“Penny? Penny! Penelope, where are you?” I called as I wandered through the house, looking for her. Where was that little rascal? I’d leave her alone for one minute and she’d scurry off somewhere. She’d better not be getting into trouble, wherever she was. That’s one thing she was good at. But I guess it’s only typical of her species, so what could you expect?
I headed to the kitchen. “Mom, have you seen Penelope? I can’t find her anywhere.”
My mother shook her head as she stirred a pot of spaghetti for dinner. “No, I haven’t seen her. And, Ria, you really should keep that squirrel in her enclosure. She’s all over the place!”
I sighed. This wasn’t the first time Mom had suggested that. “But she doesn’t like it, Mom. She wants to be free to go wherever she wants. And I don’t blame her. She is a squirrel, after all.”
“But it’ll be for her own good. With her running in and out of the house all the time, she’s at high risk of getting hit by a car, or attacked by a dog, or picked up by a hawk.”
I shuddered. “I know, and I’ve already warned her about that. She knows to be careful when going outside.”
“Ria, she’s a squirrel. She doesn’t understand anything you tell her.”
“Yes, she does!” I replied indignantly. “She understands everything I say to her. I keep telling you, Mom. Penelope’s not your average squirrel.”
She really wasn’t. Ever since I had rescued her from a science lab where she was being used as a test subject, I’d discovered that she had an extraordinary ability, which allowed her to read my mind and me to read hers. But Mom didn’t know that. Even if I’d told her, she’d never understand.
“Well, are you sure you’ve looked everywhere?” Mom asked. “Did you check all of the drawers and cabinets in the house and all the other places small enough for a squirrel to hide in?”
“Positive,” I said. “But she could be sitting on top of the cabinets.”
“I don’t think so. I probably would have seen her jump up there. Did you check outside?”
“How could she have gotten out?” I asked. “The windows are...oh.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Mom looked at me meaningfully as I realized that my bedroom window was open. Penelope always insisted that I keep it that way, as she complained the house smelled too much like humans and she needed fresh air. I always tried to leave the window open just enough so that she could smell the outside air, but I guess she was still able to squeeze through the opening.
Hearing the sound of a barking dog, I dashed out to the backyard and looked over the fence into the next-door neighbors’ backyard, seeing their gray cairn terrier with his front paws on the trunk of a tree, growling and yapping furiously at something in the branches. I caught a glimpse of a red, bushy tail twitching teasingly and heard chittering from the owner of that tail. Just as I thought.
Penelope, you come down from that tree right now! Stop teasing the neighbors’ dog! I mentally shouted over the terrier’s barking.
Penny scurried onto a branch where I could see her and flicked an ear. Why?
Because it’s not nice, and you’re annoying the dog. Why do you think dogs hate squirrels and want to chase them so much?
She let out a long chitter as she mentally protested, But you don’t understand! That dog thinks he’s all that. I had to put him in his place!
That’s still no excuse, I thought sternly. Get down and come here now, before Scrappy’s owner comes out and I get in trouble for letting you irritate him.
Penelope uttered a displeased chitter, but she leaped off the tree branch and landed on top of the fence. I scooped her up in my hands. “You’ve caused enough trouble for now, missy,” I scolded her out loud. “Come on, let’s go inside.”
I made sure Penny was safely secured in her enclosure in my bedroom before joining Mom for dinner.
“So, how’s school been going?” she asked me.
I shrugged. “Okay.”
“Have you made any friends?”
I looked away. “Not yet.” Ever since middle school started, I’d established myself as The Girl No One Noticed. It wasn’t on purpose; I was just the quiet type that nobody really paid much attention to.
“Well, I hope you will soon. It’ll be good for you to hang out with other kids your age.”
“At least I have a friend at all,” I said. “And Penelope is the best friend I could ever have.”
Mom sighed. “I know, but you need some human friends too. You know, ones that can actually talk back to you?”
I took a bite of food to stop myself from telling her that Penny could talk to me—in my mind.
Little did I know how useful that skill would turn out to be.
* * * * *
I woke up the next morning with a feeling that something wasn’t right. As I got ready for school, I ran through a mental checklist, trying to figure out what it was.
Then it hit me. Penelope wasn’t in her enclosure.
“Penny! Where are you?” I tore my room apart, frantically searching everywhere a little squirrel could hide.
“Ria! Are you going to eat breakfast? The bus will be here any minute!” Mom called.
“But Mom—Penny’s missing! She’s not in her enclosure.”
Mom came into my room and shook her head. “Not again. You did remember to latch it last night, didn’t you?”
“Of course! I always do. But she must’ve figured out how to open it herself. Anyway, she’s not in here at all! And the window is closed, so I know she can’t be outside.”
“Okay, well that’s good,” Mom said. “But Ria, you have to get to school. I’ll continue looking for Penny while you’re gone.”
I sighed. “Okay. Thanks, Mom.” I zipped up my backpack and slung it over my shoulder, grabbing an apple from the bowl on the kitchen counter before dashing out to catch the school bus.
* * * * *
My first subject of the day was English. “Okay class, let’s get started,” said my teacher, Mrs. Garcia. “Open your books to page one-sixteen…”
As I pulled my schoolwork out of my backpack, I noticed that a corner of my English book looked like it had been nibbled on by tiny teeth. It hadn’t been like that when I’d put it in my backpack this morning.
Then I suddenly remembered how I couldn’t find Penny earlier. And how my backpack had been left partially open in my room, leaving a squirrel-sized opening.
Had Penny stowed away in my backpack and caused me to accidentally bring her to school?
