Read This Girl Is Different Online

Authors: J. J. Johnson

This Girl Is Different

This Girl Is Different
J. J. Johnson

For Noah

1

Life is a daring adventure or nothing.

—H
ELEN
K
ELLER, AUTHOR AND ACTIVIST,
1880–1968

I manage to grab the snake, but not without twisting
my foot and falling butt-first into the creek. When I
stand, lightning shoots through my ankle.

I take a long, deep yoga breath, an Ujjayi ocean
breath, to be calm. Steady. Strong. Hopping on one
foot, I hold the wriggling snake and scramble over to
a large rock. As I unshoulder my backpack, the snake
flicks its tongue at me. It must think I’m crazy.

I can think of worse things. Better crazy than mild.
Or timid, or meek, or boring.

From my backpack, I pull out the mason jar I brought
for snake containment. “Your temporary quarters.” He
slithers in, curls up at the bottom. After popping the
ventilated lid on, I hold him up for a better look: velvety
black, yellow lines running the length of his back.
Garter snake, or ribbon? I sniff the jar. A bit skunky but
not overwhelming. Probably ribbon. “Either way, you’re
a beauty.” I set the container down.

Now, to call for help. I flip my cell phone open. It
doesn’t chime. Of course I forgot to charge it.

Lightning shoots through my ankle again when I
shift weight. It’s already getting puffy and it’s throbbing.
Gingerly, I lower my foot into the creek so the cool
water can help the swelling.

The snake, nonplussed, watches me. I unzip my
backpack and move aside my drawing journal, the
tin of colored pencils, the jar of filtered water. Ah,
here it is: an emergency kit, packed by Martha. Score
one for Martha, and moms everywhere. Hello, blister
pack of ibuprofen! I swallow a couple of tablets with
a swig of water and paw through the rest of the kit:
band-aids and an ace bandage, a whistle, waterproof
matches, a mirror. Plus, I packed two homemade
oatmeal bars and a jar of peanuts and raisins. At
least I won’t starve.

Stranded, hurt, but I can handle it.

No freak-outs. No worries. This girl is different.

I wrap the ace bandage around my ankle and dip it
back into the water. Crimson maple leaves float by,
brown dappling their curling tips. They swirl and laze
in the eddy from my foot. I might as well try to slow
down too; it will be a while before Martha realizes I’m
hurt. After her shift at Walmart, she’ll probably stop at
the food co-op and the library and who knows what
else. Plus, it would take her a long time to hike this far
along the creek. So even if she gets home early, and
she notices my note and doesn’t just assume I’m in the
barn or doing yoga, I’m stuck here well past sundown.
At the earliest.

From the position of the sun, it’s not yet noon. Which
leaves eight or nine hours to wait, or to come up with a
better idea. Just me and my new friend Ribbons.

Hours later, still without an exit strategy, I take a break
from drawing in my journal to check my sketches
against Ribbons in his container. I ought to let him go,
but I like the company. Sighing, I run my fingers over
the smooth glass. I should probably try to find him a
tasty worm or cricket to eat—

Wait. Voices in the woods.

A twig snaps. The voices get closer. I can pick out a
male voice, some words:
school, shop, classes
. Is it two
people out there, or three?

“Hey!” I call. “Hello?”

The voices go silent.

“I’m down by the creek!” I regard my throbbing
ankle. “Actually, I’m pretty much up the creek!”

The voices return, low and quiet, like they’re discussing
what to do. Branches move, leaves rustle. A boy
about my age, in cutoff cargo shorts and hiking boots,
pops out of the trees. I’ve seen him before, in town—
once in the library, a few times at the coffee shop. You
can’t help but see him. He is that kind of beautiful. A
crunchier, leaner version of Kumar from
Harold &
Kumar Go to White Castle
. His hair is glossy black, his
eyes dark.

Blood rushes into my cheeks.

“Hi,” he says. The frays of his shorts brush against
his legs when he moves. His leather hiking boots are
scuffed and worn into whorls of color, whipped cream
melting into milky coffee.

