by Emily Cogan

***

Jane Blackstripes tried to block out Iris’s screams of laughter echoing through the playground. Her little sister was being way too loud again. There she went, chasing after that black tiger with the silver stripes that Sadie said lived in The Alley. Even so, she was glad that Iris had found a friend, if only because it meant that maybe Iris would leave her alone every once in a while…

She watched as the bus from Subdivision Glen pulled up to school. Usually she was on that bus with Helen and the rest of her friends, but now school was close enough to walk. Walking with Iris this morning had been awful, but that wasn’t much of a surprise.

At least they had made up with each other over that big fight they had the other day. While Iris helped fix her books, Jane had admitted that she sometimes thought Sadie Greeneyes was mean. Which made Iris practically tackle Jane to the ground in a tight hug, knocking a bunch of the books they had already fixed over. But somehow, Jane hadn’t minded the extra work.

She wasn’t used to feeling so out of place though. A year ago, in fifth grade, her life had been basically perfect. She lived in one of the nicest neighborhoods in Pantheraville, had lots of friends and even a few boys looking her way, got straight A’s on every report card, and best of all, Daddy had still been alive.

But now Daddy was gone, and she didn’t live in Subdivision Glen anymore. At least she was still getting A’s in school. But this year it didn’t seem to matter nearly as much. In fact, she thought she’d trade every one of the A’s on her report card if she could just go back to last year…

“Jane! Hey!” Helen Whitepaw rushed up beside her, fresh off the bus.

“Helen!” Jane clung tight to her best friend like she was a life preserver while Iris continued squealing in the background.

Just then Jane spotted Zachary coming towards them. Her breath caught for a moment, even though she knew he was probably just on his way to the Intermediate School on the other side of the kickball field. Jane had to admit that it was nice not having to share a building with the littler kids. Most of them were way too hyper. But then again, even when she was younger, she hadn’t liked all of the shrieking and running around like Iris was doing right now…

To her surprise, Zachary stopped in front of them. “Hey, Jane,” he said. She noticed that he had a couple of comic books in one paw.

“Hey, Zachary,” said Jane, looking up him through her eyelashes. Zachary had always been around, but lately Jane felt all floaty whenever they talked.

They both hesitated, looking at each other for another awkward moment. She was kind of hoping he’d put his arm around her again. But he didn’t, and Jane couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed.

And then Zachary said, “Well… justice awaits.” He waved the comics under Jane’s nose, grinning at her. “Greenpaw is about to use the Medal of Pawsitivity on Lion Eyes, to stop him from spreading lies.”

“That’s… good?” Jane replied, wrinkling her brow. She didn’t know anything about comics. But he was already walking away, pawing through his comic.

Helen snorted and nudged Jane. “I still can’t believe you like my brother.”

Jane blushed. “Me and Zachary? No way.” She busied herself with brushing down her sweater.

Helen shook her head, and Jane could tell she was trying not to laugh. “Whatever you say, Jane. Whatever you say.”

Just then Iris crashed into Jane. “Save me! Save me!” she squealed.

“Iris, what are you doing? Get off me.” Jane wrenched herself away from Iris’s grabby paws. She had never seen Iris this wound up before, and that was saying something.

“Save me, Jane… you have to– you have to hide me… Grumpy Puss… right behind me…” Iris panted, looking up at her with wild eyes.

Jane glared down at her little sister, ready to lecture her until the bell rang if need be. But before she could, Sadie Greeneyes showed up.

“Eep, a Beige Person! That’s even worse than Grumpy Puss! I’m outta here!” Iris exclaimed, and before Jane could stop her she peeled off to who knows where.

“Your sister is such a freakshow,” said Sadie, rolling her eyes.

“I know, I’m sorry,” Jane muttered, her cheeks heating up again. She was so sick of having to apologize to her friends about Iris.

For a moment she watched as Iris careened into Zachary, who was now leaning against a tree and trying to read his comic. Jane could practically hear Zachary’s “Oof” from clear across the playground, and she wanted to die of embarrassment. But at least he was smiling, because Zachary was nice to everyone. Iris untangled herself, chattering away the whole time. Then their heads swiveled this way, and he handed her something she couldn’t quite see from way over here…

Before she could figure out what was going on, Sadie pushed herself in between Jane and Helen and wrapped her arms around their shoulders. “So, do you guys want to hang out after school today? Maybe we can get a ride to the mall.”

