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Authors: Kekla Magoon

Camo Girl

BOOK: Camo Girl
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FOR ERIC AND SHAWN

This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

An imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division
1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
www.SimonandSchuster.com
First Aladdin hardcover edition January 2011
Copyright © 2011 by Kekla Magoon
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
ALADDIN is a trademark of Simon & Schuster, Inc., and related logo
is a registered trademark of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
The Simon & Schuster Speakers Bureau can bring authors to your live event. For more
information or to book an event contact the Simon & Schuster Speakers Bureau at
1-866-248-3049 or visit our website at
www.simonspeakers.com
.
Designed by Karin Paprocki
The text of this book was set in Cochin.
Manufactured in the United States of America
1210 FFG
2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1
Full CIP data is available from the Library of Congress.
ISBN 978-1-4169-7804-6 (hc)
ISBN 978-1-4424-1722-9 (eBook)

CHAPTER 1

I
call him zachariah. he calls me eleanor, but
the way he says it, it comes out sounding like Ellie-nor.

These are not our real names.

Most people, the sort of people who don't need extra names, can get away with doing simple things like looking in a mirror or taking a bathroom pass out of the cafeteria in the middle of lunch hour. We are not most people.

Z and I have learned how not to see the things we don't want to. It's not that hard, but it makes us seem strange to everybody else. Z, especially, is . . . different . . . from the other kids in our class. Good different, as far as I'm concerned, but the kind of different that makes other people raise their eyebrows and sort of laugh under their breath, as if he's not to be believed.

I've been gone maybe five minutes, but it's too long.
Heading back toward our table, I can almost hear that silly
Sesame Street
song humming in the air, converging on him.
“One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn't belong . . .”

Z's in trouble. I'm walking toward him and I see it, know I should never have left him alone, but some things can't be helped. Our eyes lock across the room, and there's nothing in his gaze but stark terror. I should never have left him alone.

Zachariah. Eleanor.

These are not our real names. These are our shadow names, our armor, our cloaks. They are larger than we can ever hope to be; they cause things to bounce off us so we can never be hurt. By anyone. Anything. Ever.

It doesn't always work.

“Zachariah!” I practically scream it, running toward him.

“Ellie-nor,” he says, gazing at me with alarm.

These are not our real names, but none of that matters now. For the moment I simply throw my arms up over his head to stop the food from hitting him.

Spaghetti with mystery meat sauce.

Tiny rolling peas.

Vanilla pudding with cookies.

A carton of chocolate milk, unopened, thank goodness.

Z's
whole tray overturned by laughing hands. The bulk of it catches me in my shoulders, neck, and back.

Beneath me, Z sits stock still, clean but immobile, gazing innocently at the blank space of the table in front of him. He survived.

This, this is my superpower. My only power, to protect him. He wouldn't understand what had happened. He would pretend not to see. Then he'd make up a story about how he had to crawl through a tunnel lined with bloody, mangled earthworms to get to freedom. He would smile, gooey strings of pasta hanging from his hair, and murmur, “All in a day's work.”

Jonathan Hoffman tosses the soiled green tray onto the tabletop. He smiles at me in that
way
that is so infuriating. Is he proud of himself? As if no one else in the history of time ever thought to dump a lunch tray on someone's head.

“Way to take the bullet, C. F.,” he says.

My face flushes with rage. I stand with my hands on my hips, ignoring the fact that I'm the one dripping with red sauce and noodles. I am Eleanor, Goddess of Everything, fearless in the face of danger.

“Do you ever get tired of being a gigantic jerk?” I snap.

Jonathan stretches lazily. “My work
is
exhausting,” he says, then saunters off to accept the high fives from his table of cronies.

I sink into the seat beside Z and let my head fall onto the table.

“Ellie-nor,” he says. “Ellie-nor.”

His small hand covers mine. I manage to look up, into his close-to-tearful face.

“Ellie-nor,” he says, but I'm not her anymore. Now I'm just Ella. Plain old everyday Ella, the girl with drying pasta goo in her hair, on her skin and clothes. I think some of the peas rolled into my shoe. Little cold mush balls sitting in there.

“You fought the dragon and won,” Z says. “You fought the dragon and won.”

I smile sadly. “Yeah, I did.”

Z taps the table in a drumming rhythm. “Brave, brave, fair lady. You fought the dragon and won.”

