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Odd Girl Out

By Melody Carlson

Zoey s school year is beginning…without her new BFF. Louisa is out with a bad case of the flu, and that leaves Zoey to fend for herself in the first days of middle school.

She thinks maybe it won t be so bad when she strikes up a conversation with another new girl, Taylor. But as she tags along on Taylor s quest to become one of the A-crowd, she starts to wonder how much of herself she can safely change and still be…well, herself.

Worse, new friends don t get rid of old enemies. And somehow, despite trying so hard to fit in, Zoey finds herself exactly where she didn t want to be all alone in her new school. The odd girl out.

Chapter 1

I feel like hurling as I pick up my new backpack. And it’s not because Gramps made me eat oatmeal for breakfast. It’s because my stomach is tied in a million knots. How can it be that Louisa is going to miss the first day of school? How can I be expected to walk into Cedarville Middle School alone? It’s just wrong.

“Are you okay?” Grams asks me with concern.

“I, uh, I don’t know.” My feet are nailed to the floor as I stand by the front door, one hand on the knob. “My, uh, my stomach…”

Grams comes over to feel my forehead. “You don’t feel feverish. But you have been around the Cardwell kids, and they’re all down with flu. Do you feel sick?”

“Kinda.” I touch my midsection and frown.

“I’ll go get the thermometer to check—”

“Never mind.” I open the door. “I’m okay, Grams. I just wish I were sick. I don’t want to go to school…not without Louisa.”

“Oh, Zoey, don’t worry. You’re going to do great in school. And Louisa will be well soon. You’ll see.”

“People aren’t supposed to get sick in the summertime.” I frown at the sunny morning light.

“Mrs. Cardwell says it’s a summer strain of flu—the twins picked up the bug from a birthday party last week.” Grams walks me out to the front porch.

“Yeah, and then they generously gave it to Louisa.” I sigh dramatically. “I wish they’d given it to me too.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re not sick.” Grams fiddles with the loose screen-door hinge, removing a small screwdriver from her overalls pocket to tighten it. “You shouldn’t miss your first day of school, Zoey. It’s too important.”

Important to who? But instead of questioning this, I force a smile and tell Grams good-bye. Then, feeling like the condemned, I head down the porch steps—clump-clump-clump. I pause to look across the street and up at Louisa’s window in the hopes that she’ll be sitting there, that she’ll wave and wish me good luck. Or better yet, she’ll burst out the front door, fully dressed in the outfit we agreed upon last week. That she’ll be all well and ready to go to school.

But Louisa’s blinds are closed, and the cheery yellow house looks still and quiet. Feeling lonelier than ever, I plod down the street toward my new school. Too bad it’s not farther away, to allow me more time to get my head on straight. Six blocks will go too fast.

Starting my first year in a new town and a new middle school is bad enough, but going there alone? This feels just plain pathetic. And even though I got to know some kids at camp last week, I don’t know them very well. And it won’t make up for my missing BFF. I can hardly believe that just last Friday, before Louisa got sick, we went to sixth grade orientation together.

After that we went to her house to plan what we’d wear for our first day. It wasn’t that we wanted to be twinnies, which is ridiculous because we look nothing alike. Louisa is short, with red curly hair, green eyes, and freckles. She reminds me of the Lucky Charms leprechaun—but prettier. And I’m tall and lanky, with brown eyes and long brown hair that’s too thick and too wavy. Anyway, no one would confuse us for twins. Just BFFs.

Going with Louisa to middle school orientation took all my jitters away. We were so happy to get our schedules and discover we’d have homeroom together. And it was cool to tour the school. We went to all our classrooms and found the locker assigned to us. Having Louisa for my locker partner was the icing on the cake. But now she’s not here, and I’m not even sure if I can remember my locker combination.

I slip my hand into my back pocket to make sure the piece of paper with the secret numbers is still there and then continue…one slow step after the next. I went ahead and wore our agreed upon first-day outfit. It’s nothing special, really. It was my suggestion to wear our favorite jeans, a plain white T-shirt under a plaid shirt, and high-top tennis shoes. Louisa’s Converse are a little worn, but I’ve kept my blue high-tops almost like new. And I suppose I feel okay about what I’m wearing. Although I’d feel a million times better if Louisa were with me, wearing her similar outfit.

