She kept her head down. That was the first thing I noticed about her. It was like she didn’t want anyone noticing her. Like she wanted to sink into the floor. To be a ghost. I was surrounded by my friends the day she first appeared at school. When we saw her—short, ruddy, with fat cheeks and a bulging stomach, a skinny little red pigtail protruding from her big head—we immediately labeled her unpopular. She was carrying a brightly colored lunchbox adorned with a cartoon unicorn and rainbow. Something about her flashed like an emergency beacon to the rest of us seventh graders. Like an unspoken agreement, everyone, from the popular children to the oft-bullied science nerds, knew that hanging out with this infestation would result in swift punishment and removal from the social pyramid forever. And what better way to cement this amendment to the constitution of Red Valley Middle School than a quick trip down bully lane?
Tiffany Gilligan, Queen of the Populars, pointed with her perfectly manicured right hand, expensive bracelets jangling, at the outcast. “What is this worm?” she said in her flawless actress voice, pursing her lips in her practiced, faultless fashion. “I didn’t realize we had a bug infestation.” Her tinkly little laugh, reminiscent of a fragile china doll, was the cue for the rest of us to break into peals of giggles. “Shall we call the exterminator? What is that thing?” Not who. What. As if the girl-who-wanted-to-be-a-ghost wasn’t a person. Didn’t deserve a who.
One of the girls offered a drum roll. I barked, “You, insect, do you know who you are speaking to?”
That sealed it. She was not only short, squat, and fat as a beetle, but she stuttered, and her lower lip wobbled when she spoke. Her scared little “n-no” was the basis of our disgust.
“You are speaking to Tiffany Gilligan, Queen of Red Valley Middle School. With a snap of her fingers, she can make everyone here love you or hate you forever. Make your choice.” We knew what would happen next. Tiffany would give some outrageous command and, when the poor girl couldn’t fulfill the dare, bang. Instant social annihilation.
Ghost-girl’s dull brown eyes blinked slowly. She clutched her unicorn lunchbox and waddled over to our table. The popular table. There was an open seat—Victoria Baker was absent—and ghost-girl thought it was proper to sit there. Big mistake. Big, big mistake. Jelly-bellied ghost-girl was sitting next to Tiffany herself.
“Hey, girl,” chirped Tiffany brightly, patting her perfect hairdo. I cringed. We all could tell what was coming. Tiffany was going to kill her. “I love your outfit. Where’d you buy it?” Ghost-girl’s girly-girl pink sweater vest, decorated with a childish cartoon character, clashed with her neon green shorts and plastic-flower-covered pink sandals.
“Uh-mm-mm,” said ghost-girl. “G-gran-mm-mm.”
Tiffany cast me a “can-you-believe-this-retard” glance. “Your grandma?” she pieced together, batting her long, mascara-brushed eyelashes.
Tiffany gushed, “It looks so, like, beautiful on you! Do you, um, like unicorns?” She tossed her blonde hair casually.
“M-mm ff-avv-w-wit nn-mm-ll.”
“Your favorite animal?”
Ghost-girl nodded dumbly. “W-waatch nn-mm?”
“What’s my name?” Tiffany giggled. “I’m Tiffany Gilligan. But you can call me QT. Short for Queen Tiffany.”
Ghost-girl’s lips twitched in what kind of formed a smile. But only kind of. “Y-you l-loff nni-k-konns?”
“I do love unicorns!” Tiffany twittered. “In fact, I love them so much, I want your lunchbox. For keeps. And then I’ll be your bestest friend forever!”
“B-b-b gran-mm g-giff mm.”
Tiffany shook her head in sympathy. “Your grandma gave it to you? Well! Then it’s even more of a friendship show. Give me that lunchbox and I’ll be your friend forever.”
Ghost-girl blinked slowly. “N-no.”
“Really, I mean it.” She tugged on the lunchbox.
“N-no,” answered ghost-girl. “M-nn.” She set it on the table and opened it.
Tiffany gave me another glance. “Do it, Veronica.”
I sighed. The one I hated about being Tiffany’s right-hand girl was the bullying. Tiffany and I quietly switched seats. I took a look at ghost-girl and smirked.
Her carrot sticks? All over the floor. Her juice carton? Spilled onto her shirt. Her bag of chips? Crushed into her hair. And her homemade chocolate-chip cookies? Tiffany thought they were delicious.
Ghost-girl ran crying.
Sure, I got in trouble for bullying. But Tiffany made it all better with a few new accessories. Now that ghost-girl was afraid of us, we could do mental bullying instead of physical.
Although she sputtered like an old car engine—the teachers said she had a “speech impairment”—ghost-girl started the year off in advanced classes.
And then we started.
Typed notes stuck in her locker that called her everything from a baby brat to things much worse.
Anonymous emails and phone calls, letting her know just how we felt.
Complaints to the teacher about how she was cheating off our tests and stealing our homework.
Stolen backpacks and textbooks, taken when she wasn’t looking.
And isolation. Above all, isolation.
