Today we are featuring Inklings Book Contest 2019 finalist, Linda Chang! Linda finished 6th grade this past school year. The story she submitted is called “Nerds”
Hey, kiddo! Sorry that I didn’t get a chance to mention this, but I’m having dinner with Eric today. There’s food in the fridge. Love you! -Mom
I groaned. It used to just be me and my mom, ever since my dad left when I was three. But recently, she had been spending a lot of time with this man named Eric. I saw him a few times, but he never really talked to me. I ripped up the note and threw it in the trash. Then I sat down at the messy dining table and started drawing. Drawing was my one and only passion. I wasn’t crazy about it, and I wasn’t super good, but it was the only thing I could seem to spend hours on end doing for no reason at all. Sports were too rough, music was too tiring, school was too boring, theater was too embarrassing, and everything else was too weird.
I was eating bland frozen lasagna and drawing a girl with curly red hair when I heard the door click open.
“Hey, kiddo!” My mom stepped into the room, with Eric right behind her. “We have some big news.”
Oh no. Big news was never a good thing.
“We’re getting married!” they exclaimed at the same time, hugging each other in an overly joyful manner.
What? How? It had only been two months, and I barely knew Eric. I didn’t think this would come until years later. I thought I had time to convince my mom that Eric wasn’t as great as she thought he was.
“Um, yes, that’s, um, great,” I stammered.
“I know! Isn’t it great?” Mom turned back around to grin at me.
“Yeah,” I forced a smile.
“We’re moving into Eric’s house in just two weeks!”
Two weeks??? Please mean two years. Two months would even be okay. But two weeks?????
Two weeks later
We didn’t even have to knock. Eric was standing in front of the house, watering plants. The house was one of the bigger, nicer ones in an already big and nice neighborhood. Everything seemed inviting, except that it wasn’t.
“You’re here! Come in!” Eric said, opening the door. Behind the door was a girl my age with wavy black hair.
“Hello, my name is Katelyn,” she said, and for a moment I thought she was a robot because her posture was so perfect.
“Hi, I’m Carol,” I said awkwardly. I didn’t know that Eric already had kids.
“We’re about to start dinner. We’re having spaghetti,” Katelyn said.
I looked around the house. The living room was bright, with cream colored carpet and a white couch. The walls were white. The dining room had a plain tile floor and black chairs. It looked too organized to be a house.
I sat down at the table, admiring the perfect table setting.
“That’s my seat,” another girl said. She looked exactly like Katelyn, except with pink glasses.
“Oh. Sorry,” I said awkwardly. I moved over to the next chair.
I moved over yet another chair.
“Correct,” she said. I raised my eyebrows, but she didn’t notice.
“Welcome to Family Game Night!” Eric said, standing in front of a huge whiteboard. Five other kids that looked exactly like Katelyn and Pink Glasses Girl – black hair, brown eyes, and plain clothes – sat down at the remaining seats. Now, nobody had ever told me that Eric had not one, not two, but seven children. My blonde hair stood out like a fish out of water.
“The five categories are: Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy, Riddles, and Arithmetic. Mella, choose a category,” Eric announced like the host on Jeopardy.
“Riddles for 300,” Pink Glasses Girl said confidently.
“I reach for the sky, but clutch the ground; sometimes I leave, but I am always around. What am I?”
“Um… a tree!” Mella guessed after only a few seconds. How???? I thought.
“Correct!” Eric scribbled “300” under Mella’s name on the whiteboard. “Carol, choose a category.”
“Um, I’m playing?” I questioned. This kind of thing was fun to watch, not to do. From across the table, Mom gave me that “seriously?” look that all parents do.
“Of course,” Eric said.
“Uh, Arithmetic for, uh, 100?”
“If 2x + 42 – 5x = 54, what is x?”
“Uh, can I have scratch paper?” I stuttered.
I groaned and tried to think as everyone stared at me. I could feel their eyes burning into my head.
“Uh… uh… uh… 15?” I guessed.
“Negative 4!” all of Eric’s strange kids screamed.
“It’s not that hard!” Mella added rolling her eyes.
“Kaden, choose a category.”
“Astronomy for 400.”
“What constellation is the North Star part of?”
“Ursa Minor,” Kaden said, without even hesitating.
After what you might call “dinner” and what I might call “hell,” all seven of the identical-looking robot kids took out notebooks and pens. It was a lot to keep track of, but eventually I figured out all of their names. Josh was the oldest, followed by Ester, Kaden, Mella, Katelyn, Leonard, and finally, five-year-old Tammy. I didn’t know what to do, so I just sat there awkwardly, staring at the robot nerd-kids.
“Um… what am I supposed to be doing?” I whisper-shouted to Mella.
“First of all, you don’t have to whisper,” Mella explained in her robotic voice. “Second of all, you’re not supposed to be doing anything. This isn’t school.” It sure felt like school. “We’re studying for Geo Fez.”
