In middle school, nothing is more important than friendship.
When Truly is invited to sit at the Popular Table with the group she has dreamed of joining, she can hardly believe her luck. Everyone seems so nice, so kind to one another. But all is not as it seems with her new friends, and soon she's caught in a maelstrom of lies, misunderstandings, accusations and counter-accusations, all happening very publicly in the relentless, hyperconnected social media world from which there is no escape.
Six eighth-graders, four girls and two boys, struggle to understand and process their fractured glimples into one another's lives as they find new ways to disconnect, but also to connect, in Rachel Vail's richest and most searching book.
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Rachel Vail is the author of more than twenty books for young readers, including her first book, Wonder, about which Judy Blume said: "Wonder is wonderful. It's got energy, humor, and heart." Her four-book series, The Friendship Ring, will be reissued in Puffin in Fall 2014. Rachel grew up in New Rochelle and attended Georgetown University. She has two sons; they and their friends provide her with a wealth of material for her writing. She lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
RIGHT BEFORE THE whole thing started with Natasha and the Popular Table, I was standing at my locker with my best friend, Hazel, silently praying that I hadn’t forgotten my combination.
I’ve had this lock since sixth grade, when we got lockers instead of cubbies like in elementary school. My mom took me and my then-best-friend, Natasha, to the store for school supplies the August before middle school started. Natasha and I both chose spinny locks.
My mom thought that the ones with letters that you line up were cuter. At four foot eight, with crooked bangs and lingering baby teeth, the last thing I was looking for was something cuter. Natasha was already over five feet and experimenting with lip gloss. And rolling her eyes at stuff I still wanted to play. She was getting a spinner. I wasn’t going to get a baby lock while she had a spinny in her basket.
My combination is 14-35-42. All multiples of seven. So that’s easy. Except what if I have a brain fart and think maybe it’s multiples of eight? Even if I remember it’s multiples of seven, it could just as easily be 7-21-28.
“You should just get a word one,” Hazel said, beside me in the eighth-grade hall.
“I can do it,” I objected, trying again.
Hazel has a key lock. I think she might be the only one in the whole school. She wears the key on a string around her neck along with her house key and sometimes other random stuff she finds. She has been my absolute best friend since she rescued me in sixth grade, but she is sometimes a lot.
“Just because those girls have spinny locks,” Hazel said.
“That’s not . . .” I said. “I like this kind.”
The fact that the popular girls all have spinny locks was not the only reason I kept my spinny lock for this year. For my thirteenth birthday, my parents finally allowed me to get a cell phone, and to sign on to a few social media things—Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, those types of things. And for every one of them, I set my secret password as locker143542. I know you’re supposed to have different passwords for everything, but please.
After my thirteenth birthday party Hazel slept over. We wrote down our secret passwords for everything on sticky notes in case we forget them somehow. Hazel’s password is clam0rous, which is turns out does not mean like a clam. We both wrote down both passwords, mine and hers, and decided to hide them in our little ballerina jewelry boxes. We have the same ones, we had discovered in sixth grade. The first time she came over and saw mine, we laughed about the coincidence. So corny—the kind with a little ballerina that twirls around when you open it. So girly and cliché, we both thought. As if every little girl is supposed to dream of becoming a tiny ballerina? And collect jewels to fill the box?
Though when I was little I loved that thing. I thought it was so grown-up. But I did see Hazel’s point as soon as she made it. I agreed right away it was horribly antifeminist and also tacky. We decided not to throw them away, though. I was relieved, because I really didn’t want to throw mine away. But I had just recently been dumped by Natasha for being too babyish. I didn’t want my only new-friend prospect to know how babyish I was, deep down. Luckily Hazel agreed the jewelry boxes would be good secret keepers, because what robber would look in a baby jewelry box? She said I was so hilariously ironic.
I looked up the word ironic after she left that afternoon.
“A word lock is maybe five dollars,” Hazel said, reading my mind as usual. “I could give you the money.”
“More like ten,” I said. Hazel’s parents are not exactly rolling in money anymore. They were, a few years ago, but something happened. She won’t talk about it, and I don’t want to pry. But she did confide that money is the thing that’s keeping her parents from getting a divorce. Their fighting hurts her way more than she wants anybody (except me) to know. So it’s not like she was bragging or showing off or anything. I know that. Still. “And the money is not the point. I like this one.”
“Uh-huh,” she said, twirling her green-tinged hair. “I can see why. It’s like a full-on extra-curricular. You want me to try?”
“I got it.” I tried again. Click. I yanked the lunky weight of the lock free of the metal loop. “See?”
Someone tapped my right shoulder.
