Me, My Elf, and I Chapter 1
“Are you lost?” The man is big. Bigger than any other man I’ve ever seen in my life and for a moment I can’t say anything. My grandmother, back in Alverland, would call this man an ogre, even though he’s the only person out of all the people rushing past me in this subway station nice enough to notice that I’m completely confused.
Everyone else just jostles on by, jabbing me with elbows and banging me with overstuffed shoulder bags. I feel as if I’m caught in the middle of a moose stampede during a forest fire. (Only instead of being surrounded by burning trees, I’m in a smelly underground passage with dirty walls covered by advertisement posters for a million things I’ve never heard of.) I hug my bag to my chest and nod without making a sound. The man leans down closer to me. It’s not just that he’s tall. I’m used to tall people. Everyone in my family is tall. He’s also wide, soft, pillowy. I think of sinking into my grandparents’ large goose feather bed with my brothers and sisters and cousins surrounding me, anticipating my grandmother telling us a tale about giants and ogres.
The man’s skin is dark, too. So black it’s almost blue and I’m captivated. Everyone in Alverland is fair. So pale that you can see the gray-blue veins beneath our skin. Our hair is light and straight and our eyes are almost always green. Drake, my father who’s been out of Alverland more than anyone else, told us that there are many kinds of erdlers (that’s what we call people who aren’t from Alverland) and you can only judge them based on their actions, not on how they look. So I know I shouldn’t stare at this guy. Or any of the people rushing past me who are all shades of brown and white with every color hair imaginable. Especially because I know how it feels to be different. I know that I look like an idiot standing here with my mouth hanging open and my eyes popping out, but I can’t help it.
“Where are you trying to go?” he asks.
It’s bad enough that I took the wrong subway three times. I mean, how was I supposed to know? I’d never even ridden a bus, let alone a subway before today. But now that I’m finally at the right station, I can’t find my way outside. Obviously I’m going to need this guy’s help, so I unclutch the piece of paper wadded in my fist and show it to him. I clear my throat and try out my voice. “The Brooklyn Academy of Performing Arts High School,” I tell him but the words come out tiny, as if I’m six years old. Great, my first time out alone in Brooklyn and I can’t even act like a regular fifteen-year-old girl. How will I ever make it through a day of high school here?
He takes the paper from me and studies it with a frown. “Never heard of it,” he mumbles and I think he’ll walk away, leaving me stranded forever. I’ll turn into a tree, planted in the cement underworld of New York. What a terrible way to spend eternity. I wonder if I give up now could I find my way back to our house in Park Slope? Tell my mom and dad that they were right. I’m not ready for a regular school. I should let them teach me at home like they wanted in the first place.
Then the man looks up and nods. “But I do know this street, Fulton Avenue. Come on. I’m walking that way. I’ll show you.” He takes off and I hesitate. Everyone back in Alverland warned us over and over again not to talk to strangers, never to go with people we don’t know, and to keep to ourselves. But this guy has my paper with the school’s address on it and without it, I’m toast. So, I force my legs to move and I skitter after him, weaving through the rushing people in this dingy underground passage.
He leads me to a stairway and I can see sunlight again, although the air doesn’t smell any cleaner up there than it does down here. I have to press my sleeve over my nose and mouth to keep from gagging on the car fumes. He takes the steps two at a time and I run to keep up with him. He glances over his shoulder and smiles kindly at me.
“New to the city?” he yells over the roaring traffic. I see him chuckle. If I didn’t already know how pathetically obvious that is, I might get mad.
“Yeah,” I yell back, defeated. “First day of high school.”
“Sheez,” he says and shakes his head. “Rough start. But it’ll get better.” He points to a street packed with cars, trucks, motorcycles, blue-and-white buses, and bicycles. A flood of people spill out of the underground stairways. They disregard the glut of traffic. Like ants on a mission scurrying over rocks, past sticks, through gullies just to get their crumbs, the people keep moving along the crammed sidewalks, across the streets, and into the hulking buildings surrounding us. He and I join this throng and I realize that his size is a plus in this case because at least I won’t lose sight of him. On the opposite corner he stops and points. “This is Fulton Avenue. The address says 436, which has to be down this way on the left side. So you just keep on walking until you find it. And if you get lost, don’t be afraid to ask somebody. People say New Yorkers are rude but they aren’t. Just in a hurry. Somebody’ll always help you.” He hands me my piece of paper and walks off into the crowd.