“Hi.” I will not sound like a damsel in distress.
Although, technically, with a sprained ankle and no
cell phone, I kind of am.

But where is the source of the other voice, or voices?

As if on cue, someone else stumbles out from the woods.

Kumar turns to catch the jumble of limbs. Coltish
legs steady themselves and unfold to reveal a girl, very
pretty. I’ve seen her around too.

“Hi.” I fan a small wave. “I’m Evie.” My heart won’t
stop pounding.

“Hi!” The girl is all eyelashes and toenail polish, in
flip-flops and a short sundress. Not the most practical hiking attire, but who am I to judge? After all, I’m barefoot.
The girl is petite and thin and gamine, Audrey
Hepburn in
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
, but with richer, tawny
brown skin. Indian maybe, or Latin American?

“What’s up?” She pokes her fingers into her short,
jet-black hair, like she wants to fluff and spike it.

“I hurt my ankle. It won’t take weight, and no one
really knows where I am.”

Kumar looks around. What’s he looking for? Is some -
one else with them?

Audrey Hepburn asks, “You came out this far alone?”
and I realize she is voicing Kumar’s thoughts. She says
it like it’s unimaginable, like,
You just flew back from the
moon?

I shrug. “I live about five miles downstream.”

“You live here?” the boy asks. They look at each other.

The girl juts out her hip, sets her hand on it. “Did
you, like, just move or something?”

I know what they’re thinking. Our town only has
one high school, so everyone knows everyone. Well,
obviously not
everyone
. I shake my head. “I’ve lived
here two years. I’m a homeschooler.”

They look at each other again. They are saying a lot
with those looks.

“I’m normal, I swear!” I smile to reassure them. “I’m
actually going to school this year. Starting Monday.”
Only three days away. I can’t wait. I want to see what
it’s like; Martha is horrified that it will ruin me. It took a
protracted battle to convince her to let me enroll. I
finally wore her down—a brutal campaign of attrition—
with ceaseless appeals for my own empowerment and
personal decision-making. Also I convinced her I could
be a gonzo journalist and treat high school like ethnographic
research.

“I’ll be a senior.” I lift my foot out of the creek so I
can turn all the way around to face Kumar and Audrey.

“That’s awesome!” says the girl. She wiggles her
thumb at herself and the boy, “Us too.”

The boy’s eyes go wide; he is staring at my ankle. It
looks swollen even with the ace bandage.

“You weren’t kidding about your ankle. Nasty
sprain.” He steps closer and bends down to look at it.
“All right if I have a look? I’ve had some experience
with these.”

I nod. He kneels in front of me. My heart is thumping.
Please tell me he can’t hear it. The closer he gets, the
harder it hammers. These two are probably together,
they’re a couple. Isn’t that what I’m supposed to
assume? I’m not really an expert at this kind of thing.

“Can I unwrap the bandage?”

I swallow hard, and nod again, and hope that my
heart can take the strain of him touching me.

Audrey tucks her dress behind her knees and dips
into a knees-together, ladylike squat next to Kumar.
Her eyes skim my bare feet, slide up to my cutoffs and
tank top, stop at my makeup-less face. Why do girls
always look me over like this?

My heart sinks. Which makes me feel lame, because
my life is not about feeling insecure. But if Audrey is the
kind of girl Kumar likes, he would have zero interest in
me. Petite I’m not. I’m not fat, I’m just…built. Muscled
and solid and tall. As for girly? Put it this way: I’m proud
of being a girl, but girly? Not so much. I glance at
my bare feet and unpolished toes, the light hairs on my
unshaved shins, and I reach back to tighten my long
brown ponytail. Whatever. I am what I am.

Besides, if they’re together I shouldn’t even be
thinking these things.

Kumar cups the back of my foot and lifts it. I take a
deep breath because it hurts, and because my heart is
beating so hard.

