Broken

Broken

A Chapter by Mojo HIll

Alone.

They make it seem like such a bad thing. “Why are you all alone?” “Why are you all by yourself?”

Well, maybe I want to be by myself. Ever thought of that?

I know, that’s such a crazy concept. It’s practically quantum physics.

Everyone views the word “alone” as such a terrible thing, like it’s against the law to sit and eat lunch by yourself. You always have to be “talking” and “socializing” with people. It just irks me, you know? Like okay, fine. Maybe some people like to talk to each other all the time. And that’s completely fine with me; you don’t see me going around to different tables telling people to stop talking. And maybe sometimes I like talking to people, too. It’s not like I’m completely against talking to people or anything. I just prefer to enjoy life by myself, you know? It’s peaceful.

Being alone is the most underrated state of living in existence. When you’re alone, you can talk to yourself. You can listen to yourself. You can make jokes that only you understand. When you’re by yourself, you can play the games that you want to play and go to the places that you want to go. You don’t have to negotiate with anyone first or ask your parents’ permission. You just go and do it. If you want, you can ride on an elephant through Africa, or explore the Antarctic, or soar through the depths of outer space in your very own rocket ship. See, we may be limited in what we can physically do on this Earth, but the possibilities of where our mind can take us are endless.

So yes, fat kid who sits behind me in class. I would like to sit by myself today. No, I don’t need anyone to accompany me or “make conversation.” That’s what Buddy is for. And yes, I’m perfectly happy this way, so you don’t need to go to tell a teacher that I’m sitting by myself and therefore that means I’m “lonely.”

I hate the word “lonely” even more than I hate the word “alone.” Being lonely is a bad thing. I’ll admit that. No one wants to be lonely. But people assume that just because I’m alone, that that means I’m lonely. No, I’m not lonely. Does a kid who’s best friends with his pillow sound like someone who’s lonely to you? I didn’t think so.

I’m not lonely. I just like being alone. In fact, I really like being alone. Being alone is my favorite thing to do in the entire world.

I’m just sitting at my table, all alone, having the time of my life.

Alone.


Third Grade


“Greetings. I am the evil Dr. Robot. Here to destroy you.”

“Oh, Dragony! You have to save me or this robot is gonna destroy me!”

“I’m sorry, Professor T-Rex! He’s too powerful. There’s nothing I can do!”

BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.

“Dragony, do something! He’s coming closer! Breathe your fire at him or something!”

“You fool! Fire can’t harm robots. Everybody knows that robots are built out of fire-repellent metal! Use your head, Professor T-Rex!”

“Well you have to do something or I’m gonna die!”

“You’re a giant dinosaur, for Christ’s sake! Can’t you just bite him or something? Now I’m gonna fly out of here so I don’t get myself killed. It’s up to you to get yourself out of this mess. You’re a professor, aren’t you supposed to be smart?”

“No, please, Dragony! Stop! Don’t fly away �" no! Please! Come back! No…please…no…why would you leave me here like this?! I’m gonna die all alone! Please! Noooooo…”


“Come on Joey, put your toys down. It’s time for school.”

“But Mama, the evil Dr. Robot is about to attack the genius Professor T-Rex!”

“Ha ha, well you certainly have quite an imagination there, little guy. But come on. We’re going to be late.”

“Ugh, fine. Okay Professor T-Rex, I’ll finish the story when I get home from school. Don’t worry, I’ll find a way to make you defeat Dr. Robot. The good guys always win in my stories.”


“Okay Joey, we’re here. Your class is in room 12 with…let’s see here…oh yeah, that’s right. Mrs. Gold. I’ve heard she’s a great teacher, I think you’re gonna love her. Now come on Joey, see all these kids running around? These are your friends! Why don’t you go introduce yourself to them?”

“No.”

“Come on Joey, maybe you can tell them about your stories. I’m sure they’d be fascinated to hear about all your wonderful creations and imaginative ideas!”

“No they won’t.”

“Why do you say that? Your stories are so creative, I’m sure they’ll love them! Just go over there and start a conversation.”

“Um…okay.”

POW. BOOM. Each step is a giant stomping his foot on the ground, the planet trembling with every touch.

“Um…hi. Mm. My name is Joey.”

“Oh, wassup Jody. We were just talkin’ about the new scooters our parents got us. What kinda scooter you got?”

“Oh, um…I don’t have a scooter. Um, sorry.”

“Logan, can you get a load of this kid? He don’t have a scooter!”

“Bro, that’s freaking pathetic man. This kid must be poor as hell. Hey kid, what’d you say your name was again?”

“Uh…Joey.”

“Yeah kid, Jody, what do you even do on weekends then if you don’t got a scooter?”

“Yo he probably rides bikes or some lame crap like that.”

“Bikes are so second grade.”

“Bro, what a freakin’ lame-a*s.”

“Hey, watch your language around the kid, man! He don’t know big boy words yet. His mommy thinks he’s too sweet and precious to expose him to the horrors of ‘bad words.’”

Breathe.

“Oh, I have to, um, go. Sorry.”

“Yeah you better go, kid. Go over there and hug your mommy. Only girl you’ll ever hug in your life.”

“Heh, good one Jack!”

“That kid is so quiet and weird.”

“Bro, I think the dude’s a retard.”

“What’s his problem anyway?”

“I’ll bet he gets that retardation from his parents.”

“Since when does this school accept retards anyway? If I was a retard like him I wouldn’t even want to go to school. I’d just kill myself so no one would ever have to see me.”


I don’t understand how they have so many friends. Like, what is it about them that makes them more popular than me? I’m cool, I’m funny, or at least so I thought. But it’s like I’m a friend repellent in a field of friend magnets.

I just don’t get the point of school. I don’t even learn anything. And it’s not the academics that are the problem; I do fine in most of my subjects. School is just a social nightmare, a field of anxiety and angst for 35 hours a week. From the moment I stepped foot in my classroom on the first day of kindergarten, I knew I was destined for bigger, better, and more exciting things. I knew that someday, people would look up to me as a hero instead of just viewing me as the weird kid who sits in the corner and talks to himself.

But for now, I’m sitting in Mrs. Gold’s third grade history class. Ugh. The absolute worst.

School has always made me question whether I’m really interested in the world the way that I thought I was. Case in point, Mrs. Gold’s treacherous third grade history class. I thought I loved history�" no, I know I love history. I write about history all the time in my stories. I write thrilling adventure stories about Nazis traveling to ancient Egypt and Barack Obama joining the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And those are awesome. I do the research and have lots of fun with it, cranking out hundreds of pages on a regular basis. But man, just the dullness and lifelessness of Mrs. Gold’s voice makes me want to poke my eyes out.

Oh yeah, probably should have mentioned that I’m a writer. Writing is just something that’s come to me naturally for as long as I can remember. Before I could physically write but I knew how to form words, I would draw these pretty trash-looking pictures to try and represent the ideas that were racing within my brain, and then I would dictate what I was thinking to my dad, who would nicely and neatly print the words in small letters below my wild drawings. I’ll make one thing clear: I am not an artist.

When I was four, I wrote my first full-length story. Well, “full-length” meaning three typed pages with 20-point font, but it was progress. To be honest, I hardly remember what it was about. What I do remember is that it was about a green superhero who, like, saved the world or something like that.

I wrote a 120-page story called “When the World Turns Blue” in the first grade, still my proudest achievement. If you’re wondering what the plot is, it’s just what it sounds like: Everything in the world turns�" you guessed it�" blue, and thus, chaos and hilarity ensue. It’s a great read, honestly, I would highly recommend it. Just shoot me an email and I’ll hook you up with a copy for free.

I’m currently in the process of planning my next novel, “When I Was Alive,” which is going to carry a much darker and more serious theme. I won’t give away any spoilers, though.

Right, so where was I? Oh yeah, I’m sitting in Mrs. Gold’s third grade history class. Ugh, still? Jesus, I went through all that and only two minutes went by. The only positive is that it’s a good time to let my mind run and form new ideas and adventures. 

The main thing I want to think about right in this moment is obviously the new novel I’m about to start working on. None of this “school” garbage. Nothing eventful ever happened in this dump. I need to keep training to eventually fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a world famous novelist. That’s right, that was my biggest dream for as long as I can remember. Just thinking about someday getting a book published gave me goosebumps. Yours truly, Joey Hill, will be a famous author with long lines of people waiting for me to sign a copy of one of my bestsellers. Wow…I’ll eventually make thousands of dollars and become a happily married man with three�" 

“What do you think, Joey?” 

Suddenly, my racing mind comes to a halt and everyone’s dreary and sagging eyes are all pointed in my direction, especially Mrs. Gold’s, whose face simply never changes expressions.

Okay, yeah, I am getting a little ahead of myself. For now I just have to focus on getting through the school day.

“W-what?” I panic, for some reason worrying obsessively over what everyone is thinking of me in this moment despite the fact that I could not care less.

“I am asking you to share with the class your opinion on this matter.”

“Oh, um…” I try to pretend that I know what’s going on, but the thing is, like…I don’t. So after 2.7 deafening seconds of torturous awkward silence, I softly muster out, “I agree.”

But Mrs. Gold is not stopping. “You agree with which part specifically?”

“Oh, uh…what you said.”

Mrs. Gold just responds with a blank, stern stare. Then, for once in her life, she starts to get a little bit feisty.

“You know what, Joey? If you’re not going to be bothered to pay attention in class, then you can step in the hallway for a timeout.”
My brain freezes to cold hard ice as a frog belches out a swarm of butterflies in my stomach. I’m afraid to stand up because people will realize that I’m shaking like I’m in the middle of a snowstorm with no clothes on, even though it’s 85 degrees in this cramped little classroom with broken AC. I don’t even know what to do. I’ve  never been in trouble before. I hate, absolutely loathe, the feeling of getting in trouble. It's just the worst. But I’ve never even felt like this before, this is something new and unexplainable. I feel like I’ve made the worst possible failure a human being could possibly make and I’m just a disgrace to everyone. I’ll never be respected by anyone again and I should just go kill myself to make life easier for everyone.

“Joey, I asked you to step outside.”

Well I have to obey her command, so after being frozen for fifteen seconds that felt like fifteen years, I jolt up out of my seat, nearly tripping over one of the legs of the chair. I’m already dreading the walk of shame, traveling the very long distance from my seat to the door and out into the hallway. 

But as I start walking, the experience is nothing like how I’ve envisioned it in the exhilarating buildup while sitting in my seat. As I take each slow step, I can’t see anything. It’s all a blur as my mind does leaps and bounds and goes into territories I didn’t even know existed. And before I know it, I’ve exited the classroom, and am standing by all the cubbies with everyone’s backpacks and belongings.

I’m out of the classroom, but the anxiety is yet to fade away. Yikes, this is bad. I’m still shaken up, and not even close to ready to relax yet or, God forbid, think about literally anything in the world except the situation that I’m in right now. As soon as my mind even thinks about veering off into, say, something like the new novel I was planning to write, the guilt and depression attained from that episode sets in and shuts down those thoughts, forcing my mind to gravitate right back to the traumatizing experience of being sent into a timeout in third grade.

I’m alone in the silent hallway, where I can hear even the most subtle noises from the slightest creak and crack. I feel like I’ve been thrusted into one of those movies where everyone in the world dies and I’m the only person left on Earth. 

What on Earth is wrong with me, though? How could I be so dumb? You go to school to learn. That’s what you do. If you don’t learn, you can’t get a job, and you can’t be successful in life. I can’t even bother to pay attention to Mrs. Gold’s freaking history rant! Jesus Christ! If I can’t be of purpose and value to the world, then what good am I? Just some kid who likes to type away at his computer in his free time? What did that contribute to the world? I’m nothing. I am a complete and utter failure, and I don’t have a place on this Earth.

I have to get out of here. I can’t bear it any longer. Nobody will miss me. So with literally no thought process or rhyme or reason whatsoever, I sprint out the door and out to the playground, where there is still not a soul to be found. But at this point, I don’t care if anyone is around or not. My goal is to escape.

I sprint to the gate, for some reason just assuming that it will be open. But of course, because it was school hours at an elementary school, the gate is locked so dumb kids like me can’t just run out. That actually makes a lot of sense, but I’m not in the mood for sense. So I jump onto the gate and start to try and climb it. I actually make some progress, climbing up a few feet before misstepping, losing my grip, and falling a dramatic descent of nearly three feet.

With the impact of my fall, everything seemingly starts to make sense again. Dang. I just fell. That hurt, and I probably shouldn’t do that again. 

Good, good. Some true, logical, sound reasoning is finally entering my little head. 

I’m still laying here on the asphalt, and I look down at my legs and see an ugly little scrape across my left knee. I’m bleeding.

Creak. Creak.

Much to my surprise and momentary confusion, the gate starts to creak open. When it fully opens, a short, chubby little Hispanic woman with frizzy black hair appears, holding hands with a little blonde-haired girl with pigtails who looks to be about my age. I ‘m usually not too into people, or especially girls for that matter, but I do like the look of her pointy little nose and mild array of freckles in just a few little spots near her cheeks. I don’t know why, but something about this girl just seems like she’d be a nice friend.

Eh, shut up. Probably just more hallucinations from my fall. I don’t connect with people, it’s just not my thing.

The Hispanic lady, who isn’t much taller than the little girl, looks at my scrape and gasps. “Oh, honey, are you okay? Do you need some help?”

“Oh, uh- I’m okay,” I murmur.

“What?” She can’t hear me. Guess I wasn’t loud enough?
“I’m okay,” I croak out just a little bit but not that much louder.

“Here baby, let me help you up,” and the lady offers me her hand. I begrudgingly grab it and let her pull me up off the ground. She asks me what I was doing out of class and I just tell her that I had to go to the bathroom. Yep, that’s convincing. I want no part of any of this, so I just tell her that I’ll go back to class, and I do just that, running back to my little timeout spot in the hallway like nothing had happened. Man, what was I thinking for trying to run away like that?

The thing I’ll remember most, though, is the look of that little girl right before I headed back to class. She had given me a glance with a subtle but powerful little smile on her face. It was a simple face, and she didn’t open her mouth or say one word, but she had given me a look like she understood me. Something I had shared with no human being before (as much as I loved my parents, they didn’t connect with me like that). But I don’t know the girl’s name, and I have no idea why she was so late to school like that, and I have no idea who the Hispanic lady is. So it doesn’t matter. I just have to focus on the one thing I cared about in life, and that’s writing my stories.


I’m in my room on Saturday morning, furiously typing away at my new story. I want to organize and plan it out, but I just can’t wait to regurgitate my ideas onto the computer screen. Before I know it, with the blink of an eye I’ve written 5000 words.

I don’t want to brag or anything, but I’m feeling pretty good about this one. I’m certain that “When I Was Alive” is the best thing I had ever written. I don’t wanna give too much away. But basically, it’s about a kid who gets hit by a car, dies, goes to heaven, and finds out that each soul lives fifty lives before disappearing into oblivion. He had only just completed his first life. He meets a girl in heaven that he becomes best friends with, and a bunch of other crazy stuff happens that I’ll get to later. Man, this is gonna be so good!

My thought process is interrupted when I hear the loud creak of my dad walking down the stairs. Ugh, he’s going to want to talk to me. Why does he always have to get up so early on Saturday mornings?

“Good morning son,” he says upon entering my room.

I barely acknowledge him, trying to ignore him and stay locked in to the process of writing my story.

“How was school yesterday, son?” My dad sits down on the chair in my room next to my computer chair.

Well I’m trying to show him that I’m busy, but apparently that message isn’t getting across very well. 

“Good,” I mumble, still refusing to make eye contact with him as I stare intently at my computer.

We sit here frozen in complete silence for a few more seconds, my eyes glued to the computer screen while my dad just stares at me waiting for more of a response. After he realizes I’m not going to budge, he breaks the silence by asking me, “Are ya making any friends at school?”

I stop and ponder for a second. Then for the first time, I actually turn to my dad and give him my full undivided attention.

“Nope,” I tell him bluntly. My dad says nothing. We sit for a few more moments with our eyes in deadlock and no words being spoken. I then turn back to my computer to end that awkward little segment.

I start to type again just so it looks like I’m doing something, and maybe it’ll get him to leave. I don’t say anything, but in my head I’m screaming, “Jesus Dada, get out of my room!” There isn’t any room in my brain to even think about what I’m typing. The typing is just going on autopilot at this point as I’m pretty much letting the story tell itself.

My dad gives up at this point, letting out a reserved sigh as he gets out of the chair and exits the room.

But his question makes me think for a second. Do I need friends? Nah. In fact, I do have friends. I have my imaginary friend Buddy. I also have my baby doll named Elizabeth, who was passed down from my mom from when she was a kid and had been sewn around the neck. And how could I forget my amazing little stuffed cat I named Tiger Cat. 

Now these are some true friends. Human friends are overrated, I always thought. Friends like Buddy, Elizabeth, and Tiger Cat listen to me and understand me. No humans understand me like that. And I don’t even understand why. It’s like…it’s like everyone knows something that I don’t. I can’t even really explain it really. Everyone just seems to always be on the same page with one another while I’m just a small speck of dust floating in the wind of my peers. Talking to a human being feels like a chore, and I’m constantly being judged in the process. Judged for every minuscule action or sound that I make. But when I’m talking to Elizabeth, she just sits there. Not moving. Sitting there, with her eyes permanently closed, listening. Listening to me and understanding me. And then I hold her tightly as we fall asleep together. It’s just the best. And something I don’t think I could ever experience with a human being.

I stay up all night in bed thinking about this way more than I should be. Why is this bothering me so much? I’m happy with the way things are. I have my friends. I have my parents. My parents are loving and happy together. And like it or not, I do actually go to a pretty good school. I’m extremely lucky compared to most kids. So why do I feel like something isn’t quite right?

I fall asleep in my thoughts, and before I know it, I’m awake again and going to school. Another day at that school, otherwise known as the place where I just try to make by and navigate through the tantalizing maze of people, anxiety, and nerves.

It’s lunchtime, so I go where I always go at lunchtime. The large grass field, where I can stay in the corner and play by myself without anyone bothering me. Even though it might look to the naked eye like I’m a depressed, lonely little kid with no friends, I actually have a lot of fun playing by myself at lunchtime. I act out my own little “one-man shows,” where I delve into fantastical worlds and improvise riveting stories. My favorite part about it is that I get to make anything that I want happen in the story, and I get to play and act out every character. I participate in both sides of sword duels, dragon fights, and space wars. It’s an absolute blast, and easily the best thirty minutes of my school day every day. I don’ eat lunch. I have to utilize every possible second of free time given to me, because before I know it, the bell will ring and I’ll have to go back to class.

For me, I view playing at lunch a lot like I view writing my stories. My writing gives me a chance to escape the real world and explore greater worlds, realms, and dimensions. I do the same thing while playing at lunch, just in physical form rather than literature form.

Today, I want to be a pirate. I love pirates! I’ve been a pirate for Halloween twice, seen all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies at least five times each, and even written my own 50-page story about pirates. You could say I’m an expert.

I’m a pirate traveling the vast Pacific Ocean, attempting to sail to Japan to find the lost treasure that was allegedly stolen by a band of skeletons. I have to rescue the treasure to restore humanity!

As I sail my ship, the sky darkens to a deep purple, and out of nowhere, rain begins to pour from the abyss above. BOOM! BOOM! Thunder strikes the roaring waters, as the violent waves sway the ship back and forth. I can hear creaks in the infrastructure of the boat, which sound dangerously close to collapsing and leaving me with nothing.

I’m alone on the boat, so I hold onto the flag post and start to scream as loud as I physically can. But there’s nobody around to save or protect me. I just have to hold on and hope the storm lets up before my ship sinks.

Through the incessant fog, I notice a tiny glimmer of light. Oh my God…it’s another ship! At last! Help is on the way! This seems almost too good to be true. 

The ship gets closer and closer over the horizon, expanding from a little dot to a much clearer ship figure. I squint my eyes to try and see who’s on the boat. I can make out the shape of a tiny person from afar, but the ship still isn’t close enough that I can see who it is. The good news is that they’re headed in my direction, so it’s presumably someone good and not any of the evil skeletons trying to protect their treasure.

As the ship gets closer, I can faintly hear the person yelling something. But I can’t make out what they’re saying. The ship gets ever so closer and closer, and the yell gets ever so louder and louder…and it eventually sounds like they’re saying “Bell! Bell! Bell! Bell!” 

What? “Bell?” Am I hearing them right?

The ship rides a violent wave and finally reaches my ship, which is hanging on by a thread. I finally see the person, and to my surprise, it’s just a little blonde-haired girl riding on that ship by herself. Strange…I almost think I recognize her from somewhere, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

“Bell! Bell!” she continues. “Bell! The bell rang! Go to class!”

I blink, and I’m standing in a bush off of the grass field at school. The girl is standing on the edge of the grass, yelling at me to go to class. There are no other people around, it’s just me and her.

“Huh? Where is everyone? What happened?”

“The bell rang!” the girl insists. “Everyone went to class! You’re gonna be late!”

“Oh,” I say blankly. I can’t think or form thoughts, and my head hurts just from trying to comprehend what happened or where I am. “Okay.”

I sprint off to class, as by all means I do not want to be late. Then I think about that girl for a second. I know that cute little face from somewhere. That’s the girl who walked in the gate when I tried to run away. And she cared enough to let me know that the bell rang and that I was gonna be late. Hey, she seemed kinda nice. I decided that maybe I should talk to her again sometime. Heck, I had already spoken two entire words to her! I had practically given her my life story already!

The next day at lunchtime, I go back to the same place I always go to, that corner of the grass field where I’m ready to begin another thirty-minute adventure. Woo hoo! I’m so excited! This is honestly the best part of my day. Sure, it’s a daily thing, but man, it still feels so exciting and exhilarating every time it comes up. Honestly, playtime is the only thing that made school bearable.

Today, I’m continuing my adventure as a pirate, on my quest to get back the treasure that the skeletons stole and hid in Japan. I’ve successfully sailed across the Pacific Ocean and reached the secluded cave in Japan where the skeletons are hiding.

The cave is blocked off by a cluster of huge rocks, so I’m going to have carefully and quietly move the rocks in order to get inside the cave. Ooh, okay. The rocks look pretty heavy, but this is doable. Everything is going to be fine. I’m just going to remove the rocks and then quietly sneak in and grab the treasure without the evil skeletons noticing. Easy, right?

Logically, I start by removing a rock from the very top, as to not cause them to all come crashing down. I put both hands on the rock, firmly grasping it and resting it softly on the ground next to me. There’s now a hole revealing some of the dark cave, but it’s best if I remove a couple more rocks to be safe.

I rest my hand on the next rock down to start trying to remove it, but a bony hand crawls up from behind and pounds its fist on my hand. I let out a yelp as the skeleton rises its face up from behind the wall of rocks. It’s a skeleton just like you imagine them in the movies, with lifeless holes for eyes and moldy, rotten teeth.

“Please don’t hurt me!” I beg. “I’m a good kid, I promise!”

The skeleton says nothing, and simply pulls out a long, sharp sword and points it towards me as a threat.

My heart skips a beat, but then I realize, wait, I’m a pirate. I have a sword attached to my belt! So I pull that out and point it back at him. The skeleton leaps over the rocks and swings his sword at me, so I swing back and suddenly we’re engaged in a full-on sword fight, slashing at each other back and forth with our swords and trying but failing to strike one in the other’s body.

I reach up to go after his head, but the skeleton outsmarts me, reaching below and stabbing his sword in the side of my leg. Everything freezes as I collapse to the ground, screaming and writhing with pain.

I close my eyes, and my screams fade into laughs. I open my eyes and see that girl’s face staring at me from about an inch away. We’re both laughing our heads off. I look at my leg, and the wound I thought I had suffered is gone. All that’s there is a harmless stick laying next to me, which I’m assuming is the “sword” I had been stabbed with.

“Ha ha! You’re dead!” laughs the girl. “I killed you!”

I laugh back. “Why’d you do that? I just wanted my treasure!”

The girl stops laughing for a second. “Wait, how’d you know it was treasure?”

I feel awkward now, thinking I’ve done something wrong to upset her. “Oh, because well, the evil skeletons stole the treasure and hid it in a cave in Japan and�"”

“Wow, we were really part of the same story!” the girl shrieks in excitement. “I love this! You’re my new storytelling buddy!”

Well that helps me ease up a little. “Heh heh…yeah, you’re, um, right.”

“Maddie, get back over here!” The girl’s aid, the chubby Hispanic lady who helped me up the other day, comes running towards her from behind, as fast as she can go. 

The lady finally comes to a stop, and panting, looks at me and says, “I’m so sorry, honey.” Then she turns towards the girl, who was apparently named Maddie. “Maddie, how many times have I told you not to hurt other kids!”

The look on Maddie’s face reminds me so much of me. Her face lets off a sense of worry, agitation, and uneasiness caused by an overreaction to a mildly stressful moment. Man, I can relate to her so well right now.

“I was just playing with him Maria!” whines Maddie. “Honest! We were having a pretend sword fight! He’s my storytelling buddy!”

“Oh really, he’s your buddy,” Maria shoots back sarcastically. “And what’s this boy’s name?”

Maddie looks at me with worry, obviously having no idea what my name is. “Uh, I don’t know! Who cares!”

Man, I relate to that too. Like honestly, who cares what someone’s name is?

“Maddie, help this boy up,” Maria insists, as I’m still laying on the grass comfortably. Maddie slowly tiptoes over to me, a look lacking confidence invading her face. She slowly sticks her hand out to me, and I gently grab her warm palm. Her hand is a lot smaller than mine, so I take it easy, gently rising and standing up on my own two feet. She awkwardly leaves her hand in mine for a brief second, before quickly pulling it away.

“What’s your name, dear?” Maria asks me.

“Joey,” I mumble, shooting quick glances over to Maddie but unable to engage in eye contact with her for more than 0.1 milliseconds.

Maria turns to Maddie. “Maddie, do you want to tell little Joey here that you’re sorry?”

Maddie slowly shakes her head in blunt fashion. “No,” she says sweetly.

Maria rolls her eyes. She seems like a nice enough little lady, but she’s clearly had enough of this kid. 

“Maddie, I am sick of your behavior today. You do realize that you have to�"”

RING! RING! RING!

Maria sighs as she pulls her phone out of her pocket. After checking who it is, she tells us “Sorry, I have to take this,” and walks to the empty area by the fence to talk to whoever is calling her in private.

Maddie and I just stand there staring at each other, saying absolutely nothing at first.

She's the first one to break the silence, whimpering out, “Do you want to play again tomorrow?”

My heart skips a beat. What? What? WHAT?! A kid wants to play with me? Like, they’re voluntarily going out of their way to play with me? Without being forced to do so by an adult? On their own terms? I can’t believe it. Blood is pumping through my heart and veins and head like a roller coaster, my heart beating faster than it’s ever beat before. Something inside my body literally exploded when she asked that question. I’ve never felt so alive.

“Uh…yeah, sure,” I quietly mumble back. Good Lord, I was shy. 

Maddie was smiling from ear to ear, and honestly, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a person looking just so genuinely happy. She does a couple little leaps in the air with that large grin glued to her face, squealing in excitement. “You’re my new adventure buddy! This is gonna be so much fun!”

Right at this moment, the freaking bell decides to ring. Wow, that felt like the shortest lunch ever. I guess time flies when you’re enjoying yourself.

Maddie looks at me with a shy little smile, the same exact smile she had on her face the very first time I saw her after falling off the gate. 

“Bye,” she says while waving her little hand.

Woah. This is weird. I’ve never said bye to anyone before.

“Bye,” I whisper, as softly as humanly possible while still actually making a physical sound. Maddie walks off to go walk to class with Maria, and I don’t know if she heard me, but it didn’t matter. I finally did it. I finally found a friend who wants to play with me. She wants to play the same exact games that I want to play, in the same exact style. Not to mention that she reacts and interacts with people in a very similar manner that I do. There aren’t too many people in this world like me and her. I’ve found somebody special, and I have to take advantage of it.


My mom comes to pick me up at the end of the day, and I greet her with a huge smile, marching enthusiastically. 

“Mommy, I had a good day!” I proudly exclaim. 

Taken aback, my mom eases up and lets out a chuckle. “Oh, well that’s great honey! What made it so special?”

“I made a friend! And it’s a girl!”

“Aw, that’s so sweet. Is she standing right here?”

I groan. “Mama, no, she’s a real friend! At school! We became adventure buddies! She is super nice! We’re gonna go on adventures every day at lunch!”

“That is so amazing, Joey! What’s this girl’s name?”

“Maddie,” I whimper.

“Say what?”

“Maddie,” I whimper slightly louder.

“Oh, okay. Maddie,” my mom repeats.

I don’t even fully know why, but something about just thinking her name makes me excited and jumpy. Maddie. Woo hoo! I’m just thinking about all the crazy and fun adventures we’re going to have together. I’ve never met somebody who reminded me so much of, well, me. And this is so weird because I’ve never in my life felt this way about someone before. Like, I’m genuinely excited to go to school tomorrow and see her. How crazy is that?!

Dang, is this the way other kids feel about their friends? Is this why having friends seems to be so popular around school? I think I may be starting to finally get it.

Nah, wait a minute. Hold the phone. What am I thinking? This is a girl we’re talking about here. A girl! I don’t like girls. I’m a boy, why would I want anything to do with girls? Girls are weird and disgusting and like dumb things. I don’t want to be seen with a girl!

But wait. Hold on again. What happened to all those nice things I was thinking about her earlier? She isn’t just any girl, she’s a person who seems to understand me. And for that reason alone, she’s worth giving a shot.

I go to bed early that night, tucking myself in under my SpongeBob-themed covers by 8:00. Usually around 8:30 my mom forces me to go to bed and I’ll fight back with her for about a half hour before giving up, but tonight, I’m just too excited for tomorrow to deal with any of that. I want to fall asleep as fast as I can and wake up as soon as possible so that I can be at school, playing with my new best friend. Wow, it feels weird to call a human being my “best friend.”

I grab Tiger Cat in my right arm, and Elizabeth in my left arm, and hug onto them tightly. I kiss Buddy good night, trusting that my lifelong best friends will help me fall asleep. Oh yeah, Buddy is my pillow. Well, more accurately, Buddy is my best friend who takes many different forms so that he can always be with me. I love him so much. But at night, he’s always my big, fluffy white pillow. He loves me back and always comforts me and picks me up if I’m feeling down.

I roll over to the side of the bed and stick my head under Buddy and bury it in the small crack between the bed and the wall. I love doing that. My parents often wonder how I don’t suffocate doing it, but to me, it’s the most comfortable way of sleeping. It’s also a nice way to whisper to Buddy and my friends and have conversations with them without anyone hearing me.

So once I get settled in, I ask Buddy, “Buddy, do you think Maddie will be nice to me?”

Buddy replies in his eloquent British accent, “Well of course, dear Joey. She’s going to be a very true friend to you, I can already tell. You have encountered the presence of a special person, and for that you should be eternally grateful.”

I sigh. “Okay…I’m just worried that she’s not gonna like me.”

“Why would she not like you?” an exasperated Buddy shoots back. “We’ve already seen that she adores you! Have you not seen the way her face lights up when she sees you? I’ll bet you right now, she’s laying in her bed, thinking about you nonstop just like you’re thinking about her. In fact, she may even be experiencing a similar dilemma as you. She’s not fully confident in herself yet and is just as scared as you are about entering her first real friendship, probably even more scared. You just need to relax and be yourself and she won’t be able to leave your side. Trust me.”

I smile. “Wow, thanks Buddy. I can’t wait to play with her tomorrow.”

That’s enough talking and communicating for the night, so I finally rest my eyes and cuddle with my friends as I fall into a deep sleep, resting with anticipation of a great day tomorrow. Yes, I know that tomorrow is going to be a great day.


I wake up, and like every morning, my mind immediately reverts to “Ugh, I have to deal with that dreaded school again.” But then I’m hit with the realization that I get to play with Maddie today. Yay! I’m so excited, I quickly get dressed all by myself and sprint upstairs to wake my mom up.

“Mama! Mama! It’s time for school! Let’s go, let’s go!” I scream, jumping around her bedroom like a maniac.

My mom slowly turns her head towards me, bleary-eyed and still 95% asleep, it looks like. “What? Joey, why are you so excited?”

I continuously remain jumping up and down. I just can’t control my excitement. “It’s time for school! It’s time for school!”

“Ugh, fine. Just give me a second to get ready.” 

As soon as my mom is done getting ready, I rush her out the door to drive me there as fast as possible. Maybe I can even catch Maddie before school starts!
But the car ride takes longer than I anticipated. Sure, it’s only a ten-to-fifteen minute ride, but this one just keeps dragging on way longer than normal. God, this is taking forever. I just sit in the back seat in silence, my teeth gritted trying to hold back my excitement. I don’t really have anything to say out loud though. I obviously don’t want to show my mom that I have feelings and care about a human person because that would be a girly move. Besides, I’ve already told her about Maddie, so she doesn’t need to know anything else.

And with the silence comes a sudden burst of anxiety that splashes me in the face like an unexpected wave at the ocean. Now, every single possible negative thought that I could possibly have is popping into my brain. What if I’m too weird to be friends with her? What if I don’t talk enough to be friends with her? What if I talk too much to be friends with her? What if I don’t have enough shared interests to be friends with her? Maybe it’s best if I just play by myself again. That’s what I always enjoyed doing, so why change that? Why leave my comfort zone for no reason? One by one and then ten by ten and then 1,000 by 1,000, the questions pile up exponentially and invade my brain until I eventually become a depressed, nervous wreck of a little kid trapped in the back seat, now hoping that the car ride will never end and I’ll never have to go to school or see Maddie again.

I think my mom asks me something, but all I can hear is a high-pitched pierce in my ear that blocks out all sound. I'm ready for this. I’m just a little kid, why am I already having to deal with social situations? This is dumb. I just want to live my live as I’ve always lived it, playing by myself and staying out of harm’s way and living a drama-free life.

The car jolts to a stop. We’ve arrived at school.

“Have a great day at school, honey! I love you!”

“…Okay.”

I get out the back seat and my mom drives off. There I am, about to walk into the gate of the school, nine minutes before the first bell will ring. So most kids are there already, socializing and running around in the playground like animals. Seriously, how do so many little kids find joy in being loud and obnoxious? Always blows my mind.

Okay. I just have to play it cool and find an area where I can sit by myself and not worry about having to see Maddie. I’ve eased up a little, so I’m still on board for the whole “adventure playtime” thing at lunchtime. But no way in heck do I want to have any encounter or interaction with her before or after then. This is simply going to be a lunchtime thing and a lunchtime thing only. Yes, it’s great that I’ve finally made a friend, but she’s only a lunchtime friend. Outside of lunchtime, I don’t know her, won’t be associated with her, and will play with nobody but myself and my imaginary friends.

I take a few small steps across the gate line and into the school. I feel like I’m Neil Armstrong taking the first few steps on the moon, swoons of anxiety and anticipation swarming within me with every step. “This is one small step for man,” I think to myself, “but one giant leap for Joey!” I almost let out an audible little chuckle but I stop myself and get focused again.

I take a few more steps, and now I’m actually feeling somewhat relaxed. I’m in school, there are only like eight minutes and 26 seconds until the bell rings, and there’s no sign of Maddie. I calmly take a seat at an empty bench behind a trashcan, and duck my head a little so I won’t be obviously in plain sight.

In the mornings, I usually like to have a little chat with Buddy in the last few minutes before school starts. I typically feel pretty stressed out or worried in the moments leading up to being forced to sit in a room with other human beings for seven hours, so these talks help ease the stress a little bit.

“How ya feeling, Joey? You scared?” Buddy asks me gently, his voice gently floating into my ears out of the air.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I whisper back at him, trying not to be too loud so nobody near me will notice me.

“Remember, just be yourself. It doesn’t matter what the other kids think. What’s important is that Maddie likes you for who you are. If you try to be like all the other Joe schmoes out there, you might run into problems. Don’t concern yourself with all those other average kids’ opinions of you. Just be yourself, and at lunchtime you’ll have the best playtime of your life with your new pal. You got this, Joey.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I shrug.

The wind starts to howl a bit, and it is a bit chilly today. Of course, I’m too stubborn and careless to put on a sweatshirt or wear long pants in the morning. Especially since I dressed myself instead of my mom dressing me, which is a rarity. The wind picks up, and a medium-sized, dried-up brown leaf slowly floats onto the end of the bench.

Ooh, a leaf! I scoot over on the bench to retrieve the leaf. I love leaves. You may think a lot of them look the same, but to me, each one is special and unique in its own way. Each leaf has a different personality and a new story to tell. 

I inspect this one. It looks kind of sad. It may just be growing old and weak, but it doesn’t seem too cheery. Still, it seems lovable. It definitely has a kind heart, it’s just past its prime. That’s okay, it happens to all of us. Hopefully this leaf will die one day in peace and satisfaction.

The wind picks up again, and the leaf swipes right out of my hand. It crashes into the side of the building and is gruesomely torn in half, shredding into pieces and floating away. Man, the darn wind shows no mercy.

