There was no stronger testimony to the change in Rebecca Grolund’s identity than the transformation of her bedroom. Gone was the cheap castle-gray wallpaper, the faux velvet drapes, and the leftover Halloween decorations that had given it its Gothic character. Banished were her posters celebrating My Chemical Romance, Panic, and Linkin Park. Rebecca’s room had gone through a full Mary Kaye makeover in her mother’s image, complete with lemon chiffon painted walls, ruffled curtains, and Reader’s Digest approved inspirational art. In a few years, when they boxed Rebecca’s clothes up and sent her off to college, there would be nothing they needed to do except move out the bed. This would be Mrs. Grolund’s new sewing room.
The Grolunds had brought in a roll away bed from the garage for Jolie to sleep on, and they’d found an almost matching bedspread so that the two-bed arrangement looked almost planned.
“We’ll share my room,” Becca announced, happily.
“Did the paint come with sunglasses?” Jolie quipped, squinting against the bright, sunny yellow.
Rebecca laughed. She knew the room wasn’t her. She just didn’t know who she was right now. Her room and wardrobe had gotten a thorough scrubbing after her Solstice adventure, but it was harder to change people on the inside.
The new Rebecca no longer sought her place in the universe through a fascination with magic, but she was still the same self-conscious kid she’d been when Jolie met her last September. If geek boys got the short end of the stick in high school, geek girls didn’t even get to draw straws. They were the outcasts of the outcasts, not accepted into the boys’ tech club, not cool enough for the preppy girls’ academic click. They were the unclaimed, left to the discard pile.
Becca’s interest in the morose and twisted might have been born from a knee-jerk reaction to her parent’s Lemon Pledge existence, but it was also an exercise in adventure by a rabidly curious mind starved for meaningful exploration. Rebecca Grolund was a lonely kid--a socially inept kid, but not a stupid kid.
“This is going to be so much fun. It’ll be like we’re real sisters. What shall we do first?”
Jolie winced. Everything about the Grolund’s Brady Bunch re-visited house made Jolie want to tear her hair out.
“Homework?” she suggested. “There’s a math quiz on Wednesday.” Their focus on academics had been their earliest common denominator. They dug out their math books and laid them out on their beds.
“Thanks for doing this for me, Becca. I really appreciate it,” Jolie said, flattening out onto her stomach on the baby blue cotton bedspread.
“What are friends for?”
“Everything all right in here, girls?” Mrs. Grolund appeared at the door. “Do you need anything, Jolie?”
“We’re fine, Mom. Don’t fuss.”
“Everything’s good, Mrs. Grolund. Thank you for letting me stay with you.”
“It seemed like the Christian thing to do. Having to leave mid-semester is never a good academic choice, and we believe education is important. Don’t forget, on weeknights curfew is eight o’clock, but if you’re going to be away from the house after six, we need to know where you are. Weekends you can stay out until ten but the same rule applies.”
“I understand,” Jolie agreed.
Rebecca rolled her eyes. “Do we have to do this now, Mom?”
“Yes, we do.” Mrs. Grolund resumed her lecture. “If you skip class or miss a day at school and you weren’t actually home sick, you’ll be on your way to your mom’s in Tecopa, just like that.” She snapped her fingers. “No discussion. We don’t tolerate drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or profanity; especially taking the lord’s name in vain.”
“That won’t be a problem,” Jolie assured Mrs. Grolund.
“I understand that your mother has rather liberal ideas about relationships, and has already allowed you to date, but if you want to go out while you’re here, we need to meet the boy, and talk to his parents first.”
“I’ve really only been out on one date and it wasn’t really a ‘date’ date,” Jolie explained.
“But you have a boyfriend?”
Jolie cleared her throat. “Not really. I just have friends who are boys.”
“I’m not interested in splitting hairs with you. Little brat. You’re the child and I’m the adult and don’t forget it,” Jolie heard her add, silently. “You need to understand the rules you’re expected to live by while you’re living here, under our roof. How did Rebecca ever talk me into this?”
“Thank you,” Jolie repeated. The undercurrent of antagonism was not lost on her, but if Mrs. Grolund was so unhappy about Jolie coming to stay, then why had she agreed to it?
“Rebecca has already explained to us how important graduating is to you, so we expect your focus to be on your academics, not partying or getting into trouble.”
