Syd Callens moves to Augusta, GA six weeks before the start of ninth grade and her beloved father’s funeral. She’s overwhelmed by the city of 200,000, which compared to Vidalia, is a crazy-paced cultural mecca. Syd stubbornly withdraws, refusing to cry at her daddy’s burial: “I didn’t cry when he got sick and I didn’t cry when he got sicker. I was only angry that he left me.”
She wallows in grief, resisting help from her mother or anyone on the outside, including an extension of friendship from Seth, her first crush—a boy who’s already spoken for and whose eyes look like the deep end of the pool. She also deals with the ensuing humiliation that comes when a girl realizes that everyone at school has mistaken her for a boy.
Syd feels an instant connection to Mel, a fellow oddball who clunks around Greenbrier in army boots and dresses. The attraction turns to mistrust however, when Mel divulges a secret Sydney takes for a lie. The girls are mere inches from forging a friendship but then Mel mysteriously disappears, leaving Sydney alone to wonder what happened and to face daily abuse from Greenbrier’s two meanest bullies—Ashley and Megan.
BUY THE BOOK
It’s amazing how wrong you can be about somebody.
The day before Thanksgiving break, I was wearing my overalls and a faded Coca-Cola shirt, looking like any other normal thirteen-year-old freshman who could catch a fly ball in his sleep, which would have been fine—only I wasn’t a normal thirteen-year-old freshman who could catch. I was a freshgirl, and I hated baseball. I just happened to have real short hair ‘cause my momma was in beauty school at Shear Haven, and she was nervous and practiced her skills on me, a whole lot.
So my hair kept getting shorter, and people at Greenbrier High School had to look twice, especially girls who at first glance, from a distance, thought I was cute—and guys didn’t.
It was crazy hot for November—record weather, they were all sayin’—though not as hot as it would have been down in Vidalia that time of year. We were playing baseball for P.E., which I already said is like death on a biscuit, and I was in the outfield dreaming about all kinds of things, like how it would feel to fly and I missed a game-winning catch, which if I cared about sports, woulda’ made me feel sorry for being alive.
Ashley and Megan, the two meanest girls at our school, who ain’t even pretty but who are platinum blonde, boy-crazy, and wear Abercrombie so people forgive them for their meanness, walked up and asked what I was doing, but not in a nice way.
“Lookin’ for bugs,” I said and stared down at the grass.
“Bugs?” Megan said.
“Is not,” I said. “Entomologists do it all day.”
Megan just stared at me, dumb as a rock.
“Okay…Onion Girl.” Ashley giggled, tugged Megan on the sleeve, and then turned and walked away.
“Yeah, whatever,” Megan said, turning to follow Ashley.
Megan looked back over her shoulder.
“Her mom just bought those sneakers at Wal-Mart!”
They busted up laughing and ran off.
They’re the two who started calling me Onion Girl after Miss Thigpen asked me to stand and say something about myself. And because I couldn’t think of nothing else to say, I shared a story about Vidalia onions—how they were a freak accident that just happened to have a happy ending ‘cause folks started liking them, and nobody ever expected that. Anyway, I know a lot about these kinds of things ‘cause onion farming is what my daddy used to do.
The truth is, Ashley and Megan have no clue what entomologists are. And people who don’t know what entomologists are can’t exactly stand around and bicker about what an entomologist does or doesn’t do all day long. All they can do is roll their eyes, say, “whatever,” and run toward the infield, snickering and making fun of my Champion sneakers.
So. What if my mom did buy my sneakers at Wal-Mart?
I wore the Walmart sneakers to my daddy’s funeral. We buried him forty-eight hours before my first day of ninth grade. My feet were sweaty and bare inside those new shoes, and one heel had a fresh blister. I stood next to the pine casket, squinting in the sunlight while the preacher went on about Isaiah, saying stuff to console us, stuff about the Lord wiping away every tear and promises about Him coming down to deliver the dead from their graves and swallow up darkness.
“For the hour comes,” he quoted, “in which all in the tombs shall hear His voice, and come forth; they that have done good unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of judgment.”
Right when he said judgment, he clapped shut his Bible as loud as a magazine shoved into a shotgun, then he lowered his head and hunkered down on one knee; a Christian soldier in a foxhole.
It was a weird thing to witness. Nobody knew what to do. Some closed their eyes. Some of us pretended to close them. After a minute, the preacher raised an eyebrow and studied our faces, sympathetic and calm, but also slyly surveying the semicircle of downward-cast eyes.
“I testify as I kneel here before ya'll,” he swore, rising. “Jesus rose from the dust on the third day.”
And he said that after Jesus rose from the dust, Jesus walked around town, amazing every last soul ‘cause nobody figured he’d ever be back, especially Thomas who was just a big pain and wouldn't see the proof in the pudding. Jesus put an end to that nonsense by commanding Thomas to stick his finger in his wound.
“Let us bow our heads,” the preacher said. “Let us pray like Elijah.”
I prayed it would end. My arms burned. My cheeks broiled like pink salmon in the harsh August heat. There was no shade to speak of. But when the preacher wrapped up his prayer, he paused and looked over at me with different eyes, like he could see into my heart…like he got some weird premonition.
