"They hate to see you doing better than them." -Field Mob ft. Ciara, "So What"
Jessica Johnson glowered.
She stood mannequin-still in the school's long hallway at the floor-to-ceiling glass panes surrounding the fishbowl-the café, Del Rio Bay High's outdoor Beautiful People Only section of the cafeteria. Her eyes, focused like hazel laser beams, glared catlike in her coffee-bean complexioned face.
She couldn't take them off the scene outside.
About forty people milled around the square, no larger than two average-sized bedrooms. Some huddled around the five tall bistro tables-sometimes six people deep. Others stood atop the sandy-colored concrete benches that anchored the corners, while still others were content leaning against one of the two brick walls that enclosed the area. So used to being gawked at from the hall or cafeteria windows, no one paid her much mind. Everyone was enjoying the budding warmth of the early spring-many going jacketless in the fifty-degree Maryland day.
Winter had been short but fierce. Two ice storms had walloped the area, closing school for a total of seven days in February and nearly sending everyone stir crazy from cabin fever. Fifty degrees was almost hot in comparison, the open air addicting.
The thick glass made it impossible for Jess to distinguish any conversations, but she could almost feel the buzz of the various rowdy discussions. Now and then a loud laugh or exclamation would erupt from one of the hubs. Jess assumed it was loud-it had to be if she could hear it from inside. She imagined that the talk was of the Extreme Beach Nationals, the big cheerleading competition taking place in a week, who was heading down to Ocean City with who, which hotel people were staying at and what madness they could get into with their parents lingering nearby.
Typical day in the café, the school's powers discussing who and what was important in DRB High land, in their own version of politicking and strategizing.
The café, twenty feet wide, twenty feet across, and accessible by a single door at the far end of the cafeteria, was nothing more than an island of concrete surrounded by a patch of grass just wide enough to be a pain for the maintenance crew to cut. But it was the students' slice of heaven. No teachers patrolled it. And nobodies stayed away from its door, choosing instead to a) act like the café didn't exist or matter, or b) gaze inside from the windows, like Jess was doing now.
Only she wasn't a nobody. Jess was a café regular, an Upper whose right it was to lounge in the café at her leisure during lunch.
And until that very second, the café had been Jessica's safe haven from wannabes and nobodies, specifically the one wannabe nobody who annoyed her more than anyone in the world ... Mina Mooney.
Jessica's eyes squeezed into slits, piercing Mina from the shadows of the hall as Mina's head bobbed up and down excitedly, deep in conversation with Kim, the varsity cheer captain, and Sara, Jessica's twin.
Seeing Mina there, all smiles and grins enjoying life in the fishbowl, shouldn't have jolted Jessica. But the flash of heat she felt boiling in her chest was anger-pure and powerful. It grew as she remembered how lightly Sara had mentioned Mina's new "status."
"I was telling Mina that we're gonna kill it at the Extreme," Sara had said, bubbling with a mix of anxiety and excitement at the thought of Nationals.
"Look, I know you two cheer together now, but I'm over hearing you talk about her," Jessica snapped. She tossed her hair, a well-kept straight weave that hung just below her shoulders, a ludicrous auburn that almost shimmered next to Jess's dark face, and fixed her twin with a defiant stare.
Sara's light cocoa-complexioned cheeks darkened slightly as the crimson spread through her face. But her voice was neutral as she answered, "I know you guys don't get along." She hesitated for a second then swallowed a sigh before finishing. "Nothing I say will matter, will it? You love to hate Mina."
Jessica laughed, her dark face brightening at Sara's truthful declaration. "Yup. I do."
"Well ... you know Kim and I invited her to sit in the café, right?" Sara cleared her throat as if admitting it out loud had dried her mouth.
Jessica's smile quickly turned into a sour-lemon scowl and this time Sara's mouth did dry out. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth as she quickly added, "We have a lot of cheer strategy to go over. So you know ... I mean, you knew Mina was going to get the call to the café eventually, Jess. She's the JV cheer captain ... she ..."
"Is a total wannabe, Sara," Jessica huffed. Her finger wagged in Sara's face like she was lecturing a young child, something she did often to her twin when it came to social etiquette. "I know you like hanging out with any and everybody. But Mina is ... the way she rolls with her ..." Jessica rolled her eyes and sneered, "clique." She shook her head as if warding off some sort of bad word cooties. "Like they're running things at DRB High." Her next words were thick with venom. "I hate how she thinks her little Miss Nice-Nice act is going to make everyone like her."
Sara giggled, "So let me get this right. You hate her because she's nice?" hadn't bothered Jess. She knew that sitting in the café didn't mean much to Sara. Neither did DRB High's whole social hierarchy thing. So it was easy for Sara to dismiss it all as silly or ridiculous. But it wasn't silly to Jess. She rolled with the Glams, the snotty, mostly rich kids, and took her status as a member of the ruling class serious, deadly serious. It hit Jessica where it hurt that Mina-neither rich nor snotty-had always managed to sniggle her way in with the right circles.