Ah. There it is. Rebecca had moaned, and groaned, and thrown a fit until her mother had given in against her own judgment.
“No, ma’am.” Jolie nodded.
“When she messes up, Rebecca will see the little tramp for who she is, and we’ll be done with her,” Mrs. Grolund thought, satisfied that she would be proven right about the faults in Jolie’s character.
“Are you finished, Mom?” Becca asked impatiently. “We’ve got a lot of homework.” Rebecca might be “born again,” but she was still a kid who knew how to work the system. No parent who had just announced they were supportive of education was going to stand in the way of homework.
“Welcome to my world,” Rebecca moaned as her mother went back downstairs.
“Do I have something in my teeth? Everyone’s looking at us.” Rebecca and Jolie walked down the hall Monday morning.
Jolie’s trouble siren was going off. It wasn’t Rebecca; it was her. Kids were looking at her, then turning away and laughing.
“Yo, go, Jolie!” a boy from the stoner crowd, shouted, giving Jolie a big thumbs up as if she had just joined their secret club.
“Burn Webber knows your name?” Rebecca shook her head. “That’s not a good sign. What did you do, Jo?”
“Nothing. Honest. I didn’t do anything.”
Jolie and Rebecca walked toward the sophomore lockers, getting crowd reactions that ranged from the cold shoulder to exuberant cheers, most of them from kids Jolie didn’t know.
“You must have some idea,” Rebecca groused, annoyed by her friend’s meteoric rise in popularity.
“Honestly, I don’t, Becca.” Jolie checked the hallway for any of the Fus, thinking they might be able to shed some light on the mystery.
The closer they got to the main hallway, the worse it got. The student body’s energy was pumped up like it was homecoming or something.
“Awesome,” a skater kid shouted when he saw her.
“She’s my hero,” another boy wrapped his arms around Jolie from behind, hugging her. Before she had time to push him off, he released her, and continued on his way down the hall, repeating: “Jolie Figg is my hero!” Kids in the hallway laughed.
“If they try to expel you, Jo, you just let us know. We’ve got free speech in this country!” another kid shouted at her.
“Yeah, we’ll do a sit-in,” a girl from the forensics team chimed in. Several students hooted their agreement.
“Why would you get expelled?” Becca demanded, alarmed. “You can’t get expelled, Jolie. My parents will go bonkers.”
Jolie stopped in the middle of the hallway. One of Megan Washburn’s student council posters was just ahead--at least it looked like her poster, but the slogan had been changed.
“A vote for Megan is a vote for Megan,” it read now.
Jolie walked slowly down the hallway, reading the walls. “Megan wants your body,” was followed by; “Megan will put your ------ in her mouth” with a crude picture in the blank. Jolie groaned.
“Oh my God.” Rebecca stared at the posters, then began to laugh.
Megan Washburn was not laughing.
“You! You did this!” Megan shrieked, the moment she saw Jolie.
Rebecca looked askance at Jolie. “Why does everyone think this was you?”
“Because it ‘is’ her.” Megan was shaking with anger. “Because she’s a conniving little witch and a terrible person who ruins everything for everyone else. She broke my leg last semester, or did you forget that, Rebecca? You were the one who told me it was her.”
Becca glanced at Jolie sheepishly, but as far as Jolie was concerned, that episode was in the past.
“Oh, boo hoo hoo,” someone in the crowd mocked Megan.
“Not feeling special, Megan?” another voice added to the humiliation. “What’s the matter? Daddy’s money can’t fix your little boo-boo?”
Megan’s knuckles were white. “Losers!” She shouted. “You’re all a bunch of losers!” She ran down the hall.
More than a smattering of kids broke into spontaneous applause. Jolie looked around, astounded. The people had spoken. Megan Washburn, golden girl of teachers and administrators, was not as popular as she pretended she was. She was the center of a small visible club of her own friends who had money and powerful parents, and that gave them special privileges, like pushing other kids around. But the rest of the kids didn’t support her bullshit.
“It’s all in her head,” Jolie said, surprised at the realization. “And they think ‘I’m’ crazy.”
The teacher was still taking role when Jolie was called to the office. The student office helper was so nervous, that she could barely look at Jolie.
“Don’t worry. Whatever I have, it’s not contagious,” Jolie assured the girl.
Ms. Warren’s office door was open. She came around the desk as Jolie approached.
