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Authors: Trudi Trueit

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Ew.

I hated myself for looking. But, at least,
I
had
some dignity. It was a sure bet that by Monday, most of the girls at Big Mess would be
wearing FlowerPower blush #9, Flamingo Pink.

Double ew.

“What else makes a strong leader?” asked Mr. Tanori.

“Respect,” I said loudly, staring straight ahead.

“Good, Coco.”

To my left, Adair called out, “Honesty.”

A lump rose in my throat. Suddenly I couldn't breathe. I started
choking. Adair reached across the
aisle to pat me on the back. As I
coughed, I could hear kids calling out more suggestions.

“A leader is organized.”

“Considerate of others.”

“Has clear goals.”

I pounded my own chest.
Breathe! Breathe!

“Inspires people.”

“Shares responsibility.”

“Isn't afraid of criticism.”

“Great,” said Mr. Tanori, racing to write down
everyone's ideas. “Keep them coming.”

“You okay, Sherwood?”

Through watery eyes, I saw the freckled nose of Breck Hanover. He was
crouched next to me. Eyelashes flicked behind sandy bangs. He smelled like peanuts.

“I think so,” I croaked, though my fingers were all tingly and
my head felt like an overinflated balloon.

“Need some water?”

I took a few ragged breaths. “I'm all right,” I said
hoarsely.

“Easy, Sherwood,” he said, patting my shoulder twice before
going back to his desk.

Adair's voice tickled my ear. “He is so crushing on
you.”

“Is not.” I gagged. “He likes Venice.”

“Wrong-o, Coco. Venice likes Breck.
Huge
difference. I know a crush when I spy one, and this is a
classic crushing.”

“Right.”

“Would you like proof?”

“Always.”

“Exhibit A: Remember how he threw candy at us at orientation?
That's the number one thing boys do when they like you.”

“They chuck Whoppers?”

“Not just Whoppers. Jelly beans, spit wads, erasers—you name
it. Boys are throwers, by nature.”

“I thought they were burpers, by nature.”

She crossed her eyes, but didn't disagree. “Exhibit B: He
rushed to your side when you had a coughing fit, but had to pretend he wasn't too
interested, in case you didn't like him, so what did he do?”

I shook my head. She was warping through the galaxy all by herself
here.

“He called you by your last name. That's the second thing boys
do when they like you. There's a whole article about it in the fall issue of
Modern Teen
. I'll loan you my copy if you
want—”

“Ladies?” Mr. Tanori was pointing his pen at us.

“Sorry,” Adair and I said at the same
time.

“Anyway,” said our teacher, “I know the general
impression is that this class is all about making signs for pep rallies and assemblies.
But it's not. It's much more. In here, you'll be learning skills you
can put to use in whatever leadership roles you take on in life. Why is being a leader
important? Because strong leadership skills allow you to take an active part in making a
difference in the world.” Mr. Tanori looked at me. “There's an old
proverb that goes: ‘One who walks in another's tracks leaves no
footprints.' I want all of you to learn to make your own footprints.”

I liked the sound of that. I wasn't exactly sure what I was supposed
to do with it, but I liked it.

Mr. Tanori continued. “This year, we will be taking a bigger role in
making some school improvements, thanks to the generosity of our
PTA. . . .”

Was Adair right? Did Breck really have a crush on me?

And if he did, did I want him to have a crush on me?

I'd have to think about it. Boys seemed like
way
more hassle than they were worth. The ones I knew were always kickboxing
in the hallway or opening their mouths while they were eating to show you their
half-chewed food. Most looked like they wore their clothes to bed and smelled like
they hadn't showered in days. There were some nice ones too,
of course, like Nobodies Curtis Desidario and Alan Dwyer, but finding them was like
finding the toy in the cereal box. You had to dig deep. Really deep.

Dijon had a boyfriend. Naturally. His name was C. K. Stenmont. He was a
star soccer player. They held hands as he walked her to her classes. I couldn't
imagine letting a boy wrap his fingers around mine. Have you noticed boys'
fingernails? Crustomatic to the max. I've never in my life seen a boy wash his
hands. In Parker's case, he probably couldn't figure out how to work the
tap.

