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Shingaling a wonder stor.., p.8
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       Shingaling: A Wonder Story, p.8

           R. J. Palacio
 
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  I saw her hand the envelope to Ellie, who seemed a bit confused.

  “I can’t watch,” said Lina, closing her eyes.

  And now the lions, hungry for fresh meat, begin the hunt.

  How I Stayed Neutral—Again

  Pretty much everything I predicted would happen happened as I predicted. After giving Ellie the note in front of everyone at the table, Maya turned around and started walking away. Ellie and the Savanna group exchanged laughing looks, and before Maya had even reached the next table, Savanna, Ximena, and Gretchen got out of their chairs to huddle around Ellie as she opened the envelope. I could see their faces clearly as they read the note. Ximena gasped at one point, while Savanna obviously thought it was hilarious.

  Maya kept walking across the room toward the exit, looking at me and Lina as she walked. Believe it or not, she was smiling at us. I could tell she was actually very happy. From her point of view, she was getting something off her chest that had really been bothering her, and, since she didn’t give a hoot what the popular group thought about her, she didn’t see herself as having anything to lose. The truth is, Maya was beyond their being able to hurt her. It was only Ellie she was mad at because Ellie had been her friend. But Maya really didn’t care what those other girls thought about her, or that they might be laughing at her this very moment.

  In a way, I have to admit: I admired Maya’s bravery.

  Having said that, I knew the last thing in the world I wanted right now was to be seen with her, so I started walking away from the window before she got back outside. I especially didn’t want Ximena to see me there, waiting for Maya outside. I didn’t want anyone to think I had anything to do with this kind of craziness.

  Just like I had managed to stay neutral in a war among the boys, I wanted to stay neutral in what might have turned into a war among the girls.

  How Ximena Reacted

  Summer texted me later that afternoon. Did u hear about what Maya did?

  Yes, I texted.

  I’m with Ximena right now. We’re at my place. She’s really upset. Can you come over?

  “Mom,” I said, just as we were getting ready for dinner. “Can I go to Summer’s house?”

  Mom shook her head. “No.”

  “Please? It’s kind of an emergency.”

  She looked at me. “What happened?”

  “I can’t explain now,” I answered quickly, getting my coat. “Please, Mom? I’ll be back soon, promise.”

  “Does it have to do with the dance number?” she asked.

  “Kind of,” I fibbed.

  “Okay, text me when you get there. But I want you home by six-thirty.”

  Summer only lived four blocks away from me, so I was there within ten minutes. Summer’s mom buzzed me in.

  “Hi, Charlotte, they’re in the back,” she said when she opened the front door. She took my coat.

  I made my way back to Summer’s bedroom, where Ximena, just as Summer had texted, was crying on Summer’s bed. Summer had a box of tissues in her hands and was consoling her.

  They told me the whole story, which I pretended not to know too much about. Maya had handed Ellie a note in front of everybody, and the note was full of really “venomous” things about Ximena. That’s how they described it to me.

  “She called me evil!” said Ximena, wiping tears from her face. “I mean, what did I ever do to Maya? I don’t even know her!”

  “I was telling Ximena that Maya can be kind of socially awkward sometimes,” said Summer, patting Ximena’s back like a mom would.

  “Socially awkward?” said Ximena. “That’s not social awkwardness, that’s just mean! Do you know what it’s like to have everyone reading something that awful about you? They passed her note around the table, and everyone took turns reading it—even the boys. And everybody thought it was hysterical. Savanna practically peed her pants, she thought it was so funny. I pretended I thought it was funny, too! Ha-ha. Isn’t it hilarious that somebody I barely know blames me for turning people into zombies?” She put air quotes on the word “zombies.” Then she started crying again.

  “It’s awful, Ximena,” I said, biting the inside of my cheek. “I’m so sorry she did that.”

  “I told her we would talk to Maya,” Summer said to me.

  I gave her a long look. “To do what?” I asked.

  “To tell her how upsetting what she wrote was,” Summer answered. “Since we’re friends with Maya, I figured we could explain how it hurt Ximena’s feelings.”

  “Maya’s not going to care,” I said quickly. “She won’t get it, Ximena, believe me.” How to explain to her? “Honestly, Ximena, I’ve known Maya for years, and in her mind, this wasn’t about you. It’s about Ellie. She’s just mad that Ellie doesn’t hang out with her anymore.”

