I ran down the stairs, grabbed my backpack and rushed out the door just as the bus turned the corner. It was the first day of school. I was new. I wondered whether the fourth-graders would like me. What if they didn’t?
On the bus, I sat next to a girl who was tall and had long brown curly hair that went down to her waist. She wore a short blue-jean skirt with black platform flip-flops, and a green-and-purple-striped sleeveless shirt. She looked nothing like me. I was short, with straight black hair that went down to my shoulders. I was wearing bell-bottoms with white socks, white sneakers and an orange T-shirt. “Hi,” the girl said, “my name is Meagan, what’s yours?”
“I’m Elizabeth,” I said.
“Well, Lizzie, since you’re new, I might as well warn you about Phyllis. She’s crazy and she plays baby imaginary games.”
I looked down at my lap and remembered the games I used to play with my old best friend Ashley. We would pretend that we were horses running free in the fields, or running away from horse catchers. Ashley never called me Lizzie. She knew I liked my full name, Elizabeth.
At recess, I sat on the cement steps in front of the school with Meagan and her friend Jane.
“Look at that handsome boy over there,” Jane said, pointing to a tall boy near a grove of trees on the edge of the playground.
“Oh my gosh! He’s so cute,” Meagan said.
All I could see was a tall boy, who looked a bit mean. Behind him, a girl was crawling on her hands and knees and talking to herself. He was teasing her, but she didn’t seem to mind. The girl reminded me of Ashley.
At the next recess, I was following Meagan and Jane to the cement steps, when the girl that had been crawling on her hands and knees the day before walked up to me and asked, “What animal are you?”
I was puzzled for a moment, but then I thought I knew what she meant.
“I was born in the year of the monkey,” I answered.
“You don’t look like a monkey to me,” she said, “You look more like a panther. Don’t you think I look like a lion?”
I stared at the girl’s red straight hair which was pulled up in a bun with the ends sticking up all over the top of her head. She did look something like a lion. She was thin, and she had freckles all over her arms, legs and face.
“Quick! Here comes the hunter!” She pointed to the tall boy who had been teasing her the day before. She grabbed my arm and ran to the grove of trees at the edge of the playground.
“Lion,” I gasped, “that was a good escape, but he’ll find us soon. We need to go deeper into the woods!”
Lion ran ahead of me, deeper into the grove of trees, and I followed as fast as my legs would carry me. Then we heard the bell.
Lion raced back through the trees beside me, when a stick popped out from the edge of the path. I had no time to slow down, or stop, so I tripped over the stick and landed on my face in the dirt. Lion landed beside me a few seconds after I had landed. Lion jumped to her feet and shouted, “I’m going to get you this time, Mike.” It was the tall boy.
One of the lunch monitors ran over and told Mike to go to the principal’s office, and helped me get up. Lion had a bloody nose and a skinned knee. I had a scraped chin, and a mouth full of dirt.
In the nurse’s office, Mrs. Smackers, our school nurse, gave Lion a tissue for her bloody nose. “Here you go, Phyllis,” she said.
Phyllis? I thought. Lion was crazy Phyllis? She sure didn’t seem crazy to me.
When I got on the bus, I sat next to Meagan, and she said, “I’m not going to sit with you until you stop playing with Phyllis. I warned you not to, but you didn’t take my word for it.”
I had been looking forward to playing with Phyllis at recess the next day, but now I had changed my mind.
The next day, I sat on the concrete steps with Meagan and Jane. Mike came over and apologized to me. I didn’t say anything back because I was still mad at him.
After Mike left, Meagan said, “You’re so lucky! He likes you!”
Then Phyllis came over and asked, “Aren’t you going to play with me, Panther?”
Meagan and Jane both laughed. “Don’t you know her name is Lizzie?”
“Her name isn’t Lizzie, it’s Elizabeth,” Phyllis said.
I looked at Phyllis, then at Meagan and Jane, and I said, “Maybe I’ll play tomorrow, but right now, I’m busy.”
Phyllis looked down at her feet and walked away slowly.
Meagan and Jane gave me a high five, and said, “Great work!” but I felt like I had done something terrible. I watched Phyllis sit down on the path near the grove of trees. I wished I could be climbing trees and running from hunters, instead of talking about boys.
Then I saw Mike walking toward Phyllis with a stick in his hand. I jumped up and ran across the playground. “Mike!” I shouted.
I ran up to him and said in a low voice, “I have a message. Meagan and Jane want you to go sit with them.”
“Well, yeah! Of course. They think you’re the cutest guy in school.”
He dropped the stick, and started walking toward Meagan and Jane. Meagan put her hand over her mouth, and Jane’s jaw dropped. I looked at Phyllis and said, “Hey, Lion, let’s get out of here before the hunter changes his mind about those girls.”
That afternoon, Meagan saved a seat for me on the bus. “You are so brilliant, Lizzie,” she said.
“Hey, Meagan, will you call me Elizabeth?”
“Sure,” she said.
“And another thing,” I asked, “do you mind if I sit with you on the bus but play with Phyllis at recess?”
“That’s fine with me, Elizabeth,” she said.