And just like that, the bell rings. Welp, it’s time to sit through three excruciating hours and forty minutes before, for the first time, I’m going to voluntarily play with a real, live, human friend. I almost feel like I’m going to have to see that to even believe it.

I follow the swarm of kids racing to class, going up the stairs to room 12. Hopefully there’s an easy lesson plan, because I’m not going to be able to concentrate well today. I feel a sharp cramp in my stomach, like I’m either extremely nervous about something or about to deliver a really bad poop. It’s probably the former. Hopefully the latter, honestly.

I walk into the hallway where everyone is leaving their backpacks in their cubbies and getting their math notebooks out (we always start the day with math). I wait until the majority of kids have already gone into the classroom so that I won’t be in the way too much. I then place my backpack in the top left cubby with my name on it, but the sudden and unexplainable shakiness of my hands causes me to place it with over half the bag hanging out. I flinch to try and save it, but the backpack falls out all the way from the top of the cubbies and lands with a depressing splat.

To add insult to injury, a white liquid starts to pour from underneath my backpack. Ah, shoot. It’s the milk my mom packed me! The milk trails away from my backpack and collects to form a small milk puddle in the middle of the hallway. Just great.

Some fat girl with glasses behind me looks at me with a smile that seems like she’s trying to be sweet but just comes off as creepy. “Hi Joey, do you need some help with that?”

“No,” I say bluntly.

“You sure?” She won’t wipe that stupid smile off her face. Girl, just go to class already. Let me handle this by myself.

“Here, I’ll get you some paper towels from inside. One sec!” she then, excited as can be for God knows what reason, skips into the classroom. Jeez, what’s she so giddy about?

I’m finally alone now, so I pick up my backpack and immediately notice the little rip where the milk is leaking from. I swat some of it away, which helps a little, but now the milk is just getting on my fingers and making my hands sticky and smelly. And that milk puddle in the middle of the hallway is still spreading.

The weird girl, whose name is Siena, comes running out with a huge, unorganized cluster of paper towels. What is this girl thinking?
“Sorry it took so long, Daniel was in the bathroom. But here you go!” Siena throws the entire collection of paper towels at me like I’m supposed to catch them or something. I grab a few of them, but most of them just fall on the ground. This girl is a nervous wreck. And there isn’t even any reason for it. Like, who gets nervous or anxious in low-stakes situations? Certainly not me, that’s for sure. 

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Siena shrieks, as if she was surprised that I didn’t catch every single paper towel.

Mrs. Gold finally makes an appearance, poking her head out the doorway to see what the heck is going on.

“The hell happened here?” 

I open my mouth to speak, but Siena beats me to it. “Oh, I’m so sorry Mrs. Gold, I was just trying to help Joey here with a little spill he had�"“

“A little spill?!” Mrs. Gold sputters. “Ya got the freakin’ Nile River in the hallway! Joseph, clean that crap up! Siena, get your a*s back in the class! You’re both late!”

Yeah, might’ve forgotten to mention that Mrs. Gold could be a little hard on kids, especially for a third grade teacher. I mean, I honestly don’t blame her, considering she has to deal with all these brain-less kids every day. And the woman was born in like the 1720s or something like that.

I reluctantly clean up the spill and get back to class as fast as I can. Hey, at least I had enough paper towels.


I’m sitting in my class, my heart still racing. With every second, my heartbeat’s acceleration gets faster and faster, my brain wandering to all kinds of crazy fantasies about what’s possibly going to happen at lunchtime. As it gets closer and closer to 11:40, the sharp pain in my stomach stabs harder and the thoughts swirling through my mind get louder and louder.


It’s now 11:07. 33 minutes left, and things aren’t getting any better. We’re reading a book out loud as a class, which will always be my least favorite thing to do in school, and that’s just making the situation more stressful. I can never concentrate when kids have to read out loud anyway because I swear some of these kids are illiterate, but with the pain in my stomach eating and clawing away at me, there isn’t even a remote chance of achieving a respectable level of concentration.


11:14. Still feeling awful. This is getting really bad. And I think I even need to pee now too.


11:26. I’m starting to sink in my chair, and I couldn’t care less if other people notice. I’m literally dying. 


11:32. Uh oh. Things are not feeling good. I…I blow a fart so loud that whatever Mrs. Gold is saying, she stops in her tracks, gives me the evil eye for a few seconds while various giggles are shared around the room, and then she picks back up to whatever she was saying. 

Usually I’m too shy to say anything in these types of situations, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

I gently raise my hand.

“Yes, Joseph?”

“Mrs. Gold, can I go to the bathroom?”

“Joseph, there’s seven minutes until lunch. You can hold it.”

I grimace more harshly than I mean to. I don’t want to fight back, but I can literally feel a log traveling into my butt. “But, like…I really have to. It’s an emergency.”

Mrs. Gold, who clearly is just over me, rolls her eyes and says fine. I silently praise the Lord and sprint out of the classroom like a lightning bolt, much to the amusement of my classmates.

I run to the bathroom, and oh man, was I wrong earlier. Sure, I may be nervous about the whole Maddie thing, but when I said that it was “probably the former,” I should have said that it was definitely both. I let out massive diarrhea like I’d never experienced before. One after one, oozing out of my poor little butthole like trash disposal. But instead of clearly shaped logs, it’s piles and crumbs of poo bits that won’t stop gushing out. My stomach is making all kinds of strange gurgly noises in the process. 

The bell rings while I’m still sitting on the toilet in distress, although it had started to calm down a little bit. And that’s when I remember Maddie. Shoot! I couldn’t blow her off. I have to go play with her!

I frantically wipe the last few poop stains off my butt and sprint out of the bathroom. I run through the playground, which turns into a battlefield at lunchtime. Imagine a soccer game on top of two basketball games on top of five handball games on top of a tag game on top of random kids running around doing crazy things. It’s absolute madness, and basically a giant game of dodgeball running through that war zone. I have to duck and dodge a few basketballs and soccer balls here and there, but I make it through successfully, reaching the corner of the grass field while panting like a dog.

I look up to see if Maddie is around anywhere. And sure enough, there she is, standing right in front of me, waving her right hand quickly back and forth, a huge smile wrapped around her face. Well, I guess she’s happy to see me, then.

“Hi Joey!” she screeches. “Let’s play, let’s play, let’s play!”

She then grabs my wrist with her little hand, triggering a quick jolt of adrenaline in my chest. It feels odd, as it completely counters some of the pain in my chest left over from the diarrhea experience, almost soothing it while making it feel much better.

Maddie practically drags me to a little secluded area by the fence where she wants to play. As soon as we get there, she finally lets go of my wrist.

We stand in place, facing each other for a few seconds, having absolutely no idea what to do first or where to start.

“Let’s set roles first!” Maddie cheers. “Who do you want to be?”

For the first time, I finally open up to her a little bit, feeling a little bit more comfortable and at ease with the situation. “I wanna be the bad guy!”

Maddie chuckles. “Okay! I want to be the magical fairy princess!”

“And I’ll be the evil monster who wants to eat the princess!”

“Perfect! And you’ll be chasing me around but I’m gonna cast my magical spells on you to make you into a good guy!” Maddie has to stop to catch her breath after that.

“Yay!” I say excitedly, internally thrilled beyond belief that this is actually happening and that I’m actually enjoying it to some degree.

So with that having been settled, playtime is a code green. “Abracadabra, alakazam!” Maddie exclaims, waving her first around in random directions as if she’s holding a magic wand.

“You can’t cast a spell on me! I’m Mr. Evil and I’m here to eat you!”

“Ahh!” Maddie yells, extremely unconvincingly. If she were an actress, she’d easily win a Golden Razzie for this performance. “Don’t eat me! I’m a good guy!”

She starts to run away, huffing and puffing like she’s in the final stretch of a marathon, except that she really isn’t moving very quickly. I chase after her, letting out ferocious roars to try and “scare” her.

“You’ll never be able to get away from me!” I hiss.

“No! I’ve ran out of magic powder dust!” cries Maddie. “That means I have no spells left to cast on you! What ever will I do!” And she stopps running, squatting down and panting for real this time.

“It’s over now, Mrs…uh, Fairy Person!” I stutter. “Prepare to be eaten alive!”

Maddie randomly looks past at me at something over me on my right. I don’t want to turn because I’m afraid she might get away.

“Oh look!” she exclaims slowly. “A butterfly!”

I turn my head to the right, and off goes Maddie. Darn! I shake my head in disappointment with myself and sprint after her, catching up with her quite quickly.

“Mr. Evil, this has gone on long enough! And now there’s a huge violent war going on! I think we need to join forces to save the world! We are now entering the terrible world of Warblin!”

“Warblin? What’s that?” I ask her.

“It’s the super terrible world of war where people fight and die! We can only get through this if we team up!”

“Oh. Okay, then. Yeah, let’s team up!”

“Yay!” cheers Maddie, and she comes over to lock arms with me. “Oh, this is great! My magical powers have been restored! Yay!”

“Amazing! I love this!” Man, her smile and enthusiasm is infectious.

Our arms firmly locked, Maddie and I march down the field with not one bit of fear or worry over what any of the kids are thinking about us. We’re best friends, and proud of it!

“Heh, look at those freakin’ p*****s,” spits out some fat kid right near us. The dude is already growing a mustache and looks like he could be 25. He’d definitely repeated fifth grade a few times already, that’s for sure.

One of his bozo friends laughs with him. “Heh heh, looks like little p***y Joey has a girlfriend.”

My mind id spinning circles. I don’t know these words. What are they even talking about? Of course I don’t have a girlfriend. I barely even know what a girlfriend is! I’m way too young for that, what are those terrible kids even talking about?

“Maddie, they’re trying to hypnotize us and terrorize our world!” I assure her with a sense of urgency, trying to keep things fun by incorporating the bullies into our game. “Let’s run away from those bad kids before things get even worse!”

“Okay,” Maddie nods with a look of trust in her eyes. Jeez, what’s those jerks’ problem?

Aside from that brief encounter, this is one of the most enjoyable lunchtimes I had ever had. We spend the entire rest of lunch playing our game and pretending we’re in another world. There are no rules, and obviously lots of plot holes and made-up words and inconsistencies. But it allows us to just be ourselves and not worry what those other fools are doing. We’re in our own little world away from the real world for thirty minutes, a world with just me, Maddie, and nobody else. An absolute heaven, to put it lightly.

The bell rings right in the middle of our adventure.

“Ah, dang it! Let’s continue this tomorrow!” I say.

“Yay! Tomorrow!”

I stand silent for a few seconds. I’m sure how to say bye, but I want to ask her something.

“Hey Maddie, do you have an email address?” I ask shyly. I’ve used email from a young age to keep in contact with all my relatives and stuff.

“Well I don’t but my daddy does! Sometimes when I’m a good girl he lets me go on his computer to play games so maybe he’ll let me email too!”

“Oh okay, cool. My email is joeyhill @ sbcglobal.net. What’s yours?”

“My daddy’s email is jimbo1961 @ yahoo.com." Maddie smiles, then lights up like a candle and cheers, “Maybe he’ll let me email you about the bedtime story he reads me tonight! My daddy always reads me the best bedtime stories ever!”

“Yay, my mom reads me bedtime stories too!” I laugh. “Oh, we have to go to class. I’ll email you tonight!”

“Thanks best friend!” She comes in like she’s going to hug me, but she just gives me a gentle tap on the shoulder and runs off to class.

Well, I’d say that was a success, wouldn’t you?


No matter what I do, I literally cannot get Maddie out of my mind. 

She’s all I could think about. I think about her one-of-a-kind little smile, her straight blonde pigtails, and the way she ran. I think about our adventure today and how much potential there is in the future for more crazy and fun-filled adventures. Just the thought of how much fun we were going to have gives me chills.

When I get home, I finish my math homework in two seconds like always, and then it’s my daily writing time. I’ve been working on “When I Was Alive,” but I’m not in quite the right mood to work on something serious like that right now.

And then it hits me. I should write a story about me and Maddie’s adventures! Yes! Ooooooh, this is gonna be good! I can’t wait any longer to get started, I HAVE to get this down on paper NOW!

Hm. What exactly should I write about? Ooh, I know! So we had just gone on an adventure in the world of Warblin, so I should write a story about that! It will be called “Warblin,” obviously, because that’s the name of the world she came up with. Now that I know what I’m gonna write about, I just let my mind and fingers roam free onto the keyboard.


Warblin

Chapter 1: Getting Ready for the Secret

Once 2 kids named Joey and Maddie got lost in the wilds when they were trying to go to school. Then Joey said “Our parents were right, we should take them with us.” Then they started a sword fight. Then a guy killed Maddie. Joey was really mad. Then Joey went home and killed the guy that killed Maddie. When Joey went home he told his mama and dada all about it. They didn’t believe him. Joey went out of the house because he wanted to go back to the woods. Then his parents shouted “You get up here now!” When his parents were down Joey was already 1000000 miles away. Joey was ready to solve the secret.


Bam, I’m already one chapter down! This story is gonna be a piece of cake. This will just be a shorty so I can get back to working on “When I Was Alive,” but this is shaping up to be one of my best short short stories yet!

I feel ready to share this story with the world already, even though I’m only one chapter into it. I wish I could type the entire story in one click, I’m so eager to let it all out and get it down on paper.

Ooh, I know! I have Maddie’s email now so I could email her the first chapter and tell her all about the story! Yes, this is a perfect idea! I’m sure she’d love it!

I open my email and type in the address she gave me. Then I hit the “Attach file” button and click on the draft of my story. I make the subject “Story From Joey” and type in the message box, “Hey Maddie! I started writing a story about an adventure that you and me have! I can’t wait to write the rest of it but here’s the first chapter that I wrote just now!” Then I hit “Send” and begin to anxiously wait for a reply.

I immediately refresh my email to see if she’s responded yet. No new emails.

Oh, well that makes sense, I guess. I mean, she needs time to actually read it first, of course! Duh.

I sit there staring at the screen for a few more seconds before I can’t hold it anymore and I have to refresh again.

Nope. Still nothing. Oh God. What if she doesn’t like it? What if she’s offended by her character being killed in the story? Oh no. And there’s no way to unsend an email! Oh gosh. What if she doesn’t want to be my friend anymore? That would be the absolute worst thing in the world to ever happen.

I refresh again. Still nothing. 

And again. 

Still nothing.

“Joey, time for dinner!” my mom calls from the kitchen.

I take a deep breath.

Okay. It’s time to have dinner. Hopefully she’ll see the email while I’m eating dinner, respond with how much she loved it, and everything will be good.

Let’s go. I got this. “Remember how much fun she had with you today?” I ask myself silently. Exactly. She’s going to love it! I’m a great writer, so I had nothing to worry about. Even my mom herself had told me I’m a great writer, and that was coming from a professional journalist!

I sit down at the table for dinner, which is one of my favorites, turkey meatballs and Uncle Ben’s rice. Yay! But something…something isn’t feeling quite right. Gosh darn it, it’s that feeling in my stomach again, that feeling I get when I’m either about to have diarrhea or when I feel nervous or tense about something. A dark, uncomfortable pain that won’t go away and causes me to subtly shake back and forth while sitting in place. 

Maddie could be seeing the email and reading the story right now. In her house, somewhere likely not too far from where I currently am, she’s sitting at her computer, diverting 100 percent of her attention to an email message sent by me. She is then transferring 100 percent of that attention to a creation shared by me, and as she’s reading it, she is very likely thinking about…me. Like, somewhere out in the world, a human around my age and not related to me is voluntarily thinking about me. That is just…so crazy to think about. The possibilities of what opinions and observations she could be thinking about me are endless.

I gobble down my meatballs and rice so I can get back to my computer. Once I’m done, I drop my dishes in the sink and sprint back into my room. The screen is still on my email, so before I even take a seat, I slam my finger on the mouse to press the refresh button. 

And something new pops up.

From jimbo1961 @ yahoo.com.

The email reads, 


Hello Joey,


It is so great to hear from you. It am so happy to hear that you have become friends with my daughter Maddie.


Maddie is currently in the middle of a therapy session, but I promise when she is all finished up with that, I will show her the wonderful story you have sent for her. I’m sure she’s going to love it.


All the best,

Jim (Maddie’s daddy)


Oh.

Maddie did say that that was her daddy’s email, not hers. I guess I should have remembered that.

Oh well, that’s still good that he got the email, and hopefully I’ll get a response back from my new pal Maddie soon.

Hm. I wonder what kind of “therapy” session she’s in though? Why does she need therapy? What even is therapy?

Eh, I’m sure it was nothing.

I spend the next two hours in my room, essentially doing nothing, just trying to find small ways to entertain myself while I wait for another response. I play with random toys in my room that I didn’t normally play with much, like some robots and Legos and toy cars that were buried deep within the the buckets of toys in my room. I’m not even having much fun, but I have to stay sane somehow with the intense pressure of what Maddie is going to think of my story.

Finally, at 7:30, which is getting pretty close to my bedtime, I decide to check my email again. I open it up, hit refresh, and sure enough, there’s a new email from jimbo1961 @ yahoo.com! Yes!

I quickly open it up. The email says,,


hI jOEY!

mY dADDY JUST SHOED ME YOURR STORY AND i LLLllLlLlLLLLLlUUUUUUUuuuUuuUVVVVVVVVvvvVVVVvVvVVVEEEEeeEeeeeEEEeEDDDDDDDDDDDDDD it! nOW YOU SHOULD MAEK A PART WERE U TURN ME IN TO A FAIRY PRINCCESS!!!!!!!!!! bye!!!!!!


My eyes widen, my mouth opens, and my heart wakes up and starts sprinting in place. All that worrying was for nothing. Maddie loves my story! And what’s better is she wants me to make more stories about our adventures together. And I am not going to let her down. I mean, the possibilities are endless! I could write stories about us for the rest of my like, because this is the start of a never-ending friendship. A bond that could not be broken through the cause of any war, skeletons, pirates, or even school bullies. 

And some day, after years of school and dealing with all the other bothersome people in our lives, we would get the chance to live out these stories in reality. There would be no more writing about or pretending to go on crazy journeys across the world �" we could do it for real, spending the entire rest of our lives together as the most powerful duo in the world.

Okay, where am I again? Oh, right, back to reality, where I’m still stuck in third grade. But at least I have a new best friend!

I reread the email five or six times before realizing that I obviously have to respond to this amazing message. So I type back,


Hi Maddie,

I’m glad you liked it! I’m gonna go write more later tonight! And I was thinking that someday when we grow up we could go on these adventures in real life! Wouldn’t that be cool??????


I hit send, and this time, I get a response back within just a few minutes. Wow!


Hi Joey,

Apearently I had caps Lock on before and I didint relize that! I fixed it now thouhg! Andddd yaaaa I think that is a great idea!!! We can get maried and move to space and have a baby named Spacey! Then we can travel to the magical fairy princcess land and you can be the prince! That wood be cool. Byeeeee!!!!


It’s like she’s reading my mind, going through the exact same thought processes that I am. It ’s remarkable. We’re two third graders who had just met, and we’re already planning our whole life together as best friends forever. This is so cool. I feel like I’m in a dream, mostly because I do actually have a lot of dreams similar to this, except they’re always with friends that weren’t real. I’d plan out cool adventures with Buddy, Tiger Cat, Elizabeth, and some of my other buddies in my dreams. But then I’d wake up…and they’d just be sitting on my bed, lifeless. Now, it’s happening in real life. It’s almost too good to be true. Is this actually just another dream?

Nope! I of course keep the email chain going, replying back with some additional thoughts to our plan to move to space and have a baby named Spacey. We go back and forth with each other all night, thinking of things we’re going to bring to Mars and what items we want to take from Earth to introduce to the people of Mars. We brainstorm some pretty crazy ideas, like one where she wants to take all the ponies in the world and put them in Santa’s sleigh to bring to Mars so that the ponies will be safe. 

Time flys by like the time it would take for Santa to fly his sleigh from Earth to Mars, and before I know it, it’s 8:49. Woah! Almost 9:00 already, jeez! I’m up way past my bedtime!

My mom walks into my room, and fast as a lightning bolt I minimize the screen on my computer. I have absolutely zero intention of letting my parents see my conversation with Maddie.

“Hey Joey, whatcha doin’? It’s past your bedtime,” my mom speaks softly.

“Oh…nothing.” I can feel my face burning magma red.

“Are you okay?” my mom asks me sweetly.

I look away from her and quietly mumble, “Yeah.”

“Come on Joey, jammy up and get some sleep. Big day tomorrow!”

That last part piques my interest, and my head snaps up towards my mom. “What’s happening tomorrow?”

“School!” my mom cheers unironically.

My initial reaction is to roll my eyes, but you know what, school isn’t quite so awful anymore because I get to play with Maddie now. From now on, maybe my mom is right. Maybe a day of school is going to be a “big day,” if a “big day” means getting to play with Maddie.

So with that, I happily comply with my mom and get a good night’s sleep, even if I had stayed up a little later than normal. I can rest well knowing that I am officially now one of those cool kids who has a human friend.


I feel a lot more relaxed in school the next day, probably because I know I have something to look forward to. If something small in the classroom starts to stress me out, I can just think about how at lunchtime I’m going to get to play with Maddie. And that’s enough to brighten my mood and ease the unwanted stress. It also makes me realize that hey, maybe I stress about things too much. Maybe I just need to lighten up a little.

Lunchtime comes, and I sprint out to the grass field to play with Maddie. I go back to the exact corner where we played before, expecting to see her there, all excited and ready to play.

She’s not there.

Suddenly, I don’t know what to do. I’ve gone from resting inside the comfort of knowing that my best friend would be there for me to feeling trapped inside this giant maze of rotten, spoiled kids. I look around and see kids in huge groups all around the grass field. Some are playing tackle football, some are wrestling, some are teasing little kindergarteners, and some are just sitting on the ground gossiping and laughing their butts off. They’re saying bad words, too; I think I even hear one kid say the s-word (st*pid). A couple kids by the fence are even playing on their DSs during school hours! I don’t want to be a part of these rule-breaking, heartless jabronis patrolling the school yard.

I want to play with Maddie.

I start whimpering, feeling a cry building up inside me but not releasing itself yet. It’s building up, though, and this has the potential to turn ugly quickly in front of all these kids. Oh my God…so many kids. They can all see me alone in the middle of the grass field, looking lost and starting to cry. I can feel their judgy smirks seeping into my skin, triggering a pan of scorching hot water to explode and boil through my bones.

And that’s when it all gets to be too much, as I can’t help but start sobbing as a way to release the pressure being forced onto me, coming at me from all directions.

It doesn’t take too long for kids notice that there’s a little wimp crying, either. Immediately, some fat kid with a beard starts traipsing over to me. Ah shoot, it’s that same kid from the other day, the one who called me and Maddie some words I’ve never even heard before.

“Yo dude, did you lose your mommy or somethin’?”

I’m standing there frozen, but shaking like I’m in the middle of a blizzard. I make direct eye contact with the kid and slowly shake my head.

“Well whatever your problem is, get the hell outta here ‘cause we in the middle of a tackle football game,” demands the kid. “Unless, of course, you’d like join us.”

I cringe at the thought of joining that group and shake my head again. Okay, it’s clear that Maddie isn’t at the grass field for some reason. Don’t know why, but I have to get out of here. I sprint off towards the classroom so I can just be free from all social interaction.

Still in a panicked state, I desperately look around for someone else. The only person around is some tall lady with black hair, a teacher I don’t recognize. Out of desperation, I run up to her.

“Hi, do you know where Maddie is?” I ask her, my voice quavering.

“Oh, yes, honey, she’s in the playroom,” the teacher replies and walks off hurriedly.

She’s referring to the YMCA playroom, which is where the special ed kids usually play at lunch. But Maddie obviously isn’t special ed, so why is she in there?

I walk into the the room, which is just a playroom for little kids. There are short tables with small chairs, and a big red carpet with various toys and games. All the special ed kids (there are only six or seven of them) are sitting at a table together eating their lunches with a few adults circling the table and supervising them. Maddie is sitting at the next table over with Maria, holding what seems to be a…top hat?

I walk over to the table shyly, feeling nervous for some reason even though I know Maddie is my friend. Come on, there’s nothing to worry about. Maddie seems to be maybe…playing some sort of…game? Maybe they’ll even let me join in.

“Hey,” I croak, trying to get her attention.

Maddie doesn’t look at me, but Maria does. “Hello dear, do you want to play with us? Maddie and I were just starting a game of Magic Hat.”

“Oh, uh…okay. What’s that?”

Maria smiles. “Here baby, sit down and let me show you.”

I pull out a chair next to Maria, with Maddie sitting on the other side of her. I sit down, and Maria gently grabs the hat from Maddie.

“This is a game I like to play with Maddie a lot called Magic Hat,” she explains. “This is no ordinary hat. This is a magic hat! What makes it magical? Well, when I reach into it, I can magically pull out cool objects and toys for you to enjoy!”

“Woah!” I chuckle. Sure, it doesn’t seem that realistic, but why not give it a shot?

“In order for something to appear, you just have to say the magic words with me. The magic words are ‘Abracadra, alakazam!’” Maria continues. “Here, let’s let Maddie go first. On the count of three. One…two…three!”

Maria and Maddie then slowly recite in unison, “Abracadabra, alakazam!” as Maria reaches her hand deep into the peculiarly long top hat. She slowly pulls her hand back out, a Tinker Bell figurine grasped in her hand. 

Maria pretends to be amazed by what she had pulled out. “Oh, look, Maddie! It’s a Tinker Bell toy! Your favorite!”

“Yay, I love Tinker Bell!” Maddie squeals, violently snatching the toy out of Maria’s hands.

Maria’s tone takes a 180, as she orders at Maddie, “Madeline, please ask nicely before taking something.”

Maddie rolls her eyes like a teenager, and it’s the first time in my brief friendship with Maddie that I’ve seen this side of her. She seems like the sweetest, most charming, innocent girl, but now I’m seeing that she is in fact a human being with a range of emotions and moods. That’s actually very comforting to know. I am wondering, however, why she hasn’t referenced our email conversation yet or why she has barely acknowledged my presence so far at all.

Maria, who is much stronger than Maddie, easily grabs the Tinker Bell figure back.

“Maddie, the only way you’re getting this toy back is if you ask nicely. The hat is magical, but you still have to be polite to it just like you would be polite towards any person.”

Suddenly it almost looks like Maddie is going to tear up. Wow, that seems a little sensitive.

“I…I want my Tinker Bell!”

“Then ask nicely.”

Maddie looks lost and confused, like she’s having a life realization or something. 

“Maddie?”

Maddie finally looks Maria in the eye, calmly. “May…may I please have my Tinker Bell?”

“Yes, honey. Here you go.” Maria hands it back to her and Maddie gives it a big hug.

“I love you Tinker Bell.”

Maria then turns to me. “Okay, Joey, now it’s your turn!” she says much more delightfully. She reaches her hand into the hat, and pulls out a small red toy race car. 

My eyes light up when I see it. Cool, a new toy to play with!

“Yay! Yay!” I cheer, taking the car from Maria. “I love this!”

Maria smiles. “Well, looks like you both got things you really loved from the magic hat. Isn’t that just great?”

Maddie turns her head towards me for the first time today and says, “Hey, Joey, we should play a game together with these toys! The adventures of the race car and Tinker Bell!”

“Yeah, that sounds like a great idea!” Everything Maddie says is a great idea that I have to agree with. She is just so smart!

“Alright, you two have fun.” Now Maria looks genuinely happy that Maddie and I are friends, as she gets up and leaves the table, leaving the middle seat open.

“Here, we can play with our toys from across the table!” giggles Maddie. That’s fine with me, I don’t need to sit directly next to her to play with her.

We play with our toys for about a minute, improvising something where the car is chasing Tinker Bell but then Tinker Bell stops to cast a spell and then…then I’m not really sure what’s happening, it’s all just random and fun. Once it kind of dies down, I decide to speak up.

“Hey, those emails were funny last night!” I say as casually as I can, trying to seem cool and not like it’s a big deal that I’m successfully socializing with someone.

Maddie’s face starts to turn a little red, as she gives me that same shy little smile I’ve seen from her so many times already. 

“Yeah, that was funny,” she replies. “We’re gonna go on some crazy adventures! I can’t wait to go on a rocket ship to Mars to have a baby named Spacey!”

“Oh yeah, do you think Spacey should have any siblings or should he be an only child?”

“He? Spacey’s a girl, silly!”

“Oh! Yeah, of course. So should she have any siblings?”

“Nah! Being an only child is way better! It’s just me and the best daddy in the world!”

“Oh, you’re an only child too?”

“Yep!” 

I don’t want to ask why she didn’t mention anything about a mom. 

“Wow, that’s so cool! So am I! You’re right, it is way better. We get so much more stuff to ourselves.”

“Yeah, and more birthday presents and Christmas presents from Santa! And at night when I have a bad dream I get to cuddle with my daddy all by myself and don’t have to worry about other kids. My daddy and nanny can also help me and give me a lot of attention when I have panic attacks.”

Woah, this is a lot of information. There is one question I did feel comfortable asking. “Oh, so who’s your nanny?”

“That’s Maria!” Maddie points to the back of the room where Maria is chatting with some other special ed advisor, an older-looking bald guy with glasses.

“Oh, cool,” I nod. “I just have my mama and dada. I love my mama because she is nice to me and I love my dada because he plays catch with me. Do…do you like playing catch?”

Maddie laughs. “Yeah but I’m really bad at it! My daddy and I only play catch with soft balls that don’t hurt.”

“Oh yeah, that makes sense. I like playing baseball but sometimes we also play catch with tennis balls in the backyard. That’s really fun and then my daddy can hit the balls really far with a metal bat.”

Maddie lets out an uneasy whimper. “Mm, metal bats scare me.”

“Oh yeah, metal bats scare me too!” I laugh. Shoot, I don’t want to her think I’m an emotionless man or something. “I literally have to hide behind a tree to get out of the way because I’m scared he’s gonna hit me! He hits the ball like 100 miles an hour, it’s crazy!”

Maddie laughs back. Ahhh. For once, I’m having a good time, and I’m finally starting to be able to let go and not think, just enjoying the moment I’m in rather than stressing about what other people are going to think of me. It’s such a new and strange but welcome feeling of comfort that I’m not used to.

Just now, I overhear a bit of the conversation between Maria and the bald guy in the back.

“So, how’s the girl doing?” I can hear him ask her.

Maria takes a quick glance towards us to make sure we’re not listening. “Well, she seems to be doing better now with her new friend. Thank the heavens for that little boy, I thought she was actually gonna kill someone.”

“Jeez, was it really that bad?”

“Oh my Lord, that was one of the worst meltdowns I’ve seen from that poor girl. She’s a sweet girl, for sure, but boy, when something minor ticks her off..she just loses it. Completely loses it. It’s sad to see and it’s nearly impossible to calm her down sometimes.”


Have I ever mentioned how much I love my grandma?
Her name is Mary Molyneaux, my mom’s mom. She was born in 1924 and grew up in San Diego, a place she is absolutely in love with to this day. She knows all the ins and outs of it; it’s truly her home.

She briefly left San Diego to go to college in Arizona, then moved to New York where she thought she could start a new life. She still loved San Diego, but she felt like it was time for something new, and New York seemed like a cool place to her, with a nice city feel to it, something different than what she was used to.

Living in Manhattan, she met a man named Bob Molyneaux, and they quickly fell in love and got married. However, the New York lifestyle didn’t last too long on her, and she missed the warm sun and sandy beaches of San Diego.

So the two of them moved to San Diego, where they raised two girls who were seven years apart, the older being named Jean and the younger being named Patricia, or Patty for short. 

The younger girl, Patty, eventually went to UCLA and met my dad, Joseph Earl Hill IV. They settled in LA, and had a kid named, you guessed it, Joseph Earl Hill V. That kid was me.

So anyway, back to my grandma, who I call Grammy. She still lives in San Diego because she absolutely loves it there, and living only a couple hours away in LA, we visit her every now and then, and sometimes she’ll even drive up to visit us. Unfortunately, my grandpa Bob died when I was just a couple years old, but she’s still going at it with her charming personality and not-completely grey hair. She’s getting up there in age, but she loves me more than anything. She is still one of the most cheery people I know, and always has a big smile on her face. She loves to know things like how I’m doing, what I’m learning in school, and what I’m doing in my free time. A decently tall, skinny lady, she is just so lovable with that short haircut and compassionate demeanor.

One time when she came up for Christmas, my parents went out to some show or something, leaving Grammy and I home alone. With nothing else to do, I decided to make a movie with her. I sort of planned out the movie as it went along, and improvised clever ways to get shots of both of us in it. It was starring me and Grammy, in a story about Christmas presents being mysteriously stolen. 

Sure, working on the movie was a little frustrating due to her lack of awareness with technology, but I still had lots of fun with her nonetheless. We played board games together, had trouble opening them together, and one time we even wrote a letter to Hasbro to complain about their game being too hard to open. In return, they sent us an apology note and a coupon for one free Hasbro game. She also once got impatient with Papa John’s for cooking our pizza too slowly, and offered to take it home and cook it herself. So you see, my Grammy is pretty cool.

I also have a really cool aunt, my mom’s older sister Jean. She works for the US Embassy, so she gets to travel to all kinds of cool places like Haiti, India, Libya, and at right now, Ghana. She keeps in touch with us through email and phone, telling us about all her crazy and funny adventures in all these bizarre places.

Abnormal stories are not a rarity for my Aunt Jean, but every so often, something abnormal even by her standards comes out of the blue. And that’s when things can get really, really weird.


I come home from school today and despite having talked to Maddie a little more today, I have more questions about her than normal racing through my head. I want to know why she doesn’t have a mom. I’m also curious why she was playing in a room with her aid during lunchtime, especially when she was supposed to have met me at the grass field. Why does she even have an aid? And what are those issues that I overheard all about?

“How was school, Joey? Did you have a good day today?” my mom asks me when I get in the car.

“Yeah,” I say unconvincingly, doing a terrible job of hiding my uneasiness.

“You sure, honey? Are you okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, honey. If anything’s bothering you, you promise you’ll let me know, alright?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay honey.” My mom still sounds worried.

After a few moments of silence, she speaks up again.

“Are you still talking to that Maddie girl?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you like her? Is she nice?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you sit with her at lunchtime?”

I pause for a brief moment, then go back on autopilot. “Yeah.”

“Is she…funny?”

“Yeah.”

“Is she your best friend?”

“Yeah,” I say quieter, quickly embarrassed.

My mom just will not give up at prying these answers out of me. “What do you like about her, honey?”

I shrug, which my mom can’t even see because I’m sitting in the back seat.

“Joey, I asked what do you like about her?”

I shrug again. “She’s nice.”

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like her, nor that I don’t want to talk. I’m just not feeling quite right about some of the stuff I learned about her today. I want answers and I don’t have them, so my naturally bodily instinct is to resort to silence and deep thought rather than just politely asking, which is no easy task for me. I also don’t want to expose myself to my mom or show any emotion or compassion whatsoever towards another human being. The only people in this world that I outwardly “love” are my mom, my dad, and my two grandmas. I just don’t want to be one of those people who “liked” or even “loved” other people who aren’t related to them. That’s just weird.

To me, my parents take the place of the “friends” that most kids have. My mom is the friend who I go to for emotional and moral support, and share a close bond with. My dad is the relatively unemotional friend who I go to to talk about sports and basically just hang out with. Then of course, I have my stuffed animals who I talk to and sleep with every night. But as far as human “friends” go, I have my parents and that’s about it.

On an average day after school, I get home and first have a snack, which is usually Oreos or whatever cookies we have in the house, along with a few glasses of milk. I love milk so much. I always drink it with a straw and in one of my Finding Nemo-themed cups. I used to use those cups with a special lid that make them sippy cups when I was really little, but now that I’m a big boy, I just use a normal straw.

Then I go in my room to do my homework, which isn’t too bad in elementary school. The most common homework that I have almost every night is math, and I don’t want to brag or anything, but I’m pretty great at math. Sure, I love writing and telling stories, but I’m also a math person. I don’t understand why some kids in my class are so God awful at math. The math we’re learning is beyond easy, so I usually try to challenge myself at home to do some higher-level arithmetic. My dad was actually a math major in college and works as a bond broker, so he knows a thing or two about math, and he always helps me whenever I need it. He’s a math person like me, but is not an English person at all.

I remember one time in first grade, we learned about odd and even numbers for the first time. We were all sitting on the carpet learning about how some numbers are odd, and some numbers are even. Easy stuff. I understood the concept immediately. So the teacher had us all go back to our seats to do some worksheet on odd and even numbers, and I was cursing right through it because I understood the concept immediately. It was simple! Every other number is odd, and every other number is even.

I think I was the only kid in the class who was able to grasp this concept though. All the other kids in the class were flabbergasted and didn’t understand how to tell if a number was odd or even. In fact, there was so much commotion from the class that the teacher called us back to the carpet to reteach the material in a different way, because clearly the first way she tried to teach it didn’t work. Well, it worked for me, but apparently not for anyone else.

