by Emily Cogan

***

Sometimes Iris Blackstripes wished that Judah would make Sadie Greeneyes mute. “Right about now would be good,” she prayed to Him, even though she knew that was one prayer He probably wasn’t ever going to answer.

It was Iris and Jane’s first day back at school since the move, and Sadie was making sure that everyone on the playground knew that they no longer lived in Subdivision Glen. Jane looked ready to cry, and Iris was just about to run up to Sadie and kick her in the shins, when Zachary Whitepaw stepped up.

“Knock it off, Sadie,” he said, putting an arm around Jane’s shoulder and escorting her towards where Helen stood. Helen and Jane always hung out on the kickball field between Panthera Elementary and Panthera Intermediate before school started. Helen, Zachary, and Jane got to go to the intermediate school, which was only for the fifth and sixth graders. And Iris was in her last year at the elementary school.

Iris couldn’t help giggling to herself as she watched the warmth glowing in Jane’s eyes as she walked beside Zachary. He leaned down and said something to her, and her whole face lit up like Iris’s did every Christmas morning when she first saw all of the presents waiting under the tree. She was probably thinking to herself how dreamy he was or something pukey like that.

She would die before she ever let herself get all moony like that over a dumb boy, Iris decided to herself.

She hung back like she usually did before school, watching all of the other kids working the sugary cereal out of their system by going crazy on the playground. She saw Sadie, whispering and gossiping away like usual to her little gaggle of followers. She saw Helen hugging Jane, with Zachary patting her on the back while he glared over at Sadie. She saw Sadie roll her eyes at Zachary, before tossing her snobby head in the opposite direction.

She would never understand Jane’s relationship with Sadie. Most of the time they were friends, but then there were days like today when Sadie would randomly decide she was going to pick on Jane for no real reason that Iris could see. When that happened, she was glad she wasn’t one of the popular girls. Who wanted to have friends who weren’t really friends? That sounded absolutely horrible to her, never knowing what you were going to get from one day to the next.

The tiger with the black fur and the silver stripes moped around the sandbox, kicking up clouds of dirt everywhere he went. Iris didn’t think she had ever seen him smile, and that made her sad. She wondered what he was thinking about over there.

She was just about to try to find some excuse to go over and say hi when the bell rang. She sighed as she watched him shuffle off towards the front door to the elementary school.

“Maybe tomorrow?” she couldn’t help asking Judah, and for a moment she swore in her mind’s eye she saw Him biting back a smile.

***

That afternoon Iris had to remind herself not to get onto the bus to Subdivision Glen. She was a little surprised to see Sadie Greeneyes walking home with Jane, but then again, at the same time she wasn’t surprised at all. After all, Sadie was one of Jane’s friends who wasn’t really her friend.

She had never walked home from school before, so it was kinda exciting for her. She thought about taking the long way home by walking down Mane Street, maybe stopping by Toby’s for an ice cream, but nah. She actually wanted to get home, because she was in the middle of updating her Guide to Beige People. She had been thinking about it all day, because she had already figured out the multiplication tables ages ago, but Miss Sparks kept right on teaching them for weeks. And that meant Iris was spending a lot of time thinking about her stories or her art, instead of paying attention.

It was like that for her a lot of times in school, having to come up with something else to think about because she had already finished twenty pages ahead in the workbook and now she didn’t have anything to do. How many times had she heard the lecture about the difference between “you’re” and “your”? But half of her classmates still¬†couldn’t get that one right.

Miss Sparks was the best teacher she had ever had though, because she’d let Iris play around on the computer sometimes when she was finished with all of her work. And she actually seemed to get a kick out of the stories that Iris made out of her vocabulary words. And then last week she had given Iris extra credit for the angels that Iris had drawn all around the edges of her spelling test, with clouds circling all of the words to make it extra heaven-y.

Iris was already planning what she was going to do for this week’s spelling test to wow Miss Sparks. Maybe aliens. Or monkeys. Or maybe alien monkeys, because why not? She could color them in all different colors, instead of only green. And give them neon antennae. They could live in a sparkly silver spaceship, shooting rays down on all of of her spelling words.

She was smiling just thinking about it, when all of a sudden she heard someone say, “Hey, Rainbow Girl, where d’you think you’re goin’?”

And that was how she met Simon, henceforth known as Grumpy Puss. He had smiled at her and everything, after he scared the living daylights out of her from up in that tree. They teased each other back and forth for a few minutes, and Iris felt lighter somehow, like she had finally found someone who actually got¬†her… someone who wasn’t Daddy or Judah or Sid. And even though she pretended like she was mad at him as she stomped away, she still couldn’t help thinking about seeing him again tomorrow.

She wondered if she could get him to smile like that for her again.

She was just rounding the corner of Stripe Street and Tiger Tail Street, when she ran smack into Sadie Greeneyes. She and Jane were standing right on the corner, taking up space with their airheaded giggling. Iris tried to push past them, but Sadie blocked her way.

“What were you doing talking to that Simon kid?” she asked, hands on her hips.

Iris noticed how Jane stepped back, frowning for a second before covering it up with a tight smile.

“None of your beeswax,” Iris said, once more sending up a prayer to Judah to please listen to her this time about making Sadie mute.

But Judah wasn’t listening again, because Sadie said, “You know he’s from The Alley, right?” in her snottiest voice.

Iris kinda knew about The Alley, but kinda not. She guessed from the way the other kids talked about it that it was a really bad place to live, but she didn’t know why. She’d never been there, and she didn’t know anybody from there. And even if it was bad, was that Grumpy Puss’s fault? It’s not like kids had any choice about where they lived, a fact she knew all too well thanks to she and Jane’s recent move.

She thought of Grumpy Puss, with his sad eyes and his tattered jean jacket. And then she remembered his silver stripes, which sparkled in the sunlight like the alien monkey spaceship she wanted to draw. And right then she decided that it didn’t matter where he came from. Because she liked him no matter what. She’d like him even if he lived in a cardboard box.

But when she told Sadie that, all Sadie did was laugh at her. Even worse, Jane joined in too. And that made Iris madder than anything, because just this morning Jane and Sadie had been at war. And now, here Jane was, siding with Sadie.

Her own sister, selling her out like that.

No wonder she had felt so good around Grumpy Puss today. After Daddy died, she had been starving for someone to understand her. Someone who wasn’t a spirit in heaven, or a stuffed animal. Because Jane didn’t understand her at all. Maybe she never would. And maybe Iris would never understand Jane either, because how could you understand someone who was so two-faced?

“I still wish you would make Sadie mute,” she said to Judah as she watched Jane and Sadie walk away.

She would never understand what was so great about having a friend who wasn’t really a friend.

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