Words have always swirled around me like snowflakes—each one delicate and different, each one melting untouched in my hands.
Deep within me, words pile up in huge drifts. Mountains of phrases and sentences and connected ideas. Clever expressions. Jokes. Love songs.
I knew the words and melodies of hundreds of songs—a symphony exploding inside my head with no one to hear it but me. But he never asked me about music.
I knew all the colors and shapes and animals that children my age were supposed to know, plus lots more. In my head I could count to one thousand—forward and backward. I could identity hundreds of words on sight. But all that was stuck inside.
Dr. Hugely, even though he had been to college for like, a million years, would never be smart enough to see inside of me.
There’s an alphabet strip at the top, so I can spell out words, and a row of numbers under that, so I can count or say how many or talk about time. But for the majority of my life, I’ve had the communication tools of a little kid on my board. It’s no wonder everybody thinks I’m retarded. I hate that word, by the way. Retarded.
I like all the kids in room H-5, and I understand their situations better than anybody, but there’s nobody else like me. It’s like I live in a cage with no door and no key. And I have no way to tell someone how to get me out.
“Of course I’ll watch Melody,” she’d said with certainty.
“Well, Melody is, well, you know, really special,” Dad said hesitantly.
“All kids are special,” Mrs. V had replied with authority. “But this one has hidden superpowers. I’d love to help her find them.”
Finally, old Nimbus got his way, and the rain came down around me and Mrs. V. It rained so hard, I couldn’t see past the porch. The wind blew, and the wet coolness of the rain washed over us. It felt so good. A small leak on Mrs. V’s porch let a few drops of rain fall on my head. I laughed out loud.
Mrs. V gave me a funny look, then hopped up “You want to feel it all?” she asked.
I nodded my head. Yes, yes, yes.
She rolled me down the ramp Dad had built, both of us getting wetter every second. She stopped when we got to the grass, and we let the rain drench us. My hair, my clothes, my eyes, and arms and hands. Wet. Wet. Wet. It was awesome. The rain was warm, almost like bathwater. I laughed and laughed.
When I sleep, I dream. And in my dreams I can do anything. I get picked first on the playground for games. I can run so fast! I take gymnastics, and I never fall off the balance beam. I know how to square-dance, and I’m good at it. I call my friends on the phone, and we talk for hours. I whisper secrets. I sing.
When I wake up in the morning, it’s always sort of a letdown as reality hits me. I have to be fed and dressed so I can spend another long day in the happy-face room at Spaulding Street School.
Ollie spent all day long swimming around that small bowl, ducking through the fake log, and then swimming around again. He always swam in the same direction. The only time he’d change his course was when Mom dropped a few grains of fish food into his bowl each morning and evening. I’d watch him gobble the food, then poop it out, then swim around and around once again. I felt sorry for him.
At least I got to go outside and to the store and to school. Ollie just swam in a circle all day. I wondered if fish ever slept. But any time I woke up in the middle of the night, Ollie was still swimming, his little mouth opening and closing like he was trying to say something.
I once got one of those electronic dolls for Christmas. It was supposed to talk and cry and move its arms and legs if you pushed the right buttons. But when we opened the box, one of the arms had come off, and all the doll did, no matter which button you pushed, was squeak. Mom took it back to the store and got her money back.
I wonder if she ever wished she could get a refund for me.
The kids in there were mostly fifth graders too. They’d probably be surprised to know that I knew all their names. I’ve watched them on the playground at lunch and at recess for years. My classmates sit under a tree and catch a breeze while they play kickball or tag, so I know who they are and how they work. I doubted if they knew any of us by name, though.
“Some people get braces on their teeth. Some get braces on their legs. For others, braces won’t work, so they need wheelchairs and walkers and such. You’re a lucky girl that you only had messed-up teeth. Remember that.”
I can’t believe Dad is making a video of me saying my first words. It’s almost like when he filmed Penny’s first words—well, not really.
I type very carefully and push the button to make the machine speak.
“Hi, Dad. Hi, Mom. I am so happy.”
Mom gets all teary-eyed, and her nose gets red. She is looking at me all soft and gooey.
When I think about it, I realize I have never, ever said any words directly to my parents. So I push a couple of buttons, and the machine speaks the words I’ve never been able to say.
“I love you.”
“I’m not trying to be mean—honest—but it just never occurred to me that Melody had thoughts in her head.”
A couple of other kids nod slightly.