“Thank you!” I yell after him. “Thank you for helping me!” I wave my paper over my head as he disappears then I’m alone again in the middle of hundreds of people beneath the shadows of skyscrapers. For a moment I consider zapping everyone around me with a hex, maybe some kind of skin pox or limping disease of the knees so that they’ll all fall down moaning and I can step over them, one by one, as if walking on rocks across a stream to find my way to school. But of course I don’t. First of all, I’m not really old enough to hex an entire crowd of moving people, and secondly my mother warned me, No magic in Brooklyn!
The next time I get lost like some dumb bunny who can’t escape from a hollow log, I’m in the middle of an empty hallway. I finally found the school, but I’m late, of course, even though I left my house hours earlier. In Alverland, nothing is more than a ten-minute walk away, so spending this much time getting anyplace seems absurd and forces me to ask myself why I want this so badly. Why did I insist, fight, beg, barter, make promises, and endlessly cajole my parents into letting me attend public high school in a new place? Am I out of my mind? Did somebody put the donkey hex of stupidity on me? I thought this was going to be easy. All I’d have to do is dress like an erdler and I’d fit right in. As if I could waltz into this school, playing my lute and everything would be fine. Obviously I’m an idiot.
I’m about to give up. To turn around and head out the big heavy green doors of the school. Back into the chaotic, smelly street, where I’ll probably wander around lost for years before I find my way back to the subway, let alone all the way home. I’m about to chuck it all, tell my parents they were right, and hole up for the rest of my existence in my new cramped bedroom at the top of the stairs in our house, when someone says, “Why are you out of class?”
I turn around to face a tiny, angry woman scowling at me. She has small sharp features like a mouse. Her hands are balled into fists which she holds on her hips like weapons. Plus she’s wearing all green. She looks just like the mean little pixies my grandmother used to tease us about. “I said, what are you doing out of class? Do you have a hall pass? What’s your name?” the pixie lady demands.
That’s when I lose it. Lose it like a snot-nosed, diaper-wearing, thumb-sucking, toothless, babbling baby. I drop my bag to the floor, let my knees go weak, slump over into a heap of quivering jelly, and start to cry miserably. The pixie lady stares me down while I wail. I swear she checks her watch and taps her foot impatiently until I pull it together enough to lift my head and squeak, “I don’t know where to go.”
She rolls her eyes. “Do you always get this worked up when you’re lost?”
I suck back the snot streaming down my face, wipe my hands across my moist eyes and say, “I’ve never been this lost before.”
“For God’s sake, girl,” she hisses. “You’re inside a school. How hard can it be?”
This only makes me cry harder, because I know she’s right. “But I, but I, but, but … ” I sputter. “First the trains … and I went the wrong way … was it the F or the A or the 2 or 3 … and who can figure out those maps with all the colors? Red! Blue! Orange! How was I supposed to know which platform, which staircase, which end of the train I’m supposed to get on? Not to mention the subway stations! There are rats down there. And it smells. Terrible. And all those people? Where are they all going? Where could so many people be going?” I come out of my rant clutching my hair and stamping my feet as if I’m having a temper tantrum, which actually, I am.
The pixie grabs me by the upper arm and pulls. I scoop up my bag and go tripping behind her. “How many drama queens can one school hold?” she mutters to herself as she drags me down the empty hall.