  “Obviously. But that’s my fault!” said Ximena.

  “I know that,” I said, “but Maya doesn’t know that, and she just wants to blame someone. She wants everything to go back to the way it was in lower school. And she figures it’s your fault that things have changed.”

  “That’s just idiotic!” Ximena said.

  “I know!” I said. “It’s like Savanna being mad at me for having been in a TV commercial once. It makes no sense.”

  “How do you know all this?” asked Ximena. “Did she tell you?”

  “No!” I said.

  “Did you know about the note beforehand?”

  “No!” I said.

  Summer rescued me. “So what did Ellie say when she read Maya’s note?” she asked Ximena.

  “Oh, she was so mad,” answered Ximena. “She and Savanna want to go all out on Maya, post something super-mean about her on Facebook or whatever. Then Miles drew this cartoon. They want to post it on Instagram.”

  She nodded for Summer to hand me a folded-up piece of loose-leaf paper, which I opened. On it was a crude drawing of a girl (who was obviously Maya) kissing a boy (who was obviously Auggie Pullman). Underneath it was written: “Freaks in love.”

  “Wait, why are they bringing Auggie into it?” Summer asked, incensed.

  “I don’t know,” she said. “Miles was just trying to make me laugh. Everyone was laughing like it’s all some kind of giant joke. But I don’t think it’s funny.”

  “I’m really sorry, Ximena,” I said.

  “Why does Maya hate me?” she asked sadly.

  “You just have to put it out of your mind,” I advised her. “And not take it personally. Remember you told me I have to stop caring so much what people think about me? You have to do the same thing. Forget what Maya thinks about you.”

  “I didn’t ask to be part of Savanna’s group when I started at Beecher Prep,” said Ximena. “I didn’t know who anyone was, or who was friends with who, or who was mad at who. Savanna was the first person who was nice to me, that’s all.”

  “Well?” I answered, raising my chin and my shoulders. “That’s not exactly true. I was nice to you.”

  Ximena looked surprised.

  “I was nice to you,” Summer added.

  “What, now you guys are ganging up on me, too?” said Ximena.

  “No, no way,” said Summer. “Just trying to make you see it from Maya’s point of view, that’s all. She’s not a mean girl, Ximena. Maya doesn’t even really have a mean bone in her body. She’s mad at Ellie, and Ellie has been kind of mean to her lately. That’s it.”

  “Ellie hasn’t really even been mean,” I said. “She just ditched us for you guys. Which is fine. I don’t care. I’m not Maya.”

  Ximena covered her face with her hands.

  “Does everybody hate me?” she said, looking at us between her fingers.

  “No!” we both answered.

  “We certainly don’t,” said Summer, handing Ximena a box of Kleenex.

  Ximena blew her nose. “I guess I haven’t been that nice to her in general,” she said quietly.

  “Drawings like this don’t help,” said Summer, handing the sketch Miles had made back to Xim
ena.

  Ximena took it and ripped it up into lots of little pieces.

  “Just so you know,” she said, “I would never have posted that. And I told Savanna and Ellie not to dare make any mean comments about Maya on Facebook or anything. I would never be a cyber-bully.”

  “I know,” said Summer. She was about to say something else when there was a knock on the door.

  Summer’s mom popped her head in.

  “Hey, guys,” she said cautiously. “Is everything okay?”

  “We’re fine, Mom,” said Summer. “Just some girl drama.”

  “Charlotte, your mom just called,” Summer’s mom said. “She says you promised you’d be home in ten minutes.”

  I looked at my phone. It was already 6:20 p.m.!

  “Thanks,” I said to Summer’s mom. And then to Summer and Ximena: “I better go. Are you going to be okay, Ximena?”

  She nodded. “Thanks for coming. Both of you, thanks for being so nice,” she said. “I just really wanted to talk to someone about it, but I couldn’t actually talk to Savanna and Ellie, you know?”

  We nodded.

  “I better go home, too,” she said, standing up.

  The three of us walked down the hallway to the front door, where Summer’s mom looked like she was trying to organize the coats.

