The cool of early morning was still in the air as Ms. Ferrill’s gym class lined up on the blacktop in front of the fields. Dante Spenser took her place in the front row, trying not to make eye contact with any of the girls around her. Even after three months she was still the new kid, and still hadn’t really made any friends. Ms. Ferrill looked brightly at the girls in front of her, some still shivering in their gym uniforms.
“O.k., girls, it’s Friday, why don’t we do something just for fun? This morning we’re going to pick some captains, and choose teams for softball.”
Dante groaned inwardly, thinking that there was nothing about gym class she would consider fun, least of all picking teams for softball. She waited while the teacher looked over her roster and picked Carol Hansen and Renee Richards as captains. Both girls were athletic and competitive, and Dante knew neither would want her on their team. During her short time at Norton Lewis Middle School, she had already proven herself to be shy, bookish, and terrible at sports. Once the captains had been chosen, the girls moved onto the field to begin picking their teams.
Dante stood on the grass studying her shoes, waiting for Carol and Renee to begin calling out names. She knew she would be one of the last ones picked, because she couldn’t run very fast, she couldn’t hit the ball, and she was afraid to try and catch it when it was hit to her. But mostly she knew she would be one of the last ones picked because none of the other kids liked her very much.
When her family moved to town three months ago, Dante had gotten sick right before school started and had to begin the school year during the third period of the third day of classes. In that short time her older brother Shaun had already made several friends, and seemed to be popular with the cool kids. Dante had gone to her third-period class and waited outside, gathering up the nerve to walk in. When she finally did, 28 pairs of eyes were glued to her. Not only was she the new girl with the funny name, but she had a cute and funny older brother most of the girls wanted to get to know.
Although she had wanted to make friends, she wasn’t good at it. That first day at lunch she had walked into the cafeteria looking for a place to sit. One of the girls who had been in her third-period class smiled and waved her over.
“Hey, want to sit with us?” she smiled and seemed friendly. Dante just nodded and set her tray on the table. The other girls watched her expectantly, but she just sat down with her eyes on her tray, and put her napkin in her lap.
The friendly girl spoke, “I’m Becky, and this is Renee, Carol and Susan.” The other girls said a perfunctory “hi,” and Dante said a quiet “hi” back. They seemed to be waiting for her to say something else, but she had no idea what that would be, so she began to silently eat her lunch.
“So, your brother is really cute!” Susan said. They all giggled and Dante swallowed. She looked up at their eager faces. “I guess,” she said. They waited, but she continued to eat.
“Well,” Renee said, “maybe we can come over to your house sometime after school. It would be really great to get to know you.” She and Carol exchanged glances and smiles and Dante just nodded.
“Hey,” Becky said, “don’t you live in that really cool old house over by Saguaro Park?”
Dante could feel her face getting hot. Although she loved the big old house her parents had bought, she knew it was just one more thing that made her stand out – the weird girl living in the weird house. When she had first seen it, she couldn’t believe her parents had bought it. It looked like it was falling apart. They had both been so excited about the “potential.” Her brother had taken one look and said, “What a pile of junk.” Her dad had smiled broadly.
“Well,” he said, “that might be what you see. But I think we’ll be able to clean it up and fix it up and it will be perfect for us. What do you think Dante?” he asked, looking at her.
“It kind of reminds me of the house in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” she had said. “Before it was fixed up.”
Her parents just laughed. They knew it needed work but they had gotten a great deal on it, and couldn’t wait to get enough work done so they could move in. Now that her father’s transfer was final, getting the house had been the last step in the big move.
Dante wallowed another bite of her lunch and just nodded in response to Becky’s question.
“I’ve heard it’s haunted!” Susan said with excitement, then looked around conspiratorially. “Dante have you ever seen any ghosts?” The other girls laughed and Dante just shook her head. Her face was getting hotter and she knew she was starting to turn red.
“Oh, I’ll bet it’s really cool inside,” Becky said, starting to look worried. She had frowned at Susan, but Renee and Carol didn’t pick up on the hint. Instead, they picked up where Susan left off.
“Yeah,” Carol said, “didn’t someone get murdered in there? Isn’t that why it was empty for so long?”
“My dad said the Realtor was just waiting for some sucker thinking he could do renovation,” said Renee casually. She then looked quickly at Dante and said, “Sorry, I didn’t mean anything.”
“It’s fine,” Dante said picking up her tray. “I’ve got to go to the library.”
“But you’re not done eating,” Becky said.
“I’m not that hungry,” Dante replied, heading for the tray drop. As she walked away she heard a whisper and an explosion of giggles. After that she had packed her lunch and eaten by herself, avoiding the other girls and looking down whenever she passed anyone in the hall. Once Susan had come by her house on her bike asking to see Dante, but when she found out Shaun wasn’t there she said she’d forgotten she had homework to do, and left.
“Come on, Renee, pick.” Carol’s voice brought Dante back to the blacktop, where the first few picks had gone quickly and then the captains had slowed down a bit, considering their choices. Dante looked over at Judy Snell, who got teased because she was overweight; Judy looked as miserable as Dante felt. She didn’t want anyone to know that she cared what they thought or whether they picked her for their team. She folded her arms in front of her chest and tried to look extremely bored while the last few girls on the field took their places behind the captains.
