This story takes place in early September, 1992.

Playing with Normal Kids
A Carlson Septuplets Story

Zoe Hayworth was a pretty normal kid. One pretty normal thing about her was that she liked summer vacation and didn't like the first day of school.

At least, most years she didn't. This, however, was not going to be a normal year.

It wasn't that she was starting fifth grade, though that was great, too—finally, the oldest kids in the school! Those snooty girls who had exercised their fifth grade right to monopolize the tire swing would be gone to Redcove Middle School this year.

It wasn't because she was in Mr. Chall's class, though that was also great—everyone said Mr. Chall was the most fun of any teacher in the school.

The reason she was running to the door on this first day of the 1992-93 school year was that starting today, she would have classmates who were anything but normal. In fact, they were famous. Technically, the reason Zoe was running was because Elizabeth Rogers was running, and she wanted to keep up with her best friend. But Elizabeth was definitely running to see them.

It was all she had talked about for the past week.

Zoe, they're going to be in our classes!" she had squealed on the phone to Zoe as soon as she had heard the news. "Like normal kids! You might get to sit in a group with one of the real live Carlson Septuplets themselves!"

Naturally Zoe was excited to meet the Septs, but she was nothing compared to Elizabeth. Elizabeth's mom had kept a baby book since her daughter was born in November 1982, four months after the Septuplets. Along with records of her own child's first smile, her first word, and when she lost her first teeth, Mrs. Rogers had included news articles about the Septuplets and their milestones, comparing her baby to the miracle children who lived across town. Ever since the news of that famous pregnancy broke in June 1982, people across the country had followed the story, and mothers who were pregnant themselves at the time were some of the most curious. Elizabeth was not the only little girl to have such a baby book.

And like so many other little girls, she had picked up her mother's fascination. Who wouldn't be entranced by the seven adorable little look-alikes? They were almost like modern American princesses—at least, they were in the Rogers family's eyes. When they made Carlson Septuplet dolls and Carlson Septuplet calendars, the Rogerses bought them. When they showed Carlson Septuplet specials on TV, the Rogerses taped them. When the Rogerses went to a park one day and saw the Carlsons playing there, they snapped a picture. They put that in the baby book, too. You could only imagine how jealous Septuplet watchers in far off states would be of that!

But even that was nothing compared to this. Now Elizabeth, and Zoe, and all the ordinary kids of Westfield would be going to school with the Septuplets. It had been such a big deal to see them in the park that day because even though the Carlsons lived in the same town as the Rogerses, the Carlson family was known to be—to use the word Zoe's mom had used—"reclusive." That meant they sent the Septuplets to three separate small private schools where not very many people got to know them instead of to the Westfield Public Schools like normal kids.

Suddenly, though, the family seemed to have changed their mind. Starting with this last year of elementary school, the Carlson Septuplets were going to public school. No one had known until around the middle of August. On their tenth birthday, which was in July, 20/20 ran a special (the Rogerses taped it) that had talked about them at their old schools, but it hadn't said they weren't going back to them. But then Mrs. Carlson started talking to the public schools about signing her daughters up, and someone at the school offices told a few of their friends, and then those people told their friends, and pretty soon everyone knew.

"You know what?" said Elizabeth as they walked down the Upper El hallway to their new classrooms. "There are only three fifth grade classes, so unless they put them all in the same class, we'll all probably have at least one or two in our classes!" She stopped for a moment. "You don't think they'll put them all in the same class, do you?"

"I dunno," said Zoe. "Why would they?"

"Maybe they're afraid to be separated!"

They stopped in front of classrooms B-12 and and B-14. Elizabeth would not be in Mr. Chall's class with Zoe this year; she was in Mrs. Dewitt's class across the hall.

Zoe sighed. "We don't get to be in the same classes this year!" she said for about the third time this morning. They had lamented this news at least daily since they received their class assignments in the mail the week before.

"I know. No way fifth grade will be as good as fourth grade, then."

"Even with the Carlson Septuplets?" asked Zoe with a grin.