  “Why the long faces, girls?” she asked cheerfully. “I would think you’d be jumping up and down for joy about the big day tomorrow! After all those rehearsals and all the hard work you’ve put into it. I can’t wait to see you guys dancing!”

  “Oh yeah,” I answered, nodding. I looked at Summer and Ximena. “It is pretty exciting.”

  Summer and Ximena started smiling.

  “Yeah,” said Ximena.

  “I’m actually kind of nervous,” said Summer. “I’ve never danced in front of an audience before!”

  “You just have to pretend they’re not there,” answered Ximena. You would never know that two minutes ago she’d been crying.

  “That’s awesome advice,” said Summer’s mom.

  “That’s what I said, too!” I chimed in.

  “Are your parents going to be there, Ximena?” Summer’s mom asked. “I look forward to meeting them at the banquet.”

  “Yeah,” she answered politely, smiling with her dimple on full power now.

  “All the parents are sitting at the same table,” I said. “And Mrs. Atanabi and her husband.”

  “Oh good,” said Summer’s mom. “I’m looking forward to hanging out with everyone.”

  “Bye, Summer. Bye, Mrs. Dawson,” said Ximena.

  “Bye!” I said.

  We walked down the stairs to the lobby together, Ximena and me, and then headed down the block toward Main Street, where she would make a left turn and I would make a right turn.

  “You feeling better now?” I said as we stopped on the corner.

  “Yeah,” she answered, smiling. “Thanks, Charlotte. You’ve been a really good friend.”

  “Thanks. You, too.”

  “Nah.” She shook her head, playing with the fringes of my scarf. She gave me a long look. “I know I could’ve been nicer to you sometimes, Charlotte.” Then she hugged me. “Sorry.”

  I have to say, it felt really awesome hearing that from her.

  “Cool beans,” I said.

  “See you tomorrow.”

  “Bye.”

  I walked past the restaurants along Amesfort Avenue, which were finally starting to get busy again now that the weather was becoming warmer. I couldn’t stop thinking about what Ximena had just said. Yeah, she could’ve been nicer to me sometimes. Could I have been nicer to some people, too?

  I stopped at the big intersection for the light. That’s when I noticed the back of a man in an orange parka boarding a bus. With a black dog next to him. The dog was wearing a red bandanna.

  “Gordy Johnson!” I called out, running after him as soon as the light changed.

  He turned when he heard his name, but the doors of the bus closed behind him.

  How Mrs. Atanabi Wished Us Well

  In the upper-floor studios of Carnegie Hall, which is where Mrs. Atanabi had us get ready for the show, there’s a hallway with framed pictures and programs of some of the great dancers who’ve performed there over the years. As we walked down that hall on the way to change into our costumes, Mrs. Atanabi pointed to one of the photographs. It was a picture of the Duncan Dancers, Isadora Duncan’s daughters, posing very theatrically in long white tunics. It was dated November 3, 1923.

  “Look, they’re just like the three of you!” she chirped happily. “Let me take a picture of you girls in front of it,” she said, pulling out her phone and aiming it toward us.

  The three of us instantly posed next to the picture, standing the same way the dancers were: me on the left, hands in the air facing right; Summer on the right, hands in the air facing left; and Ximena in the middle, arms spread out in front of her facing the camera.

  Mrs. Atanabi snapped several shots, until she was content with one, and then the four of us—because Mrs. Atanabi was every bit as excited as we were tonight—giddily trotted to the back room to get into our costumes.

  We weren’t the only ones performing tonight. The Upper School Jazz Ensemble and the Upper School Chamber Choir were already there. We could hear the sounds of trumpets and saxophones and other instruments echoing through the hallways, and the choir doing warm-ups in a large room next to our dressing room.

  Mrs. Atanabi helped us with our hair and makeup. It was so awesome how she transformed each of our hairstyles into big, round bouffants with curled, flicked-up ends, topped by a cloud of hair spray. Although we all had such different types of hair, Mrs. Atanabi somehow made us match perfectly!

  We were going on last. It felt like such a long wait! We held hands the whole time and tried to talk ourselves out of being completely panicked.

