“Ooh! Look! There’s another one—and another!” my sis-ter shrieked. She raced across the grass of Mrs. V’s front yard, a jar clutched in her hands, trying to convince one of the tiny glowing insects to zoom into it. If my firefly had joined that swarm, I’m sure that he and the others had to be laughing at Penny, sky dancing away from her.
“Come help, Mrs. V!” Penny pleaded. “They won’t listen to me!” She plunked down on the grass, her face scrunched into a frown.
Mrs. V, who was our next-door neighbor and Mom’s best friend, lounged on a padded recliner on her front porch. She winked at me before saying, “Well, maybe they don’t want to live in a bottle—maybe they just want to boogie tonight!”
“Just one?” Penny put on her most pitiful face.
“All right,” Mrs. V replied. “But we’re gonna let it go after we look at it, okay?”
“Fine,” Penny grumbled, folding her arms across her chest. “But why?”
“Would you like to live in a jug?” Mrs. V asked.
Penny laughed. “I’m too big! But a bug in a jug even sounds right!”
“Well,” Mrs. V countered, “what if I found a jug big enough for you to fit in? Would you want to live there?”
Penny seemed to think for a moment. Then she said, “I guess not. I’d feel smooshed and stuffy.”
“Exactly! So, what do you think we should do?”
Penny rolled into a somersault and popped up with an ease I couldn’t help but admire and said, “Okay—
we’ll catch us some bugs, then we let them fly!”
Mrs. V, whose full name was Violet Valencia, turned to me. “Let me go help her before she scares them all out of town!” she said, double-checking to make sure the locks on the wheels of my wheelchair were secure. The two of them whirled across the lawn, laughing and reaching for the tiny lights. I couldn’t join them, but for once I didn’t feel left out—a firefly had already found me.
I could see Mom’s blue SUV pulling into our drive-way next door. Butterscotch, our golden retriever, raised his head in recognition. Mom works at a local hospital as a nurse, her days filled with taking care of people who have diseases or broken bones or heart attacks. She tells me her job is a challenge, but she loves it! She often comes home tired, but still has to take care of me. And, no joke, I’m a handful. An armful! She’s never, ever complained, but sometimes that makes me feel bad.
During the school year, the belching yellow bus used to drop me at Mrs. V’s house after school. But now that we’re on summer vacation, Penny and I spend most weekdays with her.
Every morning she has us do stuff like spelling, math, and language arts, but before I start to feel all bad like it’s summer school or something, Mrs. V
makes it so much fun it hardly seems like schoolwork.
Scrabble equals spelling lessons for me, and easy word puzzles become vocabulary fun for Penny. I learn math from a bingo game and clips from old movies help us learn history. I try to complain, because, duh, it’s summer vacation! But honestly, I really like it—at least for a couple of hours. Then in the afternoon we make Popsicles or play games or watch movies. Once a week we go to the neighborhood library. Penny fiercely chooses her own picture books—she rarely needs anyone to help her.
I’ve got this really awesome computer-like device that attaches to my wheelchair. It’s called a Medi-Talker, but that sounds way too boring and grown-up, so I named it Elvira. It’s how I talk to the rest of the world.
By using my thumbs, when they decide to cooperate—
which, luckily, is most of the time—I can tap or type just about anything that pops into my head, then push the speak button, and Elvira will say it for me. I can do complicated stuff like a book report or a math project, or I can ask any question that might pop into my head, like What makes clouds float? Or Where do farts come from?
Or Why do my armpits smell funky? Instead of answering me, Mrs. V, of course, makes me look up the answer on the internet through Elvira.
At the end of the day, I like to just sit on the porch and chill. But Penny is four and a half and doesn’t know the meaning of chill! That girl only knows two speeds—
go, or sleep. She’s able to run and hop and spin around in a circle until she’s dizzy. She did seventeen somersaults in a row earlier today—she made me count.
As for me? Well, even though my brain blazes, the rest of my body works like a piece of taffy that’s been left in the sun for too long. No somersaults for me, unless I accidentally fall out of my wheelchair. I can’t walk, can’t talk, and can’t use my hands and fingers like most folks do, but Mrs. V helps me shut down the pity party. She knows my mind is a vault full of words and ideas just bursting to be let out. So between our weekly library visits, Mrs. V encourages me to swim through the deep and gurgly waters of the internet to explore just about any subject that I’m curious about. I’ve dived into Egyptian history and discovered the female pharaohs, and I’ve dog-paddled (ha-ha!) through the history of golden retrievers, the mechanics of car engines, and the mysteries of every planet. By the way, I’m pretty sure I’d be able to walk on Mars or Venus, assuming I didn’t get fried by poisonous gases.
So Friday is usually library day—my favorite. First thing Friday mornings, Mrs. V loads me and Penny into her car, and we head to our local branch a few blocks away.
