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Authors: Trudi Trueit

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BOOK: Stealing Popular
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Dijon, Venice, and Truffle had their heads together. Unzipping my sketchbook, I turned to Renata and gave her a supportive smile. “You'll be okay. Once you start talking, it will get easier.”

Pushing up her red glasses, Renata took a big breath. Then she turned to face the class. “Hi, everyone. Uh . . . our idea . . . ith . . .” Her voice teetered. “Well, it'th kind of like . . .”

“We can't hear you!” Parker yelled from the back of the room.

She cleared her throat and tried again. “Um . . . we came up with . . . I mean, it'th thort of like . . .”

“Come on, Renata Piñata,” called Venice. “Thpit it out already.”

“What's wrong?” Dijon slowly tapped four turquoise nails against her desk. “Sweater got your tongue?”

The class laughed. Truffle nearly fell out of her chair.

I could feel my blood starting to warm. My arms tightened around my sketchbook.

“Quiet,” said Mr. Tanori firmly. “We listen to one another with respect and courtesy in this class. Is that clear?”

“Yes, of course,” said Dijon sweetly. “Go ahead, Renata. Continue with your
totally
original idea.”

Renata began twirling her sleeves. “Um . . . well, it'th not exactly original. . . . I mean . . . I thought it wath at the time, but now . . .”

If only I could sprinkle some of my glitter over her or extend my force field to cover her. But I could do nothing. It had to be her. It had to be
all
her.

Come on, Renata. You can do it. This is your moment to show them you are so much more than they think you are. Don't worry about lisping. JUST START.

“I . . . I . . . can't.” That's as far as Renata got before she bolted for the hallway. She did, however, manage to utter one complete thought as she flung open the door. “I'm thorry.”

We knew what she meant.

Fourteen

“Mr. Tanori, can I . . .?”

A pink slip of paper appeared.

I had never loved a teacher more than I did Mr. Tanori at that moment. Crumpling the hall pass in my fist, I ran for the one place I knew I'd escape to if I ever freaked out in class: the girls' bathroom down the hall. Cracking open the outer door, I called out gently, “Renata?”

No answer.

I went inside and peeked in every stall. No Renata. I tried the bathroom in C wing. She wasn't there, either. I ran upstairs to check the girls' bathrooms in D and E wings. Nothing.

Where on earth could she be? She wouldn't leave campus, would she?

Come on, Coco, think. THINK.

Winded from my wild dash around Big Mess, I leaned
against the wall outside the science labs. I closed my eyes and pretended to push a pair of red glasses up my nose.

I'm Renata Zickelfoos. I'm wearing my favorite pink-and-white-striped sweater with a long blue scarf wrapped around my neck. I'm feeling humiliated and frustrated. I need a safe place to go, somewhere I can feel completely comfortable, somewhere I can release my pain without anybody around to—

I opened my eyes. I knew where Renata was.

Tearing down the stairs, I jogged the entire length of A wing. I flew past the chorus room, the band room, and the instrument storage room to the end of the hallway, where three music practice rooms were clustered in a semicircle. The door to each room had a tiny window. Each window was dark. Shoot!

I turned the handle of the first door. It was locked. I moved to the middle door. Also locked. Desperate, I grabbed for the last doorknob.

Please let her be here.

The door easily unlatched.

“Renata?”

A dark figure was hunched over a piano. A circular window above the piano let in just enough light for me to make out the outline of flying saucer hair.

“I told you I didn't want to do it,” said a husky voice.

An old, upright piano took up two-thirds of the tiny room, so there was barely enough space for me to shut the door and turn around. “It wasn't your fault, Renata. Who knew Dijon would come up with the same idea? Of course, torturing you with it was just a bonus. . . .” I tried to let out a light laugh, but it was too loud for the claustrophobic room.

Renata ran her fingertips over the black piano keys. She did not press them down, and, for the first time, I wondered if she really knew how to play the piano. Maybe all she ever did was practice on her invisible keys. Maybe she'd never played a note in her life. It made me sad to think the only thing Renata might be good at was nothing more than an illusion.