"Not even with them!" She pulled out her half of the Best Friends' necklace she wore under her shirt so it was visible for all of Mrs. Dewitt's class to see. Zoe grinned and did the same. They didn't wear the necklaces every day, but the first day of school required such ceremonies.

"Time to see who's in our classes," said Zoe. "I just hope Brad Childs isn't in either of them." Elizabeth nodded, gave one last wave, and disappeared into her own classroom as Zoe stepped into B-12.

She had sort of been imagining seven kids lined up in the front of the room signing autographs, but that was not what she saw.

What she did see was a classroom with about half the desks already occupied. Some kids were standing around chatting. Some were sitting at desks, looking ready for the year to start. But all of them looked very normal.

It was sort of a shock that everything looked so ordinary. She panned the crowd again—most of the kids she knew, but there were a couple faces she didn't recognize. One was an Asian boy—clearly not a Sept. One was a girl, but her hair was blonde. Well, maybe they weren't here yet. Or maybe they did put them all in one classroom, and this wasn't the one. Elizabeth would sure be excited if it was hers.

Noticing that there were name tags already taped on to each desk, Zoe went in search of her own. Halfway down the first row, though, she saw Kim Field leaning over Erica Nielsen's desk, whispering and pointing. Following Kim's finger, she spotted them.

Standing toward the far corner near the window were two identical brown-haired girls. She must not have seen them because Brian Wiskowski was standing in the way. Hah! So they were here! She couldn't help standing and staring for a moment. As she gaped, one of the girls caught her glance for a moment, but quickly looked away.

Zoe too pretended that she hadn't been staring, quickly looking back down at desks and scanning for her name, but only moved a few desks down before she looked back at them. The one who had caught her glance was standing up, looking out at the rest of the class with an expression that might be called defiant. She was wearing a pair of Osh Kosh and had her hair in pigtails. The other, in a magenta sweater, blue jean skirt, and navy knee-socks, was hunched over beneath the lid of her open desk, arranging things inside.

"Hey, that's my desk," came a voice behind her. She spun around to see Brad Childs. Great, so the troublemaker of the grade was in her class, too. She hurried away from the desk with his name on it before he could say anything else to her.

She tried to keep from looking at the two Carlson girls as she went up and down the next aisle, but it was hard. She managed to avoid the gaze of the pigtailed one again—she wouldn't want them to think she was staring at them—but she still totally missed her own name label while looking in their direction. She only found it when Kristy Noberman shouted, "Hey, Zoe! You're right next to me!"

Sure enough, when she went back to where Kristy was, she found "Zoe Hayworth" written neatly on a yellow tag at the top of the desk next to her. "Hi, Kristy," she said, but she wasn't looking at her desk partner; instead she was looking at the pairs of desks in front of and behind her, both still unoccupied. On the desk directly on front of Kristy's, she saw the name "Monica Carlson."

"Oh! One of them's sitting in front of us!" she cried before she could help herself. She glanced back toward the two of them, but they didn't seem to have heard.

But Kristy had. "You mean the Septuplets? Everyone's talking about them." Her voice was sour.

Zoe quickly sat down in her chair and responded in a whisper. "What, don't you like them?"

Kristy made a face. "They're probably going to be little snobs."

"You don't know that! They might be really nice."

"Come on. Look at that one—she's been over there glaring at people since she got here. And the other one won't talk to anyone, either."

Zoe allowed herself another look back toward the two Carlsons. She was happy to see that the pigtailed girl looked less defiant now. Actually, she looked kind of nervous. "Maybe they're just shy. And anyway, she wasn't glaring."

"See? Everyone already loves them. They'll be snobs for sure."

Zoe responded only with a small huff, and then turned to reach for her bag to start putting her new school supplies into her desk. Just as she did, the five minute bell rang. (Whoa, was it loud! It must be right outside her classroom this year.) She saw the pigtailed Sept jump about a foot in the air before hurrying (gasp!) right toward Zoe.