I even love the smell of the place—it smells like history and mystery and book bindings. It’s an old building, so the floors and bookshelves are dark polished wood. Mrs.
V told us that she practically lived there when she was a kid. She knew where they kept the audiobooks as well as old photographs and films, and the rare books. I love audiobooks because I can just put on headphones and listen to anything I want. And hardcover books can be attached to my wheelchair tray with an easy clip.
All those books sit all week on the shelves, silent like me, waiting to speak to me every Friday. Then I grab a new pile of possibilities and place them on my tray.
The librarian, Mr. Francisco, always greets me with a smile and asks me questions about the books I read the previous week as he checks them in, then reloads my bag with the new pile.
Last time I went, I was on a mission. Mr. Francisco, aka Best Librarian in the History of the World, had emailed me that the brochures he’d ordered for me were in! I. Was. Psyched! What brochures, you wonder?
Well, my parents don’t know it yet, but I want to go to summer camp. The last few weeks of school, it seemed like all anyone was talking about was the camps they were going to. Rock-Climbing Camp. Fly-Fishing Camp.
Even Mermaid Camp. Yep, it’s a real thing. Mermaid Makeovers. Underwater Theater. Dancing with Fins.
Girls go there to learn to swim with attached fish flippers.
Seriously. Molly and Claire and Rose went on and on and on about it, how their parents are letting them fly—
alone—from Ohio to Florida to go to . . . Mermaid Camp!
When I tapped and told that story to Mrs. V, she’d snorted out loud with laughter.
“What’s so funny?” I’d asked.
Mrs. V could hardly catch her breath. “When you’re wearing those fake mermaid tails, you can only sit on the beach and look cute in a photo!”
“So?” I didn’t get it.
“Melody, think about it. A person wearing a fish tail can’t walk!! Those kids get rolled around in what the camp calls a royal mermaid chariot. It’s a chair with wheels. . . . It’s . . . it’s . . . a wheelchair!” She exploded with laughter.
I finally got it! See, last year in fifth grade Molly and Claire used to majorly make fun of me because I was in a wheelchair, and now they go and choose to spend their summer pretending to be part fish and not able to walk! Ha ha ha ha!
I sure don’t want to go anywhere to pretend I’m a mermaid, but it got me thinking. Maybe I could go to camp! It sounds really fun and a little scary and totally different. Plus, except for Mrs. V’s house, I’ve never once had a sleepover or been away from my family for even an entire day. I think I want to do something exciting. And unusual. And maybe scary. If those girls can do it, so can I.
But did they even have camps for kids like me? Here’s the thing: people tend to stare at me. Nobody asks out loud, but I know they wonder, What’s wrong with that girl? Why can’t she talk? That freaks me out sometimes, because I can’t tell them what they’re too polite to ask.
I know a little bit about things not said. I’m unable to say actual words like everybody else, and that drives me bananas. I’ve got like a thousand thoughts and questions zooming around in my head. Like. All. The.
Time. But not much opportunity to have a real conversation, or say something quickly, like in an emergency.
The result is some serious frustration.
For example, our family went out to a restaurant a few months ago. We don’t do that often, because my let’s-just-fling-out-any-old-time arms, and my unfailing ability to knock stuff over by accident, are often more than we want to deal with. Soup? Oops, sorry.
Penny’s orange juice? Dang, my bad. So people stare.
Most aren’t judging—just curious. A few whisper to each other. They sometimes point at me. I’m used to it and I ignore them.
But on that day we had ordered our food, and all was going well. Even though we forgot my Medi-Talker at home, which almost never happens, Mom read me the menu, and I hummed when she mentioned something I wanted. Mom spooned applesauce into my mouth, and it was delicious—flavored with cinnamon. When the food and drinks came, I didn’t spill one single drop.
Weird, though—Penny wasn’t eating, and it was chicken nuggets—her favorite. She had been granky all day (that’s our word for a grumpy, cranky Penny), but I guess Mom had figured that maybe a special trip out to eat might cheer her up.
Then I noticed Penny’s eyes were getting glassy, and sweat had popped up along her hairline. She was going to blow! I automatically looked down for Elvira, and, of course, she wasn’t there. So there was no way I could tell my parents that I thought Penny was about to get sick.
And yep, halfway through the meal, Penny scrunched up her face, burst into tears, and threw up all over Mom and most of the food on the table! What a mess!
Dad and Mom apologized to the waitstaff, paid the bill, and left a massive tip. Then we dashed out of there in a hurry. I felt bad that Penny was sick, but secretly I was so glad that for once it wasn’t me making a mess.
We still laugh about that one. What I wasn’t so glad about was that I hadn’t been able to warn my parents that Penny was about to erupt. Yep, serious frustration.
