Stealing Popular One
By the time I got to Briar Green Middle School in the spring of seventh grade, I was a master magician.
I could create a force field around me strong enough to deflect the meanest insult. I could make it rain silver glitter each time a teacher mispronounced, misspelled, or forgot my name. But my greatest trick? I could dissolve into mist the moment a popular person entered the room.
That’s what happens when you go to five schools in seven years. You create illusions. It’s how you survive. My magic was working perfectly, too, until the first day of eighth grade.
That’s the day I began to reappear.
It happened in D wing in front of an ordinary, orange corner locker with a boomerang-shaped dent and a blue dragonfly sticker. The locker wasn’t even mine. It was
Fawn’s—well, the one she was supposed to have.
At Briar Green Middle School we’re assigned lockers based on gender and alphabetical last name. You are not supposed to trade, move in with someone else, or be reassigned, even if your locker isn’t in the same galaxy as any of your classes. I have no idea why. It’s a rule, and rules are sacred here, including the dumb ones. You’d think the way Mrs. Gisborne, our head counselor, freaks out, one little locker swap is going to create a black hole that will suck Briar Green Middle School (a.k.a. BGMS) into a massive vortex of death. Yes, I am aware of my school’s unfortunate initials. Our mascot is the St. Bernard, which, unfortunately, makes me a Big Mess St. Bernard.
Fawn’s last name is Ralston, so, naturally, when assigning lockers for the new school year, the computer paired her up with the next girl on the list: Dijon Randle. Now, there was a big mess. Dijon and her friends—Venice Wasserman, Truffle Tompkins, and Évian James—were royalty. Seriously. Every Friday they wore fake diamond tiaras to school. Big Mess—with its peeling orange walls, leaky ceilings, and dead plants in the courtyard—was their kingdom. The Royal Court would happily tell you what to think and what to say, how to act and
how to dress, whom to love and whom to hate—all for a Starbucks gift card. And your soul.
Not that I let it get to me. Bossy girls existed at every school I’d ever been to. My parents are divorced, and my dad’s in the navy, so we move a lot. I live with my dad at the Eagle’s Nest apartments (no one seems to know why there’s a seagull on the sign out front).
It didn’t take me long to figure out how things worked at Big Mess: Any girl named after a gourmet food, fancy water, or a city was a Somebody. Top athletes and elected student leaders were Sortabodies. Everybody else was a Nobody. Somebodies could associate with Sortabodies, but only in public and for no longer than ten minutes. Sortabodies could talk to Nobodies, but could not eat, study, or become friends with them for fear of being seen by a Somebody and being demoted to a Nobody. Nobodies were not allowed within a five-foot radius of a Somebody, unless verbally invited into the inner circle by the aforementioned Somebody. In the case of Dijon, which was both a gourmet food and a city, verbal permission and a gift card were required.
I was a Nobody (surprise!). So were my friends, Fawn Ralston and Adair Clarke. It feels weird saying that. I’d
never had any actual friends before I came to Big Mess (not counting my hamster, Dash). If you’re a kid, the military pretty much torpedoes your social life. At my other schools I knew of people. And people knew of me. I was the girl who always had her head in her sketchbook, doodling pictures she never showed to anyone. But no one ever really got to know me. And I never really got to know anyone. I suppose it was mostly my fault I was a “knew of” girl and not a “get to know” girl. When you moved as much as I did, it was easier to remain alone than to be forever saying good-bye. That’s what you tell yourself, anyway. But it’s an illusion, too. Truth was, I hadn’t ever had anybody to say good-bye to. All that changed when I came to Big Mess—and on my very first day. I met Fawn and Adair within a half hour of being on campus. They’d come to my rescue. I was standing in the courtyard (the one with the dead plants), trying not to look like I was totally lost, though I was totally lost.
“You’re looking for Portable Thirteen, aren’t you?”
“How did . . .?”
“Because nobody is ever that interested in the shriveled-up junipers.” A tall, athletic girl wearing a sunflower-print skirt grinned. “I’m Adair Clarke.” Her blond ponytail swung as she dipped her head toward
the petite, dark-haired girl beside her. “This is Fawn Ralston.”
