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Victoria

This is the third and final installment of Ariana Kralicek’s novella. You can read the first two installments in the April and May 2021 issues of Stone Soup, or in its entirety here.

Chapter 17

On the way to the hospital, everything is like a jumble. It kind of feels like sorting through old books, if you know what I mean. There are the ones you love, ones you hate, and ones you can’t even remember reading.

Like now. We’re speeding along the streets, Grandma at the wheel and me yelling, “Go, go, go!”

I hate that it’s uncertain about how Mum and my brother are. I haven’t heard anything about them yet. And I can’t remember what happened at school. It’s like it was one of those dreams you can’t think about after it’s over because you’ve forgotten.

Finally, we arrive at the Auckland Hospital.

“Hurry, Grandma!” I impatiently beg as she unloads bags upon bags of gifts.

She asks me to carry some for her. I do. They probably weigh at least several kilograms, but they feel as light as feathers to me.

We race inside the main building, Grandma briskly walking and me pulling her along crazily. When we get to the reception desk, the lady sitting behind it stares at us boredly. How is she not excited?! This is so weird! Ugh, Swifty. Snap out of it!

“Purpose of visit?” she blandly asks.

“Grace McClean!” My grandma’s dentures nearly fly out of her mouth. She’s really excited.

“Okay. That’s level seven, ward three,” she replies.

We hurry over to the elevator. I jab repeatedly at the button going up, while Grandma smiles at me, stressed but bursting with excitement, her foot tapping on the hard floor. Oh boy!

The elevator finally arrives, and we race inside. I jab at the level-seven button, and slowly but surely, we go up.

“H-hurry, hurry, hurry,” I whisper. “H-hurry, hurry, h-h-hurry.”

Ding! The elevator doors roll open. Grandma wobbles out, a big smile plastered on her face.

“Ward three—there it is!” she shrieks cheerily.

But just as we’re about to go in, I feel a terrible nervous pang in my stomach. My throat squeezes shut in panic. I feel like I can’t breathe. I grip my grandmother’s hand tightly, feeling the map of her life stretched across her wrinkled palm.

“Hey, sweetie. It’s okay to feel nervous,” she says gently. “Why don’t we just go inside. You can hide behind me if you want to!” She grins cheekily. “Now smile!”

I stretch my lips into a fake grin. She nods, and clasping hands, we walk inside. The room is dim and grey.

My mum is on a big hospital bed, cradling a tiny lump. My dad walks over to us and gives me and Grandma a big hug.

“Come on, Swifty,” he whispers. He sounds quite emotional, but I suppose it IS one of those kinds of situations.

I go over and sit on the edge of my mum’s bed. There’s a drip going into her, but nothing is actually that scary.

“Swifty, meet your baby brother,” my mum whispers. And then suddenly my hand is stroking my brother.

O. M. G.

He’s so warm and tiny, wrapped up in cozy pale-blue blankets. He’s silent, but he’s making little tuts as he sleeps. Thin wisps of hair frame his chubby cheeks. And his little pinched face . . . Ughh, soooo cute.

No matter what happens, I’m going to do whatever it takes to protect him. This is the moment I want to last forever.

I lie on the thin air mattress my grandma set up for me. I need to stay with her until tomorrow because my mum needs to rest at the hospital.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my grandma, but I really want to be in my own homey bedroom instead of trying to sleep in the nearly empty, dim spare room in her small house.

I check the time on the digital clock propped beside me. It reads 12:01 a.m. I need to get to sleep. Tomorrow are the student council elections, and I have to be wide awake for that. But I can’t seem to shut my eyes. I’m worried about my brother. What if something happens to him in the night? If he gets sick? If the next day he’s given to the wrong people after a test?

I squeeze my eyelids closed and for the hundredth time try to fall asleep, telling myself that the people at the hospital know what they’re doing, that he was fine when I saw him, and that my mum will keep him safe.

Chapter 18

It’s the day of the student council tryouts. I squirm nervously in my seat, just like at the concerta and while in the car on the way to my first (and last) ballet class.

My hands clench sweatily around my cue cards (which are ripped because of my impulsive gripping, just like they clenched the scissors when I cut off nearly all of my hair), and I can’t stop my teeth from chattering like when my baby brother was born.

