The Kid in the Plain Brown Wrapper
If Jennifer Murdley hadn’t been forced to wear her brother’s underpants to school, the whole thing might never have happened. But when she walked into the laundry room on the morning of October 13th, she found her father pouring liquid detergent onto a load of clothes that included every pair of underwear she owned.
“Dad!” she screamed. “Wait!”
She was too late. The tub was filling, her underwear was soggy and soapy, and there was no chance of getting any of it dry before she had to leave for school.
“Don’t worry,” said Mr. Murdley, holding up a stack of neatly folded underpants, “you can wear a pair of these!”
“You have got to be kidding! Those belong to Skippy!”
The conversation that followed wasn’t pretty. The bottom line had been that Jennifer was going to school, and she was going to wear underwear, even if it did belong to her brother.
Although she promised Skippy to keep it a secret, Jennifer confided the embarrassing truth to one person—her best friend, Ellen.
Ellen, not unnaturally, thought it was funny.
So she told Annette.
Annette told Maya.
Maya told Sharra.
And Sharra, as could have been expected, told the world.
By recess every boy in the fifth grade knew Jennifer’s secret. They chased her around the playground, chanting, “Jennifer Murdley went to France, wearing her brother’s underpants,” while Sharra and her friends stood in a circle, giggling and pointing.
As if that weren’t bad enough, when Jennifer passed Skippy in the hallway later that day, as her class was leaving art and his was entering, he hissed, “You die, creepazoid.”
The day reached a new low when Jennifer’s teacher, Mrs. Hopwell, assigned an essay on “My Favorite Pet.”
Jennifer had four problems with the essay:
First, she still hadn’t finished her last writing assignment, a report on Smokey Hollow’s only tourist attraction, the Applegate Folk Museum. In fact, she was supposed to visit the museum that afternoon for some final research.
Second, the new topic just didn’t interest her. It wasn’t that she didn’t like writing. Jennifer loved to write; she just hated wasting her time on stuff that didn’t come from inside her.
Third, she didn’t even have a pet, which was one of the things that made the topic so uninteresting.
Fourth, and most painful, was the fact that the topic itself had prompted Sharra to whisper loudly, “I bet Jennifer has a pet horse. Why else would she be wearing Jockey shorts?” which had led Jimmy Cortez to crack, “Jennifer doesn’t own a horse, she just looks like one.”
Jennifer hadn’t cried; she hadn’t let herself. By now she was used to remarks about her looks.
I’m just the kid in the plain brown wrapper, she told herself on good days. So ordinary, no one notices me at all. But on bad days, like today, she was convinced that everyone did notice the pudgy cheeks, small eyes, and clump of a nose that made her hate her own looks so much.
She couldn’t wait for school to end so she could head for the Folk Museum—though the fact that the point of this visit was research for an overdue assignment made the trip less enjoyable than usual. Still, the museum was one of her favorite places. She loved the ever-changing displays of folk art, the huge collection of apple dolls, the handmade stick brooms, and, best of all, the collection of books that covered everything from local legends to folklore from around the world.
More than that, when Jennifer was at the Folk Museum she felt safe in a way she rarely did, as if it was a place removed from everyday worries and fears.
And this afternoon she wanted to feel safe.
When the final bell rang, Jennifer slipped away from school fast enough to avoid any more teasing, then ran the seven blocks to the museum. After a pause to catch her breath, she opened the door and stepped inside.
Once past the mirror in the foyer (Jennifer hated mirrors), it was easy to forget the outside world in the beautiful old house the Applegate family had donated to the people of Smokey Hollow.
The museum was still run by old Miss Applegate, the only living member of the family. Jennifer always felt kind of sorry for the woman. With her bulgy eyes and squat figure, she was truly unattractive. But she was also somewhat reassuring, since Jennifer was always able to look at her and think, At least I don’t look that bad.
Except in her heart she suspected that she did.
“Hello, dear,” said Miss Applegate, when she spotted Jennifer. She smiled. Jennifer smiled back. Miss Applegate had become a special friend over the last year.
When Miss Applegate announced that it was closing time, Jennifer was shocked to realize that she was nowhere near finished with her research. Her problem was that the material was so interesting she kept getting carried away and reading far past the relevant sections.
“Don’t worry, dear,” said Miss Applegate. “I’m coming in to do some extra work on Saturday morning. You can finish up then.”
Since the museum was closed on Saturdays, this was a real privilege. “Thanks!” said Jennifer as she tucked her pencils and notebooks into her backpack.
Jennifer was so pleased with her trip to the museum that she almost forgot the underwear fiasco—until she reached the corner of Oak and Main, where Sharra was hanging out with a group of her friends.
“Hey, it’s Underwear Woman!” cried one of them.
“Oh, shut up,” said Jennifer, who had had all the teasing she could stand for one day. “At least I’m wearing some!”
“I bet she’s not!” cried Sharra. “I bet she’s lying. Let’s find out.”
Immediately four girls lunged at Jennifer, who turned and ran for all she was worth. From a distance she could hear Sharra urging the others to chase her. Sharra was too dignified to run herself, of course. She would wait until the others caught Jennifer and then lead whatever torture came next.
I’ve got to get out of here, thought Jennifer desperately as she cut a sharp right onto Beech Street. Halfway down the street she shot into a driveway. Darting behind the house, she raced through several backyards, out past another house, and between a pair of small mountain ash trees.
When she stopped to catch her breath, she realized she was on a street she had never seen before. That made her slightly nervous, since ...