As I get closer to school, spotting little groups of kids here and there—some looking flashier than I expected—I wonder if I should’ve tried harder. Should I have worn something a bit more stylish, like Louisa had suggested for our second day of school? She probably has a little more style than me. Not that either of us are into fads. That’s a relief. But, at the same time, I don’t want to look like the new girl with absolutely no fashion sense. Not by myself anyway. It would be different if Louisa was by my side.

Thinking about fashion reminds me of Louisa’s ex-BFF, Kayla Sharpe. She will probably be dressed to the nines—what does that really mean? And Kayla will most certainly be wearing makeup. She even wore makeup to camp, which IMO was totally dumb. I haven’t actually seen Kayla since camp, but she did write me an “I’m sorry” note for the way she kidnapped me and locked me into that old pump-house. Although I have forgiven her, I don’t completely trust her, and I’m pretty sure someone made her write that note because it sounded a little too sorry. But I could be wrong. Anyway, I hope I’m wrong. And I hope I don’t cross paths with her today. Not without Louisa.

As the school comes into sight, I silently tell myself I can do this. It can’t be that hard. It’s just a small-town school. What’s the big deal? I remember what our youth pastor, Brent Zimmerman, said in youth group yesterday—about how God gives us strength when we feel weak. So, trying to calm myself, I decide to pray about this. I tell God that I’m feeling weak and scared and I ask for His help. And by the time I walk up to the entrance of Cedarville Middle School, I feel a tiny bit better.

Until I see Kayla and Julie standing at the top of the steps. They stare down at me like predators. Like a pair of she-wolves. Or maybe it’s my imagination. Remembering the words “love your enemies,” I force a stiff smile. As I go past them, I even mutter a weak “Hello.” But they say nothing. And that is not reassuring. Louisa Cardwell, I need you right now!

Chapter 2

I try to act confident as I go look for my locker. I’m not even sure why I’m going to my locker, but I think it’s because it’s something to do. Or maybe it makes me feel connected. To what, I’m not sure. Maybe just Louisa. Anyway, I decide to see if I can remember the combination without using the note in my pocket. After a couple of tries, the locker opens. Just a blank empty hole in the wall. Louisa and I planned to decorate it together. But yesterday, I promised to wait until she is well. So I stand there, feeling dumb as I stare at absolutely nothing in my barren locker, hoping that no one can see that it’s empty.

The sound of giggling—the snarky kind of laughter that’s like fingernails on a blackboard—sets off my mean-girl radar. But instead of turning to stare, I casually shut my locker and slowly turn around. Of course, it turns out to be Kayla and Julie, standing next to what must be their locker about ten feet down, with their eyes fixed on me.

Their locker, unlike mine, is quite colorful. Again, I attempt a smile. “Nice locker décor,” I say lightly, although I think it’s actually overdone. Even garish. A mirror is attached inside the door with gaudy decals and photos plastered all around it. Ignoring me, they take turns with the mirror, touching up their makeup.

As I walk to my homeroom, it hits me that Julie looks very different than she did at camp. Oh, she’s still a large and somewhat intimidating girl, but she now bears a striking resemblance to Kayla. Both have highlighted their shoulder length hair and are wearing too much makeup and clothes that I’m sure they think are stylish, but which I wouldn’t be caught dead in. Okay, I realize I’m no fashion icon, but I cannot imagine wearing anything bright pink or sparkly…or with ruffles. The kinds of clothes that Kayla is obsessed with. And maybe Kayla can pull it off, but Julie looks sort of ridiculous. Not that I plan to say anything to anyone. I do not!

I’m relieved to see I’m not the first one in the classroom. I quietly slip into a seat near the far wall—and suddenly wish I’d brought my phone. Not because it works, because it doesn’t. But at least I could pretend to be occupied with it…and blend in with everyone else in here. They are all glued to their phones. Of course, they have about five minutes before they have to turn them off or risk having them confiscated for the day. I know this because I read the school manual from front to back last night.