I can handle this.

Mrs. Mulberry bounces into class.

“Good morning, first of all,” she exclaims, placing her books on her desk. “And secondly, could all of the students trying out for the role of our class councilor please stand up and go outside? Write your names on the board before you go, though,” she adds with a smile.

Mrs. Mulberry loves the student council tryouts. Rumor has it she loves it more than watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

I stand up and shuffle over to the door. I can hear my classmates gossiping. Especially about me. Someone holds the door open, and I quietly walk through. I hear it click shut, and then I look up.

Oh . . . kay.

All of the popular kids in my class are pacing around in circles or biting their lips, fiddling with their hair or encouraging each other.

I see Luke O’Connor rehearsing weird flirty glances that make him look like he’s constipated, Tyler Peterson waving to a massive crowd of his imaginary fans, Hamish Clonestar admiring his tiny muscles, Brooke tetchily rolling her judgmental eyes, Amy Ryan looking picture perfect mouthing out her speech, and Stella Chichester-Clark grinning smugly. Again.

Mrs. Mulberry minces out of the room and calls us all over. We nervously crowd around her. I end up at the edge.

“Now, you guys—I just want every one of you to know that you are all winners, no matter what happens.”

I roll my eyes undetectably. It’s the dreaded reassurance of the teacher.

Deep down, I’m pretty sure Mrs. Mulberry knows how bad her pep talks are, but she’s probably signed some kind of teacher contract saying she has to give them.

“So . . .” She presents a piece of paper and a pen. “Who wants to go first?”

Tyler Peterson shoves his hand up into the air like he’s holding a toy airplane and wants to see how high he can reach. Mrs. Mulberry scribbles his name down. Amy Ryan goes second, then Luke, then Hamish, then Brooke, Stella, and finally, me.

I mean, last is okay, but by then everybody’s bored. I lean against the corridor wall and cup my hands around my left ear, but I can only hear the muffled speeches of each contestant.

Most of the girls giggle at Tyler, glare jealously at Amy, blush at Luke, swoon at Hamish, and smile at Stella. Nearly all the boys only pay attention to their friends. Typical.

All the candidates have emerged from the classroom, grinning with satisfaction.

It’s my turn to head in. I slowly open the door a crack, allowing myself to see just a thin line of my class. The air from inside the room cools my face.

I can do this.

“Now let’s give it up for SWIFTY!” Mrs. Mulberry announces as I stand at the center of the class.

I open my mouth wide open, only to hear Brooke mutter, “Fish.” I don’t know how, but I can still hear her through the door. I mentally shut off my ears from the world and begin to speak.

“Hi! As you already know, my name is Swifty. I’d like to run for our class councilor this year because I believe that we need a change. I think that I am honest, responsible, and I work hard. But this isn’t about me. It’s about YOU.

“As you know, we don’t have a lot of school clubs at the moment, yet there are so many things to do online, with coding and more available at our fingertips. I propose that we start up an ICT club for those of you that like coding or games.

“Another thing: there are those of us who . . . who find it hard to make friends, myself included. I think that maybe we could all help each other to make some friends, because no one deserves to be alone. Or hurt in any way.” I stare straight at Brooke through the window in the front door.

She leers right back at me, but I’m imagining her internally blushing.

“Thank you,” I conclude.

A burst of applause shatters my eardrums.

Oh. M.G. This is what it feels like to be accepted.

As I make my way outside the classroom so the votes can be taken, I start to hyperventilate. There just isn’t enough oxygen. I heave and lean against the wall. My throat feels sore, like I’ve just swallowed chips. My legs feel like I’m learning to surf for the first time.

I gather myself together and glance at the other contestants. They seem more relaxed now that they’ve done their speeches, but of course everyone is anticipating the final results. It’s kind of like an eating contest. Once you’ve shoveled down most of the food, you feel satisfied— but when you look at the plate and see all that food still waiting to be eaten, you wonder if you’ll ever accomplish the feat you’ve been aiming for.

As I make my way outside the classroom so the votes can be taken, I start to hyperventilate.

Stella looks pretty chill, which makes me nervous. I think she knows the outcome: she and Brooke.