I turned my head to the right, figuring it would be Kim or maybe Jules, one of the girls in orchestra with us. Nobody there. So I turned to my left and saw not Kim or Jules but Natasha.
I had to smile.
She used to tap my opposite shoulder in elementary school and I fell for it Every. Single. Time. We thought it was endlessly hilarious.
Hasn’t happened since sixth grade, when she dumped me.
“Still don’t know which way to look,” she said.
“I’m hopeless.” I said. “I never learn.”
“Too true,” Hazel said. She unhooked my lock from the hole in my locker’s handle and held it.
“So, anyway,” Natasha said, ignoring Hazel. “You going to lunch?”
“No,” Hazel answered. “To the moon.”
All eighth graders have lunch fifth, so obviously we were going to lunch. Still. The moon? Sometimes when Hazel is trying to sound snide or sarcastic, she just sounds weird.
“Yeah,” I said to Natasha. “Sure. How about you?”
“Mmm-hmm,” Natasha said. She looked out of the corner of her eye into my locker. I immediately wished it were a little messy, a little less compulsively organized.
“Amazing,” Hazel said. “All going to lunch. We have so much in common!”
I gave a small sympathy ha, out of compassion. It’s awful when you say something intending to be funny and everybody just stands there awkwardly, like you’d announced your pet hermit crab died.
“Hurry up,” Natasha said to me. “Dump your stuff. Brooke and I want to talk to you about History Day projects.”
“Me?” I asked, still clutching my books.
Natasha smiled, that blinding white smile she’s had since her braces came off the summer before seventh. I still don’t have enough grown-up molars for my dentist to decide if I need braces, and Natasha’s already been done over a year. “Yeah, you.”
“Now? At lunch?”
But—I don’t sit at their table at lunch. There aren’t rules, exactly; like, the principal isn’t involved. But everybody knows where you don’t get to sit, unless you’re invited.
Hazel and I sit at the slightly-nerdy-girl table. We’re more social than the kids who only go to the math lab or the library, or those who cut completely. Some of us are on teams or in shows, well, props crew, and most of us are in orchestra. We’re well behaved.
The eighth graders who sit at the Popular Table are different. They’re practically celebrities. If we had tabloid magazines in middle school, the Popular Table kids would be in all the pictures. They’re just like us! They hand in homework! They whisper secrets! Although they are not just like us. Even girls like Kim and Jules knew when Clay asked Natasha out, and that she dumped him the next week—and we all have theories about what went wrong between them. But nobody at the Popular Table would have one clue who Kim and Jules are, or who I am. Or who we might have a crush on, if anyone. (We don’t.) The Popular kids wouldn’t be mean to any of us; we just don’t show up in their thoughts.
I leaned against the closed locker next to mine. “Brooke? Brooke Armstrong? She wants me to sit with you guys?” I asked Natasha.
“Come on,” Natasha said. “Why are you so slow?”
I dropped my books into my locker, making a mess I knew I’d have to come back and straighten up as soon as humanly possible because it would be a pebble in the shoe of my mind until I could get it neat. But I knew it was important to just leave it for that moment and act like it didn’t bother me. I grabbed my lunch and swung my locker door shut. Many of the things I’d recently read about popularity emphasized being light and happy, easy to be around.
Hazel still had my lock dangling from her chipped-black-nail-polished index finger, which she was pointing at my chest like a gun.
“Could you . . . ? I’ll catch up with you after . . . okay?” I asked her as Natasha and I walked away.
Hazel watched me go without answering. But I could hear my lock slipping into the handle hole behind me, and the trusty, familiar click of it locking tight. I knew I could count on Hazel. She’s my best friend. She’s prickly and demanding, sure, but she’s very loving, down deep. I knew she’d understand. I mean, the Popular Table. You don’t get invited to that every day. If she got asked, I’d be happy for her, I think. No, I would. I’d lock her locker for her and wait to hear all about what happened, after. We’re solid, me and Hazel.
I didn’t even have to look back and make sure.
YOU DIDN’T EVEN look back, Truly.
Just left me standing there like a lawn jockey with your stupid lock dangling from my finger in place of a lantern. No Come on, Hazel! Not even a Sorry, do you mind? I’ll be right back.
All Natasha had to do was show up at our locker area and flash those piano-key teeth at you—and good-bye to me. I might as well have fallen through a trapdoor.
Or never existed at all.
I COULD SEE from across the cafeteria that Brooke thought it was a bad idea, bringing Truly over. Brooke had to be wondering Why? Though of course she never asked. She’d just said sure, when I suggested maybe I could bring Truly over to our table, this once. We’ll see how it goes, I suggested, trying to pretend I didn’t really care either way, chewing my gum hard to cover the worried warbling in my voice.