We pass closed doors where I hear teachers’ voices over groups of kids laughing. I also hear music (drums, pianos, a trumpet from far away) and feet stomping in unison as if dancing. Posters cover the walls inviting me to “Join Student Government” or “Come to the First Chess Club Meeting Tonight” or “Help Plan the Halloween Dance!” I drag my feet to slow the pixie down so I can read every flyer on large bulletin board. This weekend there’s going to be a film festival and an open mic night, whatever that is. And today after school I could go to a free talk about poverty in Africa or even learn how to crochet. That’s when I remember. All these possibilities and opportunities are the reason I wanted to come here in the first place, because I could never do those things in Alverland but here I can do anything.
“Where are you taking me?” I manage to ask in a half-way normal voice. She continues marching me forward. “I’m okay now,” I tell her. “Maybe you could just point me in the right direction.” I fumble for my bag with my one free hand. “I have my schedule in here somewhere.”
She stops and I bump into her, nearly sending her to the floor. “Good God!” she says to the ceiling. “Not even nine o’clock in the morning yet and this is my day already.” She points to a half-open door and gives me a little shove. “In you go,” she says. “Tell it all to the shrinky dink, drama queen.”
I’m inside a bright, sunny office with a wilting jade plant in the window and sad yellow daisies in a vase. Without thinking I whisper one of the first incantations my grandmother taught us, “Flowers, flowers please don’t die, lift your heads up to the sky!” Slowly the jade plant unfurls its drooping leaves and the daisies stand tall in the vase. Then I remember that I shouldn’t be casting spells, no matter how harmless. What if someone saw me? How would I explain? I consider undoing the incantation, but that would be more magic. I have to be careful now and I must remember to act like an erdler.
I hear quick footsteps in the hallway. I peek out the door and see a couple hurrying by, holding hands. The girl’s hair flies over her shoulder as she looks up at the guy. “We’re so late,” she says and they both laugh then they’re gone around a corner.
I’m left with a tingly feeling in the pit of my stomach, as if I’ve witnessed the mating dance of two elusive white herons. Before my family left Alverland, my cousin Briar and I spent hours in the branches of a sycamore tree, talking about how erdlers fall in love, and date, and fight, and get their hearts broken. Or so we’ve heard.
“Do you think you’ll have a boyfriend there?” Briar asked me.
“That’s not why I want to go,” I told her as I picked layers of shaggy bark off the peeling tree trunk. “I just want the chance to see another part of the world, try new things, eat food I’ve only heard of.” But secretly I wondered if I would find an erdler boy in Brooklyn.
Then again, I can barely find my way to school so how will I ever find a boyfriend? The point is, I need to focus on the real reason I’m here: music, art, experience! All of the things missing in Alverland.
I drop to a little couch to regroup. I need to break the problem into manageable steps, as my mother likes to say. I take a deep breath and try to remember My Plan for Life in Brooklyn. First, find friends. (But where?) Second, find a boyfriend. (But how?) Third, find as many ways to perform as possible. (But when?)
I look around the office again. Beside me on a little table is a big black binder titled “Upcoming Auditions”. It’s filled with dozens of pages with information about trying out for plays, musicals, bands, ensembles, improve troupes, and ads. I get prickly chills up and down my back. This is it! This is it! I think. The real reason I’m here. In Alverland, we do the same pageants and plays every season—to welcome in the harvest, to give thanks for bountiful hunting, to celebrate the equinox. It’s always the same songs, in the same order, on the same day. Nobody except my dad ever makes up new songs or writes plays about a different topic. It’s not that I don’t like singing in the sugar shack when we make syrup for the Festival of Maple Trees, but there’s more to life than pancakes!
As I browse through the binder of possibilities, a door across the room opens and a woman walks in. She’s too preoccupied with reading the paper in her hands to notice me so I take a good look at her. She wears a full, rippling purple skirt with tiny bells sewn on the hem that jingle as she moves. On top she wears a long flowing white shirt, not unlike what we wear in Alverland. She has three necklaces of brightly colored beads, lots of bracelets on both wrists and even around one ankle above her soft leather sandals. She tucks a loose strand of her brown hair behind one ear and I see that she has silver rings on nearly every finger. I like her already.
“Are you the shrinky dink?” I ask.