Jess had tried, God knows she had, to keep her out. She'd even tried to get her schedule switched around so she'd have the same lunch as Mina this semester, solely to keep Mina on the outside of the fishbowl. None of it made any sense to Sara, who considered Mina a friend. She'd once told Jess, all she wanted was for Jess and Mina to peacefully coexist in the same circles at DRB High.
Peacefully coexist, huh? Jess thought, already nurturing the seed into an idea.
She stared through the thick glass, registering back to the present just as Brian James walked over to the table where Mina sat. He was cute with a capital C, his toffee complexion smooth, eyebrows thick, soft brown eyes accented by thick lashes and a head full of hair so black and curly it made Jess's fingers squirm at the thought of touching it. He stood behind Mina's chair, his six-foot-three frame towering easily over the three-foot high wrought-iron bar chairs, and wrapped his arms around her waist.
Jess averted her eyes from Mina's insanely idiotic grin and focused on Brian. He was telling a joke, she guessed, because all the cheerleaders at the table giggled and Sara gave him a high five. Just as quickly as he came, he whispered something in Mina's ear (more insane teeth-grinding grinning) and sauntered over to a table where a few gaming geeks (award-winning gamers, of course) happily welcomed him into their conversation.
Jess closed her eyes and tried to block out the image of that wide, "I'm such a lucky girl" grin on Mina's face. She tried to force the one word that kept coming up, to describe Mina, back into the far reaches of her mind.
It couldn't be.
Mina was not, could not be ... an Upper.
True, she was sitting in the café and was dating one of the school's hottest guys. Jess didn't even want to think about Mina's sudden fame as the high-school's "Pop" reporter as people were calling her since she'd snagged the position as writer of her own column, "Pop Life," which showcased the school's up-and-coming stars. Some people were even courting Mina, hoping to get a little ink in "Pop Life."
It was definitely a ridiculous level of freshman beginner's luck. But it didn't make her an Upper, necessarily. Far as Jess was concerned, Mina was popular by association and Jess was being generous by admitting that much.
No, Mina wasn't officially an Upper yet. And if Jessica had anything to do with it, Mina never would be ... not while they roamed the halls of DRB High together, anyway.
If Mina wanted popularity she'd have to go through Jess first.
Popularity cost, and Jess was going to make sure Mina paid dearly.
"Into your head, into your mind ... you can't escape." -Aly & AJ, "Rush"
Lizzie walked into the Lit class, last of the day, and sat down heavily. She'd never been so happy to get a Friday over with. To get away from classes and the buzzing about spring break. Conversations flew fast and furious as everyone worked to start and finish an entire discussion before the second bell rang.
"What's going on this weekend?"
"Oh my God. The concert last night was sick."
"We're staying at the Xavier down in O.C."
"Dude, that's like a million miles from where everyone else is staying."
The conversations went on like that, weekend plans, spring break plans, weekend, spring break, weekend, spring break.
Lizzie swam silently in the middle of it.
Mina dashed in and immediately joined one of the discussions in progress, no doubt one about the Extreme. Everyone was talking about it. For Lizzie, it was a constant reminder that next week's spring break would be a boring and lonely one.
She slumped in her seat and pulled her Lit notebook from her tote bag. "You too, huh?" she muttered to her bag as, freed of the huge five-subject tablet, it slouched resignedly against her chair.
Empty. That's exactly how I feel, she thought.
She wasn't upset about missing the actual competition. Those she could take or leave. But Mina would be gone, their first spring break apart. Because they both stayed ultra busy, holiday breaks had always been their time, sometimes the only time they could hang out without a theater rehearsal or cheer practice interrupting.
Her head bobbed as she heard the name "Todd." She swiveled to see who had said it, but the chatter had already moved on.
It was then that Lizzie faced a truth-she could maybe, possibly have gone this one spring break without her BFF if Todd weren't also heading down to O.C. with JZ, Michael and Brian.
She wasn't sure how it happened, but she'd become one of "those" girls. Somewhere between Mina playing Cupid and Todd getting on one knee, asking her out in only the way Todd could-"Lizzie, would you come with me to the casbah,"-as Rio's Ria crawled with people. Horribly embarrassed by being put on the spot so publicly, but also tickled pink, Lizzie had said yes.
They still joked about the whole "casbah" thing. Todd even set "Rock the Casbah" by The Clash as his ring tone for Lizzie's calls. It was their inside joke.
It felt weird, having an inside joke with a guy who wasn't JZ or Michael.
Wait ... take it back a step ... it felt weird having a crush.
Check that, it was a weird crush anyway.
She and Todd's friendship was two parts silly-Lizzie never laughed so much in her life like she did when she was around him-and one part genuine affection. They shared the kind of fragile ease you feel around a person you know well, but are learning to see in a new light.