It'll work for him to pretend. Z's not like other kids. He knows what happened, but he can't admit what it was, what it means about us in the real world. He believes, really believes, that we sit alone at lunch by choice.

I shove my own lunch tray toward him. “Eat this,” I say. “I'm really not hungry. Anyway, I have to go change.”

Z's hand falls on my sleeve, tugging me to stay with him.

“You would cast aside this badge of honor?” His eyes bug out, incredulous. “You fought the dragon and won!”

Sighing, I unwrap the napkin from his spork and use it to wipe my neck. I left him alone once already today. So, I sit here, watching him eat—he polishes off everything on the tray and some of what fell on the table—until the end-of-lunch bell rings.

People look at me funny as they clear their trays, but it's not only because of the food mess. They'd be looking, anyway. If Z and I were business-minded, we'd build a wall around our table, and a window. We could charge admission for each single peek in. We'd either make a fortune or be left alone. Win-win.

I try to become Eleanor again. Smile as they pass, like I know something they don't. Make them uncomfortable.

“Ellie-nor.” Z reaches up under his shirt and pulls out two fluffy rolls. On spaghetti day, you have to pay ten cents extra for rolls. Z does not have ten cents, let alone twenty. He hands me one.

“Thanks,” I say, accepting the stolen roll. The lunch ladies don't pay enough attention. Not when we go through the line, and not when we get food dumped on us. I guess it's only fair.

I keep two changes of clothes in my locker. It's important to be prepared for occasions like this. I keep an extra shirt for Z, too, but he'd never actually use it. He meant what
he said about the badge of honor. I go along with a lot of his fantasies, but I can't quite get on board with that one.

Z's waiting outside the girls' bathroom for me. He observes my change with large, thoughtful eyes. Then he pushes up his glasses with his pebble of a fist, ready to move on. I tug at the hem of my clean shirt, feeling guilty. Maybe it's a form of surrender, I don't know. I haven't figured it out yet. What the right thing to do is when things fall out of the sky and hit you.

CHAPTER 2

Z
and i sit in the window seat of our
homeroom classroom after school, playing chess. It's our favorite spot. We consider ourselves lucky because ours is the only sixth-grade classroom with a window seat. We consider ourselves even luckier because no one else really cares to sit in it. I wonder sometimes if no one else sits here because they want to avoid seeming in any way like us, but I don't discuss these things with Z. If he knows we're at the bottom of the social order, he doesn't let on.

Fact is, we're the trunk of the popular tree. The very, very bottom of the trunk.

It's okay, though. I don't care about being popular. I'm glad to be friends with Z. He's there for me, every day, and he doesn't ever make fun of my hair or my clothes or the
way my skin is dark brown in some places and light brown in others. We exist on a higher plane.

“Knight to Queen four,” Z says.

I pull my attention back to Z and his homemade chessboard. I admit that up until this point I may have been looking out the window at the other girls in the playground. After school, the popular girls sit on the merry-go-round without spinning it and listen to each other's iPods, talking about who knows what. Who cares what, really.

“Knight to Queen four,” Z repeats.

“I forget what that means,” I tell him, but he's already moving the pieces. Z's kind of a genius, is the thing. I can't beat him at chess. I can't beat him at anything, if it involves just cleverness with no element of luck. But I can win at cards and anything involving dice, so the situation's not entirely hopeless.

“Your turn, milady,” he murmurs. He's been sitting on his knees, but now he pulls them up to his chest, locking his skinny arms around his shins. He rocks a little, waiting, trying not to smile but failing. He knows he's going to win. It's only a matter of time.

But I'm not the kind of girl who lets a guy win just because it'll make his day. I consider my next move carefully, then reach for one of my castles, sliding it forward two spaces.

Z blows out a long breath. I smile. I may not win, but I'm good enough to make him drum his fingers on his lips between moves, humming to himself—and me—with perfect pitch. His forehead wrinkles like an old man's when he concentrates. The bulbs that are his knees poke toward me, like wishbones covered in butterfly wings.

“Rook to Queen's Rook three,” he mutters, narrating my move.

The gibberish of the board space names is lost on me. Z explains it over and over with bug-eyed exasperation, pushing up his glasses. He doesn't really wear glasses, I know. He just likes this pair, likes how they feel on his nose, balanced and important. He found them on the counter at Walmart, where his mother works the night shift.

BOOK: Camo Girl
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