The Sept—Monica, according to the name tag—sat down with a loud thunk in her seat before looking back up toward the clock. Maybe she didn't know it was the five minute bell—she was a new kid, after all. Zoe looked back toward the other one, who was looking back toward her sister with an unmistakably nervous look on her face. Then she looked out at the rest of her classmates, and saw that lots of them were looking at the Septs, too.

Mr. Chall walked into the classroom with a bright smile on his face. "Good morning, everyone!" Zoe felt a rush of excitement that she never felt at the beginning of the school year—what was going to happen next? She tapped both her feet on the ground impatiently as the minute hand inched closer to the twelve. Right in front of her was one of the famous Carlson Septuplets! She couldn't wait to tell Elizabeth at lunch—she really would be excited about that. And jealous, unless of course she actually got to sit next to one of them or something.

The clock struck nine, and the bell to start the school day rang.

Mr. Chall looked up at the clock as he waited for the loud metallic noise to stop. When it finally did, he turned to the class. "Welcome to the fifth grade! You've finally made it to the top! And your reward is going to be lots and lots of hard work." Some kids groaned. "That's right: no more slacking, you slackers. You've got to get ready for middle school! And even more important than that: you've got the MEAP test and the CAT test this year." More kids groaned; Zoe would have, but she was still too excited to be paying much attention. "So are you guys scared enough yet?"

Zoe glanced at the Sept across the room, whose face she could sort of see, and saw that she did look scared for sure.

"Good," the teacher went on, "That means everything else from here will be easy." Here he smiled. "For those of you who don't know me, my name is Mr. Chall. I've been teaching here at Pennington since back in the dark ages before any of you lot were born. I will be your teacher this year, except for social studies, which you'll do next door with Mrs. Dewitt." He continued by telling them when their special classes (art, music, library, health, two gyms, and their weekly extra recess) would be, explaining the green-yellow-red discipline board hanging on the back wall, and introducing Fuzzmop the chinchilla. Okay, so Fuzzmop was kind of interesting, but Zoe had long stopped tapping her feet in excitement by this time. Surely the teacher was going to say something about the Carlson Septuplets, right?

After telling them about the Drop Everything and Read time and the Book Off programs, which Zoe only half listened to, he finally said, "Most of you already know about these programs, of course, since I think I've seen most of your faces before. But we have several new students this year."

At that, everyone seemed to sit up a little straighter in their chairs (except Kristy, Zoe noticed, who slouched and looked bored).

"Now seems like a good time for some introductions. Alicia, let's start with you. Raise your hand, please." The blond girl Zoe hadn't recognized did so, and their teacher explained that she had just moved to Westfield from a neighboring suburb. Then he introduced the Asian boy, Shouhei, whose family had just come from Japan.

"Next, we have Megan Carlson—Megan, could you raise your hand?"

The Sept sitting near the window raised her hand a few inches into the air and then quickly put it down again. Her eyes were very wide.

"Megan just transferred here from another school. Welcome to Pennington, Megan. And finally we have Monica Carlson." Monica raised her hand without being asked, and the teacher continued. "Monica just transferred, too. Monica and Megan are sisters. Welcome to Pennington, Monica. And now let's have the rest of you tell us your names—we'll start in the corner there."

And that was it. Zoe almost missed her turn to rattle off her name because she was thinking so much about what Mr. Chall said—and even more about what he didn't say. Was that all anyone was going to say? No one had even mentioned that they were the famous Septuplets, and that there were five more of them in the other classes. It wasn't like this sort of thing happened every day. Wasn't anyone going to say anything else?

But no one did. After introductions, they went straight into passing out textbooks, and then got some self-discovery worksheets to do, and that was all that happened before lunch. Just like any other first day of school. While they did the worksheets everyone could talk to each other; Zoe was tempted to say something to the Sept sitting in front of her—Monica—but she couldn't think of anything that seemed right to say, and besides, the girl just kept looking at her worksheet. Maybe she looked out at rest of the class a couple times, but never behind her. She didn't even talk to her desk partner. (But Zoe couldn't blame her for that. Zack was kind of weird.)