I bite my lip. Will it be like the last tryouts, where she won yet again?

Just as I start to ponder whether the elections are rigged (I mean, no one even looks that happy when Stella wins), the classroom door creaks open and Mrs. Mulberry’s head peeks out from the doorframe.

“Come on in, guys.” She grins excitedly.

Luke, Hamish, Tyler, and Amy head in first, followed by Stella, Brooke, and me. We’re told to line up at the front of the class.

Great. Standing in front of twenty other people is not my cup of tea, even though my ambition WAS to stand in front of many more.

Is there something on my chin? I wonder. I bow my head down and quickly swipe at my mouth with the sleeve of my jersey. Nope, nothing’s there.

I stare at the ground, and then remember that if I do that it’ll look like I’m unfit for the role. I remember a trick Dad taught me once where instead of staring at the people you’re talking to, you stare just above their heads, basically at the wall. I tilt my eyes upward and take slow, deep breaths. I think I’ve done okay.

“Okay, everyone. So, I’ve counted the votes and now I will announce the results,” Mrs. Mulberry announces. “But first . . .” She pauses, like she’s about to give a really big speech.

“I’ve said this many times before, and I will say it again: you are all winners.” I cringe.

Inner me is literally screaming for the results. Hurry up! I think.

“So the runner up, and also the standby, is Swifty!” Mrs. Mulberry exclaims, like even she can’t believe it.

Wait. ME?

“And the winner is, of course, Stella.” Mrs. Mulberry gleams.

Stella and I are called up to the front, and we each get a Crunchie Bar.

Wow.

Brooke stares at me scornfully as I make my way back to my seat.

I tear open the glossy Crunchie Bar wrapping and pop the bar into my mouth.

I did it.

“The first meeting is today at lunchtime in the staff room, girls,” Mrs. Mulberry states. “For this meeting, both of you will be attending, just to get the hang of things and all that.”

Stella shifts her gaze to me and raises her eyebrows. I give her a nod and close my eyes. I just realized that I have to work with her.

Chapter 19

As the lunchtime moving bell rings, I hurriedly pack away my lunch so I can make my way up to the staff room.

The staff room is considered gold by the Year Ones and Twos. It’s for the teachers, and only certain students are allowed in it. If you ever get to go there, you know you’re lucky.

I race up the stairs, trying not to make too much of a thumping noise as I rush up. When I finally reach the top, I glance around the spacious room.

At one end is a kitchen for the teachers. There’s an island with a polished white surface, but you can’t see much of it because of the mountains of plates piled on top of it and in the small sink. Behind it is a mini fridge, stove, oven, and microwave. To the left of that are several cubbies with name tags. I glance to my left. There are dozens of chairs set up in a square-like pattern, and in between the chairs are small tables with educational magazines resting on the glassy surfaces. There’s a whiteboard at one end with a few sentences scrawled on it. The principal is standing in front of it.

And there are the student councilors.

A wave of awkwardness, if that’s even a thing, hits me. They all look different, but still the same: ironed outfits, good skin, cleanly cut and gelled hair.

The one word that could describe them all in a hot second would be “perfect.”

I look down at what I’m wearing: baggy khaki shorts and an old pink T-shirt. My jumper’s tied around my waist kind of loosely, like a little kid clinging onto their mother as she says goodbye. Okay, that was a weird example, but still . . .

“Oh, hello Swifty!” Principal Fintan greets me. The councilors’ heads turn. Oh no. I shyly stare down at my shoes.

“Stella unfortunately couldn’t join us today. I think she had a one-off event to attend—but anyway, would you like to come over and join our conversation?”

It’s a rhetorical question. I make my way over to a spare seat and sink deep down into its cushiony depths.

“Now, where was I? Oh, yes. Tom, what were you saying?” They even have ordinary names. No hate to the Toms out there or anything, but . . .

“I just feel like . . . nearly all of us”— he gestures to the student council, noticeably excluding me—“are being left out. I mean, the other students”— he waves a hand at me—just don’t try hard enough.” Right. Thick clouds of heat swirl around my face and my stomach pangs. “Like, we’re in the student council because we’re better. I feel like she”—gestures—“doesn’t deserve to be a part of our council. And . . .” Blah blah blah. I tune out. It’s not worth listening, and what point is Tom even trying to make?

