Authors: Donna Kauffman
This book is dedicated to friendship.
I certainly couldn’t have finished this one if not for the power
of that very special bond.
Thank you Mom, Jill, Kathy, Diane, Micahlyn, Karen,
Anne Marie, Mary, Mary Kay, Pat & Nora.
I don’t know what I’d have done without you all.
nce upon a time, long, long ago, in a kingdom known as Potomac Middle School, there lived a young girl named Lucy Harper. Brave of heart (if not quite fleet of foot), our plucky yet coordination-challenged heroine struggled valiantly to confront her own shortcomings—and they were many—so that she could once again set forth and navigate her way through the dangerous and often uncharted waters of the preteen social strata (also known as the sixth-grade lunchroom) . . .
h, God. Why me? Why?
Lucy struggled to keep her tray steady. She’d been so focused on making her way through the jostling crowds and trying to avoid ending up with food globbed to the front of her sweater or worse, like yesterday, accidentally allowing the ends of her ponytails to drag through her gravy, that she’d failed to chart a course to a predetermined safe harbor.
As usual, there was no answer to her silent plea. The only seats left in the whole lunchroom were at Buddy Aversom’s table. She sighed. Even God couldn’t save her now.
“We could always go sit outside.” Jana Fraser, best friend and fellow pariah geek, stood just behind Lucy’s left elbow, her own tray in balance.
Lucy didn’t dare glance Jana’s way. She was already doing two things at once, and that seemed to be her limit before causing catastrophic damage. “It’s freezing out there,” she reminded her. October had started off cold and nasty.
Jana jostled her own tray as she moved to one side to avoid getting plowed into by the students flowing around them. They were, as they had always been, invisible to their peers. “Well, we’ll just deal with it.” She sighed now, too. “Like always.”
Lucy made a face. “He’s doing that thing with the french fries up his nose again.” Buddy was the proverbial class clown for the entire sixth grade. Lucy, along with most of the girls on the planet, didn’t really appreciate his brand of humor. But most of the girls on the planet weren’t his favorite target. Lucy was. Of course, the rest of the sixth-grade girls had their own tables, their own cliques, so they didn’t care. Jana was the only one who understood what it was like, sticking out in all the ways a twelve-year-old girl didn’t want to. Too tall, too dorky, too klutzy, too smart. Which was why Jana usually brown-bagged it and spent more time in the library than the lunchroom.
Lucy, on the other hand, was just stubborn enough to stick it out, regardless of the torture, if for no other reason than to make it no easier on them than they made it on her. At the moment, however, she was seriously questioning that strategy. Buddy’s lunchroom specialty was doing this thing where he hiccuped and forced milk through his nose, resulting in the dislodgement of whatever food item he’d shoved into his nostrils. Last time she’d been forced to sit near him, he’d snorted Tater Tots into her reconstituted mashed potatoes. Much to the delight of all who knew him.
She and Jana shuffled their way over to the table and took their seats without making any more eye contact with the enemy than absolutely necessary. She was all about not backing down, but she didn’t see any reason to encourage them, either.
“Hey, if it isn’t Pippi and Bozo,” Buddy chimed, causing a ripple of laughter down the length of the table. “You know, if you’d put those wires in your pigtails like a real Longstocking, your hair wouldn’t drag in your gravy.”
Lucy immediately yanked her head back, looking down, expecting to discover the worst. There was nothing in her hair or on her sweater. But when she’d jerked back, she’d dragged the edge of her sleeve across her applesauce. She endured the laughter that followed the gag, telling herself she was just thankful her hair was still clean. She’d just wash her sleeve off in the washroom later. She was used to that anyway.
“Very amusing, Buddy,” Jana said bravely. “About as attractive as the Tater-Tot bits you have stuck in your nose hairs.”
Buddy didn’t fall for the poke, probably because he didn’t really care much if there were Tater bits in his nose. But Lucy felt a rush of affection for her best friend anyway. Fate might have set them up as targets since they’d first stepped onto the playground together in preschool, but fate had also given them each other to endure it with. Lucy thought it was a pretty decent trade.
