After years of trying, Kiera is finally popular . . . so why isn’t she happy?
From afar, Kiera fit in perfectly at MS 452. Watching her pick at her peanut butter and jelly sandwich while fanning herself with her homework folder on this late September day, an unsuspecting onlooker might give her a glance and deem her an average seventh grader, not particularly interesting and far too obsessed with clothes, hair, and makeup. This onlooker, seeing her talking naturally with the group of girls surrounding her, would suspect that this was simply an ordinary day for Kiera, that she had known these girls for years. In assuming this, the onlooker would be entirely wrong.
While it didn’t show, this may have been the most important moment Kiera had experienced in the 11 years that she had been alive. Ever since her family’s SUV had finally pulled up in front of her new house in Brooklyn after the drive from New Jersey early that summer, Kiera had waited for this moment. Finally, after nearly a month of relentless effort, she had been accepted by the popular kids at their lunch table, and therefore into their group of friends. If she were to embarrass herself in front of these people, this new friendship she had formed would crumble in front of her eyes—something that she wouldn’t let happen, no matter what.
Every day of being thought of as the quiet one, the friendless one, the lonely one who sat with a book in the corner of the playground during recess, vanished from Kiera’s mind. Now she was speeding down the road to what she had only dreamed of in years before: popularity.
“Oh my gosh. Eric is so weird. Like, he literally wears the same pair of sweatpants every day. How gross is that?” Mia’s voice rang through the bustling lunch room, somehow managing to be louder and more significant than any of the other voices in the crowded cafeteria. Sitting across from Mia in the center of the table, Kiera tried to time her giggle with the rest of the group. Together, they sounded like a bottle of soda fizzing, or perhaps a pack of joyful hyenas ready to pounce on their prey. Other people from different tables cast the group of girls annoyed glances, but this was not apparent to Kiera. Even Eric’s upset face didn’t matter. She was absorbed in her own circle of friends, who were so perfect and so beautiful and so amazing, and, more importantly, so existent. In this way particularly, they were different from her friends from when she lived in New Jersey.
“What happened to our little Hello Kitty?”
Life went on for Kiera. She became closer with the girls, and by mid-October, she had mustered up the courage to invite them to her house for dinner one night. That Thursday, a few hours before the group was due to arrive, Kiera did some last minute, very necessary work. She pulled her parents out of their room, sat them down across from her on the couch, and stared at them intensely.
“You are not the world’s most embarrassing parents,” Kiera started.
“Well, yes, when we gave up our model Santa collection, I think that we stepped down to the world’s second most embarrassing parents,” Kiera’s mom said with a grin.
Rolling her eyes, Kiera continued. “But, as I was trying to say, you certainly aren’t cool or anything. So please, please, stay out of my business when the girls come over. It means the world to me.”
Kiera’s parents nodded, but as she stood up to tidy her room, she heard one of them mumble quietly, “What happened to our little Hello Kitty?”
The girls came, gossiped, ate, and then left without Kiera’s parents saying anything more than “Yes, this is vegetarian.” Ella had just gotten her ears pierced, and all she could talk about was how beautiful they were, and how it hadn’t hurt a bit when she got them. Kiera found herself thinking about how boring the conversation had become, and how she really didn’t care about the brand new holes in Ella’s ears. Alarmed, she pushed the thought out of her mind and leaned in closer to hear about all the different options for earrings that Ella had had to choose from.
The next day in school, Ms. Perez, everyone’s least favorite teacher, decided to switch the current Science tables. Harper and Kiera exchanged annoyed glances, as they had only recently been seated next to each other. Many students groaned bitterly for the same reason. Ms. Perez, they thought, must be made of nothing but pure evil.
Harper, Mia, and Ash were seated at the same table, and Kiera heard Harper squeal “Yes!” in her highpitched voice. Kiera looked down sullenly. Hadn’t Harper just been moaning about being moved away from her?
As she grumbled, Kiera felt a sudden movement to her left. She jerked her head up as a tiny girl hopped onto the chair next to her, and promptly rested her feet on the shiny plastic table as if she were sitting in her living room at home. Looking around to see if anyone else had noticed, Kiera found a giggle bubbling in the back of her throat. The girl, who Kiera remembered being called Claudia, looked at her warily, one eyebrow arched to the extent that it seemed as if it might come off of her face entirely.
“What are you looking at?” she smirked, the accusation clearly fake.
Kiera clamped her lips shut to hold in her laughter, but she was unable to control herself. As her mouth was shut, a rambunctious snort burst out of Kiera’s nose. Claudia grinned at the peculiar noise, and Kiera grinned back. They were silent for a moment, pursing their lips to keep from laughing as they stared at each other. Then, all of a sudden, they erupted in laughter. It wasn’t as if anything was particularly hilarious, yet Kiera found herself gasping for breath between laughs. Only when they realized that Ms. Perez was staring daggers at them through her cat-eye glasses did they finally stop laughing.