Not that I could condemn her. I was the master of illusions.

I slid in beside her on the tippy piano bench, prepared to stay as long as it took.

“Coco, you're pretty smart. Can I ask you something?”

“Sure, but I should tell you, Adair and Fawn are much smarter than I. Or is it ‘me'? No, I think it's ‘I.' Told you I'm not that smart.”

“Why do you like to do that?”

“Do what?”

“Pretend to be worse than you are.”

That startled me. And it bothered me. Why would I
like
to do that? Why would anybody deliberately want to be less than what they were? Renata Zickelfoos wasn't one of my friends. She didn't know me. She didn't know anything about me. “Maybe I should go,” I said, my voice frosty.

“I'm sorry. I always say the wrong thing. Stay, Coco. Please stay.”

I could hear the desperation in her voice. She was one syllable away from crying. “Okay,” I said.

Renata's fingers curled. “Every time I get the chance to do something where I can prove myself, I screw it up. Every time. Why do I do that?”

How do you answer a question like that?

“I don't know,” I said. “If you think you're going to fail, though, you probably will.”

Renata sighed. “I don't fit in here. It's like this place is a big jigsaw puzzle of . . . of . . . the desert or something, and I'm the one piece that goes to a totally different puzzle, you know? Like I belong to the forest puzzle or some completely different picture. Someone
like you probably has no clue what I'm talking about.”

“Oh, really? I've felt that way at pretty much every school I've ever been to. And I've been to
a lot
of schools.”

“You have?”

“Five in seven years. I never had any friends, either. I used to sit on the playground or in the cafeteria alone and draw. It wasn't until I came here that things were different.”

“So what changed?”

“Adair and Fawn. They talked to me on my first day here.” But even as I said it, I knew it was more than that. I knew I had something to do with it too. “And I guess I got tired of hiding. I
know
I was tired of being alone. I was ready to look up from my sketchbook.”

“You make it sound simple.”

I sighed. “Nothing about friendship is simple.”

Renata took a piece of paper out of the back pocket of her jeans. She slowly unfolded it and held it out to me. “Mrs. Rivkin gave this to me this morning.”

In the dim light I couldn't read it. I looked to her for help.

“It's a letter from the ASB. It says I've been nominated for fall court.”

I tried to act casual, but inside I was leaping for joy. “That's incredible.”

“It's impossible. It's a joke, Coco. It has to be.”

It had never occurred to me she would take the nomination as a prank. But what other way could she possibly take it? Teasing was all Renata knew.

“It
doesn't
have to be,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“What difference does it make how it was intended? Now it's yours. You can make it whatever you want. We could help you—Fawn, Adair, Liezel, and me.”

“You're saying I should do it?” She snorted. “Me, Renata Piñata, should run for fall court?”

“Yeah, you're probably right. Why bother to change now? We've only got almost
five
more years until graduation. You can hold on that long.”

Renata didn't say anything, and that worried me. She was probably talking herself right back into that pink-and-white-striped turtle shell of hers. I was starting to feel confident we could manage to whip up a little magic on the outside. But she had to do the real work. Renata had to
want
to be free.

“Come on, Ren,” I said softly. “Take a chance. Look up.”

Renata hit middle C with her index finger. The note
rang out strongly, then faded away. She waited until the room was silent again to say, “Okay.”

“Good. I'll text Fawn and Adair—”

“Oh, God, Adair!” She covered her mouth. “She probably hates my guts. What happened after I ran away? Did we get an F in leadership?”

“I don't think so. But if we did, we did.”

For the first time since I'd entered the practice room, Renata looked at me. As she did, a beam of light from the little round window passed between us. The sun made her rectangular glasses glow lava red, turning lifeless brown eyes into honey-colored marbles. I could almost see through them. Or maybe they were seeing through me.

“Coco, just so you know,” she said, placing her fingers on the keys again, “if you ever had to run, I'd come after you.”