Audrey and Kumar confer. Their words seem to
float between them, bubbles that glint and pop.

“OHMIGOD!” The girl scrambles backward.

The boy frowns at my ankle. “It’s not
that
bad.”

The color has drained from her face, leaving it ashy.
In terror, she points at the jar. “Snake! Snake!”

“Oh no. I’m sorry! I should have warned you.” I hate
that people are afraid of such wonderful creatures. I
don’t want to be the cause of any snake-hate. “He’s just
a little ribbon snake. Completely harmless.”

She shakes her head, apparently unconvinced. She
takes another step back.

“Would it be better if I let it go? Or do you want me
to keep it contained?”

“Con…contained.”

“Okay. Don’t worry. I’ll keep it in the jar and—”

The boy rolls his eyes at Audrey. “Don’t be such a
wuss.” He turns to me and asks, “Planning on keeping
it?”

“No. I was just doing some—”

“Drawings.” He’s spotted my journal. “Wow. Can I
see?”

“Sure.”

He picks it up and thumbs through the pages. “Holy
crap. These are amazing.”

“Thanks.”

“What?” The girl tries to see without moving closer.

“Drawings. The snake and other stuff.” He flips my
journal shut and hands it to me, then turns to the girl.
“Jay, why don’t you start back? We’ll wait until you get
far ahead before we let the snake loose.”

“No no no no no no no. I am not liking your plan.
Trudging back through the forest alone? I don’t think so.” She wraps her arms around herself. “There might be more snakes or other various reptiles. Or what if I take a wrong turn and get lost forever?”

The boy groans.

“How about this?” I say. “On the count of three, you run, and I’ll let the snake go in the other direction—”

“And I’ll carry you out of here,” Kumar says.

Oh yeah. My ankle. He’s going to carry me, like I need to be rescued? How humiliating!

Plus, can I handle being that close to him? His
beauty is pathological. Which pisses me off, really. Me
being all swooning and hyperventilating—it’s so lame.

But he’s already counting: “One, two…”

The girl takes off, and I hurry to let Ribbons the snake go. The boy picks me up, grunting a little with the effort. Yeah, I’m not small.

“I’m not a damsel in distress, you know.”

He laughs. “Trust me: the thought did not occur.”

2

You know there are moments such as these when time stands still and all you do is hold your breath and hope it will wait for you.

—D
OROTHEA
L
ANGE, PHOTOJOURNALIST,
1895–1965

Audrey Hepburn’s real name is Jacinda and
beauteous Kumar is Rajas.

Rajas. He’s carrying me piggyback to his car, which
he says is parked on the state forest access road not
too far away. When the trail is wide enough, Jacinda
walks beside us. She scrunches her nose as she picks
her way through the flora. “Tell me if you see any
snakes.” She laughs. “Actually, don’t tell me if you see
any snakes. Just tell me to run.”

“Got it.” I keep an eye out for any slithery movement.
My nose is scrunching too—out of frustration at
my heart, which continues to jump around because of
Rajas. It won’t listen to me, even though I’m a strong
woman with strong morals. If the dude’s taken, he’s
taken. Stop it, heart. Then again, I can’t blame you too
much, heart: I
am
straddling the boy’s back, my thighs
are
rubbing against his arms. And he’s so warm. And
he smells so good.

“What brought you two out this way?” I ask Rajas
and Jacinda, to distract myself from my heart (and/or
pheromones).

Rajas’s attempt at a shrug suffers under my weight.
“Just looking around.”

“Raj dragged me out here.”

“Because it’s good for you,” Rajas tells Jacinda.
“Clear your head from all that girly crap you’re into.”

“Hey,” I interrupt. “Girly doesn’t necessarily make
something crap.”

“Yeah.” Jacinda smiles. “Girls rule, boys drool.”

“Way to take the conversation back to second grade,
Jay,” Rajas says. “Besides, Eve doesn’t seem like the
girly type.”

Okay…is that good or bad? In his eyes, I mean.
Dang! What is wrong with me! Why do I care?

