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Eve could feel them staring.
As the homeroom bell rang on Monday morning, the room filled with the buzz of cell phones. When Eve looked around to see what was going on, dozens of eyes pointed in her direction. It was as if a spotlight had illuminated her.
Eve focused on the notebook in front of her, ignoring the rising commotion in the room. She didn’t want to know why a few girls in the back of homeroom had begun to cry and some boys had started to snicker, or why the back of her head had suddenly become so fascinating to people. Whatever was happening, it couldn’t be good.
“Enough,” Eve heard Mr. Flynn groan. “Phones down.”
The room ignored him. Eve picked up a pen.
Over the summer, each student had to choose a person to read about for the biography project they’d be doing in eighth grade. At one of Eve’s weekly trips to the library, she’d discovered a dusty, old collection of Emily Dickinson’s poems and chosen her. And then one night, Eve scratched a pen over a blank page, and before she knew it, she had filled a notebook with poetry of her own. But she’d never shown a soul, not even her best friend, Nessa. No way.
That morning, she attempted a poetry exercise she’d read about in one of her thoroughly dog-eared creative writing manuals, in which you take a line from a famous poem and try to write your own poem following it.
The line, by Walt Whitman, read: I am large, I contain multitudes …
Eve tried to think of a line to follow.
I am large, she began writing. Well, she felt large recently, at least certain parts of her body did. This past summer had been what Nessa called Eve’s “summer of the curves.” Her clothing size had significantly altered, and she wore a lot of her big brother’s old shirts these days.
“I contain multitudes…” What did that even mean?
I contain, she tried again.
But as she wrote, Mr. Flynn hovered by her desk, his fingertips grazing the edge of her notebook.
She looked up, expecting a rebuke, the usual reminder that she needed to pay attention. But Mr. Flynn merely stood there, surveying the scene. “What’s going on here?” he asked the room.
Eve forced herself to look around and had the same question.
One girl openly wept.
Two boys huddled around a phone, cackling and crying out “Oh man!”
And several kids sat there peering directly at Eve.
It seemed like they’d noticed her for the first time. One girl, Mari, glared at her as if Eve were a new dark mole appearing after a day in the sun, and a boy named Auggie gawked at her like she’d manifested out of thin air in a puff of smoke.
She snapped back to her paper.
Why were they looking at her?
Words. Focus on words.
I am large, I contain multitudes.
Once more, Eve tried to write what came next.
But they were still staring. She could feel it. The eyes shooting stares at the back of her head felt like hot sparks of oil spritzing off a stove onto her skin.
“Okay, can someone please fill me in?” Mr. Flynn mumbled as one of the kids offered him her phone.
His eyes widened. “Oh lord,” Mr. Flynn murmured, glued to the screen.
Eve registered a tap on her shoulder. The tap belonged to Miranda Garland, the girl who had sat behind her for over two years of homeroom. They’d hardly spoken before.
“Hey,” Miranda said. “I’ve been meaning to ask you for a long time … Where did you get that necklace with the little hand? It’s so cute.”
Eve did one of those “Are you talking to me?” gestures, and Miranda nodded.
“From my grandmother?” Eve answered, hesitant. Her bubbe had given it to her for her bat mitzvah over the summer, and the little hamsa hung on a silver chain around her neck every day. It was no big deal. Why was Miranda suddenly interested in this?
Out of the corner of her eye, Eve caught a face in the classroom door’s window. It was Nessa, motioning for her to come out.
Eve glanced toward Nessa and then Mr. Flynn. He stood next to a group of distraught kids, distracted. Eve sneaked out the classroom door.
“Did you see the list?” Nessa pulled Eve in close.
Maybe it was all about the cast list. Mr. Rhodes was supposed to announce the cast for The Music Man any day now. Maybe there’d been an upset, an unexpected casting decision. Eve momentarily worried for Nessa, the lead contender for the role of Marian the librarian. Nessa was “born to be a Broadway diva,” she’d always say, whereas standing on a stage in front of a bunch of people probably qualified as Eve’s worst nightmare.
“You got the part, right?” Eve asked.
“No! Well, I mean, I’m sure I did. But that’s not the list I’m talking about.”
Nessa handed Eve her phone.
And in the glow of Nessa’s screen, Eve saw it. She took in the series of numbers in tiny type, one to fifty, and there, in the number one spot, she saw her own name.
“It’s a list of the top fifty girls in eighth grade,” Nessa whispered.
“But my last name starts with H!” Eve felt stupid even as she spoke, already knowing that she was far behind on whatever was going on.
“It’s the top fifty prettiest, Evie.” Nessa put a hand on her shoulder, pointing to the heading of the list where THE PRETTIEST 8TH GRADERS OF FORD MIDDLE SCHOOL had been typed out in all caps. “You’re number one.”
It was true that Eve didn’t hate the way she looked. She liked her tight, coffee-colored curls and the way they lay on her shoulders. But her new body presented a person light years away from the person Eve felt like inside. She wanted to slide by, unnoticed, pretty enough but not too pretty, for as long as she could.
So “number one prettiest”? No way. Eve could think of a hundred other girls who deserved that spot.
All those thoughts swirled in her brain in a millisecond and came out of her mouth in a “Huh?” right as Brody Dixon, the school-wide idol of sixth and seventh grade groupies, strutted by and stopped where Eve and Nessa stood.
He flicked a hall pass against his palm.
Slap. Slap. Slap.
“Hey, Eve Hoffman.” He said her name as if he was trying the sounds out for the first time to see how they felt coming from his mouth. “Congrats.” He continued on his saunter down the hallway.
At this, Eve slid back inside the classroom door just in time to hear Mr. Flynn end some kind of speech to three of the boys in the back of the classroom.
“This is an unacceptable way for anyone to behave!” he boomed. “Out in the real world, this would get you fired from a job. Here, maybe it’ll get you expelled. You know what? The bell’s going to ring any minute. Just pack up your things.”
He turned to Eve and gave her a look she interpreted as “I’m so sorry for what’s about to happen to you.”
And what would happen?
As Eve jammed her notebook into her backpack, she did everything she could to avoid meeting all those leering faces.
She repeated Walt Whitman’s line over and over to herself, like a prayer. “I am large, I am large, I am large…” But they were the wrong words for that day. Because if she could have made one wish in that moment, it would have been to drink the potion that Alice takes in Wonderland and turn so small that she disappeared entirely.
Copyright © 2020 by Brigit Young