Tiffany had taken ghost-girl as her personal pet project. “My goal,” she said, “is to turn ghost-girl into a pile of crumbs. Tee-hee.” Cue her flawless movie-star giggle.
Ghost-girl started to avoid us. She would sit in the bathroom stalls until homeroom started and come in late every day. She dropped out of the advanced class so she wouldn’t have to be in the same classroom. She spent her lunch period in the library. She changed her email address. But to no avail. Tiffany was the Queen of the Populars, and also the Queen of Torture. QT didn’t just stand for Queen Tiffany.
The bullying continued. Ghost-girl got in the orchestra? No problem. We hid her violin every day, so she had to search for it for hours. And the teacher didn’t seem to care, besides yelling at ghost-girl for being late all the time. We spread a rumor of how ghost-girl picked her nose and wet her bed. If you listened to the grapevine of Red Valley, you’d think she carried a disease. Nerd-germs, we called it. If you got touched with nerd-germs, you had to pass it on to someone quick or you’d be a nerd forever.
It was QT and PV at the helm. Queen Tiffany and Princess Veronica. My best friend and me.
A few months on, ghost-girl began skipping school days. At first, it was just once a week. Then every few days. Then every other day. It came to the point where she was gone for most of the month. If she came to school at all, it was a miracle.
It was May. The stress of finals. All that pent-up worry had to be taken care of. And what better way than ghost-girl?
The first day we could catch hold of her, just before finals, she was in the girl’s bathroom. No teachers, no cameras. Perfect. We grabbed her backpack. Stomped on it. Tore apart all of her notes. Ripped her lunchbox in half. Tossed her textbooks into the garbage. Used her lip balm to write on the walls. Left her to run away, crying and sniveling, snot running down her fat lips.
We felt great.
But we never saw her again.
The next few days were a whirl of rumors. Murder. Abduction. The body of a young girl, found in the river.
The school called an assembly. On bullying and suicide. They didn’t say who. But we all knew.
We killed ghost-girl.
The sweet little ghost who stuttered. So vulnerable. Asking for help. What did we give? Hurt. We killed ghost-girl, and we didn’t even know her name.
Tiffany didn’t care. “It deserved it, that little insect,” she spat. Not she. It. As if the girl-who-wanted-to-be-a-ghost wasn’t a person. Didn’t deserve a she.
But after that, no one listened to her anymore. She became the social reject. It echoed in our minds:
We killed ghost-girl.
Her memory became a real ghost. “This is where I stole her math book,” we would think. “This is where I whispered, ‘Freak.’”
I did wrong. If only we had banded together to protect her against Tiffany—anyone could have; why not me?—we would have saved her life.
Summer came, summer left. The sun never warmed us. We were frozen forever in a sea of hate. Endless winter wrapped us in her nightmarish embrace. The night spun infinitely, each constellation a gasping grimace of ghost-girl.
September crept up on us. Mindlessly, we stumbled into the hollow halls. We were the ghosts now, pale wraiths drifting, insides turbulently twisting as each flickering shadow forced memories to surface like the drowned bodies of young girls along rivers, their voices still echoing faintly in the gale winds . . .
She kept her head down. That was the first thing I noticed about her. It was like she didn’t want anyone noticing her. Like she wanted to sink into the floor. To be a ghost. We were hidden in our sorrows the day she first appeared at school.
Tiffany Gilligan, Queen of the Populars, pointed with her sloppily manicured right hand, cheap bracelets jangling, at the little lost fawn-girl. “What is this worm?” she said in her flawed actress voice, pursing her lips in her out-of-practice, faulty fashion. “I didn’t realize we had a bug infestation.” Her husky low laugh, reminiscent of a great tank crushing the innocent, was the cue for the rest of us to break into peals of giggles.
But we didn’t.
“Shall we call the exterminator? What is that thing?” Not who. What. As if the girl-who-wanted-to-be-a-ghost wasn’t a person. Didn’t deserve a who.
But she did.
We stood. “Leave.”
She gaped at us. “No.”
“Leave, Tiffany. You can’t control us anymore.”
We turned back to ghost-girl, her spirit echoing. “Welcome to Red Valley High School. We hope you’ll like it here in the eighth grade. Come sit over here. What’s your name, little gho—we mean girl?”
“Mein-ya za-vut . . .” She blinked. Her accent was thick. “I . . . am . . .”
“Don’t worry, take your time. We’re listening.”
She swallowed. “I . . . am . . . I . . . am . . . Vee-rah-nee-kah.”
“Are you from America? Where are you from?”
“Ya eez . . .” Slow blink. “I . . . am . . . of . . . Ra-se-ya.”
“Dah.” She swallowed again. “Y-yes.”
“We can help.”
“Try to say your name.”
“I . . . am . . . am . . .”
I spoke up. “Nikki, my name’s Veronica, too. You can call me Ronnie—Veronica—and I’ll call you Nikki—Veronica.”
She smiled. A wide smile. Only a bit of a wobble. She spoke slowly, much more slowly than ghost-girl. But carefully. “I . . . am . . . Nee-kee.”
I looked at the others. They smiled softly.