“What about you?” Rajas asks me. “Why were you
out here? Alone?”

“Yeah, do you, like, hang out here all the time?”

“I do,” I answer. “I feel most at home when I’m outdoors.”

They respond simultaneously: Rajas says, “Nice.”
Jacinda says, “Ew. I cannot relate.” She swats at an
invisible insect. “Get me inside already. Seriously. I
never thought the Blue Biohazard would seem so
appealing.”

“I must have heard you wrong,” growls Rajas,
“because that sounded like you are disrespecting my
baby.”

Did I miss something? Is he really mad? “The blue
what?”

“Biohazard,” answers Jacinda. “Raj’s car. He gets
snippy if you don’t bow down and worship it.”

“You don’t need to worship her. Polishing her hubcabs
would suffice.”

I lean closer to Rajas’s ear. I’m fully supportive of
naming inanimate objects, but still. “The Blue
Biohazard
?”

“Blue, for obvious reasons. Biohazard, because she
averages a stately five miles a gallon.” Rajas puffs out
his chest in a show of pride.

“And because it, like, leaks fluids everywhere.”

“Just my baby’s way of sharing the love, Jay.”

“Wow.” I lean back a little; Rajas shifts his hold to
adjust to my weight shift. More skin against skin: it
sends a tingle. “Five miles a gallon? I think that might
be worse than a Hummer.”

Rajas laughs. “You know it. Figured I’d save myself
the sixty thousand, and just drive grandpa’s car until it
falls apart.”

We all settle into happy quiet. Around us, nut -
hatches and chickadees skitter on tree branches.
Rajas’s boots pad softly on the earth. Jacinda’s flip-flops
thwup thwup thwup
against her soles. While I study the
shafts of sunlight filtering through the evergreens,
Rajas shifts again. Tingle.

“Am I getting too heavy?”

“You’re fine.” Rajas pops me up to shift my weight a
couple of inches higher.

“I must say, this is quite the…” I trail off, trying to
think of a word other than
rescue
.

“Quite the non-rescue?” Rajas suggests. “Because
you’re a non-damsel in non-distress, right?”

I laugh. “Right.”

“I always considered myself a non-hero,” Rajas says.

“Yeah, non-problem whatso-never,” Jacinda says.

“Still. You guys don’t even know me,” I say. “That
could’ve been a really long wait back there if you hadn’t
come along.”

“Well we love non-rescues, don’t we, Raj?”

“Of course.” Sweat dews on Rajas’s shoulders and
chest; our bodies are starting to slip and stick where
our skin touches. “We’re almost there now.”

“Blue Biohazard, here we come!” Jacinda picks up
into a jog.

“Fantastic,” I say, but really, I wouldn’t mind more
walking—miles more—so I could be with Rajas like this
for a long, long time.

“Turn here.” I point to the gravel road. “My driveway’s
up the hill.”

“Roger that.” Rajas turns the car onto the pitted
road. The Blue Biohazard is the perfect name for his
enormous, leaky, rusty, rickety old boat of a car.

“I shudder to think of the havoc we’re wreaking on
the environment,” I say, “but…this is a great car. Tons
of personality.” I’m riding in the front, next to Rajas,
because of my ankle. I suppose Jacinda usually sits
here. God, I wish my heart would stop pounding. But
he is so beautiful. And so nice. With a great sense of
humor. And he and Jacinda seem to get my jokes,
which isn’t a small thing, isn’t a common thing at all. I
haven’t had many friends my own age.

“Thanks.” Rajas pats the steering wheel. “My sweet,
sweet baby. 1976 Buick Skylark.”

“I have a feeling you might appreciate my own
vehicular transportation.”

“Oh yeah?” he asks.

“Mmm-hmm. Martha—that’s my mom—and I have
a 1961 Volkswagen minibus.”

“No way. That is a sweet ride.”