So math is easy for me. Now, English�"well, English, well, is um, interesting for me. I feel like I’m the exact opposite of all other kids. Most kids my age seem to be solid readers who have trouble writing or putting down their thoughts on paper. I’m the complete reverse; I have trouble comprehending what I’m reading, especially when it’s being read out loud or if I’m being forced to listen to what is being read. Being in third grade and all, sometimes Mrs. Gold has us all sit on the carpet while she reads a book to us. The rest of the kids are always super into the story, and you can see it in the way they all react emotionally to certain parts of it. With words being read out loud, no matter how hard I try, I just cannot follow along as the words simply don’t register in my brain. Reading quietly to myself, I’m only a little better. I still get distracted easily and can’t fully comprehend things like my peers can, but at least I can gain a little better understanding of something if I’m alone in a quiet space, reading to myself with no distractions. Reading just isn’t something that comes naturally to me.

Where I excel, though, is in writing. I mean, I’ve already talked about how much I write for fun. So writing in school is super easy because the assignments they have us do are almost laughably easy. “Write two entire pages!” the teacher would say, and be greeted by 20 collective groans and moans among the class. Two entire pages! Oh, the horror! What an impossible task! In moments like that I always want to say to these kids, “Hey, I wrote 120 pages when I was six. I think you can write two measly pages.” But some of these kids, the same kids who were leaps and bounds more advanced than I am at reading comprehension, could barely put two sentences together. It’s astounding.

The core question that this brought me back to is one that that came up a lot in my early life: Why am I so different from everyone else? I mean, it’s not like I have any kind of actual disability. So I guess I’m not officially “different” from everyone else. I just feel like my abilities, talents, and thoughts are polar opposite from what seemed to be normal among my peers. Everything I’m good at, they’re awful at, and everything I’m awful at, they’re good at. That’s part of the reason I can’t make friends. I don’t have any common talents or skillsets as anyone!

If I ever try to share my talents with another kid, one of two things happens. The first possibility is they laugh in my face and make me feel bad and say that writing is “gay” (whatever that word means, I think it might be a bad word). The second possibility is they gasp and say they don’t believe me, and then when I show them proof of what I’ve written, they start worshipping me like I’m a God or something. There are some kids who just cannot believe that someone their age can accomplish something like that. I never really know whether to think that I’m actually as special as they tell me I am, or if the reality is that they’re really just some stupid kids who can’t do anything.

The thing I like about my parents so much better than other kids is that no matter what, they treat me with respect and a sense of loving and caring. They understand my strengths and weaknesses, and support me whether I’m writing a 300-page mystery novel or struggling to read a Dr. Seuss book. They help me and motivate me during my struggles, while still complimenting and applauding my accomplishments. I connect with my parents way better than I’ll ever be able to connect with some dumb kid.

And that’s when it hits me. I come to the realization of why I like playing with Maddie so much. It’s because she can also connect with me in a similar way that I connect with my parents. She isn’t all judgey about me being good or bad at anything. She’s genuinely interested in the stuff I’m writing and the adventures that I’m creating. Not only is she interested in them, she wants to help and participate in them. She never tells me that my stories are trash or that a certain part is boring. But at the same time, she doesn’t act like I’m some superhuman overlord when I show her my creations. Of course, she says she loved it and acts all excited and whatnot, but she actually understands me for who I am, even in the short time of knowing her. This�"this is crazy, and it suddenly becomes clear to me why I had connected with Maddie so well and so quickly.

I think Maddie is the first kid I’ve ever met who is actually…somewhat like me. Sure, she isn’t exactly like me. She’s a girl, first of all. Ew, I don’t like girls. And she’s more into fairies and princesses than robots and dinosaurs. And, having known her for only a short amount of time, I’m not exactly an expert on which school subjects she’s best at or which ones she struggles with.

But here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter. Because what’s most important is that she seems to understand me like no other kid ever had. I don’t connect with 99 percent of the kids my age, but it’s really looking to me like Maddie is that one percent.

Being only one percent of a population, that one percent is obviously very important to me. Because if I were to somehow lose that one percent, I would be left with absolutely nothing. Just my stupid stuffed animals who were made up anyway.

Kids like Maddie don’t grow on trees. I have to take advantage of this extremely rare opportunity and become as best friends with her as I possibly can.

Because I never know when she could be taken away from me.


I’m sitting in class today, eagerly awaiting the bell to ring for lunch. Mrs. Gold finishes her lesson a few minutes early, so she lets us have five minutes of free time before the bell rings. Everyone jolts out of their seats to go hang out and socialize in their various friend groups, while I stay at my desk and sit by myself.

The kids in my class divide into roughly three main groups, all screaming and yelling about whatever kids my age scream and yell about. There’s a group of boys, a group of girls, and a group of both boys and girls. I briefly think about trying to join in on one of the groups (obviously not the all-girls one), but I think better of it. Why subject myself to the pain of having to introduce myself to other people when I can just sit at my desk and explore the inner machinations of my brain?

While I peacefully wander the thoughts of my own mind, that girl Siena who had tried to help me clean up the milk spill decides to walk over to me shyly. At first I think she might be going towards someone who might be behind me or something, but nope. She’s actually going out of her way to voluntarily talk to me. I’m pretty sure it’s an unwritten rule around here that you don’t talk to that weird Joey kid.

“Hey Joey,” she says while nervously twirling her curly brown hair. I think she’s even shaking a little. Why is she shaking? What is there to be nervous about? Oh, maybe she’s nervous that someone will see her talking to the weird kid. That’s justifiable, I guess. But why is she saying hi to me for no reason? 

I just mumble back a little “Hi,” unsure of how else to respond.

“So…who was that girl you were playing with the other day?”

I freeze. What the heck? Is this girl spying on me?

“My friend.”

Siena laughs nervously. “Ah, that’s cool! Very cool, very cool…what do you, uh…have for lunch today?”

“Pepperoni sandwich,” I reply. It’s true; my mom packs me the same pepperoni sandwich every day for lunch, but I never eat it. It’s exactly what it sounds like, simply a few pieces of pepperoni smushed between two cold slices of bread. It’s not that I don’t like it, necessarily; I just don’t like eating lunch at school in front of people, and it would waste my precious playtime, anyway.

Siena is smiling and nodding her head slowly, but I can tell she was not expecting that answer. Is pepperoni sandwich not a common lunch item? Apparently not, but quite frankly, I don’t care.

“Ooh, that sounds good!” she says with a very unconvincing enthusiastic tone. And Jesus Christ, can that girl talk any louder? She’s only two feet away from me, not across the room.

The awkward silence is interrupted by the bell, and without acknowledging her at all, I sprint out of the classroom down to the grass field.

And sure enough, there she is. Maddie is there! Maddie is there! She didn’t have an outburst this time meaning she got to play outside today!

Just seeing her standing there makes me feel comfortable, even within the battlegrounds of this messed up school. It’s like I’m in a cozy, fancy hotel in the middle of a deadly war going on outside. All my worries sweep away, and the focus becomes whatever we’re going to play today.

Maddie is wearing a black shirt, different from her usual pink and purple attire. It’s a strange shirt, with a picture of four guys crossing a street. The two guys in the middle are in black suits or something, while the guy on the far left is wearing a blue shirt and jeans, and the guy on the right is in white. Are these characters from a movie I haven’t seen or something? And at the top of the shirt are the words “The Beatles.” What on Earth are beatles? Whoever made that shirt has horrible spelling, because everyone knows it’s spelled “beetle.” I’m in third grade and I know that!
Anyway, enough about the shirt. It confuses me, but I’m willing to look past it. Maddie is looking at me, smiling anxiously while holding a Barbie doll.

“Joey! Look what I brought today! My Barbie!”

“Oh, cool! Is she gonna play with us today?”

“Yeah of course! I think she can be one of the main characters in our movie today. In the movie she can be my best friend. Don’t worry, you’re still my best friend in real life!”

I laugh giddily. “Yay, I know that. The Barbie can be your friend too though.”

“Yeah, and I think she can be your friend too. She’s really nice. Do you want to meet her?”

“Oh! Uh, sure.”

“Barbie, this is my bestest friend in the whole wide world, Joey.” She looks down at the doll, and extends its left arm towards me. “He’s gonna play with us today! Say hi Joey! Nice to meet you!”

“Joey, shake hands with her,” Maddie whispers at me so the doll can’t hear.

I lightly shake the doll’s plastic hand, which is much smaller than my hand. “Hi Barbie.”

“How about this?” Maddie suggests. “Let’s sit down and get to know each other first!”

I would rather run around and play, but in this case I’m going to go along with whatever Maddie wants. “Sure!”

I sit down on the grass, facing Maddie with the doll in her lap. This feels kind of cool, actually. I’m sitting down, casually hanging out with my friend, just like all the cool kids do. Does this make me a cool kid?

“So Joey, why don’t you tell Barbie a little bit about yourself and all the cool things you do.”

I’m not sure where to begin. “Well, I, uh…I write stories for fun. The main one I’m working on right now is ‘When I Was Alive,' which is about a kid who dies and goes to heaven and goes on a crazy adventure.”

The Barbie doll just sits in Maddie’s lap with the same smile glued to her face, literally. Maddie giggles. “Wow, I can tell she’s really fascinated! Tell us more about your stories, Joey! Tell us more!”

“Oh, okay, well…I’m also working on a story called ‘Warblin’ where me and Maddie go on an adventure together and we have to work together to make it through the evil world of Warblin where there are a lot of bad people.”

“Yeah, he even emailed me the first chapter of that story and it’s really good so far!” Maddie emphasizes. “Me and Joey are best friends forever who are going to go on so many adventures when we grow up. We also write and act stories together at school.”

“And when we grow up, we’re gonna get married and move to space and have a baby named Spacey!” I chime in.

Maddie looks at me and smiles. “Yeah, that’s gonna be so cool. Imagine how many cool places we can explore in space together.”

“Speaking of space, I actually had a recent idea for a story that takes place in space.”

“Ooh, really?! What’s it called?”

“It’s gonna be called ‘The Ultimate Force!’ Isn’t that such a cool title?” The Ultimate Force really is one of my favorite titles that I’ve ever come up with. Maddie doesn’t initially respond though when I tell her the title, which mildly surprises me.

“But…what about ‘When I Was Alive?’” she asks more seriously. Uh oh, serious usually means bad.

“Oh, don’t worry, that’s still my focus right now. But I had a really cool idea for a story about a guy with special powers and�"”

“Maybe it should be called something else. You can come up with something better than that. Like ‘When I Was Alive,’ that’s a great title.”

I can’t believe what she’s saying. How could someone think that The Ultimate Force isn’t a super awesome title?

“Come on Maddie, The Ultimate Force is cool,” I insist. “It’s kinda like the force from Star Wars, but…well, ultimate! It’s about a guy who has the ultimate force! It’s like my favorite title I’ve ever come up with.”

“Eh, I don’t really like it that much. I think you can come up with something better.” Dang. Maddie isn’t afraid to tell me her honest opinion, at least. “Maybe after I read it I can help you make a better title.”

“No, it’s gonna be called ‘The Ultimate Force.’ It’s like the best title I’ve ever made! Why don’t you like it? What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s just…it’s not very original I guess.”

Is she serious? Not original?! What in the world?

“Come on, you’re just joking with me. You HAVE to think that The Ultimate Force is a great title!”

Maddie is looking straight at the ground, shaking her head, obviously not enjoying our little disagreement here.

I can’t stand the fact that she doesn’t like my title. I thought she was going to love it! My stomach is boiling up inside of me, building up tension and anger. I feel like punching her as hard as I possibly can in the face. But I don’t want to hurt my best friend.

As I have to let my anger out somehow, my instincts bring me to snatch the Barbie doll out of Maddie’s hands and throw it across the field.

Maddie screams and starts crying. “No! Joey, why would you do that?! Ugh!”

She gets up and runs to the doll. There are a bunch of kids scattered around who are laughing at us, but in this moment, neither of us really care. She picks up the doll, and first checks to see if it’s alright. I’m watching from a distance, but from what I can see, the doll seems fine. Maddie gives me a quick glance before shouting “I’m not your friend anymore!” and running away.

Welp. This could have gone better.

It takes me a second to process everything that has happened. I honestly can’t believe myself. Have I really messed things up this quickly? Like…just like that, she…she’s not my friend anymore? 

It obviously doesn’t feel good, but it doesn’t hurt exactly. It just feels weird. As I stand there on the grass field, alone, for a longer amount of time, some sadness starts to set in. I guess I  failed my first attempt at a real human “friendship.” I lashed out when I shouldn’t have. But hey, things aren’t so bad. It’s a good lesson to learn for the next time I might make a friend. It’s no guarantee that I ever make another friend, but if I do, now I know a little bit more about what it’s like and what to do and what not to do. This is fine. We had only really been friends for a few days anyway, so who cares?

Still, as much as I try to reassure myself that it’s okay, I walk away feeling like I’ve failed. I mean, that much is true �" I did fail. I just really need to figure out how to use that failure as a lesson for a hypothetical “next time.”

Plus, not having a friend won’t be so bad. It’s how I spent the first eight and a half years of my life, and I was perfectly happy that way. I only had a friend for a few days and it didn’t work out. If it ain’t broke, why try to fix it?

One of the idiots on the field comes over to me, grinning with his crooked and messed up teeth that must have not been brushed in weeks.

“What’s your problem, p***y? Lose your precious girlfriend?”

Ugh, here we go again. I just try to stay still and not say anything, so as not to give him the attention he’s begging for.

“You sad, little dude? Do you want a hug?”

“No.”

“Too bad your girlfriend ain’t here to give you a hug no more. Is she?” he laughs, as some of the other kids around him laugh with him.

I’m still standing here, as I feel glued to the exact position I’m in. I would feel awkward and exposed if I were to move, so I just stand in that spot, staring at the same little blade of grass.

I feel tears start to come on, as I have to release the tension somehow. I try to hold them back, but they flow out of my eyes, slowly but surely, like a gentle river pool.

The kid cackles. “Heh heh, is that a tear I see? Man, you’re really taking this s**t hard, little dude. It’s okay, there are other girls out there for you.”

Pause.

“NOT!” The whole group of them explodes in laughter, and as the main kid is looking away at his friends, I sprint off, blocking my ears so I don’t have to hear whatever rude remark they’re about to shout at me.

God, I hate people.

After school, I see my dad come in through the gate to pick me up like he always does. He has a huge, somewhat creepy smile on his face as he squats down and opens his arms for me to run into. But I’m not feeling it.

I walk slowly to him, and he quickly realizes that I’m not going to run and jump into his arms. He looks at me and says, “Hey, son.”

“Ey,” I mutter softly.

“How was school today, son?”

I squirmishly look around.

“Dada, I had a bad day.”

My dad squats down again so he can look at me face to face. I can see the sympathy in the eyes of my dad, who is usually a relatively emotionless person. See, this is what I love about adults. Adults care.

“What happened, Joey? Do you wanna talk about it?”

I continue squirming, trying to decide what to say to him. I definitely don’t want to reveal that I have ever had a friend. So I decide it’s best if I just pretend that it never happened. But the bullying afterward has really made me uncomfortable.

“Some kids were mean to me.”

“Aw, why were they mean to you?”

“I don’t know,” I choke up.

“Well what did they say to you?”

“They called me a word I hadn’t heard before,” I whine as I burst into a flood of tears. Ah, here we go. I fall into my dad’s arms and let it all out, not holding back the stream of emotions that are pouring out of my heart. Yeah, the bullying has definitely affected me, but let’s be real here.

The majority of my sadness stems from losing Maddie.


In the evening, I sit down to try and write like I always do, but I’m just not feeling it. Words usually pour out of me, but tonight I feel like my thoughts are flowing into a brick wall. 

After making no progress on “When I Was Alive,” I decide that maybe going back to Warblin will calm me down and help me ease back into the writing. This should be easy because the stakes are a lot lower with “Warblin,: which is just a silly short story about my adventures with Maddie that I’m pretty much making up as I go along. “When I Was Alive” is going to be a much longer, more serious novel.

I start typing.


Then Joey and Maddie went to


Hm, where should they go next?

I…I’m not sure. 

Wait, why the heck am I writing about me and Maddie still? She’s not my friend anymore! All those adventures we were planning, they’re just made-up fantasies. We’re never going to get married or move to space or have a baby named Spacey. I’m dumb for having ever believed any of that was true in the first place.

The truth is that I am just not somebody who is meant to have “friends.” I have my own friends like Buddy and Elizabeth who do whatever I want them to and listen to whatever I have to say without any judgement. Some kids are meant to have real live human friends, but I am not one of them. Because once a human friend came into my life, all I got was judgement. Judgement, judgement, judgement. All other people ever do is judge. I thought Maddie was different, but no. She just ended up judging me anyway. Who on Earth could possibly think that “The Ultimate Force” is not a great title?! Someone with terrible judgement, that’s for sure.

I slam my hand on the keyboard. I’ve had enough of this. I don’t feel like writing. I just want to get out and let loose a little, forget about all this drama.

“Joey, dinner’s ready!” my mom calls from the kitchen.

“Food!” my dad shouts. Jesus. Why does he have say that so loud? Like, I can hear you just fine when you use your normal voice.

My dad’s loud footsteps storm into my room. He gives me a prolonged stare, points to the kitchen, and repeats, “Food.”

I roll my eyes. Yes, I heard the word “food” twice already! I’m coming!

“Heard you the first time,” I mutter as I begrudgingly get out of my chair.

My dad gives me a slight slap across the head. “Hey, don’t act all mopey.”

He had barely touched me, but the frustration inside me magnifies the impact exponentially. I overreact to the slap by flinching and jumping back. “I’m not acting mopey!”

“Come on, son. It’s time for dinner. Be nice to your mother, too.”

I sit down at the dinner table, with my plate already in front of me. On the plate is some strange meaty-looking substance, but it has weird green and purple things in it too and is covered in some disgusting red sauce or something. It isn't tomato sauce either, like what they put on pizza, it’s something weird I’ve never seen before. Because it seems weird and the fact that I’ve never seen it before, that automatically makes it horrible and therefore there is a zero percent chance of me even thinking about tasting it.

Next to that substance is some noodle-looking thing. Blechhhh. Noodles, spaghetti, or anything like that makes me want to vomit. Just the thought of them appalls me; I absolutely cannot stand them. The shape and texture and the way they ooze…disgusting. Who would eat this?

Finally, there is a third thing on my plate. As awful as the first two are, this may just be the worst. It’s literally a green glob, right out of a cartoon where the cafeteria lady dumps green globs on every kid’s tray. But what’s even worse, it has random strips of some whiteish yellowish color scattered throughout it. What on Earth?

“Mama, I don’t like this,” I whine before trying any of it.

“Come on Joey, you’ll love it. It’s meatloaf, noodles, and cheese spinach!”

Meatloaf? What in the heck is meatloaf? That sure as heck doesn’t look like meat to me.

“Mama, what’s meatloaf?”

“It’s just like hamburger! Come on, try it. You’ll love it.”
This has to be some kind of sick joke. Hamburger?! Come on lady, you have to be kidding me. Hamburgers are my third favorite food, behind chocolate and pizza. I don’t know how stupid my mom thinks I am, thinking that she can fool me into believing that this pile of dog poop is actually a hamburger. I’m about to lose my mind.

“I don’t want it!” I whine. There is just a zero chance of me eating any of this. This is a bad situation all around.

I push the plate forward in front of me and make a mopey face, looking down at the ground to emphasize the message that I’m upset across to my parents.

My dad reaches over and pushes the plate back to me. “Hey, don’t push your food away again or we’ll make you sit here all night. Come on, just try a little bit of your meatloaf.”

Yikes, I can tell from his tone and this look in his eyes that he’s actually bordering on angry, an emotion my dad only truly expresses in rare moments. So I decide that I need to steer this moment in a slightly different direction.

“I’m not hungry. I want to go to my room.” I then turn so that I’m sitting sideways in my chair.

My body absorbs the mopeyness, with the tension and frustration seemingly taking over. That thing on my plate just looks so disgusting that I don’t want to even think about trying it. Plus, I’ve already made it clear that I’m going to be whiny and rebellious against this evening, so I can’t just give in now.

I feel like I have to move fast. That’s right, I just have to move fast in some form or another. It doesn’t matter if it was in the form of sprinting or jumping or any other physical activity. I just have to move fast in some capacity to get this all out of me. I want to jump on the table and roar at the top of my lungs. I want to let everything out of me.

At the same time though, I don’t want my parents to get even more ticked off with me than they already are. But with the tension building up, I have to move. So I jolt out of my seat and sprint into my room.

Despite my insistence, my dad drags me out of my room and back into the dining room. What’s his problem? Just leave me alone!

“Joey, how ‘bout we go outside and play a game of catch? It’ll calm you down.”

I want to keep being my stubborn self and hide out in my room, but I do love playing catch with my dad. So I begrudgingly adhere.

My dad grabs two mitts and two balls (in case I throw one over the fence) and leads me to the backyard.

It’s boring at first. My dad throws at an average speed �" not fast, not slow �" literally right at my mitt. Like, I don’t even have to move my mitt an inch to catch it. Sure, his accuracy is impressive, but it makes catching the ball pretty boring. Then I toss it back half-heartedly because I don’t want to show that I care or that I’m happy. I have to keep going with the whole “moody teenager” stint.

Slowly, he starts to throw a tick harder at me, of course with the same accuracy. So I respond by throwing it a little harder back. And a little harder more. A few sail over his head, and there are a few I forget to let go of that sail 15 feet to his right for him to chase down. But I’m absolutely loving the exhilarating feeling of firing that ball harder and harder like nothing matters. This was the perfect way of letting out my frustration, throwing a ball as hard as I can instead of jumping on the dinner table like a maniac.

Before long, I am Kenley Jansen, elite closer of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Game seven of the World Series. Bottom of the ninth. Dodgers up 3-2. Bases loaded, two outs, full count. It all comes down to this pitch.

I position myself in a stretch like Jansen does, and give a few little wobbles forward and backward before getting set. After a brief pause, I rear back, and thrust my entire body into it. This is going to be a perfect strike. I can just feel it.

I glance at my dad, but to my shock, he’s not even paying attention. He’s turned to the right, looking up at the sky at a helicopter or something. He has absolutely no idea that I’m throwing the ball.

Everything that had clicked quickly shifts out of alignment, and I feel lost. I can’t control anything as the ball shoots out of my hand, straight for my dad’s head, and makes a loud smack like a bowling ball hitting a boulder as it bounces off his head.

I freeze. I don’t know what to do.

My dad glares at me furiously. “Come on son, you know not to throw it when I’m not looking!”

I’m �" I'm speechless. I try to talk but no words come out.

He calms down and lets out an exasperated sigh. “Come on son, let’s go back inside.”

I still feel stuck in a block of ice as the world and all its problems swirl around me. I can’t think or walk straight as I venture back into my room. What in the world was this day? Why is this happening?
I need to write. Writing is the only thing that could get my mind off all this garbage and get me back to a right state of mind.

I decide to add a chapter to “Warblin,” which I’ve actually been making pretty decent progress on; I’m already done with Chapter 2: Getting Threw War.

Okay. It’s time to just not think and let the typing flow.

Deep breath.

Relax.

Here we go. Chapter three. I decide to call it “Finding the Secret but not Getting it.”

Then he saw a bottle.

There was paper inside.

He ran to the bottle.

On the bottle it said Secret.

When Joey was about to open the bottle, bat flew into Joey’s face. Then the bat said “Anybody that comes here stays here.” Joey got his sword out. The bat was really scared. Then a wizard came. He was a good guy. Then the wizard said to Joey “I lost my magic, I need you to help me find it, the secret tells how.” When Joey took the bottle the bat grabbed it back. Then the bat said “I’m an vampire bat.” Joey wasn’t scared.


I love where this story is taking me. I’m journeying along with the Joey in the story, inside that cave, imagining that bat is talking to me. This story is practically writing itself.

I’m so proud of this, I definitely have to send it to Maddie. So I quickly copy and paste and then�"

Oh, wait. That’s right. Maddie’s not my friend anymore.

Darn.

Well, I guess I can just keep writing the story anyway. Onto chapter four!

But…but Maddie needs to read it so she can know what happens next. How can I keep writing this without her knowing what’s happening?

I can’t. I have to move on to something else. I can never come back to “Warblin” again. It just isn’t the same without being able to email it to Maddie to see what she thinks.

I decide to transition over to “When I Was Alive” instead. That’s my more serious work anyway. “Warblin” is just a silly thing I’m writing on the side, while I’m planning on “When I Was Alive” being my first published novel. I’m hoping to have it published before I turned 10, so I have a couple years to crank out a masterpiece.

I read through the draft I have so far, and I have to say, the thing is dull. It’s just boring. I still like the premise and want to go with that, but this story has so much more potential than this dry, uninspirational narrative I’ve been trudging my way through. I have to think bigger. I have to stop writing in such repetitive, short sentences and really dive deep into my characters’ emotions.

I need a hook to draw my readers in. Right now the opening is about as dry as the paint job on my 30-year-old house.

I got it.

I type slowly into the computer, “I died once. In fact, I died fifty times."


Most nights, my mom has to forcefully drag me into bed. But tonight, I really need some sleep, so I do it all on my own. By 7:48, I’m comfortably tucked under my Spongebob covers, with Buddy, Tiger Cat, and Elizabeth all by my side.

I look at Elizabeth, with her painted closed eyes and head slouching down into the mattress. She looks a little bit more down than usual.

“Elizabeth, how was your day?” I quietly whisper. “Did you have a good day?”

I can tell by the non-responsive expression on her face that the answer is no. Poor Elizabeth. I think she’s feeling pretty similar to the way I’m feeling. Confused, sad, a little bit lost in the speed at which all her surroundings are accelerating. Not quite sure how to handle it, or what to do or say. 

School really throws you into the fire. I mean, you start when you’re five years old for Christ’s sake, or even younger if you go to preschool. You’re barely waking up from your mommy’s belly, just trying to grasp the concept of life and breathing and walking and talking…and suddenly, you’re dropped into a swarm of other human beings with opinions and personalities who rot at your soul and eat away at you. On top of that, there’s these humans three times your height stomping and bossing you around and getting mad at you if you do the slightest thing wrong. These humans have the ultimate authority and there’s nothing you can do to escape them. Every day, from 8:00 in the morning to 2:17 in the afternoon, you’re trapped in this tangled maze of chaos.

Like come on, I’m a kid. Let me be a kid! Let me sit at home all day watching my favorite baseball teams, the Dodgers and the Mets. Let me go outside and throw tennis balls over the backyard fence and into the street, never to be seen again. Let me lay in bed and watch four seasons of my favorite show, Spongebob Squarepants. In my opinion, in order to learn how to do this whole “life” thing, I need to be free and let myself ease in to being exposed to the real world. I shouldn’t be trapped in a cage with a bunch of other dorks who all share a collective passion for hating me.

I can’t believe that I ever had even had a glimmer of hope that I might have an actual friend in Maddie. Looking back, that’s laughable. The cold, hard, simple truth is that I will never have a friend. Mark my words. I am never going to make friends with any other kid my age. My primary goal is now to hide from all kids and human interaction at all costs. It isn’t worth even letting myself be tempted to make a friend!

I turn back to Elizabeth. “Isn’t that right, Elizabeth?”

I look closely at her closed eyes again and I know exactly what she’s thinking. She’s agreeing with me all the way, like a true friend should do.

Too bad there aren’t any humans like that.


I make sure to wear my large Mets hoodie to school, so I can just hide and sleep in that thing all day. No need to bother with anyone.

“Joey, why are you wearing a sweatshirt?” my mom quizzes me the second she sees me. “You never wear jackets or sweatshirts. Plus, it’s actually gonna be kind of warm today.”

God, did I ask you?!

I refuse to make eye contact with her and just shrug. Why do people always have to quiz me on every little thing I do? Let me be my own person!

The second I get to school, I make sure to take the shortest possible route to the bathroom to avoid humiliation. I feel like just my pure existence and presence around other people will make them laugh at me. The toilet never laughs at me. The toilet gladly takes everything I have to give it, then flushes it away like it never even existed.

I walk into the bathroom, but the lone stall is occupied. Darn! Why do they only have one stall in the bathroom, anyway? There isn’t a chance in heaven that I’m gonna used one of the urinals. I prefer to keep my penis private from other people, thank you.

There’s one other kid in the bathroom, using the middle of the three urinals as I stand awkwardly in front of the stall door. What is taking the kid in there so long?

The kid turns away from the urinal and zips up his pants, then turns around to walk to the sink. He has short curly red hair, and a bunch of freckles. Weird-looking kid, honestly.

“The urinal’s open, man,” he tells me with a puzzled look on his face, presumably as to why I’m just standing here like a statue.

“Oh�"oh, I, uh, know,” I stutter. “I’m, uh, waiting for the, uh, st-stall.”

The kid smirks. “What, you gotta take a number two? Heh, you’re a girl!”

Is this kid serious? Pooping is something that is completely normal for both boys and girls to do. Not sure what his problem is. I want to give this kid a good punch in the nose, but I obviously don’t have anywhere near the guts to do that.

“I’m not a girl,” I barely let out. Those words barely escape me, but I want to say something so bad that they force their way out of my vocal chords.

“What’s that, p***y? You’re not a girl? Prove it, then, huh! Take a piss like a real guy!”

By a “piss” I’m assuming he means a pee. At first I stay in place, not wanting to give into this kid because I really want some alone time in the stall. But he looks ready to lash out and give me a beating, so I guess I have to give in to his peer pressure and go to the urinal.

I slowly tread over to the urinal, trying not to look at the kid. I need to just pretend like everything is normal. I am just a normal, cool guy. A cool guy who takes “pisses” in public urinals. That’s the cool thing to do, right? I’m a cool guy!

So I turn to the urinal, as the cool guys do. Then I pull my pants all the way down �" and yes, I mean all the way down �" and start to pee like a cool guy. I’ve never understood how some people pee without pulling their pants all the way down. Isn’t it a lot easier to just pull them down rather than having to deal with a dumb zipper?

“Ew, gross, dude! What the hell is wrong with you? I don’t want to see your smelly a*s! Get the hell outta here, s**t-for-brains.” The kid absolutely freaks and jolts out of the bathroom. Man, what’s his problem? Doesn’t he see kids’ butts all the time since he’s one of those “cool” urinal users?

Just then, the kid who was in the stall finally walks out, opening the door to see me and my bare butt staring him in the face.

Luckily, this kid is a bit calmer about it, sternly telling me, “You know dude, you’re not supposed to pull your pants all the way down at a urinal. That’s what babies do. You’re not a baby anymore, you’re a kid now.” And with that he gives his hands a quick wash and walks out of here without giving me another look.

Huh. I’m a kid now. I guess I’ve never thought of it like that. I’m not a super tiny, fresh, brand new baby anymore. And I guess it is considered weird to pull your pants down at such an old age, now that I think about it.

RING! RING! RING! Shoot, there’s the bell. I’d better pull my pants up and get to class.


By the time lunch hits, I’m not quite sure what to do with myself. I’ve been so lost in the whole Maddie frenzy that I need to get back into my rhythm �" the Joey rhythm. That’s when it hits me. I just need to go back to playing with myself in the corner. Just be myself, get back into that Joey rhythm of doing my own thing and not concerning myself at all with anybody around me. I need to virtually transport myself into my own little bubble where nobody else can enter, just me alone with my thoughts and my imaginary characters.

I head out to the grass field, and�" Oh God, there’s Maddie. No! She’s dancing and jumping around, cheerfully talking to Maria who is listening intently.

Before I can run off, we make eye contact, and her eyes widen at the sight of me. “There’s Joey! Maria, look! Joey’s here! Joey’s here!”

Honestly, the look of pure excitement and joy on her face is impossible to turn down. I have no idea what’s gotten into her since she said I wasn’t her friend anymore, but clearly that memory has been erased as she sprints towards me gleefully.

“I was worried you were absent, best friend! Come on, let’s go play!” she urges me.

“But…but I thought you weren’t my friend anymore?”

Maddie stops in her tracks and lets out a cackle. “Oh, no, silly! Of course you’re still my friend! I changed my mind! It was just a small fight. Now come on, let’s go on a magical journey!”

A weight has just been lifted off my shoulders, and I can feel myself getting sucked right back in to the whole Maddie thing. I have a friend! Warm butterflies swarm the inside of my stomach just thinking about it.

“Well then. Let’s go!” I cheer, and we run together into our own little empty corner of the grass field.

“Come on Joey, let’s skip!”

I freeze. “Skip? How do I skip?”

Maddie laughs. “Here, let me show you!” She then locks arms with me and starts to skip down the field, and I try to copy her the best I can. I’m a little stiff and not as fluid as her, but I think I’m getting it. 

“Am I doing it right?” I ask.

She laughs again, but the smile stays glued to her face. I’m sure I’ve ever seen someone look so genuinely and truly happy. It makes me happy just looking at that smile.

“Yay!” I exclaim, and we skip around and around in circles together, like nothing matters. We aren’t worried about the people around us, because they’re not our problem. We just keep skipping in circles, her long, soft pink sleeve linked in my bare arm. Ah, this feels good, a type of good I’m not really used to. It’s like a combination of the coziness you feel when you get in bed under the fluffy covers, combined with the fuzziness you feel when you win or accomplish something. Just imagine those two feelings blending together into one state of holiness. It really is a feeling really like no other.

“Come on, let’s sing!” Maddie says as we continue to skip in circles. 

“Skip, skip, skip to my lou! Skip, skip, skip to my lou! Skip, skip, skip to my lou! Skip to my lou, my darling!” she sings brightly.

There is silence now as we continue skipping. 

“Come on, now you go!”

I feel bad for saying this, but I have to be honest. “I- I don’t know the rest of the lyrics.”

“It’s okay, I’ll go for you!” And she continues, “Flies in the buttermilk, shoo shoo shoo! Flies in the buttermilk, shoo shoo shoo! Flies in the buttermilk, shoo shoo shoo!”

Panting, she points to me. Oh, I think I know what to say!
“Skip to my lou, my darling!” 

We smile at each other, and I feel an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and pride for making my best friend happy. I knew I couldn’t have been wrong about her the first time. I just knew it. Sure, I may have overreacted a little when I briefly thought she wasn’t my friend anymore, but deep down I had known the whole time that there was no way I was wrong. She is the absolute best, completely different from all the other kids at school. This is amazing, I don’t even know where to begin or where to stop. Never in a million years would I have thought that I’d end up finding joy in any social capacity at school.

So, maybe this friendship thing might work out after all.


As if that day couldn’t get any better, Mrs. Gold decides that we’ve been such a good class recently that there won’t be any homework tonight. Wow! I’m actually gonna be able to relax and do whatever I want. Probably write a bit, email drafts to Maddie, and watch the Mets with my dad. Can’t wait for a fun evening!

Once school is over, I see my dad waiting at the gate for me with his arms open like he always does. Gosh, I love my dad.

I run into his arms and actually give him somewhat of a hug, which is a rarity for me.

“Hey son! How was school?”

“It was great! I played with my friend Maddie at lunch! She’s really fun to play with.”

My dad is smiling, but I can tell he’s holding back oozes of pure joy and excitement with a touch of relief. On the inside, I’ll bet he’s absolutely ecstatic that I actually seem to be enjoying myself and have made a friend, but he’s toning it down the best that he can.

“Who’s this friend again?” he asks me as we get in the car. “I heard you tell your mother about her the other day. What was her name again?”

“Her name’s Maddie,” I say with more confidence than I honestly expected from myself. “Maddie Collins.”

“Ah, Maddie. Okay, cool. Ya ready for the Metsies tonight?”

I laugh. “Yeah, they’re gonna lose again! They’ve lost seven in a row!”

I love making fun of the Mets in front of my dad. You see, he grew up in New York City and has been a suffering Mets fan from a young age. While the Yankees always get all the fanfare in the New York baseball media due to their 27 world championships, my dad has always stayed loyal to his lovable losers, the poor old Mets.

The story of how he became a Mets fan is actually kind of interesting. He grew up in a household with two parents who did not care about or play sports at all, but he was different from them. As a little kid he would play on the streets all day, playing baseball with sticks and rocks while using trash cans for bases. 

One of the kids he played with was apparently a strange little kid named Christopher, who had some sort of serious mental problems or issues. But Christopher came from a huge Mets family, so naturally he was a huge Mets fan. And playing baseball on the streets, Christopher introduced my dad to the Mets. It was 1969, and the Mets were finally having a good season for the first time in their history since their creation in 1962. They were going on a run that no one could believe, and Christopher urged my dad to follow and support that team because he could feel something special about them. 

So my dad basically thought, “Sure why, not?” He ended up going to Christopher’s house every day after school to watch the Mets as it got later into the season and things started to get more exciting. Despite describing Christopher as a weird, awkward, and introverted kid, my dad says he really enjoyed bonding with him and rooting on the Mets together.

He’s also mentioned, though, that Christopher had a psycho twin sister with severe anger issues and an obsessive personality. To that day, my dad could still never remember exactly what her name was, but he did remember that it started with a K. He said the only hard part about going to Christopher’s house was avoiding his crazy sister, who would punch and bite people for no reason. Apparently it got so bad that they even had to lock the girl up to keep her from attacking her own family members.