Zoe was relieved when lunch finally came, because she just couldn't wait to talk to Elizabeth. Unfortunately, each class had its own assigned fold-down table in the gym, but at least Mr. Chall's and Mrs. Dewitt's were right next to each other. Zoe and Elizabeth sat back to back so they could turn around and poke each other if necessary, and hurried to eat their lunches as fast as possible so they could get out to the playground and discuss the morning. Elizabeth didn't even wait until they reached their spot on the top of the monkey bars before announcing her news.

"Ohmygosh Zoeee! I have three Septs in my class! Meredith, Molly, and...uh...Monica."

"You can't have Monica; Monica sits right in front of me."

"Maybe it was Mary, then—"

"Did they make a big deal out of them?"

"No, they just introduced them with the new kids."

"Same in my class! All they did was say that Monica and Megan were sisters."

"Even though everyone knows something's up with sisters in the same class."

"Yeah, twins always get split up—"

"You know what this is?" Elizabeth's voice dropped to a whisper even though no one else was yet on the monkey bars. "It's a conspiracy."

"A what? Isn't that like some big secret plot or something?"

"Yeah, exactly. They're trying to cover up the fact that they're the famous Septuplets."

"Well...maybe." Zoe thought for a moment. "But maybe they're doing that because they're trying to make the Septs feel more normal."

"Look!" hissed Elizabeth in a very loud whisper. "There they are!"

At the door, they could see a small crowd of girls who all looked the same emerging in a group from the gym. They stood outside the door for a moment, then moved aside from the doorway to let other kids out. But they stayed in a group.

"What are they doing?" asked Zoe.

"They're all sticking together. The conspiracy is blown."

"Is that really what a conspiracy is?"

But Elizabeth didn't seem to be paying attention. As she and Zoe continued to watch, the Carlson girls stayed together in a tight group for a few minutes, then split into two groups. Four of them went toward the other side of the playground—the side where the lower elementary school kids were still playing, waiting for upper el to clear out of the gym so they could go in and eat lunch.

"They're going toward the little kids' playground," said Zoe. "They're gonna get in trouble—"

"They're coming toward us!" cried Elizabeth. "Three of them! Look!"

Sure enough, the other three were heading straight for the area with the swings and the jungle gym, on top of which Zoe and Elizabeth were perched.

"Oh, I forgot!" cried Zoe as she noticed the tire swing. Julie Denyl and Trisha Swanson had taken control of the tire swing and were now the ones giving spins to everyone who wanted to ride. "I was so used to not getting the tire swing that I forgot today we had a chance—!"

"Zoe! We have to make friends with them!"

"But Trisha's such a snot."

"Not them! The Septs!"

"Oh. Yeah."

"Okay, Meredith's in my class and she seems like the nicest. And I know which one she is—she's the one with the yellow shirt on."

" what do we do?"

"Duh, we go up and talk to her," said Elizabeth as she started to climb down.

"I can't believe you're going to do that," came a voice behind them as soon as they landed on the gravel. It was Kristy Noberman.

"Do what?" said Zoe.

"Go talk to them just because they're the famous Septuplets."

"Shhhh, Kristy!" hissed Zoe. The three of the Septs who had come in their direction were closer now—almost close enough to hear, and coming closer.

"Everyone adores them for no reason. It's so stupid."

"It is not for no reason!" said Elizabeth.

"Oh, right, it's because they all look the same and that's soooo cute."

"Be quiet, Kristy!" said Zoe again.

"Haha, look at them now—look at that one in our class in those knee socks! Who wears knee socks? And the one in that dorky cat shirt? Not so cute now, are they? When they don't have assistants to dress them up—"

"Come on, let's go," said Zoe quietly, pulling Elizabeth's arm as she went.

"Make sure you get their autographs!" called Kristy after them in an obnoxious voice.

"Geez," said Zoe. "I kinda feel bad for them now."

Elizabeth turned and glared at Kristy before marching toward the yellow-shirted Sept who was on the swings near by. "Let's go talk to her."

They stopped just to the side of the swingset.