  When it was finally time for us to go on, Mrs. Atanabi brought us downstairs to the back stage of the Stern Auditorium. We peeked through the curtains at the audience as the Upper School Chamber Choir finished its last song. There were so many people! You couldn’t make out anyone’s face, because it was so dark, but it was the biggest auditorium I had ever seen—with balconies and gilded arches and velvet walls!

  Mrs. Atanabi had us take our positions behind the curtains: Ximena in the middle, me on the left, Summer on the right. Then she faced us.

  “Girls, you’ve worked so hard,” she whispered, her voice shaking with emotion. “I can’t thank you enough for all the time you’ve put into making my piece come to life. Your energy, your enthusiasm…”

  Her voice cracked. She wiped a tear away excitedly. If we hadn’t read that article about her, we might not have understood why this was all so important to her. But we knew. We never told her we had found that article about her. That we knew about her childhood friend. We figured if she had wanted us to know, she would have told us. But knowing that little piece of her story somehow made the dance and everything leading up to it that much more special. Funny how all our stories kind of intertwine. Every person’s story weaves in and out of someone else’s story.

  “I’m just so proud of you, girls!” she whispered, kissing us each on our forehead.

  The audience was applauding the choir, which had just finished. As the singers streamed backstage through the wings, Mrs. Atanabi made her way around the front of the stage to wait for Mr. Tushman to introduce her, and we took our positions. We could hear Mrs. Atanabi introducing the number we were about to dance, and us.

  “This is it, guys!” Ximena whispered to us as the curtain started to rise.

  We waited for the music to start. Five. Six.

  Five-six-seven-eight!

  It’s the shingaling, baby!

  How We Danced

  I wish I could describe every second of those eleven minutes on stage, every move, every jump. Every shimmy and twist. But of course I can’t. All I can say is that the whole thing went ABSOLUTELY PE
RFECTLY. Not one missed cue or fumble. Basically, for eleven solid minutes, it felt like we were dancing ten feet above the rest of the world. It was the most thrilling, exciting, tiring, emotional, fun, awesome experience of my life, and as we ramped up to the big finish, stoplighting to well let me tell you nobody, nobody before busting into Mrs. Atanabi’s signature shingaling, which was a variation she invented, I could feel the energy of the entire audience as they clapped along to the song.

  Nobody, nobody,

  Nobody, nobody

  Nobody, nobody…

  And then we were done. It was over. Out of breath, beaming from ear to ear. Thunderous applause.

  The three of us bowed in sync, and then we took our individual bows. The audience hooted and hollered.

  Our parents were ready with flowers for us. And my mom handed me an extra bouquet, which we gave to Mrs. Atanabi when she came onstage with us to take a bow. I wished, for a second, that all the fifth graders who’d ever laughed behind Mrs. Atanabi’s back could see her now, right this minute, as I was seeing her. In her beautiful gown, her bun perfectly made—she looked like a queen.

  How We Spent the Rest of the Night

  A little later, after changing out of our costumes, we joined our parents for dinner in the banquet hall downstairs. As we wound our way through the round tables full of teachers, other parents, and a lot of grown-ups we didn’t know, people congratulated us and complimented our dancing. I thought to myself, This is what it feels like to be famous. And I loved it.

  Our parents were all sitting together at a table by the time we got there, along with Mrs. Atanabi and her husband. There was a little round of applause from them as we sat down, and then, basically, we spent the rest of the evening talking to each other nonstop, breaking down every second of the dance, where we’d been nervous about not making a particular kick, where we’d gotten a little dizzy coming out of a spin.

  Before dinner was served, Dr. Jansen, the headmaster of the school, gave a short speech thanking everyone for coming to the benefit, and then asked Mrs. Atanabi, as well as the choir teacher and the jazz teacher, to stand up for another round of applause. Ximena, Summer, and I cheered as loud as we could. Then he talked about other things, like financial goals and fund-raising, and stuff that was so boring I couldn’t wait for him to stop. Later, after we’d finished our salads, Mr. Tushman made a speech about the importance of supporting the arts at Beecher Prep so the school could continue to nurture the kind of “talent” they’d watched tonight. And this time he asked all the students who had performed tonight to stand up again for another round of applause. Around the room, the kids from the jazz ensemble and choir stood up with varying degrees of willingness and shyness. The three of us, though, weren’t the least bit shy about standing up for another round of applause. Whatl I can say?

 
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