My dad spent more and more time at Christopher’s house as the season went on though, bonding not only with his new friend, but with his newfound love, the New York Mets. Most New York baseball fans like the Yankees, but to him they were always just a bunch of boring winners. The Mets were up and coming. The Mets were exciting, and for the first time, they were actually good. My dad spent all his evenings glued to the black-and-white TV screen, and all his mornings glued to the sports section of the daily newspaper. In short time, he became obsessed with the Mets.

And wouldn’t you know it, my dad and Christopher’s obsession and love paid off as the 1969 New York Mets, or the “Miracle Mets” as they have been referred to since, came through and won the World Series. A team that had set the single-season loss record just seven years prior had stunned the baseball world and become world champions. It was an underdog story for the ages that just about sealed the deal as far as my dad becoming a Mets fan.

He stayed friends with Christopher all throughout his childhood, and became an even bigger Mets fan, of course. Around high school though, Christopher started to have some issues with drugs and social anxiety, as he would miss days and even weeks of school at a time with no explanation. 

While my dad was in college at UCLA (where he met my mom), he heard from Christopher over the phone for the first time in a few years. Long story short, Christopher had apparently tried to kill his crazy twin sister, unsuccessfully, and had been checked into an insane asylum. Christopher went on to talk to my dad about how he had met a cute girl at the asylum, and he was working up the courage to ask her out. 

Clearly Christopher had gone through a lot and was really struggling, so of course my dad was really nice about it and encouraged him to ask her out and assured him that it would go great. He says he convinced Christopher to do it, to go ask out the girl at the insane asylum.

And after he hung up the phone, he would never hear from Christopher again.

It’s a little creepy to think about what could have happened to Christopher. Is he dead? Is he still in an insane asylum? Is he living homeless on a street somewhere? We have no idea, and my parents couldn’t find him on Facebook or anything. We have no contacts with anyone from his family, and God only knows what could have happened to his poor crazy sister whose named started with a K.

Anyway, my dad took a much different road than his childhood best friend Christopher did. He went to a great four-year college in UCLA, where he met my mom. They moved to Santa Monica together after college, got married at 26, and were happily married 14 years before I was born. Shortly before I was born, they moved to the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles, where they’ve been raising me ever since.

And through thick and thin, my dad continues to support the Mets, even through some very dark days. Their only world championship since the magical 1969 season came in 1986, so it’s been a little while. There have been countless collapses and unbearable heartbreaks, but at age 48, my dad is still watching every Met game after work, every single day. Now that’s commitment.

Unfortunately, the Mets still aren’t very good, much to my amusement. I like watching the Mets because I can just laugh at how awful they are on a daily basis. With every error, with every blown lead, and with every loss, I laugh harder and harder while my dad just sits there and sighs. Being a Mets fan, he has some pretty thick skin at this point.

Living in LA, I decided early on that I would be a Dodgers fan. The Dodgers are one of the most famous franchises in baseball history, although they actually aren’t doing all that great either having not having won a championship since 1988. Still, the Dodgers aren’t “funny bad” like the Mets are. Actually, the Mets aren’t just funny bad, they’re hilarious bad.

By the time 4:10 hits, everyone knows what it’s time for. Stop what you’re doing, the Mets are playing! It starts with that distinct theme song for the channel it’s on, SNY. DUHHHHH…duhhh DAT doo, doo DUH! Duhhh DAT doo, doo DUH! 

Following the theme song is the distinct voices of the best announcers in baseball: Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez, and Ron Darling. There is no other broadcast booth in baseball who matches their elite chemistry, personalities, and knowledge of the game. One thing I have to admit is that they are an absolute joy to listen to.

Then they show the team warming up as game time quickly approaches. That’s always my first chance to laugh at all the bums on the field out there pretending to play baseball, and then of course I cackle at their trash batting averages and ERAs as they pop on the screen.

Tonight’s pitcher is Mike Pelfrey. Heh, bum. This guy usually gives up a bunch of stuff.

The phone rings right as Pelfrey throws his first pitch (for a ball, of course). “F**K!” my mom yells from downstairs. I wonder what that word means, I think I’ve heard it before somewhere. The phone ringing has a way of getting my mom really upset, really quickly.

“Sorry, sorry,” is the way my mom greets the phone, her voice fading as she stomps into another room. She never starts with a simple “hello,” it’s always “sorry.” I’ll never understand that.

I had drifted off for a second, so I look back at the TV and Pelfrey has already given up a home run. Jeez, that was fast. And the guy who hit the homer is some scrub on the Padres I had never heard of named Jody Gerut. What exactly is a “Jody Gerut” anyway?

As soon as I catch up with what’s happening in the game, David Eckstein lines a single to center. So it’s just a typical Mets game, nothing new to see here.

The Padres score three more runs in the top of the second, although the Mets respond with a run in the bottom of the second making it 4-1 Padres. Through all of this, I can still hear the muffled sounds of my mom talking on the phone. As the game goes on through scoreless third and fourth innings, she continues to talk on the phone, which begins to pique my curiosity. It’s past 5:00, around when she usually starts cooking dinner. What could possibly be taking so long on the phone?

Pelfrey settles down a little bit, but allows another run in the top of the fifth to put the lowly and depressed Mets behind 5-1. To the Padres. Yikes, losing to the Padres is almost as embarrassing as losing to the Mets.

In the bottom of the fifth, the broadcasters announce and introduce their “Kidcaster” of the game; some kid who won a contest gets to call a half-inning in the booth. They do it every year, and it’s usually kind of entertaining to see a kid around my age doing a professional’s job for them.

“And here we have Jacob Finkelstein from Manhattan, New York. Nice to have you on, Jacob!” Gary Cohen introduces.

“Thank you, it is a great honor,” Jacob replies nicely. Jacob is a pretty typical-looking black-haired kid wearing all his Mets gear. Seems like a pretty normal kid, nothing special about him.

The Mets’ Brian Schneider leads off the bottom of the fifth with a walk. “Alright, he walked the first hitter! The Mets are rallying!” my dad celebrates. See, these are the kinds of things that Mets fan have to be happy about.

It doesn’t seem to be amounting to anything though, as Luis Castillo flies out to center and Gary Sheffield pinch-hits for Pelfrey, only to ground into a forceout. Poor little Jacob in the booth has a glimpse of hope in his voice when the ball is hit, only to be shattered with sheer disappointment and utter sadness when it turns out to be an out.

I hear my mom walk back into the kitchen, where I can now hear her much clearer. “Alright, wow,” she exasperates. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

She hangs up the phone and immediately fast-walks upstairs and into the room.

“Boys, I’ve got some pretty big news,” she announces. My dad pauses the TV as Jose Reyes jogs to first with a two-out walk.

“Yeah, what is it?” My dad turns his full attention to her.

“So that was Aunt Jean on the phone,” she explains. “So she’s in Ghana right now as you guys know, and she met a young rapper over there named �" uh, Kwesi Wale, I believe the name was. And guess what. They’re getting married this weekend.”

“Yes, you heard me right. She fell in love with him and they’re getting married.”

……

“Well that’s…something.” My dad just has this hilariously blank look on his face. Certainly no one saw that one coming. I have to re-listen to it in my brain a few times just to comprehend what I had heard. “How old’s this guy anyway?”

“He’s 31. 24 years younger than her.”

“Where are they getting married?”

“It’s gonna be at a small chapel in Las Vegas this weekend. I’m gonna book us a quick flight so we can be there Saturday evening for the wedding on Sunday morning. And my mom’s gonna drive up from San Diego to meet us before we leave.”

My frazzled dad just turns his head and flicks the TV back on. While the Mets are still undoubtedly trash, they’re a good distraction whenever we have to deal with stuff like this. My mom sits at the computer next to us to book our flight for the weekend.

The left-handed Daniel Murphy is at the plate for the Mets. He’s still pretty new to the team so we don’t quite know a whole lot about him yet, but he’s seemed pretty good so far.

On queue, he lines a sharp single into right field, as Sheffield races home and Reyes moves first to third. The Mets have now cut their deficit to 5-2, so they’re not giving up quite yet.

“And this team is not going down without a fight as Daniel Murphy drives in their second run of the game!” Jacob excitedly announces.

David Wright then steps up to the plate. Now this is the guy who Mets fans seem to love; he’s the absolute face of the franchise it seems like. I’ll admit, he does seem pretty darn good.

“And here comes the Captain, David Wright, with the tying runs on base.” Jacob really dramatizes the moment for this trash team that’s going nowhere regardless of the result of this at-bat.

Padres pitcher Walter Silva sets and fires the pitch. Wright swings and smashes it to deep left, and as soon as it’s hit I can feel the stadium shake even from my living room. 

“And Wright hits one to deep left field, back it goes, and…it’s gone!” Jacob’s voice cracks as that ball lands in the seats. “A home run for David Wright, and this game is tied! His first of the year, and we have a brand new ballgame!”

The booth is cracking up, absolutely loving Jacob’s call. Wow! This team appeared to have no energy, and suddenly they’ve roared back to tie this thing up. Is it something about the crazy news of my 55-year-old aunt getting married to a young Ghanaian rapper that has fired this team up? Nah, probably not. But I guess you never know.

As the top of the sixth starts, my mom lets out a huge sigh of relief and turns the chair. “Okay, we’re booked. How are the Mets doing?”

Luis Rodriguez of the Padres hits a ball to right field just as she turns around, and exactly when she asks how the Mets are doing, right fielder Ryan Church drops the ball. Yep, he drops the ball in true Mets fashion, allowing Rodriguez to go all the way to third to lead off the inning. Great, just after they had tied up the game! Man, these Mets could drive a person crazy. No wonder Christopher ended up like he did.

My mom grits her teeth and laughs. “Yikes, maybe I shouldn’t have asked.”

My dad shakes his head. “I still can’t believe your sister’s getting married. I had pretty much written that off at this point.”

The Mets are actually able to induce two weak groundouts with Rodriguez on third and nobody out to keep the game tied, surprisingly enough. With two outs, they actually have a chance to get out of this mess. It’s just that Eckstein guy batting again.

Suddenly, the umpire shouts something out, and I’m not quite sure why but then �" oh no. Seriously?! This is peak Mets. Pedro Feliciano has balked home a run! Man, you almost never see balks at the Major League level. Jesus, that’s embarrassing. Just like that, a balk and the Mets are losing again.

They don’t put up any kind of fight for the rest of the game as the lifeless Mets lose 6-5. Man, another tough loss for my dad’s poor Mets. What an absolute shame (wink wink).

That game is symbolic on a number of different levels. Things started off ugly, with the team appearing to have no chance to win. Then out of absolutely nowhere, something great happened and it looked like they had a chance at magic and greatness. But alas, things got dry quickly as time went on and things didn’t work out, with all the players looking bored, unenergized, and uninspired.

All that on the night when I learn that my aunt is going to be entering a marriage which appears destined for failure. Hm.


Saturday morning comes, and it’s time to drive to the airport. I’m not quite sure what to expect from this trip; all I know is that it’s going to be strange. Just the whole situation feels…weird. My parents aren’t exactly doing joyful backflips over my aunt getting married to an African rapper. Though Grammy, who drove up from San Diego last night, seems to be her usual giddy self.

“Alright, we got everything?” my dad asks before we leave the house.

“Ready to go!” Grammy cheers, tightly gripping her cane in one hand.

I tap my mom on the back. “Mama, can I bring a toy on the trip?”

“Sure, Joey. Just pick one quickly.”

“Yay!” I sprint into my room.

Hm, which toy should I pick? While I love all my toys and stuffed animals equally, my go-to is usually sweet little Elizabeth. I’ve been obsessing over her a lot lately, even more so than usual. I’m not really sure why. Maybe it’s because in a way, she kind of reminds me of Maddie. She makes it feel like Maddie is always with me on my adventures even when she really isn’t.

I grab Elizabeth off my bed and run back out to leave. But turns out they aren't ready, as Grammy is shuffling around her purse looking for her glasses. Ah, good old Grammy.

My dad is standing at the door with all his luggage, impatiently grimacing and furiously glancing at the clock as Grammy continues to look for her glasses while mumbling. He needs to relax, we’re still gonna be there like two hours early for the flight. My dad is always a time freak who has to be super early to everything. I mean, I guess it’s better than having a dad who’s late to everything. But still, come on.

“Oh, Mother!” My mom grits her teeth in frustration but tensely laughs it off. “Your glasses are right there in your back pocket.”

Sure enough, there’s a pair of glasses that have been hanging out of the back pocket of her jeans the entire time. Welp.

Grammy takes a few seconds to clue in, but then she slowly turns around and sees them. “Ah, thank you, dear.”

“Now let’s go!” My dad flings open the door and walks out, basically forcing the issue.

As I predicted, we still end up arriving two hours and three minutes early for the flight. Okay, so fine, I was three minutes off.

As does not come as too much of a surprise though, the security line is absolute trash. Ugh. My little kid mind can’t handle standing in such a confined space for so long.

I start dozing off in line despite the fact that I’m standing, which is weird. That’s just how tired I am. At least I’ll get the chance to really get some sleep on the flight. If you didn’t know, I’m the master of sleeping on plane flights and bus rides. Even in uncomfortable positions and scratchy seats, I can sleep through almost anything. Oh wait though. We’re only flying to Las Vegas, which my parents told me was only like a 45-minute flight. Dang it! It’ll be over in like two seconds! Horrible! Welp, I guess I’m just gonna have to take advantage of the time I have.

The security line drags on and on, to the point where I’m so bored and gassed out of my mind that�"

Hey! Is that Maddie?

There’s a little blonde girl with a Snow White backpack walking, and my mind instantly races to the thought of Maddie. But the girl turns and when I actually see her face, it’s clear that it’s not her. Jesus, I need to not be so paranoid. Maddie isn’t going to be flying on an airplane this weekend, plus there are plenty of short blonde girls in this world. There is literally zero reason to even consider that she might randomly show up.

I still act unnecessarily frigid going through the rest of the process. I have the strangest inkling that Maddie is going to pop out of nowhere and greet me with those sparkling wide brown eyes and that genuine smile. Then…oh God, I can’t even imagine it. She’ll have to say hi to my parents, and introduce herself in front of me…my arms tingle and goosebumps form just at the very thought of such a traumatic social experience.

God! I just need to get out of my own brain and relax a little. There’s nothing to worry about! I’m still safe by my parents, Grammy, and Elizabeth’s side. Tucked in my right arm, I squeeze Elizabeth even tighter to assure that she has my back and will comfort me. I like Maddie, but Elizabeth is on a whole other level. For now, Maddie is just the best human non-family presence who I can actually benefit from being around. Still a rarity, no doubt about it.

Having decelerated my heart rate a little bit, I’m finally able to ease into the social atmosphere, even with all the crazy hustle and bustle of the airport, with every type of person you can imagine running around and participating in the hectic flow of the airport. After I sit at the gate with Elizabeth in my lap, time seems to fly almost as if I’m having fun. At some point I fell asleep, my baby girl Elizabeth lying on my shoulder with her soft blue hooded one-piece and her permanently closed eyes.

The whole experience is a bit of a blur, but eventually I drift off into some sort of dream world in my little unexpected nap at the airport gate. 

I’m running on an endless strip of grass. And not just running, but running hurriedly, like I have somewhere urgent to be. I don’t actually know the reason for why I’m running, but in the moment, everything makes perfect sense. There isn’t much around me, except for the occasional tree or bush. I must be running at an inhuman speed of hundreds or even thousands of miles per hour, because the world is zooming and flashing by me like I’m traveling a rocketship. It doesn’t seem odd or peculiar to me though that I’m going so insanely fast; to me, in the dream world, it seems perfectly normal for a human to be traveling that fast.

While things go smoothly for awhile, the world suddenly starts to jiggle. And not smooth jiggling either. Up, down, left, right, the entire universe starts to shift and jerk in unpredictable directions. This isn’t an earthquake (although I’ve never actually felt an earthquake before). This is something much crazier, on a much larger scale.

The shaking rapidly increases until things become even blurrier than they had already been, and eventually I don’t even know which way I’m facing or if I’m upside down or right side up. The entire atmosphere flashes before my eyes. But I can make one thing out…and that is a face, a face that is screaming at me to run away. Despite the absurdly obstructed and blurred vision, I can make it out who it is. It’s Maddie.

“RUN!” she screams at the top of her lungs, as if she’s being chased by a murderer in a horror movie. “YOU WON’T MAKE IT! YOU’RE GONNA DIE! I’M GONNA KILL YOU! RUN!”

Ah, of course! That makes so much sense to me in my dream. Of course Maddie is going to kill me! Why would she do anything different? Everyone knows that the only reason people make friends with each other is so that they can kill each other. In my dream world, this makes completely logical sense. 

So I obey her orders, and accelerate even faster despite having absolutely no clue where I’m going. As I’m running, I somehow get lifted off the ground, and my body starts to shake just as fast if not faster than the world is shaking. It’s almost like I’m part of the atmosphere now, just a speck of dust flying by in the wind. My body shakes so fast that my shoes and socks blow right off, followed by my pants and underwear ripping in half and disintegrating. My shirt flies straight up off of my body, ascending through the clouds and into the solar system. I am now bare naked, spinning and flying in the air trying to catch up to Maddie, who I’m 100 percent certain is going to kill me. Just a normal day.

Maddie, who is also flying in the air and has also had all her clothes ripped off, starts to slow down. Or I start to speed up. Either way, I begin to catch up with her while we both remain spinning in midair. 

The first thing I notice when I see her is her penis, which is admittedly a lot smaller than I would have expected. My penis is a little bit bigger. Huh, maybe I have an abnormally large penis. To be fair, I’ve never seen another boy or girl’s penis, so I don’t exactly have a whole lot to compare it to.

Maddie is overjoyed to see me while I almost stare too long at her tiny shrimp of a penis.

“Oh, Joey! How I love you! How amazing you are! How handsome you are! Oh, Joey! How I love you so very much!”

I smile and gave her a huge hug, something I would never do in real life because I am not a hugger. But in my dream, it’s like there’s a force controlling me to make me hug her, and it convinces me that that is something I really, really want to do. 

It feels…a little bit different than hugging my mom or dad. Our skin rubs up against one another, which feels oddly soothing in the best way. I think our penises even touch at one point. She keeps repeating things like “Oh, Joey,” while practically getting on top of me. This is, uh, getting a little intimate. But it all continues to make so much sense.

CLONK! The sound of metal hitting metal strikes right behind me. While still holding onto Maddie, I turn around to see a classic white toilet hovering in midair. Just a normal toilet floating in the air, minding its own business. Huh, that’s random.

“NOW GO!” Maddie’s voice screeches out of nowhere, and she shoves me down headfirst into the toilet. I hear the sound of the toilet flushing, and I’m immediately taken down a spiral of water that spins me around and around until I’m fully underwater. Hm, I wonder what will happen when I get to the bottom of the toilet. I feet something bite my right heel, and I have no idea what it is. Down and down I continue to spiral, until�"

“Aw, come on honey. Time to wake up now.”

I blink a couple times. Woah. I’m suddenly stuck in the lifeless airport, my mom staring me in the face. “Our plane’s about to board. Come on, Joey.”

Woah. What the heck. I almost forgot about the flight at this point. What…what in the world was that dream? I think it over and replay it in my mind, already forgetting some of the details. And it doesn’t take me long to realize that that…that’s not normal. Now that I’ve taken a second to think about it, do girls even have penises? I don’t think they do. That part seems kind of weird in retrospect.

But once I wipe the sleep out of my eyes and remember where the heck I am and what the heck I’m doing, it occurs to me that none of that actually happened. Everything is good and normal, no need to worry about being flushed down a floating toilet by my best friend in the real world. Now, now it’s time to travel to good ol’ Las Vegas.


Despite having earlier fallen into a deep asleep at the airport, I’m still tired enough to get some sleep on the plane ride, shutting my eyes before it even takes off. However, before I know it, my dad is nudging me to wake up as we have arrived. Jesus, that flight was short.

It’s my first time in the state of Nevada, as my dad points out. In fact, it’s the eighth state I’ve been to in my life (including my home state of California), and I also happen to be eight years old. We always try to make sure that my age is the same as the number of states I’ve been to, just because it’s fun. So I guess this trip takes care of that minor dilemma.

We hop in a taxi from the airport and head over to the hotel where my aunt and her fiancee are staying. So I have to remember why exactly we’re there again. Right. My 55-year-old aunt is marrying a young Ghanaian rapper. Sure, why not?

The hotel sure looks expensive upon first impression. Just the sign to the place looks all fancy and shiny. We enter the lobby, and a woman in a black suit sitting at the front desk warmly greets us.

“Hi, how can I help you?”

“Hi!” my mom cheerfully responds. “We’re here for Jean Molyneaux.”

“Ah, perfect, I’ll call her right down.”

“Thank you!”

What is it with that phrase, “thank you,” anyway? I’ve never understood it. What does that even mean? Is it even grammatically correct? “Thank you” sounds like a command or an order. But to make it grammatically correct, it would have to be “thank yourself.” And in that case, it just makes no sense at all in the context in which it’s typically used, as when one really says “thank you,” they’re not telling the other person to thank themself. The person saying it is the one thanking the other person. Maybe it’s actually “I thank you” and somewhere along the line it just got shortened to “thank you?” I guess that’s possible. I’ve just never really understood why my mom is always on me to say “thank you” all the time to people. In my opinion, it’s an extremely overused, unnecessary way of expressing gratitude. To me, saying “thank you” doesn’t necessarily make you a good person, and not saying it doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person. You can’t expect to become a freaking saint just by copying a cliche used by literally every other human on Earth.

Anyway, enough on that. Man, my mind can take me to some weird places when I’m just standing and waiting.

The elevator door slides open, and the first figure I see is of my aunt, who looks like she had gained a few pounds since the last time I’ve seen her. And yikes, that’s saying something.

Then out of the elevator comes her fiancee, also known as my future uncle. Boy, I have to move my head up a few inches from where I’ve been looking at my aunt just to see his face. In other words: He’s tall.

The man’s skin is brown as a Hershey’s bar, with hair in dreadlocks black as pavement. He seems to think he’s really cool, showing off with some perfectly clean and polished dark sunglasses. He’s also sporting some jewelry around his neck and on his wrists. I can’t tell if he has any tattoos or not because he’s wearing a long-sleeve black jacket and long pants, but judging by the rest of his appearance, it wouldn’t surprise me. He has a bit of scruff around his nose and chin, but I wouldn’t say he has a full-on beard.

“Hey!” my mom is the first to chime in with her usual cheerful and cringey greeting.

“Hi!” my aunt screams as adults typically tend to do, and the two sisters, all 500-plus between them, waddle forward to hug each other.

Oh, and just a quick little thing about my observations of my family. Don’t get the wrong idea that I don’t love or look up to my family, I absolutely do. I went through this earlier, my parents are literally my closest and favorite human acquaintances. Of course they aren’t perfect, that’s what makes them human. Everyone has weird quirks or flaws about them, and I would never say any of this to their face. But little kid minds, especially mine in particular, sometimes have no filter or means to an end.

My aunt really is amazing. I mean, I was weirded out by this whole marriage thing at first, but it honestly just feels like such a “her” thing, something that only she would do. She is so funny.

After my mom finishes her glamor session with Aunt Jean, she turns and looks up to the tall black man, the elephant in the room, Kwesi Wale. 

“Hi!” My mom keeps that smiled plastered to her face. I can tell she’s trying to be nice and fake her way through this.

“Hello ma’am, nice to meet you,” he mumbles in a deep African accent. His words are a little stuttered too, so English is definitely not his first language.

“Nice to meet you too! This is my husband Joe �"” My mom gestures to my dad, who takes a few steps forward to shake his hand.

Then Kwesi comes to me. “This is my son, Joey,” my mom pipes in.

“Joey,” Kwesi mumbles. “Nice to meet you ma man.”

I just smile, keeping my mouth shut while shaking his enormous hand. He nearly shatters my puny little hand with that thing.

“And this is my mom, Mary.”

Grammy is smiling wider than anyone there, looking absolutely thrilled to meet Kwesi. She also happens to be wearing matching sunglasses with him.

“You guys are the sunglasses twins!” my mom jokes.

“Heh heh.” Kwesi almost smiles but keeps his serious composure as he gently shakes Grammy’s hand. He seems like kind of a quiet guy, but to be fair, it’s obvious he doesn’t speak a lot of English.

“So, you guys must have slept well last night,” my mom directs to Kwesi and Aunt Jean.

Aunt Jean laughs. “Yeah, we had a lot of fun last night, actually. We went out to the bar and had a few tequilas…and yeah. It was great.”

Kwesi nods his head in approval. Then in that deep Ghanaian accent, he spews out, “Yes, yes. We had a very much fun last night. Heh heh.”

He’s trying to participate in the conversation but his line kinda kills the vibe they had going, and creates a sort of awkward silence before my mom jumps back in.

“Well, it’s 12:30 already, we were thinking we could go out and grab some lunch and then you guys can head on over to the church to get ready and we’ll be right behind you.”

Aunt Jean smiles. “Perfect! Sounds like a plan!”


Lunch is interesting. We just go to some burger restaurant, which is good for me.

When it comes to my order, my dad speaks for me, of course. “He’ll have a plain hamburger with nothing on it, just meat and bun and nothing else, and the straight kind of French fries. Please.” That’s my typical order whenever I have burgers; I love meat but I revolt at even the thought of putting anything else on there.

It comes to be Kwesi’s turn to order.

“Uhh…I do not want nothing.”

Aunt Jean lightly brushes him across the shoulder. “Oh come on Kwesi, you must want something.”

“I am not a very hungry right now. Maybe I will come back later.”

“There is no coming back later,” Aunt Jean tells him. “It’s now or never.”

Kwesi moans, clearly sick of this ordeal. He closes his menu and pushes it to the center of the table. “I shall pass on the meal, then.”

“Alright,” Aunt Jean shrugs.

After a few awkward moments of Kwesi sitting in his seat looking depressed, my mom breaks the silence as she tends to do.

“So, let’s talk about the bride and groom! How exactly did you guys meet again?”

“We pretty much just met in the town,” laughs Aunt Jean. “He had just finished a street performance, and I went over to talk to him and compliment him, and it kind of just grew from there. Isn’t that right Kwesi?” She turns to look at him, and without looking back or making eye contact with anyone, he silently nods his head. He’s still wearing those dumb sunglasses, too.

“Well I’m very happy for you Jean,” Grammy croaks, then clears her throat. “You seem to have found a great guy!”

“Oh, absolutely,” Aunt Jean assures. “I’m so excited for the wedding tonight.”

Kwesi says nothing for the rest of lunch, until eventually he and Aunt Jean have to leave to get ready for the wedding.

By the time the wedding comes around, things are feeling a little weird. I mean, not that I know what a typical wedding feels like, being only eight years old and not having actually been to a wedding that I’m old enough to remember. But still. It’s quiet. The wedding is in a fairly large, but certainly not huge church hall or whatever it’s called (my family is not religious). There are multiple rows of seats, but you can count the amount of people who actually show up for the wedding on one hand. 

But the bride and groom walk out all glamoured up as expected. Kwesi has finally taken his sunglasses off, and he’s actually smiling. I know most weddings have like bridesmen or something like that; yeah, there’s none of that at this wedding. There is a pastor, though, or whatever the guy who leads the ceremony is called, who mundanely dictates all the boring church stuff they say at weddings.

I almost doze off, and neither of my parents look too thrilled either. This is just so random. My aunt is an extremely nice and caring lady, don’t get me wrong. So why the heck is she marrying a dumb African rapper who is like 30 years younger than her? It just doesn’t make a lot of sense, but of course being her family, we have to roll with it and support them no matter what. Grammy actually seems to be genuinely loving it though. God, Grammy is the best. She seems to pretty much love everything.

“You may now kiss the bride,” the pastor guy announces. And with a huge grin, the big black Kwesi leans down to give a huge smooch to the little fat Aunt Jean. What a time to be alive.

We all go out to diner after the wedding, but the atmosphere is the complete opposite of what lunch was like. We go to some place with fast-paced live music, so there’s dancing, singing, and a whole lot of talking and laughing. God, why can’t everyone just be quiet? I see a totally different side of Kwesi, who’s making jokes that no one understands in his deep accent. All the adults are drinking a ton of alcohol. But the weirdest part about it all is how Aunt Jean and my new uncle Kwesi keep constantly making out. I mean, literally every two seconds! It’s practically like after every sentence, Kwesi smooches her as if he’s kissing the bride again. You already had your moment! Relax!

The whole evening is a blur, just struggling to understand what’s even going on. Is this real life? Or is this just another one of my stupid dreams?

Tonight, my parents, Grammy, and I stay in our own cheap hotel just a few blocks away from the fancy hotel where Aunt Jean and Uncle Kwesi are staying. Finally, I get a chance to lay down in bed and relax.

I think about Maddie. Wow, I almost forgot about her, to be honest. It’s the first time her name has crossed my mind since the airport. Today has been a weird day, but I’m already thinking about how I can create a great story based on this. Yeah, today has given me so much good content for a potential story, so that’s nice. I think about how I can tell all of this to Maddie, and how funny she’ll think this all is. Wow, I actually have the chance to make another person laugh. I feel so accomplished.

I wonder what Maddie is doing right now. I wonder what she does on weekends anyway? For me, all I do on weekends is bike with my dad, watch the Mets with my dad, and write stories in my room. That’s my life. I wonder what her life is? What are the things that she does in her free time? Unfortunately it doesn’t seem like she was a writer like me, but honestly, who is? I’ve never once heard a kid talk about writing for fun. Everyone is all obsessed with this “reading” thing. Reading is boring. I hate reading. I mean, okay, I’ll admit, sometimes I like reading a good science fiction or fantasy novel. Or a funny Dr. Seuss kind of book. But in general, reading is a chore. I don’t like reading other people’s work. I find it hard to immerse myself in a world created by somebody who isn’t me. I much prefer to write about my own creations and characters and create my own worlds, because they mean something to me and they’re unique to me. All that I gain from reading is jealousness that that writer came up with something that I didn’t come up with.

“Let’s look up this Kwesi Wale guy,” my mom says while laying in her bed with my dad. I’m laying on my bed, which is actually a couch, and Grammy is in her own bed.

My mom searches his name up on her phone. “Okay, here’s one of his songs. Let’s see what he sounds like.”

The song starts playing, and immediately I’m confused. It starts with Kwesi mumbling something like “Wassadamn,” but I have no idea what he’s actually saying. Is that even English?

“Why me too-ta, die wommy-sa, wommy-sa, wommy-sa! Dees con lat me, koe cantree ta, cantree ta, cantree ta!”

What in the world is this? This is definitely not English, that much is apparent.

“And you don’t own me a circus!” Kwesi appears to shout in his “song,” but I can’t quite put my finger on what he says exactly. It’s something like that. So there is a little bit of English randomly thrown in there, but it doesn’t quite make sense. In fact, nothing about this song makes sense.

Grammy can’t hold back laughter, and basically says what we’re all thinking. “This is a very…unique style!”

“Anyone know what language this is in?” my mom asks.

“Twi!” Grammy speaks up. “I was talking to Jean about it, she told me he speaks in the language called Twi! Tee, double-yuh, I! Twi!”

My dad has a puzzled look on his face. “Sure! Never heard of it, but alright.”

My mom pulls up another one of his songs.

“FOK DEM RETADS!” Kwesi immediately belches. “FOK, FOK, FOK DEM RETADS! FOKEN’ NEGGAZ, DA PIECE OF SHI�"”

“Okay that’s enough of that!” My mom is quick to turn off that garbage.

“His music is interesting, to say the least,” my dad observes, still dumbfounded at this entire situation.

“Yeah, I love it!” cheers Grammy. “He’s got a nice beat. He seems like a very nice man, too.”

“Yeah, well…” my mom starts, but didn’t finish. It’s late and she probably just doesn’t want to bother. I don’t even know what the words he was rapping mean, so I can’t really judge.

So with that, we all get a surprisingly good night’s sleep, even with my parents snoring their noses off. I think we’re all just exhausted from one of the stranger days in my life that I can remember.

Our flight back is the next morning, and man, that trip felt short. I think I was building up to it so much in my mind that the actual thing was underwhelming. I feel like I hadn’t even gotten to know my new uncle very well yet. All he does is mumble short things I don’t understand and make out with my aunt. His songs are pretty weird, though. Just a very quirky man all-around, and it’s around the time we left that it starts to hit me that this man is now my uncle. Like, my actual uncle, meaning he’s officially a part of my close family. Boy, he doesn’t exactly fit in with a bunch of fat, lazy white people. The Which of these things is not like the other one? jingle starts playing in my head just thinking about that.

But overall, this has been a positive, if weird, experience. Hey, at least I have some good stuff to tell Maddie at school tomorrow!


There she is, sitting under a tree, following a ladybug with her finger.

Phew! When she hadn’t been in her usual spot, my mind had jumped to the all the worst possible scenarios. Did she leave the school? Did she move to another state? Did she die?

My first instinct when I see her is to sprint towards her, but I quickly terminate that idea. Wait. Hm, she looks pretty peaceful and relaxed with that ladybug. Just her and the ladybug, sitting down and enjoying life together. The way she smiles tenderly reminds me of myself, when I’m just hanging out in my room or in my bed with Elizabeth. Sometimes the best friends are the simplest, the ones who say the least.

I tiptoe slowly in her direction, acting as though it’s the quiet middle of the night and I don’t want my parents to hear even the slightest creak. While in reality, I’m walking beside a giant grass yard filled with a bunch of loud, annoying kids. I could scream and she still wouldn’t hear me, so who knows what the heck I’m worrying about.

“H-hey,” I squirmurr. Yeah, I know, squirmurr isn’t a word. But that’s the best way to describe the sound my mouth makes, as I whimpered so softly that I don’t think even my brain could hear what I said. Maddie continues on minding her own business, just calmly observing that little red ladybug.

“Hey,” I quickly shoot with an ounce more volume. Maybe this time I’ll get her attention and diffuse all this painful awkwardness.

Maddie rests her hand next to the ladybug and looks up at me. After a brief moment of confusion, her blank expression rapidly transitions into a smile.

“Oh, hey Joey. How was your trip?”

“Good.”

Maddie looks at me for a second waiting for more, but then just smiles it off and looks back down at the ladybug.

“Look Joey, meet my new friend, Mrs. Ladybug.”

“Oh,” I tremble nervously, and pretend to laugh. God, it can’t be more than 55 degrees out, but here I am sweating up a storm. What’s wrong with me? “Hi Mrs. Ladybug.”

“Mrs. Ladybug, this is my best friend Joey,” Maddie says enthusiastically. “He’s my best friend in the whole wide world. We already decided that we’re gonna grow up together and get married and move to space and have a baby named Spacey. But you can be my best friend too! And Joey can also be your best friend.”

“Yeah,” I chime in. Okay, you know what? I need to remember back to just last week, not even that long ago. When I was playing with and talking to Maddie carefree, like nothing matters, like I’ve known her all my life. There’s no reason to be so shy around her anymore. Come on, I can do this.

“Yeah I’ll be your best friend too Mrs. Ladybug.” There we go! Complete sentences! Let’s go! Keep socializing!

“And you can travel the world with me and Maddie too. You can �" you can even come to school with us and even after we go to middle school and high school and college. You’ll always be by our side.”

Maddie giggles excitedly. “So we’re always gonna go to the same school together, right Joey?”

“Yeah, of course!” I reply. “I mean…you’re kinda my only friend, anyway.” I can tell Mrs. Ladybug was not a fan of that answer. “My only human friend, I mean! Sorry Mrs. Ladybug.”

“So we have to always organize that and make sure we go to all the same schools. Maybe for next year we can try and be in the same class too.”

I sigh. “Yeah, it would be nice if you were in my class. All the kids in my class are weird and mean.”

“Joey, come sit down!” Maddie randomly starts cracking up. “Don’t just stand there, silly! Come sit next to me so we can talk about this!”

Wow, she’s actually asking me to sit next to her. I have no objection to that.

I sit beside her, where Mrs. Ladybug had been. Mrs. Ladybug must have run off, but I don’t think it matters at this point, as Maddie seems to have completely forgotten about Mrs. Ladybug and diverted all her attention to me.

“So why don’t you like the kids in your class?” Maddie asks me. “I love the kids in my class! I mean, not as much as you cause you’re my best friend, but the kids in my class are nice to me too.”

Man, I don’t even know where to start. “They just…they don’t understand me. Nobody gets me. It’s like they’re all in their own world, or they’re all in on something that I haven’t been told about. I’m not sure what it is exactly. But honestly…honestly, you seem to be the only kid my age who has ever seemed to understand me.”

Wow, that felt good. These are the kinds of things I think in my head 24/7, but I’ve never actually said them aloud or told them to a real person before. It feels…unnatural. But at the same time, it feels oddly soothing. Good to let it out. Of course, that isn’t even close to everything I need to let out. But it warms me to at least let out something for the first time.

“Aww,” Maddie rests her hand on my knee, and I instantly feel even closer to her. “Of course I understand you. You’re the coolest boy I’ve ever met.”