"Hi!" shouted Elizabeth as Meredith went swinging past.

"Hello," she shouted back from the top of her arc.

"My name's Elizabeth. And you're Meredith, right?"

Meredith dragged her feet in the gravel below only once before flying out of the swing and landing several feet away, stumbling only a tiny bit and then striking a pose with her hands in the air, facing the wrong direction if she was demonstrating for Elizabeth and Zoe. But then she turned around.

"Yeah, I'm Meredith. You remembered my name!"

"Of course! I'm in your class."

"I'm Zoe," piped up Zoe.

"Hi," said Meredith. "Are you in my class too?"

"No, Mr. Chall's."

"Some of my sisters are in that class."

"Some of your sisters are in every fifth grade class," said Elizabeth, grinning.

Meredith laughed. "Good point."

After that came just a moment—but it seemed like longer—when Elizabeth and Zoe couldn't think of what to say next to the famous new kid. It was, though, enough time for someone else to interrupt.

"Meredith!" shouted another voice that sounded just like Meredith's.


"Come here!"


Another Septuplet—this one wearing a hat; she must have put it on just for recess since they weren't allowed to wear them otherwise—ran over and grabbed Meredith's arm. "We gotta tell you something."

"Hang on," said Meredith with an odd smile as she ran across the gravel to see several of her sisters, who were gathered in a small group near the end of the balance beam log that ran across the playground.

"Maybe we should follow her," said Elizabeth.

"No way, she didn't tell us to come with her," said Zoe. "It's like they're doing some sort of secret group thing."

"That's so weird. And so cool."

Zoe frowned. "Yeah, cool except that we can't be part of it." When Elizabeth didn't reply, Zoe poked her in the back. "I bet you really did want to ask for their autograph."

"Well...maybe not right away. Do you think that would be rude? I did bring a picture to school...."

As they watched the cluster of Septuplets, they saw one of them—the one in the cat shirt—turn and point right at them. Then they talked for a little while longer, and then they split up and all went to different parts of the playground—but Meredith didn't come back to the swings.

"Hey, she said she'd be right back," pouted Elizabeth.

"They probably told her not to play with you guys. Probably they only do things in their special Septuplet group."

They turned around to see Kristy standing behind them again.

"You again!" cried Elizabeth. "Stop following us around!"

"What do you want, anyway?" asked Zoe. Neither of them were really Kristy's friend. Zoe had always been nice to her and gotten along with her (even if Kristy had bugged her sometimes) but they didn't usually play together on the playground.

Kristy made a face. "Nothing." Then she turned very abruptly and marched away, the gravel crunching beneath her feet.

"Well, we've got fifteen minutes left of recess," said Zoe, glancing at her magenta and teal digital watch. "What do you want to do?"

Elizabeth was still looking across the playground, watching where some of the Septs were now on the climber on the other side.

"Why don't we go see if we can get the tire swing?"

"Okay," said Elizabeth, but she sounded half-hearted.

When they got there, they found Julie Denyl and Trisha Swanson still in firm possession of the swing, refusing to let anyone else run it—"we got here first!"—but quite willing, of course, to give them rides. Julie showed off her brand-new technique, the Super Spin Cycle, leaving Zoe nauseous for the rest of recess. She and Elizabeth spent the time after that on the low monkey bars, waiting to hear the bell.

When it finally rang, they lined up—in the fifth grade row! Elizabeth had almost forgotten—and filed inside.

"Don't worry," said Zoe, as Elizabeth was looking a little mopey. "I bet we'll have more chances to get to know the Septs, maybe even in class this afternoon."

And they did get that chance—just not exactly the way they wanted.

It was after they had split up into their separate classrooms. Zoe headed straight for her seat, happy to see that Monica was already in hers—but surprised to see that Monica was looking right at her.

Before she could say "hi!" when she reached her desk, Monica had opened her mouth.

"Don't pick on my sisters," she said. Her expression was icy.

"What?" cried Zoe, very unpleasantly surprised.

Kristy was just then returning to her own desk. Monica just kept frowning until Kristy arrived.