I plunged my hand into my backpack and rummaged around, trying to feel for a small, furry body. Nothing.
Okay, Ria, calm down, I told myself. Maybe you’re just overthinking it. Penny could still be at home. Mom could have already found her by now.
I pushed my worries out of my mind and tried to just concentrate on the lesson.
I even managed to forget about Penny for the rest of the morning. I had other things to worry about too, like how I had done on my math test.
And who to sit with at lunch.
Not that the latter problem was anything new. As The Girl No One Noticed, I ended up sitting by myself, as usual.
As I ate my lunch and tried to tune out the constant chatter of the cafeteria, I suddenly heard someone shout, “A rat! A rat!”
Someone else shouted, “That’s not a rat! That’s a squirrel!”
I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. Please tell me this isn’t happening.
I spotted something small leap onto one of the tables. It had red fur, a white belly, a bushy tail, and beady black eyes.
The cafeteria erupted into chaos. Kids ran and screamed as my naughty squirrel scampered around, leaping from table to table and stuffing as much food as she could fit into her cheeks. Some people tried to catch her, but Penny darted away just as they got close.
“Don’t touch it—it could have rabies!”
“Somebody call Animal Control!”
“How did a squirrel get in here anyway?”
I pretended to panic along with everyone else while mentally scolding Penny. You are SO in big trouble, Penelope! Stop this right now!
But Penelope ignored me. She was having too much fun wreaking havoc in the cafeteria.
Just then, a loud whistle stopped everyone in their tracks. Even Penelope froze. “Now,” said Principal Davis, “what is going on in here?”
A girl quickly replied, “There’s a squirrel in here, sir!” She pointed to Penelope, who was perched on top one of the tables, calmly nibbling on a cookie.
The principal blinked in surprise as he stared at Penny. “A squirrel? How did that get in here?” Then he shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll call Animal Control to come pick it up.”
“Wait! No—you can’t!” I blurted out before I could stop myself.
Everyone’s eyes were on me. Usually I hated being the center of attention, but this time I didn’t care. “That’s my squirrel,” I said.
“Your squirrel?” almost everyone asked in unison.
“Yeah, right—no one has a pet squirrel,” a boy scoffed.
“I do, and she’s right there,” I said.
“Prove it,” the boy demanded.
I slowly walked over to the table where Penelope was sitting and extended a hand toward her. “Come here, Penny,” I whispered. Mentally I added, Come here, or they’re going to think you’re a wild animal and Animal Control is going to come and take you away and I’ll never be able to get you back—ever.
Penelope emitted a horrified chitter and then scampered up my arm to sit on my shoulder. “Good girl,” I said, stroking her under the chin.
Everyone gasped in wonder. “It really is her squirrel,” someone whispered.
Principal Davis looked astonished for a second, then he cleared his throat. “Miss Washington, why don’t you—and your squirrel—come with me to my office?”
I kept my eyes on the floor as I followed the principal out of the cafeteria with Penny riding on my shoulder.
I thought the principal was going to give me detention for bringing a squirrel to school, but he didn’t. He just asked me how Penelope had gotten here in the first place, and I explained how she had escaped her enclosure at home and somehow secretly stowed away in my backpack when I wasn’t looking. Then he had me call my mom to come pick Penny up. She works from home (Mom of course, not Penny), so it’s not like it was a big deal for her.
I guess things could have been worse, but the whole situation was still pretty embarrassing.
Not to mention that it earned me a new nickname among everyone at school, “The Girl with the Squirrel.” I would hear people whisper it among each other as I walked past. I was basically a school celebrity, at least for a little while.
But a week passed and I was back to being The Girl No One Noticed.
Or so I thought.
As I sat in my usual corner at lunch one day, I heard a friendly voice ask, “Hey, mind if we join you?”
I looked up. Standing at my table were a girl and a boy. “Um, sure,” I said to them.
They slid into the bench across from me. “I’m Kyla,” the girl introduced. “And this is my friend Benjamin,” she added, gesturing to the boy.
“You can call me Ben, though,” the boy said.
“Nice to meet you guys,” I mumbled shyly. “I’m—”
“We know who you are,” Ben interrupted, grinning. “You’re the girl with the squirrel, right?”
I blushed. “It’s Ria, actually. And thank you guys…” I don’t add, “for sitting with me.” But somehow Kyla knew exactly what I meant.
“No problem! Sorry we haven’t gotten to know you sooner,” she replied as she opened a carton of milk.
“Yeah. After the day your squirrel crashed the cafeteria—that was totally legendary, by the way!—we realized that we’ve seen you before but never actually met you,” Ben explained.
I shrug, looking down at the table. “It’s okay. I know I’m not exactly the most noticeable or interesting person in this school.”
Ben leaned forward, his brown eyes wide. “Are you kidding? You have a pet squirrel!”
“I know, and it was so cute! What’s your squirrel’s name, again?” Kyla asked me.
“Her name’s Penelope, but I like to call her Penny for short,” I say, warming up now that the conversation is on my favorite topic. “And as you saw last Wednesday, she’s a huge troublemaker.”
“A super cute troublemaker,” Kyla said, grinning. “I’d love to meet her sometime—but not at school, of course!”
“Me too,” Ben chimed in.
I grew hopeful. Were they actually asking to hang out with me? “You guys can, um, come over to my house after school if you want,” I offered shyly.
“Sounds great!” Kyla said, and Ben nodded eagerly.
I smiled at them. Thanks to Penny, it looked like I’d finally made some (human) friends after all.