That period of Science, despite the evil teacher, held the record for the best Science class Kiera had ever experienced. Kiera was far from a troublemaker, so angering Ms. Perez should have upset her, but she was too busy talking to Claudia. It was as if this girl brought out a whole different side of her: Kiera, for the first time in her life, felt funny, unique, and charismatic, even. When the bell rang for sixth period, the two girls walked towards the cafeteria next to each other, mimicking Ms. Perez’s condescending British accent and bossy, overly posh air.
When they arrived at the lunch room, Kiera invited Claudia to sit with her at her regular table. Claudia’s face brightened, but following Kiera’s finger to the table where Mia, Harper, Ella, and July were already unpacking their lunch boxes, a frown developed across it.
“Oh, gosh no. Sorry, but if I sit there, those girls will literally kill me,” she said, a look of disgust unhidden on her face.
Surprised, Kiera replied, “Them? They aren’t so bad. They’re really nice actually! I know they might seem shallow or something, but I bet they’d really like you if you’d just be nice to them, you know?”
Claudia only shook her head and laughed quietly to herself. “Look, you seem nice and all, but those girls? They’re just plain mean. I’m serious. Sit with me if you want, but only bad will come if I sit with them.”
As Claudia waited for a reply, Harper noticed Kiera standing by the lunch room doors. Smiling brightly, she waved her over. Kiera looked at Claudia, and then at Harper. Finally, she turned back to Claudia, and mumbled, “Bye. I-I gotta go.”
Claudia shook her head again and walked over to an empty table as Kiera turned to go to hers, which by now was almost filled with her friends.
When she arrived at the table, the girls were talking about the new Science seats. When she told them who she was sitting next to, they all groaned simultaneously.
“Poor you,” Mia said with a swish of her neat blonde ponytail. “She is such a dork.” Kiera wanted to respond, but she knew that it would only make things worse. And, she reminded herself, she had promised that she would try her hardest to keep her friendship with these girls. Telling them that she wanted to be friends with Claudia might murder her reputation, so why would she do that?
The weekend passed far too quickly, as always. Kiera spent it sitting in her room watching Netflix and thinking about Mia, Harper, July, Ella, and Ash. She reassured herself that just like the people in the show she was watching, she and these girls were destined to be friends. Who had invited her to sit with them when Kiera was new? The girls. Who was nice to her when she got lost around the building? The girls! Claudia hadn’t even tried to be kind to her in the beginning of the year. She may be funny, but really, Kiera thought, she was nothing compared to her other friends. On the way to school that Monday, Kiera promised herself that she would stop trying to be friends with her, that she would completely give up on her. However, Kiera had never expected it to be so difficult.
When Kiera stepped into homeroom, a wave of nausea rolled over her. Claudia stood in front of her rusty purple locker, struggling to wiggle out of her oversized navy sweatshirt. Underneath the sweatshirt, Kiera saw her interesting outfit.
She wore a pair of average blue jeans, cuffed to display a pair of beat-up Converse, and on the top, she wore a white T-shirt. This wasn’t the strange part. No, the strange part was the cartoon image that had been ironed onto the T-shirt. It was a picture of a white cat with beady little eyes and a massive bow in front of one of its ears. Under it, in hot pink bubble letters, the words “Hello Kitty” were inscribed. Kiera remembered that cat. In fact, Kiera remembered that very image, ironed onto a very similar white T-shirt.
She had received it as a birthday gift in fifth grade, during the height of her Hello Kitty obsession, and had worn it at least once a week until the beginning of the summer after sixth grade. Then, after speaking with her cousin about the current trends in New York, she had put it, along with the rest of her Hello Kitty clothing, into a plastic garbage bag. Stuffing it in the back of her closet in case she wanted some extra fabric for a sewing project, she declared that if New York found Hello Kitty silly, then she did too. She remembered telling this to her parents as a way to ask if she could take a trip to the mall, and watching as her mother looked at her strangely. After all, Hello Kitty had always been Kiera’s favorite character, and it was so unlike Kiera to give her up. Her mother understood that she wanted to fit in in New York, but she thought that Kiera was taking it too far.
During school that day, Kiera felt as if she were floating through the halls. As her friends gossiped and whispered during lunch, Kiera hovered next to them like a ghost, watching Claudia at her table. Old Kiera wouldn’t have hesitated to befriend her: she was funny, kind, smart, and had the same interests as her. But, she reminded herself, old Kiera was gone. She was dead. Burned up. Down the drain. Turned to dust. That was final, she thought, and turned towards July to catch up on the gossip. Everything was going to be alright, she thought— until she heard what they were gossiping about.
“That girl is literally killing me. I mean, Hello Kitty? How could anyone be so babyish? I mean, the sixth graders wouldn’t even wear that.” July laughed as she readjusted the knot in her shirt. “You know, we might as well be good people, don’t you think? Maybe we should tell her how stupid she looks. Come on, let’s go.”
Old Kiera wouldn’t have hesitated to befriend her: she was funny, kind, smart, and had the same interests as her. But, she reminded herself, old Kiera was gone.
