“This is our last recess ever,” Karen sighs dramatically as their fifth grade class files out of Stoneybrook Academy. “Isn’t it awful?”
“I’ll still get to accidentally hit you in the face with the dodgeball during PE,” Ricky supplies, shoving Karen out of the way as he passes her with Bobby.
Karen glowers and chases Ricky to the field.
“Get a life, Goldilocks!” Ricky calls over his shoulder.
A few moments later, Karen catches up with Ricky and attempts to tackle him.
“Don’t. Call. Me. Goldilocks.”
Ricky rolls his eyes and peels Karen off of him.
“Whatever, Goldilocks. Get lost.”
Hannie and Nancy are sitting near the playground, aimlessly running their fingers through the mulch.
“Are you still coming over later?” Hannie asks. “My mom is going to order pizzas.”
“Yup!” Nancy replies. She pauses and hesitantly nods toward Karen. “You don’t think she’s still mad, do you?”
“Because we’re having the sleepover at my house instead? I don’t think so. She told me she’s bringing her Cassandra Clue tapes for us to watch.”
At first, Nancy doesn’t appear to have heard Hannie. She’s silent for several moments, and then looks up at Hannie as if she’s annoyed. “I don’t get why she was ever mad, anyway. We’re always at her house. What’s the big deal?”
“Ew, look at her!” Leslie laughs, pointing at Karen. “She’s such a loser.”
“Poor Ricky,” Jannie agrees, wrinkling her nose in distaste at Karen’s antics. “She never leaves him alone.”
“She still hasn’t gotten over the divorce,” Pamela remarks with a snort, referring to the time Karen and Ricky got married on the playground in third grade.
Jannie and Leslie laugh.
“But Ricky is cute,” Jannie blushes.
“Totally,” Pamela agrees, with the air of someone who has complete confidence and thinks she is much older and more important than she actually is. “And smart.”
Pamela raises an eyebrow at Jannie. She doesn’t say anything, but she doesn’t need to because the message is clear: He’s mine.
Natalie lingers to the side of the kickball field as her classmates scatter in various directions. She looks up at the clouds and tries to find something interesting about them. Sometimes in the movies, characters talk about how clouds look like cats, elephants, or dogs. They lie on the ground with their friends and giggle, making up stories about the different shapes. Natalie doesn’t see anything but big, white blobs. Boring, like her.
She checks the time on her watch: 2:01. One minute of torture down, fifty-nine to go. Fifty-nine long, lonely, agonizing minutes.
She sees Ricky pushing Karen away, Hannie grinning at Nancy, and Pamela gossiping with Jannie and Leslie. Bobby, Scott, and some of the other kids are playing kickball. They yell for Ricky to join them, but he’s still trying to get rid of Karen.
Everyone has a place.
Everyone but her.
For a moment, she considers joining Nancy and Hannie. Sometimes she sits with Nancy, Hannie, and Karen at lunch, and they’re not mean to her. They don’t make fun of her lisp like Leslie does or snicker at her outfits like Pamela does. They never yank on her braids or call her "pimple face" like the boys do, either. At the same time, though, Natalie knows they’re closer to each other than they are to her. They talk about things they did when they were younger, and Natalie doesn’t have anything to add. They call themselves the Three Musketeers, and Natalie feels left out.
Even though they’re nice to her, she knows they probably don’t want her around.
She doesn’t join Nancy and Hannie at the playground.
It feels like twenty minutes have passed. Natalie checks the time - 2:05 - and stares at the ground solemnly. She wishes she had friends. She wishes she could be as happy as everyone else.
At least she has Charlotte and Becca, but they go to Stoneybrook Middle School, so Natalie hardly ever gets to see them. She begged her parents to let her go there for middle school instead, but they don't understand why she can't make friends with her classmates. "Ask them if they want to come over and play, or if they want to go to the movies," her mom always tells her exasperatedly. "It’s not hard.”
But it is. Her lisp is slowly getting better, but she's still scared. She knows she'll never be as popular as Pamela, as smart as Karen, or as friendly as Hannie. Even if she does manage to make friends here, there will still be some people who will only remember her as the girl with the droopy socks who has pimples all over her face. Her parents don't know that sometimes she cries herself to sleep at night and hopes that she'll be sick in the morning so she won't have to go to school. They just don't understand; no one does.
It's 2:10. Natalie closes her eyes and imagines what it would be like to be Karen Brewer instead. She smiles. She would give anything to be Karen.
"Hey, pimple face!" Bobby yells, jerking her out of her thoughts. "Move! You're in our way!"
Natalie knows Karen wouldn't let Bobby say mean things to her or be bossy, but Natalie isn't Karen. She swallows and turns around, then slowly begins to walk away. She stands under a tree on the other side of the playground and positions herself so that Bobby and his friends can't see her.
She’s really not going to miss recess.