“Let’s go into Principal Maxwell’s office, shall we?
“Can we do this here? I need to get back to class. I have a report to work on.”
“You may not be going back to class,” Ms. Warren threatened. “I’ve been trying to call your mother. I keep getting voicemail.”
Jolie pulled out her cell and pressed her mom’s number. Ms. Warren was right, it went to voicemail.
“There’s another number I might be able to reach her at.” She called Brett’s cell. He had given it to her in case of emergencies, but she’d never tried it. It suddenly occurred to her it might be a fake.
“Ms. Warren?” Principal Maxwell called from his office.
“Put the phone away now,” Ms. Warren told Jolie. “We can talk about your parent problems later.” They went into the Principal’s office.
“Please close the door, Ms. Warren.” Jolie had never been this close to Mr. Maxwell. He was a ruddy bulwark of a man, the kind who had played football in college and still had his hair in a crew cut. “So, Miss Figg, talk to me about the student council posters.”
“The ones that are in the hall now, or the ones before?” Jolie asked.
“Ms. Warren seems to think you had something to do with the current version.”
“I didn’t. I have witnesses who can vouch for my whereabouts all weekend. Besides that, the school was locked up. How would I have gotten inside?”
“Teachers have keys. Sometimes they give them to students and maybe a student forgot to give them back right away,” the principal suggested.
Jolie shook her head. “I’m not part of any clubs. No one gave me a key. Ask your faculty.”
“A vote for Megan is a vote for Megan.” Principal Maxwell smirked. “It’s clever.”
“Well, you know what they say, we laugh at what’s true,” Jolie replied.
“Did you think of that?”
Jolie pressed her lips tight together, then nodded. “Yes, actually. I was walking down the hall a few weeks back and I re-worded some of the slogans, just joking around, you know, but I didn’t change those posters. I didn’t even write my joke versions down. I was at a wedding with three hundred other people on Saturday, and I went to Rebecca Grolund’s on Sunday. I have alibis.”
“You admit to authoring the new slogans, but you claim you didn’t change them?” Maxwell looked for confirmation.
“Yes, sir. That’s right.”
“And you don’t know who might have?”
“It was between classes. The halls were empty. There wasn’t even anybody else around who could have overheard me, except...” She hesitated.
“Except? Who else was there, Ms. Figg?” Principal Maxwell asked.
Jolie didn’t want to get Hugo in trouble, but it was starting to look like he had gotten her into some.
“I don’t know the kid’s name,” she lied. “I was just kind of muttering to myself. I don’t know if he even heard me.”
“Then how did the posters get changed?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, Principal Maxwell, but I’d start with people who had keys.”
“Well, it seems we have a little detective work ahead of us. Thank you, Miss Figg. We’ll be talking again, soon.”
“Her mother--” Ms. Warren started.
“Just got out of the hospital,” Jolie explained quickly, going for the sympathy angle. “She was shot at work. That’s why I was gone a few days last week, and why I’m staying with the Grolunds now.”
“Oh, yes. I remember,” Principal Maxwell made the connection. “Some of our students helped stop the attack.” He smiled as proudly as if he’d taught the boys their first kick. “I used to be a karate kid myself.” He punched the air in a poor imitation of a martial artist. “Are things okay with your mom now?”
Jolie knew she needed this man on her side.
“She’s getting better. She can’t go back to work yet, though, so we had to give up our apartment. She’s staying at a friend’s.” Her disclosure had the desired effect. Maxwell’s instincts to protect one of his students kicked in.
“And you said you’re staying where?”
“With the Grolunds,” Jolie repeated, grateful that she had not tried to stick out living in the apartment alone for the last few days of the month.
“I tried to notify Jolie’s mother about what’s happened,” Ms. Warren explained. “But she’s not answering.”
“It could be that cell reception is not good where she’s staying,” Jolie offered an excuse.
Maxwell chewed on that a moment. “Do you have another number for her, Jolie?”
“Then, let’s try the boyfriend and see what he knows,” Maxwell suggested, lightheartedly.
Jolie pulled out her phone, not looking at Ms. Warren. “And while I’m calling him, Ms. Warren, maybe you could call Officer Wrangler and let him know what’s going on?” Jolie knew that Ms. Warren would call Wrangler anyway, but by suggesting it, she got the jump on her, and let the counselor know that she was confident the probation officer was in her corner.