“Jesus knew a secret, Syd.”
He said my name, and I startled that he remembered it.
“Do you know what that secret was?”
I didn’t know the Son of God had any secrets, and if he had some, who was I to know what they were? I also had no idea what the preacher was getting at and that made me real nervous, so I just shuffled my feet and shrugged.
“Jesus knew that character is never made in ease and quiet but only through suffering.”
I nodded like someone who’s got the universe down.
“Suffering is a school, but it’s much harder than any other school, because in the school of suffering, we’re bent and we’re broken and we can only hope to emerge from our suffering better off, molded into something stronger and more useful than before.”
That's what the preacher said, and I thought it was pretty random to be honest, ‘cause my daddy suffered a whole lot in those last few months, and in the end he had nothing to show for his suffering. He was no better off than before. He wasn't any stronger. In fact, he was broken for good. But I didn’t argue with the preacher. I wasn’t about to call any preacher a fool. I just stood there nodding, listening to his message like everyone else.
Quite honestly though, I don’t put much stock in what any preacher says about the upside of suffering; any school that puts anyone through that sort of thing is messed up, if you ask me.
In fact, that whole week at Greenbrier was pretty messed up. Miss Boyd from the front office, with a little pinched face that made her seem like a bird, walked me down the ninth-grade hall and dumped me off outside Miss Thigpen’s class door like she was dumping off laundry.
“Here you go,” she chirped. “Miss Thigpen’s homeroom.”
She never asked if I had any questions. She never asked if I had anticipatory nausea. She didn’t even wait for me to open the door. She just checked her reflection in the glass window, ran her fingers through her hair, then without saying another word, turned and click-clacked down the hall in her heels. I loitered around, staring into the cabinet with a big slew of track and field trophies. A janitor was mopping the already clean tile. The whole place reeked of Pine-Sol. Four seniors whizzed by and one near bowled me over. My books fell to the floor, but the girls kept on going. They didn’t see me, I guess. They were too busy chattering about “twin day” and what T-shirts they were gonna tie-dye to look like quadruplets.
I picked up my stuff.
If Miss Boyd bothered to ask, I would’ve said, “It’s not like I never expected this day was coming. It’s just that I never had to move before. And I never had to go to a new school in a new town, and I never had to bury my daddy. I guess I just thought high school would be so different. I never imagined everything would feel so gloomy and strange.”
Back in Vidalia, I’d been all kinds of things: flagpole specialist, 4H leader, Quiz Bowl president and whatnot. And I was all of those things ‘cause back in Vidalia there were never enough bodies to go around, and that made you feel special. But here in the city, there were more bodies than there were things to be, and everyone wanted to be something. There were loads of people, cars, and traffic, and everyone was always in a big rush. Around Augusta, it was harder to feel special, and it was harder to feel important, and it was harder not to feel like a big sack of laundry—the kind somebody dumps off and no one has time to sort through.
I stood in the hall, looking in every direction ‘cross hundreds of lockers, every which way. The Pine-Sol was so strong I sneezed twice in a row, but no one said “bless you.” The janitor never even looked over; he just kept scrubbing away. He might’ve been hard of hearing, maybe even a little blind. That man was two hundred years old, his hands all bent and knobby as scrub oak. I bet he lived all alone in a plain singlewide, but I envied him anyhow ‘cause he could scrub all he wanted and no one would fuss at him or expect any different. You might think scrubbing tile sounds about as fun as sitting around watching the carpet grow, but I wouldn’t mind ‘cause scrubbing the tile seemed a lot simpler than what I was about to go through.
I stared through the class window. Miss Thigpen stood at the front of the room in a big fussy blouse the color of key limes. She wore a string of fake pearls. You could just tell she was one of those teachers real stuck on the eighties. The girls sat at desks with sequined bags slung over their chairs. They looked right straight out of Lenox Plaza, the kind of girls who spend Saturday afternoon at Claire’s or in the food court at the mall.
I glanced down at my T-shirt. A beluga was jumping up from a pool of water under a black, starry sky. Ripples rolled away in perfect rings to aurora borealis. My eyes followed them to the right and kept going, past the janitor, past the lockers, all the way to the exit door at the end of the hall where I presently stood. Light glowed through the glass, first dim and then bright like even the sun couldn’t make up its own mind. On the other side of the glass, there was a parking lot—packed full—and beyond it a field. The field was an eyesore full of clover, and St. Augustine, drought-resistant grass with a mind of its own.
I must’ve stood there awhile ‘cause the janitor suddenly rolled by, steering his bucket with the mop handle like a rudder. His name tag said Pedro. Pedro smiled at me wide, the way people smile—people who don’t know how to say things in perfect English. He smiled like even though he knew he was missing some important teeth, everything was still gonna be fine. He smiled like I should shake off my hesitation, like I should go on inside.
I looked back toward the glass at the light pouring in, and then I took a deep breath like I did in Vidalia whenever my toes were perched on the edge of our pool and I was about to jump in cold water for the first time. Pedro’s smile was the little shove I needed, because after he smiled, I did something I knew I could never take back once I’d done it. I turned the knob on the door to Miss Thigpen’s classroom and took three steps inside.