The next morning was the first day of school. Warm sunrays cascaded down from a silky blue sky. Annie scrunched her eyes half-closed, trying to concentrate on her steps, not on her destination. Once at the school, they went inside and sat on a polished mahogany bench outside of the principal’s office, hands in their laps, eyes straight ahead.
The noise of boys and girls who knew their way around filled the air with excitement. Children raced up and down the halls, offering their assistance to favorite teachers, calling hello to friends they hadn’t seen in weeks, slowing down whenever they approached Annie and Marge, giving them quick glances out of the corners of their eyes.
Annie watched the other children dully. They were so happy she almost hated them. Time was passing so slowly, she stole a sidelong look at her mother. Was Marge thinking about Sam’s letter? Probably not. If she asked, she would bet Marge would say she was thinking about Steve-- and Kimberly. Kimberly was a student here. There would be no avoiding her now. She walked here every morning from her big, fancy house only half a block away. Annie made no move to try and pick her out from the crowd of children hurrying by.
Annie’s skinny bottom was not comfortable on this hard, church bench! She shifted, once this way, then the other, but nothing worked. Her new patent-leather shoes pinched her toes. Her new cotton dress had too many frills on it. Even her braids hurt because Marge had woven them too tight. Everything was new and unfamiliar. It seemed kind of normal, somehow. Something you got used to, like a paper cut or a bruise; you noticed it right away, then, after a time, it was still there, but you didn’t pay it any mind.
Suddenly, Annie sprang to her feet and flew down the hall at a run.
“Annie!” Marge called after her in a panic.
“It’s her!” Annie called over her shoulder. “It’s the ghost-girl.”
The ghost-girl sprinted ahead of Annie, pausing once to look over her shoulder, then disappeared into the school library. Without hesitation, Annie crashed through the library door. The library was smothered in silence. Once inside the door, Annie paused. There was no one about. After several careful looks about, she saw her. The ghost-girl was real. Their eyes met. She was smaller than Annie, but probably the same age. Her wide brown eyes darted around the room as if searching for an escape route.
“Can I help you?” Another girl, more Annie’s size, approached them from around the corner of a large bookcase.
Annie eyed this new girl suspiciously. Were she and the ghost-girl in on this together? Was this a way to humiliate the new girl? Had they been making fun of her all summer?
“I was just following her,” Annie pointed to the ghost-girl.
The new girl stared across the quiet library. She looked around the ghost-girl as if she wasn’t even there, then, brought her eyes back to Annie. “Elizabeth?” she said. “You were following her? Did she say anything to you?” There was an incredulousness in her voice that made Annie step back.
“No,” Annie took another look at Elizabeth. “Not today, anyway. I mean, she hangs around where I live. I’ve heard her singing and seen her skipping rope.”
“Oh.” The new girl nodded. “You mean the Golden Goblet. She likes to skip rope in the parking lot. Sometimes she sneaks upstairs to play jacks in the hall.”
Annie’s mouth dropped open. “What do you mean?”
“The apartments, over the restaurant?” the new girl said. “My dad owns them. Elizabeth lives in the first house on the corner.”
Annie couldn’t believe what she was hearing. This new girl was...had to be...Kimberly. And she knew the ghost-girl well, so it seemed. Annie blinked at Elizabeth, who sent her a shy smile.
“Her parents are divorced,” the other girl whispered, leaning to put her lips to Annie’s ear.
Annie only half-listened. She drew away and looked this new girl in the face. So, this was Kimberly Hayden.
“Elizabeth isn’t handling the divorce well,” Kimberly went on, still whispering in Annie’s ear. “I mean, her Mom is already getting remarried! Can you believe it? It’s only been a year.” She drew away and straightened her shoulders. “I suppose Elizabeth will get over it. She’s a great kid.”
Annie felt tongue-tied. She wanted to go to Elizabeth and say she understood, but she couldn’t take her eyes off of Kimberly. Kimberly wasn’t at all as she’d imagined. She wasn't 'adorable' as Marge so often described her. She wasn't 'sweet' or 'a darling.' She was pretty-- normal; of average height, with blonde pigtails, and a frilly dress. Just another girl in the fifth grade.
“Annie,” Marge entered the library, dropping the sound of her voice as she came to Annie’s side. “You shouldn’t have run off like that.”
“Hello, Mrs. Whipple,” Kimberly said, politely.
“Hello, Kimberly. I see you and Annie have met, at last.”
“I’m Elizabeth,” a tiny voice broke in.
“Elizabeth!” Kimberly wheeled around in surprise.
“Elizabeth, I’m Annie Whipple, and this is my mother, Mrs. Whipple. I’m so glad to meet you, finally!” Annie poked her face around Kimberly's shoulder.
“You already know who they are, don’t you, Elizabeth?” Kimberly said. “But I bet you don’t know this—Annie and Mrs. Whipple are coming to live at my house, soon. Isn’t that right, Mrs. Whipple?”
Marge licked her lips, then looked down at Annie without replying.
“I already figured that out,” Annie said. She gave a shrug, as if it was just a matter-of-fact-- as if it didn't bother her at all. Then she looked at Kimberly without saying anything.
Kimberly met Annie's eyes, held their gaze for a second, then looked over at Elizabeth. “So,” Kimberly said to Elizabeth, “when Annie comes to live at my house, she'll still be your friend. But you have to let her play jacks with you. Okay?”
Elizabeth smiled. “You don’t run very fast,” she said to Annie. “I almost let you catch me once, but, you’re way too slow.”
“I could have caught you,” Annie shrugged. “I just didn’t want to.”
“Annie, we have to go back to the principal’s office,” Marge touched Annie’s arm gently.
“Oh, Mr. Blimpie!” Kimberly and Elizabeth broke into laughter together.
“I like Mr. Blimpie,” Elizabeth said.
Kimberly nodded. “You’ll like him, too, Annie,” she said. “He's a lot of fun. This is a great school. Do you think you’ll like it here?”
“Maybe,” Annie replied. She gave Kimberly and Elizabeth a smile, then turned to follow her mother into the hall.
The hall was quieter now. Open doors showed classrooms full of students. Annie held Marge’s hand loosely.
“I wish there really had been a ghost,” she said.
Marge gave her hand a squeeze. “I’m not sure there wasn’t,” she said.
As they walked by the music room, the unmistakable sound of Elvis singing, “Blue Suede Shoes,” came drifting out to them.