Sure, Brooke had answered, shrugging. Like she had nothing to fear, from me or anybody. Great. Whatever.
Could she have figured out my plan already?
No. No way.
But I could tell by the way her eyes slid away from my face as I approached our table across the caf with Truly bobbing along beside me that she was annoyed. The way she leaned over and whispered to Clay. And then he turned around to see what was happening. Hi, Clay. Yeah, remember me? Natasha?
The girl you kissed and then dumped? By text? Last week?
I have to make sure everybody, I mean everybody, continues to believe I dumped Clay and not the other way around. I have to keep dropping hints about it. My mom is totally right about this, if about pretty much nothing else. Well, she was also right that I have a huge pimple sprouting on my forehead this morning. Yeah, thanks hugely for that feedback, Mom. Really started my day off with a boost of confidence. But she is also right that you do not want to be known as The Pathetic Girl Who Got Dumped. Even Dad agreed with that, and for him to agree with Mom, well.
I was the hot center of the world while Clay and I were going out. Also right before, when everybody kept telling him to ask me and me to ask him. Right after we broke up, everybody was all over that, too, waiting and watching to see if I was completely sad and devastated. Lulu kept asking if I was “okay.” I’m great, I told her. I don’t need him. Please. I dumped him! That’s what Dad said I should tell everybody, and it felt good, tough, saying it. The sympathy was nice until it dried up, but still I didn’t need people thinking Clay dumped me. This is part of the plan with Truly, to make sure even the losers and nobodies in school have it straight: I dumped him. Not the other way around.
But the other part of it is: although Brooke is my best friend, she’s also obviously long-term close with Clay. And she acts like she’s like practically the president of our group of friends. People think she’s so chill and Zen and nice but I honestly think that’s all an act and she is just as scheming as the next person. Me, in other words, ha-ha. Everything she says, Evangeline and Lulu are like, yeah, or that’s so funny.
They definitely think I’m funny and fun, too. But second always to Brooke. Now that I’m not going out with Clay anymore, I’m practically invisible. Nobody was even noticing me at all. I got a new haircut when I was at my father’s apartment last weekend. One day’s worth of compliments. One. Truly always complimented my hair, back when.
Beside me, Truly was nattering on. “Why does Brooke want to talk with me? Is it because of what I said in science this morning about buoyancy, and she laughed?”
Yeah, that’s the huge subject we love to confide about, Truly: what hilarious thing you said in your science class that I’m not in. Absolutely. It’s that freaking fascinating.
I was near ready to stop right there and be like, you know what, Truly? It wasn’t Brooke’s idea to bring you over, so get over yourself. Stop concocting this little romance you’re imagining with her. It’s embarrassing. She doesn’t even know who you are. She didn’t invite you—I did. But now, forget it. Go back to your green-hair freak friend. Buh-bye!
But I hadn’t yet had time to confide the story of why I had to dump Clay, who was either a jerk or too boring (must decide which) and maybe when he tried to kiss me he, like, had bad breath or something. Yeah, that’s good. Bad breath.
Also, it would be mean, to dump her two minutes after inviting her.
And for my plan to work, I could not be mean. Ever. Nobody could think of me as mean ever again. I had to displace Brooke as the Queen of Nice.
So instead I smiled at Truly and whispered, “Trust me.”
NATASHA TRIED TO act casual about bringing that girl Truly over to our table at lunch today. When Natasha tries to act casual, her joints get out of whack, like she’s dancing to music by Stravinsky. My older sister Margot does ballet. That Stravinsky stuff is like an ear infection.
So I said, “Sure, whatever, that’s great,” this morning because Natasha was at risk of dislocating a shoulder, being so violently casual. Also it is fully fine with me if some random kid sits with us at lunch or works with us on the History Day project or whatever. The more the merrier. Natasha gets very dramatic about stuff like that. Maybe it’s the not-having-any-siblings thing. Makes her a little shocky I think. Gotta love her, my dad would say.
The girl she brought over, Truly, has gray eyes. That, and the fact that she is very little, almost looks like a sixth grader, was all I really knew about her. She’s been in some of my classes but mostly keeps to herself.
Her idea was to do Benedict Arnold as a topic for our History Day project. Cool, I said, and everybody agreed. Then Clay and I went outside. His older brother and mine have been best friends since nursery school, so Clay and I were friends before we were born. They are both very focused people, our brothers. Both are good at school (though his brother was valedictorian) and sports (though my brother was better at that). They left for college last month. But it’s different for Clay. He has only the one brother. For me it’s just marginally quieter. I mean, my brother Ot...
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