If, by chance, Breck did like me and if, by chance, I did like that he
liked me, there was one obstacle to our possible mutual likeness. He was a Somebody. I
was a Nobody. Somebodies and Nobodies weren't allowed to be friends, let alone be
boyfriend/girlfriend. It was against the code. It would never work.

“Coco, can I be in your group?” asked Renata, flopping her big
sleeves at me. Her seaweed bangs hung between her eyes and her red glasses.

I didn't really want to say yes, but I didn't want to be rude,
either. “Uh, yeah . . . sure,” I said, following
Adair's lead and turning my desk around.

Renata moved her desk to connect with ours. The
moment
Renata plopped down, she began to play her invisible piano. It was going to be a long
period.

“Now, remember,” said Mr. Tanori. “Brainstorming means
everyone's ideas are valid. Write down everything your group members say. No
judgments at this stage, okay?”

Adair looked at me. “Do you want to write or should I?”

“I will. Uh . . . what are we
brainstorming?”

She snickered. “Weren't paying attention, huh? I guess you had
other stuff on your mind. Or should I say other people.”

“Just tell me.”

“The PTA is going to pay for a school improvement project, so
we're supposed to come up with a bunch of ideas, like new turf for the soccer
field or new boards for chess club—stuff like that. The class is going to vote,
pick our favorite, and present it to the PTA.”

“I think we should paint a mural over that awful orange wall in the
cafeteria,” said Renata. She glanced up, but her fingers never stopped moving. It
was starting to get on my nerves.

“Good idea,” said Adair. “Coco, you could design
it.” She turned to Renata. “She's a really talented artist.
She's especially good with faces.”

“Nah,” I said shyly, writing the idea in
my notebook.

“That would be so incredible,” said Adair, bouncing.
“Imagine a huge wall of different faces blending
together. . . .”

“One second,” said Renata. “Aren't you forgetting
something? We have to get the class to agree—the
whole
class.” She tipped her head toward Dijon's group. “I've got a
better chance of getting elected fall queen.”

Renata was right, of course. Social rules dictated that any time a class
vote was called for, everyone was required to vote for the most popular Somebody in the
room. Dijon's idea, whatever it was, would win.

Breck popped up from behind Adair. He glanced at me over my friend's
shoulder. “Can I be in your group?”

“Sure,” said Adair with a wink to me.

“Breck!” Dijon snapped her fingers. “You're with
us.”

“Sorry. Next time,” said Breck, flicking his bangs out of his
eyes.

Whatever. I lifted a shoulder. And turned away.

They were gray.

Anyway, like I said. Too much hassle. Would never work.

I meant his eyes. They were gray.

Eight

“What kind of soup do they have?”

I set my tray on the table beside Adair and across from Fawn. “Can't you tell by the beans?”

“Chicken,” Fawn and Adair said together, then laughed.

Adair peered into my bowl. “It looks like antifreeze.”

“And smells like wet dog,” said Fawn.

“It was either this or the mystery-meat chimichanga.”

My friends nodded to confirm I'd made the right choice. I crumbled four packages of crackers into my soup to soak up the sludge.

Through a thin curtain of rising steam I grinned at Fawn. From across the table she grinned back. It was strange, sharing a secret with her. Adair, Fawn, and I had never hidden anything from one another before. Unless, of course, the two of them had a secret I didn't know about, which they probably did because
they had known each other since the fifth grade.

Truth was, I smiled to hide my fear. I had done something else—something not even Fawn knew about. And though I didn't want to admit it, I had begun to regret it almost from the moment Fawn left the girls' bathroom to deliver the envelope to Mrs. Rivkin. What if, in my rush to finish, I'd made an error? What if Mrs. Rivkin didn't follow my instructions? What if she suspected something was up? What if Coach Notting, Miss Furdy, or Mrs. Ignazio had gone to the office after we'd left?

