EMMY WAS A GOOD GIRL. At least she tried very hard to be good.
She did her homework without being told. She ate all her vegetables, even the slimy ones. And she never talked back to her nanny, Miss Barmy, although it was almost impossible to keep quiet, some days.
Of course no one can keep this kind of thing up forever. But Miss Barmy had told Emmy that if she were a good girl, her parents would probably want to see her more often; and so Emmy kept on bravely trying.
So far it hadn't helped. Emmy's parents went on one vacation after another--to Paris, to Salamanca, to the Isle of Bugaloo--and hardly ever seemed to come home, or even to miss her at all.
"If you did better in school, I'm sure they would be pleased," said Miss Barmy, admiring her polished fingernails.
This was unjust. "My last report card was all A's," Emmy said sturdily, remembering how hard she had worked for them.
"But not a single A+, dear." Miss Barmy smiled sweetly, checking her lipstick in a pocket mirror. "And how are your ballet lessons coming? Are you getting any less clumsy?"
Emmy's shoulders slumped. She had tripped just last week.
"Really, Emmaline, your parents might pay attention to you, if you ever did anything worth paying attention to. Why don't you bring home some more ribbons and trophies?"
"I have a whole shelfful," Emmy said faintly.
"You'll just have to try a little harder, dear. Fill two shelves."
So Emmy did. Not that anyone noticed.
Still, Miss Barmy said that good girls didn't care too much about being noticed--so Emmy tried not to care.
She really was a little too good.
Which is why she liked to sit by the Rat.
The Rat was not good at all.
When the children at Grayson Lake Elementaryreached in to feed him, he snapped at their fingers. When they had a little trouble with fractions, he sneered. And he often made cutting remarks in a low voice when the teacher was just out of earshot.
Emmy was the only one who heard him. And even she wondered sometimes if she was just imagining things.
One Wednesday in May, when not one person had seemed to notice her all morning, Emmy asked to stay indoors for recess. "I have spelling to study," she explained to Mr. Herbifore.
The teacher, hurrying out after his class, didn't look at her as he nodded permission. At least Emmy thought he had nodded.
"Thank you," said Emmy. And then she heard something that sounded oddly like a snort.
She looked at the Rat, and he snorted again. He was scowling, as usual.
"Why are you always so mean?" Emmy wondered aloud.
She didn't expect the Rat to answer. She'd tried to speak to him before, and he had always pretended not to hear.
But this time he curled his upper lip. "Why are you always so good?"
Emmy was too startled to respond.
The Rat shrugged one furry shoulder. "It doesn't get you anywhere. Just look at you--missing recess to study words you could spell in your sleep--and the only thing that happens is, you get ignored."
Emmy looked away. It was true.
Her parents never answered the letters she sent, even though she copied them over for neatness and gave them to Miss Barmy to mail.
Her teacher kept forgetting her name, even though she had made a placard for her desk that said EMMY in big red letters edged with silver glitter.
And she didn't want to tell the Rat, but she didn't mind missing recess at all. For Emmy, recess was a time when she felt more alone than ever.
"The bad ones get all the attention," said the Rat. "Try being bad for once. You might like it."
Emmy thought about being bad. It had its appeal.
If she were bad, she could stick out her tongue at Miss Barmy. She could call her parents long distance whenever she wanted. She could climb on her deskin school and scream until the other kids had to notice her ...
"No one will like me if I'm bad," she said.
"No one likes you anyway," said the Rat bluntly.
Emmy frowned. "Well, they don't dislike me."
"That's right," the Rat answered promptly. "Nobody likes you, nobody dislikes you, nobody cares about you either way. You're a big nothing, if you ask me."
"I didn't," said Emmy with some spirit.
The Rat's whiskers twitched. "That's the first time I've heard you sound like anything but a piece of wet bread. Why don't you stand up for yourself more often?"
"Listen," Emmy said, "it's not like I don't try--"
"Yesterday, when that girl with the ponytail butted in line, you let her. And when that kid who sits across from you, the soccer star, the freckled one with hair that looks like a haystack--"
"Yeah, him. Well, when Haystack Hair was walking backward and stepped on your foot, you said 'Sorry.'"
"I was just being nice," said Emmy, stung.
"You're too nice," said the Rat sharply. "A little meanness is good for the soul. I highly recommend it."
Emmy lifted her chin. "Being mean doesn't get you anywhere. Nobody pets you. Nobody plays with you."
"I get what I want," said the Rat, showing his long, yellow teeth. "I get respect, which is more than I can say for you."
Emmy glared at him. "You get respect? You live in a cage."
The Rat looked stunned.
"Well, it's true," Emmy said crossly. "Don't tell me you haven't noticed. You know, the bars, the lock on the door ..."
The Rat's whiskers trembled. "You're not being very nice."
"Nice? I thought a little meanness was good for the--"
"Most people don't mention it. Most people know better than to taunt a rodent about his ... unfortunate situation."
"Look, you were the one who said--"
"It's not my fault I'm locked up!" The Rat's voice quavered pathetically. "I committed no crime! Have Isurvived kidnapping from the nest, unjust imprisonment, and absolutely appalling food"--he gave his dish of pellets a contemptuous kick--"only to be mocked by a little child?"
"I'm bigger than you," Emmy began hotly, "and you were the one who said I shouldn't be so nice--"
"But not to me! It's different when you're mean to me!"
"Oh, right," said Emmy.
There was a thunder of footsteps and a clatter of voices in the hall. Emmy watched resignedly as her classmates poured in, laughing and talking. They all seemed friendly enough--to one another--but no matter how Emmy tried, they just looked right through her as though she weren't there.
Why were things so different here? At her old school, she had had lots of friends. But then her parents had inherited all that money and moved across town to live in Great-Great-Uncle William's old mansion on the shores of Grayson Lake, and after that a lot of things had changed.