"We heard you guys picking on us at lunch," she said, folding her arms across her overall bib and suddenly looking a lot less like the cute little girls in all the pictures.

Kristy's eyes just got wide for a moment, and then she looked down and away.

"No one was picking on you," she muttered.

"We heard you."

Kristy continued to avoid Monica's gaze, so the Septuplet turned to Zoe, who piped up under the pressure, shakily.

"We weren't picking on you, really, it was just her. Me and my friend, we really wanted to meet you, my friend even wanted to get your auto—"

"Picking on us! And then trying to get our autographs! Like we're trying to be famous! We're not, okay? So leave us alone!" Her face scrunched up from being so upset, the Septuplet turned and sat in her chair in a huff, leaving Zoe and Kristy both in stunned silence.

Zoe turned and glared at Kristy, but Kristy was still looking away. "This is all your fault," said Zoe in a low voice. Kristy didn't respond.

Mr. Chall walked in at that point and started class. The afternoon passed very slowly: sitting next to a girl she didn't like much who avoided looking at her, and behind someone she had hoped to be friends with who seemed already to hate her, Zoe was upset and distracted the rest of the day. When the bell rang at 3:30, Zoe hesitated, hoping maybe Monica would be less mad at her, but she hurried over to join her sister as soon as everyone started getting up, and the two of them made a break for the door together. Kristy likewise slunk away without saying anything to Zoe.

It had not turned out to be the best first day of school.

On the bus ride home, Zoe found out that Elizabeth had got a similar scolding from one of the Septs in her class. "It was Molly, the one in the hat who had dragged Meredith away at recess. I told her it was only Kristy who was picking on them, and that Kristy's a real creep sometimes and that she doesn't have any friends. But she didn't want to listen—she wanted to know why Kristy was talking about autographs at all, like that upset her more than the other stuff for some reason. At least Meredith came then and told her to drop it."

Zoe's eyes brightened hopefully. "So Meredith told her we were really nice?"

"Actually, Meredith didn't talk to me for the rest of the day, either. I caught her looking at me, but then she looked away really fast."

Zoe sighed. "This is so not fair. It's all because that stupid idiot Kristy was making fun of them, and now they hate us." She looked over at her friend, who had seemed surprisingly calm about the whole thing considering how excited she was earlier—but now she saw a tear run down her cheek.

Elizabeth brushed it away very quickly. "I don't know why they won't even listen to us, like they're determined to hate us even if we weren't the ones who said anything. Maybe they are spoiled princesses after all." She sounded mad, but then she sniffed.

The bus dropped Elizabeth off first; Zoe waved as her friend got up and stood in the middle row waiting for the traffic to move.

"See you tomorrow," said Zoe.

"Yeah," replied Elizabeth glumly.

So much for this being an exciting year.


When Zoe walked into the classroom the next morning, she saw that the Septs were already there, as was Kristy Nobermann. Megan was at Monica's desk; when she met Zoe's eyes, she stared for a minute, then turned and hurried back to her desk. Then Monica turned and noticed her, and then looked back down again in a hurry.

Great. Another day like that.

Zoe sat down at her desk and rested her head on her folded arms. She looked at the clock. Still twelve minutes until class started. She sighed.

Then Monica turned around and looked at her again.

"Umm...." she said. Zoe blinked, puzzled, and ready to defend herself if she had to.

"Monica!" hissed another voice from behind them. It was another Sept, waving her hand to say "come here." Monica had a pained look on her face; she didn't move from her seat, but sort of shrugged and then looked helplessly in the direction of Kristy Nobermann, who was ignoring them all.

Coming toward them, the other Sept looked at Zoe. "Is this her?" Monica nodded. "You come too."

Zoe sat upright in surprise. For a moment she sat stubbornly at her desk, not about to take orders from this girl just because she was a Septuplet. Monica glanced again at Kristy, then said to Zoe, "Just come with us for a minute...please." Letting her curiosity win out over hurt feelings, she nodded and followed. Megan had noticed them and followed them too.