Fawn, wearing a white lace turtleneck under a vest that could have doubled as a chessboard, lifted a sleeve and waved. “Hi.” She said it so softly, I had to lip-read.
“I’m Coco Sherwood,” I said, activating my emergency force field. People do one of two things when they hear my name: They either frown and say, “How strange,” or they smile and ask, “Is your middle name Puffs?”
Get it? Cocoa Puffs?
I always answer, “Actually, it’s Krispies.” I say it with a straight face, so they aren’t sure if I am joking or not. My middle name is really Simone, after my mother, but I’ve got to have some fun.
I was ready for either response when Fawn said, “Cool! I love fashion, and your name is the same as one of my favorite designers. Have you ever heard of Coco Chanel?”
I was going to say she sounded familiar, but Adair never gave me the chance. “Wow!” she burst. “You’re also named after my favorite drink, hot cocoa with mini-marshmallows.”
Fawn gasped. “Adair!”
“What’d I say?”
“That’s rude. She’s not a drink.”
“Who wouldn’t want to be a drink? You can call me Oreo Milk Shake any time you want!”
We laughed and started talking about our favorite beverages. Mine is raspberry lemonade (heavy on the lemon). Love, love, love it!
I soon discovered I had the same science class as Adair, which turned out to be in Portable 13 (unmarked, of course), located behind a lawn-mower shed across from the giant trash bins at the far end of campus. We couldn’t help but wonder what that teacher did to end up in middle-school Siberia!
Anyway, you can imagine the ugly scene Dijon made when she discovered she got my friend—soft-spoken, quirky dresser, Nobody Fawn Ralston—for a locker partner. I don’t have to imagine anything. I was there.
See, your red locker-assignment card doesn’t reveal who your partner is going to be. You get the thrill of discovering that all by yourself. The administration thinks we like surprises. We don’t. Middle school is full of surprises. They are rarely good. We get stuff like volcanic zits that choose picture day to explode on
our chins and the cafeteria’s scalding chicken noodle soup (which has neither chicken nor noodles, but does, strangely, have beans).
So this is how it went down. Fawn and I were walking through the hall on the second floor of D wing, scanning the row of lockers to find the number on her card: 229. Dijon, Évian, Truffle, and Venice were doing the same thing, only coming from the other direction. Guess where we all met? Worse, Fawn and Dijon reached for the exact same metal knob at the exact same time. Their fingers touched. The earth trembled (well, not really, but Venice and Truffle screamed and clung to each other as if we were having a 9.5 quake). Not only had we violated the five-foot-radius rule, but a Nobody had actually touched a Somebody. That was strictly forbidden and was punishable by Dijon’s nanny running over you in a midnight blue Ferrari.
“What do you think you’re doing?” barked Dijon.
“Uh . . . I . . .” Fawn tugged on the frilly sleeve of her poet blouse. Fawn was shy around the Somebodies, but her retro fashions and the magenta stripe on the side of her angled, chin-length bob said everything she could not. Fawn, unable to come up with anything resembling a word, held out her locker card.
“Oh, bloody warts. You?” Dijon made a face. “I got you?”
My body stiffened.
“Megacatastrophe,” said Venice, chomping her gum. Venice always had gum. You could hear her chewing from across the quad. Snap. Snap. Snap. It sounded like bacon frying. “What are you going to do, Dij?”
Dijon shot her an irritated glance over her shoulder, as if to say, Me? I’m not going to do anything. Two turquoise fingernails carefully lined up the number thirteen to the red vertical line, then spun the dial to the left. The three of us watched as she lined up the number twenty-two, then flung the dial right. Dijon cupped her left hand around the knob so we couldn’t see the last number. Hello? Didn’t Her Fabulousness realize Fawn had the very same locker combination in her hand? That was my nickname for Dijon: Her Fabulousness. It was Dijon’s favorite word. Everything was “fabulous this,” and “fabulous that,” and “Aren’t I the most fabulous person ever?”