“Yow!” she shrieks and gives a little jump so that all her bracelets, necklaces, rings, and bells clink and clatter. “The shrinky dink?” she asks as if she can’t believe I said that.
“Sorry.” I cringe. “That’s what that woman told me.” I point to the door where the lady-in-green left me but of course she’s gone, vanished just like a mean little pixie would. “Am I in the wrong place?”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Zephyr,” I tell her, then remember how the erdlers always use last names, too. “Zephyr Addler.”
“Ah ha!” she says and grins. “So you are Zephyr. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
“You have?” I ask and for the first time since I kissed my mom goodbye this morning, I smile.
She nods. “I’m Ms. Sanchez, your guidance counselor,” she tells me carefully. I get the hint that ‘shrinky dink’ is not what I should call her. I imagine how the pixie will look after I zing her with a nasty little hair-loss spell for embarrassing me like this. Then I remember my promise to my mom and I stop myself.
“So you made it,” Ms. Sanchez says as she perches on the edge of her desk.
“Barely,” I admit.
“Are your parents with you?”
“No,” I say and my cheeks grow warm. “Are they supposed to be? They came with me when I auditioned but I didn’t know they were supposed come back today.” My mom wanted to come, but I insisted on going by myself this morning like a normal Brooklyn kid. I’m so clueless.
Ms. Sanchez shrugs. “Sometimes parents come on the first day when there’s a new student. Particularly someone in your situation.” She pulls a red file folder off her desk. I see my name printed on the tab. “So you’ve never been to a regular school?”
I shake my head, even more embarrassed now. “I didn’t realize absolutely everyone in the universe would know that about me.”
Ms. Sanchez laughs. “First off, only your teachers and I know that about you. And secondly, you’re not the only home-schooled student we’ve ever had. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Especially with test scores like yours.”
“Thanks,” I mumble. “But being smart hasn’t stopped me from being an idiot today.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Ms. Sanchez tells me. “It’s tough coming to a new school as a sophomore, especially a week after everyone else started.”
“Oh no,” I groan and clutch my knapsack to my chest. “You make it sound so terrible!”
“You’re going to do just fine,” she assures me as she flips the pages in the red folder. “Let’s see where you’re supposed be now and get you started.”
It’s now or never, I tell myself. I sit up straight, then push myself to stand. “Okay,” I say. “I’m as ready as I’m going to get.”
Ms. Sanchez knocks on a classroom door and goes inside. I wait in the hallway but I hear people murmur, papers shuffle, and someone laughing inside the room. “Settle down,” an adult says then a girl comes out in the hall with Ms. Sanchez.
“What’s up Aunt Nina?” the girl asks. Ms. Sanchez frowns for a moment until the girl rolls her eyes and says, “Ms. Sanchez,” in a silly voice that makes Ms. Sanchez snicker.
“Mercedes, this is Zephyr. Zephyr?” She turns to me. “This is my niece, Mercedes. She’s also a sophomore here and she’ll be your official tour guide today.”
When Ms. Sanchez steps aside, Mercedes and I face one another as if we’re looking in an opposites mirror. I am tall. She is short. I’m as pale as milk. Her skin is the rich, beautiful brown of acorns. My stick-straight, so-blonde-it’s-nearly-translucent hair hangs down below my shoulders. Her thick, dark ringlets are cropped just above her chin. I am all points and angles: cheek bones, collar bones, elbow, knees; she is soft curves from her round cheeks down to her feet. And it’s not just how we’re built, it’s how we’re dressed.
I’ve taken great care today not to look like some hippie wood sprite straight off the commune (which is what most erdlers think of us when we leave Alverland). I purposely left my soft deer skin boots and hand-woven tunic dress at home. I didn’t even wear my hat or the amulets my grandparents made for me. I gaze at Mercedes in her red-striped tank top over a white t-shirt and skinny jeans riding below her hips but pegged above her silver ballet flats. I realize then that I’ve failed miserably. My navy blue pants are too fitted, too new, too stiff, too high up on my waist. I have on a bona fide blouse, aquamarine with pearly buttons all the way up to my chin. And I’m wearing white sneakers. I’m so embarrassed that I wish someone would turn me into a bird so I could fly away and never ever see these people again.