“Err, thank you, Tom.” Principal Fintan winces but hides it with an appreciative nod. “And just a quick tip: make sure what you’re saying doesn’t offend others. If it does, then you can talk about it privately to me or just keep it to yourself.”

“Now Swifty, what do you have to say about this?”

“Erm, I think that what Tom says doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I mean, of course there are students who do try or want to try but who are more introverted or need help with things . . . but why does that even matter?”

Hmm.

“Tom, how would you feel about being teased every day?” I say.

He sighs. “Uhh . . . not that good, I guess.”

“Exactly. A certain someone has been making fun of me, in fact, since Year Four. And because of that I shut down. And I’m also super average. But now what I’m trying to do is become like that person’s friend so I can be better.”

Principal Fintan gives me a strange look.

Another guy whose name I don’t know gives me another look. “But you’re fine just the way you are, I guess. Well, other than not trying enough at school.”

That was blunt.

“Be yourself: everyone else is already taken,” Abigail from Room Four quips.

“That’s Oscar Wilde,” someone whose voice is very, very, very familiar pipes up.

Oh no. Linda? I stare at her in shock. What’s she doing here? She gives me an uncertain smile, then looks away. I can see her hands fiddling, fingers twisting to make weird shapes. But then, a thumbs up. I smile internally. I’ve been forgiven. We may not be friends anymore, but at least now she doesn’t have a lasting grudge.

Others start to throw inspirational quotes my way, and I’m lost for a moment. Then it hits me: All along, I’ve been trying to be like Stella so I could have the same amount of recognition she had and so everyone, or at least nearly everyone, would like me. But throughout all the terms I’ve been doing this, I’ve been discovering my own talents.

From learning the violin, I found out I’m a really good drummer. From attempting ballet, I’ve found out that hip-hop may be more suited to me. Because I cut my hair, I’ve discovered some of my tastes. When my baby brother was born, I recognized that maybe I do need some help with the twisty topic of friends. And through making it into the student council, I’ve discovered myself—after all, I’ve just had an epiphany for the first time.

Is that an achievement?

All I know is that for the rest of the day, I feel a huge sense of relief.

Chapter 20

“Hello, sweetheart!” my mum exclaims blissfully.

She’s sitting on the soft, carpeted lounge floor, playing with my brother. He’s lying on his tummy and wriggling around. I giggle and drop my bag by the doorway, carefully heel-and-toeing, then crouching down.

My brother’s face is really chubby, and he’s drooling heaps. His hands look like tiny balloons, fingers curled delicately. I sit down and gently pick him up, placing him on my lap. His eyes stare up at me curiously, like he’s reading my mind and knows more than you’d think. My brother grasps my index finger. His hands are moist and warm. I wrinkle my nose, still smiling, as I think of the reason behind the moisture. A question pops into my head.

“Mum,” I ask as I look up at her. “What’s my brother’s name?”

“To be honest, your dad and I haven’t really decided yet,” she says, brushing strands of hair out of her eyes.

“I’ll go look at some,” I offer.

I get up, placing my brother gently back on the ground, then walk out the door and down the corridor toward the office.

I sit down in front of the computer and type “names for boys.” The first names that come up are

  • Kane.
  • Noah.
  • William.
  • James.
  • Luke.
  • Arthur.
  • Benjamin.
  • Mason.
  • Lewis.

The first thought that comes to mind is that these names would definitely not suit my brother. I click on the website that featured them to see what other names there are and scroll down.

  • Jayden.
  • Thomas.
  • Harrison.
  • Finlay.
  • Zane.
  • Zachary.
  • Clayton.
  • Grayson.

Yet again, none of these names suit my brother. I go out of the site and try a different one.

  • Charles.
  • James.
  • Gareth.
  • Claude.
  • Dagwood.
  • Zenith.

I stop scrolling down. Zenith. That sounds nice. I leave that site and search the name. The definition is “the highest point.”

I smile.

My baby brother, in the end, made me happy. And my parents. At our highest point. I hare out of the room and scream, “Zenith! Mum, my brother’s name is Zenith!”