“Wow, really? Th…thanks.”

“So how did you like your new uncle?”

“Oh! Uh…my new uncle? Oh yeah, uhh…yeah, he was, um, cool. His songs are really weird. And he kept kissing my aunt.”

“Ew, kissing! Gross!” Maddie exclaims.

I chuckle. “Yeah, heh. It was kinda weird. But now I have a new uncle!”

“Wow, lucky! I want to meet him!”

“Yeah, heh, maybe.”

The conversation kind of dies off there, so we just sit together against the tree, observing each other, observing nature, and sitting calmly in silence. Just like Maddie was sitting with the ladybug earlier, only now I’m the ladybug. Or maybe I’m Maddie and she’s the ladybug? Whatever. Point is, we, or at least I, feel happier about this new friendship thing. Sure, before I was excited to see her, and I’d had plenty of fun playing with her. But now I feel like we know each other just a little better. I’m starting to learn what this friendship thing is all about, and honestly, it’s exceeded my expectations so far. I never knew how good it would feel to connect emotionally with another person. I can’t just let this die, I have to keep this going.

“So why do you like the other kids in your class?” I ask her. She turns her head towards me. “I mean, how do you get along with them?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say I exactly get along with them,” she explains. “It’s not like I’m best friends with them or anything like I am with you. There are some meanies, but most of the kids in my class actually just leave me alone. Sometimes they laugh with each other, and they seem to be pointing at me…but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence. I know they like me.”

So who wants to tell her?

I’m just kidding, I’m not in her class so I guess I don’t really know. But it sounds an awful lot like the kids in her class are making fun of her and she’s completely oblivious to it. I’m generally an oblivious person too, but come on. It doesn’t surprise me too much, the fact that other kids laugh at her. She is pretty quiet and seems to like to mind to herself, similar to the way I am. She also plays with herself all the time, until I came along obviously. I really admiredhow she’s able to put a positive spin on that, despite how oblivious she is. Maybe I need to be more like her.

“Well we have each other, that’s all that matters,” I assure Maddie. “We can tell each other everything because it doesn’t matter what other kids think of us.”

“Oh, for sure,” Maddie agrees. “That’s why I like being friends with you. I feel like I can tell you anything. Like �" If I could imagine the most perfect friend in the whole world, that friend would be just like you.”

This is all happening too fast. She really thinks that highly of me? Already? I mean…I can’t believe it. I hadn't even known that I’m that great of a person. The perfect friend…what would “the perfect friend” even be like? The perfect friend would listen to me. Check. The perfect friend would understand me. Check. The perfect friend would love to play with me all the time. Check. Hm…maybe Maddie is the “perfect friend,” too.

“Really?” I ask her. “I don’t have any flaws?”

“No way, silly! You’re perfect!” Maddie shakes her hand around in circles on top of my head. I think the cool kids call those “nuggies” or something like that. Nah, that’s not it. Maybe it was noog�"

“Ha, look! That nerd’s got a girlfriend!” yells some fat kid who’s practically bald. I don’t even recognize this clown. 

The bully and a few of his bozo friends march over to us. “So what’s your girlfriend’s name?”

Just his very presence makes me agitated. “She’s not my girlfriend!” “I’m not his girlfriend!” Maddie pipes in.

The kid has this cocky smirk transfixed on his face. “So…when’s the big day? When you guys gettin’ married?”

“We’re not getting married, you bully!” Maddie strongly pronounces, her face tightly clenched. She’s also visibly shaking, even sweating a little bit like I am. 

“Aw, your girlfriend’s upset,” the bully teases in a high-pitched, mocking voice. “Why don’t you give her a little kiss to make her feel better? Come on, dork. Kiss the bride!”

“Come on Joey, let’s get out of here!” Maddie jumps up off the ground and grabbs my arm, then sprints off while dragging me along with her. I can faintly hear those dumb kids laughing and shooting some snide remarks at us, but I can’t quite make it out as Maddie and I zoom out of there in a hurry. We run off to the far corner of the grass field, the place where we usually play together.

As we near the fence, my pants start to slip down, and Maddie just happens to stop running and turn to my right as it’s happening. She clearly notices my Thomas the Tank Engine underwear as I regretfully yank my pants back up. Jeez, I guess those pants aren’t fit for running.

Maddie giggles. “I didn’t know you liked Thomas. Oh and what was that thing poking through your underwear?”

I laugh harder. “Oh, yeah, Thomas is the best! And that was just my penis, silly! Don’t you have one?”

“What? No, can I see what it looks like?”

“Okay, sure!” This time I pull my pants down deliberately, but not all the way, just slightly so that I can stick my penis out and show Maddie what it looks like. The little shrimp briefly droops out of my underwear, before I yank my pants back up so that no one else sees.

Maddie laughs again. “Ha ha, I have something different!” She pulls her pants down a bit, and…and there’s no penis. It’s just…I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s just a…flat area of weirdness. So that confirms my confusion from earlier. Girls do in fact have something other than a penis. I knew I was right about that.

I giggle back at her, as it feels oddly freeing to expose our private parts to each other like that, even if it was only brief. No other kids appear to even glance at us, so I think we’re good there.

After a few moments of just staring at each other and giggling, the bell rings. Ah, that good old bell. Always ringing at super convenient moments.

“Well, I’ll see you tomorrow, buddy!” cheers Maddie. Man, I wish I could be as happy as her all the time.

“Oh, yeah,” I respond, suddenly realizing how sad I am that I have to go back to class and won’t get to see her there.

Maddie then approaches me and does something she hasn’t done before. Ever so gently, she rests her head against my shoulder and rests both arms on either side of me. I think she’s trying to…hug me?

I just stand there like a statue, having absolutely no idea what is happening or what I should do. I am not a hugger. I just let her hug me for a few seconds before she backs up, smiles at me, and starts to head towards her class.

“Wait, Maddie!” I call after her before she gets too far away.

She turns back around. “Yeah, what is it?”

“Do you…do you wanna have a pl�" a play, um…a play�"playdate this, uh, this weekend?”

PHEW! I finally got that out of me. I’ve always heard about kids having “playdates," but never have I ever had the desire to have one of my own. I have to get it through my head that I’m asking this question on purpose, completely by my own will. It feels so unnatural, a concept that my brain doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to accept.

Oh God, I don’t know how Maddie will respond though. Deliberately seeing each other outside of school? That’s taking things pretty far. Maybe she’s not ready for that. 

Uh oh. She’s opening her mouth. I close my eyes, grit my teeth, and prepare for the worst.

“Oh, really? Yay, I’d love to! Tonight I’ll tell my daddy to email your mommy!”

And with that, that cheerful little blondie skips off like there are no worries in the world. In her world, everything is perfect, sunny, and happy; a world free of negativity.

It is then that I decide that I want to be a part of her world.


As usual, school is a complete bore after lunch. At least before lunch I always have playtime with Maddie to look forward to. But after lunch, playtime is already over so I have nothing to be excited about. Well, I guess I have going home and writing to look forward to. But lately I’ve been getting these terrible headaches after school making it hard to concentrate on anything, even things I enjoy. I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that I never actually eat lunch. Eh, probably not.

“Okay, class, it’s silent reading time,” Mrs. Gold announces. “Everyone find a book in the classroom that you want to read, and read it silently for the next twenty minutes. Remember, this does not require talking!”

Everyone in the class shoots up out of their seats, and the classroom immediately transforms into a madhouse. Kids running around, fighting over books, and jumping over each other trying to get to the book they want first. It’s chaos. I stray behind, trying to let the madness unfold before I pick my book. It doesn’t really matter to me anyway because I usually don’t even read my book during silent reading time. I usually just sit at my desk pretending to read while actually drifting off in my own thoughts. I find that thinking and creating my own stories inside my head is way more fun than having to observe stories that other, more successful people came up with.

Two dumb-looking boys, one brown-haired and one blondie, are fighting extra aggressively over a Percy Jackson book.

“Get the hell out of here! I was here first!” screams the blonde one as he headlocks the brown-haired one.

“Your seat is closer, I got here faster! And I read this book last time! Just let me finish it!” whines the brown-haired one.

“Boys, BOYS!” Mrs. Gold belches. Her thunderous voice shakes the room and everyone freezes. “Alright, that’s enough, I’ve had it. Everyone go take a ten-minute break outside to let your energy out. Then come back in and expect to behave like normal civilized children.”

Everyone stays frozen, in a mild state of shock.

“Well? You dumbasses heard me. Go outside!”

We all hurriedly make our way to the door, and I hear Mrs. Gold mutter under her breath, “F**k, these shitheads disgust me.” I don’t know what that means but it doesn’t sound good.

Before I go outside, I go over to check on my cubby outside the classroom. I’m not gonna eat my lunch, but I am thirsty so I want to get my water bottle out of my lunchbox.

I open my backpack, and I notice some little yellow thing I don’t recognize. It catches my attention, so I pick it up and observe it. It seems to be a heart-shaped cutout of yellow construction paper. What in the…There’s some writing on it too. It says, in fairly neat handwriting, “Hi Joey, I’m watching you. Love, your secret admirer.”

My first thought is that this is hilarious. A girl is actually secretly admiring me? And she actually left a note in my cubby to tell me? This makes me laugh out loud. Who could it have possibly been though? I think it’s hilarious, but I’m also extremely curious as to who it is.

I take the note and run down the stairs, out to the playground where everyone in my class is goofing off and going crazy. I walk down the middle of the playground, pretending to “casually” hold my note in the air so that somebody will “accidentally” happen to notice it and come over to talk to me about it.

I walk by two girls sitting at a table, just calmly talking with each other. Since I just “happen” to walk right by them, I turn to the girls and decide to tell them about the note. I just can’t hold it in.

I laugh, pretending to be all cool and casual. “Heh, someone left a love note in my cubby!”

The girls look at me kind of weirdly at first, but then they smile and take a peek at it. Okay, phew. They recognize that I’m a living, breathing person and they’re actually giving me genuine attention, I think. This is good.

“Oh my gosh, that’s so funny,” one of them says. Her name is Juliette. She has cleanly cut brown hair, with sparkling purple earrings. I instantly feel a higher level of satisfaction when she starts talking to me than when the average person starts talking to me. Something about her face, or her hair, or her attitude in general, I just really admire for some reason. I can’t put my finger on what it is about her exactly. It’s different from the way I like Maddie. With Maddie, I connect with her on an extremely close and personal level, whereas with this Juliette girl, I just really…like her. I know I sound crazy, it’s just hard to explain.

“Yeah, I just randomly found it!” I say loudly, feeling a strong urge to want to impress her.

“So, do you know who it is?” The other girl, India, asks. Her hair is blondish like a darker version of Maddie’s, but I don’t feel the same urge with her as I do with Juliette. Not that I have anything against this girl; I’m sure she’s a completely normal, nice person. But I don’t enjoy looking at her face and hair the way I enjoy looking at Juliette. I know, I know. This sounds really weird, and the notion that I might actually “like” a girl is preposterous. Don’t worry, I still think girls are disgusting. I’m not crazy. But I still kinda like Juliette in a strange way, okay?

“I have no idea,” I nervously chuckle. “This is pretty funny.”

Juliette tilts her head and gives me a little wink. What does that mean?

“Hey Joey, I knew who wrote the note.”

My eyes widen. “Wait, really? How?! Who was it?!”

“I’m not telling you.” Juliette smirks. “You’re going to have to guess.”

Honestly (not that I care about girls or anything), if any girl were to put a love note in my cubby, I would want it to be Juliette. Maybe she isn’t telling me who it is because it’s acutally her? Nah, that’s impossible. Or is it? Nah, no way. It’s probably one of her weird friends.

“So it’s someone in our class, right?”

She nods.

“Okay, hm…let me think. Emma?”

“Nope.”

“Dia?”

“Nope.”

“Emily?”

“Still nope.”

There are only so many girls in our class. I have to get it eventually.

“Juliette, he’s just gonna guess all the girls in our class!” India insists.

“Hm, you’re right.” Juliette turns back to me. “Okay Joey, you get one more guess. Otherwise I’m not telling and you’ll just have to figure it out by yourself.”

Oh God, that’s a lot of pressure. I look around the playground at the other girls in my class to see who I’m forgetting.

Then it hits me. I see that girl Siena playing tag or something, chugging her fat butt away from one of her other girly friends. That’s the girl who tried to help me clean up the spilled milk! She makes perfect sense. Just her personality seems like a person who would do something like that, and she’s the only girl in my class who has ever purposely talked to me anyway. It has to be her.

I look back at Juliette, and she gives me a “Well?” kind of a look. I start to panic and fold under the pressure. Suddenly a cloud of doubt overshadows my logical Siena prediction, and now I’m just lost. 

“Oh, I’ll say, uhh…Sofia?”

NO, why did I guess that? Why am I such an idiot? God, I suck!

Juliette shakes her head, slowly exaggerating each movement. “I guess you’ll never know.” And with that, she follows India to another table. Jeez, for as much as I’m unnaturally attracted to her based entirely on her looks, she’s not exactly the friendliest person.

With Siena, on the other hand, I don’t think I can even imagine an uglier person. She’s fat, she has braces, and comes to school every day with messy frizzled brown hair. She also wears these unnecessarily huge circular glasses and an ugly purple dress. Not to mention that her face is covered in pimples. Or were those even pimples? Some of them looked more like warts. Heck, one of them forces me to have to take a second glance to make sure that she doesn’t have a second nose.

Unfortunately, I observe Siena for a little bit too long, as her eyes lock with mine, prompting her to sprint over to me. Oh no.

“Hi Joey! You seem lonely. Do you want to play with me?”

I don’t have the guts to tell her the honest answer, which is “No, I really, really don’t.” She gives this geeky, nervous smile that I just can’t say no to.

“Uh, weren’t you playing with your friends though?”

“Ah, no, it’s fine, I don’t need them,” Siena assures me rather sweetly. “I want to play with you!”

“Um, okay.”

“Yay!” Siena is reaching Maddie levels of excitement, and that’s saying something. “What do you want to play?”

“Uh…I don’t know.” Awkward silence. “What�"um, what do you want to play?”

“Get your asses back in the classroom!” Mrs. Gold dashes from around the corner, screaming at us for no apparent reason. Normally I would be disappointed, but in this case, I’m fine with it because it gets me out of an awkward situation. I fast-walk back to class without acknowledging Siena. Sorry, I just needed to get out of there so I can relax.

I feel a little bad for just leaving her like that, and I end up not interacting with her for the rest of the day. Despite not receiving the confirmation from Juliette, it’s pretty clear at this point that Siena is the one who wrote the note. Literally the girl who I least want to talk to in the entire school, even more than I already don’t want to talk to anyone, wants to talk to me the most.

Man, life is funny sometimes.


My mom has a smile on her face that I don’t recognize.

It’s different than a normal smile. It’s a smile that is not only providing the services of an average smile, but is trying to subtly communicate some sort of message. 

“So, Joey,” she says eerily. “I got an email from Maddie’s dad telling me that you wanted to have a playdate with her.” 

Shoot. Oh no. She knows about that. 

“Oh, yeah, ha ha…yeah, well, I guess, I mean, I was just thinking that…”

“Joey, I know what you’re thinking,” my mom sweetly assures. “Believe me, honey. It’s okay to have feelings. That’s completely normal.”

“What? No, they’re not feelings. They’re just �"”

“Honey, it’s okay,” my mom repeats. “I already replied to Maddie’s dad and told him that you’d be happy to play some tennis and go swimming with her. Sound fun?”

All I can think about is how I’m really going to have to expose myself now. This is getting real, and is accelerating all too fast for my liking. I’m not even good at tennis. She’s gonna see how horrible I am. And swimming…she’s gonna see me in a bathing suit. She’s gonna see my bare feet, for crying out loud. I’m not sure I’m ready for this. Not to mention that I’m a slow swimmer and can’t even swim in a straight line because I never see where I’m going. I don’t even like swimming. Why exactly am I being forced to do this?

Right, come on. Pull yourself together. This is for Maddie. My friend. My friend who I really want to see. Come on, this is gonna be a great time. I’m sure she’s not too great at tennis or swimming either. It’ll be a fun bonding experience, and our first real playdate outside of school. This is exciting! Right?

“So…when is the playdate happening?”

“This Saturday!” My mom’s face lights up as she says that. “Maddie’s gonna come over to our house at around 11:30, and then I’ll drive you two up there. You guys can have lunch together while I go to the gym. Don’t worry, I’ll stay far away from you guys. Just pretend I’m not even there.”

“Lunch…by ourselves?” I whimper. “Are you gonna order for us before?”

“No, you’re old enough to order by yourself now, Joey. I’m sure Maddie orders by herself.”

Order by myself? I’ve never ordered by myself before. What if I mess up? What if I forget what I want to order? What if I don’t know what I want to order? What if Maddie thinks what I’m ordering is weird? I’m not sure I can handle the stress of ordering by myself. That is a lot to ask of someone like me.

I finally start to express my panic verbally, puffing out soft pants that quickly accelerate into heavy breathing. It’s time to admit it:

“Mama, I’m nervous about this.”

My mom rushes to rub me soothingly on the back. “Oh, honey, there’s nothing to be worried about! It’s just a playdate for your best friend. You two are gonna have so much fun!”

“But…but….”

“But what, honey? What is there to be worried about?”

“What if she..what if she thinks I’m weird?”

“Oh, honey, she doesn’t think you’re weird. If she thought you were weird, why would she want to have a playdate with you? You’ve clearly proven to her that you’re a great friend. So just be yourself and it’ll all go great!”

“But Mama, I don’t even know if she wants to have a playdate with me! Maybe she was just lying to not make me feel bad!”

I begin to feel tears swarming up, so I bury myself in my mom’s arms.

This is going to be a long, tough road ahead. But at this point, there’s no turning back. I just have to power through it and hope I make it out alive.

Operation Playdate is on.


The big day is finally here. Saturday. The day of my first ever playdate with my first ever friend. To my welcome surprise, it actually brings about a small burst of excitement. I wasn’t expecting to feel excited, I thought it would be 100 percent nervousness. It’s still mostly nervousness, but in the back of my mind there’s the strange inkling that something good might actually come out of this.

“Joey, it’s 11:15! Maddie should be here soon, get ready!”

Still in my SpongeBob jammies, I obey my mom’s commands and urgently run into my room. There’s no time to be lazy about this. If Maddie becomes before I’m fully dressed and mentally prepared, this could turn into an absolute disaster very quickly.

Wait. But my mom said that we’re going swimming and playing tennis. So I’m gonna need clothes for both. But which are we doing first? Which should I put on right away? And which should I be wearing while we’re eating lunch? Oh God. I better go ask my mom.

I run back out to the kitchen to yell upstairs to my mom. “Mama, what should I put on?”

“Put on your tennis gear first! I’m sure you’re hungry so you guys can eat right when we get there, then go play tennis and unwind with some pool time. But make sure to pack your bathing suit!”

Hm, okay. That sounds like a decent enough plan, actually.

I run back into my room and put on proper tennis clothes. Okay, this feels comfortable. This isn’t too different from what I wear to school anyway, so I’m okay with Maddie seeing me in these clothes.

Then I grab my tennis racket, and put it in a bag with my Superman bathing suit. Hm, maybe I need to get my mom to buy me a new bathing suit. Superman is so two years ago.

I of course make sure to pack my white swimmy shirt, too. Never in a million years will I ever swim without a shirt. I can’t even fathom why some boys prefer to not wear a shirt, it just makes no sense to me. Whenever I go shirtless for even two seconds, I get all itchy and cold and uncomfortable. Always gotta wear my swimmy shirt when I go in the pool or ocean.

My mom always wants me to bring flip flops or Crocs when I go swimming, but I always ignore her. It’s such a hassle, and I never ending up wearing them anyway. I can sprint barefoot from the bathroom to the pool, it’s not a huge deal.

Oh, and I almost forgot the worst of all.

Sunscreen.

My mom is such a stickler about sunscreen. What even is that stuff? She makes me wear that all the time, like every time I go swimming. It’s so annoying, I don’t even care if I get sunburned. It doesn’t hurt that bad and goes away pretty quickly. I don’t even bother worrying about the sunscreen because I’m sure my mom already has it.

“Okay Joey, it’s 11:27, Maddie should be here any minute. Are you all ready?”

“Yeah!”

I walk out in my tennis gear, holding my small bag. It’s time to get this show on the road.

Just as soon as Maddie shows up.

“Well, you look ready!” My mom smiles from ear to ear. “And don’t worry, I remembered sunscreen all right! I’m sure you were extremely concerned.” Because of course she did.

So now we wait. 11:28 came, and still no Maddie. Hm, that’s fine I guess. She’s probably one of those people who’s usually a few minutes late to everything. Unlike us since my parents are time freaks.

11:29. Still no Maddie. That’s fine, whatever. It’s not even 11:30 yet, no need to be worried.

11:30. Okay, so she’ll be a tiny bit late. It’s fine.

11:31. Still standing awkwardly in the middle of the kitchen, waiting anxiously for a knock on the door or a ring of the doorbell. Hm, I wonder which one they’ll do? Those are two very different sounds to have to prepare for, it would be a lot easier if I could somehow just know which one they were gonna do in advance.

11:32. It’s fine, I’d already decided she’d be a few minutes late. We’re still not even up to three minutes late yet.

Hm, I wonder what her mom or dad will be like. Her dad seemed nice enough in his email, but meeting someone face-to-face is a whole different animal. And what if it’s her mom? I’ve never even heard her mention anything about her mom. I’m sure she must have a loving mommy just like I do, though. Everyone does. Ugh, I wish I could know which parent is taking her and what they’re like. I hate meeting people for the first time.

Okay, this is starting to kill me. It’s 11:36 now, and still no Maddie. I keep glancing out the window to look for a slow car coming up the street, but every car that comes keeps passing the house. So annoying.

“Mama, when will they be here?”

“Any minute now, sweetie. I’m sure they just hit a bit of traffic, it’s no big deal. Why don’t you relax and have a seat till they get here?”

“Um, I have to go peepa.”

“Okay, go peepa. But quickly, they might be here any minute.”

I pace back towards my room and turn into the bathroom. I immediately shut the door, pull my pants all the way down, and sit down on the toilet.

Ah, that feels good.

Comfort is restored, even if only for a brief moment. I love the bathroom sometimes. If I’m feeling stressed or uncertain about an upcoming event, I can always just sit here in the bathroom. The privacy of the bathroom gives me my own little world, my own little private space where nobody can bother me. Whoever invented the bathroom is an absolute genius, I bet I would really like that person.

Even though I don’t really have to pee that badly, I feel a small pee start to come on. So I hold onto my shrively little penis and let the small sprout of pee come out. Hm, I didn’t realize how soft my penis is. Are all penises this soft? The thing is barely a few inches tall. Heh, it’s pretty malleable, too. If I stick my finger down into it, it sort of folds inside out. It’s pretty cool, actually. It kind of looks like a volcano.

I pretend my penis is a volcano, a small but mighty volcano in the vast landscapes of Hawaii. The volcano is stagnant for now, but it’s slowly shaking, preparing to erupt and flood the island with molten magma. I move it around in circles a bit, as the ferocious winds of Hawaii start to blow it around. Uh oh, looks like there’s a storm coming.

Holding my penis in with my left hand, I take the pinky of my right hand and place it next to the volcano. Oh, look! There’s a lost person in the storm and they don’t know where to go! The volcano is going to erupt soon, and when it does, the person is going to die! The poor little guy frantically runs around in circles, but there’s no escape as the storm picks up faster and faster.

That’s when the volcano can’t take it anymore, and the storm finally bursts it open. I take my finger out of it so as to let the volcano lengthen and unfold, stretching out to near closer and closer to the stranded person. Okay, good. Phew! As bad as the eruption is, the volcano isn’t quite long enough to reach the person. Now, they can hopefully run away and escape this near-death experience.

But suddenly, a completely unprecedented thing happens, something I can’t even control. After halting for a brief moment, the volcano begins to stretch further and further, sort of hardening along the way. What? What the heck is happening? Why is my penis hardening like that? This isn’t natural. I forget all about the volcano fantasy and start to panic at the reality of what’s actually happening. My penis is hardening and getting bigger and I have no idea why.

In a frizzled state of mind, I stand up and flush the toilet. Then I pull my pants back up, and quickly but gently, my penis begins to soften up and revert back to its original state.

Phew! That was a close one. I still don’t know what happened, though. That was really weird. But now that it’s over, I actually don’t feel like worrying about this too much. In a weird way, that whole experience actually felt kind of good. I have no idea why though. Anyway �"

DING DONG! Hooooly God, Jesus that scared me! Why do doorbells have to be so loud?

“Joey, she’s here!” my mom loudly calls, and I hear go to open the door. I quickly spray two drops of water on my left hand and rush out to go meet Maddie. It’s time, come on. I’ve been preparing for this.

Standing at the foot of the doorway is well, first of all, Maddie. The face and hair are still the Maddie that I know, with that slightly pointed nose and straight blonde hair. That part of her is always so distinct.

But that face and hair are trapped in a body that looks a little bit different. This is when it really hits me that we’re not at school anymore. I’m seeing her in the real world, and believe me, the real world is an entirely different monster than the school world. Still frightening, debatably worse, but certainly different.

She’s wearing a small purple shirt, but in fact, it’s so small that I can actually see part of her belly button. Woah, I’ve never seen someone else’s bully button before. At least this confirms that I’m not the only kid in the world who has a belly button. So that part about me is normal.

Her shirt is ever so slightly transparent as well, just enough so that I can see her top bathing suit piece, the thing that looks like a bra. I think it’s called a bikini. Right, I have to get it into my mind that girls’ bathing suits are different than boys’.

On her legs, she’s wearing blue sweats that again are a little too short for her. And on her feet, she’s wearing red flip flops. Woah. Flip flops just look weird on people, I don’t know why. It just doesn’t look right. Her feet are fully exposed, and it’s going to be like that until we play tennis, I presume. She’s holding a small blue bag which probably has a change of clothes and tennis shoes.

Next to Maddie, I have to move my head up a few inches to even see who it is. Well, it’s definitely her dead, a tall man with a bushy brown beard and a big smile on his face. He’s wearing a dark red cap along with some dirty and baggy clothes. Looks like a cheerful enough guy, though.

“Well, hello there!” Maddie’s dad greets. The guy reminds me a lot of Santa Claus; he seems big and intimidating, especially with that beard, but he’s really just a jolly old fellow.

“Ah, hi Jim! It’s so nice to meet you!” my mom responds, then looks down to Maddie, who’s standing in place with her mouth sealed shut and a shy look in her eyes. I don’t think she’s any more confident about this than I am. Why is that adults have so much more confidence in social situations than we kids do?

“And you must be Maddie! Oh, it’s so great to get to meet you, I’m so glad you could make it today!”

“Yeah, sorry we’re a few minutes late,” says Maddie’s dad. “Traffic on the 405 was a bit rough. But we made it!” He chuckles.

I’m still standing at a distance, right next to the bathroom, taking in the scene I’m witnessing. 

My mom turns her head around. “Joey, come over here! Say hi to Maddie!”

I briefly close my eyes and remind myself that everything is going to be okay. You got this, come on.

I stand with about half my body hiding behind my mom, and the other half exposed for Maddie and her dad to see. I don’t even know why I don’t feel more comfortable this, I think it’s just something about Maddie being in different clothes than I’m used to seeing her in. Plus I’ve never spoken to her dad before.

“Hi” is the first word Maddie says, looking me in the eye with a slight smile and giving me a tiny little wave. It’s quite a timid, innocent little greeting.

I don’t even say anything. I don’t respond with a “hi” back and barely acknowledge her as I slowly traipse to the left so that more of my body is covered by my mom.

“Joey, don’t be shy. Say hi,” my mom whispers, although she whispers too loud that Maddie and her dad can definitely still hear her. Ugh, she must think I’m so weird right now. Can’t even greet her without having to get sideline advice from my mom.

I lightly tilt my head down so as to attempt a nod, and choppily stick my right hand up so as to attempt a wave. Both are failures, but at least I made some sort of attempt at a social greeting, right? I’m making progress. I am a normal kid, after all. There’s nothing wrong with me, I can easily say hi to someone, even if I don’t actually…uh, say it.

“Well hello there, Joey. Maria and I are just so thrilled that Maddie has found such a great friend like you,” her dad tells me. Wow, that makes me feel a little better, and a little more socially comfortable too. I feel like I’m important now. One thing, though: He said “Maria and I.” Maria is Maddie’s aid, and I’m not even sure why Maddie has an aid. But that’s beside the point. Why didn’t he mention her mom?

Oh, maybe she’s one of those kids with divorced parents. That could explain it. This guy seems nice though, I’m not sure what kind of lady would want to divorce him, especially with such a special, non-problematic child like Maddie in the household.

“We’re so happy too,” my mom agrees. “Friendships like these are just so special and we couldn’t be more grateful. You know, I was about their age when I met my friend Jenny, and 40 years later, we’re still friends today. So you never know, maybe Maddie is Joey’s Jenny!”

My mom and Maddie’s dad share a laugh as Maddie and I just continue to stand in place, occasionally looking at each other and then quickly looking away.

“Well, it was an absolute pleasure to meet you two. But I better be on my way. I’ll leave Maddie here with you guys.” Maddie’s dad gives her a strong pat on the shoulder. “Have fun, Maddie. Be a good girl for your pops, eh?”

Maddie smiles and aggressively nods her head, as her dad waves goodbye and walks off.

“Come on in, Maddie. Come on in.” My mom gestures Maddie into the house and softly shuts the door while Maddie slowly walks into the house, looking around at everything and taking in her new surroundings.

“Do you need anything? Water, lemonade, bathroom, anything?” my mom pesters Maddie. I do wish she’d give Maddie a little more space, but I’m still too stiff to care much about it. I’m yet to really settle in and be comfortable playing with her; that probably won’t come until after my mom leaves us alone.

“Hm…actually, I have to go the bathroom,” Maddie says softly. She’s usually a lot louder when we’re playing together at school, she seems a lot quieter around my mom for some reason. Well, who am I to talk about being quiet around an adult.

“Ah, perfect. It’s just right down the hall down there on your left. Go on, sweetie.” My mom points to the bathroom.

“Oh, is it an automatic toilet?” Maddie asks with wide eyes. “I’m scared of automatic toilets, I don’t like those.”

The heck kind of a question is �"

My mom plays it cool, laughing it off. “No Maddie, they’re perfectly manual toilets! Completely safe for you to use.”

As Maddie goes into my bathroom, I can’t help but wonder what kind of question that was. Why would a house toilet be automatic? Who keeps automatic toilets in their house? Those are only in public bathrooms, even I know that. And what’s so scary about automatic toilets anyway? They flush when you walk away from them, it’s not that complicated. 

“She seems nice,” my mom says to me softly. “You know Joey, I think Maddie’s a keeper. Seems like a really sweet girl.”

“Yeah,” I agree, looking forward towards the bathroom. “Yeah, she does.”

A few minutes go by, and Maddie comes out of the bathroom. But this time she’s wearing a huge, poofy white dress and a veil over her head. She’s holding a colorful bouquet of flowers, pacing slowly down the hall towards me. It’s happening. It’s happening. We’re getting married.

Her face is blushing bright red as she approaches closer and closer to me. My mom is still standing next to me, only she’s not my mom anymore. She’s the church leader guy who says all the churchy stuff and says “You may now kiss the bride.”

“You excited?” he whispers to me.

“Yeah, so excited,” I whisper back. I can’t believe the day is here already. My God did that go by fast.

Maddie finally reaches me, and I close my eyes to take in the moment. When I open my eyes, I know that she will be standing there, looking me in the eye, preparing to kiss me and start the rest of our life together.

I open my eyes, and sure enough, Maddie is standing there. Only she’s not wearing the dress anymore. Or the veil. She’s wearing the same bathing suit and sweats that she was wearing when she arrived. Which…makes perfect sense, actually.

I look up at the church leader guy, who is no longer the church leader guy. He’s my mom, just as the way she was before.

“Well, I’m glad you’re excited,” she tells me. “You two are going to have so much fun!”

Right, the playdate. Wow, I must have dozed off into some alternate reality for a second there. For a moment, it looked like we were getting married. How hilarious is that? Seeing my aunt get married must have put some weird ideas in my brain. I need to clonk those out of my little pea brain and focus on the only thing that matters right now: my playdate with Maddie.

The car ride to the tennis club is awkward, but not too bad. Maddie and I sit in the back seat together without saying a word. It’s not that neither of us don’t want to talk to each other, it’s just that it doesn’t feel right in this moment, with my mom in earshot of us. I just need to suck up the six-minute car ride and wait until she lets us go off to play by ourselves. That’s when the real fun is going to start.

We pull into the parking lot of the tennis club. We’re almost there. Soon enough, Maddie and I will be set free for the entirety of a roughly three-hour span. I can practically taste the freedom already.

As we walk into the lobby, an older guy passes us going the other way, a friend of my parents’ named David Hayes wearing all-white tennis gear including a white hat. He’s one of those guys who’s always looking to talk and be social and that kind of stuff.

“Hey, there he is! The Joester! What’s up, man? How’s it goin’?”

He sticks out his giant hand for me to…shake? Or maybe he’s looking for a high five? Hard to say, but I briefly tap my hand against his and softly speak, “Good.”

“Awesome, man! Here to play some tennis with your �" uh, friend here?”

“Ha ha, yes, this is Joey’s new friend Maddie,” my mom clarifies. “Maddie, this is our friend David.”

“Hi David,” Maddie says shyly. “Nice to meet you.”

Woah, this girl is mature. She’s practically like an adult already, saying “nice to meet you” under her own will.

“Ah, hello Maddie! Nice meeting you too!” David responds. “Well I gotta head off, got a big conference call to deal with. Catch you guys later!”

We continue on towards the door, and once we get there, my mom steps back. “Joey, can you hold the door for me, please?”

I didn’t know that holding doors was so hard. Maybe it’s an old people thing? Why does she need me to hold the door for her?

I open the door a smidge but then go in anyway, keeping my hand back so as to keep it slightly open so that my mom can get in. I held the door for her, right?

“Oh, not exactly, but close enough,” my mom groans. Maddie opens the door wider and steps back, letting my mom through before her. “Ah, thank you, Maddie.” Ugh, this isn’t exactly the way I wanted to start my playdate, with Maddie kissing up to my mom like that. I wasn’t expecting her to be so mature.

“Okay, kids. Run off! You must be starving. I’ll see you in a few hours!”

And there it is. It’s happened. We’ve been set free. For the next few hours, I have Maddie all to myself. Just me and Maddie, free to do whatever we want. And the best part is that there’s no gosh darn bell to stop us after thirty minutes. This is really like a dream come true.

So here I am, walking with Maddie by the pool. Alone. Wow, I never thought I’d make it this far. I’m starting to feel excited and jumpy for the first time today.

“So, do you want to play tennis or swim first?” I ask her. “My mom told me that we should play tennis first.” But ya know, we’re independent kids now, so we don’t necessarily have to follow all the adults’ rules.

Maddie looks confused. Uh oh. Did I say something to upset her?

“I thought we were gonna eat first.”

“Oh, shoot, yeah, you’re right!” I feel so stupid for having forgotten what my mom had told us just minutes ago. “Yeah, let’s go eat. I’ll show you where the dining room is.”

As I guide Maddie inside and through the halls, I notice that she keeps glancing this way and that way, silently observing every little thing around her. 

We head into the dining room, and find a seat at a nice little two-person table by the window. The room is dead silent as we’re apparently the first people to order lunch today.

The waiter, a tall Hispanic man with a smooth black beard and mustache, approaches our table. “Hello, what can I get for you today?”

Maddie doesn’t say anything, so I guess I’ll be the first to order. Okay, this is a big deal. This is my first time ordering food by myself.

“Uh, hamburger and, uh, French fries.”

“Okay, and how would you like your burger done?”

“Uh…good?”

“What’s that? Do you want it well done or �"”

“Yeah. Well done.” Um, is this guy crazy or something? Maybe he’s trying to tell some sort of joke. Why would I not want it well done? Does he really think that I would prefer to have my burger cooked badly or something?

“And for you, miss?” the waiter addresses Maddie.

“May I please have a Caesar salad with ranch dressing?”

“Sure thing. Your orders will be ready soon. Just let me collect the menus.”

“Thank you,” Maddie says, staring the waiter in the face with a smile.

“Of course, my pleasure,” he responds, picking up each of our menus.

The waiter leaves, and now I think it’s really time for things to start going smoothly. Being around adults doesn’t always allow me to relax and be myself, but now it’s finally just me and Maddie, sitting at the table together. A little awkward, but hey, this is what I wanted. Gotta take advantage of it. I have to keep telling myself that I have a friend, and I’m seeing her outside of school on purpose. This is just such a foreign concept to me.

“So, we’ll play tennis right after this,” I say, trying to start up some sort of conversation. Maddie seems just a little bit quieter than normal. She’s probably just being polite or whatever though, because I know for a fact that other kids don’t get nervous like I do. Other kids are perfect and happy all the time while I’m just constantly worrying about everything. I wish that somehow, someday, I could enter and join the perfect world that everyone else lives in. I feel like there’s two worlds, Joey World and Everyone Else World. Why can’t I be a part of Everyone Else World?

