Only when we're the last ones left on the bus ride home does Aiden talk to me. Between bumps that send us bouncing slightly in our seats he turns to me and asks, "Why were you late today, Ally?"
"Tommy Groh wanted to see my feet," I say.
"And why did that make you late?" Aiden takes an orange, leftover from lunch, out of his bag. He bites it with his bottom teeth to break the skin and starts peeling it.
"Ms. Bisset made me dust the chalk brushes before I left," I tell him, and hold my hands up as proof. They're dried white by the chalk, like I've switched hands with an old person. I rest them at my sides so I don't get chalk on my skirt.
"But why did your teacher keep you?" Aiden peels the orange skin off in a spiral, like a pig's tail. He always tries to take the whole thing off in one go.
"Tommy wouldn't stop bothering me, so I kicked him in the stomach." I think my brother will be happy that I've stuck up for myself, but he stops peeling the orange and shakes his head.
"Ally, you're not going to make any new friends if you go around kicking people."
"But it's not my fault! That meanie kept asking me if my toes were brown, too. And I don't want to be Tommy's friend, anyway."
It isn't fair—I used to have a best friend named Sara in my class. She had a grey cat named Smoke, and she liked dill pickle chips, too. But she moved away when her dad got a new job in Peterborough. I still don't know where that is. Everyone says it isn't far, but I haven't seen her since.
A few weeks later we got Tommy Groh in our class.
"Tommy's probably only curious," says Aiden. "Next time tell him your feet are the same colour as the rest of you." Aiden removes the whole orange peel, forms it into its original shape, and puts it back in his lunch bag. He splits the orange in two and offers me half.
I shake my head, then pick at a piece of dark green sticky tape that covers a hole in the back of the seat ahead of us. "You said you'd protect me."
"I will," Aiden says quickly, with orange slices in his mouth. He swallows and adds, "I'll talk to Tommy tomorrow."
"Tomorrow's our field trip."
"Then the day after."
I nod my head, feeling better. "Did anyone ever ask to see your feet when you were in Grade 2?" I ask.
"Worse. The boys asked what colour my you-know-what was." He points at his crotch. "And the girls, the girls wanted to feel my soft brown ears." Aiden smiles his slow smile, like honey being poured. It's impossible not to smile with him. "And don't worry, Ally-cat, I won't tell Mom. We'll just rinse your hands with the garden hose before we go inside."
I forgot about Mom. I'd be in big trouble at home if I got in small trouble at school. She always puts our education first. It's a good thing she won't find out tonight, or she might not let me go on my field trip tomorrow. I'll tell her after that. I think she'll be on my side, anyway—she was last time something like this happened. It was during Black History Month when we learned about Rosa Parks not sitting at the back of the bus. I found it strange how she wanted to sit at the front; everyone I know fights for a spot at the back of the bus.
I asked Ms. Bisset, "Where would I sit on the bus back then?"
"I don't know," she snapped. "It's not an appropriate question."
When I told Mom, she said it was a perfectly fine question, and she agreed with me that I'd probably sit somewhere in the middle, like I do now.
The Royal Botanical Gardens are only a short bus ride from our school, but so different from the concrete schoolyard. Everywhere giant trees and plants are coming to life. Our class spends most of the morning inside the greenhouses—the air is wet and there are shiny-leafed plants from all around the world, some with flowers as bright and colourful as saris.
Then it's lunch. I avoid sitting near Tommy because of what happened yesterday, and because Mom packed me a brown paper bag with a juice box and two chapatis with peanut butter. "East meets West," she said. Almost everyone else has white-bread sandwiches. Chapatis are tastier, but sometimes I wish I had the same lunch so I wouldn't have to explain what I was eating. Natalie Dibben is the one who asks me about it today. She's my buddy for the trip, and her mom brought her a special lunch, too. Natalie always tells people she's different because she has diabetes, and she shows everyone her lunch instead of keeping it hidden like me.