Chapter 21

This year, it feels like each day is more significant than the last, each one a day where I tried out for something. So I’m not going to say, “It’s the day of the . . .” I’ve already said that way too many times.

So, I guess I’ll start with this: I slump boredly in an auditorium seat as I wait unenthusiastically for the annual student awards to start.

There’s a stage, black floor matted with small globs of chewing gum from the theater kids who didn’t pay attention to the rules. Rows upon rows of red seats are stacked on top of one another, like an amphitheater. It feels like one. Halfway up, a glass barrier separates them from a differently designed row of seats that look like rugged stairs. The walls are a dark blue, and a large sculpture of the school logo has been hung up on one.

Many of the students and parents are wearing fancy clothes. I’m wearing a mint-green “jumpsuit” (sparkly top and leggings, to be exact) and silver boots because if we have to run for it for some reason, I want to be the first person out of there.

I know it’s going to be the usual people who win the awards. The sporty ones, the smart ones, the perfect ones. Call me a bad sport, but I reckon if you were sitting through the same thing year after year, you would feel the same way too.

I know it’s going to be the usual people who win the awards. The sporty ones, the smart ones, the perfect ones.

The others in my class have similar expressions as mine; the only difference is that they’ve got friends to talk to about it.

Principal Fintan taps the mic, briefly standing center stage. “Quiet, everyone.” His voice echoes throughout the auditorium. The chatter steadily draws to a close.

I spot my parents sitting in the back left corner. They give me a small, tired wave—my brother, Zenith, has been keeping them and me up all night—my dad making Zenith’s hand move in an arc too.

“Good morning, students. And welcome, parents,” Principal Fintan begins. His voice sounds foreign and serious in the microphone, but a beaming smile is plastered across his face.

“The annual Bellmore Primary School Awards are just about to begin; in order for that to happen, parents, could you please turn off any devices you have brought with you.”

There’s a small murmur as reluctant parents bring out their phones and tap some things into them before putting them back into their pockets or bags.

Principal Fintan waits for the noise to die out and then actually begins. My teacher said the awards would probably last about two hours. My stomach grumbles even though I don’t feel hungry. Principal Fintan starts to speak again.

“We have so many talented students at Bellmore. The sheer amount of genius young minds and driven people here is extraordinary. Sadly, we cannot hand out awards to everyone. So, the awards we are handing out today will be going to those in the student body who have excelled at different areas, either in the curriculum or in extracurricular activities.

“We will begin with the class awards, then move on to the extracurriculars and sport, and then to the students who have shown promise in certain subjects, and finally . . . to the Bellmore pupil of the year.

“So, could I please have the Year One teachers come down to the front.”

Click, thump, thump, click. Teachers in flowery skirts and woolen vests hurry down the stairs nimbly. When they reach the bottom, they’re handed a slim pile of beige certificates each.

Room Twenty’s teacher goes first.

“Connor.” Her voice is light and fluffy, like candyfloss clouds.

An arrogant-looking boy gets up from his cramped-looking seat and carefully walks down the steps to the front. He’s dressed in a full-on suit, his hair parted and gelled heavily. When he reaches the stage, he waves to his parents. They smile and wave back. I reckon they might’ve told the boy he was going to win an award beforehand, because his reaction is just a small wry smile.

“Alexandria.”

A small girl wearing a very poofy rainbow dress bounces out of her seat and skips down the steps, her lips stretched to breaking point. Her reaction when she’s handed the certificate is priceless.

Names upon names are called. The line of boys and girls coming down to receive the awards seems endless. It feels like an age before the Year Fours are called down to get theirs.

Next, the extracurricular people are called down to receive their awards. Stella gains her fifth award, which I didn’t even know was possible.

I start to squirm in my seat. My legs and back are cramping up, and my mouth is wet with saliva. I’m starting to feel thirsty.

I notice other people starting to look like they feel the same way too, so it’s amazing when Principal Fintan finally announces that we can all exit the hall for an intermission to stretch our legs and grab a quick drink of water.

As soon as I can, I literally bounce out of my seat and race down the stairs. I. Need. Water.

I’m one of the first ones to the water fountain. I open my mouth and a stream of H2O floods in.

Mmmmm.