“Okay.” Maddie nods her head.

“Did you bring tennis clothes to play in?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay…then after tennis we’ll go play in the pool.”

“Okay.” 

“Hm…what games should we play in the pool? I have tennis balls we can play with.”

“Ooh, how about Hide and Go Seek?” Maddie finally shows some emotion as her eyes light up with excitement.

The way she said that sounded weird though. “Oh, you mean Hide and Seek? That’s…that’s what it’s called. Hide and Seek.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said. Hide and Go Seek! We can even hide underwater and pretend to be mermaids! And after that we can play a game where you rescue me! And then we can �"”

“Oh, I think you added an extra ‘go’ in there,” I explain to her. “It’s just Hide and Seek, not Hide and Go Seek.”

I don’t know why it irritates me that she keeps adding that extra “go.” But it just sounds wrong.

“Oh, I prefer to say it that way.” Maddie keeps on smiling, trying to defuse the situation from going into something like that “The Ultimate Force” we had earlier. I think we’ve both learned our lessons from that experience.

“Anyway, we should go on an underwater voyage when we go in the pool!” she continues. “I’ll be a mermaid, and you can be a merman! And we have to go find the lost treasure!”

“Merman? Is that even real?”

Maddie laughs. “Of course it’s real, silly! There are mermen and mermaids!”

“Okay, cool. And who are we trying to get by to get to the lost treasure?”

“Hm…I haven’t thought of that yet.”

I can practically feel an imaginary lightbulb flash above my head. “Oh, I have an idea! How about there are tons of mini people in the pool, like a huge army of tiny people that live in the pool, and they stole the treasure! These mini people are super fast so they’re really hard to catch, and they can even transport to random different places. But if we can find and capture them all, we can get the treasure back!”

Maddie practically jumps out of her seat with joy. “That’s a great idea! What are the mini people called though? They’ve got to be called something!”
“Hm, how about…Miniatures! That’s it, Miniatures! We have to steal the treasure back from the evil Miniatures!”

“Ooh, Miniatures! I can’t wait!”

So things finally start to pick up from there. Our food eventually arrives, and eat my entire burger and fries and even take all the stuff off the burger without any evil judgement looks from Maddie. Any other kid would have been making a huge deal out of this and would have been mocking me for being “weird.” But Maddie just accepts it, doesn’t say a word, and moves on.

After Maddie changes, we play a little bit of a tennis, although it admittedly doesn’t go that well since neither of us really know the rules or how to actually hit a tennis ball. But hey, we have fun. That’s all that matters, right? I usually like to think of myself as a competitive person, but with Maddie, I’m not really in that type of mood. In the moment, I care so much more about pleasing Maddie than winning some dumb game I don’t even know the rules of.

So when we’re done playing tennis, we go down the stairs to where the pool is. Oh, good. There’s no other kids in the pool, and there isn’t even a lifeguard, so we have the whole pool to ourselves! Yes!

“Where’s the bathroom so we can change into our bathing suits?” Maddie asks me.

“Oh, it’s right over here. I’ll show you.”

We walk into the hall, which the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms are on opposite sides of.

“The girls’ bathroom is down the hall to the left, so you can go there. The boys’ bathroom is over here to the right. We’ll meet up over there by the shallow end after we finish changing.”

“Wait…” Maddie suddenly looks concerned. “We’re changing in different bathrooms?”

“Well yeah, I’m too old now to go into the girls’ bathroom. I used to go with my mommy when I was really little but I can’t anymore.”

“Joey I’m scared!” Maddie whines. “There are crazy people in bathrooms. And worst of all…automatic toilets!”

Aw. It shatters my soul to see her all distressed like this. This feels like a good time to open up to her a little bit and comfort her. She’s going to be perfectly safe, she has nothing to worry about. I need to get her to realize that.

Here goes nothin’. “Maddie, it’s gonna be okay. The people at the tennis club are super nice and aren’t gonna be mean to you. It’s not like bathrooms in other places. And I think the toilets might not even be automatic. It’ll be fine.”

She looks at me and eases up a little, her frown literally turning upside down as she gives me a slight, warm smile.

“You really think so?” Maddie looks down. “I wish Maria was here to help me.”

“It’s okay, you’re a third grader now. You don’t need her to go to the bathroom. I believe in you, Maddie! You can go to the bathroom all by yourself!”

“Hee hee,” Maddie giggles. “Okay!” And all by herself, she runs down the hall and after struggling briefly with the heavy door, marches her way into the bathroom.

Wow. I never knew how good it could feel to encourage someone and give them advice. This is obviously a bit extreme, but I feel like I changed a life or something. Or maybe it’s like I saved a puppy from dying or something like that. I don’t even know. It just feels good, in a way that I’m not used to. I feel all warm and bubbly inside, and best of all, I feel something else I’m not used to: confident. I feel confident. So confident that I could jump off a cliff, do a backflip in midair and land safely on my feet.

“Excuse me.” Oh, right, here I am standing in front of the door like an idiot, thinking and reflecting to myself while some old lady is trying to get through. Jeez, usually those daydreaming moments happen while I’m in bed by myself, not when I’m actually in a public setting.

I quickly rush into the bathroom and change as fast as I can. Let’s see here. I got my bathing suit, my swimmy shirt, and I keep my shoes and socks on for the time being. Come on, let’s go out there and defeat some Miniatures with Maddie!

I run back out to the pool area, but Maddie is nowhere to be seen. Yeah, I guess that’s not too surprising. She’s probably not used to changing by herself, so it’s understandable that she would take awhile. Plus, girls usually seem to take longer at things in general for some reason.

I stand by the shallow end for a few awkward moments, turning around and looking at random things so other people don’t think I’m crazy. Although there really only are a few other people, and they’re just sitting at some tables minding their own business. There’s still no one in the pool, which is good.

Oh, there she is! Maddie sneaks up on me, coming running out the door, barefoot, wearing only her small purple bikini. Her blonde hair swirls in the wind as her face full of pure, innocent joy and excitement approaches nearer and nearer to me. Wow. This is a girl. A real, live, human girl. A real, live, human girl who has deliberately taken time out of her day to come here and swim with me. It’s just so much to process. I’m not sure what particularly about this moment makes me think about that, but man it feels good, so I’m rolling with it.

“I’m ready!” Maddie cheers. “Wow, that was the fastest I’ve ever changed. I guess I’m just so excited to play Miniatures with you!”

“Yeah, let’s go! So where exactly are �"”

“Hey, I just saw a Miniature over there!” Maddie points to the six-foot-deep portion of the pool. “Quick, hurry! It just ran and jumped into the pool! We have to catch it!”

“Yeah let’s go!”

Maddie runs down the steps into the shallow end, and I follow directly behind her. She puts on and tightens her goggles as we both swim under the rope dividing the two-foot-deep shallow end from the three-foot-deep area.

“Come on, let’s go to the deep end!” I announce to her.

“But I’m scared of the deep end! I might drown!”

“It’s okay, you’ll be fine! Also that’s where the Miniatures are so we have to defeat them!”

“Okay, fine.”

With Maddie following behind me, I dive into the water, and it appears at first as just an ordinary pool. But as I transcend deeper into the waters, a new world beings to take shape around me, and I am ascended into the world of mermen and mermaids, a world that is currently under attack from the evil Miniatures. The Miniatures have stolen the treasure, leaving our world in poverty and despair. It’s up to Maddie and I to defeat the Miniatures and steal the treasure back to save the world.

Gosh, something �" ugh, it’s just �" wow, my neck is feeling really itchy all of a sudden, but it’s a more aggressive itch than I’ve ever felt before. This isn’t right �" I crank my head to look at the spot on the left side of my neck, and there it is �" it’s a Miniature. A tiny human so small that I can’t even make out any distinctive features, it’s almost like a real-life stick figure. I can’t make out any facial expressions or emotions on the little guy, but I sense that he’s up to no good. I need to get this thing off of me anyway!

Panicked, I swat at the Miniature and he immediately zooms off, like when you try to kill a fly and it escapes too fast; its instincts are lightning quick. These things are going to be tough to catch.

The Miniature travels deeper into the water, exposing an enormous, dome-shaped yellow castle with sparkling windows and magic glitter floating all around it. Hundreds upon thousands of Miniatures are roaming the castle, traveling to and from and interacting with each other, perhaps discussing plans to attack the humans or to defend the treasure from the humans.

There are even some Miniature guards floating in formation all around this underwater castle. Oh, this makes sense. The treasure must be in that castle, that’s why there’s so many of them guarding it. Well, it shouldn’t be too hard to get past those tiny little people. They may be fast but there’s only so much they can do with that size. How hard could this possibly be?

I try to yell to Maddie that we have to break into the castle, but then I remember that I can’t talk underwater. So I just squirm as briskly as I can towards the castle hoping she gets my message.

She swims in place, looking confused for a second, before she eventually decides to follow my lead.

HISS! HISS! HISS!

A sharp hissing sound pierces my ears, but I can’t make out exactly where it’s coming from. Then I feel a warm tickle on my left arm, and I see a lone Miniature standing firmly in between the tiny hairs on my arm. Despite being closer up, I still can’t see its face, but I can tell it’s mad judging from its body language. Or should I be saying “his?” The thing is too small to even tell what gender it is. Do Miniatures even have a gender? Heck, maybe it could even be a “her.” Actually, nah. Only boys can be bad guys.

I try to slap the Miniature, but it keeps hopping back and forth on my arm like it’s a fly that I’m trying to swat. It already had my attention, so I was going to need to somehow distract it in order to catch it.

I aggressively tap Maddie on the shoulder and gesture for her to distract the Miniature. I point to it and shove my arm forward repeatedly, but she just stares at me blankly, appearing to have absolutely no idea what the heck I’m trying to say to her.

The Miniature is getting angrier and angrier by the second, as he begins to stomp on my arm, progressively jumping higher and higher. Each time it lands sends a small spark flowing through the arm hair it landed on all the way up my entire arm and eventually entire body. Yet Maddie is still not getting it! That’s it, I’ve had it. I’ve been underwater for awhile anyway, so I jolt back up to the surface to catch my breath.

Maddie comes back up a few seconds later, and just like that, there we are, two normal kids treading water in a typical pool. There’s no Miniature on my arm or anywhere in sight for that matter. Seems like we’ve escaped that world for now.

“Maddie, what happened?” I ask her somewhat somewhat seriously, somewhat trying to play it off like it’s no big deal.

“What do you mean what happened?” she asks me obliviously. “We were having lots of fun!”

“Yeah but Maddie, you were supposed to help me distract the Miniature so that I could defeat him! He was attacking me!”

Maddie’s face lights up like a lightbulb, as if she didn’t have a single inkling that I wanted her to do that. I have to admit, she’s a little bit dumber than I expected. Oh well, though. I’m sure she’s smart, it’s just a one-time thing. A simple little miscommunication.

“So can you help me distract them next time?”

“Yeah, of course! We got this, Joey! We’re gonna save the world together!”

Phew. I never should have doubted her. This is the Maddie I know and lo �" I mean, like, uh, to play with. She understands me. Now I remember why I even wanted to be friends with her in the first place.

“Okay Maddie. You ready?”

“Yes! Now on the count of three we’re gonna go back in and storm the castle and save what is yours! Hee hee!”

“Okay!”

Maddie takes a deep breath. “Three!”

Okay. Here we go. Back to defeat the Miniatures for real this time.

“Two!”

Let’s go. Let’s do this. Operation Playing With Maddie And Defeating Bad Guys In The New Game We Just Created is back on. Eh, actually, that’s too long of a name for an operation. Hm, I need to think of something shorter. Oh! How about if �"

“One!”

Oh shoot! That crept up on me fast. I make a slight move to sink back down, but Maddie hasn’t moved yet. She glances at me briefly, then shouts, “Go!”

Suddenly, Maddie isn’t there anymore, so I quickly proceed to follow her back under the water. She should have just told me that it was “Three, two, one, go” so I wouldn’t be confused, but whatever. 

I reenter the underwater world of Miniatures, but something is not quite the same this go-round. I feel more powerful, like I’m a supernatural being that has been specifically chosen to go on a mission and save the world. Plus, I’m able to glide through the water at a much faster acceleration, zooming through the blue abyss with ease. 

I look over at Maddie, but Maddie is no longer just Maddie. Maddie is a mermaid, with a sparkling blue tail glistening as she swims alongside me. This is cool, I’m friends with a mermaid! I don’t even like mermaids because they’re a girl thing, but even I have to admit that this is cool. I can’t even imagine what Maddie must be thinking since she practically worships mermaids. She must be absolutely over the moon right now.

Hold on! Maddie told me that there were not only mermaids in this underwater universe, but mermen as well. Does…does that mean that I’m a merman?

I crank my head to look behind me, and sure enough, there’s a similarly bright and glistening tail hanging off of me in place of my legs. This is real. This is who I am. This is who we are. Two mer �" uh, I guess, merpeople, they would be called �" heading towards the Miniatures’ castle to reclaim the treasure and save the world.

I don’t even have to say anything for Maddie to take a sharp right towards the front gate of the castle in order to cause a diversion. Good thinking by her there, I guess she is pretty smart after all.

From a distance, I see Maddie saying or yelling something to the guards, and she seems to be pointing away from the castle. I can’t hear what she’s saying, but I have a pretty good feeling that it’s working.

Eventually, the three Miniature guards that were guarding the back gate swarm over to where Maddie is to see what all the commotion is about, as Maddie seems to be in a full-on shouting match with the guards of the front gate. Ooh, this is good. Honestly, I’m pretty shocked and amazed at how quickly and efficiently Maddie got that done. No idea what she said, but whatever it is, it worked.

As soon as the guards of the back gate are gone, I dart over there to try and break in. But as soon as I approach the gate, a loud hissing sound strikes me in both ears.

Two Miniatures appear in front of me, and judging by their body language they don’t look too pleased. Actually, now that I think about it, Miniatures never seem to look pleased. I think they’re just angry little creatures by nature.

“Don’t think you can just cruise on into our castle just because our guards are taking a little break, peasant!” hisses the first Miniature in a raspy voice.

“Listen here, bub! I don’t know who you think we are, but we’re not stupid!” the second yells with the exact same voice.

Oh God. This Miniature used the s-word, so he must really be mad. It’s crazy how easy it is to set these things off.

I’m stuck in a deadlock with these two furious Miniatures, who clearly aren’t going to let this go. But meanwhile, the swarm around Maddie is getting larger and larger, as all the Miniatures in the surrounding area begin to form a crowd around a relentless Maddie. Maddie just keeps going on and on and on, and at this point I’m dying of curiosity as to what on Earth she could be saying to these Miniatures. Whatever she’s saying, it’s attracting ginormous flocks of Miniatures to eagerly come and listen to what she has to say. I’ve never seen anything like it. Who knew that that quiet little girl could be so talkative when she needed to?

Even the two Miniatures who are confronting me can’t ignore it.

“Fred, you know what’s going on over there?” the first one whispers to his fellow Miniature. “The heck is that human girl doin’?”

“Yer guess is as good as mine, Irving.” I think the second one shakes his head, but he’s so small that I can’t completely tell. “But if she’s tryin’ to break in, then she better know that she’s messin’ with the wrong Miniatures.”

“Yeah, I trust our guys,” Irving says calmly. “They’re probably just waitin’ to pounce on her after she finishes her babblin’. I ain’t worried. Our guys are smart.”

My stomach tightens, and all of a sudden I feel worried for Maddie. This Irving guy sounds pretty confident. She’s just a helpless little girl, she’s gonna be toast if all the Miniatures attack her at once. And what if they kill her? Or worse, eat her?!

Maddie keeps on talking to the giant swarm of Miniatures, but then I see one of the Miniatures hand her something. It seems to be some sort of laser pointer or something, a cylinder with a little light at the end of it. It’s small for a human, but still huge compared to the Miniatures. Maddie smiles and gladly takes it from the Miniature.

“Wait �" the heck, did I just see what I thought I saw?!” Fred exclaims.

“Jesus Christ Fred, you saw that too?! Thought I was goin’ crazy! Why the heck would he give her that?! That girl is dangerous!”

To call Maddie dangerous seems laughable, but it is quite amazing how she talked them into giving her whatever that thing is. I wonder if it’s some sort of weapon.

As soon as Maddie grabs the laser pointer thing, she speeds out of there while all the Miniatures clap and cheer for her. “You’re our hero, Maddie! Our hero!” I hear one of them chant.

Maddie, accelerating at an alarming rate, swims towards me and throws the laser pointer thing at me. Despite being underwater, she somehow throws it straight to me on a line. Fred and Irving jump and dive to try and retrieve it, but they both miss it as they bump heads with each other.

“Hey, watch where you’re jumpin’!” Fred screams at Irving.

“I jumped first, fool! You better watch where you’re goin’ or you’re gonna let this puny human escape!”

Narrator: The puny human escaped.

“Point that at the door to get in!” Maddie calls to me as I rush towards the gate. And the best thing is, there isn’t a single Miniature in sight.

I get to the gate and point the thing at the door, and the castle suddenly starts to shake and rumble. The gate slowly opens as pieces of cement fall off the castle, as if the world’s biggest earthquake is occurring underwater. The door finally opens, but the castle which was once so large and shiny is completely unstable now. It continues to shake as if it could collapse and crumble into tiny pieces any second now.

I’m a bit reluctant to enter an enormous building that could collapse and fall on me at any second, as you might expect, but I have to do this. Not just for Maddie, but for the sake of the world.

With still no Miniatures in my presence, I enter the castle. I’m immediately greeted by a huge dining hall with a table that must be 500 feet long. I can tell that the hall used to be all shiny and fancy, but at this point the walls are really run down, dusty, and broken in some places. Jeez, opening that gate really took a toll on this place.

But back to business: I have to find that treasure. Hm, I wonder where in this huge place could it possibly �" 

“Looking for something, Mr. Hill?”

An…average-looking human man appears before me. About normal height, brown hair, round glasses, really nothing too special about him except the evil smile that is plastered on his face. But the most noticeable thing is that he’s holding a sparkling red stone. That must be the treasure.

“Welcome to my home, Mr. Hill. I hope you are enjoying your stay at this facility,” he says with an evil tone. His words alone are comforting, however his tone is anything but comforting. I just stand in place, confused and completely frozen with ideas as to what I should do.

“Ah, so you don’t know who I am now, do you? My apologies, Mr. Hill, I should have introduced myself. I am King Miniature, lord of the Miniatures! I possess superhuman powers which allow to be large in size and in power, as I work towards my quest to take over the world! You see, you and me are equals in size, but in power and authority, I am so much more!” King Miniature scowls. “Now, Mr. Hill, I find it quite amusing that you think you can just barge in here as if this is your own home. You see, Mr. Hill, you may be smart and clever enough to get past an army of people smaller than your pinky, but you have got no chance against my amazing self. So you may as well just depart the building and be on your way, as I believe you have gotten yourself into enough trouble as it is already.”

This guy is so full of himself. He’s just one person, how hard can he be to defeat?

“Ah, but you see, Mr. Hill, I am not just full of myself,” King Miniature responds to me, as if he knew exactly what I was thinking. “I am full of my own person, plus an unlimited supply of powers and weapons that no human has ever conquered in the 1,227 years I have been doing this! So if you’re wondering how hard I am to defeat, maybe you should ask one of the millions upon millions of people who have come to steal what is mine and failed!”

Wow, this guy must be pretty old if he’s been doing this for 1,227 years. His face doesn’t look a day over 25 though.

“Yes, Mr. Hill, I am old, but that is what makes me so powerful. You see, I have the innate ability to live forever, and not only that, but the older I get, the stronger I become! Thank you very kindly for the compliment however, I love it when people tell me how beautiful I look.”

Okay, this is getting weird. It’s almost like he can �" 

“Read your mind?”

“No way, did you actually �"”

“Yes, Mr. Hill, I can enter and observe the minds of anyone. I know what anyone is going to do at any instant, so you may as well just concede now unless you wish to die a most painful and gruesome death.”

“No! I won’t give up! You can’t do this! Why do you have to be so mean?”

King Miniature lets back a sinister laugh. “Oh, I’m not mean. I’m just too good at everything and have too many powers to not get some use out of them. I hope you don’t mind my awesomeness, Mr. Hill.”

CRASH! The giant window shatters into pieces, and in comes Maddie holding a small stick with a star on the end. I guess it’s some sort of magic wand?

King Miniature remains unfazed as he lets out another evil laugh. “Aw, you think you’re really tough breaking my window, now do you, little girl? That’s cute. I find it quite hilarious that you think you can just storm through my army of Miniatures and break into my home and steal what is mine. You may have to check just who is the evil one in this scenario, my dear girl.”

“Stop! You’ve done this long enough!” Maddie yells at him in her high-pitched voice. I’ve never seen her this animated before.

“My sweet little girl, oh how I wish you would just let me be. I only wish to live peacefully in my own home without any disturbances or violent entrances from ignorant children such as yourselves.”

Maddie points the wand at King Miniature. “Abracadbra, alakazam!”

“Ha ha! That is really quite amusing that you think �" OW!”

King Miniature collapses and falls on the floor, unconscious, his eyes wide open and twitching with the rest of his body completely paralyzed. The treasure is still in one piece, resting next to him.

“Maddie, you did it! You really did it! You defeated King Miniature!”

“I �" I can’t believe it! We did it, Joey! We did it!”

I laugh. “Well it was really mostly you that did it! How did you even get the Miniatures to give you the thing to open the gate?”

Maddie smirks. “Oh, I have my ways. Now let’s take the treasure and go celebrate! We saved the world! We’re the best duo ever!”

“Yeah, you bet we are!”

I pick up the treasure, and my mind becomes a blur, with dark shades swirling around me and rotating me around and around until I find myself back above the water, in a pool with my legs and feet back under me. The treasure is nowhere to be found. Phew, what a ride that was.

Maddie pops up right next to me. “I think I wanna get out now.”

“Yeah, me too. We can go play some tennis now.”
“Yay! Sounds fun.”

Maddie and I climb our way out of the pool, and are instantly greeted with chills and goosebumps up our arms. We quickly rush to get towels as it seems to have gotten a lot colder since we got in the pool.

My mom, who was apparently in the jacuuzi, eases her way over to us. “Well that was quick. Are you sure you two don’t want to swim for longer?”

I’m a little confused. “We were swimming for awhile. We want to go play tennis now.”

“Well, gosh, okay then, do whatever you want. It’s just that you were only in the pool for like five minutes.”

I glance at the clock. Oh wow, she’s actually right. I could have sworn we had been in there for at least an hour fighting those Miniatures. “Wow, really? It seemed like a lot longer. Mama, we played a game where we saved the world!”

“Aw, really? That’s cool, glad you two are having fun! Just come back down when you’re ready to go home. Have fun playing tennis!” And with that, she treads on back to her jacuzzi.

“Come on, let’s get changed then go play tennis!” I nudge Maddie.

She looks at me, her head turned to the side, and smiles. “Okay!” she excitedly cheers, then sprints to the bathroom. 

Let’s go! Woo hoo! Come on! 

This playdate is going about as well as I could have expected so far. We’ve gotten along, and it’s actually only been a little bit awkward, not nearly as awkward as I would have guessed. We had fun playing a game in the pool, and now we were both excited to go play tennis together. What could be better than this?
Ten minutes later, I meet Maddie outside the bathroom, all dry and dressed in her tennis clothes. She has two pigtails now held together by small pink hair ties, and a little pink polo shirt along with a dark blue skirt. She even has her own tennis racket, although it looks pretty small even for a kid.

I ran up the stairs to the courts side by side with her, but I think I get a little too excited as she starts to fall behind.

“You’re going too fast, silly!” she playfully yells at me with a huge grin on her face. “Slow down! You’re like Thomas the Tank Engine!”

“But Thomas is actually pretty slow for a train!” I laugh back. “I think you’re actually more like Thomas!”

“Maybe he’s slow for a train, but he’s still a train. Even slow trains are way faster than humans!”

“True, that’s a good point.” I stop walking for a second to let Maddie catch back up to me. She reaches the step I’m on, takes one brief glance at me, then ignites forward like a rocket, jumping up two steps at a time.

“Hee hee! Gotcha!” she teases.

“Hey, that’s not fair!” I giggle to myself as I follow suit, sprinting up the stairs to catch back up to my best friend. I have longer legs than her, so I’m able to go up three stairs at at time. I make the last leap, and touch the top step just milliseconds before she does.

“Yes! I win! You can’t defeat the amazing Joey!”

“Hee hee, stop! You sound like Lord Miniature!”

“Oh, shoot. Yeah, I guess you’re right. No one wants to be like Lord Miniature.”

“Come on, let’s go play tennis!” Maddie grabs my arm and drags me along while running.

“Yeah, of course!”

My parents play tennis pretty often, which is part of the reason why we belong to this tennis club, but I’ve never really gotten into it. I’m more of a baseball player. Maybe someday I can be the next David Wright (except for the fact that I’ll actually play for a good team) while also writing novels and screenplays! That’s the dream, at least. That would be a lot of fun.

I play tennis with Maddie while not really knowing what I’m doing, but it doesn’t matter because she knows what she’s doing to an even lesser degree than I do. We run around out there spazzing around like animals, hopelessly flailing at balls and sending balls over the fence. But while sports are about winning, this is an exception. I get to share an experience with Maddie, as we both participate in an activity in which we are, for the most part, equally pathetic. We exit the court with plastered smiles, laughing at just how silly we’re sure we looked. I rarely take pride in failing or doing poorly in something, but this is close to as happy as I’ve felt. Emotions are weird sometimes, man.

At this point, this playdate just feels like a whirlwind of time, as if I’ve been thrown into an endless tunnel of fun and adrenaline. I can’t even possibly imagine it ever ending. This is a new and exciting feeling I honestly didn’t even know I was capable of having because I’d never made a connection with an actual human being before until now. This is so weird. But I actually…I actually like it. Man, these are things I never would have thought I’d say in my entire life, and here I am, still in just third grade, actually enjoying myself while voluntarily spending time with another kid my age outside of school. Maybe I’m not immature for my age at all. Maybe I’m actually too mature for my age. Is this normal? Is this the feeling that makes other kids so hyped to hang out with other kids outside of school? Maybe I’m finally starting to understand what they’ve known since kindergarten. It just took me longer because there aren’t as many kids who are easily compatible with my specific personality and traits. That’s fine, I’m okay with being a little unique.

The playdate doesn’t stop with tennis, as we go into the junior lounge and play some crazy competitive games of foosball, air hockey, and ping pong, laughing hysterically at every little thing that happens. There’s something about being a friend that just makes everything funnier. I don’t even know why, but I’m not going to complain about getting to laugh more.

“That was so funny when you missed the ball and hit yourself in the leg!” Maddie exclaims hysterically.

“Well that was even funnier when you hit the ball backwards!”

“Oh yeah!” Maddie cracks up. 

The conversation fades and dies off for a few seconds.

“So it’s almost 4, I guess we should go back to my mom so she can drive you home.”

“Oh �"” Maddie starts to try to say something, but stutters. “Well what if we had a sleepover?”

Woah. What?

A sleepover?

It takes me a second to process what that even means.

“Like…tonight? You…you want to have a sleepover tonight?”

“Yeah, come on! It’ll be so fun!”

“Like one of us sleeping at the other’s house? Tonight? Like straight home from here?”

“Yeah, will your mom let us? I wanna go back to your house and play some more!”

I can’t believe this. She’s actually asking to spend more time with me. What kind of insane person would want to be with me for such a long period of time? I’m not even sure how I’m gonna break this to my mom. She might not let us have a sleepover anyway. So I shouldn’t get my hopes up too high. But either way…wow, this…this is something.

We stiffly grudge our way over to my mom, who’s relaxing by the pool with a book. She greets us with a warm smile, with absolutely no idea that we’re about to ask her something.

“Hey you two! Ready to go?”

I open my mouth to respond but Maddie beats me to it. “Yeah actually, we were wondering, is it okay if Joey and I have a sleepover tonight at your house?”

My mom’s face lights up with shock, but quickly shifts into excitement. “Oh, really? Yeah, sure! I’m sure Dada will be okay with that. Glad you two had fun!”

My mom drives us home, and we enter through the front door as my dad yells down from upstairs, “Hey family!”

“Hey honey,” my mom replies.

“Hi Mr. Hill!” Maddie pipes in.

“Ahh!” My startled dad exclaims. “Hi, uh, Maddie.”

“So I guess you two will sleep in Joey’s room…oh Maddie, I’m pretty sure we have an extra sleeping bag we can let you borrow. Just give me a sec to find it.”

“Okay! Joey let’s go play in your room! I want to see what it looks like!”

“Um..sure.”

This isn’t going to end well. My room is fulled with piles of toys, Legos, stuffed animals, and all kinds of silly things. What if Maddie judges me and thinks I’m babyish or girlish or something? She’ll probably think I’m such immature weirdo. I’m not exactly thrilled about the prospect of her spending time and investigating everything in my room. I’ve never exactly thought about what other people might think about my room before because, well…no one besides me or my parents ever goes in there. And I’m with my parents all the time so there really isn’t judgement there, it’s not the same as a kid seeing it.

I give a quick glance to my mom, the reality of the situation starting to speed up on me, but she’s hunched over going through her purse or something. Ugh, welp. Guess I’m on my own for this own. Just gotta throw myself into the fire and see what happens. Maddie is supposed to be my friend, so I guess a situation like this would have been unavoidable eventually.

To be fair, my room is a little bit peculiar. I sort of have one and a half rooms, with a big main playroom attached to a smaller room which pretty much just has my bed. From what I’ve heard and seen on TV, I think most kids actually have their bed in their main room and don’t have a separate room.

“What’s that?” Maddie asks upon entering my room, pointing to Elizabeth. Elizabeth is laying on my big red-and-white-striped chair, minding her own business and just trying to sleep.

“Oh, that’s my old, uh, toy. From when I was a baby.”

“Ooh, really?! She’s pretty! If you don’t use her anymore can I have her?”

Heck no!

“Oh…well, um, I’d still like to keep her�" I mean, it. Just to, you know…remember when I…was, um, a baby.”

“Aw, please? I really like her! She could be a great addition to my bedtime buddies!”

“Mm…sorry, but she’s, um…she’s mine, so….”

“Oh, alright.” Maddie is still slightly frowning, but her tone seems to convey that she at least understands. “Hey, what’s that?” She points to a piece of paper taped to my door which says in messy handwriting, “Say Jont Jont to come in.”

“Why do I have to say Jont Jont come in?” she giggles to me.

Ugh, this is uncomfortable.

“Oh, that’s just, um…a sign I made for some reason when I was really little. I don’t really know why.”

Okay, now that was actually true. I honestly don’t have any idea why I ever made that sign, it was just a silly little kid thing, and I guess I’ve been too lazy to take it down. God, Maddie must think I’m such a baby. I can’t stand this, this isn’t fun at all. And it’s not even that I have anything against Maddie, I just don’t enjoy her being in the presence of my room. My room is my own private space, I don’t need other people coming in here and asking about everything. It’s embarrassing; this is all stuff I just want to keep to myself. Now I’m getting all worked up about stuff that isn’t worth getting worked up about. Is going into someone else’s room even legal? I should check that out.

I’m actually thankful to see my mom’s face pop into the room, just so something can stall this awkward experience.

“You guys want me to make you some pizza? You can eat it in here if you want.”

“Sure!” Maddie immediately exclaims.

“Cool, coming right up!”

“Ooh, is that your own computer?” Maddie sprints over to sit in my computer chair, marveling at my fairly standard desktop computer I’ve had since I was like five. I’m not exactly sure what she finds so exciting about it. And oh God, I just realized that I have a Poptropica wallpaper on there. Now she’s gonna ask about what Poptropica is, and I don’t really feel like giving a two-hour speech on my expertise on the greatest online game of all time (well actually really the only online game I’ve played extensively, but still).

She points to the Poptropica character in the wallpaper. “Who’s that?”

“Oh, it’s just a character from a game.” I try to brush it off like it’s no big deal.

But Maddie is completely perplexed. “Ooh, what game? Can we play it right now?”

“Eh, I don’t know if you’d like it….”

“Sure I would! Let’s play it!”

“Okay, but it’s really complicated and requires a lot of �"”

“I don’t care! You can teach me!”

“Okay, okay. Fine.”

“Yee hee!” Maddie practically jumps out of my chair in excitement. “How do I get to the game?”

“You just go to poptropica .com."

“Oh, on the Internet, right?”

“Yep.” I subtly point to the little Internet Explorer icon on the monitor.

After taking a few seconds to find where the cursor is on the screen, Maddie clicks on the Internet icon and then scans the keyboard, searching for the first key to press.

I get closer to her so I can show her what to press. “The P key is right over there.”

“No, I’m looking for the W.”

“The W? Why do you need the W?”

Maddie giggles. “Cause you need to type in www-dot first, silly!”

“Actually you don’t have to, the website comes up anyway even if you don’t put the www-dot fir�"”

“No, you do have to. My daddy told me!”

Guess I can’t dispute it if was her daddy that told her that.

So finally, Maddie goes to www. poptropica .com and gets to the home screen where the options are “New Player” and “Returning Player.”

“What do I click now?”

This is already starting to get mildly infuriating and she hasn’t even started playing the game yet. I’m essentially a Poptropica expert, as I’ve been playing the game since literally the day it came out, when it was hardly anything more than just a test demo. At first I was all confused and didn’t know what to do, but after some guidance from my dad, I caught on pretty quickly and haven’t look back since as the game has gotten larger, more popular, and more complex. Maddie is a complete newcomer, and I’m just not sure I have the patience to teach everything there is to know about Poptropica to someone who’s starting from scratch. It would be like a tortoise trying to complete a marathon. Not impossible, sure, but it would take so gosh darn long.

“Pizza’s ready!” my mom calls out. Oh thank God. Eating pizza with Maddie actually does sound fun, especially since pizza is one of the few foods I’ll eat without being all picky. Pizza is amazing, definitely my second favorite food behind chocolate. Although now that I think about it, I may have to reevaluate my decision since plain hamburgers with nothing on them are a really close third.

My mom brings two plates of cheese pizza into my room.

Sniff. Ooh, it smells nice and warm. I can tell this is gonna be really good pizza. It’s from the frozen section of Trader Joe’s, after all.

“Yay, pizza! Thank you, Mrs. Hill!” Maddie cheers. Good, glad to know she likes pizza as much as I do. Usually when I like something a lot, everyone else seems to dislike it for some reason. But I think I’ve established at this point that Maddie isn’t like everybody else, and that’s what’s so great about her.

I sit on my big red-and-white-striped chair while Maddie turns towards me on my swively computer chair, both of us sitting eagerly, transfixed on the plate of pizza in our lap.

“Do you guys want to watch a movie or something?” my mom asks us.

Ooh, yes, that sounds like a great idea. Watching a movie doesn’t require much if any talking, but I still get to be with Maddie during it. That’s like a perfect scenario.

“Yes! Movie night! Let’s watch a movie Joey!” Maddie jumps up and down in her seat, as her plate nearly falls out of her lap and flip flop flies across the room. “Whoops! Hee hee!”

I’m on board, although I don’t express it quite as outwardly. “Yeah, what movie should we watch?”

“We have a whole stack of DVDs right over there.” My mom points to my shelf. “Why don’t you two pick one out and you can watch it right here? You can even get all comfy in your jammies and sleeping bags. Oh, and speaking of sleeping bags, Maddie, uh, we have an extra for you upstairs. Just let me go find it. In the meantime why don’t you two pick out a movie!”

Maddie wildly swivels the chair so that she’s facing my shelf full of DVDs. “Ooh, let’s see what movies you have.”

Maddie briefly scans the shelf for a few seconds before shouting, “Ooh, you have The Princess Bride! That’s my favorite movie ever! Let’s watch that!”

Random observation: Is it just me, or has Maddie gotten louder as I’ve spent more time with her? Eh, I’m probably overthinking it.

“Eh…that movie’s kind of weird. It has a kissing scene.”

“Ew, yeah, kissing is gross!” Maddie exclaims. “But the rest of the movie is really good.”

“Eh…that’s okay. Let’s…let’s pick something else.”

“Fine, let’s see what else you have here…no…no…bad…never seen it…ooh, I know! You have Harry Potter! Let’s watch that! I love Harry Potter!”

“Oh, really? Me too! Harry Potter is the best! Who’s your favorite character?”

“Draco Malfoy of course! I like the bad guys the best.”

“Wow, actually?! Me too! My favorite house is Slytherin, what’s yours?”

“Obviously Slytherin! That’s the house with all the bad guys! The bad guys are the best!”

“Agreed! The bad guys are the best characters in all movies. I hate when people always have the good guy as their favorite character.”

“So do I! It’s so unoriginal too. Good guys are boring! I like the evil bad guys because they look cool and do cool things!”

“Totally!”

I turn my head to see that my mom has returned, holding a fluffy pink sleeping bag.

“Here Maddie, are you okay sleeping in this tonight?”

