nice, I could too.
* * *
After that day, something has changed. Irah is the reason I don’t daydream in class, and I don’t dread every school day. But there’s something else, and I’m sure it’s something that happens when Irah and Cheryl happen to catch each other’s eye. Cheryl has been hateful when she’s with her friends, Irah forgiving, but when Cheryl is alone, they can look each other in the eye as equals. And when Irah and I go into the patch of woods every day at recess, I feel fearless. I have a friend. She understands my artwork. We play together in the woods, when only the forest can see us holding hands together.
But not everything at school is perfect. The others, led by Cheryl, taunt Irah when they happen to get a peek at her lunch.
“Is that dried seaweed?” teases Cheryl. Irah only smiles slightly and proceeds to eat it. But I worry. I know that in the company of her friends, Cheryl will not dare be nice to her, or me.
In fact, the teasing is worse now. It’s bad enough I was weird before. But now, being seen with another weird girl is even worse. I wish I could somehow be able to be friends with Irah without being teased for it…
* * *
It is almost summer break, and I am glad. Going to school keeps my nerves on edge, and it’s lunchtime, a vulnerable time for me.
Just then Irah sits down at my table. “Hi, Kara.”
I can see Cheryl, just a table over from us. The only thing that could save me from her teasing is starting to tease Irah.
Cheryl leans over to my table and says in a stage whisper, so Irah can hear, “You aren’t friends with that barefoot girl, are you?”
I wish I could ignore her, as Irah would. But I can’t. If I stand up for my friend, the one who brought so much happiness into my life, I will be teased. I will be as weird as the girl who goes barefoot. But if I don’t stand up for her, then I will not be a good friend.
“I didn’t quite catch that,” Cheryl says, waiting.
“No, I’m not her friend,” I mumble.
What? What did I say? I can’t imagine that I, Kara Haley, gave in to Cheryl and betrayed my friend. But I have. And I can’t undo it. I blink back tears. Cheryl slides back into her seat triumphantly. Irah, on the other hand, looks at me for an instant, smiling her mysterious smile, and then leaves.
Irah, the princess.
* * *
Irah does not show up in class for the rest of the day.
I cannot concentrate on school. The numbers and letters blur together into one confusing shape. I only think of Irah, and how I have hurt her. I hope that maybe tomorrow she will be back in school. But she is absent.
After school, I go back to the patch of woods, hoping that maybe Irah will magically appear to reassure me. I find no sign of her. Finally, Ms. Reynolds brings us news in class.
“You all remember Irah Anders,” she says. “She is moving, out of the district.”
Irah is leaving. Is it my fault? There’s only one way to find out.
I know where I’m going after school today.
* * *
I run out of the schoolyard as fast as I can. I don’t know when Irah leaves, or if she’s already left.
But Cheryl blocks my path.
“Where are you going in such a hurry?”
For the first time ever, I look her straight in the eye and say, “To Irah’s house.” Then I run.
Once Irah told me where she lived, 12 Evers Lane. I must go there. People look at me as I run past, but I don’t mind.
As I reach Evers Lane—8 Evers, 10 Evers—I know it is all pointless. The curtains are closed on 12 Evers. I know no one is at home.
The whitewashed houses all look the same. How could Irah live here? I wonder. The houses look too ordinary for her grand palace. The yards are too small.
But as I draw closer, I see a package on the porch of 12 Evers. A small envelope with “For Kara” sits on top of it. The package says, “For My Classmates.”
For us? For me? The ones who teased her? The one who betrayed her?
I leave slowly now, carrying Irah’s box. I want to see what she left us, but I don’t have the courage to look yet.
Closer to home, I approach the small patch of woods by school, where Irah and I would sit on that old stump and play, show artwork, and talk together. Had I realized, then, how lucky I was to be sitting with a princess?
I take out the envelope first and open it to see a letter.
How cruel it is we had so little time together! I am writing this quickly because my mother just told me bittersweet news— we are leaving for my father’s kingdom in a few days. I am happy to be going back home, but sad to be leaving my friends here, especially you and Cheryl. You two taught me that life is not always a fairy tale, a valuable lesson, harsh, but valuable all the same. You both welcomed me in different, but just as special ways.
I know everyone wanted to know if I was a princess. I am, and my mother and father are queen and king. Our kingdom is built on the strength of imagination. Imagination leads us to believe wonders, doesn’t it?
Anyway, thank you for your friendship, Kara. I have enclosed something for you and your classmates to share—I hope you like it.
Your loyal friend,
Irah, the princess
We helped her understand about reality? I thought she understood everything. But under it all she was just a girl, like Cheryl and I were girls. She wasn’t a magical spirit. All she did was look past differences and see people underneath, like I was seeing her now, not as a magical creature, just as a friend. But that was all I had wanted—a friend.
I unwrap the package next, and find a small homemade book titled Poetry, by Irah Anders.
Tears well up in my eyes as I flip through the book made of homemade paper with pressed flowers.
Suddenly I hear a rustle of the leaves and a crack of a stick. Cheryl emerges, shame-faced.
“Did you catch Irah at her house?” she asks hopefully.
Just by looking at my face she can tell the answer.
“She left us this book,” I say, holding it out to her.
Cheryl looks up. “She—she did? For you, right?”
“No,” I say, “for all of us.”
Cheryl stares at me for a moment and then says, “You read it.”
So I choose a poem:
Too small for flying
Left behind for winter
I’ll take care of you
Even though you’re different
You will become a princess soon.
“Hey, Cheryl!” calls one of Cheryl’s friends. “What are you doing in the woods? Let’s go to the mall!”
Cheryl shakes her head. She doesn’t care about the mall. The friend sits down on one of the stumps as more and more people come toward us, drawn at first to Cheryl, then someone else.
Irah, the princess.