Oddly, I still remember that the bill that night came to $47.47. My brain does that—recalls random numbers, maps, facts, and computations. And don’t mess with me when it comes to trivia—like the average summertime temperatures in Alaska, or Argentina, or Armenia. Or the secret ingredients in the grease that’s used in fast-food places (you don’t want to know), or the shortcut to the final level of just about any online video game. Most of this gets crammed into my head, wandering around with nothing to do. I know mountains of stuff, but I’m pretty much stuck in a valley.
Why can my brain do all that, but not know how to tell my body to move? Or talk? Or give my folks a heads-up that Penny’s gonna throw up?
So I prefer to focus on the things that I can do.
Like, I can communicate with folks through Elvira.
Mom and Dad just had her upgraded to System 9.9.
She’s still clunky, but now she’s smaller, faster, and even waterproof, like an iPad that took its vitamins. Plus, she snaps to my wheelchair in seconds. She’s got apps and a full keyboard, so I can send texts, write out whatever’s on my mind, and check online stuff like everybody else.
But it’s still impossible to type fast enough to bring up everything I wonder about.
She’s got a speaking voice called “Trish.” It’s the closest thing to a real girl’s voice that I could find in the choices. I sure wish her speaking system was better-sounding, though. I think they ought to let me create my own voice for her. Maybe I’d pick a cool accent, or something really glamorous, or perhaps low and mysterious.
Which makes me think—who knows what my voice would have been like? I can actually make sounds—something that comes out sounding like Uhh to others, my family and my teachers know mean Yes. And I hum when I like something—just not real words. Which kinda sucks. Maybe when I go to college, I can major in creating artificial languages. That would be awesome.
Now that I think about it, I’ve also got a sort of sign language, too. I can’t do ASL—that’s got way too many complicated hand motions—but me and my family have adapted a version that works. For example, my sign for “Mom” is my thumb on my chin, with my fingers as straight as I can get them. “Dad” is thumb on forehead with fingers up. And my sign for “Penny,”
even though she’s four and a half and sassy, is both arms hugged together like a baby in a cradle. And I can shake my head to say no, just like everybody else does.
So, it’s a little awkward, but we manage to communicate—sort of.
But right that second, when I saw Mom getting out of our car, I would have simply liked to have an easy way to blurt out what I was thinking. And what was on my mind right then was that I wanted to go to camp.
When Mom came into Mrs. V’s yard, I couldn’t just yell out, Hi Mom! like Penny did, but I didn’t need to spell out anything for my mother—I just hummed, and she knew.
Butterscotch bounded over and yelped with joy as Mom pulled a treat out of the pocket of her scrubs.
Penny was right behind the dog, jumping into Mom’s arms. “Spin me, Mommy! Spin!”
Mom kissed her chubby cheek and spun her around, Penny’s legs pinwheeling out.
“More?” Penny begged when Mom put her back down.
“Penny-girl, Mommy needs a break,” she said, laughing. “Can I say hello to Melody now?” She came up onto the porch and leaned over to hug me tight.
She smelled so good—a combination of talcum powder, alcohol wipes, and bubble gum. She keeps a big bag of Dubble Bubble in a top cabinet—away from Penny. She says chewing gum helps her relax, so Dad makes sure the bag never goes empty.
Random thought—I’d love to be able to chew bubble gum. The smell makes my nose tickle in a good way. I’d probably pop right with it if I could actually blow a real bubble!
“How’s my girl?” Mom asked.
I hugged her back as best as I could and made that hum sound that we both know means I’m good.
“Hey there, Violet,” Mom said as she poured her-self a cup of lemonade. She then collapsed into the other chaise lounge, took a deep sip, and breathed out
Mrs. V pointed to the firefly show. “Glad you got home in time for a little nighttime magic.”
“Oh, they’re out early tonight,” Mom said.
“Mommy! Mommy! Look at mine!” Penny shouted, running across the yard for her jar and back up onto the porch. She plopped the jar of blinking bugs into Mom’s lap.
“They’re beautiful!” Mom held up the jar. “Even better than the sparkle lights in your bedroom.”
“Mrs. V says I can’t keep them, but they like me! So, can I? Pleeeease? ”
“Well,” Mom said, “let’s think about this. How did you catch them?”
“They just flew into my jar!” Penny told her solemnly.
“And Mrs. V helped me.”
“Do you think some of those bugs might have moms and dads waiting for them in the bushes?”
“Hmm.” Penny pondered this. “Maybe their parents don’t know they’re out playing in the dark. Maybe they snuck out!”
“Well then, we better set them free so they can get home before they get in trouble, okay?”
“Good idea!” Penny agreed.
As Mom opened the jar, Penny whispered, “Hurry home, little bugs!”
And, with a whoosh of the lid, a dozen tiny little light bulbs lifted into the darkness.