“Your boots look like a couple a dogs yapping,” Carlie sneers.
Margie stops, eyes downcast, looking at her boots. They are big and floppy and furry, laces trailing behind. It’s amazing she doesn’t trip and tumble with every step.
“Hey, I love my boots,” Margie replies.
But Carlie has already lost interest and moved on, her damage already done. She’s skinny, too skinny, and wears plenty of her older sister’s makeup. She’s twelve.
Margie watches Carlie and her followers disappear around the corner toward the lockers. She glances down at her feet. With a sigh, she stoops and laces the boots snugly against her ankles.
It’s the first week of school at Roosevelt Junior High. All is chaos as dazed seventh graders wander the maze of indoor halls like too many mice in search of too little cheese. Activities groups are seeking members and several kids have gathered around a bulletin board, momentarily distracted by the posted announcements.
Margie pauses at a drinking fountain and pretends to drink until the others move on. She finds the sign-up sheet for band. The three openings for flute auditions are almost filled:
The bell rings, but her eyes remain focused on line 3. She lifts a pen hanging from a string and writes “M-a-r-.” Then she scribbles out the letters and hurries to class.
At the end of the school day, Margie waits until the halls are quiet. The wind blows and only leaves scatter across the school lawn now. She unlaces the boots, allowing them once again to yap and breathe. A bounce returns to her step. She’s going to let the laces dangle all the way home.
But she’s not alone, entirely. A boy has been watching from down the hall, around the corner. He smiles and pulls his cap over his eyes. Another boy zips past him on a skateboard. “Dylan. The park. 5 minutes.” Dylan drops his board to the ground, flips it twice with his foot, and glides away after him.
Margie nudges her boots from her feet. As the first plunks to the floor, a kitten climbs up the sides and settles into its warmth. She folds the sides up carefully around it and loosely ties the laces.
Margie’s room is a clutter of throw pillows, a scratching post, papers, and, rising from the mess, a neatly arranged row of posters. Straggly haired boys named Yuki, Kyo, and Shugure. A single manga girl named Tohru completes the set. There is a lonely music stand in the corner with sheet music spilling to the floor like a waterfall.
Margie settles into her bed and pulls a blanket over her legs. An aging orange tabby tries to jump onto the bed, but doesn’t make it – claws ripping the sheets all the way back down to the floor. Margie leans over and lifts the cat onto the bed. Stroking its fur she purrs, “It’s okay Kyo. It’s okay.” The cat closes its cataract-filled eyes.
Without looking, Margie plucks a remote from her nightstand and presses the power button. Her television comes to life showing a blue DVD screen. She stretches her leg out as far as it will reach and presses play with her big toe.
She watches a scene in the middle of an anime television show. A young girl is sitting expectantly in a chair while kids’ playful laughter can be heard. Suddenly, a kid shouts, “Rice Ball!” and the girl leaps from her chair and runs off-screen to join the others.
Margie stretches out her foot and presses the fast-backward button as the action races back in time. She lets go and the episode begins again. The scene is Tohru’s childhood memory of a moment when she went from an outcast to someone accepted by the other kids. Margie watches again up to the happy exclamation, “Rice Ball!” She runs the DVD back and watches again, “Rice Ball!”
She nudges the stop button with her toe and lies back against her pillow, still stroking Kyo’s fur. She exhales as if she’s been holding her breath her whole life. She slides off the bed, lowers to her knees, and starts digging for something under her bed. She pulls out a flute case.
Settling back against her pillow, she opens the case, removes the pieces of the flute, and assembles them without needing to look, her practiced hands knowing exactly what to do. She raises it to her lips and blows across the mouthpiece. The sound is hollow and airy. She grimaces, adjusts the mouthpiece, wets her lips, and tries again.
And what comes out is a lovely, lilting melody, a tune from the television show she was just watching.
Margie stands outside the door to the band room, holding her flute case. She’s wearing different jeans, but the same sweatshirt. Her boots are tightly laced. She listens through the closed door.
Someone is playing the flute. The tone is filled with air and there are wrong notes fluttering everywhere. All else is quiet in the room, almost hushed. Margie takes the doorknob in her hand and pauses. She hides the flute case under her sweatshirt, opens the door, and goes inside.
She takes a seat in the back as Carlie finishes her audition. The teacher says, “Nice job Carlie.” A girl in the second row giggles. Carlie flashes the girl a glare and she shuts right up.
The teacher says, “Okay Dylan. Are you ready now?”
Dylan gets up and saunters toward the front of the room. Stopping short, he glides the last few steps like a skateboarder with an invisible board. Kids laugh and he pauses to soak it in.
Carlie laughs the loudest until she glimpses Margie trying to hide her laughter. Then Carlie turns serious.
Dylan pulls his cap over his eyes and starts playing. He plays well – or at least well compared to Carlie. There is an assured casualness about him, his tone is clear, and he hits mostly the right notes. And those notes that he does miss don’t bother him.
When he finishes, he lifts his cap and glides away just as he arrived. There’s more laughter mixed with applause.
The teacher says, “Okay Margie. Are you ready?”
“What?” she gulps.
“You signed up.”
Margie pulls her flute case out from under her sweatshirt and opens it. She assembles it slowly.
“Come on. I still need to hear the trumpets.”
She gets up, still adjusting the mouthpiece and hurries toward the front of the room. A girl nudges her foot ever so slightly into the aisle and Margie trips over it, falling to the floor in a sprawl. Her flute clanks across the floor and one of the keys breaks off and slides under Dylan’s chair.
Shaken and embarrassed, Margie gets to her feet and starts to run from the room, but a voice stops her.
“You can use mine,” Dylan says.
Margie wipes her tears and takes the offered flute. She makes her way to the front of the room and pauses, hoping the shaking will go away, afraid to look at anyone.
“Would you like to wait a bit?” the teacher asks.
Margie doesn’t answer. She raises the flute to her lips and plays.
Margie walks in through the school doors, quickly escaping the now howling winds and blowing snow. She is once again wearing her big, funny, floppy boots with laces dangling. She sees another girl walking toward the lockers wearing boots, also dangling and yapping.
“I love your boots,” Margie tells her.
“Thanks,” says the girl.