“The mall?” said Helen, shuddering. “You know I hate that place.”

Jane shook her head. “I can’t either. Iris and I are going to Gramma Betty’s after school.”

Sadie sniffed and removed her arms from Jane and Helen’s shoulders. “Sometimes you guys are such babies,” she said, stalking away without a backwards glance.

Jane stared after Sadie, her designer backpack bobbing away into the crowd. “What’s up with her?” she asked.

“I dunno,” Helen said. “She’s been acting weird ever since… well, I mean ever since your dad…”

“Yeah,” Jane whispered, looking down at the grass and willing herself not to cry. Even though it had been six months since he died, her throat still tightened up whenever she thought about him.

“And, I didn’t really want to say anything but… yesterday I overheard her talking to Abbey about how poor you are now. She made it out like you practically live in The Alley. I swear, I wanted to punch her. Zachary almost did  punch her, after I told him.”

Jane sighed as she looked across the playground. Without even thinking about it her eyes landed on Zachary. He was still leaning against the tree. Her heart did a little flip when he waved at her. She returned the wave, smiling to herself.

Then she noticed Sadie talking to Abbey and the rest of their friends. She thought they might be looking at her and Helen, although they were too far away to know for sure. As much as she didn’t want to admit it, Helen was right. Ever since her dad died, a bunch of her friends had pulled away from her bit by bit. Sometimes it seemed like only Helen and Zachary still treated her like a normal person.

It just wasn’t fair. She hated having to move away from Subdivision Glen. And even though their new house wasn’t anywhere close to The Alley, it was still too small and squishy for her liking. You could probably fit their entire new house into just the first floor of their old house. Worst of all, most of the neighbors were older people with no kids at home, which meant she was stuck with just Iris to play with. And playing with Iris was like getting sucked into a rainbow colored tornado.

She had always been the cool sister, the one who everyone liked. She didn’t like not knowing where she fit in anymore. She just wanted things to be the way they used to be when Daddy was alive.

Meanwhile, Iris was running around hooting and having the time of her life with her new friend, and it just… it really wasn’t fair. Why did it feel like she was losing everything that meant something to her?

But wait a minute, where was Iris? If she was back in the garden making a mess digging out pools for those imaginary fairies again, Jane was going to kill her. The last thing she needed was more ammunition for Sadie to tease her with…

Just then Iris popped out from behind Jane’s shoulder, practically giving her a heart attack. “Brought you something!” she exclaimed with a cheeky grin.

Jane’s ears flattened against her head as she thought about all of the things that Iris could possibly have for her. That floaty feeling returned, but this time it was more like dread.

“It’s from your boyfriend,” said Iris, shoving something into Jane’s paw. She started making smoochy faces, and Helen giggled until a madly blushing Jane whacked her in the shoulder.

“What is it?” asked Jane, and all three girls leaned forward, staring down at the plastic gold medal in Jane’s outstretched paws. Attached to the medal was a scrawled “Think Pawsitive!” note.

“Oh, that’s Zachary’s Medal of Pawsitivity!” Helen exclaimed. “He sent away for it in the mail over the summer. It finally came a few weeks ago. He’s always ordering stuff from the back of comic books.”

For a second Jane felt confused. She didn’t understand why Zachary was giving her a hunk of what looked to her like cheap plastic junk. But then she remembered their earlier conversation, and started to put everything together…

“Jane? Are you in luuuuvvvv?” Iris asked, beaming from ear to ear.

“I think she is!” said Helen. “And with my dorky brother, of all people.”

But Jane was only half paying attention to their teasing, because Zachary was right. If Sadie didn’t want to be friends anymore, she shouldn’t let it bother her. And even if Sadie wanted to lie to Abbey and the rest of her friends, it didn’t matter. At least she had Helen, and Helen was the best friend she could ask for. Even Iris wasn’t all that bad, at least not at this particular moment. Although just as she was thinking that, out of the corner of her eye she saw Iris running off and she couldn’t quite push back that feeling of dread that settled in her stomach…

Even so, for a little while, everything in her world felt right again. Because Sadie and Abbey had their heads together, gossiping about the latest rumors going around Panthera Intermediate. And because that meant she and Helen would get the scoop when they all walked to class together in a few more minutes. And because Iris looked happier than she had ever been as she chased after Simon, calling him names the entire time. And most of all, because Zachary was leaning against his tree, grinning at her from over one his Greenpaw comic books.

And everything was just the way it should be.

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