Since yesterday afternoon, a million “what ifs” had been puncturing my brain. And it was beginning to hurt. Fawn was the only link between the judges and Mrs. Rivkin. If any one of my “what ifs” came true, the trail would lead the administration straight to us. Fawn's guilty heart would spill her guts in record time. Knowing how well organized she was, she probably already had her confession written and had made individual copies for Dr. Adams, Mr. Falkner, and Mrs. Pescatori in detention. We were never going to get away with this.
Never.

The temperature under my hoodie was starting to rise.

“I can't sit still,” said Adair, jiggling. “I wish they would post the cheer results. This is killing me.”

“Me too,” I murmured, fanning myself with my napkin.

“Monday is three whole days away.”

I wished Adair would stop bobbing. She was shaking the whole table. I was getting seasick. Across from me Fawn was sipping her chocolate milk and going up and down. Up and down.

I struggled to escape my stifling hoodie. “Hey, Liezel's in the lunch line.”

“Say that three times fast,” teased Fawn.

Adair gave it a try. “Liezel's in the lunch line. Liezel's in the lunch line. Liezel's in the lee line—aaugggh!”

I didn't know she had first lunch. “Let's ask her to eat with us,” I said.

Fawn let out a ghostlike sigh.

Adair was more direct. “Do we have to?”

I looked from one to the other. “You don't like her?”

“It's not that we don't like her.” Fawn sucked in her lower lip. “It's that she's sort of . . .”

“Beige,” said Adair.

Color code for boring.

“With blue stripes,” said Fawn. “She's always got on a sad face.”

“Add some purple stripes,” said Adair. “She's accident-prone. Every time I pass her in the hallway, she's picking her stuff up off the floor.”

Fawn peeled the lid off her vanilla pudding. “You know what happens when you mix beige, purple, and blue. You get—”

“Brown,” I finished.

Brown was worse than beige. Brown was death.

Was it a coincidence that brown-haired Liezel was wearing a dark-brown sweater with brown pants and brown boots? Even her backpack was brown. Adair and Fawn bowed their heads at the tragedy.

“Wait a minute,” I said, coming to my senses. “She might wear brown, but she
isn't
brown. You want proof?”

“Always,” said Adair.

“Exhibit A: She's not accident-prone. Venice tripped her in front of everybody in the gym, and now she's got the Royal Court doing it too—every chance they get. They think it's funny.”

“No!” Fawn exhaled in horror.

“That's just mean.” Adair dumped out her veggie chips onto a napkin.

“Exhibit B: She plays guitar in a rock band. A
high-school
rock band.”

Fawn's spoon halted in midair. Adair looked up from sorting her veggie chips. She liked to arrange them in little piles according to color: orange (carrot chips), green (spinach chips), and yellow (potato chips).

“She does?”

“Seriously?”

As Liezel carried her tray to the cashier, Adair's eyes tracked her with new admiration. “She never said anything to anybody,” she said, surprised.

I opened another package of crackers. “Actually, she's had a poster tacked up to our locker all week,” I replied.

“Liezel!” Adair waved. “Come sit with us.”

Fawn scooted her stuff down to make room.

“Hi,” said Liezel, sliding onto the bench. “Thanks for the 911. I just got switched to this lunch and thought for sure I was going to get stuck in the boonies with Mr. Quigley. Did you hear? He's got an MP3 player now. It can hold, like, five thousand pictures of Clawed Monet.”

We groaned.

“Liezel, do you really play in a rock band?” asked Adair.

“Uh-huh. I play guitar. I sing and write songs, too.” She glanced at me. I knew she wanted me to say something
about her music, but I couldn't. I hadn't yet listened to her CD. I had meant to, even took it out of the jewel case, but I was too afraid to play it. What if the band was terrible?

Fawn's mouth was open. “You mean, you play in public?”

“Of course. That's the whole point, Fawn. We just played at my church's Labor Day picnic.” Her grin faded. “We sent in an audition CD to play at the Big Mess fall dance, but we never heard back. I guess the committee chose another band.”

“Yeeeeooooooooow!”

I was pretty sure the shout had come from the other side of the cafeteria, near the door. Or maybe from the hallway outside.

“It's probably Parker and Todd wrestling again,” said Adair.

BOOK: Stealing Popular
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