Some days, he was just the same old crazy Todd she'd known since sixth grade, joking if his mouth was moving, and obsessed with basketball. He had a total dude-crush on JZ, or at least JZ's skill on the hardwood. But other days, Todd was like a stranger. Lizzie hadn't known until recently that he was a complete computer geek. If basketball didn't work out, Todd could seriously do a Bill Gates and start his own tech company. He secretly ran a website called The Joke's on You. The Photoshopped pics of DRB teens mixed in with hot stars looked so real, the site could have been done by a professional.
The site was wildly popular. But no one suspected Todd was the one who had them rolling in celeb circles. He'd revealed his secret to Lizzie two months into their new friendship.
Of course, she'd told Mina one night and swore Mina to secrecy. By week's end the rest of the clique knew. Lizzie spent an entire day in fear that Todd would be mad that she'd told. But he hadn't been. He'd simply sworn them all to secrecy, explaining that anon websites were always way more mysterious and interesting. He liked his anonymous fame. And Lizzie liked that he was a closet techie. It was Todd's geeky side that sealed the crush for her.
"You're more excited that he can code than dunk?" Mina had asked, incredulous.
But Lizzie couldn't help it. That was hot to her. She clamped her hand over her mouth to stifle a spontaneous giggle, then head-checked to see if anyone noticed.
Of course, no one had. People took their time wrapping up their conversations, moving no faster when the bell finally toned the start of class.
Mina took her seat in front of Lizzie and started to say something, when Ms. Qualls launched immediately into an in-depth discussion of The Grapes of Wrath. Lizzie scribbled notes furiously. She looked up in time to see a fly buzz through an open window and go straight for the teacher. Ms. Qualls' voice never changed its frantic instructive pitch as she swatted at the curious fly, which insisted on landing on her Grapes of Wrath copy.
It occurred to Lizzie that she and the fly were about the only ones paying any attention.
Right as Ms. Qualls attempted to jump-start a discussion on the symbolism of Ma Joad's strength, Lizzie felt Mina's hand tap her calf.
She glanced down, thinking Mina was going to pass her a note, and followed the direction of Mina's jabbing thumb. She frowned down at the ground, wondering what she was looking for, before realizing Mina was pointing toward the door.
Lizzie's breath caught. Todd stood in the hallway grinning, waving and ducking so his body was in the perfect blind spot between Ms. Qualls' classroom entrance and the classroom across from it.
He pulled out his cell phone, typed in something, then nodded to affirm he'd just sent her a message.
Lizzie silently sent praise that her phone was on silent.
She glanced around the comatose classroom, as the teacher droned on.
"What do you think Steinbeck's portrayal of Rose of Sharon is meant to convey?" Ms. Qualls asked.
There was stirring among the students as they shifted, some trying to look more alert. No one volunteered to answer.
Lizzie casually plucked her tote from the floor and flipped her phone open. Her green eyes brightened at the message:
Treat u 2 a slice 2 clbrat end o thtr season?
Lizzie coughed to cover up flipping the phone shut, then dropped her bag back on the floor. As Ms. Qualls gave the class a lackluster lecture about lack of participation, Lizzie gazed slyly over at the hallway, where Todd stood, his arms in a "what's up?" gesture. Students nearest the door openly watched him now, Ms. Qualls' lecture unheard. There was a ripple of head turns as people checked to see who Todd was talking to.
Lizzie nodded slightly and beamed when Todd grinned, gave the thumbs up and disappeared down the hall just as Ms. Qualls glanced to see what had captured the class's attention.
A sliver of thrill tickled Lizzie's neck. Todd had come close to getting caught all for her. He could have sent her the message from the library where he had Independent Study. Instead, he'd risked ... well, at worst, Todd would have gotten a reprimand from Ms. Qualls who was no stranger to braying at students to get back to class. Still, Lizzie's heart leapt at the sweet gesture.
Her gaze wandered to the hall, hoping for another fleeting glimpse of Todd, but it was empty. Lizzie sighed contentedly and grinned when Mina turned her head long enough to give her a "way to go" wink. She doodled Todd's name in the margins of her notes, joining her fellow classmates in mind-wandering until the bell signaled dismissal.
Now she'd have some Grapes of Wrath catching up to do over the break.
Not like she had any other plans, she thought, sulking.
Later that night she walked into the kitchen, stationing herself on a stool across from her mom, who was busy taking a tuna casserole out of the oven. Lizzie sighed, then scowled. She waited a few seconds then sighed louder and scowled harder.
Finally, her mom placed the pan down, slipped off oven mitts and folded her arms. "May I help you?" An ironic smile graced her lips, as if she knew what to expect.
Excerpted from That's What's Up! by PAULA CHASE Copyright © 2008 by Paula Chase. Excerpted by permission.
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