Grace and Clementine walked to school together as they had every day since the first grade. It was a gorgeous day; sea breeze sifted over the trees and the sunshine filled up their little town. The unpaved road they traveled brought them through a bright green meadow. Grace took pleasure in listening to the shrubs and grasses rustle in the wind.
Clementine, as usual, rambled on and on about every little thing that popped into her head with a speed and enunciation that would make a world-class auctioneer jealous. At the same time, she juggled four freshly picked oranges (her breakfast). She was good at multi-tasking.
“And then I told him that I didn’t think it was possible to eat a whole slice of pizza in a single bite, so he tried it and ended up choking on it, and then Mom had to hit him on the back until he spit it out, and then he started crying and I felt kinda bad. But he kinda looked for it, don’t you think? And my brothers eat way too much pizza anyway, it’s like, all they ever eat. Right?”
“Uh-huh,” said Grace. “Probably.”
“Then again, eating oranges for breakfast every day probably isn’t healthy either…” Clementine stopped juggling her breakfast and started peeling it. “But I’m always so busy. I don’t have time to eat a proper breakfast. I’m in, like, a million clubs and I have to take care of my brothers and sisters and I have chores on the orange orchard to do and Mr. Feinstein gives us so much homework.”
“Hm… Maybe you should slow down, you know? Drop a few clubs?” Grace suggested.
Grace didn’t mind that Clementine was a chatterbox. She found it comforting in a way. Clem talked so she didn’t have to. Clementine was her best friend, and it didn’t matter that she couldn’t hold her tongue—even during class, sermons, funerals, cartoons, and in her sleep. Nope, it never bothered her once. Okay, maybe once. Or twice.
But she cared about Clementine and would stand with her through thick and thin, trials and tribulations, term tests and (four years later on her 16th birthday) traffic tickets.
“But I can’t!” Clementine said, her mouth stuffed with orange. “There’s just too much to do! You only live once. Anyway, we gotta hurry up, we’re gonna be late.”
What I wouldn’t do to have that kind of energy, Grace thought, rubbing her groggy eyes.
The girls got to school, Thumb Valley Adventist Elementary, just in time. Fine, they were a few minutes late. Fifteen minutes late. Again.
They rushed inside, then scrambled into Ms. Editoria’s sixth-grade classroom. The teacher, who doubled as the school’s vice-principal, eyed the pair as they took their seats. Some of their classmates mocked them.
“Look who’s late again!” Louden announced. “Third time this week.”
“They’re late more than I am,” Eugene snarked. “And that’s saying something.”
“Sorry Ms. Editoria,” Grace apologized, panting.
“It was my fault,” Clementine gasped. “I got up late, and I had so many chores to do, and I had to pick oranges in my parents’ orchard and Grace had to wait for me and…”
Ms. Editoria smiled. “It’s alright, it’s alright. We were just talking about the class president elections coming up. Are either of you interested in running?”
Clementine shot her hand up. “I am!”
Grace faked a cough. You’re already so busy, said the cough.
Clementine furrowed her eyebrows. I can do it, said the eyebrows. I can handle it.
Grace coughed again. You’re going to tire yourself out.
Clementine rolled her eyes. No, I won’t, I’m fine. I’m the energetic one, remember?
Ms. Editoria interrupted their telepathic conversation, “Since you’re the only candidate, I guess that makes you president of the sixth grade. Congratulations!”
There was a half-hearted applause by the class.
“Would you like to give a speech?” the teacher asked Clementine.
“I guess so,” she said, standing. She walked up to the front of the class and cleared her throat. “Thanks for the support. I know this is a big responsibility, but I’m going to do everything I can to make grade six even better than it is now.”
“That’s not saying much,” said Louden. Ms. Editoria shot him a glance.
There was another applause as the new president took her seat.
Rhymin’ Simon stood up, saluting. “Yo, all hail the chief, I’ll make rap this brief, it’s my belief, this job cause you grief.” He dropped an invisible mic and sat down.
“Thank you, Clementine, for your speech,” said Ms. Editoria. “And Simon for your… cautionary poem. Now, how many people did the Spanish readings for last night?”
Everyone raised their hands.
Out of fifteen, only one hand stayed up—Adam’s, of course.
Ms. Editoria sighed.
Despite her prayers, Grace’s predictions came true within two weeks. Monday morning, Clementine finally emerged from her house dragging her feet. Her frizzy orange hair was even messier than usual, her eyes were puffy for want of sleep and she was wearing the same clothes she had worn the day before.
“Where were you?” said Grace.
“You didn’t sleep last night, did you!”
The two girls started jogging to school. School had begun 15 minutes earlier.
“I was busy!” Grace grumbled.
“Clem, you’re 12 years old! You need sleep!”
Clementine covered her ears and groaned. “You’re giving me a headache. You sound like Mom.”
“And your Mom’s right! If you’re like this now, how will you be when you’re her age?”
“Not as tired as her—I have the common sense not to have seven kids.”
Grace rolled her eyes. “You’ve got to let something go.”
“You wouldn’t understand, I have responsibilities, people need me!”
“Can we please not talk about this?”
They ran the rest of the way to school without saying a word.
“Time’s up, pencils down!” said Mr. Feinstein.
Clementine was snoring, drooling all over her half-finished math test.