After lunch we are led on a nature walk through the forest trails. I've worn my pink rubber boots because Mom said it might rain. Our guide points out things along the way as she leads the group; she's wearing a dark green windbreaker and has three earrings in each ear. My teacher, Ms. Bisset, is at the back of the line chatting with Mrs. Dibben, who's a nurse and works night shifts, so she can usually come on our trips to help supervise. I wish my mom could get time off work one day to come, too.
The plump, grey clouds above look ready to burst, but the sun peeks out every once in a while. I hear birds chirping in the trees but can't spot any because Natalie keeps distracting me.
"Do you like my medic alert?" she holds up her arm, showing the bracelet off like it's diamond jewellery.
"It's nice," I say.
"How many needles have you had?"
"I've taken so many needles, they don't even hurt anymore."
Needles are scary. I could never imagine them not hurting. When I think of them, a circus starts in my stomach.
We stop walking, surrounded by tall trees that show only small pieces of sky. Our guide pulls a big bag of birdseed from her knapsack. She carefully pours little piles of seed into our hands, one by one. Everyone crowds around her and wants to be the first to get theirs, including Tommy. I wait until he's moved on to get my seeds.
"Spread out into a circle," our guide says. "Hold your hands very still and they will come and get it."
Small birds appear from the forest like magic. They come closer, down to lower branches, then right into the hands of my classmates. Some of the students laugh out loud, a few scream and drop the seed on the ground, and others stare silently. But no birds land in my hands. I'm in the same circle and I hold my hands as still as I can, but none come.
Ms. Bisset begins to gather students to continue along the trail. I tell her I haven't fed any birds yet. She gives me a look.
"I can stay behind with Ally until she gets one." It's Mrs. Dibben, Natalie's mom.
"Oh, you don't have to do that," Ms. Bisset says.
"It's no problem. I'd be glad to."
"Alright, then. Ally, what do you say to Mrs. Dibben?"
"Thank you," I say. I could have hugged Mrs. Dibben. I like her much better than Natalie.
Tommy approaches Ms. Bisset and says, "I didn't get any birds either."
I don't blame the birds for not wanting to land in Tommy's hands—he'd probably try and catch them. I can't understand why the birds wouldn't come into my hands, though. Maybe they can still smell the chalk from yesterday. But I washed my hands well. Plus I'm not even sure birds can smell.
"Okay. You can stay behind as well," says Ms. Bisset. "We'll have to switch partners. Tommy, you're now with Ally, and Natalie, you go with Ryan."
The rest of my class follows the guide down the trail while Tommy and I wait to see if we'll have more luck with the birds. Mrs. Dibben tells us to stretch out our arms as far away from us as we can and be very quiet. My hands are cupped tight to try and hold them still. I worry the birds are no longer hungry. But then one lands on the tips of my fingers. It's small with brown feathers on its back and lighter ones on its tummy. The bird has a short beak and black eyes that stare at me for just a second, as if asking first. Its feet prick my fingers, but they are too light to hurt. The bird dives in to eat the seed, but soon pops back up to stop and look around, its head moving from side to side. It looks delicate. My dad sometimes says I eat like a bird. He says I get distracted easily and sit with half a bum on my chair, ready to run if the doorbell or phone rings.
One more nibble and the bird takes off into the trees. I brush my hands together and let the few remaining seeds fall to the ground. Then I put my hands back in the pockets of my sweater and look over at Tommy. He's standing very still with his hands cupped together. He has two birds nibbling at the seed and isn't trying to kill them. Mrs. Dibben gives me a wink—but I've spotted something: trilliums.
They sit next to the path waiting to be noticed, like they've chosen a bad spot in hide-and-go-seek. Once you see them, you can't miss them, bright white on the forest floor and appearing secretly, like the birds.
"Oh, I love trilliums," says Mrs. Dibben. "A sure sign of spring. Do you kids know it's against the law to pick them?"
"Really?" says Tommy.
