The Chapter Where You Don’t Feel Sorry for Me (Chapter 1)

Today is my thirty-ninth last day of school. If that sounds complicated, it’s not really. You see, Dad gets a new job in a new town every four weeks. There’s thirty-six weeks in the average school year. And we’ve been on the road for the past four and a half years. It’s basic math (which I’ve now taken in thirty-nine different schools).

But if you’re already starting to feel sorry for me, or send out invitations to my pity party, you can stop right there. I love traveling around with Dad. We call it our “life on the go.” I’ve seen more of this country in the past four and half years than most people ever do.

And even though we rarely live in the same place for longer than a month, our life is actually pretty routine. Like right now, on my thirty-ninth last day of school, Dad is back at the hotel, packing up the car like always, and I’m sitting in the last row of my latest social studies classroom, blending into the chair. You’d think it might be difficult to blend into an object as inanimate as a chair, but it’s not if you know what you’re doing, and you’ve had a lot of practice . . . which I have.

Thankfully, Silver Springs Middle School in Georgetown, Colorado, has gray chairs and I already own plenty of gray clothes, so that makes it easier. Back in Astoria, Oregon, I had to buy a pack of ugly green T-shirts that made me look like a walking pickle. It was a bad scene.

At the front of the classroom, the teacher, Ms. Something-or-Other (I’ve stopped trying to remember their names), is talking about some independent study program she’s hoping people will sign up for over the summer, but no one is listening because they’re too busy obsessing over the yearbooks, which were just distributed at lunch. Today officially marks the end of the sixth grade, and no one in this room wants to spend their last day of sixth grade thinking about studying over the summer.

Except me, of course. I’ve already got three potential subjects picked out. Not for the independent study program. For Dad’s and my YouTube University. That’s another part of our normal routine. In each town we stay in, we pick a subject to master on YouTube. We’re just wrapping up our study on the Macedonian Empire. That was totally Dad’s pick, by the way. I think he was trying to get back at me for choosing Hollywood Makeup Skills when we were in St. Augustine, Florida. To his credit, Dad was a pretty good sport about being my model.

“Oh my gosh! Did you see Caden’s yearbook picture?” someone whispers in front of me, and I know immediately that it’s Harmony Baker. Not just because she’s sat in front of me for the entire four weeks that I’ve been at this school, but because I recognize the way her voice gets all squeaky when she’s talking about a boy she thinks is cute. “He looks so good. I mean, look at his hair!”

“So swoopy,” says her friend Molly. “How does he get it so swoopy?”

“He must have some kind of special swoop gel,” says a girl named Astrid, causing the other two to giggle into their hands.

“Look at those eyes,” croons Harmony as she gazes longingly at the open page of her yearbook. She kind of looks like she’s starving and Caden’s picture is a really juicy cheeseburger. Or veggie burger in Harmony’s case. She’s a devout vegetarian. All three of them are.

“So sparkly,” says Molly.

I casually lean forward to check which page number they’re all drooling over and flip open my own yearbook. Second row from the bottom is a picture of the swoopy-haired, sparkly-eyed Caden Harris. Next to his name it says “Jazz band.”

I look through a few of the other names on the page, reading the single line of text that is printed next to each one.

Luke Franzen—Book club

Kylie Fuller—Debate club

Jenny Fukada—Basketball team

Benjamin Gardner—Math Olympiad

I don’t have to look up Harmony, Molly, and Astrid to discover what it would say next to their names. The matching paint stains on their shoes and cool vintage clothes pretty much say it all. Not to mention the numerous pictures of the three of them that appear all over this yearbook, each one capturing them with a tangle of arms thrown around each other, holding up their latest pastel drawings or watercolor masterpieces or perfect pieces of pottery.

I keep scrolling down the list of names on the page until I get to the one that has a big blank space next to it. And instead of a photograph, there’s an empty gray box that says “Not pictured.”

“Who’s Amelia Gray?” Harmony asks, clearly arriving at the same name I just did.

Astrid shrugs. “No idea. Maybe she left early in the year?”

Or came late, I say silently in my head. Never aloud. Never aloud.

“Huh,” says Molly. “Sixth grade is not very big, though. I wonder why we never knew her.”

“She probably wasn’t in any of our classes,” says Astrid.

Or she was sitting right behind you in social studies for the past four weeks and you never saw her.

Harmony nods conclusively, like she’s a detective in one of those crime shows whose team has finally stumbled upon the missing piece of evidence. “Yeah. That’s probably why.” She tilts her head and studies the empty gray box where a picture should have been and, with a sad click of her tongue, says, “Too bad, she looks nice.”

Molly and Astrid crack up so loudly, the teacher finally takes notice and tells them to be quiet. They turn back to the front of the room, still giggling, while I slowly flip my yearbook closed.

In case you haven’t already figured it out, Amelia Gray is me.