by Emily Cogan

***

Simon Dewclaw clambered up his favorite tree, eager to get away from everything that was bothering him. School had just let out for the day, but he didn’t want to go home yet. His dad would be gone, because today was Trash Day, so that was something at least. But Faye was picking up Eric from Miss Hattie’s place right after school, which meant they’d both be home when he got there. And Simon didn’t feel like dealing with either one of them right now.

Today was Monday, so he had a decent breakfast for the first time since Friday. Panthera Elementary had a breakfast program, which mainly served the kids who lived in The Alley. Even lunch hadn’t been too bad today, canned beef stew and a slice of cornbread, with cinnamon applesauce on the side.

But the food was about the only good part of his day. The rest of it had sucked ass from beginning to end, like usual. First he’d almost gotten into a fight with Ryan the panther, because Ryan was making fun of the holes in Simon’s jean jacket again. That jerkass Ryan thought he was so much better than anyone else, just because he lived in Subdivision Glen. Boys like him pissed Simon off something fierce, and it had taken every ounce of restraint he had in him not to punch Ryan’s lights out this morning. Half of him wished he had done it anyway, and damn the consequences. But he had already been to see Principal Stripe four times this month, and Dad was really riding him hard about his behavior lately. So he had decided to spare Ryan… for now.

Then he found out he flunked last Thursday’s math test. And even worse, he had to have his dad sign a note from his teacher, Mrs. Pouncer. Maybe he could get away with forging Dad’s signature like last time. Because there was no way he wanted to fess up to his dad about how bad his grades were. Dad already yelled at him enough as it was, without adding that into the mix.

Simon was sick of feeling like he couldn’t do anything right. For once, just once, he’d like his dad to be proud of him, instead of pissed at him. But that was about as likely as Ryan turning into a halfway decent feline being.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the field was still a little muddy from last night’s rainstorm, so Mrs. Pouncer wouldn’t let them out for recess, even though Miss Sparks let 4A go out. But 4B had to go to the library instead, which was super lame. Simon didn’t like reading on his best days, and especially not when he was forced to sit at a table with that mouthbreather Mikey. Everybody hated big fat Mikey even more than they hated him, and that was saying something. And being cooped up for recess meant that he didn’t get to climb his second favorite tree, the one that hung over the garden where that Rainbow Girl liked to whisper stories to herself about fairies or some crap like that. She never knew he was there, but that was half the fun.

Speak of the devil, here came Rainbow Girl, bouncing along like she had springs in her feet. He had never seen her walk this way before. Usually she got on the bus to Subdivision Glen. He knew because he took demented delight in how she glared at Ryan and kept her distance from him in spite of how he tried to get close to her. And it wasn’t that jokey “I’m pretending I hate you but really I like you” kind of game that the girls played with the boys either. She actually meant it, with claws out and everything, and that made her go up a few more points in Simon’s eyes for sure.

He peered through the leaves at her, unable to stop himself from admiring the way the afternoon sunlight shone in her white fur. Her rainbow stripes sure were pretty, even though he’d never say that out loud. He’d rather have his dad yell at him in his loudest, meanest voice for an hour than ever admit to that.

She was smiling¬†again, even though Simon couldn’t see anything worth smiling about. Life sucked 99% of the time, and that was a fact. But Rainbow Girl didn’t seem to know that, because every time he saw her she was either laughing, or smiling, or sometimes even both at the same time. Sometimes Simon wondered what the hell her problem was, because nobody could possibly be that happy. Could they?

Well, today he was going to do something to wipe that dumb smile off her face. Besides, he was sick of watching her from afar. He decided it was high time that he introduced himself. For some reason the thought of that made his heart speed up, but he tried to ignore it.

“Hey, Rainbow Girl, where d’you think you’re goin’?” he called down through the branches.

He almost started laughing as he watched her whirling around on the sidewalk below him, looking for the source of the voice. Maybe she thought it was Judah. After another minute he took pity on her and said, “Up here, stupid.”

She looked up at him and he couldn’t help grinning down at her, showing off a little bit that he had managed to pull one over on her. Her eyes were wide and blinking and fixed only on him. And that was just how he liked it.

“Boo!” he yelled as he jumped down from the tree to land right in front of her.

He waited for her to yell at him, to call him a jerk, to turn away on her heel with that snotty little “Hmmph!” that all the other nice girls used on him whenever he was fool enough to try to talk to one of them.

Instead she turned the tables around just like that and surprised him by giggling. And not in a mean way, but like she actually appreciated his little trick. Simon’s heart lifted in spite of himself, because he never in a million years thought he’d see her smile directed at him.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Nobody,” Simon muttered, stepping back into the shadow of the tree. He stared down at his feet and thanked Judah for his black fur. It made it easier for him to hide.

But apparently Rainbow Girl didn’t want him to hide, because she reached out one paw and pulled him back into the light. “Hi, Nobody. I’m Iris.” She smiled at him again, and for a moment Simon forgot how to breathe.

Iris… what a stupid name. She would always be Rainbow Girl as far as he was concerned.

He wrenched himself away from her warm little paw and stood with his arms crossed, glaring at her for daring to touch him like that. “I’m not really Nobody,” he said. “But you might as well call me that.”

“I’d rather call you your name,” said Rainbow Girl, sticking out her tongue at him.

He sighed, and closed his eyes, not sure what to make of all of this. He hated his name, because kids in The Alley thought it was wimpy. And that meant he had to fight even harder to make sure they knew once and for all that he wasn’t a wimp.

When he opened his eyes again, he sized her up for a second before he finally said, “Simon.”

“Simon?” she laughed. “You look more like a Grumpy Puss to me.”

“Yeah, well, you’re just a dumb Rainbow Girl, so what d’you know?”

“I know all kinds of things!” And Rainbow Girl danced around him so fast it made his head spin.

“Oh yeah, like what?” Simon smirked down at her, wondering how she was going to get out of this one.

“Like… like…” Rainbow Girl’s paws waved through the air, like they were thinking right along with her. Maybe her brain was in her paws? That wouldn’t surprise him at all.

“Like… about the fairies?” Simon didn’t like how his voice came out all soft, because he was imagining her surrounded by flowers as she played her little fairy game. “What are their names again? Rosie and somethin’ else, I can’t remember.”

Her mouth formed an overdramatic “O”, and she gasped. “You were spying on me?!” And she whacked him across the shoulder for good measure.

Simon rubbed his shoulder, more for show than anything. “Ow! Rainbow Girl, what the hell are you doin’ to me?”

“You… you… Grumpy Puss!” she yelled, stomping off down the sidewalk.

But right before she disappeared from sight, she looked over her shoulder at him, giving him a sweet little smile. And that’s how Simon knew she wasn’t really mad after all.

All of a sudden today didn’t suck quite as much ass as he originally thought. And in his head he started planning what he was going to do to bug her again tomorrow.

Yeah, he thought to himself as he watched her walk away. Introducing himself had been a pretty great idea.

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