The other Sept lead them into Mrs. Dewitt's room, where still another Sept was talking to Elizabeth, who was grinning wildly.

"Uh, yeah, I just wanted to mean, I'm sorry. About yesterday." Before Zoe could even get a word out of her mouth, Monica took a deep breath and rattled off all in one breath, "I know, I was wrong and it wasn't your fault, it was that other girl Kristy who was saying the mean stuff and it wasn't even you who wanted our autographs and even if it was I shouldn't have yelled at you for it so sorry about that." Now that she had it out, she took another gulp of air and then looked at Zoe, sheepishness and nerves evident on her face.

Zoe blinked. What were you supposed to say to someone who just apologized to you like that? "Oh...well, that's okay," seemed like the obvious response, so she said it.

At that point Elizabeth ran up and grabbed Zoe by the shoulders, grinning like a madwoman. "They don't hate us!"

"No, they don't seem to," said Zoe, looking back out at the small crowd of five identical girls gathered around them. No, wait—there were six. One more was hovering near the doorway of the classroom, but not approaching any nearer than six feet or so. She jumped back slightly when Zoe looked at her.

"We definitely don't hate you," said another Sept, this one in a bright green shirt with cherries on it. "That other girl, though—we don't really like her. So sorry if she's your friend."

"Kristy?" said Elizabeth quickly. "No, she's not. She doesn't really have a lot of friends."

"Oh, that's too bad for her," said Monica. She sounded like she might actually mean it, too, with the pitying look on her face—but she quickly followed it up with, "Well, if she didn't hate us for no reason maybe we would be friends with her."

"She's just jealous that people like you," said Elizabeth.

"I don't get why people are jealous of us. We're the ones who always get treated so weird," said one of the Septs under her breath, but another one spoke up quickly.

"Anyway, it seems like it was that Kristy girl who did most of the talking—"

"Yes, it was," Zoe said, squelching an urge to say "I told you so."

"It's just that Melissa got really upset when she heard Kristy picking on her and Megan and the rest of us, and she kind of mixed you guys up and thought you all were saying stuff like that."

"Yeah, it's kind of hard to remember who's who out of all you people!"

"What?" said Zoe. "Isn't that coming from the wrong side?"

"But there are only seven of us and about a gazillion of you guys!"

"Yeah, and our old school only had about seventy-five kids—this place is huge!"

A serious look came over Meredith just then. The others all quieted down as she looked Elizabeth right in the eye. "Were you really going to ask us for our autographs?"

Elizabeth giggled nervously as she glanced at Zoe, who gave an awkward smile.

"Well, our mom and dad said we can't give autographs—because autographs aren't for friends." Elizabeth's face fell, but only for a second as Meredith continued, rattling off the words like an oft-repeated mantra. "Autographs are for strangers. Birthday parties are for friends."

"What?" cried Elizabeth. "You mean we can come to your birthday party?"

"Sure!" said two of the Septs at once.

"But I thought you guys were born in the summer," said Zoe.

"Yeah," said Monica. "So I guess first you've got to invite us to yours."

From that day forward Zoe and Elizabeth were friends with all of the Carlsons, and Monica in particular. They shared not only birthday parties but trick-or-treating, outings on Christmas break, and just playing and hanging out at each others' houses. At first it was hard to think of them as ordinary kids—you didn't keep mixing ordinary kids up, for one thing, and Mrs. Rogers did snap a few more pictures of them playing than she did of the other kids in the neighborhood. On the first day she played with some of the Septs and Elizabeth at the Rogerses' house, however, she noticed that the taped 20/20 specials and Carlson Septuplet dolls had been carefully tucked away, and with those sort of things out of the picture, and once she got better at telling the sisters apart, she could almost pretend they really were normal.

And on the night of their high school graduation in 2000, when Zoe, Elizabeth, and Monica looked back at their scrapbooks, it was odd to look back and remember that once they had been anything but seven more members of the Westfield High School Class of 2000, no more or less unique than anyone else.

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"Playing with Normal Kids" © 2008 by Jessie Mannisto.