Slumping down in my seat and trying to repress serious phone-envy, I fake intense interest in the contents of my backpack. For some reason it’s comforting not to look up as kids fill the classroom. More than anything, I’m hoping that Kayla and Julie won’t have this homeroom. But being this is a small school—with only two homeroom options for sixth grade—I know the odds are even. And, as luck has it, the two girls waltz into class just as the final bell rings. Great.

They seem to want to draw attention to themselves as they search for desks close to each other. The teacher, who’s preoccupied with her electronic tablet, seems oblivious, but I watch from the corner of my eye as Julie “encourages” a girl to swap desks with her. Meanwhile other kids snicker and comment and laugh…and I wonder when and if Miss Flynn is going to start this class. I was actually glad to get Language Arts for my homeroom, and I’m really hoping that Miss Flynn is a good teacher, because I like reading and writing almost as much as I like art.

“Okay, class,” she says in a loud voice. “Let’s come to order.” She starts going through the usual beginning-of-the-year stuff, like taking roll. I speak out when she says Louisa’s name, telling her that she’s sick. Then she goes over her rather basic rules and explains how we’ll all be assigned an electronic tablet.

“Like this one.” She holds up her e-tablet, then goes over the rules for using the device. “Your tablet will be registered with me. You’ll use it for assignments and tests and turn your work in to me via school e-mail. You can take it home, but it’s up to you to use it responsibly. Or lose the privilege.” She waved her hand to some colorful tablets heaped on her desk. “As you can see, the tablets have a variety of colors and patterns. Fewer mix-ups that way.”

Then, going row by row, Miss Flynn has us come up and chose a tablet, writing down the numbers as we go. Because of my desk location, my row will be last. I don’t really care except that I hope I don’t get stuck with some stupid, overly-bright cover. That’s just not me. My mom calls me boring, but I like to think I’m “understated.”

Anyway, it’s interesting to see what kids pick out, and I watch with amusement as Kayla and Julie go up front, taking a long time to find the right tablet, until Miss Flynn urges them to hurry it up, and they choose ones that are bright and obnoxious. When my row finally goes up, I realize that Jefferson Combs must’ve taken a desk behind me, but I didn’t even notice. Jefferson and I became sort-of friends at camp. And I still have the Seahawks cap he gave me. Louisa teases me sometimes, but I think I’ve convinced her Jefferson is just a friend. But because Kayla Sharpe used to have a huge crush on Jefferson—and maybe still does—I’m afraid I’ll always be her mortal enemy.

By the time I’m at Miss Flynn’s desk, there are only four tablets left. Bright orange with hot pink polka dots, bright purple and pink stripes, a solid yellow, and a solid navy blue one. Feeling lucky, I pick up the navy tablet. But when I hear Jefferson groan, I turn around. “Did you want this one?” I quietly ask.

He shrugs then nods.

I relinquish the understated navy tablet and pick up the bright yellow one. But as I return to my seat, I hear a couple of snickers. I’m sure they think I’m “in love” with Jefferson just because I let him have the navy tablet. Figures. But when I see Kayla’s eyes flash at me—like a warning—I realize the stakes might’ve just risen. Like this is so not over. Not that I imagined it was. Resisting the urge to give her an eye-roll, I sit down and try to imagine a way to make my bright yellow tablet cover look less like a caution sign.

The last tablet left, the orange and pink one, gets assigned to Louisa and put away. And since Louisa likes bright colors, I think she probably won’t mind. Then Miss Flynn gives us a writing assignment—and the whole class groans. But she doesn’t back down. We are supposed to write “What I Did Last Summer.” Seriously?

Even though I usually like writing assignments, I’m not a fan of this one. Besides having nothing interesting to write about, if I wanted to be honest, I would write about how my mom abandoned me by dumping me onto my grandparents so she could go tour with a rock band. But do I want Miss Flynn or anyone besides Louisa to know about that? I don’t think so. What if she makes us read them aloud? I’ve had teachers do that before.

And so I decide to write about going to summer camp with Louisa, but I do not include how Kayla and Julie kidnapped me and locked me in the pump-house to rot and die. Instead, I only write about the good things. And finally, remembering that I’m supposed to tell people about how God recently came into my life, I even write about the night I gave my heart to Jesus.

It’s all true…but still. I hope and pray that Miss Flynn won’t make me read it out loud.