Miss Gordon doesn’t raise her voice. Instead, she responds thoughtfully: “You’ve always been able to say whatever came to your mind, Claire. All of you. But Melody has been forced to be silent. She probably has mountains of stuff to say.”
I can answer questions in class lots better with Elvira to help me. For the first time, instead of “pretend” grades that teachers would give me because they weren’t quite sure if I knew the answer or not, I get real grades recorded in the teachers’ grade book that are based on actual answers I’ve given. Printed out and everything!
But at recess I still sit alone. It’s been too cold to go outside, so we sit in the far corner of the overheated cafeteria until it’s time to go back to class. None of the girls gossip with me about some silly thing a boy has said. Nobody promises to call me after school. Nobody asks me to come to a birthday party or a sleepover. Not even Rose.
Sure, she’ll stop and chat for a minute or two, but as soon as Janice or Paula calls her to come and look at a picture on a cell phone, Rose will say, “I’ll be right back!” then skip away as if she’s glad she has a reason to cut out on me.
Catherine jumped out of her chair and stormed over to where Claire and Molly were sitting, her new black leather boots clicking sharply on the tiled classroom floor. “I did not help her! Did it ever occur to you that she might have some smarts of her own?”
“She can’t even sit up by herself!” Claire replied, her voice petulant.
“What your body looks like has nothing to do with how well your brain works! You ought to know that by looking in a mirror!”
I still couldn’t get over the fact that I was part of the team. Okay. Truth. There was the team, and there was me, and we were in the same room. But we weren’t quite a team. They appreciated the fact that I usually got the answers right, but…
When Mr. Dimming gave us multiple-choice questions to answer, I had to think for only a moment, then hit the correct letter on my machine. But lots of the preparation involved fast-and-furious, back-and-forth discussions, and I had trouble adding anything to what was being said—most of the time.
Hmmm, I thought. Claire gets sick in the middle of a crowded restaurant, yet I’m the one everybody looks at sideways.
They all had to wait for me and Mom. We took our time.
Push gently. Roll down. Bump. Top step.
Push gently. Roll down. Bump. Next step.
Push gently. Roll down. Bump. Third step.
Five bumps down to the bottom of the steps.
And I was still so hungry.
The reaction at school today is just what I expected. Words float out of lips that say nice things to me, but eyes tell the truth. The eyes are cold, as if I had beat the reporter over the head and forced her to print that picture of me.
Even Rose acts distant. “Nice picture of you in the paper, Melody,” she says.
“Thanks, should have been all of us.”
“I think so too,” Rose replies.
I just sigh. I can’t do anything right. I don’t want to be all that—I just want to be like everybody else.
Mr. Dimming said slowly, “The six members of the championship Spaulding Street Elementary School quiz team are…” He paused. I thought Connor was going to throw something at him. “Rose, Connor, Melody, Elena, Rodney, and Molly. Claire and Amanda will be our alternates.”
“I’m an alternate?” Claire gasped.
“Molly beat you by two points, Claire,” Mr. D explained. “But you still get to come with us and cheer us on and tour the city.”
“But it was me who helped her study! Claire said, outrage in her voice. “That is so not fair!”
I just shook my head and smiled a little. There is so much Claire doesn’t know about stuff not being fair.”
“Your team got beat in one of the late rounds in D.C. last night,” he told me. “They got ninth place—a little bitty trophy.”
But they weren’t my team anymore. I tried to pretend like I didn’t care.
I glanced out of her large picture window and I watched the wet branches sway. How could I say it? I looked back at my talker and typed very slowly, “I want to be like other kids.”
“So you want to be mean and fake and thoughtless?”
I looked up at her angry face, then looked away. “No. Normal.”
“Normal sucks!” she roared. “People love you because you’re Melody, not because of what you can or cannot do. Give us a little credit.”
When we get to school, the air is chilly, so the aides take us directly to room H-5. As we get settled, I look at my friends there through different eyes.
Freddy, who wants to zoom to the moon.
Ashley, our fashion model.
Will, the baseball expert.
Maria, who has no enemies.
Gloria, the music lover.
Carl, our resident gourmet.
Jill, who might have once been like Penny.
Not one of them even knows how to be mean.
It’s like somebody gave me a puzzle, but I don’t have the box with the picture on it. So I don’t know what the final thing is supposed to look like. I’m not even sure if I have all the pieces. That’s probably not a good comparison, since I couldn’t put a puzzle together if I wanted to. Even though I usually know the answer to most of the questions at school, lots of stuff still puzzles me.