Maybe it's me, Emmy thought dismally. Maybe I've turned into some horrible person and I don't even know it.
She opened a book and bent her head, letting her straight brown hair fall around her face like a curtain. But as the children around her quieted down, she heard a small sob.
Emmy peeked sideways. The Rat had retreated to the far corner of his cage, his face buried in his forepaws. He looked as if he were sleeping. But Emmy saw the Rat's gray shoulders heave, and after a while one small paw emerged to wipe the corner of his eye.
Poor Rat. For all his tough talk, he was awfully sensitive. Apparently she shouldn't have mentioned his cage.
"Sorry," she whispered. And then the phone on the teacher's desk rang.
"Emma? Emmaline Addison?" Mr. Herbifore gazed out over the heads of his students.
Emmy stood up.
"No, I don't see her," he said into the phone.
Joe Benson snickered.
Emmy walked forward and stood by the teacher's desk. What did she have to do, she wondered, bewildered. Throw firecrackers under his chair? Hang from the ceiling and make like a monkey?
She tugged at the teacher's sleeve and spoke loudly in his ear. "Here I am, Mr. Herbifore."
The teacher stared at her doubtfully. "Oh? Are you sure?" He looked puzzled. "Well, you're wanted in Dr. Leander's office."
Emmy knocked grumpily at Dr. Leander's door. She hated visiting the psychologist. She already had to sit there an hour every other week, just making up stuff for him to write in his blue notebook; why did she have to go again?
The door opened. Emmy stepped back.
"Hello, dear," said Miss Barmy.
The nanny had soft dark hair and green eyes, rimmed with gold like a cat's. Her lipstick was a slick pink, and when she smiled she showed a glimpse of perfectly even teeth, like a row of white chisels.
Dr. Leander was gazing at her with open admiration. Men always did admire Miss Barmy; Emmy didn't know why.
Maybe it was the odd cane she carried that everyone found so fascinating. Or maybe men thought she was pretty. Years ago, Emmy knew, Miss Barmy had won abeauty contest. But in spite of that, Emmy thought the nanny's face looked hard, as if all the makeup were a polished pink shell that no one could crack.
"Now then, Emmaline, Dr. Leander has kindly offered us the use of his conference room."
The psychologist opened a side door with a grand gesture.
Emmy sat down stiffly. "Have I done something wrong?"
Miss Barmy brushed a fleck from her linen cuff. "Well, you did contradict me this morning about the time of your parents' arrival."
Emmy frowned. Her parents' plane was supposed to land tomorrow evening at five thirty, she had been sure. But Miss Barmy had insisted the correct time was an hour later.
And this was so important that she had to miss class?
Don't, Emmy thought fiercely, don't tell me I can't meet them at the airport.
Miss Barmy smiled. "Never fear--you can still drive with Jems to the airport. I know how precious are the tender bonds between parent and child ..."
How did Miss Barmy manage to guess Emmy's thoughts so often? It was creepy.
" ... yet when you contradict me, clearly something is not in balance. Perhaps the vitamin cell repositories ... or the beta-hydroxy of the brain. You could even be having an epidermal skin sensitivity ..."
Emmy flinched. The last time Miss Barmy had identified a skin problem, she had given Emmy a special tonic to cleanse her inner system. Unfortunately, it had turned her face a vivid orange for a whole week.
Another time, Miss Barmy had taken Emmy off sugar for months, saying she was trying to discover if Emmy's behavior problems were allergy related. Emmy had almost cried on her tenth birthday, when everyone else was given an exceptionally large slice of five-layer chocolate cake--and she got a tofu bar.
" ... but the herbology inoculum is, I think, the best solution, and I trust you'll soon feel the corrective effect of the proper reflexology balance. There, Emmaline, drink it all, and you'll feel ever so much better."
Emmy looked with distaste at the bottle of Spring Peach Essence to which Miss Barmy had added three drops from a small, unlabeled vial. The liquid turned from pale pink to swirling violet and emitted a faint puff of vapor.
"Quickly, now, before the vitamin distillate is absorbed by the ozone!" Miss Barmy spoke sharply. "Or I will keep you in your room when your parents come!"
Emmy shut her eyes, held her nose, and gulped the liquid down. She had to see her parents first thing. They had been gone for weeks, and the ride home from the airport was always the best. Snuggled between her mom and dad in the back seat, laughing and talking, it was almost like the old days, before they had moved from the apartment above their bookstore--before Miss Barmy.
Miss Barmy dropped the vial into her square lizard-skin purse and closed the jaws with a snap. Dr. Leander stood hastily as she opened the door.
"Thank you ever so much," Miss Barmy said sweetly. "Emmaline forgot to take her medicine, and I had to give a corrective dose."
"Of course," said Dr. Leander, holding on to MissBarmy's hand longer than was strictly necessary. "Please call on me anytime, anytime at all."
Emmy trudged back to her classroom, hoping that her face hadn't turned blue, or pimply, or that her hair hadn't started to fall out. Why did Miss Barmy keep giving her medicine? She was never sick. And she didn't have mental problems, so why did the nanny keep setting up appointments with the psychologist?
"I'm not the one who's crazy," Emmy muttered to the Rat as she sat down.
But the Rat was still sulking and wouldn't look at her. So Emmy wrote a note, rolled it up tight, and pushed it between the bars of the Rat's cage just as the bell rang. She didn't bother to make sure no one was watching her, because no one ever did.
"Hey, Emmy," whispered Joe Benson, grinning all over his freckled face, "are you sure that rat can read?"
Text copyright © 2007 by Lynne Jonell. Illustrations copyright © 2007 by Jonathan Bean. All rights reserved.