"Really," says Mrs. Dibben. "Picking the flower does awful damage to the plant. It can take a long time before it regrows, if it does at all. The only time it's acceptable is if you're going to transplant them. I tried it once. I put one in my front yard, but it just wouldn't take. They don't like the direct sunlight. I guess that's why you have to come out here and see them."
"Mrs. Dibben?" I say.
"My mom told me that trilliums are angels. God sends them down to see the world first from the ground up. And they can only get their wings after they've been trilliums. But if they get picked, they can't make it back up to heaven."
"Little angels," says Mrs. Dibben. "Ally, tell your mother that's a lovely story."
Before I can answer, Ms. Bisset comes running down the path, screaming.
"Mrs. Dibben!" Her face is red. "Natalie's had an attack! She's passed out farther up the trail."
I see Mrs. Dibben's face change as she shifts gears like she must at the hospital when a patient comes in. "I'm on my way," she says.
"Ally, Tommy—stay right here on the trail," Ms. Bisset tells us. "I'm going to run and call 911."
The two women run off in opposite directions down the trail. I want to go with Mrs. Dibben. Adults always think they can run faster than kids, but I can run like the wind. Last summer I knocked out one of my baby teeth when I tripped over a groundhog hole running my fastest. Our doctor said I ran so fast, the ground couldn't keep up. I wonder if they'll take Natalie to the hospital. Maybe if she hadn't talked so much about her diabetes it wouldn't have happened. That's wrong. I hope she'll be okay.
I can't see my teacher or Mrs. Dibben anymore and I notice how quiet the forest has become. I turn to Tommy. He's stepped off the trail and is creeping toward the flowers. "What are you doing?"
"Nothing." He crouches down beside one of the trilliums and puts his hands around it.
"Stop it!" I yell.
I follow Tommy into the forest. But I'm too late: he plucks the trillium flower from its leaves. I can't believe what I've just seen. I want to cry.
"Here you go." Tommy holds the flower out for me, like I'm supposed to take it.
I'm confused why he's giving it to me, and still upset. "I don't want it."
"I thought girls liked flowers."
"I like them in the ground."
Tommy just tosses the flower to the forest floor.
"I'm going to tell." As soon as I say this, he pushes me to the ground. I don't see it coming and land on my elbows and bum.
"That's for kicking me yesterday," he says.
The damp leaves are soaking into me, but I just lie there. Tommy grabs one of my pink rubber boots and pulls. He wrestles it off my foot and throws it behind him, then yanks my sock off and does the same with it. He stares for a few seconds, like he's looking at a bug.
"Ewww. Your toes are brown! Freak." Tommy turns and runs off after Mrs. Dibben.
I get up. I have to hop on one foot to get my boot and put it back on. I brush some mud and leaves off my sweater, and find my sock, but put it in my pocket. On the ground where I found it, I see the white petals.
When Aiden and I are alone again on the bus ride home, he asks, "How was your field trip?"
I tell him it was fine and tug at the same piece of sticky green tape covering up the hole in the seat in front of us. The day's events swirl in my head. When I got back with my class, everyone was talking about how Natalie had been lying still on the ground and how the ambulance came and took her and her mom away.
It starts to rain. Droplets race down the windows of the bus.
"Is that Tommy kid still bugging you?" Aiden asks.
"No," I say, but I don't look him in the eyes.
Mom is always telling us how being different is a blessing, and how we'll understand when we're older. Right now, I don't believe her. Different means you're different.
The rain comes down hard and crashes against the glass panes and metal roof. I can't see outside anymore. At first it feels like we're in a car wash, but then it's like we're trapped in a long, dark room. It feels weird having one bare foot in my boot, too. Inside my sweater pocket I squeeze my crumpled-up sock. I don't know why I didn't put it back on.
I close my eyes and think of trilliums, but can only see the one that Tommy picked, just leaves and no petals. I wonder how long it will take to flower again, or if it ever will.