“My aunt told me about you,” Mercedes says. “You’re the girl from Michigan, right?”
“The U.P.,” I say hopefully but Ms. Sanchez and Mercedes look at me blankly. “See Michigan has two parts.” I hold up my right hand like a mitten with the thumb sticking out to the side. “This is the main part where Detroit and stuff like that is.” I hold my left hand sideways over the top of my right fingertips. “And this is the Upper Peninsula, the U.P.” They blink at me. “All this space between my hands is the Great Lakes. And up here?” I point to the pinky knuckle on my left hand. “That’s where I grew up.”
“Close to Canada then?” Mercedes asks.
“That’s right!” I say, impressed with her grasp of geography. Most people in the rest of Michigan have no idea how close we are to Canada.
“Yeah,” she says, smirking. “I can hear your accent. ‘Out and about,’” she says laughing because she pronounces it like ‘oot and aboot’.
I press my lips together as my cheeks grow warm, embarrassed by how obviously weird I seem, even in this school where the brochure says diversity is a good thing.
“But that’s okay, yo, because I’ll have you talking Brooklyn in no time flat.” Mercedes snaps her fingers in front of her face and grins at me, this time nicely.
Ms. Sanchez hands Mercedes a green slip. “Here’s a hall pass. Show Zephyr her locker, the cafeteria, her homeroom, then escort her to her classes for the rest of the day.”
Ms. Sanchez turns to me, “You can stop by my office anytime if you have a question.” She slips her arm around Mercedes’ waist. “Mercy will be a great tour guide, won’t you?”
Mercedes wiggles out of her aunt’s embrace, but I see her smile “Yeah, yeah, Aunt Nina.”
“Ms. Sanchez,” Ms. Sanchez says playfully over her shoulder as she walks away, making Mercedes giggle like a little kid.
First I ask to stop in the bathroom so I can do something about how I look. I stand in front of the mirror and sigh. “I look like … ” I say to Mercedes.
She sits on the countertop, kicking her feet into the big rubber trash can stuffed full of used paper towels. “A dork,” she says. “Which is weird because, you’re like, so freakin’ gorgeous and everything. Does your mom make you dress like that so boys won’t be looking at you?”
“No. I mean. I just didn’t know what to wear.” I untuck my shirt and undo the top button. I take off my belt and shove it in my bag. (A belt! She’s right. I am a total dork.) I try to squiggle my pants down around my hips, but it’s hopeless. “Is that better?”
Mercedes raises her eyebrows. “Yeah, better, but … ” She hops down from the counter. “I don’t know what kind of malls they have up there in the U.P, but girl, we’re gonna have to take you shopping or something.”
I follow her out of the bathroom. “Please,” I beg. “I would really, really appreciate that.”
Mercedes snorts a little laugh. “‘I would really, really appreciate that!’” she mocks and I have to give her credit, she truly does sound like me. “For real you talk like that?”
I stop and tower over her. “How am I supposed to talk?” I ask full of indignity.
She shrugs. “I don’t know. However you talk, you talk, I guess. It’s sweet, kind of. Real nicey nicey. Polite sounding.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“Naw, just different,” she assures me. “But maybe you want to tone it down a little bit with people you don’t know. Otherwise, you know, they might get the wrong idea.”
“What idea would that be? That I’m nice?” I ask. “What’s wrong with being nice?”
“Too nice. Like people can take advantage of you. Push you around. You know. Like that. You gotta be able to hold your own here.”
“Right. Hold my own.” Then I realize that again I’m lost. “Hold my own what?”
This time Mercedes cracks up. She leans into me and shakes my arm as she laughs. “Girl, you crazy!.‘Hold my own what?’” She imitates me perfectly again. “You really are from some place else, aren’t you?”
“You have no idea,” I tell her. “No idea at all.”