Rebecca Saunders was mean.
She was the meanest girl in the fourth grade, the meanest girl in school, maybe the meanest girl ever.
It wasn’t that Daisy wanted to think that way about Rebecca Saunders, or anyone else for that matter. Daisy liked to like people, her mom always said to try to see the best in everyone, and Daisy did her best to do just that. But some people… some people there was just no best to see, no matter how hard she tried.
The truth was, Rebecca Saunders was a bad word. She was a word Daisy wasn’t allowed to say but that Aunt Casey said all the time. It rhymed with witch.
Aunt Casey used it to describe Rebecca Saunders even though it made Daisy’s dad mad when she did.
“Did that stupid little (bad-word-that-rhymes-with-witch) start anything today?” she would ask Daisy when she got home from school.
Most days Daisy would shake her head no, Rebecca Saunders had left her alone, and it was usually true.
She didn’t bother telling her aunt about the little things Rebecca did, how if Daisy accidentally made eye contact with her, Rebecca’s face would go into this mean little smirk, or how if Rebecca and her friends walked by Daisy at recess they would lower their voices so Daisy couldn’t make out what they were saying. That stuff hurt, but it wasn’t worth getting upset about. Everyone said that Rebecca treated Daisy the way she did because she was trying to get a reaction out of her, and the best thing was to ignore it, so Daisy did her best to ignore Rebecca Saunders and her mean friends and the stupid mean things they said and did. Ignoring meant not crying or shouting or even thinking about it if she could help it. So when Aunt Casey asked if Rebecca Saunders started anything, she said no. Sometimes though, when Rebecca had been particularly nasty, she’d crack.
“(Word-that-rhymes-with-witch)es need stitches,” Aunt Casey always said when that happened. “How’re you handling it?”
Daisy would shrug. “It’s cool,” she’d say. “I’m cool.”
If Aunt Casey asked today though, she would have a different answer. Today Rebecca had finally gone too far.
Daisy never could figure out why Rebecca Saunders hated her so much. She just did and she always had, ever since Daisy started at their school two years ago.
“Daisy,” she sneered at recess on the first day, “we got daisies in our yard one year and mom had to get a gardener to get rid of them. It smelled for weeks after that. I hate daisies.”
That was all it took. Rebecca Saunders and all her friends hated Daisy from then on. They wouldn’t talk to her unless it was to pick on her. They made fun of her weight, her clothes, her hair, anything they could think of. They came up with mean names for her: Lazy Daisy, Hazy Daisy, and of course, Crazy Daisy.
Her mom told her to be patient. She told Daisy to do her best to ignore them, to keep being her sweet self and eventually those girls would get tired of picking on her and then they’d stop. She told Daisy to make friends with different kids, nicer kids.
Aunt Casey didn’t think patience was the answer.
The first time Daisy told Aunt Casey about how those girls picked on her, back when she was still in the second grade and Aunt Casey was visiting from Portland, Aunt Casey told her to kick Rebecca Saunders’ (different-bad-word-this-time-rhymes-with-grass); she told her to punch her in the chest, just below her neck, in her solar plexus. That night, at bed time, Daisy told her mom what Aunt Casey said and her mom got really mad. She called Aunt Casey and talked to her for a long time; Daisy lay in bed in the dark and listened to her mom’s angry muffled voice down the hall.
The next day, Aunt Casey came over and sat down with Daisy on the front porch.
“Your mom totally put me on blast for telling you to hit that girl,” she said. “And she was right, I should’ve kept my mouth shut but look, I was mad, you know? You’re my niece and you’re perfect and it drives me nuts thinking about someone hurting you. But you can’t hurt them back.”
“Yeah I know,” Daisy said. She never had the slightest intention of punching Rebecca Saunders in the solar plexus or anywhere else for that matter. But she had liked that her aunt suggested it.
“The things with these types of… people,” Aunt Casey was trying her hardest not to swear, Daisy’s mom had really let her have it, “is that you can’t make them stop, as much as you might want to. All you can do is take it until they lose interest. Don’t do anything, don’t say anything. Just let it roll off your back, you know?”