“Clementine, wake up,” Grace whispered to her.
“Wake up,” urged another student, Curly.
It was too late. By the time Clementine woke up, Mr. Feinstein was hovering over her desk.
He cleared his throat. “Clementine, would you mind staying back a bit after class?”
Clementine looked ashamed and wiped the saliva from her mouth. She nodded slowly.
The class snickered.
“Oof, Clem’s a goner,” Louden whispered to Olive for everyone to hear.
The lunch bell rang, and Grace hung near the classroom door to wait for Clementine. And yes, to eavesdrop too.
“Clementine,” said the old professor with his gruff, relaxing voice, “you’re usually such a great student! You have the second-highest grades in both math and science. But these last few weeks, well, you’ve barely been able to stay awake in class. You’ve barely done any homework. Can you give a reason for… Clementine?”
Clementine had fallen asleep while standing.
Clem jumped and opened her eyes. “Ah! Oh, sorry Mr. Feinstein.”
The teacher sighed. “I’m only ever going to do this once. You have 15 minutes to finish your test, about how long you were napping for. Fair?”
Clementine nodded bashfully.
Grace shook her head and left for the cafeteria. “Nope, this is crazy. It ends today.”
The school bell rang, ending school for the day. It was time for Clem to catch up on her long list of after-school activities.
First was Band. In the music room, Jasmine was playing her sax at full volume, improvising, lost in her own little world.
The band leader stopped playing. “Oh, hey Clem. What’s up?”
“Aren’t we supposed to talk about starting a marching band?” asked Clementine.
“Oh, actually, I don’t know if it makes sense anymore,” said Jasmine.
“Well there’s already a band, and the Pathfinder drum corps,” Jasmine replied. “Between those and school, I’m pretty busy as it is. Plus, I’m tryna write a new song. And I know you’re really busy too.”
“It was a good idea though. Maybe we could try it next year if we have enough time. And more people are interested.”
Clementine nodded. “Yeah, sure. Well, see you.”
“Bye.” Jasmine played her out.
Next was Chess Club. Clem ran down the hall to the Mrs. Yentel’s class and burst through the door. But instead of a team of players facing off, she only found Adam Numbers solving chess puzzles alone.
“I predicted that you would show up,” said Adam, pouring over a particularly complex position. “We decided to retire for today. I remained to inform you.”
“But, why?” asked Clem. “Aren’t we going to start competitions soon?”
Adam nodded. “Correct. However, we’ve been pushing at near-maximum endurance these last few weeks. I believe a short respite will do us much good. Not to mention boost morale.
“Rest is just as important as hard work, right?” Adam continued.
Clementine scratched her head. “Right… I guess.”
“Well, see you tomorrow Clementine.”
Next was the Health Food Club.
Clementine sprinted down the empty corridors and out the back door of the school. She ran across the basketball court and the soccer field, and turned left past the parking lot to the school gardens.
“No, don’t tell me I missed it…” Clem huffed.
Eaton, who was kneeling to plant the last few seeds, stood up from a small, soon-to-be vegetable garden.
“Oh…” said Eaton, dusting the dirt from his hands. “I didn’t know if you were coming… I heard you were really busy lately and that you needed a break. So I—”
“Who told you that?” Clementine snapped.
“Grace,” Eaton spoke nervously. “She told me during lunch that—”
Clementine had stopped listening. She ground her teeth. “Grace…”
She knew just where to find her. Grace liked to do her homework in the woods behind the school. There was a clearing there, where the old school building used to be. Grace said that nature helped her think.
“Grace!” Clementine roared, ripping through the sanctity of the clearing. “What’s your problem?”
Grace groaned as she closed her textbook, though secretly relieved for the break from Spanish grammar.
“You don’t do that kind of stuff behind people’s back!” Clem continued, pointing a finger in Grace’s face. “Telling people I need a break, who do you think you are?!”
“Calm down, I was just trying to—”
“Don’t say it, Grace, I never asked for your help!”
Grace put her hands up in the air. “Ok, ok. My bad, it won’t happen again. Could you just sit down? Please?”
Clem breathed deeply, parted her wild hair out of her face, and plopped onto the soft green grass.
“I’m sorry,” said Grace. “But what else was I supposed to do? You have a lot of energy, you’re smart and charismatic. You’re a great leader. And I wish I was half the public speaker you are. But you can’t be class president and lead in 10 clubs and volunteer at the soup kitchen and tutor third graders and do Pathfinders and AV and still pick oranges and take care of your siblings and do homework all at the same time… It’s insane!”
Clem was quiet for a while. She was staring at two squirrels chasing each other up and down a tree.
“But I have to…”
“Clementine, you don’t have to be the big sister at school too.”
“You have to take care of number one first or you won’t be able to take care of anyone else.”
Clementine paused again for a long time, then sighed. “You’re right… It is insane. Why are you always right?”
“If only I was…” Grace muttered to herself.
“I guess I don’t have to be class president,” said Clementine, wearily. “I’m sure Adam would take the job from me if I asked him. And I could drop out of the basketball team, I never was very good. And I guess I don’t really need to be in drama club…”
“Yeah, and what about pottery club, you don’t even like potter… Clementine?”
Clementine had fallen asleep, her head resting on Grace’s shoulder.
Grace sighed and reopened her textbook.