“Ugh.” Jacinda pops into the space between the
front seats. “You two cannot be serious! You are, like,
two of a kind with your old piece-of-junk clunkers!”

Two of a kind?
If you say so! Sweat prickles my forehead.
“That’s what we call her. The Clunker.”

Jacinda rolls her eyes and groans; Rajas elbows her
back to her seat.

“But you have me beat,” I tell Rajas, “with all your
elite universities.” College stickers coat the Biohazard’s
rear window.

Rajas squints at me like he’s trying to tell if I’m serious.
“Yeah,” he says. “Lends an air of grandeur.”

“Very prestigious,” I say.

“He’s being ironic,” Jacinda chimes in. “Because his
car is such a heap? And they are such good schools?”

“I think she got that, Jay.” Rajas flashes me a devious,
gorgeous, lopsided smile that sends my stomach
into a spin.

Jacinda makes a face at Rajas before she says to me,
“It’s the whole Ivy League except Cornell.”

“Why not Cornell?”

“I’m waiting”—Rajas lifts his chin in the direction of
the backseat—“for Jay to give me that one.”

“Because that’s where I want to go next year,”
Jacinda explains.

“Wait, really?” I turn around. The girl is full of surprises.
Which you’ve got to love. But why would Rajas
be waiting for Jacinda to go to Cornell before he gets
the sticker? They must be together. Why else would he
care so much about her plans? “That’s where I want to
go,” I say.

“Get out! That is so cool!”

Rajas looks over at me. “Really? Cornell? You don’t
seem like—”

“Ivy League material?” I raise my eyebrows. “Why?
Because I don’t wear shoes and don’t shave my legs?”

He looks stricken. “I really didn’t mean it like that.”

I laugh. “You’re right; I’m not their typical profile.
But I’ve been taking online courses and they have this
fantastic Urban Planning program with a concentration
in Social Justice. You work with architects and planners,
plus do antipoverty campaigns and that kind of
thing. The point is to learn how to build communities
that help people help themselves. A bunch of their students
helped Hurricane Katrina survivors rebuild in
New Orleans, back when it happened.” I take a deep
breath. “I’d be into the program whether it was at
Morrisville Extension or City College or East Podunk
University. But I have to admit, I don’t mind that it’s
Cornell. Ithaca is gorgeous.”

This seems to meet Rajas’s approval. He smiles.
“That should be a bumper sticker.”

“It really should.” I laugh. He’s sharp, this one.

Jacinda says, “It
is
a bumper sticker! I’ve seen them!”

Rajas says, “It was a joke, Jay.”

“Oh.”

Rajas looks thoughtful and tips his chin. “Is that why
you’re going to high school this year? Is it hard to apply
if you’re—” He jerks the wheel to avoid a pothole. “Do
they let in homeschoolers?”

“Colleges love homeschoolers!” Jacinda answers for
me. “I read an article about it in the
New York Times
.”

Wow. Score one for the girly girl. She’s ambitious
and well-read. Right on, Jacinda.

“So they say,” I agree. I tell Rajas, “High school is a
curiosity to me. I only have a year left, so I thought, why
not give it a try, see what it’s all about? Bells, detention,
people getting stuffed in lockers, prom queens, house
parties, that kind of thing.
Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast
Club, Clueless.
I’m a sucker for movies about high
school. Especially the classics.”

“Don’t get your hopes up,” Rajas says. “High school
is overrated.”

“Don’t make her jaded!” Jacinda leans forward. “I
think high school is fun. You get to be with your friends,
and do all sorts of activities, and some of the teachers
are really good…”

Rajas frowns. “And some are sketchy as hell.”

“Whatever.” Jacinda waves him away and turns to
me. “We’ll show you the ropes. You’ll do awesome and
then you’ll get into Cornell!”

“I hope so.” Cornell is the one thing I don’t want to
jeopardize.

“That means if you think high school sucks, you can
just go back to homeschool.” Rajas sounds like he’s
been following his own train of thought instead of listening
to Jacinda. “Nice back-up plan.”