“But they’re so mean,” Daisy said. “They’re so mean; it hurts my feelings and makes me mad. Why can’t I at least say anything back?”
“Because,” Aunt Casey sighed, “it wouldn’t do any good. No matter what you say, no matter what you do, they’re gonna be mean. That’s why you gotta be cool.”
“But what does that even mean be cool? I don’t know how to do that.” And she didn’t. Daisy was many things but cool wasn’t one of them. She didn’t know how to dress or what to watch or say or anything. She tried asking some of the other kids if they wanted to play with her at recess, tried bringing in toys that other kids might want to use. She even brought in extra Oreos to share at lunch. But nothing worked. Whatever it was at Baxter Elementary that made you cool, Daisy didn’t have it.
“It means like – look, when you’re cool nothing gets to you, right? Cause you don’t care. You’re cool. Being cool isn’t about what you wear or the music you listen to or anything like that. And it sure as (word-that-rhymes-with-spit),” she winced, “Don’t tell your mom I said that alright? It sure as sugar isn’t what those little monsters in your class think is cool. Cool is a state of mind. It’s the knowledge that you’re better than this. Better than them. They can’t touch you. Because you’re cool.”
Daisy sat silently next to Aunt Casey, considering her words. Then she said: “I’m cool.”
“You’re cool.” Aunt Casey said, “Like the song says They’re never gonna keep you down.”
“What song is that?”
“Wait, you don’t know that song? Oh man, that song’s the best. It’s all about how, life’s rough and mean and hard and stuff, but you just gotta keep going. And that’s the chorus, it’s like, I get knocked down, but I get up again!/You’re never gonna keep me down!/ I get knocked down, but I get up again!/You’re never gonna keep me down!” She punched her fist in the air as she chanted.
“Do you have that song?”
“Do I have that song? Do I have that song? Of course I have that song. I have it with me, you wanna hear it?”
Daisy nodded. She really did.
“Let’s go then, let’s listen to it right now.” They went inside, and Aunt Casey plugged her MP3 player into the stereo, turned the sound way up, and pressed play. When it finished, she played it again. She played it again and again and again. Aunt Casey and Daisy and Daisy’s mom and dad danced around the living room all night chanting along with the chorus, I get knocked down, but I get up again! You’re never gonna keep me down! I get knocked down, but I get up again! You’re never gonna keep me down!
It became her motto.
Whenever things got rough, at school with Rebecca or at home with her dad, she would just repeat the chorus over and over in her head until she was calm. She would, as Aunt Casey said, be cool. Cool people didn’t get worked up by mean girls or sad dads; they didn’t let things like that get to them. And Daisy was cool.
I get knocked down, but I get up again! You’re never gonna keep me down! I get knocked down, but I get up again! You’re never gonna keep me down!
There was a while there, after her mom died and before Aunt Casey moved back, when Daisy would lie in her bed for hours, her headphones jammed in her ears, and listen to the song over and over as loud as it would go. Cool couldn’t do anything about a car hitting her mom as she crossed the street on her way to an ATM, cool didn’t have any answers for that. But the song did remind her, that while she was down at the moment, and she was as far down as she had ever been in her life, she wasn’t going to stay down. Things would get better. They had to. Nothing could keep her down.
And they did get better. Or, they were getting better. Aunt Casey moved in, and her dad started to cheer up a little. And, while she still missed her mom it didn’t hurt quite as bad as it used to. Little by little, she was starting to feel like herself again.
The problem was, the more she started to feel like herself, the more she started getting irritated again by people like Rebecca Saunders. So when Daisy lost her favorite necklace, the one she found at the flea market that her mom said looked so pretty, Daisy lost her cool for the first time in a long time.
“Miss Fantozzi?” Daisy said, “I, my necklace is gone. I think it fell off when I was on the monkey bars at recess. Can I go and look for it?”
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” said Miss Fantozzi, “but I can’t let you go outside without supervision. You’re going to have to wait until school’s over.”