I continue to suck desperately at the water as it runs down my sore throat. By the time I’ve put off nearly everyone from taking a sip, I feel as though I’ve swallowed a grandfather clock. Well, maybe not a grandfather clock. Let’s say a tiny chair.

I return to my seat, satisfactorily plopping down in it just in time for the remaining awards.

Best Sportsman. Best Sportswoman. Most Creative Person. Future in STEM. Dux. Most Potential. On and on the awards go. All handed to perfect-looking people, including Stella. She seems to be getting even more than usual.

Then, finally, it’s the Student of the Year Award.

It’s going to be Stella. Principal Fintan has the same smile on his face, the one he always does. Mrs. Mulberry has that look too.

Principal Fintan is just about to start announcing the Student of the Year (Stella) when all of a sudden, I get a wave of urgency signaling to me from my bladder.

Oh no. I regret drinking so much water.

Actually, take that away:

I doubly regret drinking so much water.

All eyes are trained on the stage, which is exactly where the exit is. If I get up from my seat to answer Mother Nature’s call, everyone will see me.

I squirm.

Do it, do it, do it, my mind whispers eagerly.

I glance at Mrs. Mulberry and make the toilet sign with my hands. She shakes her head and smiles a very strange smile.

WHAT?!

“This Student of the Year award goes to someone who has stepped out of their comfort zone,” Principal Fintan says. “They have participated in many extracurricular activities, including ballet and music, as well as becoming a part of the student council. They even made it into the news!”

I tune in. I already know it’s going to be Stella, but I need to distract myself from you know what.

“In the past, they have struggled to try new things and were, I quote, ‘super average.’”

I cringe on the inside. No way can it be Stella. She would never say that about herself. I really pity the person who did say that about themselves, though. They must be super embarrassed right now, especially since they’re being singled out from about 600 others.

“This year, they even tried to be more like one of their peers.” Oh my gosh. Whoever the Student of the Year is, they must be feeling doubly humiliated.

“But because of that, they have grown and become their own person. And I think it’s very fitting that on their last year of primary school they’ll get a milestone award.”

Okay. I’m feeling better about the whole situation. It’s actually not as urgent as I thought it was. Maybe. Just a few more minutes, Swifty, and you’re all done.

“So with that being said, I will now announce the Student of the Year. She likes to go by her nickname, but I think I’ll announce her by her real one. The Student of the Year is . . . drumroll everyone . . .”

I join in with the rest of the school and the parents. For each drumbeat, most people in the school will probably be thinking, Who is it? But instead, I’m thinking, I really need to go. I really need to go.

“Zendaya Appledoe!”

That poor person. They must really be peeing their pants right now, like I’m about to.

But then why are my classmates patting my back and saying, “Well done!” and, “Good on you. We really needed a change,” And why is Stella smiling her first humble smile in what, in my opinion, seems to be since the day she was born?

Why is my teacher holding my cold, shaky hand as I stumble down the auditorium steps, my legs wobbling like jelly on a cake? And why can I hear my parents screaming and clapping above everyone else, saying encouragingly, “Go for it, Swifty!” Why am I walking toward Principal Fintan on my own? And why is he shaking my hand and handing me a heavy, sparkling bronze trophy?

“Congratulations, Swifty,” he says, handing the microphone over to me. “Would you like to say anything?”

“Umm. . .” I glance at my parents and baby brother. “I’d like to dedicate this to my baby brother, because I want him to grow up proud of who he is. And obviously my parents.”

My tummy feels like it’s doing grand jetés. Is this a dream? And then suddenly, Mother Nature calls yet again.

I whisper something in Principal Fintan’s ear and looks like he’s going to laugh, but he nods.

And then I’m racing out of there, cold surprise curling around my mind.

Chapter 22

What just happened?!

My parents snap photos of me on their phones as I hold the gleaming school trophy. Dozens of names have been etched onto its surface, dating back to the 1930s, which is amazing.

I’ve only just realized this, but history is in my hands. Of course, I don’t get to keep it. But that’s okay. I’m still coming to grips with how I even won the trophy in the first place. I mean, how have I been chosen out of over 600 people? Stella should have gotten it. Right?

My tummy feels like it’s doing grand jetés. Is this a dream?