“Exactly! Cornell never has to know.” I point to a
small dirt road on the right. “Here it is. Up near the
Christmas-tree farm.” I untwist my ponytail and comb
my fingers through my hair. “I talked with the head professor
in Urban Planning. He seems super smart and
super nice. The students I talked to were great too.”

“Shut up! You had an
interview?
Already?” Jacinda
sounds panicked. “When? I didn’t know they had interviews
yet.”

Gathering my hair back up and snapping the elastic
around it, I turn to face Jacinda as best I can without
jostling my ankle. The Blue Biohazard’s terrible shocks
have already given it quite a few jolts. “It wasn’t an
interview
interview.” I shrug. “Martha and I just went for
a visit.”

Jacinda’s eyebrows knit together in confusion.
“Martha? Your mom? What do you mean? You just…
showed up?”

I make an apologetic face. “I e-mailed first.”

She slumps into the seat. “I didn’t…I didn’t know you
could do that!”

“They’re just people,” I offer. “People love to talk
about what they do. You just have to give them the
opportunity.”

She’s still frowning.

Okay. Time to change the subject. “So. Why Cornell
for you?”

She musters a pretty smile. “Because it’s Cornell.
And it’s close enough to come home and do laundry.
My mom doesn’t want me too far away.”

“Don’t believe her,” Rajas says. “Jay just wants the
sweatshirt. She’s into labels.”

“Shut up!” Jacinda swats the back of his head.
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to go to an Ivy
League school.”

“But I’m curious, why
Cornell
?” I ask. “What do
they
have that…” From the look on Jacinda’s face, I’ve lost
her. I try another tack. “What are you interested in
studying?”

“Oh. Maybe, like, history and economics? My mom
is all, ‘Don’t stress yourself, you should follow your
dreams,’ or something like that, but I am thinking that
I’ll go to law school and get my MBA at the same time.”

“Jay’s already planning to sell out.”

“Am not!”

We bump over another big dip and my ankle throbs.
Time for another change of subject. “What about you?”
I ask Rajas. “Do you have any plans?”

“Raj is a slacker,” Jacinda says. “His plans are to
slack.”

“Slacker and sellout. You two are quite the combination.”

Rajas scratches his head. “Jay thinks anyone who
doesn’t go straight to college is a slacker.”

“I’m not the only one, Raj. Ask your mom.”

Is she kidding? I can’t tell.

Rajas ignores her. “The shop teacher, Mr. Pascal,
hooked me up with a paid carpentry apprenticeship.
Sweet deal, because they’re hard to come by.”

“Sounds fantastic!” I enthuse. “Your parents aren’t
into that?”

“My dad’s cool with it. But my mom thinks I should
be a doctor or a software engineer. Same old story.
Holy crap, how long is your driveway?”

He seems to be looking for another change of subject,
so I oblige. I point at the white dome coming into
view. “We’re almost there.”

“No way! Really?” Jacinda scoots forward in her seat
again. “You live in that?”

“I do indeed. Welcome to the Dome Home.” Quite
an inspiring sight, in my humble opinion. My house
looks like a huge luminous igloo, a half sphere rising
up from the earth. A soft eggshell covering of polyester
and nylon drapes the frame, shaped by beams that
converge in triangles. Clear round plastic windows dot
the structure. Stretching off the ground on one side of
the dome is a gigantic semispherical vinyl window. The
entire upper third of our home is another transparent
flexible window. Martha and I always dreamed of living
in a sustainable home we built ourselves, and now
we do. I am so proud of us, and our house.

Rajas parks the Blue Biohazard on a patch of hard
dirt near the Dome Home. He gets out and pulls his
seat forward for Jacinda while I clamber out my door. I
hop over to the hammock and sit back with care. Rajas
sprawls out onto the grass nearby.
After handing me my backpack, Jacinda walks
around, looking everywhere, taking everything in. Her
flip-flops
thwup thwup
against her feet.

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