I didn't tell her that was one of the sweetest things anyone had ever said to me.

But I think she knew.

Fifteen

Fawn's eyes were growing by the second. “So did you guys fail?”

“Not yet,” said Adair, ripping open the Velcro flap of her purple nylon lunch bag with more force than was necessary. She took out a sandwich bag filled with split carrots and celery. “Mr. Tanori is giving us a do-over on Friday. I hope Renata doesn't choke again. We're not going to get a third chance.”

“She won't,” I said, popping the top off my salad.

“She'll feel a lot more confident after her makeover tomorrow,” said Fawn. She pointed a soft pretzel stick at us. “Don't forget. My house. Four o'clock.”

“I'm there,” I said. I opened the little packet of Italian dressing that came with my salad and squeezed some of the oil onto my lettuce.

“Me too,” said Liezel.

“Adair?”

“Huh?” Adair was staring at Her Fabulousness and the Royal Court. She was making a T out of two carrot sticks. I did a double-take. Was she signaling to them? “Are you coming to my house after school tomorrow to do Renata's hair?”

“Uh-huh,” Adair said.

“I'll let her go through my closet and see what fits,” said Fawn. “She's taller than me. I might have to do some sewing. She likes scarves, so I was thinking maybe my light blue pashmina with the sparkly stars and my black harem pants. They're pretty long. What do you think, Adair?”

“It's fine,” she said flatly. “None of it matters, you know. She isn't going to win.”

“Nobody expects her to,” I said, spearing a couple of pieces of limp lettuce.

“Then what's the point?”

Unbelievable!

After all that she had endured to reach her goal, Adair, more than anyone, should have understood what we were trying to achieve.

“Isn't it obvious?” I said, throwing my hands into the air. “The point is growing. The point is dreaming. The point is
becoming
! Haven't you ever gone after something
you wanted, even when you knew the odds were against you?”

We all knew what I was talking about, and if Adair would have simply said that one little word we were all expecting to hear, the whole thing would have ended there. But she didn't and so, unfortunately, it didn't.

“Oh, Coco, you're being overdramatic.”

“I'd rather be overdramatic than cruel.”

“Cruel!” Adair gasped. “I'm trying to
save
Renata from embarrassing herself in front of the whole school the way she did today in leadership—”

“She didn't embarrass herself,” I interrupted.

“What do you call a meltdown in front of the entire class?”

“You'd have freaked out too if somebody had swiped your idea.”

“What?”

I hadn't meant to say it—not yet, anyway—but a thought had been simmering in my head since my talk with Renata. A lot of little things were beginning to add up to one very big thing.

“I know you're going to think I'm nuts,” I said, “but I'm pretty sure Dijon's group stole our project idea.”

“Why would you think something like that?”

“Exhibit A: When has Dijon ever volunteered for anything? She's all about playing the game and making people wait on her. But
this
time, she was practically stabbing Venice with her fingernails to get their group up first. Why? Because they knew that in order for them to look like geniuses and for us to look like idiots, they'd have to give their presentation
before
we did. Exhibit B: When it was our turn, Her Fabulousness made fun of Renata, then she pretended to apologize and said, ‘Go ahead with your totally original idea.' ‘
Totally original idea'
? Come on! That was a deliberate taunt. It was as if she knew what we were going to say before we said it.” I sat back. My work here was done.

“You're absolutely right, Coco,” said Adair, giving me a thin strand of hope.

“I am?”

“I think you're nuts.”

The strand broke.

“Okay,” said Adair, nibbling on a stick of celery. “For the sake of argument,
how
did they steal our idea?”

“Uh . . . well, that's the part I haven't quite figured out yet.”

“You shouldn't go around accusing people unless you're sure.”

My head started to tighten. “What does it matter how they did it? Maybe Her Fabulousness overheard us practicing in the library. Maybe one of the Royal Court saw my sketchbook. Maybe someone ac—” I froze.

BOOK: Stealing Popular
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