The noisy chatter of parents and teachers deafens me. My parents smile.

“I can’t believe you did it, Swifty!” My dad grins from ear to ear as he gets into another picture with me.

My mum smiles. “Looks like one of your friends is joining us.”

I turn around and see none other than Stella Chichester-Clark clacking toward me, her designer high heels clicking against the ground.

“Hey, Swifty!” she says, flicking her long, golden hair back from her face. She brushes her slightly poofy dress, nails painted a cherry blossom pink. The dress is mint green just like my jumpsuit. Well, leggings and a top.

I paste a small smile onto my face, like I would if I photoshopped a photo on a computer. What is Stella going to say?

“I just wanted to let you know . . . well done on winning Student of the Year.” She congratulates me, now twirling a lock of her hair around one of her clean fingers.

I don’t know what to say. Stella’s nice, but she doesn’t say congratulations very often. A smile spreads across my face before I can control it.

“Umm, thank you. Congrats to you too.” She grins.

“Hey, this’ll sound kinda random, but can we be friends?” Hang on. Stella asked me to be her friend?!

“It’s just that . . . I’ve noticed you’ve been copying me all year, and I thought that maybe . . . you wanted to hang out?”

Uh oh. This is super embarrassing. She knew all along while I was trying to keep it a secret.

“Err, sorry ab-b-bout th-that,” I stutter. I always speak funny when I’m nervous, which is kind of annoying.

“It’s fine. I knew you wanted to be just like me all along.”

I gasp in shock. That was so rude! Stella never—

“It’s a joke, Swifty! Your expression . . . I know you would never do that.” I cringe inside my head. If only you knew, Stella. If only you knew.

“Swifty, we’ve got to go now,” my mum whispers. She and Dad give me a quick hug and kiss before waving goodbye.

Almost a second after that, Brooke appears from the crowd, Karen dragging her along like a child with an oversized doll.

Karen pushes Brooke in front of me. “Brooke,” she snaps. “Say it.”

Karen hasn’t talked like that since dinosaurs ruled the Earth. She’s normally quiet and obliging.

“Mm, sorry,” Brooke mumbles.

“Sorry who?” Karen inquires.

“SWIFTY! Sorry, Swifty!” Brooke yells. She storms off, Karen trailing somewhat tiredly behind and waving to me. “Well done, Swifty!”

I smile anxiously. It feels weird that I’m getting so many compliments. But I brush the feeling off and turn back to Stella.

“Yes. Let’s be friends,” I answer her question confidently.

Epilogue

I feel like a lot of people say similar things to this, but I’m still going to say it too.

If you had asked me a few years ago to hang out with Stella every day, I would have said, “No way, José.” But here I am, sitting on a bench with Stella as we snack on our lunch, watching kids play rugby and hang from monkey bars.

It’s our first year of high school, and so far it’s going pretty well.

My brother, Zenith, has just turned three, which means he’s toddling around the house a lot. But he made up for it by saying his first word, my name: Zendaya.

Speaking of which, I’m not going by the nickname Swifty anymore. It’s like an old T-shirt I’ve grown out of.

I haven’t made any other new friends just yet, but Stella’s forced me to join the writing club at school, so I at least hang out with others. I think I’m actually okay at writing. Maybe.

If you had asked me what I thought of Stella a few years ago, I would’ve said, “Princessy, perfect, annoying.”

But if you look at her now, her blonde hair is slowly turning brown, and she’s actually quite disorganized.

“You can’t be perfect at everything,” she said one day after getting a D+ in art. I giggled and playfully shoved her away.

So I guess the moral of the story that I’m leaving you with is: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” And if you’ve quickly flicked through to the very end of the book you’re holding in your very hands right now, you shouldn’t be either.

But if you are, I still suggest you give this a try. Yes, there’s a cheesy ending, and yes, very clichéd, but yes, you should read it.

And this sounds kinda random, but . . .

People can change. You can change. Your view on books can change. iPhones can change. Towers, parks, and even countries can change.

And that’s what this book is about. Change.

Ariana Kralicek
Ariana Kralicek, 12
Auckland, New Zealand

Joey Vasaturo
Joey Vasaturo, 10
Colebrook, CT

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