“It’s a national geography competition. It’s called that because the creator, Nicholas Fez, was really self-centered,” Katelyn explained, answering my unspoken questions. “It starts out with county competitions. Every county in every state nominates two contestants to go on to the state-wide competitions, of which there are fifty, one for each state. Each state nominates four contestants to go on to the regional competitions, of which there are five, ten states in each. Each region chooses one contestant to go on to the national competition, which gets broadcast on national TV.”
“Do you want to do it?” Leonard piped up. “You can still sign up.”
Ester let out a little snort. “Oops. Sorry. It’s just that, given her performance at Family Game Night, Carol doesn’t seem to have the right… intelligence for Geo Fez.”
“That’s definitely true,” I muttered, trying not to be offended. “Sorry, Leonard. Nice thought.”
“I think you could do it, with a little practice,” Josh said, looking up from his notes.
“Sorry, but I’m not the right kind of person,” I said.
“You never know until you try,” Katelyn said.
“I just tried. Remember Family Game Night?” I reminded them.
“That doesn’t matter,” Katelyn persisted.
“Smart is something you become, not something you are,” Kaden said.
“How long did it take you to memorize this quote?” I asked.
“This one? Thirty-seven seconds.”
“See? This is why I can’t do it. There is no way I could not only memorize quotes, but also memorize how long it took me to memorize them.”
“I don’t think you could even memorize the quotes in the beginning,” Ester added.
“I also memorized how long it took me to memorize how long it took me to memorize each quote,” Kaden bragged.
“It’s not about memorizing quotes. It’s about geography,” Katelyn said.
“Which she isn’t any better at,” Ester scoffed.
“Fine! I’ll give it a try. But if I fail, it’s your fault.”
“It’s definitely not my fault,” Ester said.
I was lying on the bottom bunk of a triple bunk bed. Have you ever tried lying on the bottom bunk of a triple bunk bed? It’s practically like lying on the floor, except with a pillow, blanket, and tiny mattress. Katelyn and Mella, the only other people in the room, were asleep, and it was only 7 o’clock. Under the covers, using a flashlight, I was working on the drawing of the curly red haired girl. I gave her freckles and pointy glasses.
Knock, knock. “Carol?” my mom whispered through the door. I got up and opened the door.
“How did you know I was awake?” I whispered.
“Isn’t it obvious? You’ve never been here before, let alone slept here, and you have never gone to bed at 7 o’clock in your life,” Mom said.
“Okay, so what do you need me for, then?”
“I just wanted to let you know that I can’t sleep either.”
“Also, if you don’t want to do that Geo Fez thing, you don’t have to,” Mom continued.
“Thanks, but I’m still going to try.”
“Whatever you want, kiddo.”
“I bet you don’t know what atomic number Praseodymium is,” Mella said to Ester.
“59,” Ester shot back. “What’s the capital of Belize?”
“Belmopan. What about Indonesia?”
Mella and Ester were having another one of what they call “intelligent discussions” and what I call “nerd battles.” Every single second, a nerd battle was going on. I couldn’t get away from their endless gibberish. All of us – Mom, Eric, the seven nerds and I – were in the car at 7:00 in the morning, driving to school. It was my first day at school after moving into the nerds’ house.
“Hi, Carol!” My best friend, Lena, came bounding over with my other friends, Jayda and Penelope. “OMG. Tell me everything. How did the wedding go?”
“The wedding’s in five months. I have bigger things to worry about right now,” I said.
“What?” Penelope asked eagerly.
“Well, it turns out that Eric has seven kids,” I said.
“OMG! What are they like? What are their names? Do they go to this school?” Jayda giggled.
“They’re really smart. And, uh, I don’t know. Bookish.”
“Wow. That’s cool. What do they do for fun?” Penelope asked.
“No, no, no. That’s not what I mean by smart. What I mean by smart is, like, a normal conversation for them usually starts with something like, ‘What’s the third most common form of cancer?’ instead of ‘hi’.”
“Yes. And by the way, the answer is colorectal cancer. I learned that the hard way.”
“Do they go to this school?” Lena asked.
“No. Big surprise: they go to a private school for geniuses.”
“Seriously? All of them?”
“That’s crazy!” Mem gasped.
“Are you guys doing something called Geo Fez?” I decided to ask randomly.
“I have no idea what that is. Why, are you?” Mem asked, as Lena and Penelope shook their heads.
“No,” I said spontaneously, not even sure of my real answer.
“Then why did you ask?”
“Uh, no reason,” I muttered. Why would I be dumb enough to think they would really enter something like that?
“Carol, what state is directly to the east of Alabama?”
“Um… I don’t know. Mississippi.
“That’s to the west,” Katelyn said irritably. “You have to know these things for Geo Fez.”
“I knew it. I’m not smart enough. I just don’t have the right talents. I come from a family of normal people, not nerds,” I said, sighing.