“Yeah, that’s fine!”

“Awesome, sounds good. I’ll leave this right here.” She rests the sleeping bag on the floor in front of me. “Did you guys pick a movie yet?”

“Harry Potter!” I tell her before Maddie can beat me to it this time. Maddie quickly flashes me a knowing glance, a subtle smile that tells me she knows I beat her this time, but it’s all in good fun.

“Ooh, exciting. Well enjoy your movie night, you two!”

“You two.” I just have to take a second again to process those words. “You two.” There’s two of us. Doing something together. And I’m one of the two. I honestly wasn’t sure this day would ever come, and here I am in third grade already being part of “you two.” I still can’t believe that there’s actually someone on this planet who I can be a part of a “you two” with. I feel like I haven’t even done enough to deserve this. This is all going surprisingly well, and it almost feels like there’s going to be a catch coming up at some point. Something’s gotta give at some point.

After settling into our sleeping bags next to each other in front of the TV, we fire up the first movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I feel like we’re real friends now, laying next to each other all comfortable and happy, watching something we have a shared affinity for. This is a dream come true. I’ve literally had dreams about meeting a perfect person who is just like me, and spending every day and night with them doing things I like to do. But in real life, I always thought those experiences would be limited to Buddy, Elizabeth, Tiger Cat, etc. Here it is, actually happening with a human person. I need to double check to make sure this isn’t just another one of those dreams.

The Harry Potter movies are great every time I watch them, but for some reason I just seem to enjoy it even more this time around. Man, what a great movie. I don’t know why but it just feels better. Despite having seen it at least twenty times, everything takes me by surprise and the subtle jokes make me laugh louder than they usually do. The scarier parts freak me out more than they usually do, and the sad parts nearly make me tear up (note that I said nearly, as I’ve never outwardly cried at a movie before).

Occasionally Maddie whispers some witty remark, but for the most part, we don’t say too much during the movie. A good Harry Potter movie’ll do that to ya. I become transfixed in the movie, as if I’m a student in Hogwarts going on this crazy ride with Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

Then comes the climax where Harry fights Professor Quirrell. Oh man, this is probably my favorite part of the entire movie. I already know what happens cause I’ve seen it a million times. Harry makes Professor Quirrell shrivel up into dust, and Quirrell has that cool face on the back of his head. It’s such an awesome final battle scene.

I peek over at Maddie to see if she’s as enthralled as I am about this scene coming up.

She looks back over at me. “Ugh, this part is stupid.”

Woah! 

I thrust my upper body up slightly, and lay in that extremely uncomfortable position speechless for a few seconds, before everything explodes and I sprint out of my room and upstairs to my parent’s bedroom as fast as I can.

Screaming at the top of my lungs with tears shooting out in all directions, I make it into my parents’ room and slam the door. Only my mom is in there, folding clothes or something. 

“Oh no honey, what’s wrong?” She comes over to pat me on the back and comfort me. 

“Mama, M-Maddie said the �" the s �" the s-word!” Another stream of tears pours out of me after holding it in for that entire sentence.

I thought Maddie was a good, innocent girl just like me (well, except for the girl part). Since when does she say bad words like stu �" no, I can’t even think the word in my head. My mom has always told me that I should never say bad words and that bad words are only said by bad people.

“Honey, honey, it’s okay, it’s okay. Just relax. Breathe.”

“But…but Mama! She said a bad word!”

I feel like I don’t even know Maddie right now. I’ve now seen a side of her I didn’t even know existed. It’s almost like she’s one of those generic kids who says bad words and does other typical kid things. Those are the kids who I try to avoid in school. And that’s basically every kid I’ve ever come across, except Maddie. I thought Maddie was different. But maybe she’s just one of them after all.

“Joey, it’s okay. Just respectfully tell her you don’t like when she says that.”

“But what if she doesn’t want to be my friend anymore if I don’t say bad words too? I don’t want to be around someone like that!”

“Maddie is such a sweet little girl. She’ll understand.”

My mom deeply looks me in the eye.

“I promise.”

I’m finally able to stop shaking and catch my breath. Okay. Maybe this isn’t so bad. Maddie will understand, right? If she’s really my friend she will. I know she will!

I tiptoe back downstairs, carefully planning how I’m going to approach this. I realize the movie is probably still going on, and I feel a little bad for just storming off from the movie like that. 

Maddie is in the position as she was when I left, laying cozily in her pink sleeping bag, only there’s an unfamiliar frown on her face. She doesn’t look sad, per say �" she just looks lonely. I obviously can’t tell exactly what she’s thinking, but her mouth is closed and she’s looking down like she might possibly feel bad. I can’t tell for sure though. Gosh, I might actually have to talk to her to find out what she’s feeling. Crazy concept, right?

To my delightful surprise, however, her face lights up when she sees that I’ve come back into the room.

“Joey, you’re back! The movie just ended. Good movie, huh?”

“Um…yeah. I love Harry Potter.” I sniff and wipe the final tears out of my eyes.

“Aw, Joey, are you okay? Why are you crying?”

“I’m not crying.”

“You look like you were crying though. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. It’s just…it’s just I didn’t like when, uh, when you said st �" you know, that word you said about the final scene….”

“Oh, stupid?”

ERK! I cringe and shudder just at the sound of that word.

“Yeah, I �" I don’t like when you, um, say that. Sorry.”

Oh no, why did I say that? I mean, I’ll admit it feels good to stand up for myself and outwardly say what I feel, since I very rarely am able to work up the courage to do anything like that, but I’m worried that it came at the expense of my friendship with Maddie. She’s not gonna like that I told her not to do something. What am I, her daddy or something? I can’t be going around telling other kids what to do or what not to do. Oh gosh, she’s going to hate me for this. I am so stupid. I mean dumb! Oh no �" she’s infected me already. Oh my God, what is wrong with me?!

“Oh, that’s okay. I don’t say it much anyway. I hate bad words. I would cry too if someone said a bad word to me.”

“Oh �" oh, really? That’s…that’s great! So you won’t say it much �" I mean, like, more often, at least?”

“Of course not! I don’t want to make you cry, Joey. You’re my best friend! I want to make you happy. I didn’t even mean to say it anyway. Wanna watch another movie?”

Well that literally could not have gone better. A pile of bricks is lifted off my shoulders as I hop back into my sleeping bag, and just like that, I’m all comfortable and happy again, as if nothing even happened. Gosh, how quickly things can change. What was I even worried about anyway? Of course Maddie would never disappoint me. It’s crazy that I ever even considered that she might.

We lay in silence for a few minutes. We don’t openly acknowledge it, but I think we each just need a chance to take in and absorb everything. This is a big step for both of us. Well, at least it’s a big step for me because it’s my first playdate and first sleepover. I don’t know if it’s her first playdate, but I’m sure it’s a big step for her as well. I haven’t exactly seen her talk to a lot of kids at school either, so from what I can tell she’s in a pretty similar boat as I am.

The movie ended, so the room is completely silent. Except for the tick of the clock, which now that I think about, is abnormally loud for a clock tick. I never realized just how loud that clock ticks. Huh. I have a watch and plenty of other clocks, so I never really look at that clock anyway. So why exactly do I have it again? So I can listen to it tick all day?

You know, this is kind of weird thing to say, but Maddie is a pretty close representation of what I think of when I think of a typical “girl.” When someone says the word “girl” and I imagine a generic “girl” in my head, the person I imagine is pretty close to what Maddie looks like. Slightly below average height, blonde, and a normal yet distinct little white face with a slightly pointed noise and a few subtle freckles. To me, Maddie just seems like the perfect, classic “girl” figure. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I really like her. I just like the way she looks, it’s not only about her personality and shared traits with me. The way she looks just pleases me for some reason. Like if I could imagine a girl that I wanted to be friends with, I would imagine her. It’s almost hard to believe that she’s even real.

“Hey Joey, wanna have a sleeping bag fight?”

Hm, I’m not sure what that is. But Maddie wants to do it and it sounds fun, so I’m intrigued.

“Sure! How does…that work, exactly?”

“Simple! We just fight each other using only our sleeping bags! The only rules are that you have to stay in your sleeping bag and you can’t take your arms out, so you can’t use any other pillows or anything.”

“How do you determine a winner?”

Maddie stares at me for a few seconds, then shrugs. “Eh, we’ll figure it out!”

“Okay!” I laugh.

“Go!” Maddie shouts, and jumps on top of me in her bag. Her strength to vault herself up like that is pretty impressive.

“Hey, I wasn’t ready!” I giggle. I roll over on my side so that she falls off of me, and then I roll back over her.

“Ha ha! It’s over Anakin! I have the high ground!” Secretly, I’m hoping she gets my reference, but it’s totally fine and won’t matter at all if not.

“Hee hee, that’s not fair! You can’t use movie quotes to help you win!”

“Hey, come on, that’s my favorite Star Wars movie! Even though some people don’t like it for some reason.”

“Hey, that’s my favorite Star Wars movie too!” Maddie squeals. “I don’t understand either! How can people not love that movie?”

I’ve never experienced this whole “flow of conversation” thing before. It feels so weird and unnatural…yet so satisfying. Apparently I love conversation now! Woo hoo, conversation! Words I never thought I’d think or say in my entire life.

Maddie, surprising me with her strength yet again, weasels out from under me and thrusts me over to the side, sending me rolling over to the other side of the room. Then she squirms like a slug back over to me, and we exchange some back-and-forth shoves at each other before the fight fades out in a shared collection of laughs and sighs. We both come to the realization that we’re tired after a long day at nearly the same exact instant. It’s as if the exhaustion of the day hits both of us at the exact same time.

The silence is nice. I like silence. I’m glad Maddie isn’t someone who feels the need to talk every two seconds. I hate when people always try to talk to me. I mean, Maddie is sometimes loud and a bit talkative, but she also seems to know when to dial it down and just relax. And right now, this is all I need. Laying in my room, side by side with my best friend Maddie, enjoying the darkness and the tick of my clock on the wall. We know we’re there beside each other, yet nothing needs to be said. This is a perfect friendship right here. We should do this more often.

“Hey Joey, can I ask you a question?”

“Sure, what is it?”

“How come I made you cry when I said stu �" I mean, the s-word?”

I feel the temperature in my face rise as I shyly look away. “Oh, I don’t know…I just don’t like when people say bad words.”

“But…but that’s really not a bad word.”

“Yes it is,” I tell her bluntly. “My mommy taught me that it’s a bad word. Didn’t your mommy teach you that?”

Maddie doesn’t say anything. I don’t know if she’s making any facial expressions because I’m still not making eye contact with her.

I slowly turn my eyes towards her. I don’t want to disturb her or give her any awkward stares or anything if she’s upset about something. The last thing I would ever want to do is make her cry.

Maddie isn’t crying, but she’s also not smiling. Her mouth is zipped shut, her eyes draped down at the ground, as if they’re practically sagging off her face. She doesn’t look quite right, and it’s agitating me internally to an unusual extent.

I need to say something to break this silence. I really hope she’s just tired and not sad or anything.

“So…your mommy didn’t tell you it was a bad word?”

Maddie’s face stays locked in the same position, and her mouth moves only the least amount possible required for her to talk.

“I don’t have a mommy.” 

“Wait…what? Oh �" I mean, uh, sorry, I didn’t, uh �" oh.”

“It’s okay. I never knew her anyway,” Maddie says, staring at the floor with a completely lifeless, emotionless expression on her face. “She died when I was a baby. But my daddy and my nanny love me.”

“Oh…that’s good, then.”

Gosh. I feel bad about that, I really had no idea. Wow, suddenly I feel lucky that I still have my mommy. Especially a mommy who I have a pretty good relationship with for a kid. This kind of puts things in perspective. Poor Maddie. She doesn’t seem awfully upset about it though. She’s probably made peace with it at this point, especially since it’s been a part of her for basically as long as she can remember. It’s too bad, though. A sweet little girl like her deserves a mom figure in her life. I mean, at least she has Maria though, right? So it’s not all bad. This doesn’t have to be a whole big sad moment or anything.

“Yeah, I love them too. My daddy and nanny are my best friends in the whole world. Well, besides you!” Maddie lightens up a little, laughing and smiling for the first time in awhile.

“Ha ha, of course.” I express it with only a slight smile, but inside, I’m grinning from ear to ear, knowing that Maddie and I are on the same page. We can move past this without any awkwardness. I’m even comfortable knowing that Maddie said a bad word.

This playdate has sure had its ups and downs emotionally, but it’s all part of us getting to know each other better. And that we certainly have. So I’d say the playdate and sleepover were huge successes.

Lost in my own thoughts, I don’t even notice that Maddie has fallen asleep. She looks so happy and peaceful, her hands tucked under her head with her soft eyelids closed gently. As she lays there, I see an innocent, sweet little girl who just wants to spend time with me. She’s perfect. Yes, she has her flaws just like any person, but from my perspective, she’s absolutely perfect. I could never imagine a better first human friend.

Here’s to a lifelong friendship with this special person I have discovered.


The rest of the weekend goes by in a blur.

I guess I’m still riding the thrill of having a bonding experience with my friend. It feels so unnatural, but in the best way possible. I’m walking on air, my chest filled with empowerment and the feeling that I can do no wrong.

Get this: I slept an entire night without talking to or even thinking about Buddy. That’s right, since I slept on the floor with Maddie, I didn’t have my pillow with me. So I had no one to talk to, not even Buddy, Tiger Cat, Elizabeth, or anyone. I was all alone. Well, except for Maddie of course. For once, I didn’t need any pillows or stuffed animals to comfort me or just be by my side while I was sleeping. Apparently Maddie has the same power and ability to comfort me just as they do. I didn’t know until now that a human could have that power.

After Maddie leaves, I feel like it’s my guilty obligation to check in with Buddy to see how he’s doing and if he has any tips for me. I feel bad for neglecting him and honestly, completely forgetting about him. He didn’t even cross my mind last night when I was with Maddie. Maddie completely distracted me from everyone and everything that matters. Now that she’s back home, I have to remember all the other important people and things in my life. At least until I get back to school and play with her at lunchtime.

And that’s what’s so exciting about having a friend. Sure, our playdate and sleepover may be over, but I get to see her again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next day. It’s a never-ending cycle of getting to see her and play with her and hopefully have tons of more playdates and sleepovers. A friend isn’t a temporary thing. It’s a permanent commitment, someone I will get to share the rest of my life with. The possibilities for our future adventures are endless. Maybe someday when we’re all grown up and living in space with our little boy named Spacey, we will have overthrown the entire Miniature army, and humans will be living underwater as well as in space with us. Maybe we can even take the occasional trip to Mars to do some grocery shopping.

“Don’t worry Joey.”

Gah! Oh okay, phew. It’s just Buddy talking to me in my mind. Almost forgot for a second that Buddy is with me 24/7.

“You don’t have to feel bad about forgetting about me last night,” Buddy tells me calmly. “It’s completely normal to forget about me when you’re around human friends. I’m actually glad this is happening; it means you’re really starting to care about Maddie as a friend and you’re not just spending time with her because you have to. This is all completely normal and natural, Joey. I’m so excited for you.”

“That’s good to hear, Buddy. I’ve just never gotten distracted like that before so I wasn’t sure.” I really mean that. I don’t want to lose my imaginary friends and stuffed animals just because I have a human friend now. I still want to have both. My imaginary friends mean just as much to me as Maddie does. In fact, since I’ve known them for way longer, they probably mean even more to me since they’re basically a part of me at this point. I want Buddy to know that no matter how close friends I become with Maddie, I would never forget about him in a million years.

“Trust me, you don’t have to tell me that. I already know, Joey,” Buddy tells me soothingly. “Imaginary friends are special because they stay with you forever. Not that Maddie won’t stay with you forever, because she will. But she’s still human, and things happen. We’re not human, we’re just in your mind, so there’s nowhere to go even if we wanted to. We love you Joey, and we know you better than your parents know you, possibly even better than you know you. Just keep rolling with this, Joey. Just keep rolling with it and don’t look back. And at the end of the day, we’ll always be here for you, no matter what.”

I can’t help but smile and blush, even while I’m sitting in my room with nobody around me. I clench my mouth shut and tightly hold back my laughter so that my parents don’t hear me and think I’m a crazy person laughing to myself or something. But as always, Buddy’s words of advice are so comforting. Making a human friend hasn’t caused me to forget just how great having an imaginary friend is. Imaginary friends are truly the greatest. God, now I’m actually having trouble picking what I like more between human friends and imaginary friends! Jeez, I guess I’m just Mr. Popular over here making all kinds of friends. Who ever said that I didn’t have any friends?

“Joey, I just got an email from Maddie’s daddy.”

And there it is. I knew I couldn’t be this peaceful and happy for such a long period of time. Something just had to happen to add stress or anticipation. 

I run upstairs to find out what the email is about. Please don’t be something bad. Please don’t be her daddy telling us that Maddie never wants to have a playdate with me again. Please, for the love of God, just be something good.

Come on, don’t worry, it’ll be fine. Why would it be bad? Everything went perfectly at the playdate. But the urgency with which my mom called me upstairs was fairly alarming.

“What is it?” I ask upon entering the room.

“Maddie’s daddy just emailed me an invitation to her birthday party. For you! It’s next Sunday.”

Oh. Oh! That…that sounds good. Yes! This is something I am happy about! Woah…woo hoo! Let’s go! I’ve been to birthday parties before, but it’s always the kind of party where I was just invited because the kid’s parents made them invite every kid in the class. And who knows, Maddie probably invited every kid in the class too. Oh wait, no! I’m not even in Maddie’s class! Wow, this must be serious. I’m not even in her class and she invited me to her birthday party. Is that even allowed under the social contract of birthday parties? I don’t know, but I don’t even care, because since when have I of all people ever cared about a social contract? Or to be more accurate, when have I ever cared about anything with the word “social” in it? Let’s go, let’s do this! I’m in!

“But…but…” I sputter. “I’m not even in her class. It must have been a mistake.”

My mom laughs. “Joey, she’s your best friend! She’s allowed to invite friends from other classes to her birthday party!”

“Oh…okay.”

“Joe, can you go downstairs and check the calendar to make sure we’re free next Sunday?”

“On it.”

My mom turns back to me. “So you do want to go, right?”

“Well…yeah! Sure! There’s gonna be pizza and cake, right?”

“Well it’s a birthday party, so yeah, I’d guess so.”

“Where is it at?”

My mom’s smile fades into a dull, expressionless stare. “Come on, don’t use that kind of language. Never say ‘Where is it at?’, just say ‘Where is it?’”

“Ugh, fine. Where is it?”

“Come on Joey, you’re acting lazy and I’m not liking this attitude out of you. For your information, the party is at her house, and it’s apparently going to have a Hannah Montana theme, and Hannah Montana herself is gonna show up! That’s pretty cool,” my mom says while reading the computer screen, squinting with her glasses that are being held together by a paperclip. “Looks like there’s also gonna be some sort of water balloon toss.”

Hm. To be honest, I didn’t even know Maddie liked Hannah Montana. I don’t remember her ever mentioning her. Or do I? Wait, maybe she has. I’m not sure. But I’ve never seen it, that’s for girls. I think Hannah Montana is that like blonde singer or something. Ugh, so girly. I can’t believe I have to go to a Hannah Montana birthday party. But hey, at least it’s Maddie. If I had to go to any girl’s Hannah Montana birthday party, I would definitely pick Maddie over any other girl.

“So Sunday. Okay.” I just need to restate it to reassure myself that this is happening and that it’ll be fun. 

“Sunday looks good.” My dad removes his glasses as he reenters the room. “Only thing we got this weekend is Joey’s baseball game on Saturday.”

Ooh, yay, baseball! I can’t wait. I think this is going to be the week where Coach is finally gonna let me pitch! I’ve been practicing for awhile, so I’m super excited to get out on the mound. I usually play right field, which my coach told me is the most important position. But pitching looks so cool. I imagine myself nearly every day, pitching in the bottom of the ninth of game seven of the World Series, with runners �" eh, I go through this every day. I don’t want to bore you.

So after a wild first playdate and sleepover, it looks I’ve got a jam-packed weekend coming up. Let’s hope it goes just as well as this past weekend!


“Steeeeeee-rike three! Yer out!”

“God damnit!”

“Head up, Billy! That kind of language is not necessary!”

“I just can’t hit the ball!”

Tee-hee. Poor Billy hasn’t made contact with a ball all season. Literally. My dad’s the assistant coach and does all the stats, and so far this season Billy is 0-for-14 with 14 strikeouts. Not even a single foul ball. He’s just perplexing to watch, honestly.

“Let’s go Joey! Come on man, find a way to get on base! Let’s go now, come on.”

Oh, Coach Dave doesn’t even know how ready I am. I’ve basically been preparing my whole life for this. Well, not for this. I’m still preparing my whole life for when I’m a world-famous novelist with a side job as a Major League Baseball player while living in space, of course. But this is a pretty big step.

I’ll admit, I’ve been struggling this season. Dealt with some injuries, like when I fell off my bike and got not one, but two scrapes on my knee. It’s been a grind for sure, and my bat hasn’t had quite the same amount of juice in it as normal. I’m actually still looking for my first hit this season, which is unlike me. I’m usually good for at least three or four hits a year and it’s almost halfway through the season already.

One of my specialties though is that I don’t strike out. I always put the ball in play. I guess I just haven’t been quite as lucky this year. But come on, we have the bases loaded right now, with two outs, and we’re down 3-0. I could give us the lead with a grand slam right now! I’ve never homered before, but hey, you never know. Anything can happen in baseball, right?

One problem I have sometimes is that I get distracted by the pitcher. Either he’s unusually tall, or unusually short, or skinny, or fat �" there’s always something about him that just catches my attention and makes me scared for some reason. Something about the pitcher being an unknown quantity makes his pitches seem more intimidating, like he knows something I don’t about pitching. It sets this false image in my mind that the pitcher is some baseball god and that I have no chance against him. Maybe that’s why I’ve been struggling at the plate this year. It’s all in my head. I just need to find a way to get relaxed and build up some more confidence while I’m in the box.

Let’s go. This time is going to be different. I just know it.

I look down as I walk to the plate. I’m not even going to look at the pitcher. I just need to avoid the problem completely. The pitcher doesn’t matter. What anyone thinks of my batting stance or any of my subtle mannerisms doesn’t matter at all. All that matters is the bat and the ball. Like my dad always says, “see ball, hit ball.” That’s all I need to do. I’ve done it before. So let’s go, let’s do this. I just need to swing the bat to hit the ball. Simple as that. No outside distractions.

I line up my feet in the box exactly where I always do, so that I will be in perfect position to reach and square up the ball. I pat the bat on the ground two times before wiggling it around three times over my shoulder, then let it slowly come to a rest in midair. Here we go. I’m ready. Watch the ball. See the ball, hit the ball. That’s all I have to do. Can’t let my team down here.

“Get ‘em right here, Jimmy! Make your pitch, come on now,” some guy with a bushy brown mustache and sunglasses shouts from the bleachers. Must be the pitcher’s dad. Hey, who is this pitcher anyway? Ooh, wow, he’s tall. Oh shoot. That means he probably throws hard. Gosh, I’m not sure if I can get off him. He goes into a huge and exaggerated windup, and fires the ball. As expected, the ball zips in there at an alarming speed, and I think it even moves a little bit as the catcher takes a second to recover from, the loud THWACK! the ball made when it hit his mitt. My Lord. I’m glad I didn’t swing. 

“HOOT!” grunts the umpire. I’m guessing that means “strike.”

I want to focus, but man, the arrogant little smirk on this Jimmy kid’s face is really ticking me off. He thinks he’s all cool just because he’s tall and can throw a ball hard. Big deal. I bet I’m a better writer than he is. I’m sure I could also kill him in a spelling bee or do my times tables faster than him. 

But in the moment, none of that matters. I’m more concerned about this kid potentially beaning me in the head than actually attempting to hit the ball.

Okay, gotta get ready again. This kid’s about to throw the second pitch. Here we go.

Jimmy keeps that dumb grin glued to his face, even as he throws the pitch. Jesus Christ, get over yourself!

Here comes the pitch. Ooh, this must be a changeup or something because it’s going a lot slower. I can actually…see the ball. Like I might actually be able to hit this! 

With every muscle in my body, I gear up and throw all my thrust into this one swing. I hit pitches like this from my dad all the time in our backyard. I should have no issue with this at all.

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more confident while swinging a baseball bat than right here. Everything clicks perfectly in my brain, and I watch the ball the whole way and time everything perfectly. This could literally not be going better.

Until it could.

Despite being 100 percent locked in, my arms loosen up as they cross the path of the ball, and my flexed muscles ease up so they’re all loosey-goosey as I attempt to hit the ball. So instead of a majestic blast, my arms drop and the bat whiffs through the air, missing the ball completely.

Ugh! I can’t believe myself. I can’t believe I choked like that. I’m so lame, and the worst part is that now everyone will think I don’t have the ability to hit a pitch like that. Of course I do! I hit pitches like that all the time! But I just couldn’t translate it to the acceleration tension of that particular moment in the game. I guess I just assumed that the pitch would be hard to hit because of the pitcher’s size and demeanor. But really, that was no different than the balls my dad tosses me in the backyard. God, if only I hadn’t spazzed out like that for no darn good reason. I probably could have hit a home run!

“You got away with a hanger there, Jimmy. Come on now, make your pitch! Let’s go! One more strike and you’re outta this mess!” Good God, Jimmy’s dad won’t shut up. Oh…sorry. Excuse my language. My parents would kill me if they knew I was thinking “shut up” in my head.

Ugh, I hate myself. It’s the same darn thing that happens every time I bat. I let the pressure get to me and beat myself up in my mind until I can’t even focus on the relatively basic act that I’m attempting to perform. Every. Darn. Time. Why can’t my backyard skills transfer to a game situation, when it actually matters, in front of tens of people? I know I’m talented. I just get too tense and jittery when it comes down to being in front of people for some reason.

Now I’m just a lost cause. An utter mess. What’s the point of even trying to hit this last pitch, honestly. I’m already down in the count 0-2. He’s probably gonna throw me something nasty now, especially after leaving a hanger on that last one. I’m still gonna swing because you never know, but I can’t even envision myself making contact at this point.

BAM! I whiff my bat through the zone like a little wimp, my bat only crossing the plate after the ball has already exploded in the catcher’s mitt. Darn, I’m sure I look like an idiot. Just end me. This isn’t my year.

“Come on, catch up to that next time, Hill!” I hear some coach or dad or something yell. I don’t even care who said it. I don’t want to hear it. “Gotta learn to catch up to that heater!”
Oh my God, can you SHUT UP?! Why do you care so much about what I can or can’t do? Let me worry about my own abilities in peace! 

I don’t even want to try anymore. Those guys will just be watching me and judging me no matter what I do. Even if I do well, I bet! Even if I hit the freaking ball! They’ll still be all, “Turn yer hips more, Hill! Follow through on that swing, Hill!” So unnecessarily judgey. Maybe I should go and ask them how their baseball careers turned out.

Anyway, whatever. I just pace back to the dugout as fast as I can so nobody else can see me or make fun of me any longer. Gotta prepare for the next at-bat. And hey, maybe Coach will let me come in to pitch an inning. You never know.


It’s time to go to a birthday party.

I guess I have mixed feelings about this overall. It’s a foreign combination that my body isn’t used to. I’m super excited to see Maddie again, and maybe it’ll help me get my mind off my rough game yesterday. But at the same time, it’s gonna be weird. All the kids in her class are gonna be there, so it’s gonna be all these weird kids I don’t know. Plus, it’s gonna be super girly. Hannah Montana, and Maddie’s a girl so naturally there’ll probably be more girls there. I don’t wanna be around other girls, I just want to be around Maddie. Hopefully they don’t hog too much of her attention.

“So Joey, what do you want to wear to the party today?” My mom stares at me with this weird smile and an awkward wink. Eek.

“Uh…clothes.”

My mom chuckles. She knows me well enough by now to know that I would never even fathom thinking about what I should wear to anything. I just wear whatever my parents put on my bed.

“Come on honey, let me pick out some clothes for you. You want to look sharp at this party, don’t you?”

“Eh.”

“Oh, come on. There’s gonna be a lot of kids your age there. So what are all the cool kids wearing these days? What’s ‘in’ right now?”

“Uh…clothes.”

“Come on, you can try harder than that. What’s…what’s ‘cool’ right now? You must know what other kids are wearing. I’m sure you don’t just mind to yourself at school all day, you must at least pay some attention to other kids.”

Um…actually, I do. Jesus, I feel like my mom doesn’t know me at all right now. She’s completely oblivious in her perception of what I’m like around other kids when I’m not around her. I mean, she’s seen me around people before. Does she seriously think that I’m just magically popular or social or something when I’m not around her?

“Can you just put whatever on my bed?” I ask her dryly.

My mom rolls her eyes, showing no restraint in expressing her disgust with me as she trudges into my room. Jeez, lady. I’m sorry I’m not a girl and don’t care about things that don’t matter like clothes.

“Aw Joey, you look so cute!” Ten minutes later, I’m standing like a mannequin in the living room, a tight red polo shirt throttled onto me. I can’t stop itching my waist which is being choked by some dusty jeans I haven’t worn in like two years.

“Why do I have to wear this again? Can’t I just be comfortable?”

“For the last time, Joey. You look nice. Girls are gonna be all over you!”

I want to vomit. Anyone with half a brain knows that there’s a higher chance of pigs growing wings and taking over the world than any girl being “all over me,” whatever that even means. I like that my mom loves me, but she is so helplessly delusional sometimes. Actually, all the time if it’s anything that has to do with me.

“Nope,” is the only way I know how to respond to that.

My mom looks down and stares at me creepily, and lets out an unnatural laugh. I’m uncomfortable.

“Joey, you don’t even know how handsome you are. Don’t be surprised if girls start looking at you.” 

Ugh, here we go again. I swear she goes on this rant every few days, and it’s just been getting worse recently. Sometimes I almost wish that she loved me less so she could give me some actual advice instead of this delusional mom talk. It was nice to always hear positive words of encouragement when I was little, but I’m getting older now. I’m in third grade. I think I’ve come to realize by this point that I’m not the most amazing kid on the planet. Judging by my zero friends, I’m also fairly confident that I’m not the most popular kid, either. Well, zero before Maddie.

My stomach feels a little uneasy. I think I’m just worried about all the people that are going to be there. I actually envy the situation I was in last weekend when it was just me and Maddie. Now it’s about to be me, Maddie, and ten million people I’ve never met. It won’t be like a playdate where I get to just relax and play games that I like to play with Maddie. I’m gonna be with a bunch of “normal” kids who like doing whatever “normal” kids like to do. And Maddie’s gonna be there, and that’ll be great and all, but there’s only so much she can do while she’s swarmed with a bunch of third grade lunatics.

“Remember, you have to be polite around her and her family,” my mom stresses sternly. “Don’t forget your ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ And don’t scarf down all the pizza and cake. The birthday girl always gets her food first. Also make sure you hold your fork correctly. Oh, and for Pete’s sake, put your napkin on your lap. You’re not a gorilla.”

I don’t have the energy to even pretend like I care what my mom is saying or to come up with a lame one-word response like I usually do. I’m drowning deep in my own worry and distress. No outside forces or words can intervene as I squirm uncomfortably in my own personal bubble of anxiousness. God I’m such a mess. Why can’t I just be happy to go to a birthday party like every other kid?

“You promise you’ll be a good boy?” my mom asks me passive aggressively once we get out of the car. She really needs to trust me more. For crying out loud, I’m in third grade now, I have a friend, and I’m going to a party. I’m basically all grown up. Is this what being an adult is like? It seems like it would be exhausting to live like this on a regular basis, to be honest.

Before I know it, my mom is gone, and I’m stranded on a deserted island all by myself. Except that the island is all grass. Grass that happens to be shaped in a perfect rectangle. And which also happens to be placed right next to an average-looking white house. And I’m no longer the only person, as a swarm of kids and adults with birthday presents have come onto the island to join me. And suddenly, I’m not on an island anymore. I’m now trapped in a confined space, random people I’ve never seen before moving about in every direction. With the blink of an eye, I go from being alone on a deserted island to being stuck in the center of a mob of chaos.

The swarm somehow contains me, trapping me in the middle and transporting me into the house. I have no time to prepare or get ready for my entry; it happens before I can barely blink twice. Still surrounded by what appears to me as a massive crowd, I’m stuck in the dining room of Maddie’s house with no way to escape and unsure of what to do.

I look to my left and see a tall man with a mustache. I look to my right and see some red-haired girl with some weird black lines around her eyes. She looks older than me. No matter where I turn, I end up facing someone I don’t recognize. There’s no one who I can talk to or even stand near in silence. This is a living nightmare. Except I’d actually rather be having a nightmare right now because this is real. I’m not sure it’s even possible for social situations to get worse than this. Who decided this was a good idea? Who thinks it’s okay to torture kids by dumbing them in a house for two hours with a bunch of strange people they don’t know? More importantly: Who actually thinks this is fun?

“Oh, there he is!”

My entire body snaps to the left, and through a tunnel of people I faintly see Maddie and her dad. Ahhh. Phew. Suddenly, about three quarters of a weight is lifted off my chest. I don’t feel perfect, but I feel a million times better being in the presence of someone I actually know. Maddie. Oh man, it is so great to see Maddie. I’m even happy to see her dad even though I’ve only barely met him once. My bar is set pretty low right now, so even just seeing a familiar face brings me joy.

“Maddie!” I shout, but I don’t think she can hear me through all the annoying, insistent chatter that’s going on. Why do people have to talk so loud all the time? Can’t they just stand in silence and enjoy the moment?

I see Maddie’s dad say something in her ear. He gives her a light pat on the back, and she squeezes her way full force through the crowd, ducking under arms and whatnot until she eventually musters her way through and reaches me. 

Ah, yes! This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. I mean, it’s not ideal. There’s still a gazillion people around us. But at least I’ve found her, and she’s with me, and she’s giving me her undivided attention. There are no other humans attempting to participate in this interaction.

“Joey, I’m so glad you’re here! There’s no way this party could have been fun without you!”

“Oh �" uh, really?” Unsure of how to react, I let out a little nervous laugh.

My awkward reaction to that only widens Maddie’s smile. “Yeah, of course, silly! Me and my daddy were getting nervous you weren’t coming! You’re the life of the party!” Maddie leans in to talk a little quieter. “Plus, I don’t really have many other friends here. You’re easily my best friend here.”

Oh. Aw. Wow. That…that feels really good, not gonna lie. Now I don’t even care about all the other people that are here. They’re insignificant. And Maddie understands me. She hates having all these other people around just as much as I do, and this is her party for crying out loud. I can’t even explain how much comfort finding her has brought me.

“Yay!” I respond gleefully, but I’m unsure of how to continue the conversation past that. Uh oh. With every added second of silence, the vibe gets weirder and weirder. Maddie and I just kind of stare forward, occasionally passing brief glances with each other but mostly just narrowly avoiding eye contact. So basically, we’re just two awkward kids staring quietly at the floor in the middle of a loud party.

“Well, uh �"” Maddie cracks her throat as she finally breaks the silence. One of us had to move at some point, I guess. “I gotta go to my room upstairs to get ready for the sing-along! Oh and did you hear that Hannah Montana’s coming?!?!”

Ugh, I almost forgot about that. But I force a smile and pretend to be amaze, because if Maddie is excited about something, then obviously I should be excited about it.

“Oh, yeah, I did. Cool!”

She smiles, and that makes me smile. This is an instance where lying is worth it, because us being happy at the same time makes me feel all warm and cheery inside. Being happy is honestly a pretty underrated feeling. I should try it more often instead of worrying about everything all the time. Even if everything isn’t perfect, it feels good to just be happy sometimes. No need to overthink it any further, really.

Maddie sprints off, and just in time because I wasn’t going to be able to hold that fake smile much longer. Welp, now I’m alone again, and the party suddenly seems twenty times bigger with Maddie gone.

The room is loud, but I don’t actually hear anything. All the chatter muffles into one deafening boom with a constant ringing that won’t stop. It’s maddening. There are few things I hate more than chatter. Especially being in the middle of chatter that I don’t want to be in the middle of. It’s all so unnecessarily loud and annoying. Why can’t people just talk normally, or talk about things they actually care about? Like come on, do you honestly care how someone’s day is going? Under most scenarios, I highly doubt you do. Unless it’s your friend who almost died or something.

It gets so loud that I can’t even hear my own thoughts. I try to listen for any advice from Buddy, who is usually so good about comforting me in situations like this, but it’s so loud that it even drains him out of my mind. So I have no one. No Maddie, no buddy. Just a bunch of people yapping loudly and probably judging me just for being there and existing. I can feel my skin burn just from their judgy stares all scorching me at once. I’m actually going to start melting if I don’t get the heck out of here.

“AHHHHHH!!!”

Alright, that’s it! I’m sick of this trash! I can’t take it anymore! Who in God’s name is screaming like that?!

A mob of wild kids sprints past me, screaming their heads off like a flock of chimpanzees or something. Jesus, I like having fun too, but calm down. 

