Chapter 1 — Fish in a Tree

In Trouble Again

It’s always there. Like the ground underneath my feet.

“Well, Ally? Are you going to write or aren’t you?” Mrs. Hall asks.

If my teacher were mean it would be easier.

“C’mon,” she says. “I know you can do it.”

“What if I told you that I was going to climb a tree using only my teeth? Would you say I could do it then?”

Oliver laughs, throwing himself on his desk like it’s a fumbled football.

Shay groans. “Ally, why can’t you just act normal for once?”

Near her, Albert, a bulky kid who’s worn the same thing every day—a dark T-shirt that reads Flint—sits up straight. Like he’s waiting for a firecracker to go off.

Mrs. Hall sighs. “C’mon, now. I’m only asking for one page describing yourself.”

I can’t think of anything worse than having to describe myself. I’d rather write about something more positive. Like throwing up at your own birthday party.

“It’s important,” she says. “It’s so your new teacher can get to know you.”
I know that, and it’s exactly why I don’t want to do it. Teachers are like the machines that take quarters for bouncy balls. You know what you’re going to get. Yet, you don’t know, too.

“And,” she says. “All that doodling of yours, Ally. If you weren’t drawing all the time, your work might be done. Please put it away.”

Embarrassed, I slide my drawings underneath my blank writing assignment. I’ve been drawing pictures of myself being shot out of a cannon. It would be easier than school. Less painful.

“C’mon,” she says, moving my lined paper toward me. “Just do your best.”
Seven schools in seven years and they’re all the same. Whenever I do my best, they tell me I don’t try hard enough. Too messy. Careless spelling. Annoyed that the same word is spelled different ways on the same page. And the headaches. I always get headaches from looking at the brightness of dark letters on white pages for too long.

Mrs. Hall clears her throat.

The rest of the class is getting tired of me again. Chairs slide. Loud sighs. Maybe they think I can’t hear their words: Freak. Dumb. Loser.

I wish she’d just go hang by Albert, the walking Google page who’d get a better grade than me if he just blew his nose into the paper.

The back of my neck heats up.

I don’t get it. She always let me slide. It must be because these are for the new teacher and she can’t have one missing.

I stare at her big stomach. “So, did you decide what you’re going to name the baby?” I ask. Last week we got her talking about baby names for a full half hour of social studies.

“C’mon, Ally. No more stalling.”

I don’t answer.

“I mean it,” she says, and I know she does.

I watch a mind movie of her taking a stick and drawing a line in the dirt between us under a bright blue sky. She’s dressed as a sheriff and I’m wearing black and white prisoner stripes. My mind does this all the time—shows me these movies that seem so real that they carry me away inside of them. They are a relief from my real life.

I steel up inside, willing myself to do something I don’t really want to do. To escape this teacher who’s holding on and won’t let go.

I pick up my pencil and her body relaxes, probably relieved that I’ve given in.
But, instead, knowing she loves clean desks and things just so, I grip my pencil with a hard fist. And scribble all over my desk.

“Ally!” She steps forward quick. “Why would you do that?”

The circular scribbles are big on top and small on the bottom. It looks like a tornado and I wonder if I meant to draw a picture of my insides. I look back up at her. “It was there when I sat down.”

The laughter starts—but they’re not laughing because they think I’m funny.

“I can tell that you’re upset, Ally,” Mrs. Hall says.

I am not hiding that as well as I need to.

“She’s such a freak,” Shay says in one of those loud whispers that everyone is meant to hear.

Oliver is drumming on his desk now.

“That’s it,” Mrs. Hall finally says. “To the office. Now.”

I wanted this but now I am having second thoughts.

“Ally.”

“Huh?”

Everyone laughs again. She puts up her hand. “Anyone else who makes a sound gives up their recess.” The room is quiet.

“Ally. I said to the office.”

I can’t go see our principal, Mrs. Silver, again. I go to the office so much, I wonder when they’ll hang up a banner that says, “Welcome, Ally Nickerson!”

“I’m sorry,” I say, actually meaning it. “I’ll do it. I promise.”

She sighs. “Okay, Ally, but if that pencil stops moving, you’re going.”

She moves me to the reading table next to a Thanksgiving bulletin board about being grateful. Meanwhile, she sprays my desk with cleaner. Glancing at me like she’d like to spray me with cleaner. Scrub off the dumb.

I squint a bit, hoping the lights will hurt my head less. And then I try to hold my pencil the way I’m supposed to instead of the weird way my hand wants to.

I write with one hand and shield my paper with the other. I know I better keep the pencil moving, so I write the word “Why?” over and over from the top of the page to the very bottom.

One, because I know how to spell it right and, two, because I’m hoping someone will finally give me an answer.