During recess, Hannah Miller asked Kiran Patel if he would like to play “Shipwrecked” and pretend they were the only two people stranded together on a desert island. She stood on a mound of wet grass surrounded by a large pool of dark rainwater, her frizzy brown hair whipping in the wind, olive eyes wide with expectation.
Kiran observed from a distance, wary of hopping the unstable stones in the giant puddle to reach the “island”, and even more reluctant to do so only to be trapped with Hannah, unquestionably the strangest girl in school. She was the girl who wore her clothes inside-out if it suited her, the girl who created her own language called “Lionese”, who often spoke to imaginary friends named Patrick and Genevieve (who she claimed were a doctor and a duchess, respectively). Hannah was the girl whom other girls mimicked derisively and boys ran away from to escape “the cooties.”
But Kiran also knew that Hannah was very bright, and not just in a good-at-school sort of way. She was bright in that she seemed to be subliminally attuned to the glimmering whispers of the universe; she was bright in the way that she seemed to tell you precisely how you were feeling, as though she understood the intricate passageways between heart and mind like a well-seasoned traveler.
And this made Kiran uncomfortable. Because she was clearly very special, and Kiran wanted nothing to do with special. Kiran wanted to play handball with Dennis and Pete, not stand on a mound of grass with kooky Hannah Miller, even though Kiran knew that Hannah never asked anyone to play with her. The fact that she had asked him was truly remarkable; the fact that she was not prancing around a tree with Patrick and Genevieve was very telling. Kiran did not know what it meant.
So he watched Hannah standing on the tall mound, like some sacrosanct statue on a grand mountain, her finger crooked in the act of beckoning him to her. And he did not come. Dennis and Pete appeared and asked him to play handball, and with a leaden feeling in his chest, Kiran followed them. He beat the rubbery ball with tightly clasped hands, pounding it with a savage energy. He won two games, three. Still, Hannah stood on the island, alone as ever.
A crack of thunder struck like a whip, and the school children shouted and scattered. Kiran, undeterred, made his last play and won his final game while Dennis and Pete ran for cover. The rain was pelting down hard now, tap-dancing in a frenzy on the asphalt. Kiran hazarded a glance at the mound, and sure enough, there stood Hannah, sopping from head to toe, her mane of brown hair plastered to her face and neck like a tangle of seaweed. The puddle was expanding steadily around her.
Kiran jogged over to the puddle, arm uselessly shielding his head. “We need to go back to class!” he shouted. Rain dented the pool in hundreds of fierce pinpricks. The stepping stones were completely submerged.
“I’m shipwrecked!” Hannah said. “I need to find shelter. I have to explore the island.”
Kiran stood, mouth agape. He could not believe that she was continuing her imaginary game at the end of recess, amid a brewing storm.
“Hannah, c’mon!” he tried again. “Mrs. Sanchez is going to kill us!”
“I need to build a fire!” Hannah yelled. And she crouched down and began searching for sticks in the grass.
“She’s crazy,” Kiran muttered to himself, shaking his head. And he began to trudge back to class, bracing himself against the wet, whistling wind. But another crack of thunder made him stop and turn around one more time. Nothing seemed different; Hannah was still on the mound, pretending to build a fire. But something had changed. Something within Kiran had shifted slightly. He began to walk back.
The giant puddle was now as tumultuous as the sea itself, and the mound appeared a safe haven in the tempest. Kiran scanned the ground quickly and picked up a few sticks and rocks, then began his journey across the sea. He waded shin-deep through the waters, but it felt as though he were swimming, struggling against the violent currents. When he finally reached the shore, a cold, pale hand took his own and pulled him up onto the island.
“Thanks,” Kiran said. He stooped down to warm his hands by the fire. “I have some wood with me, I think I can make us a fort.”
Hannah grinned, and the transformation it wrought on her face was astounding. A light shone through her, through her eyes and teeth and pores. “I collected some herbs,” she said. “I can make us some soup.”
For a few minutes, the two castaways, drenched to the bone, prepared a meal as the storm raged around them. And then Hannah spoke again.
“I knew it would be you.”
Kiran did not ask what she meant by this; on some level he already knew. And he was touched that she had marked him as special, proud that he had not let her down.
“Come on, let’s go back to class,” Hannah said after they had eaten their soup and put out the fire. “I think that’s Mrs. Sanchez shouting at us across the playground.”
Kiran held out his hand to Hannah. Together, they treaded the treacherous sea, the tag sticking up from Hannah’s inside-out sweater, her smile shining through Kiran’s inside-out heart.