While Lucy dealt with her Pippi Longstocking pigtails and giraffelike arms and legs and all the coordination issues accompanying it, Jana had been dealt a head of frizzy red hair, an overabundance of freckles, and the heart and soul of a jock who had absolutely zero athletic ability whatsoever. Alone, they both were strong in their identities, smug in the knowledge that they were too smart for these immature idiots, beyond their years in what was really important in life: true friendship and goals for the future.
But though she’d never say it to Jana, privately Lucy would give almost anything to make it through just one lunch break as a welcome guest at a table. Any table.
“So, Stilts,” Buddy said, taunting Lucy with yet another one of the many oh-so-original nicknames her peer group had labeled her with. “Why don’t you give it a try?”
Lucy could all but feel Jana’s sideways stare, silently commanding her to just ignore the stupid jerk. Of course she couldn’t. Not that Buddy Aversom held any kind of secret allure, even to someone as attention deprived as Lucy. She likened it more to responding to a challenge. At least, that was what she told herself. A far more palatable truth than the real one, which was that she was desperate to feel like she fit in somewhere. Even with Buddy and his moron friends. She lasted about five seconds before looking across the table. “Try what?”
It might have been her imagination, but it felt like the noise level of the room dimmed, that heads were turning their way. Buddy, who for some fathomless reason was still quite popular despite his disgusting and frequent display of proboscis prowess, smiled at her as he handed over two french fries and the rest of his milk. Even with Jana drilling holes into the side of Lucy’s head with her fierce gaze, Lucy was forced to admit that, for a teeny tiny moment, anyway, she debated taking him up on the dare. If she couldn’t be one of the popular girls, or one of any other kind of girl, really, except the dorky spaz kind, maybe she could milk-snort her way into the cool-kids culture by being “one of the guys.”
Everyone in the whole cafeteria seemed to hold their collective breath, as the moments ticked away and her mashed potatoes and gravy grew more congealed. In the end, all she heard was Jana’s disgusted sigh when she finally cracked under the pressure and began to reach for the fries.
“Wait just a minute. You don’t have to do that.”
Lucy jerked her head up, wincing as she heard the distinctive
of her ponytail hitting gravy. Closing in on the table was a tall boy with the unruliest mop of hair she’d ever seen. The new kid, Grady Matthews. She’d seen him in the halls. Being one of the only boys in her grade as lanky and geeky as she was, he was hard to miss. Her hands stilled in midreach, unable to pull her gaze away from those lost-puppy-dog brown eyes of his. Puppy-dog eyes that were currently blazing mad at something. What, she had no idea. She managed to look around, then realized he was heading their way. Surely he wasn’t coming over to this table. He couldn’t be—
“Don’t let him work you like that,” Grady said, making it clear he was talking to her, and pretty angrily, to boot.
Now he was mad at her? What the heck had she done to him?
“Leave her alone,” Buddy said. “Let her shoot the fries.”
“Yeah,” one of Buddy’s moron friends said, “let her shoot the fries.” Then he began to beat a tattoo on the tabletop, which was quickly picked up by the rest of the people lining their table, then grew like wildfire through the rest of the room, until the noise was almost deafening. Everyone was shouting, “Shoot the fries, Pippi, shoot the fries!”
Her hands wavered, her gaze darting from Grady, to Buddy, to Jana, then around the room in a quickly growing panic. How had she gotten herself into another mess like this? All she wanted to do was eat her lunch in relative peace and quiet.
“Put them down, Lucy,” Grady ordered.
He knew her name? How did he know her name? Sure, they had one class together, but it wasn’t like they even sat near each other, much less talked to each other.
“Make her,” Buddy said, shoving his milk at Lucy so it sloshed out of the spout and onto her sleeve. The clean one, of course.