Dijon lifted the handle and opened the locker. We all gaped, as if expecting to see stacks of gold bars or piles of jewels or something befitting Her Fabulousness. The locker was empty. Dijon hung her mocha leather
backpack embossed with the initials DAR on one side of the two-pronged center hook. When Fawn started to put her orange-and-red-striped nylon pack on the other side, Dijon’s arm shot out to block her. “What are you doing?”
“Hanging up my—”
“You are not my locker partner. I am not your locker partner. We’re not ever going to be locker partners.”
A warm tingle crept up my neck.
“But my card says—”
“It’s a mistake, obviously.”
“Obviously,” echoed Venice, pausing her chompfest to let out a cackle. Venice was Dijon’s first runner-up. You know, in the event Dijon couldn’t fulfill her duties as queen (say, she got pushed off a thousand-foot cliff by a member of the Royal Court), Venice would be promoted to Her Fabulousness. Venice tapped the pointed toe of her gray leather, knee-high boot. “You’ll have to go get another one.”
“Another locker?” Two pink splotches appeared on Fawn’s cheeks. “But . . . Mrs. Gisborne won’t let us . . . I . . . I guess I could ask. Maybe, just for now, I could leave my stuff here and—”
“No,” said Dijon.
“No,” echoed Venice.
“Are you deaf?” Truffle snapped, punching Fawn in the shoulder.
Had I said that? I must have, because everyone was staring at me. Clearly, I was no longer mist. I was real. And here. And angry.
“It’s her assigned locker,” I said, my fingers tightening around my sketchbook. “Where is she supposed to put her stuff?”
Dijon inspected my jeans, my white T-shirt with its stamped red swirl print, and my red hoodie to confirm my Nobodiness. She leaned toward me. “Anywhere but here.” Her words froze into crystals the moment they hit air. I felt the chill. Dijon slammed the locker door. The sound ricocheted through my head. She calmly spun the dial, then strolled back down the way she had come. As the Royal Court hurried to catch up to her, their heels went clitter-clap, clitter-clap against the white-and-green-speckled tiles.
“Do you think she’ll put up her beauty board again?” asked Fawn, rubbing her shoulder.
“Yep,” I answered quickly.
Last year Dijon had hung a heart-shaped dry-erase board on the outside of her locker. On it she’d written weekly makeup tips and commands for her royal subjects. She’d scribbled things like, “Wear red on Monday” or “Buy Taffy Joy eye shadow #33.” I confess, like most every girl at Big Mess, I read the board. However, unlike most every girl at Big Mess, I refused to obey it. At that moment I swore an oath to never again so much as glance at Dijon Randle’s beauty board.
“Come on,” I said, picking up Fawn’s orange backpack by the top loop. “You can share my locker.”
“Don’t you have a partner?”
I did. We’d only just met, though her name was familiar. I think we’d had a class together last spring. I didn’t know much about her other than she was a Nobody, like me. And she looked like Tinker Bell. Without the gossamer wings and wand, of course.
“Liezel won’t mind,” I said.
“Liezel? Liezel Sheppard is your locker partner?”
Fawn’s lips turned up. “No, she wouldn’t mind.” The grin faded. “But the rule—”
“If Mrs. Gisborne finds out, you’ll get in trouble.”
I lifted my chin. “I live for trouble.”
Fawn groaned, because we both knew that was a humpback whale of a lie. We were Nobodies, and Nobodies always followed the rules—everybody’s rules. We hated it. But we did it.
Watching Her Fabulousness and the Royal Court glide away, their grand parade interrupted with a nod to a Sortabody and a faux greeting to a teacher, I began to peel the blue dragonfly sticker off locker 229. Venice and Truffle kept stealing glances at us and trading whispers. Dijon, however, didn’t look back. Not once. She merely continued on her way, having all but forgotten our minor intrusion into her glamorous, fabulous world.
I wondered: How had Her Fabulousness and the Royal Court gotten so much power? Had anyone ever defied them? Was it even possible? I didn’t have any answers, but wondering, as anybody who’s a Nobody will tell you, can lead to all kinds of dangerous thoughts.