“But what if someone finds it and takes it before that?”
“Like anyone would want that ugly thing,” Rebecca whispered to one of her friends and the two of them snorted with laughter.
That’s when Daisy said it.
It was weird. If you had asked Daisy, just a second before, how her mood was, she would have said she was fine. She was worried about her necklace, of course, but other than that the day had been going okay, good even. Stacey Grundin invited her to play four-square at recess and she made it to the king square. She’d gotten the report on the Pyramids back with an A; there’d even been an extra pudding in her lunch.
It was all going so well.
But then Rebecca just had to go and make fun of her necklace.
Like anyone would want that ugly thing.
That ugly thing.
Suddenly, Daisy was back at the flea market with her mom. She was at the table of homemade jewelry she liked so much and she was picking up the necklace and showing it to her mom. The necklace had a locket, it had writing on it, but it was a word Daisy had never seen, with marks above some of the letters. Her mom said it wasn’t English, she used her phone to look up what it meant. When they found out, they knew the necklace was perfect. Her mom handed Daisy the ten dollars her grandmother gave her for her birthday.
Daisy felt her mom’s hands lifting her hair up and her mom’s breath on the back of her neck as she fixed the metal clasp together for the very first time.
She felt the weight of the necklace settle on her chest.
Heard her mother whispering how beautiful she looked.
And stupid mean Rebecca Saunders.
“Shut up you stupid bitch!” She yelled in front of the whole class and the teacher and everyone.
Usually there are all sorts of noises in a classroom. If the teacher wasn’t talking then the kids were, or if no one talked there were always the sounds of pencils scribbling across paper, of pages turning, of kids squirming in their seats trying to get comfortable. After Daisy called Rebecca Saunders the bad word everything went silent. No one talked; no one wrote anything or read anything. No one moved. Daisy was pretty sure the clock over the door stopped ticking.
“Daisy,” Miss Fantozzi said after she recovered enough to speak, “I need you to come out into the hall with me.”
Forty-six silent eyes followed Daisy as she rose from behind her desk and made her way down the aisle toward the front of the class. Miss Fantozzi was standing at the door, holding it open. Daisy kept her eyes on her shoes until, halfway out the door she stopped, looked up and found Rebecca Saunders’ eyes. Rebecca looked, in that moment, stunned, shocked, a little afraid. Daisy stared right back with a look that said I meant what I said, and I’m not sorry, then she walked into the hall.
Miss Fantozzi crossed her arms and looked down at Daisy. “Here’s the deal,” she said, “I’m giving you a pass on this because you’ve had a rough year and because for reasons I’ve never understood Rebecca Saunders seems to have it in for you. But if you ever, ever, use that word again, at anybody, I will make sure you regret it for the rest of your life. Are we clear?”
Daisy nodded her head.
Miss Fantozzi said it again, “Are we clear?”
“Good. Now, go inside, take your seat, and look like you just got in a lot of trouble.”
“Yes ma’am,” Daisy turned on her heels and walked back into class. She kept her head down the whole way back to her desk and after she took her seat.
“Alright, show’s over,” Miss Fantozzi said, “eyes forward, let’s go.”
Daisy looked up in time to see the class tear their eyes away from her and back toward the front of the class. A moment later Rebecca Saunders glanced back at her again, Daisy held her gaze. That’s right, still here. Rebecca broke first, turned back to Miss Fantozzi and the list of state capitols on the board. Daisy allowed herself a little smile.
You’re never gonna keep me down!
Aunt Casey would be disappointed that Daisy hadn’t been cool. But then she had been something else her Aunt liked even more.
She had been awesome.
Chris Ludovici has published articles in The Princeton Packet and online atCinedelphia. His fiction has appeared in several literary magazines, and in 2009 he won the Judith Stark awards in fiction and drama. He has completed three novels, two on his own and one with his wife Desi whom he lives with along with their son Sam and too many cats in Drexel Hill. Daisy also appears in the 2013 issue of Peregrine, the print journal of the University of Pennsylvania Creative Writing Program.