Lucy jerked her hand back, slipping in her seat as she did, just as Grady came even with the table. What happened next panned out like a grotesque sort of slow-motion disaster filmstrip. Grady tripped over her big foot, which had inadvertently slid out into the aisle, and which sent him sprawling across the table. Causing—of course, because Loopy Lucy was involved—Grady to dump his entire tray of ketchup-laden Tater Tots directly into Buddy’s lap. Her potentially life-altering moment of indecision was lost in the ensuing tussle, which, given that Buddy had an entire posse of lugheads leap to his immediate defense, ended swiftly and quite unfortunately for Grady.
Before the lunchroom monitor could reach their table, Grady was already heading to the exit, scrubbing angrily at the ketchup stains on his shirt and flicking the Tater Tots from his hair and ears. Amid the sound of raucous laughter and much jeering, a horrified Lucy followed him out the double doors, with Jana right on her heels.
Grady didn’t stop until he was outside in the barren courtyard. Lucy sucked in a breath as the cold air snatched at her throat. Folding her arms around the waist of her button-down sweater, she followed her young knight-errant. “Why did you do that?” she demanded, not sounding as much the grateful princess as she’d meant to. But then, no one had ever mistaken Lucy Harper for any kind of princess. “You just made everything worse.”
Grady spun around. “You shouldn’t let them get to you like that. Bullies like Aversom aren’t worth your time.”
“What do you know about Buddy Aversom? You just transferred here.”
Grady scraped the rest of the goop off his shirt. “I’ve met enough of Buddy Aversom’s type to know one when I see one. You shouldn’t let him get to you like that.”
Lucy folded her arms. “I didn’t exactly have anywhere else to sit. And he’d just have kept at me until I did something stupid. So I figured it was best to get it over with up front, before my food got cold.” As bravado went, this was one of her better performances. It would probably have gone over even better if her teeth weren’t chattering. And gravy wasn’t dripping from her ponytails.
“He’s right, you know,” Jana said. “You really should have ignored him. I tell you that all the time. But do you listen?” She sniffed for dramatic effect.
Lucy gaped at her turncoat best friend. “What?”
“You should listen to your friend,” Grady said. “Strength in numbers works.”
Lucy rolled her eyes. “We’re two against . . . well, all of them.”
Grady smiled. “Now you’re three.” He stepped forward and reached out his hand, then thought better of it, and wiped it on his pants first. “Sorry.”
Lucy was still standing there openmouthed.
Jana moved in and stuck her own hand out. “Don’t be. You’re right. We should stand up for ourselves more often. Hi, I’m Jana Fraser.”
“Grady Matthews.” He shook Jana’s hand, then turned to Lucy and stuck his hand out to her.
“Why did you do that for me?” she asked, ignoring his hand for the moment. “I didn’t need saving. I can take care of myself.” Which was patently untrue. She was a walking land mine on most days. But that didn’t mean she didn’t try hard not to be.
“We all need saving sometime. And bullies shouldn’t get away with that kind of crap, but they do all the time. Most of them are just insecure scaredy-cats who pick on others to draw attention away from their own shortcomings. It’s a sad attempt at self-affirmation through domination. Pathetic, really.”
Lucy just gaped. “‘Insecure scaredy-cats’? ‘Self-affirmation through domination’?”
Jana grinned. “I’m liking you more and more by the minute, Grady Matthews.”
He smiled, and those sad-puppy eyes were suddenly lit with a devilish, almost impish light that was impossible not to respond to. “So, what do you say? Can the new kid join your exclusive little clique?”
Lucy and Jana looked at each other. “We’re not a clique.”
“I know. That’s what’s so great about you.”
Lucy glanced at him, at that smile, and felt her cheeks heat up while Jana nudged her in the back.
“Tomorrow, why don’t you come sit in the back with me and some of my new friends.”
“‘In the back’?” Lucy tried to picture what table Grady was talking about. “You mean—”
Grady nodded. “The exchange-student table.”
Lucy had been about to say “the foreigner table.” Not that she had anything against them at all. Potomac Middle School had a special program they ran for a number of foreign-exchange students, almost all of them from India and Asia. Most of them didn’t speak English well, if at all, but managed to be some kind of freaky geniuses anyway. She was more awed by them than anything. “You understand them?” she asked.