“WATER BALLOON FIGHT!” some red-headed clown screams at the top of his lungs. Jeez, okay then. A water balloon fight does sound kind of fun, actually. And it’s an excuse to go outside and get out of this overpopulated jail cell. Hopefully I can stick with Maddie so I can avoid all the other kids as much as possible.

So I follow the kids outside, making sure to stay behind so I don’t accidentally find myself in the middle of that mob. There are a lot of kids outside on the grass lawn, but I’d still take this over being inside the house ten out of ten times.

A few kids run over to the big red bucket full of water balloons, but some mom steps in the way.

“Boys, this is not a water balloon fight. It’s a water balloon toss. Partner up, then toss the balloon back and forth while backing up further and further for as long as you can.”

Ooh, interesting. A full-on Dodgeball game with water balloons would have been cool, but this could be fun too. I just gotta get a good partner. And you know I only have one option: Maddie. My enjoyment of this experience depends solely on whether I can secure Maddie as my partner or not.

My head starts spinning as I frantically look around for Maddie. Oh God. Where is she? No. I need her to be here. Please, for the love of �" Oh, there she is! And she’s…she’s tossing a water balloon. Huh, must just be warming up or something. Some girl I’ve never seen before catches it and giggles, then backs up and tosses it back to Maddie.

Welp. Looks like Maddie already found a partner. So this game is ruined. Now I’m just gonna be matched up randomly with some kid who’s gonna tell me how I suck at throwing or something. I just know it. That’s the way these things always go. Then I let it get in my head and I end up actually sucking and just proving their point.

“Wow, you’re so good at catching, Maddie!” the girl exclaims. Blech. I hope this girl doesn’t think she can just steal my best friend like that.

Maddie is smiling from ear to ear, and seems to be having a blast as she enthusiastically tosses the water balloon precisely and accurately. I have to say, I wasn’t expecting her to be this athletic. Well that’s a bonus. When I made friends with a girl, I pretty much assumed that she’d be bad at sports because, well, she’s a girl.

Slowly, the rest of the kids pair up, leaving me just standing there awkwardly in the middle of everything, just getting in the way of everyone else’s fun. That’s essentially my role at every event that has people.

I step back to avoid getting hit or messing someone up, which would just make things worse. Upon surveying the lawn with my eyes, I notice something in the corner. It’s �" it’s a person. A kid, just like me. I can only see them from the back though. They’re facing away like they’re either crying or just don’t want to be seen. Heh, I can relate to that. Hm, I wonder who this person is. Maybe I could talk to them so it would seem like I’m not a total social stiff.

I need to wait a second first, though. I’m not even sure if this is a boy or a girl. They’re just…standing there, their long blonde hair hanging down to the top of their basketball shorts. Hm, they’re also wearing tennis shoes…I’m getting the feeling this is a boy. Just a boy with really long hair for some reason.

A crazy-looking lady covered in tattoos and piercings marches over to the kid and yanks him over so that he’s facing her. Correction: I’m pretty sure this kid is a “her.” At least…I think.

“Aidan! Quit standin’ there like a loner and go play with your friends! Show a little respect for the birthday girl!”

Aidan is a boy’s name though. I’m very confused. That face is definitely a girl’s face. I mean, I guess Aidan can be a girl’s name. There’s no law against it. But it’s usually a boy.

Aidan keeps her mouth shut, not even opening it the slightest crack as she slowly steps towards the water balloon toss.

“Come on, Aidan! Have some fun! You’re good at s**t like this; pick up some energy!”

The same mom from before, who seems to be organizing this water balloon toss, or at least keeping it somewhat under control, comes rushing over to Aidan, completely disregarding me.

“Oh, Aidan! Do you need a partner?”

Aidan squirms while looking at the ground, and slowly nods her head.

“Okay, dear. Come on. Let’s find you a partner.” She turns around and puts her arm around Aidan. “Let’s see here…oh, you there! What’s your name? Do you need a partner?”

“Oh, well, um…Joey. And um, yes. Yeah. I guess.”

The mom immediately squats and turns back to Aidan. “Awesome. Here you go, Aidan. Here’s your partner.”

Aidan’s mom is still watching, observing in disgust. “Hey lady, don’t touch my kid!”

Startled, the other mom snaps her hand off of Aidan. “Oh…oh…I am so sorry, ma’am….”

“Yeah, ya better be sorry! Let my kid mind ‘er own damn business, will ya?”

“Oh…yes. Yes, of course.”

Aidan doesn’t even pay attention to the mini fight that just broke out between her mom and another mom, as she just walks over to me with this same solemn look. She doesn’t seem too interested in anything. I’m starting to wonder if her mouth is glued shut or something. Her mom does seem kind of crazy, so it wouldn’t be too shocking.

I decide to take some initiative on this whole water balloon toss thing since Aidan is just standing next to me like a statue, and some pairs have already dropped their balloon and been eliminated from the competition. Right now Maddie is locked in, and she and her partner seem to reached the longest distance so far.

I grab a water balloon from the bucket, and back up a little so I can throw it to Aidan. I have a feeling this isn’t going to go well. She’s probably just gonna ignore the balloon and we’ll lose after one toss.

“Okay, here! Catch!” I yell to try and get her attention. She doesn’t react, but what the heck. I throw the balloon. 

To my surprise, she reacts instantly, snatching my throw out of the air which was slightly off line. Hm. Not bad, actually.

Now to see if she can throw. She winds up, focuses her eyes with mine and lets loose, throwing a perfect strike right at my chest. Wow. This girl actually knows what she’s doing. Let’s go, now we gotta beat Maddie.

I back up quite a bit further, because there’s no need to take baby steps. I have confidence that Aidan and I can do this.

“Wow Joey, that’s really far for your second toss! Sure you can make it that far?” Maddie playfully teases me.

I break out of my stoic game face and let out a smile. “Yeah of course! We’re gonna beat you!”

“Well ya better hurry up then! Hannah Montana is coming soon!”

Oh right, she’s still all excited about that.

Aidan and I gain some ground quickly, efficiently trimming the gap between Maddie and her partner. Other pairs keep falling out until eventually we’re the only two pairs left, with both Maddie and I about an equal distance away from our partners. All the kids at the party are crowded around us, anxiously observing each toss. The pressure is getting intense.

I gotta give credit to Aidan here. She stays as calm as a rock through the whole thing, not only not showing any emotion but not even opening her mouth. And it’s like she doesn’t even care what other people think of her. I want to be like her and never talk, but everyone is always so judgey and annoying that I have to pretend to be who they want me to be. I wish I could be more like Aidan and find a way to just not care about what other people think. Like at all. I try to tell myself that I don’t care what other people think, but it never works. Because deep down I still do and I can’t really do anything to change that.

Aidan is as locked in as locked in can be, even snatching a few of my throws that are a little off target. She is such an amazing partner.

I’m so confident in Aidan that I take a few extra big steps back, and I can tell Maddie is getting a little frustrated. She nearly drops one of her partner’s tosses, and they’re hanging on by a thread as we soar past them in distance.

Finally, Maddie’s partner drops what should have been a super easy catch, and the balloon falls and explodes, drenching that poor girl. Eh, oh well. We won! I smile and throw up my hands, but Aidan still doesn’t elicit any emotion. I’m sure she’s doing backflips in her mind though.

I run over to Maddie instead so I can celebrate. I won’t rub it in her face though. But come on, she’s my friend! I’m sure she’ll be alright if I celebrate my victory.

“Wow, I can’t believe I won! I actually won! I didn’t event think we could make it past one throw…wow this is crazy! Can you believe it?”

Maddie’s in no mood to celebrate as she gives me a condescending shrug. “I guess.” She turns away. “I thought I could win.”

Shoot, maybe that came off a little more arrogant than I meant it. I swear I didn’t mean it that way, I was just happy and wanted to share that happiness with my one friend. Is that too much to ask?

I need to find a way to break this awkward silence. There’s no need to double down on this celebration thing; no reason to dig the hole even deeper than I’ve already dug it. I need to change the subject to something we can both agree on and laugh about it.

“So, fun game �" er, toss, huh? You did pretty well! This birthday party is really �"”

Maddie doesn’t even look at me and just walks away.

God! Why are you so stupid? What the heck was that? No wonder she doesn’t want to listen to my blabbering. I am such a jerk. God I really messed things up.

Maddie keeps her head down as she mopes her way inside. Jeez, that really hit her hard. And it’s all my fault. God I suck. And I don’t use that word lightly. I really hurt her. I was just trying to have fun with her. Guess I got a little too obsessed with myself there. I feel sick, like I’m gonna throw up just thinking about how disgusting of a person I am.

Well, at least I have Aidan. She remains standing next to me, that same emotionless expression on her face. Maybe she can be my friend. I don’t think she’s really too different from me. She just doesn’t care about hiding it, which is honestly a pretty admirable trait.

I look at her to try and see if she’s trying to say something to me, but she just keeps staring off into the distance. Huh.

“Pretty great win, huh?” I say to her. Startled, she looks at me as her eyes burst and widen. Then her tension slowly fades away as she goes back to her usual focused state.

“You made some really good catches.”

She makes brief eye contact with me, nods, then looks away.

Okay, I need to just stop trying. I stand next to Aidan in silence, but this time, it’s not awkward silence. Neither of us say anything or even acknowledge the other’s presence, but for once it feels…okay. I feel no shame in not saying anything, because Aidan gets it. Aidan knows that I don’t mean any offense or disrespect when I don’t talk. There’s an unspoken understanding between us that I can sense through the sound of silence while we just stand outside after everyone else has already gone back inside. It’s weird, and it’s awesome. Sometimes I feel like moments of silence are when the most is said. Most people don’t get that.

Maddie’s probably just upset cause she lost. She’s just showing her competitive spirit. I’m like that too; I always want to win, and I can get really sad when I lose. She’ll be over it in no time. I’m sure about it.

I finally look over to Aidan, who is still planted there like a statue. “So, uh…we should probably go inside now, since, uh…well, everyone else went inside.”

Without making eye contact, Aidan nods affirmatively and paces inside. So I follow suit. Heh, I kind of like this little relationship we have going here. She’s not quite as entertaining as Maddie, but our shared silence somehow bonds us together. 

Across the sea of people, I see the back of Maddie as her dad is listening attentively to something she’s saying. Uh oh. He looks serious. And not like a happy serious. Like a concerned serious.

God, please don’t be mad at me. I hate when adults get mad at me. I usually have such a good relationship with adults, so I can’t stand when they get mad at me like I’m just some average, immature kid. I don’t want to be like all the idiots my age. I feel like such an idiot now for acting like such a jerk and being so oblivious about it. Just because I’m normal now doesn’t mean I need to act like all the normal kids. I can still act like myself, even if I do have a human friend now. Unlike all the other normal kids, Maddie actually appreciates who I am, so changing how I act around her will really only make things worse.

“You’re it!” A cluster of laughing little kids flashes by me, going by me so fast that it practically knocks me down. Hm, I wonder if they’re playing tag or something. I like playing tag. I never have people to play it with though.

Maddie’s dad gestures to the kids playing, and Maddie gives him a quick nod before joining in on the fun. She sniffs and wipes away a tear before bursting into laughter and acting like she had already been playing with them for hours. What gives? How can she just burst into fun like that? Well, I guess this is her party. So it makes sense I guess. At least she’s not sad anymore.

Maddie’s dad approaches me, nearly startling me in the process. He is one big dude.

“Hey, Joester!” He gives me a thunderous pat on the back. “Enjoyin’ the party?”

I nod, but it doesn’t feel genuine. “Um, yeah. Yeah, for sure.”

“That’s great man, that’s great. Hey, you like tag?”

“Yeah.”

“Well Maddie and your other friends are playing some tag right now. Why don’t you join them?”

“Um, maybe…I…eh….”

Oof, this just got awkward. At least Maddie’s dad is nice though, and doesn’t judge me or ask me why I’m being “so quiet” or anything like that. Maybe that’s where she gets it from.

“You like Hannah Montana?’

“Um, well, not really, but I, uh �"”

“Ah, me neither. He leans in closer. “You know, it’s kind of a girl’s thing. But hey, she’s gonna be coming soon. So that’ll be fun for Maddie at least, I just know it’s gonna make her so happy. It’s just good to see a smile on her face, you know? Even if you can’t necessarily share the same interest in somethin’.”

That’s…that’s actually a really good point. “Yeah.”

“I don’t know if she’s told you about this, but Maddie’s had some real trouble makin’ friends at school. So I can’t even tell you how happy she is to have you now, man. You’re a literal lifesaver, dude. You’re golden.”

“Oh…really? Well I mean…yeah, I know Maddie doesn’t have a lot of other friends. But she seems to be getting along pretty well with all these other kids.”

“Eh, she don’t really know these kids too well. They’re just kids in her class, you know. I mean but yeah, she seems to be doing fine right now. She wasn’t doing too good a second ago so I think she’s just tryna get back into it. Good for her, at least. One thing’s for sure, she don’t stop tryin’. She definitely don’t stop tryin’.”

“I’m….” Okay, wait. I need to figure out a way to say this without being too awkward. “I…I didn’t mean to make her up- up…set.”

Maddie’s dad raises an eyebrow. “Upset? Oh, no, don’t worry about it, kid! No, you’re all good, man. It ain’t your fault one bit. Trust me man, Maddie adores you like you wouldn’t believe. Every night she’s been pretending that you’re here playing with her and going on some crazy adventures or somethin’. Man, you’ve widened her imagination so much. She used to just be quiet all the time, you know? Just like never talking to anyone or anything, just mindin’ her own business. And I don’t know if you’ve seen this firsthand but she can be agitated kinda easily sometimes, like she has…you know, little tantrums and stuff, nothin’ too bad. Anyway, she’s been way more talkative since she met you man. Like always acting out stories in her room and making movies with her dolls…it’s like someone turned on a light switch in her brain or somethin’. Joey, we’ve never been happier here. Just need you to realize how much you’ve, you know, meant to her, ‘cause I don’t know if she’s so good at actually, like, expressin’ it to you by herself.”

“Oh, wow, well…yeah, she’s fun to play with. And she’s kinda my only like actual friend right now, so it’s…it’s definitely nice to have, for sure.”

Maddie’s dad lets out a jolly laugh and gives me another thunderous pat on the back. He reminds me of Santa Claus. 

“Yeah, man, well school can suck sometimes. Believe me man, life only gets easier as you get older. You find your people eventually. It comes easier to some, but everyone finds them eventually. Don’t worry about it. Maddie’s kinda in the same boat as you, she’s never really connected well with anyone ‘till she became friends with you of course. But like normally, you’d never see her running around with kids like that. You’ve basically brightened up her whole world, man. I just had to tell you ‘cause I don’t know if you’ve realized just how important you’ve been to our family.” He chuckles. “Man, some days she just won’t stop talkin’ about you. Quite honestly man, I’ve never seen her like this.”

“Oh…yeah. Cool.”

“Welp, enjoy the rest of the party man. I’m gonna go give that Miss Montana a call; I think she may just be in some traffic right now. Heh heh.”

Wow, well that was unexpected. I suddenly feel all warm inside. I just feel like a really good person, like I’m important or something. It’s weird. I don’t even know what I did, but whatever it is, it’s apparently been really important to Maddie and her dad. I didn’t even know it was possible for someone besides my mom or dad to have that high an opinion of me. In fact, I think Maddie’s dad may like me even more than my own mom or dad does.

I turn to my right and nearly bump into Aidan, who is standing in the same exact place with the same exact expression she was making before. Jesus, I had forgotten she was still there. So I guess she heard that whole conversation between Maddie’s dad and me.

“Well, I guess everyone’s having fun upstairs now.”

Aidan gives me a subtle shrug. At least I know she’s hearing me and I’m not just talking to a brick wall.

“Do you wanna, uh…do you wanna go up there?”

Aidan stares at me for a few seconds, before giving me another subtle shrug which slowly transitions into a head shake. I guess she’s not the social type either. That’s good, I wish there were more people like that.

“Okay, yeah, well, that’s cool. I don’t really want to go up there either. We can play down here until Hannah Montana shows up, I guess.”

Aidan gives me an affirmative nod. Alright then! Heck yeah. We’re in mutual understanding on this.

I think this is the first time I’ve ever interacted with someone who I’m actually more talkative than. I feel like I’m having to guide the conversation, when usually I’m the one who needs guiding.

“Aidan, what the f**k are you doing?”

Aidan’s crazy mom comes storming down the stairs seemingly out of nowhere, her wavy hair swaying over her eyes as she marches over to us. “Come on sissy-pants, get your unsocial a*s up those stairs. Jesus Christ, girl!”

Aidan’s cheeks start to turn red, and she even opens her mouth a little in a clearly unsettled frown. 

“Who are you?” Aidan’s mom takes a step closer to me, and I get blasted with the smell of what I think is cigarettes. “You think you’re all cool hiding in the corner and avoiding social interaction? Well I got a news flash for you honey, you ain’t cool!”

“Um, no, I was just �"”

“Don’t ‘um’ me. Get your a*s upstairs and bring Aidan with you. And I’m watching you. You pull any more crap with me, and I’m comin’ after your a*s, got it?”

“Um, okay. Yeah.” Jeez, can she please just stop being such a jerk and let us mind our own business? Each nervous glance that Aidan gives me more anxiety every time.

We take two steps before Aidan’s mom grabs onto my shirt.

“Hol’ up, one more thing, blondie.” I regretfully turn towards her, preparing myself to get punched in the jaw or something.

“You like baseball?”

“Um…yeah. I guess.”

“Dodgers fan I see.”

I look down at my shirt. Oh shoot, yeah. I am wearing a Dodgers shirt.

“Oh yeah, I like…I like the Dodgers.”

“Well in this house we’re Angels fans. And we ain’t just any fair-weather fans either, bub. Aidan’s older brother is a pitcher in their minor league system, and we got season tickets. We’ve even met Mike Trout, and I got the pics to prove it. So don’t waltz into here with your Clayton Chokeshaw shirt thinking you’re all that. The Angels actually have the best farm system in baseball right now, so you clowns that are all stuck in 1988 better watch your asses, ‘cause we comin’ for you b*****s.”

I don’t have anything to say to that. I just want to get out of here. I give her a nod that shows I understand, and Aidan follows me upstairs.

Phew. Glad that’s over. Aidan’s mom is one rude lady. 

We enter the upstairs living room, where the chaos has most apparently shifted to. Kids are running around and screaming everywhere, with a few poor adults just trying to limit the damage. After a few seconds of scanning though, I find Maddie laughing and having a great time. That’s great. I’m happy she’s happy.

I feel a soft nudge against my arm. I look over, and it’s actually Aidan tapping me on the arm. Huh.

She motions her head towards the stairs, and shamefully shakes her head. I think she’s trying to apologize for the way her mom talked to me.

“Oh, don’t worry. It’s okay.” I pause. “That’s pretty cool that your brother plays for the Angels.”

She shrugs a typical Aidan shrug. I guess Aidan shrugs a lot. When you don’t talk, I guess that’s your best form of communication. I wonder why she doesn’t talk though. Was she not born with vocal chords or something? Like I completely understand not talking a lot; I sure don’t like to talk a lot, especially to strangers. But I haven’t even heard her say “yeah” or anything. I haven’t even heard her laugh.

“Yo Daniel look, it’s Zipface!”

“Daniel” has a cupcake in his hand. I don’t like where this is going.

Daniel fires the cupcake in a perfect line to Aidan’s face. The purple frosting splatters all over Aidan’s nose and the left side of her face near her eye. She blinks a few times, but seems mostly unfazed.

Finally, I hear her sigh. First sound I’ve heard from her. It’s soft, it’s weak, and it’s a little scratchy, but it’s most certainly a real, live, human sigh. A real sigh from a real human who has real feelings and emotions. A real human who is not happy and doesn’t know what to do about it.

“Aidan, why are you still standing next to that dude?” Aidan’s mom marches up the stairs, where she can only see our backs from her view. Oh no. I don’t even want to imagine what her reaction is going to be to seeing the frosting all over Aidan’s face.

She comes over to our side, and upon seeing the frosting, she immediately turns to me.

“Okay man. What the hell is your problem? You think this is funny? You think piling crap in my daughter’s face is f*****g FUNNY?”

“No…no…what…no, I wasn’t laughing…please, it was…it was…”

“Talk like a human, brat!” She sniffs a couple times. “And for the love of God, put on some deodorant. You smell like you just fell out of a rat’s a*s into a farm full of skunks. Now just get the hell away from my daughter, you little punk. If I see you near her again, I swear I’ll spank ya.”

I hurriedly get out of there and go hide beside a couch to avoid things escalating any further. My Lord, that woman is crazy.

“Joey!”

What?

“Joey!”

Oh, it’s Maddie! Good, I need someone to comfort me right now.

“Sorry I was upset that you beat me in water balloon toss. I feel better now.”

“Oh! Oh. Okay. Well, that’s…that’s good.”

“Are you excited for Hannah Montana? She’s almost here!” Maddie starts jumping up and down.

“Oh…oh yeah! Of course I am!”

“Come on Joey, jump with me!” Maddie grabs my hands with hers, which are ice cold for some reason. We jump up and down together, our hands interlocked, for close to straight minutes. I’m out of breath by the end of it, but Maddie still has all her energy. Gosh, I feel like her mood shifts so quickly sometimes.

“So are you having fun at my party?” she asks me giddily.

“Yeah, I was just talking to that girl Aidan over there. She seems…well…”

“Oh yeah, Aidan’s in my class. I like her too. But she doesn’t talk.”

“Yeah, I noticed that. Do you know why not?”

“Oh, apparently she’s ‘selectively mute,’ whatever that means.”

“Huh.” Never heard that one before. “Her mommy is really mean. Daniel threw a cupcake at Aidan’s face and her mom accused me of it.”

“Well I guess Aidan’s mommy doesn’t know how nice you really are, silly!” Maddie laughs. 

I notice all the other kids have started to gather around the living room, and apparently even they have a limit because they all seem to have kind of lost their energy.

“So what time is Hannah Montana supposed to come?” I ask Maddie.

“4:00!”

I look at the clock. It’s 4:24.

“Oh, I guess she’s just a little late, then.”

Maddie smiles and shrugs. “Yeah, I guess. Don’t worry, she’ll come!”

“Yeah.”

I stand there awkwardly with Maddie. It’s pretty quiet now that the tag game has died down. I think everyone’s getting a little impatient waiting for this Hannah Montana impersonator to show up.

DING DONG.

Maddie lets out a high-pitched scream of joy and starts jumping again. “Daddy, daddy, she’s here, she’s here!”

Maddie’s dad comes pacing out of the bedroom, and he heads down the stairs.

“Why hello!” I can faintly hear him greet after opening the door.

“Hello!” I hear a woman’s voice respond. I guess that’s Hannah Montana? Wait, I think I recognize that voice. Is that…no, it couldn’t be….

Maddie’s dad comes back upstairs with, you guessed it, my mom. Great. My mom decided to crash this party.

She smiles and waves at me excitedly. “Hi Joey!” 

Ugh, not now.

She comes closer to me. Maddie is still standing next to me too. I hate having to talk to my mom while Maddie is there. Or having to talk to Maddie while my mom is there too, for that matter.

“Wh…why are you here?” I whisper, hoping Maddie won’t hear me even though Maddie is actually closer to me than my mom is.

“Oh, I thought I’d come a little early, check out the happs! You know.”

Jesus Mama, please stop talking.

Oh no. I see Aidan’s mom approaching Maddie’s dad from behind. I feel like she’s going to hurt him.

She aggressively taps him on the shoulder. “Yo Jimbo �" err, whatever the hell your name is. Yo man, so what’s the sitch? Cause I got a lot of crap I gotta get done tonight, so I just need to know �"”

Maddie’s dad responds with a light pat on her shoulder. “Liz, please, it’s all good. Let’s talk about it some more over here.” He carefully guides her over to the top of the stairwell so they can talk in private.

My mom is grinning, completely oblivious as to what a freak Aidan’s mom is. “Well Joey, hope you’re having fun! I’m gonna go talk with the other grown-ups.” With that, she heads over to join Maddie’s dad and Aidan’s mom. Oh God, I don’t even want to imagine how that conversation’s gonna go. I think I just have to look away.

“So Joey…” Maddie says eerily, her smiling face transfixed on mine. “While we’re waiting for Hannah Montana to get here…who’s your favorite princess?”

“My…my favorite princess?”

“Yeah, your favorite princess! I know who mine is. But I want to hear yours first!”

“Oh, um…I don’t know.” Come on, you idiot. Think of something. Just tell her what she wants to hear. My heart rate starts to accelerate as I frantically flip through the pages of the encyclopedia of my brain. “I guess it would have to be, um, Cinderella?”

“Bah-ha!” Maddie cackles. “That’s too obvious! Cinderella isn’t really as great as people think she is. The best princess is easily The Little Mermaid! I just love her so much! I wish I could be a mermaid. Wouldn’t that be so cool? Like when we were in the pool and we pretended to be merpeople, wasn’t that so much fun?”

“Yeah…uh, I agree. That would be cool.”

“Yep!”

“And…and, uh…hey, I mean, we were able to defeat the Miniatures that day, so, uh, hey, it couldn’t have been, um, been on, uh, accident.”

“Joey, are you sad?”

“What?” That was not the response I was expecting.

“I don’t know. You seem kind of sad. Can I cheer you up? When I get sad, my daddy sings me a song. Want to hear it?”

“Oh, no, it’s okay…I’m not sad. I’m happy! See?” I try to force a fake smile, but that’s an epic failure.

“Do I see what?” Maddie says bluntly. 

“Okay, Maddie, no. It’s fine. It’s not a big deal. I’m just tired, that’s all. But I’m having lots of fun! And I’m…I’m excited for Hannah Montana!”

Maddie isn’t exactly doing backflips anymore. “Okay,” she groans somberly. “I’m glad you’re having fun.”

“Are you…are you not having fun? I thought just a second ago you were super excited for Hannah Montana and �"”

She slants her eyes at the ground. “I am.”

“Okay. Well…well that’s good then. Good. I’m glad we’re…that we’re both having fun. This is great. This is a really…a really fun party.”

A little smile breaks out, but only a small one. Guess she can’t help it.

“Yeah, it is.” She looks over at the adults. The three of them seem to be invested in quite an animated conversation. I wonder if it’s good or bad. Or both.

“I just wish the adults would stop talking and that Hannah Montana would get here already,” Maddie whines. “I heard she’s gonna sing ‘The Best of Both Worlds!’ And we get to sing along!”

Jesus, that sounds awful. Forcing me to sing is never a good idea. “Oh, that’s…that’s cool.”

“Yeah, I know right? I wonder why she’s late. Maybe she’s just so popular that she’s having to sign autographs for every person she walks by!”

We laugh together in unison. Finally, something we can share a casual laugh together about. It feels good to share amusement over something, even if it’s something small.

RING! RING! RING!

Maddie’s dad rushes into the bedroom. 

Maddie looks a little confused. “Huh, I wonder who’s calling.”

“Eh, I’m sure it’s nothing.”

Maddie turns back to me. “Yeah. So what were we talking about?”

“Uh…I don’t know. I kinda forget. I think �"”

“Well, I’m sorry, Maddie.” A disgruntled Jim Collins trudges back into the room. “I don’t know how to break this to ya. Hannah Montana ain’t coming.”

Oh no. This isn’t going to go over well.

A blank stare of shock resonates from Maddie’s face, like an overflow of emotion that she doesn’t know how to express. Panicked and looking she’s about to start sweating, she makes a squeal and sprints downstairs.

Maddie’s dad sighs. “Ugh, well. That don’t mean the party can’t be over. Come on, kids! Have some fun!”

But I can’t have fun if the birthday girl isn’t even in the same room as us. I mean, how are we supposed �"

EEEEEK! EEEEEEEEEEK!

The horrified squeals of Maddie come piercing through the floor below us. Her screams of pain are right out of a horror movie, like she’s being tortured or something. Jesus, I feel so bad for her. But it’s not like there’s anything I can do. I can’t make Hannah Montana magically appear out of nowhere. 

Maddie’s dad tries to force some fun on us, making us play Go Fish in the hopes that Maddie will come up and join us. But the minutes and eventually hours pass, and before we know it, it’s past 7:00 and there’s still been no sign of Maddie. She won’t even come out when her dad takes out the birthday cake. This poor man is just determined to make his daughter happy. You can’t help but feel for him, especially since his wife is dead so Maddie is really all he has. Gosh, I wish this party had turned out better. And I’m not even talking about me, I’m talking about for Maddie’s sake. She deserves better than this. But her dad really is trying the best he can. I can’t even imagine how hard it would be to be a single parent. Hopefully Maddie doesn’t die after we get married some day. Heh heh. Ah, who am I kidding, now’s not the time for joking around.

There were certainly some fun moments at that party, but the vibe upon leaving is really dead and sad. Neither Maddie nor her dad are anywhere to be found. I imagine he’s consoling her and helping her get over Hannah Montana showing up. That was pretty rude of Hannah Montana to just flake out like that.

My mom seems oddly quiet as we get in the car.

Eh, that’s okay with me. I like sitting in the back seat in silence.

“Joey…”

Oh boy, here we go. Her voice sounds concerned, too.

“Has Maddie ever seemed a little…different to you?”

“Different? What do you mean, different?’

“Like…I don’t know. You know what, forget I asked. It’s not a big deal.”

“What? No, tell me. I wanna know.”

“Well…okay then.” My mom seems uneasy, which isn’t like her. “I just think it’s important for you to know this since Maddie’s your good friend and all. So I don’t know if you saw but I was chatting with Maddie’s dad and Aidan’s mom…oh by the way, Aidan’s mom is a really cool lady. Become friends with Aidan.”

“A cool lady? Really?”

“Yes, she’s an absolute doll, she really is. She’s super cool and really into punk music. She tells me Aidan plays baseball too. Aidan seems like such a sweet little kid. She doesn’t talk though. Vanessa �" Aidan’s mom �" told me that Aidan just decided when she was really young that she didn’t want to talk.”

“Huh, I wonder why.”

“Yeah, it’s interesting.” She pauses. “Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to talk you to about. I wanted to talk to you about Maddie. So Maddie…when Maddie was born, she was born with a…well, a fairly minor form of autism. So sometimes…you know, sometimes she can have some trouble connecting and making friends and you know, like communicating her thoughts all the time. It could also be the reason why she has outbursts sometimes. So you know, it’s not a big deal. Not a big deal at all. She’s not disabled or anything, and she’s a really nice girl who I’m so happy that you found.”

“Huh, okay.” That’s a lot to take in. I’m not sure exactly how to react to that. I’m still trying to process the part about Aidan’s mom being a cool lady. “But Mama?”

“Yeah honey?”
“What’s autism?”


I don’t get why people think picking your nose is so gross.

Like, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it, but picking your nose can actually be really addicting, and believe it or not, boogers actually taste good. It may sound crazy or weird, but it’s honestly true. Boogers get such a bad reputation for no reason. And it’s not like I’ve ever gotten sick from eating them or anything. I see absolutely no harm in picking my nose every once in awhile. Plus, sometimes there’s an extra big nugget stuck up there and picking it out of there and eating it is my only option.

But when someone catches me picking my nose, they literally freak, like I have the plague or something and I’m gonna kill anyone I touch. Maybe they just look weird and so people assume they’re poisonous or something. But they’re really not. They actually taste good, I’m serious. And this is coming from me, the kid who my mom always says only eats three foods. Which is not true, by the way. I eat at least five or six foods on a regular basis, and a few others I’ll eat if I have to. But after those five or six foods, boogers are probably the thing I eat the most.

Call me disgusting, call me weird, but I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me what other people think about boogers, because personally I find them to be quite delicious. Isn’t that right, Buddy?

“Yep.”

See, Buddy doesn’t judge me.

I wish people were the same way.


“So what do you want to play today?”

Maddie shrugs. “I don’t know. What do you want to play today?”

“I don’t know. What do you want to play today?”

Maddie giggles. “Stop it, silly! Let’s actually pick something.”

“Well, um, let’s see. We could continue the quest to rescue the aliens from Mars…or maybe we could start a new game….”

“Hm, I’m kind of tired today.” Maddie stretches her arms up and lets out a big yawn. “Let’s sit and down and think of something.”

“Oh, okay.”

We sit down next to each other against a tree. It feels cool to sit next to somebody. It makes me feel important.

Neither of us say anything at first though. We simply sit beside each other, I guess…enjoying each other’s presence? I don’t know, it sounds weird when I put it that way.

“Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you,” Maddie speaks up. “Maria is making me go to this after-school program every day where I get to play games and do activities with other kids. You should come so I have a friend there.”

“Oh…okay. Yeah, I guess that sounds like fun.”

“Yay! It’ll be so much better with you there. I don’t really like the other kids there that much and I always get really bored and lonely.”

“Oh, yeah, that makes sense. That usually happens to me when I’m by myself too. I usually just talk to my imaginary friend Buddy when that happens.”

“Oh my gosh, you have imaginary friends too?!” Maddie exclaims.

“Oh…um, yeah. So you do too?”

“Yeah, I have tons of imaginary friends! There’s Billy and Jerry and Penelope and Victoria and…I can’t even count them all! You’re my first real human friend.”

“Wow, really? You’re kind of my first real human friend too.”

“Get up, silly! Let’s go finish saving those aliens!”

“Ha ha, yeah! Let’s go!”


“So how was your day at school, son?”  my dad asks while reaching across the table to pick up the butter.

“Good.”

“Well, that’s good…still playing with that Maddie girl?”

“Yeah. Oh yeah, can you sign me up for the after-school program? Maddie is doing it and she wants to have a friend there.”

My parents make eye contact with each other.

“Sure, I think that would be fine, honey,” my mom says. “I’m so happy that you’ve found a friend you really want to spend time with. I think it’s really great, honey.”

My dad reaches across the table again to grab the remote to the small TV we have in the dining room.

“Joe, quit reaching at the table!” my mom tensely whispers at him.

“Sorry, sorry,” my dad responds while turning the TV on. It’s baseball again, as expected. And it’s the Mets playing, of course.

My mom rolls her eyes. “Joe, do you have to watch the Mets while we’re eating?”

“Oh, c’mon, Santana’s pitching!”

“Ugh, alright. Fine.”

My dad turns away from my mom and towards the TV. Since no one’s talking, I take the occasional glance at the TV as well while I eat. Oops, David Wright just made an error. I try to keep my laughter to myself.

“So I talked to my sister today,” my mom says in an effort to start up some conversation while her boys are glued to the TV screen. Neither one of us flinches even the slightest muscle.

The TV cuts to commercial.

“Sorry, did you say something, dear?” my dad asks.

“Yes, yes I did. I was just saying how I talked to my sister today. She said she and Kwesi and planning on spending Christmas with us this year.”

My dad gives her a blank stare. “Well, alright then.”

My mom groans. “Look, I know you’re not the biggest fun of Kwesi, but come on. It’ll be nice to spend some time with family and get to know this guy a little better. He seems really interesting.”

“I don’t have a problem with it,” my dad fires back. But I can just tell by the tone in his voice that he definitely does have a problem with it. But oh well. Guess we’re spending Christmas with a Ghanaian rapper this year. Nothing interesting to see here.

Today is a big day.

Why is today a big day, you may ask? Because today, I get to not only play with Maddie for the usual half-hour lunch break. I get to play with her for an entire two-hour after-school session! Yay!

As soon as school ends, I rush to meet Maddie right outside the room where the program takes place. It’s the same room that I played with her and Maria in that one time, so I’m able to find it pretty easily. And sure enough, Maddie is waiting for me behind the ramp while all the other kids pile in the door.

“There you are!” Maddie cheers. “This is gonna be so much more fun with a friend! Now we just have to wait for Maria.”

“Oh…Maria?”

“Yeah,” Maddie replies innocently.

Hm, I wonder why Maria has to be there. Eh, she’s close with Maddie. It makes sense. Maria’s nice enough.

After waiting for a few minutes, Maria shows up, panting while holding a notebook and carrying a purse. 

“Ah, hi Joey. So glad you could join us today. Okay Maddie, you remember the rules?”

“Yes!” Maddie announces proudly.

“Okay, good. So no biting or hitting people this time. And if someone does or says something you don’t like, you ask them kindly to stop. If they don’t stop, you ask them kindly again. If they still don’t stop, then you tell me or one of the other assistants and we’ll take care of the situation. Got it?”

“Got it!”

Wait…biting or hitting people? I mean, I’ve seen Maddie upset, but I can’t imagine her literally biting another human.

“And you have a friend joining you this time, so be nice to him. Let him have first pick at which toys you’re gonna play with.”

“Okay!”

“And what’s the most important rule?”

“Have fun!”

“I said, what’s the most important rule?” Maria sticks her hand behind her ear.

“Have fun!” Maddie yells.

“Good, good. Very good dear. And Joey, I don’t need to worry about you, I already know you’re a good boy. Let’s go inside now.”

Wow. That seems pretty bold of her to have that much trust in me. Hey, I’ll take it though.

As we walk up the ramp, Maddie grabs Maria’s hand and asks, “Maria, will you hold my hand? I don’t like the ramp.”

“Wh