“Katelyn, why are you forcing her to do this? If she doesn’t want to, she doesn’t have to,” Ester said, popping her head into the room.
“Anyone can be smart, Carol. I believe in you,” Katelyn said after Ester left.
“Yeah, but Josh doesn’t, and Leonard doesn’t, and Ester definitely doesn’t.”
“They just don’t want to have more competition. They’re very competitive.”
“Yeah, and how do I know that you aren’t tricking me into embarrassing myself on TV? How do I know you aren’t being competitive, too?”
“I’m not. Trust me.”
“How do I know?”
“Because you’re so hopeless you’ll never make on TV!” Katelyn laughed, as Josh, Ester, Kaden, Mella, Leonard, and Tammy ran into the room, congratulating her on the prank.
Now, I knew it was true, but I was so mad I stomped away as slowly and dramatically as I could.
“It was just a prank. We were trying to have fun,” Katelyn claimed when I approached her about it.
“If you want to have fun, stop obsessing over facts and get a life,” I complained. “Oh, and pass that on to your nerd siblings, too.”
“‘Life’ means ‘the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.’ Are you saying that I am inorganic matter?” Katelyn responded.
“‘Figurative language’ means when someone doesn’t mean what they’re saying as literally as someone as dumb as you thinks,” I responded.
“Look who’s talking,” Katelyn responded.
“Actually, you’re the dumb one. When someone becomes extremely fact-obsessed and bookish, they lose the ability to have normal social interactions.” I spent all of last night google-searching things like that to finally get back to the nerds.
“Am I not having a social interaction right now?”
“Yes, but is it normal?”
“Katelyn, what’s the square root of 289?” Leonard stepped into the room. They had been having an ongoing nerd battle for the last three days now.
“17,” Katelyn shouted back, turning her attention away from me.
Grateful for the distraction, I quickly tiptoed out of the room before Katelyn could notice.
This was it. Today was the day of the Geo Fez, and I still hadn’t decided if I was doing it or not. I changed my mind about five times per day. I knew it was only a silly competition, but it felt like I was choosing between bookish nerdiness and my passion: drawing.
“Carol, are you doing this or not?” Mella asked, annoyed at my indecisiveness.
“Ye-no-I don’t know,” I stuttered. “What should I do?”
“I ran an experiment based on your reactions to certain stimulations, and one of the results was that you’re likely to contradict whatever I say, so I say don’t do it.”
“Wait a moment. You ran an experiment on me?”
“I couldn’t help it.”
“Are you serious?”
“Is this supposed to convince me to do it or not do it?”
“Neither. I just thought you should be aware of the seven experiments that have been run on you over the course of the last three weeks.”
“Seven experiments? I thought you were talking about just one!”
“Each of us did one.”
“Really? Even Tammy? She’s five years old.”
“Also, I think that I should say that Katelyn’s little prank on you was part of her experiment. She wanted to see how much self-confidence you have. She still hasn’t gotten a result. If you follow through with the competition, it’ll show her that you’re confident.”
“Ye-no. You’re tricking me. Why should I risk embarrassing myself just for a silly test result?”
“I’m not saying you have to. I’m just saying that you might want to.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said, walking away.
I made my decision. I strode into the living room confidently, where the nerds were watching National Geographic shows.
“I made my decision,” I said, sitting down on the only place left on the couch – the armrest.
“Good, because you should have weeks ago,” Katelyn replied, not bothering to look up from the TV.
“I’ve decided that I’m not going to do it.”
“What?” Katelyn yelled, turning to look at me.
“I’m not doing it.”
“Mella, my calculations were wrong,” Katelyn hollered.
“They were?” Mella rushed into the room.
“I calculated that Carol was likely to be a confident, brave person who would follow through with what she said. I was wrong.”
“Really? But we were so sure about that!”
“Think of it this way,” I said. Then the words suddenly started to flow. “I’m being confident and brave in a different way than you think. Geography just isn’t my thing, and I feel like I’m being talked into something that I can’t do. My passion has always been for art, and I’m being confident by standing up for what I want. You guys can be geography nerds. That’s fine with me. I’ll support whatever you do. But that isn’t who I am, and I can’t pretend it is.”
If it was possible to stare at myself with my mouth wide open, I would have been doing that right then. I couldn’t believe it. What I hadn’t realized was that the reason I didn’t want to do this was because it wasn’t my thing, not because I was a coward. And the reason I didn’t do well preparing wasn’t because I was dumb; it was because this just wasn’t my strong suit.
“Wow. I didn’t think you could start an emotional moment,” Katelyn said in a matter-of-fact voice.
“Then don’t ruin it!” Mella scolded. “I think that’s okay, Carol. You don’t have to feel forced. I realize that we might have been too pushy about this. You don’t have to try and be like us. Be yourself.”
And so I was.
Wondering how to support the youth writer in your life? We can help! Check out our cheat-sheet below which will help you have creative, writerly conversations with your Young Inkling—even if you’re not a writer yourself.