“And maybe, call Mrs. Grolund, too, Ms. Warren,” Maxwell suggested, “I’d like to talk to her.”
By the time Jolie had gotten hold of Brett and he’d confirmed that she was telling the truth about her situation, Pamela Grolund was on her way to the school.
“I’m sorry to bring you down here like this Mrs. Grolund,” Mr. Maxwell held out a hand and gave her a hearty handshake. “But I understand that Jolie is staying with you?”
“Her mother is supposed to have signed the temporary custody papers and mailed them to us,” Mrs. Grolund explained. “But you know how it is when you’re moving. You put something down and it gets packed and no one knows where it got to.”
“Of course,” Maxwell smiled, understandingly. “I’m sure that can be easily ironed out.”
“Is there a problem, Mr. Maxwell? Is Jolie in trouble? She’s only been with us one night and since we don’t have legal papers, I don’t know.... Maybe you should just call her mother and have her come pick Jolie up.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary. Jolie came to your house yesterday, right?” Mrs. Grolund nodded. “And she and Rebecca were there all night?”
“Yes. I went upstairs and checked on them a few times.” She glanced nervously at Jolie. “I didn’t go in, but I could hear their voices. Rebecca’s not in trouble, is she?”
“No one is in trouble, Mrs. Grolund,” Mr. Maxwell reminded her. “Jolie is just trying to help us figure out a little school mystery, that’s all. She’s got quite the brain for it. Don’t you, Jolie?”
“I don’t like to brag,” Jolie played along, triggering a little smile from the brawny principal. He was having way too much fun.
“I’m sorry to have brought you all the way down here on a misunderstanding, Mrs. Grolund, but I am glad I finally met you.” He took her hand again. “I hate it when I only meet our finest student’s parents on graduation night. We expect to see Rebecca at the Valedictorian’s podium in a few years, right, Jolie?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Jolie agreed.
“Thanks again for coming, Mrs. Grolund.” Mr. Maxwell led her out of the office before she figured out what was happening to her. When he returned, he asked Ms. Warren and Jolie to sit. “You have two weeks of school left,” he addressed Jolie. “Is this thing at the Grolund’s going to work out?”
“I’ll make it work,” Jolie promised. “I just want to get through to the end of the year, Mister Maxwell.”
“And then what, kiddo?”
Jolie shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“And where is it you said you’re mom went?”
“That’s where her boyfriend said they were going when they drove off with our stuff in the truck on Saturday,” Jolie said, flatly. Mr. Maxwell could read between the lines.
“Do you know where in Tecopa?”
“Some place owned by a friend of Brett’s.”
“Have you seen this place?”
“So you don’t actually know where it is?”
Jolie shook her head. “No.” And now Jessie Lynn’s not answering her phone. Silence had never felt so suffocating. “Look, Mister Maxwell, I realize this doesn’t look good, but the phone thing is probably just a glitch. Like I said, bad reception or something. My mom didn’t run off on me. She wouldn’t leave me behind.” Jolie bit her lip, her eyes daring him to challenge her.
“The thought never crossed my mind, Miss Figg,” Mr. Maxwell lied kindly. “I just want to say that I hope you and your mom can work out some way for you to come back to Chaparral next year. You’re a good student. It’s easy to be on the Honor Roll when you have supportive parents and everything’s good at home, but the kids I really admire are the ones who, against all odds, make honor roll in the face of adversity. I wish I could get inside your brain and bottle whatever it was that made you like this.”
No, you don’t, Jolie responded silently.
Mr. Maxwell stood. “Well, you’d better get back to class, Miss Figg. We don’t want you falling behind.”
Ms. Warren watched Jolie go, her lips pressed into a tight line. Jolie needed to be careful. She was making an enemy of the counselor without even trying.
Jolie didn’t know what she was going to say to Hugo. The only answer to the puzzle of how the posters had gotten changed, and how people knew that she was the author, was that he had shared. She just couldn’t see quiet Hugo stealing a teacher’s keys, or breaking into the school, and changing the posters. But who would he have told?
Jolie was still trying to figure it out when she saw a flier for a fundraiser for the school robotics team. Hugo was away on a trip to a conference. Remy had a state track meet and if she saw him at all this week, he’d be exhausted, or distracted by homework. The only kids at the lunch table would be Bodhi, Brutus, and Rebecca. It was going to be a long week.