Once again, Kiera felt sick to her stomach. Not being friends with someone was a piece of cake, but bullying them? That was a different story.
“No! Guys, umm, maybe it’s just a costume? Like, she’s mocking little kids or something? I mean, we really shouldn’t talk to her. Because she’s a dork,” Kiera tried, immediately regretting saying something so implausible. They just waved off her comment as if she had never spoken and wandered over to where Claudia was eating rice and beans out of a thermos. She looked up, and seeing Kiera, smiled weakly. Kiera didn’t mean to, but on instinct, she smiled back.
“Hi Claudia. We were just noticing your mature, flattering outfit. It really highlights your eye color! Nice job,” Harper said sarcastically. She slid onto the bench next to Claudia, and smiled with her perfect teeth. The others joined in, teasing her, telling her that they hadn’t seen anything as hip as Claudia’s outfit—hip for kindergarteners, that is.
After saying a particularly rude comment about how pigtails and a pacifier would complete the look, Ella looked at Kiera, and grinning broadly, said, “Right, Kiera? Don’t you think?”
Kiera looked at Ella, and then at Claudia. Once the insults had started, Claudia had found a particular interest in her thermos, and only now did she look up at Kiera, her eyes big, innocent, and injured looking. But the rest of the people were looking at her so encouragingly, hoping for a top-notch insult. And they were her friends. And they would stay her friends forever. Sweat slipped down Kiera’s forehead despite the cool fall weather, and her heart felt as if it was about to beat out of her chest. Her voice was practically a whisper, but somehow, she was able to manage a feeble, “Ha! What are you, six?”
Immediately, she felt the damage that she had done. Claudia let out a long breath: she had clearly been holding it while Kiera had hesitated to speak. Then she looked at Kiera pityingly, shaking her head. She was smiling sadly, like it was Kiera who had been hurt, not her. At this, Kiera realized that it was true. Claudia didn’t care what the other girls had said. Claudia was only upset for Kiera, who had done such damage—to herself.
That afternoon, Kiera speedwalked home by herself. Her father said hello to her from behind a crumpled copy of the New York Times as she unlocked the front door. She hardly even noticed him—she was heading for her room. Heading for her closet, specifically. After a forceful twist of the unpolished doorknob, her room displayed itself in all its glory: its constantly chipping white walls that had yet to be repainted, the twin-sized bed wedged into the corner, and of course the closet, partially blocked by a cardboard moving box that Kiera still hadn’t found the time to deal with. Kicking the box aside with her sneakered foot (she hadn’t bothered to take her shoes off when she had rushed through the door), she pulled the door open and immediately began fishing through her things. It was surprisingly cluttered, given that she had only had a few months to start her new collection of garbage, and it took a while to swim through the randomly placed items towards the back of the closet. Finally, she found what she was looking for. A small glimpse of black garbage bag had never made her feel happier.
Kiera pulled it out of the closet and laid it on the uncarpeted floor of her room. It took her a moment to untie it, but once the knot came loose, she began hurriedly dumping out the contents onto her floor. Hello Kitty-themed sweatshirts, t-shirts, pajamas, swimsuits, pants, and a few pairs of Hello Kitty underwear spilled out in a heap of vibrant color. Kiera sorted through them, tossing them over her shoulder one by one. About halfway through the pile, she spotted it: the white tee with the ironed-on picture. She blew out a relieved breath, pushed her clothes out of the way, and proceeded to finish the Social Studies project that was due the next day.
* * *
It was just a Tuesday. An average, October Tuesday, yet it felt like a momentous occasion for Kiera. Less than a week ago, Kiera had met Claudia, and now here she was, sacrificing her reputation and her friends for this girl. She felt a little bit crazy, and scared too. Her plan might backfire and make her lose all her friends, because Claudia might think that she was mocking her. But it was worth a shot, she decided, pushing through the double doors of MS 452 into the messed-up world of middle school.
First period was Science. Kiera fidgeted anxiously in her seat, tapping her fingers rapidly against the plastic table and waiting for Claudia to arrive. No one else had noticed her T-shirt yet, as she had only just zipped down her jacket to reveal the design. The minutes passed slowly, as if the ringing of the late bell had been postponed by a few years. As the bell finally started to ring its shrill scream, Claudia came hurtling through the door, determined not to be marked late. Just in time, she slid into the seat next to Kiera, and pulled her planner out of her bag to copy the homework for the day. Feeling Kiera’s eyes on her back, she turned around in her seat, homework planner in hand. Her expression morphed from annoyed to surprise in a matter of seconds, a clear clue that she had noticed the beady-eyed little cat and the words underneath. Kiera’s breath caught in her throat as she tried to read Claudia’s expression. Was she happy? Sad? Angry? Did she even understand the gesture? Seeing her face soften and turn into a wide smile, it was clear that she understood.
Folding her arms across her chest, her eyes gazing directly into Kiera’s, she opened her mouth and spoke in a steady voice. Her voice louder and more significant than any other voice could ever be, she said with a wink, “What are you, six?”