After a few minutes, Judy and Dante were the only two girls left to be picked for a team. It was Renee’s turn to pick. Becky, who had been Renee’s first choice, leaned over to whisper in her ear. Renee frowned for a moment, looked thoughtful and then shook her head. “No, sorry. Come on, Judy,” she said, and Judy seemed surprised and delighted that she wasn’t the last girl standing.
“O.k.,” Carol said, “I guess I’ve got Dante.”
Carol had her hands on her hips and was looking at Renee like she wasn’t very happy. Renee just shrugged and began walking out to the field.
Carol said, “O.k., let’s go,” and the girls broke apart. Carol directed Dante to left field, which everyone knew was the position where the captain felt you could do the least damage.
Dante stood with the morning sun in her face, and shifted her weight from foot to foot trying to warm herself up. The baseball glove on her left hand was uncomfortable and heavy, and she wasn’t even sure how to use it.
When Becky came up to bat, the girls in the field began backing up, anticipating a good hit. Dante held up her gloved hand to shield her eyes from the sun. She heard the crack as the ball hit the bat and looked up, trying to see the ball. She wanted to make sure that if it was coming toward her she got out of the way.
She glanced around and saw that the boys’ gym class was playing on the adjacent field. Cory Johnson, who Dante thought was about the cutest boy she had ever seen, was playing second base. She stood watching him for a moment, knowing that a boy like that could never like her. He was smart and really good at sports, and he had a lot of friends. All the girls liked him and he seemed really nice. He had smiled at Dante in the hallway a few times, and she had been so confused and embarrassed she had quickly looked away without smiling back. He probably hated her.
She heard someone shouting her name and turned around to the field. Becky was running and Dante looked around, trying to figure out who was shouting at her and what they wanted. She suddenly felt a searing pain in her head, and it took a moment for her to realize she’d been hit by the ball. Her knees buckled and it was all she could do to keep standing.
“You idiot!” Carol screamed as she ran from her post at shortstop, past Dante, to field the ball. “Didn’t you hear me yelling your name? It came right at you! And you just stood there!”
She grabbed the ball and threw it to the infield, but Becky was already safe on third. Dante was still standing in the same spot, looking blankly at Carol. She still wasn’t quite sure what had happened. Carol walked over to Dante and stood right in front of her.
“What’s wrong with you?” she hissed. “How hard is it to catch a softball?” Dante just stood there rubbing her head, feeling dazed and a little nauseous.
Ms. Ferrill was hurrying over to where Dante was standing, and Becky stood on third base looking guilty. Ms. Ferrill moved Carol aside with her arm and put her hand on Dante’s shoulder, looking directly into her eyes while asking, “Dante, are you o.k.?”
Dante looked at the teacher blankly. She could see Carol standing behind Ms. Ferrill, shaking her head and looking disgusted. Her head was beginning to hurt, she felt sick to her stomach, and to top it all off she could hear laughter behind her. She turned around and could see the boys on the other field had stopped playing and were looking at her, laughing. She didn’t dare look at Cory – she was too embarrassed. She turned to see Ms. Ferrill’s concerned face, and when the teacher reached her hand out, cupped Dante gently under the chin and asked, “Are you o.k. honey?” she dropped her head and began to cry. Oh great, she thought, desperately trying to stop. Now everyone will think I’m a baby too.
Ms. Ferrill gave Dante a quick hug and then stepped back and looked at her head, running her hand over the top where the ball had hit. “I think you’re o.k., you’re just going to have a little bump. Why don’t you go over to the sidelines and sit down for a minute, and then we’ll take you to see the nurse.”
She led Dante off the field. As she was leaving, she could hear Carol say, “What a spaz. She just stood there and let the ball hit her.” Several of the girls snickered, and Dante wiped her nose with the back of her hand and tried to look as though she didn’t care. She heard Becky say, “Shut up Carol, why don’t you just leave her alone?” She looked over at Becky to show her gratitude, but the other girl looked down when Dante tried to catch her eye.
Mr. Ferrill insisted Dante see the nurse, who insisted on calling her mother at work. Then it was Dante’s turn to insist she was fine and her mother didn’t need to come and get her. Finally the day was over, and Dante was able to ride her bike home. She let herself in the back door, and dropped her backpack on the table where Shaun sat eating a peanut butter sandwich. He took the bus so was always home first; Dante hated the noisy, chaotic bus ride with all the other kids, so she rode her bike.
“What’s up dork?” he asked with his mouth full. Dante ignored him, and poured herself a glass of milk. She headed toward the stairs.
“Hey I heard you tried to head butt a softball today!” he called after her, laughing. She didn’t answer.
“Better do your homework,” he yelled.
Dante turned back around and grabbed her backpack off the kitchen table, and then headed up the stairs to her room. She thought about how all the girls at school thought Shaun was so cute, and how later she would have to sit at the dinner table with him, trying not to watch as he shoveled food from his plate directly into his mouth.
“What do they see in him?” she asked herself as she closed her bedroom door on the ear-splitting burp coming from the kitchen.